Museum Dictionary

The Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra

Did you know that Buddhas often sit on pedestals (seats) shaped like lotus flowers?

  • Seated Amitayus Buddha
    Seated Amitayus Buddha
    Gilt bronze
    Height: 17.3 cm
    (Kyoto National Museum)

In Buddhism, the lotus flower is considered to be a holy flower because it grows up pure and white from even the muddiest swamp. Today let's talk about a Buddhist sutra (a holy scripture) in which each of the characters (Chinese letters) has a lotus pedestal drawn below it. This is because each character of the sutra is considered to be a Buddha or Bodhisattva ( a very holy person who has almost attained Buddhahood) itself! The sutra I am talking about is called the Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra.

  • Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra
    Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra (Myohorenge-kyo)
    Kamakura Period, 13th Century
    Handscroll, ink on paper (29.0 x 102.0 cm)
    (Kyoto National Museum)

The official name for this sutra is the Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, but most people just call it the Lotus Sutra (Hokkekyo in Japanese). The Lotus Sutra is divided into twenty-eight chapters. This short Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra is actually only one of the chapters. It is a copy of the twenty-second chapter, entitled "Entrustment" ("Entrustment" means that the Buddha will "entrust" his teachings to his followers in order that his words be passed down to future generations). This copy of the Lotus Sutra was written in the 12th Century, in the late-Heian Period. That was over 800 years ago!

Each character is written on top of a colored lotus flower. The characters almost look little Buddhas sitting on lotus pedestals, don't they?

  • Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra (Detail)
    Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra (Detail)
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra (Detail)
    Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra (Detail)
    (Kyoto National Museum)

Each of the flowers is painted with two rows of five petals, just like a real lotus flower. The flowers are decorated with five different colors: red, green, blue, gold and silver. Of these five colors, silver is the only one which has worn off over time and is difficult to see. It must have taken a long time to color in all those pedals one by one! At first glance, the coloring may seem to be uneven, but if you look more carefully, you will see that the arrangement of colors forms a pattern. Can you see the overall diamond pattern? The biggest diamonds are red but within that are diamonds of green, blue, gold and silver!

Lotuses are flowers that grow in large swamps or marshes and look very much like water lilies. They have large roots with holes in them that can be eaten as a delicious, crunchy vegetable. As I said before, the lotus has been the sacred flower of Buddhism since its origins in India. This is because even in the middle of the dirtiest mud, the lotus blossom grows up clean and untainted. While lotus patterns have become symbols of Buddhism, the holiness of the lotus pond and the sight of lotuses blooming on the surface of the water have come to symbolize the Buddha's "Pure Land," or heaven. Though the lotuses referred to in the Lotus Sutra are white, the lotus pedestals in this sutra are also decorated with red, blue, and yellow, suggesting colored lotus flowers!

Sutras are believed to be records of the Buddha's actual teachings. When you hand copy a sutra, you must put your whole heart into the process and never add onto or change any of the characters. It has always been very important to write each character carefully, one after another, without making a single mistake. By the mid-Heian Period, however, aristocratic society became more interested in "beautiful writing " than in "correct writing," and sutras began to be written on beautifully dyed paper with decorated characters. These ornamented sutras are called "decorated sutras." A great number of decorated sutras were made in the late Heian Period (12th Century). This Lotus Pedestal Character Lotus Sutra was made during the same time period, but its decorations seem to have written not to make each character more attractive, but as an expression of the depth of the writer's belief in Buddhism. In this work. we can see the devotion with which people copied the Lotus Sutra.

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

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