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The Spirit of the Block: Buddhism and the Woodblock Print

The oldest known Buddhist print depicts a six-armed bodhisattva surrounded by Sanskrit text. Discovered in a tomb in Chengdu, China, this work dates to 757, years before the famous Diamond Sutra was found in Dunhuang. [10] Yet, the history of Buddhist printmaking predates the 8th century and the woodblock medium. The roots of printed Buddhist imagery trace back to India. During the 6th century, believers molded Buddhist texts and figures into clay seals that were inked and printed onto paper or silk. When Buddhism spread to East Asia, Buddhist devotees reimagined the printing process through wood, a readily available natural resource. These religious teachings and printed images traveled east through China and Korea, arriving in Japan by the 8th century. In 764, Empress Koken eagerly embraced this medium and commissioned the Hyakumanto, or the “One Million Pagodas.” [11] Each wooden pagoda housed a dainty Buddhist sutra, printed as a declaration of devotion and a plea for atonement. By 770, the project was complete and the empress disbursed the pagodas and hidden sutras among Nara’s Buddhist temples. At that time, the roots of woodblock printing planted themselves firmly and feverishly in Japan.

Folk Buddhist Jizo Unknown, Folk Buddhist Jizo, Late Muromachi/Early Edo (Early Buddhist works were usually unmarked therefore the dating is attributed), Ronin Gallery.

The first popular use of Japanese printmaking occurred in the Heian period (794-1185), spurred by a fear of the end of the world, known as mappo. [12] Projected to occur 2000 years after the passing of the Buddha, mappo promised five centuries of destruction followed by the end of the world. Torn by war and misled by an ancient calendar,12th century Japan braced for what appeared to be an imminent end. Buddhist practitioners produced small, printed images as a means of worship and a method to accrue merit in their remaining time on earth. As national anxiety raged, the practice spread throughout Japan as a hope for salvation. Monks and commoners alike printed these delicate works, all engaging in a visceral form of worship. Throughout this period, woodblock printing remained limited to religious practice and purpose. Echoing their origins, early Japanese printed works were produced as an act of devotion. Depicting images of deities or lines of sutras, these ephemeral works portrayed a vast range of Buddhist imagery. Temples distributed these prints to pilgrims or housed them within sculpture, but regardless of destination, the act of creation equaled the importance of the final product. The process of carving, inking, and printing all served as sacred acts intended to bring the printmaker closer to enlightenment. As these works were unmarked, they are notoriously difficult to date.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the woodblock print transitioned from a principally Buddhist practice to the popular artistic medium of Edo’s middle class. Capturing the demimonde of Edo, ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” celebrated the urban, pleasure-driven spirit of the recently emerged middle class. Yet, the term ukiyo did not originate in the realm of worldly delights. The concept itself bears a Buddhist origin, referring to the transient and troubled nature of human life. The original concept consoled the Buddhist believer, assuring them that earthly struggles were fleeting and that they would find lasting peace in enlightenment. By the 17th century, the ephemerality of earthly pleasures replaced these somber connotations. From the romance of the Yoshiwara, Edo’s legalized prostitution district, to a rowdy evening at the kabuki theater, earthly delights boldly usurped human suffering.

Nichiren in Snow at Tsukahara on Sado Island Kuniyoshi, Nichiren in Snow at Tsukahara on Sado Island from the series The Life of the Great Priest, c. 1832. Ronin Gallery.

As the function and philosophy of the woodblock print shifted, the process of production followed suit. The woodblock prints of the Edo period are always said to be the work of the artist, but in truth, it is the joint effort of the ‘ukiyo-e quartet’—the artist, engraver, printer and publisher. This division of labor is a departure from the one-man process of early Buddhist printmaking. Faced with an unprecedented demand for woodblock prints, artists achieved the efficiency necessary to satisfy their ravenous public, but at a cost. The spiritual nature faded, replaced by the glow of the floating world.

Overtly Buddhist subject matter sharply declined during the Edo period. The remaining Buddhist works expanded their historically devotional role to a vividly didactic function. Pilgrims continued to collect ephemeral prints from temple visits, but Buddhist stories also played out across ehon (illustrated books) and narrative prints. Through ehon such as the Story of Nyorai at Zenkoji Temple in Shinshu or Hokusai’s account the life of the Buddha, interested audiences could delve into Buddhist history and traditions. Few single-sheet prints took blatantly Buddhist themes, but by this time, the spirit of Buddhism had become as woven into Japanese culture as the woodblock medium itself.

Rāhula, Master of the Esoteric Munakata, Rāhula, Master of the Esoteric, 1960. Ronin Gallery.

Ukiyo-e designers depicted famous priests or classic tales through the early Meiji period (1868-1912). From Kuniyoshi’s rendering of Nichiren, the famous 13th century priest, in Nichiren in Snow at Tsukahara on Sado Island, to Yoshitoshi’s stoic depiction of Daruma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Buddhist figures intertwined with popular culture. Portrayed as mythical heroes these Buddhist figures adapted to their changing audience. As Japan pushed towards modernity, this steadfast connection between the medium and the faith remained, but manifested with greater subtly. Buddhist ideology and practice intersected with Japanese cultural identity, influencing artistic philosophy and shaping the ideal of the Japanese landscape. While these later works may or may not seem explicitly Buddhist, each snow laden temple and towering pagoda reveals a faded, yet enduring connection to the medium’s spiritual origins.

By the early 20th century, the spiritual bond between the woodblock artists and the artwork had faded to a whisper. Shiko Munakata (1903-1975) revived this waning connection in the 1920s as he embraced the woodblock. From his inspiration to his technique, a fervent spirituality enlivens each of his works. Regardless of religious or secular subject matter, his oeuvre is indivisible from his Zen philosophy. Munakata quickly esteemed himself not only as the preeminent Japanese print artist of the 20th century, but also as the heir to centuries of Buddhist printmaking tradition. Like the monks centuries before, Munakata took his knife to the woodblock in a sacred act, embracing both the process and product, recognizing a power beyond himself that manifests in his work. Reflecting on the woodblock medium in his 1954 Hanga no Hanashi, Munakata explains: “How does the artist breathe life into his work? By summoning the spirit of the art that lives inside him…Power comes from the artist’s spirit, warmth from his tenderness, and serenity from his prayers.” [13]


10. Jiang Wu and Lucille Chia, Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia the Formation and Transformation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon, 152.
11. “One of the ‘One Million Pagodas’ (Hyakumanto),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed January 31, 2017.
12. Mary W. Baskett, Footprints of the Buddha: Japanese Buddhist Prints from American and Japanese Collections, 18.
13. Shiko Munakata. “Hanga no Hanashi (1954).” In The Woodblock and the Artist: the Life and Work of Shiko Munakata, 139.

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