Fri, May 8, 2020

Chusonjikyo: Buddhist scrolls from the Heian period that traveled across Japan

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Chusonjikyo (Photo courtesy of Minoh city)
By Zea Rose / CIR for Minoh, Osaka Pref.

Roughly 20 or so years ago, five precious scrolls of Buddhist scriptures called Chusonjikyo were found in storage at Ryuanji temple nestled away on the tranquil path to the waterfall of Minoh city in northern Osaka. These Chusonjikyo have been periodically displayed in the Minoh Local History Museum since 2001. They underwent an official examination in 2003 by the Kyoto National Museum and have since been designated as cultural assets of Minoh.

The Chusonjikyo were created at the behest of Fujiwara Kiyohira (1056-1128), the first generation lord of the Oshu Fujiwara family who ruled the semi-independent province of Oshu (in the northeast of mainland Japan), and the founder of Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Pref. The Oshu Fujiwaras made offerings of Chusonjikyo to the temple up until their third generation, when the family collapsed. It is thought that over 5,400 Chusonjikyo were offered to Chusonji temple in the Heian period. Of this, about 4,500 still exist but currently only 15 are still held by the Chusonji temple.

The Chusonjikyo are made of traditional Japanese washi paper that was dyed navy. The Buddhist scriptures on them are written in alternating lines of shining gold and silver ink. When one of them is unrolled the first thing that you see is delicately rendered images of Buddha, followed by the hand copied lines of gold and silver sutras. The title and number of the scroll is written on the reverse side  alongside an intricate, abstract floral pattern.   

The scrolls are made of many sheets of paper that have been glued together and measure roughly 10 metres in length when rolled out. Hundreds of monks were called to the Oshu province in order to make the Chusonjikyo. Each scroll may have taken around 10 days to make and it is said that it took over eight or so years to make all of them. Each scroll is rolled around a cylindrical rod that is gold plated at each end, and secured shut with a tie. The current rods and ties are replacements, but the originals have been carefully conserved.

Chusonjikyo (Photo courtesy of Minoh city)

In spite of being hundreds of years old, the Chusonjikyo are remarkably well preserved and those in Minoh’s care have been painstakingly repaired. The process includes an immense amount of labour. Each tiny hole or flake in the paper is filled with paper dyed the same shade as the original paper. The paper fragments are cut to the exact size and shape of the imperfection before being inserted into it, blending with the original. 

These five Chusonjikyo traveled quite far to get to Minoh from Hiraizumi, a distance of close to 1,000 kilometres. But how and why did they end up here? Roughly 400 years ago the well renowned feudal lord, military commander and unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/37-1598), sent out an order (which still physically remains) for the scrolls to be brought south to Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. It is not known why he wanted them brought down.

Currently, the majority of the Chusonjikyo are still held in Mt. Koya aside from the 15 left in Chusonji temple, the five in Minoh and a number of others scattered across a few different cities and museums. This leaves the question of how they got to Minoh. Having happened so long ago, there are no known records about how the Chusonjikyo came to Minoh, so unfortunately the who, how, when and why they ended up here remains a mystery.

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Zea Rose

Zea is from the South Island of New Zealand. Since August 2019, she has been working in Minoh, Osaka Pref., as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). Her role includes a wide variety of tasks such as facilitating intercultural exchange between sister cities, running workshops, translation and interpretation.

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