The Five Great Space Repository Bodhisattvas

A review of The Five Great Space Repository Bodhisattvas: Lineage, Protection and Celestial Authority in Ninth-Century Japan, by Hillary Eve Pedersen.

Hillary Pedersen’s dissertation presents an in-depth analysis of the iconography and ritual functions of an Esoteric Buddhist set of statues of the Five Great Space Repository Bodhisattvas (Godai Kokûzô Bosatsu; hereinafter GKB) in the religious context of early Heian period (794-900) Japan. Following preliminary discussions of the iconographical development of independent Kokûzô Bosatsu (Ākāśagarbha bodhisattva) images (Chapter 1) and that of the more rare pentad configuration, the remaining chapters examine three examples of GKB that are/were enshrined, respectively, in Jingoji (Chapter 3), Anjôji (Chapter 4), and Jôganji (Chapter 5). The aforementioned three sets were all enshrined in imperially-supported temples located on sacred mountains around the Heian capital (Kyoto), came with prestigious associations with the members of either the imperial or Fujiwara regent families, and were built by disciples of Kûkai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon Sect in Japan. By examining them chronologically, Pedersen nevertheless demonstrates an intriguing shift in the advocating agency of their production, from clerics to emperor(s) and finally to the members of the Fujiwara family, echoing in part the rise of the Fujiwara to political dominance in the ninth century.

Pedersen departs from previous stylistic and technical analyses by focusing on the statues’ production contexts and ritual functions. Her main argument is three-fold. One, the iconography and ritual function of GKB were informed by multiple sources, including not just Esoteric scriptures, but also Chinese and domestic beliefs. Two, the GKB pentads of this period were constructed as part of the modified sanrinjin (“Three Wheel-Turning Embodiments”) configuration that includes pentads of Gochi Nyorai, Godai Myôô, and GKB. Three, as much as (or even more so than) Kûkai, his disciples had significant roles to play in conceptualizing and installing the GKB pentads.

In the introduction, Pedersen advances the three key themes she discusses in her dissertation. First is the symbolic significance of the geographic location of Jingoji, Anjôji, and Jôganji vis-à-vis their status as “imperially-designated temple” or jôkakuji (the “imperially certified temple that received funding based on a demonstrated need;” p. 239) and/or “private, imperially-requested temple” or goganji (the “imperially vowed temple established privately but held rites for the benefit of the state;” p. 239). Second is the effect of the incorporation of Chinese belief elements (yinyang and five-phases theories and celestial deities from Daoist practices) to the belief in and political application of GKB. Third is the relationship between Kûkai’s disciples, emperors, and the Fujiwara family in orchestrating the implementation of the GKB configuration in the three temples.

Pedersen also outlines the secondary scholarship both in Japanese and English. She credits her predecessors’ detailed visual analyses of the images and valuable insights into the sources of production for the statues, and positions her own work as something that will build upon this research to go a step further in the theorization of the political and religious significance of GKB in mid-ninth century Japan, following the methodological models employed by scholars such as Sherry Fowler, Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Cynthea Bogel, and Donald McCallum.

In Chapter 1, “Early Kokûzô Bosatsu Texts, Images and Imperial Authority,” Pedersen discusses the state of Kokûzô Bosatsu worship prior to the emergence of the GKB images. Kokûzô iconography in India, China, and Korea is not consistent, but the deity seems to appear most often in pairs or as one of the “Eight Great Bodhisattvas,” attending a central Buddha or bodhisattva. The earliest text on Kokûzô Bosatsu is the Ākāśagarbha sūtra translated into Chinese in the mid-fifth century. Although no image remains, the association between Kokûzô and Venus (Morning Star) already played a vital part in the early period.

Kokûzô Bosatsu was introduced to Japan by the eighth century. Pedersen stresses the fluidity of Kokûzô iconography in its early reception, deriving in part from the “multivalent” nature of Buddhism in the eighth century, which selectively incorporated elements from other belief systems (such as astronomy, astrology, calendrical calculation, etc.). Pedersen demonstrates that this multivalence manifested itself in the active embracing of the Kokûzô-Venus association that begins to hold a particular symbolic significance in Kokûzô worship in Japan by the ninth century.

