Refurbish, Reconsecrate, Repurpose: Handling Old and Incinerated Icons in Medieval Japan

Author: Benedetta Lomi orcid logo (University of Bristol)

  • Refurbish, Reconsecrate, Repurpose: Handling Old and Incinerated Icons in Medieval Japan


    Refurbish, Reconsecrate, Repurpose: Handling Old and Incinerated Icons in Medieval Japan



This article explores how different religious institutions in the Heian and Kamakura periods handled refurbishments and repurposing of their sacred icons, and tackles the issues surrounding the lack of records for “sending away” ceremonies in premodern sources. By focusing on the repeated performance of eye-opening rites, and on the deliberations surrounding the burning of the icon of Kamatari at Tōnomine, this article probes the extent to which paradigms of conservation and repurposing outweigh that of material production.


Keywords: Japan, Heian period, Kamakura period, Buddhism, icons, eye-opening rites, repurposing

How to Cite:

Lomi, B., (2023) “Refurbish, Reconsecrate, Repurpose: Handling Old and Incinerated Icons in Medieval Japan”, Ars Orientalis 52: 7. doi:



Published on
13 May 2023
Peer Reviewed


In the Japanese tradition, sacred images, statues, and portraits are understood as retaining traces of the power of the entity they represent, incarnating or instantiating it for the benefit of worshipers.1 Whether carved out of sacred wood as examined in Samuel Morse’s article in this issue, activated through dedicated rituals, or enlivened by special words, these icons are generally considered powerful agents whose influence could extend beyond the ritual or devotional sphere. For these reasons, sacred material culture is eminently difficult to discard. Nowadays, temples and shrines may offer so-called “sending away” ceremonies (hakken shiki 撥遣式; hakken sahō 撥遣作法) or “soul extraction” (tama nuki 魂抜き) rites to disempower sacred objects that need to be refurbished, dismantled, or disposed of.2 Fabio Gygi’s article in this volume discusses these practices by interrogating the nature of terminal commodities in contemporary Japan.3 When it comes to the premodern context, however, we are faced with a puzzling dearth of information regarding these types of rituals. Medieval ritual collections, well known for providing comprehensive instructions on an impressive breadth and typology of rites, do not include any reference to suspension, deactivation, or sending-off ceremonies akin to those held in the contemporary period, with the earliest manuals dating to the Tokugawa period (1603–1868).4

Scholars have suggested that the lack of detailed accounts of rites for damaged or irreparable devotional objects could be due to the unfortunate nature of their circumstances, which did not constitute “reasons for celebration.”5 Thus, if sending-away rituals were carried out, they were likely left out of official discourses and accounts. At the same time, restoring temples and sacred icons was deemed a meritorious action and, as such, was not only encouraged in Buddhist literature and through sermons but also meticulously documented. Thus, we do have records of the refurbishments of icons—such as refreshing the faded colors of a painting or fixing fissures in the wood of statues—and of the reconstruction of worship and temple halls, which were also often sponsored by donors belonging to different social groups. Similarly, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters responsible for damaging religious sites and their material culture, although distressing and inauspicious events, were nevertheless accounted for in temple records and other historical sources. Extant descriptions of these events transparently list the losses, structures, and items that could be repaired, and those that had instead to be disposed of and made again. In this regard, although temples and shrines may not have wanted to draw unnecessary attention to substantial losses to their material capital, there is no shortage of information regarding the destruction of precious or devotional objects due to infelicitous occurrences.6

This article interrogates the absence of ritual practices of disposal by examining how different institutional and religious bodies handled the renovation and discarding of their damaged icons. Foregrounding rites that were performed and recorded, rather than those we expect to find based on modern and contemporary examples, allows us to probe the extent to which paradigms of conservation and repurposing outweighed, as far as premodern Japan is concerned, that of production. The first part of the article provides a framework to understand how the logic of repurposing was rooted in Buddhist scriptures promoting practices of care and renovation of sacred material culture as discussed in Japanese ritual collections. The second looks at records of repeated consecration or eye-opening ceremonies (kaigen kuyō 開眼供養) found in Heian- (794–1185) and Kamakura-period (1185–1333) sources. These rites, which were commonly held to mark the installation of newly made images, were meant to “enliven” the material object, thereby making it ritually active. In this article, however, I discuss how eye-openings were also performed after reparations, and in connection to several other changes a statue or painting could undergo. In this sense, I suggest that these rites may have been central to the rationale of repurposing sacred icons in premodern Japan.

While in principle restoration and reutilization were the preferred options, it was not always possible to salvage a statue or a painting that had suffered major damages. Aside from natural disasters that could destroy temple structures and burn icons to dust, the period between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries was characterized by frequent skirmishes between religious institutions, which often led to full-fledged conflicts. Under these circumstances, the loss of sacred objects was common, despite efforts made to preserve them. In this regard, the third part of the article explores the events that followed the wrongful incineration of the main portrait statue (miei 御影) of Fujiwara no Kamatari 藤原 鎌足 (614–669) enshrined at Tōnomine 多武峰 in the early thirteenth century, the debates surrounding the treatment of its remains, as well as its possible reconstruction. Unlike the examples discussed in the first and second part of the article, the statue of Kamatari was not a Buddhist icon, but an ancestral portrait. Nevertheless, it was still considered a living entity, endowed with a unique agency linked to its mantic powers. Therefore, a careful intervention in its material forms, no matter how damaged or ephemeral, was carried out. Based on an analysis of the extant records, it is possible to see that any decision regarding this icon was grounded in the examination of historical precedents and dependent upon divinatory practices. This reveals, as I will argue, that there might not have been a single way of taking care or disposing of irreparable and unsalvageable sacred objects.

