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THE NARA PERIOD
700 TO 800 A.D.
A NEW era was to be born. The whole of Asiatic thought was surging on, past that distant vision of the Indian Abstract-Universal which Buddhism had made possible, to recognise its supreme self-revelation in the Cosmos itself. The vulgarisation of this impulse was to betray itself in the succeeding period, when the tendency to a sordid and hardened symbolism would take the place of the direct perception of the beautiful. But for the moment Spirit was seeking union with Matter, and the joy of the first embrace was to ring from Ujjain to Choan and Nara through the songs of Kalidasa, of Ritaihaku, and of Hitomaru.
Three great political figures inaugurated this age of liberalism and grandeur. In India the sixth century saw Vikramaditya overthrow the Hunas and awaken in the North that sense of nationality which had slept ever since the days of Asoka. A century later Rissemin (Taiso), the first Tang emperor, succeeded in unifying China after her three centuries of disintegration under the Six Dynasties, and founding an empire next in extent to that of Genghis Khan. And his contemporary, the Emperor Tenjitenno, broke the hereditary power of the nobles and consolidated Japan under the immediate shadow of the imperial throne.
In India, too, there is a lull in those discussions of the Abstract and Immutable, which began with the Upanishads and culminated with Nagarjuna in the second century; and we catch a glimpse of the great river of science which never ceases to flow in that country. For India has carried and scattered the data of intellectual progress for the whole world, ever since the pre-Buddhistic period when she produced the Sankhya philosophy and the atomic theory; the fifth century, when her mathematics and astronomy find their blossom in Aryabhatta; the seventh, when Brahmagupta uses his highly-developed algebra and makes astronomical observations; the twelfth, brilliant with the glory of Bhaskaracharya and his famous daughter, down to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries themselves, with Ram Chandra the mathematician, and Jagadis Chunder Bose the physicist.1
In the era which we are considering, beginning with Asangha and Vasubandhu, the whole energy of Buddhism is thrown upon this scientific research into the world of the senses and of phenomena, and one of the first outcomes is an elaborate psychology treating of the evolution of the finite soul in its fifty-two stages of growth and final liberation in the infinite. That the whole universe is manifest in every atom; that each variety, therefore, is of equal authenticity; that there is no truth unrelated to the unity of things; this is the faith that liberates the Indian mind in science, and which even in the present day is so potent to free it from the hard shell of specialism that one of her sons has been enabled, with the severest scientific demonstration, to bridge over the supposed chasm between the Organic and inorganic worlds. Such a faith, in its early energy and enthusiasm, was the natural incentive to that great scientific age which was to produce astronomers like Aryabhatta, discovering the revolution of the earth on its 'own axis, and his not less illustrious successor, Varamihira; which brought Hindu medicine to its height, perhaps under Susruta; and which finally gave to Arabia the knowledge with which she was later to fructify Europe.
It was also an age of poetry, distinguished by the names of Kalidasa, Banabhatta, and the Jain Ravikirti, creating that richness of imagery and allusion that was afterwards to clothe Hinduism with puranic lore.
Buddhist art now assumes the aspect of calm which always rises out of the blending of the spirit with matter, in a repose where neither attempts to overwhelm the other, and thus becomes akin to the classic ideal of the Greeks, whose pantheism led them to a similar expression. Sculpture is, par excellence, the form best adapted to this conception, and the stone Buddhas of the Tin Tal in Ellora, though deprived of the plaster mouldings with which they were originally covered, are beautiful, with a self-contained grandeur and harmony of proportion. In them we find the sources of inspiration of the Tang and Nara sculptures.
The China of the Tâng dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), enriched by the fresh Tartar blood of the preceding Six Dynasties, bursts forth now into a new life, which amalgamates the Hoang-Ho and the Yang-tse. Communication with India becomes more facilitated by the extension of the empire on the Pamirs, and the number of pilgrims to the land of Buddha, as well as the influx of Indians into China, grows greater every day. Gensho (Hiouen-Tsang) and Gijo (Iching), though noted for their records, are only two out of innumerable instances of the intercourse between the countries. The newly-opened route through Thibet, which had been conquered by Taiso, added a fourth line of communication to the former routes by Tensan and the sea. There were at one time in Loyang itself, to impress their national religion and art on Chinese soil, more than three thousand Indian monks and ten thousand Indian families; their great influence may be judged from their having given phonetic values to the Chinese ideographs, a movement which, in the eighth century, resulted in the creation of the present Japanese alphabet.
The memory of the wonderful enthusiasm that was born of this continental fusion of the moment survives to this day in Japan, in a quaint folk-story of three travellers meeting in Loyang. One came from India, one from Japan, and one from the Celestial soil itself. "But we meet here," said the last, "as if to make a fan, of which China represents the paper, you from India the radiating sticks, and our Japanese guest the small but necessary pivot!"
