Museum Dictionary

The Chusonji-kyo Sutras

Today we are going to talk about a set of famous sutra manuscripts called the Chusonji-kyo. Actually, the official name for the Chusonji-kyo is the "Issai-kyo in Alternating Gold and Silver Characters on Blue Paper." This is becuse the sutras are written in alternating rows of gold and silver on paper that has been dyed navy-blue! This set of sutras were first offered to the Buddha at a temple called Chuson-ji in the town of Hiraizumi, in the southern part of Iwate Prefecture in Northern Japan. That is why thjese sutras are together called the Chusonji-kyo Sutras.

Though located in the remote northern provinces, the city of Hiraezumi has been famous down through Japanese history. At the end of the Heian Period in the 12th Century, it was ruled by three generations of the Fujiwara family, lead by Kiyohira, Motohira and Hidehira. These three men made the area into one of a flourishing, lavish Buddhist culture. The representative building of this culture was a golden temple hall called the Konjikido, which was richly decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and gold leaf. The famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited the Konjikido in 1689 and wrote the following haiku poem about the place:

Untouched by
The rains of May
Shining Hall

Next let me tell you about the Issai-kyo. The Issai-kyo sounds like it might be a sutra, because kyo means sutra in Japanese, but actually the Issai-kyo is composed of not only sutras but also of Buddhist regulations, explanations of the sutras and more! The Issai-kyo is in fact the entire corpus of Buddhist scriptures and consists of almost 5400 volumes!

When you consider that over 90,000 sheets of special blue paper, not to mention all the gold and silver ink, were needed in order to make manuscripts of the complete Issai-kyo, it becomes clear that this was an extrordinarily expensive project! It also must have been an extremely time-consuming, requiring a huge number of skilled scribes!

The person who initiated this enormous project was Fukiwara Kiyohira (1056-1128), the first of the three-generation line of Fujiwara rulers. The actual copying began in February 1117 and ended nine years later in March 1126. The sutra in the photos below is from only one of the thousands of volumes of the Issai-kyo!

  • Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI
    Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI(Detail, frontpiece)
    25.5 x 423.0 cm
    Heian Period (12th Century)
    Handscroll, gold and silver on dark blue paper
    Important Art Object
    (Kyoto National Museum)

Before the text of the sutra begins there is a painting called the frontpiece. This frontpiece is actually on the inside of the cover. The frontpiece of this sutra has a painting of the Buddha giving a sermon to his disciples In addition to this theme, other frontpieces show scenes of the stories told in the sutras or of customs of the day.

  • Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI
    Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI(Detail, front cover)
    Important Art Object
    (Kyoto National Museum)

The cover of the sutra is the area that ends up on the outside when the sutra is rolled up completely. This sutra has a pattern of hosoge flowers and arabesque vines on the cover. Both the frontpiece and cover paintings are executed in gold and silver, like the characters of the sutra itself. Each line of the sutra is surrounded by a thin frame painted in silver.

Next lets lets take a look at the text of the sutra itself. Each character is written carefully and neatly, but in addition to that, do you see how the gold and silver letters themselves gleam in the light? This is because after the manuscript was copied, the gold and silver characters were polished up and down with the horn of a wild boar! If you change the angle at which you look at the letters, you can still see the polishing scratches! This was the secret to making the characters look so beautiful. It must have taken a long time to polish all those characters!

Why do you think they decided to write the characters on blue-dyed paper in silver and gold? Well, for one reason, blue is the color of the precious stone lapis lazuli, one of the Seven Buddhist Treasures (seven precious metals or stones that are used to decorate the Buddha and his surroundings). Lapis lazuli was thought to cover the ground in the Buddha's paradise. Gold and silver are also among the Seven Treasures. Using the colors of the Seven Treasures to write the sutras made the Buddhas teachings seem even more impressive and magnificent. Naturally, Kiyohira hoped that by undertaking this project, after death, he himself would be reborn in the Buddha's Pure Land Paradise, decorated with the Seven Treasures!

In the late Heian Period, many sutra manuscripts were made with gold on blue paper. The alternating of gold and silver on blue paper, however, was extremely rare. On top of that, the fact that the entire Issai-kyo is written in alternating gold and silver characters make Chusonji-kyo Sutras unique not only in Japan but in all of Asia!

Today, there are about 4,500 volumes of the Chusonji-kyo Sutras still in existance. Of these, over 4,200 volumes are now owned by the temples on Mt. Koya, the center of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. The original temple of Chuson-ji now owns only about fifteen scrolls.

  • Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI
    Daijo Hibundari-kyo Sutra, Volume VI(Detail, endpaper)
    Important Art Object
    (Kyoto National Museum)

Text by Eikei Akao, Department of Fine Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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