Copies and Invention in East Asia (August 17, 2019 - January 5, 2020)
Pagodas, both full-scale architectural structures and miniature versions, were used as reliquaries to house the sacred remains of the historical Buddha and high ranking monks. Miniature versions often contained the Buddha’s words, which were also regarded as relics. The Hyakumantō (one million pagodas), commissioned by Empress Kōken of Japan in 764, was a collection of reliquary pagodas, each containing a copy of the Dharani of Pure and Immaculate Light. It was an important example of mass production. By creating copies of this sacred text, enshrining them in pagodas, and disseminating them to powerful temples, this project was intended to physically spread the Buddha’s relics throughout Japan.
Stupa: Hyakuman tô (one of one million pagodas)
Nara period (710–794)
Carved wood with traces of gesso
Museum purchase made possible by
the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection
In the final years of her reign, the empress Kôken commissioned one million wooden stupas (pagodas), each containing a short Buddhist ritual phrase known as a dharani, as a personal and public devotion. These objects were distributed to the most powerful temples in Nara, the capital of Japan during her reign. We do not know how many were produced, but most extant examples were housed in the temple of Hôryu-ji.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Kôken’s project is the printing of the dharani, which ranks among the earliest examples of a mass-produced text. The technology, which used woodblocks or bronze plates, was developed in China. The text included with this stupa is from the Dharani of the Pure Immaculate Light (Japanese: Mukujôkô darani). The sutra from which it comes encourages copying dharani to ensure a long life,karmic benefits, and rebirth in a Buddhist heaven.