This was an age of toleration, as may always be expected wherever there is a permeation of the Indian spirit, when in China Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists were equally honoured, when the Nestorian fathers were allowed to spread their cult, as the Choan tablets attest, and when Zoroastrians were permitted to establish their fire-worship in the important cities of the empire, leaving traces of Byzantine and Persian influence in Chinese decorative art — in the same temper which in India made Yasovardhan and the Siladitya of Kanauj honour Brahmins, Jains, and Buddhists equally. Thus the three streams of Chinese thought flow side by side, and Toshimi, Ritaihaku, and Omakitsu, who represent the poetic ideals of these three rival conceptions, express also, none the less, the grand harmony of the Tâng period, whose assimilative idea is so early expressed through Bunchusi, the teacher of Gicho, chief adviser of Taiso himself. This harmony foreshadows the Neo-Confucianism of the succeeding Sung dynasty in China (960 to 1280 A.D.), when Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists together became a single national completeness.
Buddhism, the predominating impulse of the period, was, of course, that of the second Indian (monastic) phase. Gensho (Hiouen-Tsang) was a pupil of Mitrasena, a disciple of Vasubandhu, and through his great translations and commentaries he, on his return from India, inaugurated the new school known as the Homo sect, of which the idea seems to have been at work even before his time. Kenshu, assisted by Gissananda of Central, and Bodhi-ruchi of Southern India, further enforced the same movement in the beginning of the eighth century, and established the Kegon sect, which aims at complete fusion of. mind and matter. The intellectual effort of this period being so closely akin to that of modern science, art becomes largely a reaching forth towards a visualisation of the vastness of the universe, resting and centring itself upon the Buddha. It therefore assumes colossal dimensions, and the Buddha images become the immense Roshana (Vairochana) Buddhas. The Roshana Buddha is the Buddha of Law in contrast to the Buddha of Mercy, which is Amida, and the Buddha of Adaptation, which is Sakya-Muni himself.
As the best existing specimen of the time we shall refer to the gigantic Roshana of the Riumonsan, which was mentioned before. This statue, similar in type to the Buddhas of Ellora, is more than sixty feet high, and towers in great magnificence against the rocky precipice of the wonderful hillside of Riumonsan, with a foaming torrent at its foot.
Another Roshana Buddha of stone is to be seen on the Yang-tse below Tobaro, near Kakoken. It is cut out of a single rock, a mountain in itself, and its size may be imagined from the fact that a large pine tree has grown in such a way as to take the place, without any apparent incongruity, of one of the spiral lines of the head-dress. It is sitting on a lotus dais in the usual style, and as it is cut out of red sand-stone, most of the features have been effaced, though even in its original state it must have been difficult to study, on account of the rushing stream of the Yang-tse at its base.
In Japan, the Emperor Tenji, who crushed the Soga family, consolidated the personal government of the emperors, beginning a new régime in 645, which lasted till the Fujiwaras, descendants of his prime minister, Kamatari, again veiled the throne by their aristocratic power. The provincial government was managed by appointed governors, instead of by hereditary princes, as in former days; a system of laws, modelled on those of the Tang court, was compiled; and justice was administered by a specially-appointed body of judges. The country was opened up with a new energy. Roads were built; the means of transportation were regulated on a sounder basis, relays of horses being established on the routes; and a general reform of interior administration was effected, though perhaps at the sacrifice of foreign supremacy. Japan was growing in prosperity, and it was found necessary in 710 to found on the wider plains of the Yamato a new capital, now known as the town of Nara. This city became the great Buddhist centre, and the strength of its hierarchy was enough later to threaten the throne and the nobility.
Dosho, a Japanese monk, had become a personal pupil of Gensho (Hiouen-Tsang) in Choan, and returned again to Japan in the year 677. It was through him, and again through Giogi, in the middle of the eighth century, that we were able to introduce the Hosso and Kegon sects, and thus incorporate the ideas, and begin to share in the general development of the new form of the Northern movement.
It is easy to understand, therefore, that the art of the Nara period is reflected from that of the early Tang dynasty, and has even a direct connection with its prototype in India; for many Indian artists are recorded as having crossed over at this time to our shores. Gumporik, a follower of Kanshin, a great Chinese monk who founded the Vinaya sect in this period, was a sculptor presumably from Ceylon, and the similarity of his works to those of Anarajapura shows the contemporary predominance of the full Gupta type all over India. One would hope, however, that it is not mere national pride which finds in the Japanese rendering of the same themes, not only the abstract beauty of the Indian model, with the strength of the Tang, but also an added delicacy and completeness that makes the art of Nara the highest formal expression of the second Asiatic thought.
The Nara period thus inaugurated is remarkable for its wealth of sculpture, which begins with the bronze trinity of Amida in Yakushiji and is followed by the Yakshi trinity of the same temple thirty years later, undoubtedly the finest existing specimen of this art. In connection with these must also be mentioned the Kwannon of Toindo and the Sakya of Kanimanji.
