National TreasureGolden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra

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  • 10 handscrolls
  • Gold lettering on purple paper
  • Nara period, 8th century
  • Nara National Museum
  • 759

On the fourteenth day of the second month of 741 (Tenpyô 13), Emperor Shômu (701-756, r. 724-749) ordered that two state-sponsored temples-one for monks (J. kokubun-ji) and one for nuns (J. kokubunni-ji)-should be built in every province in Japan. At that time, it was decided that a copy of the Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra would be enshrined in the pagoda of each temple. The official name of the state-sponsored institutions was "Temples for the Protection of the State by the Golden Light [of the] Four Heavenly Kings." Based on the contents of the Victorious Kings Sutra, it was thought that these temples would provide protection for the nation through the power of the four defenders of Buddhism. This gold-lettered copy of the sutra is a masterwork, symbolizing the protection of the state afforded by Buddhism.

Emperor Shômu's order specifically called for the use of gold lettering in the creation of the sutra, but it did not designate the color of the paper. However, according to a document of the Office for the Creation of Gold-Lettered Sutras (an imperial office created for copying the texts), we know that purple paper was used. In fact, most gold-lettered sutras copied in the Nara period (710-794) were on purple paper. Once the sheets of purple paper had been joined together, thin lines, marking the columns for the characters, were drawn in gold ink (made by mixing gold dust into a gelatin-based medium). The text of the sutra was then copied using this ink. After the copying was finished and the gold ink had dried, the copyist used a boar's tusk to burnish the letters. This process quickly brought out the luster of the golden paint, as if it had been suddenly transformed into gold leaf.

It is said that this copy of the Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra, now in the collection of the Nara National Museum, was originally enshrined at the state-sponsored temple in Bingo Province (present-day Hiroshima Prefecture). The sutra has survived complete in ten volumes. Even now, the golden characters shine brilliantly, glowing against the deep purple ground. This work, extolled for its elegance, is considered one of the jewels of sutra transcription from the Tenpyô era (729-749).