Arts of Asia


Standing Fudō Myōō, ca. 12th century
Attributed to the En-School at Sanjo
Japan, Late Heian Period (Fujiwara) (794–1185)
Cypress wood, crystal, glass, lacquer, polychrome, gold leaf
26 3/4 x 12 inches
Gift of Class of 1908 1982-5-1

Fudō is the Buddhist god of wisdom and fire and the central deity of the Myōō, or Five Great Kings of Light, that has its origin in Hindu influence on Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism. Fudō Myōō's role is to uphold Buddhist law and to attack evils such as ignorance and passion. Although he is depicted as a menacing figure, his anger is compassionate and protective. Esoteric Buddhism emphasizes the use of ritual to reach spiritual enlightenment. Symbolizing the magical element, Fudō Myōō became a primary object of worship in the Shingon (meaning "true words" or "mantra") sect of Esoteric Buddhism, which was popular among the aristocracy of the Heian period. Shingon Buddhism contributed significantly to the art and literature of this time.

Sculptures of Fudō Myōō are placed on platforms both inside (in image halls) and outside Buddhist temples to drive away evil spirits. The figure is that of a robust adolescent. He holds a ken ("sword") in his right hand and originally held a kensaku ("rope lasso") in his left. The two objects assist him in the battle against ignorance: the rope lassoes individuals and leads them to salvation, while the sword conquers doubt and illusion with intelligence and truth.

The face, however, is the visual focus of the sculpture with many of the features representing the deity's power and exemplifying the period's artistic style. The right eye bulges and the left is nearly shut, alluding to the fact that even with one eye closed, Fudō Myōō sees all. While the mouth is tightly drawn, a lower right tooth is exposed, pointing upward, and an upper left tooth projects downward. The direction the teeth point is symbolic: downward suggests unlimited compassion, while upward the desire to obtain truth. In contrast to the striated hair of earlier depictions of Fudō, the hair of this figure is composed of shell-like curls. Marks on the forehead symbolize water waves. The eye, teeth, and wave pattern of the hair refer back to the style of Kukai (774–835), the monk and artist who founded Shingon Buddhism.

Text provided by Robert B. Smith, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

A material analysis of this object is described here.