- Medicine Master Buddha: The Iconic Worship of Yakushi in Heian Japan by Yui Suzuki
Medicine Master Buddha is Yui Suzuki’s first book and number three in a new series by Brill, Japanese Visual Culture. This volume is unexpectedly—and refreshingly—unconventional in many ways, reacting against a number of commonly held perceptions concerning Yakushi’s position within the visual and religious landscape of Japan between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, or roughly the Heian and Kamakura periods.
This book does not thoroughly examine the earliest history and origins of the Medicine Buddha Yakushi (Sk. Bhaiṣajyaguru), but instead concentrates on a change that occurred around the end of the eighth century in the way Yakushi was portrayed in Japan: the emergence of a standing Medicine Buddha; earlier images had represented Yakushi in a seated position. Suzuki explains that the standing images were adopted by the Saichō-Enryakuji lineage and can therefore be seen as a signature image of this lineage. Saichō (767–822) founded the Tendai school of Buddhism, which flourished during the Heian period, and established the temple complex Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei in Ōmi province (now Shiga prefecture).
There is much I did not realize about Yakushi, and my first surprise was Suzuki’s mention of “hundreds” of images: “Although there are hundreds of extant Heian Yakushi images . . . contemporary art history textbooks in English only mention one or two such statues” (p. 2). Unfortunately, the book does not include a list of extant Yakushi images—not even of those that have been designated national treasures. Such a list, and perhaps also a guide to further readings, would have been helpful. Intrigued by Suzuki’s claim, I consulted Mikkyō jiin to butsuzō, a full-color reference volume on Heian sculpture published in 1992, and found that out of 118 color plates, 23 plates, or roughly 20 percent, were of Yakushi images.1 This high percentage lends credibility to Suzuki’s claim of “hundreds” of images. Suzuki is correct in suggesting that “illuminating the primacy of Yakushi images in the context of the Medicine Buddha’s devotional cult is long overdue” (p. 2). [End Page 255]
The six chapters in the book proceed in roughly chronological order, and the author frequently circles back to corroborate or reconfirm earlier arguments. She also provides a summary of each chapter of the book as part of the volume’s introductory material. The first few chapters are heavy going, but by chapter 4 the book gains considerable momentum, and the account becomes absolutely captivating.
Chapter 1, “The Formation of the Yakushi Cult,” examines the early history of the cult in Japan. Suzuki takes up the cult’s origins and informs us that evidence of Yakushi worship in Japan dates to the last quarter of the seventh century. As the author notes (see pages 20–21, and especially page 134, note 54), there is no easy way to definitively identify a Yakushi image manufactured before the ninth century. Until that time, Yakushi images did not hold medicine jars in their hands, and their manner of depiction was nearly the same as that for Shaka (Sk. Śākyamuni). The Medicine Buddha was often called upon to heal those suffering from illness. By the end of the eighth century, there was a “merging of private healing practices with the larger goal of prosperity and well-being for Japan as a whole” (p. 22). Chapter 2, “The Magical Yakushi: Spirit Pacifier and Healer-God,” discusses the ritual uses of Yakushi during the ninth century, which included appeals to protect the state by warding off epidemics or by preventing natural disasters such as flooding.
Chapter 3, “Saichō’s Standing Yakushi and Its Iconic Legacy,” attempts both to visually reconstruct the lost Yakushi icon that once belonged to Saichō and to understand the role this icon may have played in the Buddhist master’s life. This is no easy task, especially because Enryakuji was “put to the torch in 1571 by the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), and most of...