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  • Constructing the Dharma King: The Hōryūji Shaka Triad and the Birth of the Prince Shōtoku Cult by Akiko Walley
  • Chari Pradel
Constructing the Dharma King: The Hōryūji Shaka Triad and the Birth of the Prince Shōtoku Cult. By Akiko Walley. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 300pages. Hardcover €103.00/$128.00.

In 1999, Ōyama Seiichi published “Shōtoku Taishino tanjō (The Birth of “Prince Shōtoku”), where he argued that the popular image of Prince Shōtoku (574–622) as a devout Buddhist and a key political figure of the Asuka period was a construction of the compilers of Nihon shoki. This early construction was further enhanced by later hagiographic literature created as the prince became the focus of a religious faith known as Taishi shinkō (Cult of the Prince) that spread in the Heian and Kamakura periods. Although Ōyama was not the first to question the historical validity of the sources associated with the prince, scholars have been receptive to his theory and have begun to reexamine the material related to Shōtoku. The current trend is to study the texts associated with the prince to better understand him as the focus of the devotional cult, rather than to recreate his elusive historical figure. In addition to this textual material, there are objects associated with Shōtoku that also merit reexamination.

In Constructing the Dharma King: The Hōryūji Shaka Triad and the Birth of the Prince Shōtoku Cult, Akiko Walley studies the putatively earliest bronze sculptural ensemble associated with Prince Shōtoku: the Hōryūji Shaka triad. In the ensemble, the Buddha and flanking bodhisattvas appear in front of a boat-shaped mandorla that has an inscription engraved on its back. The inscription states, in short, that Anahobe no Hashihito (Shōtoku’s mother) passed away in 621 and that Princess Kashiwade and Dharma King of the Upper Palace (Jōgū Hōō, another name for Shōtoku) became ill in 622.1 The royal wife, sons, and retainers vowed to make an image as an offering for the sake of the prince’s recovery or, alternatively, for his ascent to the Pure Land. After Kashiwade and Shōtoku passed away, the patrons fulfilled their vow by commissioning the triad from the Buddha master (busshi) Shiba no Kuratsukuri no Obito Tori, and the ensemble was finished in 623. The information appears straightforward, yet as with most ancient inscriptions, there are a number of issues that suggest a later date.

Walley recreates the historical context for the casting of the Buddha triad and the composition of its inscription, basing her work on an exhaustive study of past and current scholarship and on an acceptance of the 623 date’s validity. In the process, she also provides an examination of the introduction and adoption of Buddhism in the Asuka period. More specifically, she addresses the political and diplomatic implications of [End Page 371] Buddhism and the making and patronage of Buddhist icons. Importantly, rather than following the traditional discourse that gives the imperial line credit for the establishment of Buddhism, this study highlights the role of the Soga, and especially of Soga no Umako (d. 626; ō-omi, or senior royal counselor, from 572). At the same time, it emphasizes the Soga’s close association with Great Sovereign Suiko (r. 593–628) and Prince Umayado, both members of the Yamato lineage and also Soga descendants. (Walley uses “Umayato” because it is the proper pronunciation; Umayado, however, is the form generally used in English-language scholarship.) According to the author, Umako’s plans included the creation of an ideal Buddhist state, and he raised Prince Umayado, who later became known as Prince Shōtoku, to serve as its ruler. Because of the death of Umayado in 622, when he was in his late forties, Umako’s plans did not come to fruition. Walley nevertheless contends that the Shaka triad’s stylistic and iconographic features, as well as its inscription, are evidence that during his lifetime Umayado embodied the political ideal of a “Dharma king” (hōō), or ruler of a Buddhist state, as envisioned by Umako. Walley reexamines the scholarship related to the Shaka...


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