The Descent of the Buddha Amida with Divine Attendants


The Descent of the Buddha Amida with Divine Attendants

Paintings / Kamakura

Kamakura period, 14th century

Color on silk



There is a belief in Japanese Buddhism that when people die, the buddha Amida comes from the Pure Land in the west to receive them. In ancient Japanese painting, the left-hand side of the image is traditionally considered to be west. This painting depicts the buddha Amida and his attendants descending from the left-hand side. A ray of light shines from the buddha Amida to the front of a house where a figure can be seen waiting for them while reciting prayers to Amida. The buddha Amida is surrounded by an ensemble of bodhisattvas playing instruments including drums, lutes, and flutes. What kind of music are they playing as they wave their drumsticks and stomp out a rhythm with their feet? The procession is led by a child carrying a type of banner commonly used at Buddhist temples. Slightly ahead of the procession, the bodhisattva Kannon carries a lotus-shaped pedestal on which to carry the soul of the deceased, and the bodhisattva Seishi presses his hands together in prayer.

Belief in the buddha Amida and the Pure Land in Japan originated during the 8th century. Initial depictions showed the buddha Amida preaching the dharma in the Pure Land, as was common in China. Compositions featuring the buddha Amida descending with a retinue of bodhisattvas began to spread around the 10th century. From the 12th to 14th century, it was common for depictions to also feature everyday or natural scenery and a person waiting for Amida, as in this painting. These changes hint at the widespread acceptance of Buddhism in these later periods and its level of integration into people’s daily lives. Cherry trees bloom in spring on the mountain in the background, and what appear to be autumn leaves are present in the lower left of the painting, in what is perhaps an attempt to represent the full cycle of the seasons in this single image. Every detail of the house is true to life, and the faces of the figures also have realistic features, each one is individual and unique. They may be depictions of the people who commissioned the painting, or people connected to them, rather than fictional people.

Another painting titled Gathering of Deities (A-11974-1) has survived alongside this one and is also in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. This pair of paintings was probably used in a Buddhist memorial service for a specific individual, but specific details are not known.

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