Hidden Buddhas in Japan

This post is made possible by a nice article sent to me by “Robert” over at Shiawase.co.uk, from the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. The topic is on “hidden Buddhas”, and the frequent practice in Japan of keeping the central Buddhist figure obscured. According to the article, this is called hibutsu (秘仏), and among the most well-known examples of this, in my opinion is the Asakusa temple called Sensōji. The central figure is a small statue of Kannon Bodhisattva that, according to tradition, washed up on the banks of Sumida River in the year 628 and was discovered by two fishermen there. Here is a photo I took of the central altar:

Sensoji Main Altar, Inside

The actual statue is hidden behind the red curtain with the old Sanskrit letter “sa”,1 while the curtain is flanked by the Hindu gods Brahma and Indra, who in early Buddhist tradition were guardians of the Buddha and other deities. But as you can see, the actual central figure is not visible to the public. I’ve seen other examples of this in my travels to various temples, big and small. In a small Shingon Buddhist temple I visited once where my wife’s aunt is buried, they also had a hidden statue of the Medicine Buddha only shown to the public once every ten years, hidden in a box behind another image of the Medicine Buddha.

In the past, I always thought this practice rather strange as it seems unique to Japanese Buddhism, though I am dimly aware of a similar practice in India for Hindu deities. Whether these are related or just parallel developments, I don’t know. But I was glad to read the article as he makes a good point near the end:

From the philosophical point of view, the practice of the hidden Buddha is a sensible one. Appearances can often be deceiving. The essence of things can only be appreciated by extending one’s imagination. It is for this reason that I regard the practice of hidden Buddha as one of the gems of Japanese culture. Pondering the invisible would be an antidote to the preoccupation with the visually stunning in today’s world.

Given our world of information-overload and such, I think he makes a good point. Also, one is reminded of the Kannon Sutra itself where it describes the many forms Kannon takes to teach and assist people:

The Buddha said to Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Intent: “Good man, if there are living beings in the land who need someone in the body of a Buddha in order to be saved, Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds [Kannon Bodhisattva] immediately manifests himself in a Buddha body and preaches the Law for them…If they need a monk, a nun, a layman believer, or a laywoman believer and preaches the Law for them. If they need the wife of a rich man, of a householder, a chief minister, or a Brahman to be saved, immediately he becomes those wives and preaches the Law for them…

So sometimes it’s good not to get too hung up on the appearance of a Buddhist deity, as it’s all temporary and void anyhow. ;)

Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
Namu Amida Butsu

1 This style of Sanskrit writing is called bonji (梵字) in Japanese and is the last extant use of a now-dead writing system in India. This was replaced by Devanagari script sometime ago, but the trade route between India and China had been closed off by then, so Japan would have never known about the change in writing system. In Japanese Buddhist practice, various Buddhist figures are symbolized by a single Sanskrit bonji letter, as you’ll see on grave markers, altars and such.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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2 Responses to Hidden Buddhas in Japan

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    Yes, I think this was one of the main differences (among many!) between Korean and Japanese temples that first struck me. The Buddha images in Korea are usually big and upfront and bright. The ones in Japan are often covered or hidden away or set so far back you have to strain to see!

    Fascinating post, thank you Doug.

    Marcus

  2. Doug says:

    Yeah, the same is true with Vietnam, where the Buddhas are prominent and flashy. This seems to be Chinese influence in part, though I can’t verify this. Why Japan of all places adopted the practice of “hidden Buddhas” is something beyond me. Since some of the earliest statues in Japan are still hidden, I can only assume it’s an imported practice at the time, or arose of an immediate need from the earliest days.

    Oh well. :-)

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