It may not be much of a surprise that museum curators might urge a Buddhist temple to allow them to remove and rehouse an ancient Buddhist statue, nor very odd that the temple in question would demur. After all, as much as they can be appreciated as works of art and as physical repositories of the human past, Buddhist statues are usually products of their locale and are created for temple adornment and for worship. What might be a little bit more surprising is that one temple, Kogenji in Nara, was reluctant to part with its icon in order to benefit from museum security even after it had been stolen. It was discovered almost forty years after it vanished in 1974, reappearing for the first time, as stolen art often does, within the pages of an auction catalogue. The mystery of its theft has never been solved: the seller claimed rightful purchase from an auction in Tokyo, and Kogenji temple bought the statue in 2010, rehoming it in a glass case on its altar and offering to visitors the valuable opportunity to view it up close in its temple surroundings.
Photo :Masami Mataki
Kogenji (also known as Mukaihara-dera, drawing on the original name of the site, “Mukuhara”) nestles in an unassuming part of the quiet village of Asuka in Nara prefecture. Asuka was once the imperial capital of Japan, and while Nara is where Buddhism began in Japan we can zone in on Asuka’s Kogenji as intimately tethered to the earliest days of Buddhism in Japan which, in contrast to the peacefulness suggested by this pretty area today, were tumultuous times. The statue embodies something of the conflicts, which, if one counts the recent theft, extend from around the seventh century through the eighteenth and up to the present-day: according to Kogenji, its head was discovered in “Nanba Pond” (more-or-less a literal stone’s throw away from the temple) around 300 years ago, and the body to which it is affixed was made sometime during the same period – that of the Shogunal regime, the Edo period. But the head dates back far earlier to the late Asuka period (538-710, and named after the area), the period during which the powerful Soga clan operated their Asuka base. It is no wonder that the icon is treasured by its temple and the village residents: it is an integral part of its history.
Photo: Masami Mataki
The face of this statue of Kannon bodhisattva, a being of compassion who attracts the lions-share of worship in Japanese Buddhism, expresses the “archaic smile” typical of very early Buddhist statues, comparable to that of the larger and better-known Horyuji temple Buddha statue of the same period. At just 24cm tall it is small in size, which is also indicative of its provenance. Many such small and smiling statues were imported from the continent, or based on them by immigrant then local sculpture ateliers. The official introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the mid-6th century from Korea created consternation among those already in charge of orchestrating rituals to the pre-existing gods, including the imperial family. Such rituals were entwined with political endeavours. They mostly determined the success of agricultural and irrigation operations and assisted the management of natural resources. Surely worshipful attention to the new “gods” of a foreign religion (and, no less, ones that brought with them complex philosophical teachings and a cosmology entirely novel to the people) might incur problems? Nevertheless, the local Soga clan – powerful political players who supported contacts with the continent – prevailed in the conflict over the introduction of Buddhism and, according to the earliest government-sponsored chronicles of Japan, in 552 they enshrined an icon presented as part of a tributary to Emperor Kinmei. The place in which it was enshrined may have been none other than what was soon to form the origins of Kogenji: the Mukuhara residence of the Soga clan leaders.
Then, disaster hit. An epidemic broke out, heightening the suspicion of this non-native religion. The icon was tossed into either a well (now called “Nanba Pond”) at the Soga’s Mukuhara residence, or a canal. Was this the statue that is now housed at Kogenji? It is unlikely – it probably isn’t that old – but difficult to say, considering the location and the similarity in the fate of the statues in bodies of water. Speculation hovers around the subject, since nearby Asukadera temple was also built during the early days of Buddhism’s adoption, and by the Soga clan.
Kogenji temple is as architecturally layered as the statue is historically. It was built where Toyoura-dera convent had been. Toyoura-dera itself had in turn been built on the site of both the Soga residence, Mukuhara, and the Toyoura Palace, from which Empress Suiko had ruled. Some of the ruins of the lecture hall of Toyoura-dera as well as evidence of stone pillars and ditches can still be peered down into today. Suiko, the first female ruler in East Asia, was the daughter of Emperor Kinmei (to whom the original Buddhist statue had been presented), and his Soga clan consort, and the Sogas constructed this temple after she had relocated to a new palace nearby. Another significant female figure in Japanese Buddhism lived here too: Zenshin-ni, the first Buddhist nun. She was the daughter of Shiba Tatsuto, an immigrant from China who, it is said, brought a Buddhist statue from China and enshrined it in a building in the very district where Kogenji is today. Meanwhile, his son became an acclaimed sculptor of Buddhist images, creating major Buddha icons at Asukadera and Horyuji, and he was much favoured by Empress Suiko. This veritable tangle of affiliations and complex building-upon-building of sacred and political sites forms the context in which Buddhism in Japan was crafted, and in which its Buddhist statues were created.
Kogenji, its prized statue, and the ruins upon which it was built and where the statue is enshrined, is a place that represents the roots of Buddhism in Japan. An intriguing triangle connects Kogenji and Asukadera to the famous Gangoji temple in Naramachi, the “historical district” of Nara City, since similarities between the roofing tiles excavated at Kogenji testify to a relationship with Asukadera, and Gangoji is a direct “descendent” of Asukadera, incorporating some parts of it. Gangoji was constructed when the capital was shifted away from Asuka. The early trajectory of development requires further investigation, but if the first Buddhist statue was indeed enshrined at the Soga residence in 552, Kogenji lies upon the earliest site of Buddhism in Japan.
Only the head remains from the original, but this is not uncommon. The neck is simply one of the weakest parts of a statue whether it is detached by decrepitude or willful destruction, which is why there are so many buddha heads in museums and collections that have quite ironically become aestheticised objects of secular interior decoration. We don’t know where the statue was, or who gazed upon it for the forty years during which it was separated from the temple – nor what it saw from the watery depths into which it had been cast long before that. But the quiet smile of the now-returned bodhisattva at Kogenji seems to hint at so many other silenced secrets of history, not only those of Buddhism’s origins, but of Empress Suiko’s relationship to Buddhism which remains inadequately understood, making this site and its statue a tantalizing aspect of Japan’s early and dramatic relationship to the continent and its new philosophies and culture.
For guided tours of the area, please contact us right here at at Kansai Nara Treasure Travel.
With thanks to Asuka Minshuku Kitamura