The era of large bronzes culminates, however, in the colossal Roshana Buddha of Nara, which is the largest statue of cast bronze in the whole world. This image is seen at a disadvantage to-day, since it has suffered twice from fire, once in the Tiara epoch in 1180, when the head and hand were destroyed — though the first repairs in the Kamakura epoch, effected by the able sculptor Kaikei, seem, judging from the remaining designs, to have preserved the original proportions well — and the next during the civil wars in the sixteenth century. The present head and hand date from the restoration during the Tokugawa period two hundred years ago, when sculpture was at its lowest ebb and the artist had lost all idea of the type and proportions of the original period. But any one looking at it with these facts in mind cannot fail to see the great beauty and boldness of conception of this monumental work, in spite of the cramped space which the present building covering it allows to the pilgrim's view. The original building was forty-five feet higher and eighty feet longer than the present.
We owe the idea of the statue to the Emperor Shomu and his great Empress Komio, in consultation with Giogi. This great monk travelled through the length and breadth of Japan, bearing that proclamation of the Sovereign which announces the project of the great Roshana Buddha of Nara, and then adds, "It is our desire that each peasant shall have the right to add his handful of clay and his strip of grass to the mighty figure," which, we must remember, was intended to be the centre of the Buddhist universe. We can still see, on the petals of the lotus dais, the various Buddhistic worlds chased with great delicacy.
The Emperor, who called himself publicly "Slave of the Trinity," i.e. the Buddha, the Law, and the Church, assisted with his whole court at the erection. Ladies of the highest rank are said to have carried clay for the model on their brocaded sleeves, and the ceremony of its inauguration must have been most impressive, with the central image, that it had taken more than twenty thousand Japanese pounds of the precious metal to cover with gold. It was surrounded by a halo on which three hundred gold statues were hung, not to speak of the wonderful tapestries and hangings, of which fragments still remain to testify to their past magnificence, A Brahmin monk, named Bodhi, arrived in Japan, and being hailed by the dying Giogi as one come from the sacred land, and therefore more worthy than himself, was invested with the conduct of the inaugural ceremony. Giogi died next day, having thus lived only to see his great life-work completed.
This was an age of tremendous Buddhist activity. Amongst the seven temples at Nara, which vied with each other in gorgeousness, that of Saidaiji is noted for its elaborate architecture, surrounded as it is by golden phoenixes with bells in their mouths. People thought it the work of magic, and worthy to be the palace of a dragon king. They ordered one monastery and One nunnery to be erected in each province of the country, the sites of which are now to be seen from the extreme end of Kiushu to the north of Mutsu.
The Empress Komio was highly instrumental in extending the work of Shomu after his death, and this with the help of her daughter Koken, who was the next to ascend the throne. The nobility of soul of this great Empress-Mother may be felt even in one of her simplest poems, when, speaking of offering flowers to the Buddha, she says, "If I pluck them, the touch of my hand will defile, therefore standing in the meadows as they are I offer these wind-blown flowers to the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future;" or again, in an outburst of passionate enthusiasm, "The sound of the tools that are raising the image of Buddha let it resound in Heaven! Let it rend the earth asunder! For the sake of the fathers. For the sake of the mothers. For the sake of all mankind." This is the same spirit of grandeur that utters itself in the odes of Hitomaru and other Manyo poets of the Nara period.
The Empress Koken, again, with her masculine mind, was further helpful to the progress of Buddhist art. on one occasion, when the statue of the guardian King Saidaiji was cast, and when, through some mishap, the work failed to succeed, she is said to have personally directed the pouring of molten bronze, which completed the casting.
The colossal Kwannon of Sangatsudo, on whose head is to be seen a silver Amida, ornamented with amber, pearls, and various precious stones, is a statue which ought also to be mentioned amongst the works of this period.
The pictorial art of Nara — as seen in the wall-paintings of Horinji, which we conclude to be the work of the beginning of the eighth century — is of the highest merit, and shows what the Japanese genius had been able to add, even to the fine workmanship of the wall-painting of the Ajanta caves. A landscape in the imperial collection at Nara, painted on the leather bandage of a musical instrument called the biwa (evidently from the Indian "vina"), is so different from the Buddhist style, both in spirit and in execution, as to give us a glimpse into the delicate feeling of the Laoist school of painting under the Tang dynasty.
This imperial treasure-house (Shosoin) is also remarkable, containing as it does the personal belongings of the Emperor Shomu and his Empress Komio, which their daughter presented to the Roshana Buddha after their deaths, and which have come down undisturbed to the present day. It contains their robes, shoes, musical instruments, mirrors, swords, carpets, screens, and the paper and pen with which they wrote, together with the ceremonial masks, banners, and other religious accoutrements, used on the anniversary of their death, handing down to us in all its luxury and splendour the actual life of nearly twelve hundred years ago. Glass goblets, enamelled cloisonné mirrors, suggestive of Indian or Persian origin, and innumerable specimens of the best Tâng workmanship are there, making the collection a miniature Pompeii or Herculaneum without their catastrophic ashes. By reason of the strict rules which cause it to be opened to spectators of a certain rank once only in each reign, this whole treasure is preserved as if almost a thing of yesterday.
1 Author of "Response in the Living and Non-Living." Longmans, 1902.