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Side by Side:
Notes on the Twin Buddhas of the Lotus Sutra in the Stone Carver's Art

by Hank Glassman


Here I explore some meanings behind . . . a small stone that depicts two buddhas sitting side by side in the lotus posture, sheltered beneath a heavy lintel. . . . These are old gravestones, their connections to families lost two or three centuries ago.

In the world of Japanese stonework of the late medieval and early modern periods, pairs or doubles are common. The iconography of twin figures standing shoulder to shoulder is found in examples of the stone carver's art throughout the archipelago. Here I explore some meanings behind a subtype of this dyadic - a small stone that depicts two buddhas sitting side by side in the lotus posture, sheltered beneath a heavy lintel. (I refer to this stonework iconography as nibutsu doza, or "two buddhas on the same seat." The iconography is also known more generally in various artistic media as nibutsu byoza, "two buddhas sitting side by side.") These are old gravestones, their connections to families lost two or three centuries ago. We no longer find this theme in contemporary Japanese cemetery monuments - what is the meaning of this lost iconography, what are its roots?

The Story of the Two Buddhas

Students of the Lotus Sutra will immediately recognize the resonance with chapter 11, "The Apparition of the Jeweled Stupa": in one of the most unexpected and miraculous scenes in the whole of Buddhist scriptural literature, two buddhas occupy the same time and space, an important impossibility.

That is, according to orthodox or mainstream Buddhist cosmology, there can be only one buddha at a time. In the Lotus Sutra, this expectation is turned upside down. There is another buddha, and he has come for a visit. At the opening of the chapter, an enormous and lavishly adorned "jeweled stupa" appears before the multitude gathered at Vulture Peak. (The terms jeweled stupa [hoto] and Prabhutaratna/Many Jewels Stupa [tahoto] require some explaining. While the terms are used by Japanese art and architectural historians to differentiate between two specific types of temple building, in fact they are often used as synonyms in various textual sources. The sutra speaks of a "jeweled stupa" or "seven-jeweled stupa" [shippoto], but the expansion to "many-jeweled stupa" is a natural one because of the name of the buddha. The sutra also refers to the stupa as "Prabhutaratna tathagata's stupa" [taho nyoraito]. Note that throughout this essay, in order to avoid undue confusion, I do not capitalize the word buddha.) Sakyamuni explains that Prabhutaratna ("Many Jewels," Taho Nyorai), a buddha from the far distant past, enlightened since unimaginably long ago, made a vow that always and in any future world system, when the Lotus is being preached, he would appear there to declare the scripture's excellence and praise the qualities of the buddha who preaches it. Prabhutaratna speaks, roaring the lion's roar from inside the stupa, saying that it is wonderful, "Excellent, Sakyamuni. Splendid!"

Before the ancient buddha within the stupa can reveal himself, Sakyamuni must call back all of his myriads of avatars to our saha world, bidding them to return from their merciful missions in distant worlds throughout the greater trichiliocosm. (That, is the sum total of the universe as described in Buddhist cosmology, consisting of one thousand systems comprising one thousand worlds each.) Presumably, this stipulation is meant to make perfectly clear that Prabhutaratna is not a mere emanation or manifestation of Sakyamuni but is a samyak sambuddha (completely and perfectly awakened buddha) in his own right. Whatever the reason for the request, Sakyamuni complies joyfully and summons together all of his magically created avatar buddhas (funjin shobutsu). Each of the buddhas thus summoned is urged to greet Prabhutaratna.

After these few preconditions are met, the doors to the stupa open and the audience can see the glorious tathagata Prabhutaratna within. Prabhutaratna repositions himself to offer half of his seat to Sakyamuni, who then mounts the lion throne. And so they sit, one next to the other, two tathagatas together.

Thereupon Sakyamuni Buddha opened the entrance to the seven-jeweled stupa with his right finger. There was a tremendous sound as if the bar and lock to the gateway of a large city were being pushed aside. Then immediately the entire gathering saw the Tathagata Prabhutaratna in the jeweled stupa sitting on a lion-seat as if he were in meditation, his body whole and undecomposed.
They heard him say:
"Splendid, splendid! The Buddha Sakyamuni is teaching the Lotus Sutra and I have come in order to hear it."
At that time the fourfold assembly saw the Buddha who had entered parinirva?a immeasurable thousands of myriads of ko?is of kalpas ago speaking those words. They praised this unprecedented experience and scattered heavenly jeweled flowers upon the Buddhas, Prabhutaratna and Sakyamuni.
Then from within the stupa the Buddha Prabhutaratna offered half of his seat to the Buddha Sakyamuni, saying:
"O Sakyamuni Buddha, please take a seat here!"
The Buddha Sakyamuni immediately entered the stupa and sat cross-legged on half of the seat. Thereupon the great assembly saw the two Tathagatas sitting cross-legged on the lion-seat in the seven-jeweled stupa and they each thought thus:
"The Buddhas are seated far away. O Tathagata, we entreat you to use your transcendent powers so that we may be in the air together with you." (Tsugunari Kubo and Akira Yuyama, trans., The Lotus Sutra [Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1993], pp. 184-85; Miaofa lianhua jing, Teihon 0262)

He would seem to be in many respects identical to Sakyamuni. The radiance of the two flanking figures sitting in padmasana (the lotus position) in all of their hieratic glory, shining through the open door of the jewel-adorned stupa, belies the intimacy and friendliness of the invitation "Come join me. Come on up and sit here next to me."

