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  • Hell-bent for Heaven in Tateyama Mandara: Painting and Religious Practice at a Japanese Mountain by Caroline Hirasawa
  • Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis
Hell-bent for Heaven in Tateyama Mandara: Painting and Religious Practice at a Japanese Mountain. By Caroline Hirasawa. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 272 pages. Hardcover €95.00/$127.00.

This study of nearly fifty extant nineteenth-century Tateyama mandara reveals the complex and intertwined religious, artistic, economic, political, and social history of the Tateyama mountain pilgrimage site, located in present-day Toyama prefecture, [End Page 151] west-central Japan. The paintings (generally in sets of three or four hanging scrolls), show pilgrims dotting a mountainous landscape with caldera suggesting realms of hell displayed on the left side and images suggesting the western Pure land—from which the Buddha Amida is said to descend, often accompanied by a retinue of twenty-five music-making bodhisattvas—depicted at the upper right. Exhaustively researched and felicitously written, Hell-bent for Heaven in Tateyama Mandara is a visual delight. There are over one hundred color photographs, many featuring small details of these complex paintings, interspersed throughout an easy-to-read double-column text. Author Caroline Hirasawa (also a fine photographer) and the publishing team at Brill are to be commended for producing an important and beautiful book.

This compelling narrative begins by introducing the indigenous kami (deities) and also the history of the two towns in the Tateyama foothills that came to control an increasingly Buddhist cult. As Hirasawa explains, from the eleventh century onward, part of the Tateyama mountain range was identified with Buddhist hells, but evidence also points to the concurrent spread of Pure Land teachings in the region. During the mid-Edo period, regional politics fueled fierce competition between the two towns and their major temples, Iwakuraji and Ashikuraji. Denied the right to guide pilgrims (exclusively male) up the mountain toward Amida’s realm, the Ashikuraji priests created the Tateyama mandara to assist marginalized devotees, primarily women who could not make the mountain pilgrimage, in undergoing virtual pilgrimages by way of these paintings. The Ashikuraji priests transported the paintings to various places for the purpose of etoki (picture teaching). Hirasawa’s book takes readers on a comprehensive journey through the mandara, recounting the Tateyama foundation legend (engi) and the many other legends associated with the pilgrimage site. It concludes with detailed descriptions of the various rituals conducted at Tateyama in connection with salvation and rebirth in the western Pure Land.

A 1936 article by Kusano Kanshō established the scholarly convention of calling the Tateyama paintings “mandara.” The term, however, had previously been used in an 1811 document and also in inscriptions on rollers used for the hanging scrolls. The word “mandara” is a Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit term “mandala,” meaning geometrically ordered depictions of sacred realms associated with the esoteric Buddhist tradition. The esoteric mandala, a kind of cosmic ground plan or map, lays out a sacred territory or realm in microcosm, showing the relationships among the various powers active in that realm and offering devotees a sacred precinct in which enlightenment can take place. Two-dimensional esoteric mandala paintings are meant to be envisioned as three-dimensional sacred spaces.

In the early eleventh century, Japanese began to use the term “mandara” to describe depictions of paradise-like Pure Lands—depictions that could more properly be called hensōzu (transformation tableaux). The term “mandara” was then extended to refer to relatively naturalistic representations of the shrines and deities of the kami-worshipping tradition, usually including Buddhist forms of the kami. It is not until the Edo period that gruesome representations of the hells appear in works considered [End Page 152] part of the genre, such as the Kumano kanjin jikkai mandara (Kumano Mind Contemplation Ten-Worlds Mandala) and, more notably, the Tateyama mandara. The Tateyama paintings are the most syncretistic of all mandara and stretch the definition of the genre to its outer limit. As Hirasawa points out, the Tateyama mandara are closely related to sankei (pilgrimage) mandara and also include many elements seen in foundation-legend paintings (engi-e), kami-manifestation paintings (suijaku-ga), festival paintings (sairei-zu), Amida welcoming-descent paintings (raigō-zu), six-realm paintings...


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pp. 151-155
Launched on MUSE
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