Important Cultural PropertyLotus Sutra

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  • Booklet; ink and color on decorated paper
  • Height: 18.1, Length: 11.2
  • Heian period, 11th century
  • Kyoto National Museum
  • A甲1740

This Buddhist sutra is the fifth volume of the eight-fascicle Lotus Sutra (Skt: Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), transcribed in the format of a booklet made of sumptuously decorated paper. Originally bound in the “butterfly style” (J: detchōsō), in which the decorated sheets were folded, stacked, and pasted together along the edge of the folds, the booklet was later reassembled using the thread-sewn multi-section tetchōsō binding method. The paper itself is believed to be imported from Northern Song (960–1127) China. Most of the sheets are coated in a base layer of light colors such as light indigo, yellow, or white, and are further embellished with printed mica designs of arabesques and floral lozenges. The style of paper decoration suggests that the booklet may date to as early as the latter half of the eleventh century.
Interspersed across its pages are six underdrawings seemingly unrelated to the content of the sutra, which portray scenes of court life and images of women. The subjects represented in the paintings have yet to be concretely identified, and it is unclear whether or not they portray illustrations from stories or famous poems, but it has been suggested that the figural style likely predates the twelfth-century illustrated handscrolls The Tale of Genji (Tokugawa Art Museum and the Gotoh Museum) and Fan-Shaped Lotus Sutra (Shitennō-ji Temple).
This booklet is both one of the oldest surviving examples of secular Japanese painting as well as an elegant decorated sutra that combines the Heian nobility’s reverence for the Lotus Sutra with their refined sense of beauty. Its storage box inscription and accompanying documents record that it was made by Taira no Kiyomori (1118–1181) and his daughter, who was skilled at painting, but the validity of these claims is unreliable. In many ways, the format and style of this booklet resemble the Sutra of Meditation on Samantabhadra Bodhisattva Booklet (Kanfugenkyō sasshi) in the collection of the Gotoh Museum, which similarly combines Buddhist sutra text with secular underdrawings.