Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan

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Sherry D. Fowler
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , November
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This impeccably-researched and beautifully-illustrated volume by Sherry Fowler examines the six manifestations of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, who inspired numerous sculptural sets, painting series, and devotional cults from Japan’s classical Heian period (794-1192) to its early modern Edo period (1600-1868). In the process, Fowler touches upon key questions that are of interest to all scholars of religious studies, such as the relationship between written text and ritual image, the synthesis of Buddhist and local cults, and the shifting ritual functions of icons. The apotropaic power of words, mandalas and other iconographic paintings is also addressed, as is the expansion of the once-prevalent Six Kannon group into the more familiar Thirty-Three Kannon group during the early modern period.

TEXTUAL SOURCES: Chapter 1—Reconstructing Six Kannon from the Tenth to Twelfth Centuries—analyses the Buddhist canon and other documentary evidence to demonstrate widespread artistic patronage and ritual activity dedicated to the Six Kannon cult during the Heian period. It traces the earliest mention of the Six Kannon to the Great Calming and Contemplation (Mohe zhiguan) by the great Chinese Tientai founder Zhiyi (538-597). This Chinese text forms the basis of the slightly altered version by the Japanese esoteric Shingon prelate Ono no Ningai (951-1046), who is credited with popularizing the cult in Japan. Ningai states that the Noble Shō-Kannon saves hell beings, the thousand-armed Senju-Kannon saves hungry ghosts, the horse-headed Batō-Kannon saves animals, the eleven-headed Jūichimen-Kannon saves demi-gods (Skt. asura), the so-called Buddha-mother Juntei-Kannon saves humans, and the Jewel-holding Nyoirin-Kannon saves heavenly beings. However, Fowler’s original translations of other primary sources also indicate that Ningai’s list was never strictly adhered to, and that Fukūkenjaku-Kannon for example, whose namesake indicates the never-empty lasso of compassion, often substituted for Juntei-Kannon. In addition, her research reveals that rituals to the Six Kannon were often commissioned by aristocrats not for existential salvation in the six realms but rather for easy childbirth, and that individual surviving statues and partial sets dating from the Heian period were often repurposed, renamed, and reinstalled at other temple locations throughout Japan.

LOCAL SYNCRETISMS: Chapter 2—A Vision at Six Kannon Lake and Six Kannon / Six Kami in Kyushu—provides an extended geo-historical tour of key sites on the southern island of Kyūshū, where Six Kannon activity and syncretic identification with local gongen (kami manifestations of Buddhas) still flourish today despite the 1868 shinbutsu bunri edict that forcibly separated Buddhism from an invented nativist Shintō tradition. Fowler starts at Six Kannon Lake in the island’s central Kiriyama mountains, where according to legend, the tenth-century monk Shōkū encounters a mountain kami and sees a vision of the Six Kannon. Fowler then travels north to the Tendai temple of Chōanji where the earliest surviving image of the Six Kannon group appears on a bronze sutra box dated to 1141, and considers surrounding sites in the Six Districts (rokugō) region famous for syncretic Shugendō mountain asceticism and Six Kannon / Rokusho Gongen worship. To the south, six shrine mirrors from Yamakuchi Shrine dating to 1267 explicitly identify the Six Kannon with six imperial kami, and to the west, a cluster of legends surround Dengenji’s sculptural set, four of which date from the twelfth century. Fowler then circles back to Six Kannon Lake at the end of the 120-page chapter to document the variety of monuments dating from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries that indicate the sustained popularity of the group there.

FUNCTIONAL AND PHYSICAL VARIABILITY OF RELIGIOUS IMAGES: Chapter 3—Traveling Sets and Ritual Performance—puts Fowler’s remarkable forensic research skills on display as she traces the historical relocations and functional reassignments of two key sets of Six Kannon sculptures from Kyoto. Both sets have connections to the six paths, women, and texts, and attest to what Richard Davis (1997) calls the multiple “lives” of the images. Daihōonji’s beautifully-preserved Six Kannon set dates to 1223-24, and may have been commissioned by the daughter of a leading Fujiwara aristocrat. The icons were used in the large-scale Lotus Sūtra-recitation ceremonies in the sutra hall of nearby Kitano Shrine, sponsored annually by the shogun to pacify and guide the potentially vengeful spirit of his slain opponent, the feudal lord Ujikiyo (1345-1392). By the fifteenth-to-seventeenth centuries, however, these Six Kannon’s reputation for saving spirits in the six paths shifted to protecting the dharma by virtue of their apotropaic six-syllable mantra. Likewise, the five surviving Kannon statues from Tōmyōji, dating to 1308, were considered miraculous by virtue of being carved “one day Buddhas” (ichinichi bustu), and interestingly, preceptor rosters with nuns’ and laywomen’s names were inserted into their sculpted cavities. Their later textual-literary dimension lies primarily in the fact that they inspired poems written by nineteeth-century pilgrims visiting the temple as part of the later thirty-three-temple circuit around Kyoto.