In the Nara to early Heian periods, Kokûzô was the focal point of two rituals: gumonjihô (“memory retaining ritual”) – introduced by Dôji (d. 744), who returned from China in 718 – and fukutokuhô (“ritual for merit and virtue”; also known as kokûzôhô), which came about in the early Heian period. Although the two rituals had different efficacies (the former helped increase memory retention for the individual practitioner, while the latter accumulated merit for the protection of the state), Pedersen argues that ultimately, they may have served a similar purpose in protecting the emperors and a state that was under severe distress with repeated famines and plagues. Here, too, the power to summon the celestial body of Venus gave the cleric additional power to pray for the restoration of natural balance.

In Chapter 2, “The Godai Kokuzo Bosatsu Pentad; Iconography and Synthesis,” Pedersen traces the development of the GKB configuration in a pan-Asian context. She begins by reviewing the past scholarship which typically described GKB as emanations of the Five Wisdom Buddhas found in the center of the Perfect Body Assembly of the Diamond World Maṇḍala, and discussed them mainly in terms of their efficacy, iconography and/or production. In these studies, Kûkai was often attributed as the innovator or importer of the GKB configuration. Pedersen fine-tunes the debate by laying out the multiplicity of sources that could have informed the iconography of GKB configuration and by acknowledging the role played by Kûkai’s disciples in its development.

No reliable evidence of GKB’s existence remains in India, China, or Korea (neither does there exist a linguistic equivalent for “Five Great Space Repository Bodhisattvas” in any of these languages), and although the record tells that at least one painted GKB pentad was produced in the ninth century in Japan, only sculptural examples survive. This chapter, therefore, focuses on the comparison of the Japanese GKB sculptural configuration to related textual and visual sources.

Among the sources that informed the GKB iconography, Pedersen places a special emphasis on the color of the five deities vis-à-vis their direction within the configuration. She argues that while the choice of colors relates to the five-phases theory (gogyôsetsu), their placement (white at the center as opposed to conventional yellow in gogyôsetsu, for instance) may indicate a modification based on the Kokûzô’s connection to Venus.

Significantly, in her discussion of the GKB configuration, Pedersen substantiates the hypothesis presented in previous studies that the Jingoji and Anjôji sculpture sets, which are currently enshrined in a row, were originally positioned in a mandala-like configuration. She also goes a step further to argue that these GKB sculptures may have been part of a modified sanrinjin (“Three Wheel-Turning Embodiments”) configuration. Typically a sanrinjin consists of three sets of five Buddhist deities:  Five Buddhas of Wisdom that represent the “wheel body of self-nature;” the Five Great Bodhisattvas that represent the “body [which turns] the wheel of correct teaching;” and the Five Kings of Light that represent the “body [which turns] the wheel of command.”  Each of these sets was in a “wheel” configuration (i.e. one deity positioned at each of the four cardinal direction surrounding the fifth central deity) and they were placed side by side. Kokûzô Bosatsu was one of the deities featured prominently in a source that informed Kûkai’s sanrinjin configuration. Pedersen hypothesizes that, realizing the importance of this deity to their master, Kûkai’s disciples substituted the Five Great Bodhisattvas with GKB to enhance the efficacy of this configuration in the protection of the state, while retaining their master’s original vision.

In Chapter 3, “The Jingoji Godai Kokûzô Bosatsu,” Pedersen turns her focus to the first of the three GKB pentads that she features in this dissertation. She details the complicated history of the temple, involving what was in effect a merger between two independent monasteries, Jinganji and Takaosanji. Jinganji was an imperially-sanctioned private temple (jôkakuji) that was defunct by the early ninth century. The prestigious status as jôkakuji was transferred to Takaosanji (located in Mt. Atago, northwest of the city of Kyoto) in 824, which was already renowned for its Yakushi (or Healing Buddha) repentance rite believed to be efficacious for national protection. At this point, Takaosanji’s name was officially changed to Jingokokusoshingonji or Jingoji.

