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Amida Buddha
Amida Buddha, Late 13th century
Wood with traces of lacquer and gilt decoration; gilded bronze mandorla (halo)
Height: 43 3/4 inches (111.1 cm) Base: 8 1/4 inches (21 cm)
Purchased with Museum funds, 1959
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About This Sculpture

This sculpture represents the compassionate and infinitely wise Amida (ah-mi-dah) Buddha.The Buddha stands on a lotus flower—the universal symbol of purity in Buddhist art—resting upon a cloud base. Amida Buddha is worshipped by followers of the Pure Land School of Buddhism, which teaches that salvation is not gained by good works or prayers but only through the mercy of Amida Buddha. Some Japanese Pure Land Sects claimed that the ritual invocation of Amida's name "Namu Amida Butsu" was sufficient to gain admittance to the Buddhist Western Paradise or Pure Land, where the Amida Buddha rules.

This Amida Buddha is made from numerous pieces of wood joined together. The head and body were formed by joining hollowed-out, vertical pieces of cypress wood. The halo around the Buddha's head and the pedestal were carved separately and then joined to the figure. The entire figure was originally covered with gold leaf, and the robes were covered with intricately patterned cut-gold motifs. Some of these can still be seen, especially on the sleeves.

The fine, delicate wood carving of this figure lends Amida Buddha an air of naturalism and grace. This approachable figure also features standard symbols of the Buddha: the bump on his head (ushnisha), which accommodates his superior wisdom; the raised spot in the middle of his forehead (urna), which emanates a ray of light to illuminate the world; and his hand gestures (mudra), which symbolize tranquility and reassurance. The touching finger and thumb form a circle representing the perfection of Buddha's teaching.

The History of Buddhism in Japan

The historical founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama (often called Śākyamuni), who lived between 563 and 483 BCE in India. He was born a prince and was raised in luxury. According to legend, he left his palace one day and encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a religious beggar. From these encounters, he realized that life is not permanent, and that all people must face old age, sickness, and death. The prince renounced his life of luxury and began a life of religious practice in pursuit of salvation. He eventually attained enlightenment (a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or suffering) while meditating under a tree, after which he became known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The Buddha spent the rest of his life traveling throughout India, preaching.

Buddhism reached Japan in 552 CE when the religion was already a thousand years old. By then it was a complex religion with many different doctrines and practices. The Pure Land sects of Buddhism, which stress pure and simple faith to Amida Buddha rather than complicated rites and doctrines, were especially popular with the general population. Today more than eighty-five percent of the Japanese population professes the Buddhist faith and there are about 75,000 temples with nearly 200,000 priests. The largest Buddhist celebration is the birthday of the Buddha on April 8. On this special day, many Buddhists pay a visit to a temple to make gifts to the monasteries.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Japan, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

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