MANDALAS AND RITUAL INNOVATION: Chapters 4 and 5 are, without doubt, the most iconographically-detailed chapters in the book and cannot be adequately summarized here, but they are required reading for anyone interested in the role of image in ritual procedure and ritual innovation. Chapter 4—The Six-Syllable Sūtra Ritual Mandala and the Six Kannon—presents the history of Japan’s twelve surviving Six-Syllable mandala paintings and the Six-Syllable ritual (Rokujikyōhō) that was designed to prevent calamities, ensure safe childbirth, and neutralize curses. This strain of Six Kannon worship was first related to Ningai’s original list, but its numerous iconographic changes over time ultimately distinguish it from the broader Six Kannon cult discussed previously. Chapter 5—Painting the Six Kannon—reveals the variability in the number six, as alternate Kannon manifestations and even the bodhisattva Seishi (Skt. Mahāsthāmaprāpta) are added into the lineup for distinct rituals such as the week-long Seven Nights of Waiting (Shichiyamachi) for the full moon, which was popular in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Fowler points out that the relative portability and interchageability of these painted image sets, and their associated ritual activities, helped to pave the way for the expansion of Kannon devotionalism in the Edo period.

ON PANTHEONS AND PILGRIMAGE: Chapter 6—Bodies and Benefits: From Six to Thirty-Three Kannon—charts the history of Kannon’s expanded pantheon and associated pilgrimage sites around Kyoto from the seventeenth century onwards. The chapter outlines four kinds of Thirty-Three Kannon sets:

  • The thirty-three guises of Kannon described in the Lotus Sūtra as exemplified by the 1257 Illustrated Sūtra of the Miracles of Kannon (Kannongyō emaki) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art;
  • Sets of painted or printed Thirty-Three Kannon images imported from China as exemplified by Minchō’s (1352-1431) set completed in 1412 held by Tōfukuji in Kyoto;
  • Thirty-Three Kannon icons from Japan’s three major and various minor local Kannon pilgrimage routes, which were usually dedicated to one of the original Six Kannon figures, but whose temple bell imagery bridges the Six- and Thrity-Three-Kannon paradigms; and
  • Thirty-Three Kannon images in the printed multi-volume Collection of Buddhist Image Illustrations (Butsuzō zui), first published in 1690 and reprinted in expanded form in 1783. This compendium makes special mention of the female manifestations of Kannon, and Fowler focuses especially Merōfu Kannon, who derives from the Tang-dynasty legend about the pious and pure Wife of Mr. Ma, as well as Tara, who is popular in Himalayan Buddhism but only significant in Japan as part of the thirty-three list.

This magnificent study thus sheds new light on the prevalence and importance of Six Kannon worship in Japan up to the present day. To borrow Bernard Faure’s phrase, it speaks to the “fluidity” of the text-image pantheon, and uncovers the prevalence of the combinatory system of “root buddhas and local kami traces” (honji-suijaku). It excavates far-ranging religious networks from Kyoto to Kyūshū, and expertly analyzes the flexibility of visual forms for ritual functions, especially adapted for gendered audiences and agendas. It seamlessly integrates primary source work with secondary Japanese scholarship, and enlivens its accessible English prose with 134 black-and-white figures and 27 color plates. This is a tour-de-force, and a must-read for anyone interested in religion and visual culture, pre-modern Japanese Buddhism, and the above-mentioned topics in the East Asian context. Kannon may often appear with the boon-bestowing gesture (Skt. varada mudrā), but with this work, it is rather Sherry Fowler who has bestowed a boon to all who read it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pamela D. Winfield is associate professor of religious studies at Elon University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sherry Fowler is professor of Japanese art history at the University of Kansas.



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