The Jingoji GKB pentad was created sometime before 850 and installed in the temple’s pagoda soon after. Pedersen argues that this pentad originally formed a set with statues of Gochi Nyorai and Godai Myôô enshrined in Gobutsudô and Godaidô respectively, forming a sanrinjin configuration. Although the pagoda itself may have been commissioned by Emperor Nimmyô, Pedersen convincingly demonstrates that Kûkai’s disciple Shinzei (800-860), who was in charge of the administration of Jingoji by 826, was instrumental in orchestrating the installation of the GKB pentad.

Pedersen also explains why Jingoji was considered appropriate for installing the GKB pentad in the first place. She explains that the temple was already functioning as a significant site of state protection. Jingoji was built within the sacred “seven high mountains” that surrounded the capital in an area that had been a ritual ground for kami-worship since the Yayoi period.  It was a site for performing repentance rites for state protection, and in the early- to mid-ninth century it thrived as a center for Esoteric practices. In short, the temple’s significant role in the protection of the state and as a sacred mountain site made it worthy of housing a new and powerful Esoteric configuration.

In Chapter 4, “The Anjôji Godai Kokûzô Bosatsu,” Pedersen discusses two closely-connected issues that nevertheless may benefit from being introduced here separately: one concerns the ninth-century GKB pentad currently enshrined in Kanchiin, Kyoto; and the other concerns a monastery, Anjôji, that was originally constructed in the mountains of the Yamashina area (southeast Kyoto) by the patronage of Emperor Nimmyô’s consort, Fujiwara Junshi (809-871), which fell into ruin following a typhoon in mid-fourteenth century.

Anjôji originally enshrined a set of GKB statues that, according to an inventory compiled in 867, was brought back to Japan by Eun (798-869), a disciple of Kûkai’s lineage who collaborated with Junshi in the construction of the temple. The statues of Kanchiin are purported to be those originally enshrined in Anjôji, moved in 1347 after the typhoon. Pedersen argues that similar to Jingoji, Anjôji too originally housed a set of Gochi Nyorai, Godai Myôô, and GKB in a sanrinjin configuration. However, unlike Jingoji, the configuration of which Pedersen speculates was initiated by the monk Shinzei, the construction of the triple pentads in Anjôji was commissioned by Emperor Montoku (Junshi’s son) and completed by Junshi after her son’s untimely death. Pedersen argues that the circumstances of production of these images demonstrate a certain shift that bestowed Anjôji with triple functions. The sanrinjin configuration commissioned by Montoku – the first emperor of the Fujiwara lineage – and completed by his Fujiwara-lineage mother, Junshi, not only made Anjôji a temple for national protection and an emulation of Jingoji which was closely associated with Montoku’s father Nimmyô, but also a site of personal devotion for Junshi (i.e., the Fujiwara family).  In other words, in Anjôji, one can see early evidence of the Fujiwara rise to power and dominance over the emperors through marriage that becomes the norm in the later Heian period, particularly between the late ninth to the end of eleventh century when the head of the Fujiwara serves as regent (sesshô) and civil dictator (kanpaku) to the reigning emperor, who was often his grandson.

Regarding the Kanchiin statues, Pedersen first presents a careful stylistic analysis vis-à-vis works from the Tang to Song dynasties and cautions us that this set may not be the original Anjôji statues that they are sometimes purported to be, but possibly Song-dynasty Chinese works created in the Ningbo region. The most significant discussion Pedersen embarks on related to these statues is about the animal-shaped pedestals that the statues are enshrined on. It is important to note that even though we cannot confirm that the Kanchiin statues are indeed the statues originally belonging to Anjôji, this discussion still holds relevance to the broader question regarding the function of incorporating animal vehicles in the sanrinjin configuration in Anjôji, because the 867 inventory states that the original Anjôji statues also rode on animal-shaped pedestals of this sort. Combining her visual and stylistic analyses with recent discoveries, Pedersen first confirms that the animal vehicle for the central Hôkai Kokûzô in Kanchiin was most likely a lion, rather than the present horse. She then presents the possibility that the Gochi Nyorai set from Anjôji (currently in the Kyoto National Museum) may also have been accompanied by animal pedestals. Pedersen concludes that because these animals each had their own symbolic power, the use of the animal vehicles in the Anjôji statues must have added iconographic significance to their configuration.

