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  • The Aura of Seven:Reconsidering the Shichibutsu Yakushi Iconography
  • Yui Suzuki

Introduction

A Buddha has thirty-two remarkable attributes on his body, marks of his transcendent qualities. Many scriptures state that the Buddha's body was itself the color of gold. Another describes light emanating from his body.1 Artistic imagination and creativity converted such marvelous notions of the Buddha's native aura into innovative material forms; flat disks placed behind Buddha images might be circular or oval, lancet or ogee, all intended to signify his spiritual glow. This incandescence, when represented in Buddhist images, is typically called the mandorla.

Among the seated statues of the Buddha Yakushi (S: Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha), a deity extremely popular during the Heian period (794–1185), a specific iconography became prevalent: a seated Yakushi on whose mandorla surface were an additional seven (or six) smaller seated Yakushi Buddhas (Fig. 1).

Modern Japanese scholars often describe this type of Yakushi statue as a Shichibutsu Yakushi ("Seven Buddha Yakushi"). I shall begin this paper by reexamining previous scholarship on this terminology, particularly exploring how Japanese scholars have associated a specific scripture with the iconographical origins of Shichibutsu Yakushi. In tracing the origin and development of this iconography, rather than identifying the entire statue as a Shichibutsu Yakushi, it would be more useful to specifically examine its mandorla. Next, using both textual sources and extant Yakushi Buddha statues, I shall trace the history of Yakushi's iconographical transformations during the Nara and Heian periods, as shown by the changes in their mandorlas. Based on this evidence, I suggest there exist more variations of this iconographical feature than is commonly thought. Consequently, I propose that this particular type of mandorla, as an established iconography, is distinctive to Japan, even though the concept and images of the deity were pervasive throughout East Asian cultures. Therefore this particular iconography needs to be addressed and understood within the Japanese cultural and historical context.

Previous Studies on Yakushi Icons Classified as Shichibutsu Yakushi

As used by ancient and medieval Japanese Buddhists and by modern scholars, the term Shichibutsu Yakushi is unclear and often ambiguous. Adachi Yasushi was one of the first scholars to use the term in referring to the Yakushi statue from Yakushiji (Fig. 2). His research was directed to the complicated question of dating the Yakushiji statue. According to Adachi, the Yakushi statue's original mandorla was destroyed, most likely in the Muromachi period.2 He has reconceived the statue's now lost original mandorla based on textual sources. The present impressive mandorla shaped like a lotuspetal (i.e., a truncated oval), on which sit seven smaller Yakushi statues, is an Edo-period production.3

Adachi argues that the Yakushi's original mandorla (like the present Edo-period production) was adorned with seven smaller Yakushi, and therefore refers to the entire image as a Shichibutsu Yakushi.4 Moreover, Adachi contends that this iconography was based on a specific canonical scripture, the Yaoshi liuliguang qifo benyuan gongde jing, translated (from Sanskrit) by Yijing in 707 (hereafter, Shichibutsu Yakushi Sūtra).5 He fails, however, to carefully analyze another scripture concerning Yakushi which was in circulation at the same time as Yijing's version. This was the Yaoshi liuliguang rulai benyuan gongde jing, translated by Xuanzang in 650 (hereafter, Yakushi Sūtra).6 Both versions expounded the miraculous healing power of Yakushi. The fundamental difference between them is that the Yakushi Sūtra highlights only one Medicine Buddha, Yakushi rurikō nyorai (S: Bhaiṣajyaguru vaiḍūrya-prabha-rāja), whereas the Shichibutsu Yakushi Sūtra features seven Medicine Buddhas, the number posited by Adachi on the Yakushiji Yakushi's original mandorla.7 The seven Yakushi appearing in this text are listed in Table 1.8 Adachi's rationale for stating that the Shichibutsu Yakushi decorating the Yakushiji Yakushi's mandorla were based on Yijing's text is understandable, as the Shichibutsu Yakushi Sūtra specifically states that "One should first respectfully make seven Buddha images [End Page 19] 應先敬造七佛形像, that is, Bhaiṣajyaguru plus six of his manifestations.9


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Fig. 1.

Seated Yakushi. Early 9th c. Unpainted wood with touches of polychrome...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6497
Print ISSN
0066-6637
Pages
pp. 19-42
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-25
Open Access
No
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