This statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Skt. Bhaişajyaguru) was initially worshipped as an image of a Shintô deity at Nyakuôji Shrine in the Higashiyama section of Kyoto. The shrine is thought to have been built around the late twelfth century when the retired emperor Goshirakawa (1127-97, r. 1155-58) requested the three Kumano deities to descend upon Nyakuôji Shrine. However, it is unknown where the statue was originally enshrined as the image is believed to have been created in the ninth century. During the forced separation of Shintô and Buddhism in the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the image was designated a possession of the shrine. Later, it passed through the hands of three collectors before it was donated to the Nara National Museum.
The entire piece, down to the floral dais, except for the hands and the curls on the head (J. rahotsu), was made of a single, solid piece of what is probably oak (J. kaya), and the inside was not carved out. This technique is a distinctive feature of Buddhist wooden sculptures from the late Nara (710-94) and early Heian (794-1185) periods. Features such as the sharply carved drapery folds with ridges-the so-called "inverted wave" pattern (J. honpashiki emon)-closely resemble those of the Monju (Skt. Manjusri) in the guise of a monk at Tô-ji (Kyôôgokoku-ji) Temple and the central figure of the Amida (Skt. Amitabha) triad at Shitennô-ji Temple in Osaka. From these similarities, we can date this work to the mid-ninth century.
The stylistic quality of this statue has a unique foreignness; its soft, full eyelids and long, thin eyes with large pupils are reminiscent of Indian Buddhist images. Examples of this sculptural style include the Nyorin Kannon of Kanshin-ji Temple in Osaka, the Eleven-Headed Kannon of Hokke-ji in Nara, and the Yakushi in the Kôsetsu Museum, which can be grouped into a distinct lineage of sculpture from the early Heian period.