Senju Kannon’s The Thousand Armed Bodhisattva of Compassion is a seminal work in the history of Japanese art but is also an important milestone for Buddhist thought and religion. The work is colourful and emanates a certain sense of peace and calm which demonstrates the prevalent revival in Japanese art of the late 19th century. The Bodhisattva is also a crucial figure for Buddhism which also attempts to create an oasis of calm and peace but at the same time delves into the deep questions of existentialism which is part and parcel of the whole religious concept. Actually the word bodhisattva means one who is earmarked for enlightenment or one who is bound to become great – the chosen one. In his seminal work, Japanese Culture Paul Varley also describes several similarly styled paintings which date from the same Heian period. The Heian period saw the Japanese begin breaking away from Chinese influence in art.
Varley states that; “One of the finest achievements of the middle and late Heian period was the evolution of a native style of essentially secular painting that reached its apex in the picture scrolls of the twelfth century” (Varley, p 84). Kannon’s bodhisattva is a clear representative of this style.
Amongst these one may include ‘Scene from the Animal Scrolls’ (Varley, p 89) where a vast number of animals populate the painting also in a wild and frenzied attempt to tell their own story. The ‘Scene from the Genji Scrolls’ on p 88 is also descriptive of the type of painting at the time although this dates from the ninth century AD.
Senju Kannon’s work is replete with several themes from the Heian period, especially the way the figure is constructed and how it reaches out to the world. There is a deep spiritual intimacy about the painting (Mason, p 85). The Heian period was also renowned for its rich cultural associations and was also an important period for Japanese culture and this work by Senju Kannon is representative of that.
Actually a bodhisattva is someone who is still impure and not yet perfect. He is still subject to the normal human emotions such as illness, death, sorrow and even defilement. One can read further on the lives of the Buddha in this state in the Jatakas. The Theravada literature describes a bodhisattva as someone who is on the path to finding liberation. There are also essentially two types of bodhisattvas, the peacebodhisattva who will eventually attain a status of peace and the savakbodhistattva who will attain enlightenment as one of the disciples of the Buddha. Kings of Sri Lanka were actually described as bodhisattvas with several of them being renowned for their compassion and wisdom.
In her seminal text, Penelope Mason describes in exhaustive detail all the aspects of Japanese art which tend to describe how this particular work by Senju Kannon fits into the whole equation. Describing some elements of the Japanese art calligraphy which are strikingly similar to Kannon’s emblematic work where she also demonstrates a fastidious understanding of the visual and aesthetic aspects of this progression.
The painting by Senju Kannon dates from the 12th century and has several intriguing and original aspects to it. There is a myriad of light in it and the vast concentration of the arms spans several levels creating a sense of orgiastic mysticism and also a deep spiritual compassion. One almost observes the arms as reaching out to others to assist and help the humans who are experiencing suffering and are full of anger and pain. The Bodhisattva is elegantly dressed in a red coat and there is also considerable attention to detail where the slippers are concerned as one may see these as being beautiful and also very elegant.
The Heian period was very rich both in aesthetic style as well as in descriptive aspects and this work fits the bill perfectly. The sense of aura and mysticism imbues the painting and there is also an element of empathy with religious portrayals. The symbolism of the Heian period is also heavily present in the painting as it creates a sense of the over bearing monk who with his thousand hands attempts to grasp control all over the country.
There are other bodhisattva styles which can be compared to Kannon’s iconic work. Amongst these, one may find the Samanthabadra, which is a sculpture from Mahayana Buddhism in the 15th century and which includes the same concept of arms and multiple limbs. This concept may also be found in other similarly styled works dated from much earlier such as the Ghandhara bodhisattva, which dates from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. Although this particular representation of the bodhisattva comes from present day India, the similarities are continually striking.
Varley argues that “Painting in Japan from the seventh to the ninth centuries, like art in general, had been done almost entirely in the Chinese manner”. (Varley, p 84). This bodhisattva work by Kannon is quite representative of this style.
The reproduction of the Buddha on pg 74 (Fig 25) also demonstrates an aesthetic design which is similar to the Thousand arm bodhisattva. Here one may glimpse the features of the Buddha which are youthful and which also exude a certain element of compassion which is not often found in other works. The similarities are quite striking since this Buddha comes from the Heian period and something which is rather sad is that no extant piece of architecture from this period actually survives. So the bodhisattva by Kannon is an important sociological artefact from the Heian period which should be appreciated in its entirety.
Mason Penelope; History of Japanese Art; Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005 Print
Varley Paul; Japanese Culture, University of Hawaii, 2000, Print