Telling the Story with Voice and Image

But what does the jeweled stupa, or the Prabhutaratna stupa, really look like? As described in the sutra, it is, of course, unimaginably large, unimaginably splendid. At the temple Honkoji in Shizuoka Prefecture and at the temple Honpoji in Toyama Prefecture, we find two remarkable Kamakura-period (1185-1333) sets of hanging paintings on silk depicting scenes from the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Both sets clearly depict in this chapter a "jeweled stupa," meaning a dome or bell-shaped one-story building with a sweeping square roof, as in the example from Honpoji. It is clear that these paintings were created for the purpose of illustrated preaching, or etoki. (See Masahiko Hayashi, "Ecchu yatsuo Honpoji zo Hokekyo mandara zu - etoki to sono shuhen," Kokubungaku: kaishaku to kansho 62/3 [1997]: 141-47. Also see Hirofumi Horie, "Hokekyo mandara zu ni okeru butto no ichi kosatsu," Indogaku, bukkyogaku kenkyu 50/1 [2001]): 200-202 and "Hokekyo mandara zu ni arawareru butto ni tsuite," Hokke bunka 28 [2002]: 15-25. The twin buddhas appear across illustrations of various chapters in the painted scrolls, although the sutra does not continue to focus on the theme. See Bunsaku Kurata and Yoshiro Tamura, Art of the Lotus Sutra: Japanese Masterpieces [Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1987], plates 7, 8, 9, 16, and 17.)

That is, these paintings and later ones based on them were the vehicle by which Japanese Buddhists could begin to imagine the jeweled stupa and the vision of the twin buddhas. Drawing on iconographic traditions reaching back centuries to the Dunhuang caves in China, the artists created a setting for the priests giving sermons, and for male and female etoki preachers, to bring the sutra to life through the coloration of voice, a pregnant pause, the cadence and pitch of the practiced orator. It is in these paintings, displayed and preached upon on important temple occasions, that generation after generation of the faithful of the Lotus Sutra beheld a vision of the eleventh chapter of the Lotus Sutra come to life, knew themselves to be indeed among the assembly there at Vulture Peak, and connected the message of the twin buddhas to their own experience and religious path. Yet there are indications that the inspiration for the gravestone carvings of two buddhas might be more complex than a simple evocation of this scene.

Keepers of the Gate: Reflections on the Double

At the entrance to Buddhist temples in Japan stand the fierce varjapani figures, the great nio (benevolent kings). They are, famously, "a" and "un" - the alpha and omega - of the totalizing and magical syllable "om." One has his mouth wide open in a strong, earth-shaking vocalization of the letter "a," while the other has his mouth shut, producing a thundering hum, the nasalized final "un." These two are, of course, the gatekeepers, or dvarapalas, known throughout continental and insular Asia and common to both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In many cases, the gatekeeper pairs represent an important locus for the interaction of global traditions with local cults and local ritual practices.

That is, as Rolf Stein suggested in his seminal article on the topic, this set of twin guardians, the dvarapalas, is a motif that artists, iconographers, and clerics have employed at every turn when seeking to integrate local and translocal traditions in India and across Asia.* Often these pairs are oppositional or contrary male figures: the handsome youth who stands for purity and ascetic or martial self-control and the ugly, pot-bellied dwarf who embodies wealth, pleasure, appetite - Skanda and Ga?esa, Weituo-tian (Jpn., Idaten) and Mile-fuo (Jpn., Miroku) in Budai (Jpn., Hotei) form. Sometimes they are nearly identical - the embracing twin elephants who are together Vinayaka, or Kangiten in Japan, or the cheery and auspicious pair Ebisu/Daikoku. (It is worth noting here that Ebisu is strongly associated with the stone gods. The stone gods are understood to be the "body" of Ebisu or the rejected "leech-child" Hiruko. See Cornelius Ouwehand, Namazu-e and Their Themes: An Interpretative Approach to Some Aspects of Japanese Folk Religion [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964], pp. 137-40. Another work that takes up the sacred stones of Japan is Peter Metevelis, Japanese Mythology and the Primeval World: A Comparative Symbolic Approach [New York: iUniverse, 2009].)