In Chapter 5, “The Jôganji Godai Kokûzô Bosatsu,” Pedersen discusses the GKB pentad that was enshrined in Jôganj, located in the Fukakusa area, south of Kyoto. Jôganji began its history as a hall (saiin or West Hall) of a temple called Kashôji, which was constructed by Emperor Montoku (827-858; r. 850-858) near the gravesite of his father Nimmyô in commemoration of him. The hall eventually became an independent structure and changed its name to Jôganji in 862. The statue of GKB at Jôganji no longer exists. Pedersen evaluates the documentation on the layout of (and in some cases identities of the deities enshrined within) the temple, concluding that the Hagiography of Shinga (Kosôshô hôin daikashôi Shinga denki), written in 893, is the most reliable source for reconstructing the original GKB sculptures. This document indicates that in the ninth century, there was a GKB pentad enshrined within a jewel pagoda and another of the Godai Myôô (Five Great Wisdom Kings) in Godaidô. The document does not include a mention of Gochi Nyorai, but based on the similarity to the Jingoji precedent, Pedersen hypothesizes that Jôganji, too, may have employed a sanrinjin configuration.

Significantly, according to Shinga denki, the GKB set in Jôganji was commissioned by Fujiwara Yoshimi (813-867), the brother of Fujiwara Junshi (commissioner of Anjôji) and the grand-uncle of Emperor Seiwa (son of Montoku and Fujiwara Meishi; r. 858-876). Jôganji was patronized by the Fujiwara family which was quickly rising to the top of the political hierarchy by successfully producing emperors of maternal Fujiwara lineage. Beginning with Emperor Seiwa (who ascended to the throne when he was only eight years old), the Fujiwara established the pattern of taking charge of the polity in the name of the young emperor (and subsequently becoming his most trusted advisor upon his coming of age), a pattern that continued throughout the Heian period. Eventually, Jôganji was bestowed with both the double status of jôkakuji (imperially certified temple) and goganji (imperially vowed temple), protecting the state (and its rulers) not only from calamities but also from vengeful spirits of deceased emperors and officials.

Pedersen highlights the similarities among Jingoji, Anjôji, and Jôganji, stating that they were all temples placed strategically among the mountains surrounding the capital, and were most likely important sites for repentance rites that not only protected the state from natural disasters, but also kept vengeful spirits at bay. Furthermore, the three temples had close connections to the imperial family and/or the Fujiwara clan, and were orchestrated by clerics of Kûkai’s lineage (Shingan, who was instrumental in constructing Jôganji’s parent temple Kashôji, was both the biological brother of Kûkai and his disciple). The nature of these temples made them worthy of receiving a powerful sanrinjin configuration, which in turn, made them more efficacious in the protection of the nation.

Pedersen’s dissertation is a significant contribution to the field of Japanese studies as the first comprehensive study of Godai Kokûzô Bosatsu in English, and as one of the few substantial studies of Esoteric Buddhist art and ritual practices of the Heian period. It is also important as a methodological exploration in the study of a period or historical endeavor with exceptionally scant contemporary documentary evidence. Among the GKB sets Pedersen investigated, only one of them remains in its original temple, and none of them retains its original configuration. By utilizing all textual and visual sources available to her in a thoughtful manner and carefully weighing the arguments presented by previous studies, Pedersen succeeds in presenting a nuanced argument.

Akiko Walley
Maude I. Kerns Assistant Professor of Japanese Art
Department of the History of Art and Architecture
University of Oregon

Primary Sources

Kyoto National Museum
Taishô Canon

Dissertation Information

University of Kansas. 2010. 296 pp. Primary Advisor: Sherry Fowler.


Image: Painting in collection of Tokyo National Museum. Formerly owned by Mitsui Gomei Co. Heian Period, 12th century, National Treasure. Invoked in the Godai Kokūzōhō 五大虚空蔵法, an esoteric rite for fulfilling wishes & averting misfortune 虚空蔵法(福徳法)の本尊.

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