Nara Prefecture has the largest collection of the oldest and most precious Buddhist statues in Japan. Understanding something about the history and the specific meanings of the different statues affords a much deeper appreciation of each of the different temples in which they are housed.

Types of Buddhist Statues

Nyorai

Nyorai are a relatively small number of Buddhas who have reached the highest stage of enlightenment. They are the central figures of Buddhist worship. Their hair is styled into tight curls, and there is a round protuberance on top of the head, said to represent wisdom. These two features are unique to Nyorai statues. Nyorai are dressed in a simple robe with no body ornamentation, which are signs of priesthood. A Yakushi Nyorai—the Buddha of Healing—is the principal figure of worship at Shinyakushiji Temple, and a Shaka Nyorai—the Buddha of Enlightenment—is housed at Murouji Temple.

Bosatsu

Bosatsu, the Japanese transliteration of Bodhisattva, have reached enlightenment in their current existences, but have decided not to enter nirvana, ultimate enlightenment, so that they can help others to more enlightened states. The Kannon Bosatsu, the Bosatsu of Mercy, is one of the most revered of the group. The eleven-faces of the statue of Kannon at Kairyuouji Temple look in every direction to hear the pleas of all sentient beings. Bosatsu often have jeweled crowns on their heads, and other ornaments on their bodies and are dressed in luxurious garments, which are said to be traceable to aristocratic fashions in ancient India.

Myo-o

The fearsome Myo-o statues are quite different from the serene Nyorai and Bosatsu. These deities are characterised by their wrathful expressions and can often be seen engulfed in flame, bearing fangs, wielding weapons, or adorned with serpent or skull imagery. They represent the power of Buddhism to overcome the passions, and their role is to subdue evil spirits and convert non-believers. The Five Great Myo-o are the most prevalent. They guard the four cardinal directions and the centre. Jurin-in Temple is home to the sword-wielding Fudo Myo-o and the Saidaiji Temple houses the red-faced Aizen Myo-o.

Ten

There is a wide variety of Ten celestial beings, known as Devas in Sanskrit. They differ in gender and the roles they perform. Many are clad in armour, as one of their functions is to guard the Nyorai and Bosatsu. They are often to be found in temples, their stern eyes trained on their surroundings—the Zocho Ten at Todaiji Temple holds a spear and is stamping on the head of a demon. The female Ten deities are clothed like ancient Chinese noblewomen, and some are said to bring good luck.

How Buddhist Statues Have Developed Over Time

Distinct differences can be seen in the statues sculpted in the four periods of Japanese history between the mid-6th century and 1333. The reasons behind these changes range from pure aesthetics and technological advancement, to changes of government, to ease of transportation in the case of fires or natural disasters.

Early Asuka Period
(mid-6th century-670)

Craftsmen of this period created statues to be seen from the front. Thus, the backs of the statues tend to be flat and can seem rather two-dimensional especially when viewed from the side. The statues are often very symmetrical. The faces are square with almond-shaped eyes and a distinctive expression known as an archaic smile—also a characteristic of Greek sculpture of the same period. Gilt-bronze statues were common during this time. After the introduction of Buddhism, initially many of the statues were imported from Korea and China after which statues were increasingly produced in Japan.

Late Asuka Period
(670-710)

Buddhism spread rapidly during this period. Craftsmen began to carve statues from a single block of wood, although bronze statues were still the most common. The statues became more three-dimensional, to give the statues a more balanced appearance. The faces began to be carved with a baby-like roundness. The eyes of many statues were designed to be smiling with the lower eyelid straight and the upper curved.

Nara Period
(710-794)

Named after the city that became Japan's first permanent capital, the Nara Period is characterized by lavish imperial spending on Buddhist images and architecture. As dry lacquer and clay replaced metal as the most common medium for the construction of Buddhist statues, sculptors were able to model the features of images in greater detail. Since these materials were also comparatively light and resistant to damage, the statues could be moved with relative ease in the case of fire or other natural disasters. Since lacquer in particular was also prohibitively expensive, however, these materials were gradually abandoned in favour of wood by the end of the Nara Period.

Kamakura Period
(1185-1333)

Japan’s first samurai military government ruled Japan during this period and Buddhism, which was previously the faith of the elite, began to spread amongst the common people. Reflecting the change in government, the sculptures of this period became more dynamic, muscular and realistic, characteristics favored by the new samurai government. In some cases, crystal was used for the eyes to give a more realistic appearance.