The stone deities of Japan, sekibutsu, are of many types, but functionally they tend to be quite closely related one to the other. The stones known as sae no kami or dosojin are of the general type pointed to by Stein. They are gods of the boundaries, often doubled. These are the "stone gods" (shaguji, shakujin, ishigami). They protect villages and city wards from disease and calamity and are also tied to the generative power of sexuality. (For a fuller description of the stone god or gods, see Hank Glassman, The Face of Jizo [Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012], pp. 162ff. The classic work on the stone gods is by Kunio Yanagita, "Shakujin mondo," in Yanagita Kunio zenshu [Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1998], vol. 12, pp. 487-627. Also, see Shinobu Orikuchi, "Ishi ni ide hairu mono," in Orikuchi Shinobu zenshu [Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1965], vol. 19, pp. 212-55. More recently, see Shin'ichi Nakazawa, Seirei no o [Tokyo: Kodansha, 2003].) These deities are necessarily sexual in character, but not only sexual. They regularly take the form of a phallus (or of stone pillars inscribed with the name of the bodhisattva Jizo or the "Shinto" deity Sarutahiko), but the stones are most often carved or incised with a male and female couple. Some older images have explicit and detailed erotic content, but most are only tamely and humorously suggestive: some business with hands or sleeves or teapot spouts. The Shinto deities Izanami and Izanagi are a common identification. In a further sublimation, the couple become two Jizos, or a monk and a nun.

Coming Full Circle

Of course, these pairs seen at the gateways and at the liminal spots are most certainly not the same as the twin buddhas of the Lotus Sutra, and yet the similarities in form in dvarapala and nibutsu doza iconography draw our curiosity. In Stein's study he points to the crazy Zen pair Hanshan (Jpn., Kanzan) and Shide (Jpn., Jittoku) as manifestations of the august bodhisattvas Mañjusri and Samantabhadra (Stein, "Guardian of the Gate," p. 133). Here we might note that direct visual readings - that is, an understanding shaped by formal qualities and family resemblances - often supersede or circumvent more-abstract symbolic or doctrinal formulations. It is exactly these sorts of linkages that are of interest. I have said above that the dosojin are not necessarily the twin buddhas, and yet Tomoichiro Kusakabe, in discussing the nibutsu doza iconography, points to an image of this type from Kyoto, noting that it is not at all uncommon in the area. He points out, however, that this one has an inscription of the two characters that read sae or doso on the base (Tomoichiro Kusakabe, Sekibutsu nyumon [Tokyo: Rinjinsha, 1967], pp. 129-30, ill. 156). This is a clear indication of the relationship between the cult of the stone gods and the nibutsu doza images. We can also find an example in Kyoto where a double grave was set up by a wife after her husband's death for their future burial together (Masataro Kawakatsu, Nihon sekizo bijutsu jiten [Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1978], p. 264), again strengthening the idea of a connection to male-female pairs.

And so at least two streams of Japanese visual and material culture flow into the creation and proliferation of the nibutsu doza grave: paintings of the Lotus Sutra and stone carvings of the dosojin. These small, charming, and silent memorials, like Stein's gatekeepers, thus stand between the great pan-Asian Buddhist tradition as represented by the Lotus Sutra, and local fertility cults as represented by male and female pairs carved in stone.

* Rolf Stein, "The Guardian of the Gate: An Example of Buddhist Mythology, from India to Japan," in Asian Mythologies, ed. Yves Bonnefoy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 122-36. This article in particular and Stein's bold hermeneutic approach in general have had enormous influence in the field of Buddhist studies and religious studies. For example, the recent work by Bernard Faure on the Indianization of medieval Japan, "The Impact of Tantrism on Japanese Religious Traditions: The Cult of Three Devas," in Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond, ed. István Keul (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), pp. 399-412; or Faure's earlier writing on Vinayaka, "The Elephant in the Room: The Cult of Secrecy in Japanese Tantrism," in The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, ed. Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 255-68, reveal Stein's impact. This influence is also evident in the inventive and erudite work of Nobumi Iyanaga, especially in his massive twin monographs dedicated almost exclusively to the elaboration and expansion of Stein's ideas - one volume on Daikoku: Daikokuten henso (Kyoto: Hozokan, 2002); and one on Kannon: Kannon hen'yotan (Kyoto: Hozokan, 2002). Readers wanting to think in greater detail about the issues raised in my superficial discussion of the gatekeepers are urged to consult the bibliographies of these two worthy heirs to R. A. Stein. For twin gods, see especially Iyanaga, Daikokuten henso, pp. 113ff and 537ff.

Hank Glassman is Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His scholarly work focuses on the religious cultures of medieval Japan. His book The Face of Jizo: Image and Cult in Medieval Japan was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2012. Currently he is researching the history of grave monuments in Japan, especially the "five-elements pagoda" or gorinto.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2014 issue of Dharma World.
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