The main halls of Buddhist temples are often decorated with vertical cloth flags hanging from a central pole to form a hexagonal or octagonal structure known as a tō 幢 (Ch. chuang, lit., banner). Stone versions of these, which resemble pillars, emerged in China during the Sui dynasty (581–618). These are known as shichuang in Chinese, and sekidō in Japanese, which literally means “stone banner.” Many banners, regardless of form, bear inscriptions of dharani chants on them; this stone one is a prime example. Stone banners like this became popular in Japan during the Kamakura period (12th–14th century). To date, there are three domestically erected stone banners that have been designated (one National Treasure and two Important Cultural Properties).
This object is an octagonal stone banner constructed out of ten segments. Structurally, it can be broken down into three parts: the top, the shaft, and the base. The top features a decorative orb-shaped jewel resting upon an octagonal hipped roof, while the shaft consists of two segments sandwiching a band. The base is made up of three lotus-shaped bands/platforms alternating with two short blocks. The two shaft segments bear carvings of Buddhist figures within niches, dharani chants in Sanskrit, as well as other inscriptions in Chinese characters. Their cross sections are also shaped like beveled squares rather than regular octagons, causing their sides to alternate between wider and thinner faces.
Being mostly low (shallow) relief, the carvings on the banner’s shaft faces are emblematic of Buddhist sculpture styles of the Liao dynasty. Details etched include its year of creation, 1084, as well as the fact that it was dedicated by nine members of the Guangfa Temple (Guangfayuan 廣法院). As for the figures seated in the niches found on various parts of the banner, they vary from seated buddhas to standing monks, flying deities (devas), dancing and singing bodhisattvas, the mythical Kalavinka beast, as well as motifs like upside-down lotuses. We can tell how different segments of the banner were created in different eras by observing what carving styles and techniques (i.e., high and low relief) were used to render the etchings on them.
In fact, slender stone structures with long histories, such as this banner, are likely to have fallen over and broken multiple times in its lifespan. It may have undergone repairs and replacement of parts with each such occurrence. As such, the current banner’s many segments are not uniform in terms of the stone used, and some of its segments’ joints do not fit with their counterparts’, making it clear that it has been modified from its original form. Aside from the year inscribed on the shaft, we can find other instances of year inscriptions all over the banner, such as 1084 and 1276, when it was apparently erected, and 1405, which probably corresponds to the year in which its base had undergone repairs. These inscriptions likely reflect the modification history of the banner.
In more recent history, this banner made its way into the collection of the Imperial Museum of Kyoto (present-day Kyoto National Museum) in 1927, donated by Fukuda Masanosuke. For the subsequent eighty-or-so years, it had been exhibited on the museum’s grounds or in its main exhibition hall. In 2005, it was transferred to the newly opened Kyushu National Museum, where it has since stood in the permanent Cultural Exchange Exhibition Hall, atop a separate, tailor-made seismic isolation system on top of the museum building’s primary seismic isolation facilities, doubling the safety of both the banner and the visitors that gather around to see it.