Refurbish: Fixing the Old Is Better than Building Anew—A Rationale for Repurposing?

The production of icons and material culture occupies a central role in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. Not only, as Fabio Rambelli remarks, do the laity “make Buddhism with things,”7 but Japanese Buddhist monks produced, in the course of Japanese history, voluminous collections dedicated to the creation of sacred images and ritual and devotional objects. Ritual and iconographic compendia describe in minute detail how to create, paint, and construct anything from main objects of worship to floral decorations and palanquins. This literature takes to heart the exhortations found across Buddhist scriptures to build, erect, paint, and donate icons, texts, and other sacred items, and frames these actions as worthy of abundant merits. The quantity of instructions found in these sources stands in sharp contrast to the lack of clear protocols concerning what to do with these objects once a ritual has terminated, an object is not useful anymore, or a statue has been damaged and forgotten.

Instead, Buddhist sources promote the preservation of sacred and devotional objects and encourage their conservation and refurbishment.8 One example, mentioned in medieval Japanese sources, is the sixth-century apocryphal Chinese Bussetsu zōbō ketsugi kyō 佛說像法決疑經 (Sūtra of Resolving Doubts during the Age of the Semblance Dharma; hereafter Sūtra of Resolving Doubts).9 The sutra includes instructions delivered by the Buddha right before entering parinirvāṇa in response to a question by the Bodhisattva Constant Donor (Jōse 常施) about the proper conduct lay practitioners and monastics should follow when the true principle underpinning rituals and devotional activities becomes impossible to grasp. At this time, ignorance will result in the inability to put right intentions into actions, making any ritual or devotional enterprise superfluous if not entirely counterproductive. Thus, the sutra describes a paradoxical situation in which new temples, reliquaries, and images created haphazardly and scattered across “stinking, filthy, despicable places” will clutter the world.10 Although monastics and laypeople alike will rush to make all sorts of new things, the merits derived from their actions will be infinitesimal, as they will completely disregard existing sacred material culture and leave it to decay. In fact, the scripture stresses that the preservation of the old should take precedence over making something new: “There will be sentient beings who, seeing ancient reliquaries, images, and scriptures dilapidated or in ruins, will be unwilling to repair them and say: ‘These were not built by my ancestors, so what is the use of fixing them? I would much rather build a new one myself!’ Sons of good family, it is better to repair old things than build new ones, for the merit [of the former] is extremely great.”11

The scholar-monk Kakuzen 覺禪 (1143–ca. 1213) follows closely the prescriptions of the Sūtra of Resolving Doubts in the chapter dedicated to stupas in his Kakuzenshō 覺禪鈔 (Collected Notes of Kakuzen).12 After discussing several types of stupas and related rituals, he includes a section on repairing and cleaning “old stupas” (kyūtō 舊塔), which in turn comprises ten shorter subsections, each encouraging the care and upkeep of reliquaries and votive steles.13 The first of these warns against building a new stupa next to a damaged one, because restoration of stupas is a meritorious act outweighing the creation of new ones:

The Sūtra of Resolving Doubts says: “If there are broken and damaged reliquaries, temples, and images, do not question whether you yourself or others have been given permission. Everyone should carry out repairs in accordance with their individual possibilities. In so doing, those people will gain inconceivable merits, because they repaired [the old] and did not idly build anything new.” The Collection of the Essentials of the Various Sūtras includes this quote attributed to the Sūtra of Resolving Doubts: “Making something new is not like refurbishing, just as doing meritorious action is not the same as avoiding calamities.”14

The idea that older items are qualitatively different from newly made ones frames the act of repairing them as more efficacious than that of building something new, giving greater gravitas to the subsequent nine subsections of the text. These articulate more fully how to care for stupas by sweeping, cleaning, and fixing, and offer examples of the benefits derived from these simple acts through short parables drawn from different Buddhist scriptures. For example, it is mentioned how, according to the Gengu kyō 賢愚經 (Sūtra of the Wise and the Foolish), all rulers who promote the mending of broken stupas will attain the same level of realization as an Arhat,and removing grass, plants, and dirt that may have accumulated on a stupa is enough to grant rebirth into a heavenly realm.15 Even the simple offering of a small coin toward the mending of a stupa can prevent rebirth in an evil realm or be efficacious against leprosy.16 Kakuzen also mentions two sets of five rules lifted from the Sansen igi kyō 三千威儀經 (Sūtra of the Three Thousand Regulations),17 ranging from general etiquette (such as refraining from touching the stupa with one’s feet, never turning one’s back to the stupa, making sure one’s hands are clean before approaching the stupa, and so on) to actual methods for sweeping and cleaning.18 These exhortations aside, Kakuzen provides no guidelines, either practical or ritual, on how to dispose of decrepit and broken stupas, which seems to suggest that such items were never meant to be disposed of, but instead always renovated and maintained.

While Kakuzen limits his instruction to stupas, the scriptures he quotes from reprimand indiscriminate overproduction to promote repairs and refurbishments for all forms of sacred material culture. By encouraging the recuperation of old, ruined, or even destroyed items and tying it to merit making, these sources provide, if not a full-fledged Buddhist rationale for repurposing, at least a precedent for rehabilitating and reusing. Irrespective of how rhetorical these admonitions may sound if considered alongside the many encouragements to build, dedicate, and construct new things, they are nevertheless consistent with the practices of reconsecrating old Buddhist icons and repurposing scraps of destroyed images discussed below.

Reconsecrate: Repeated Eye-Opening Rites and the Multiple Lives of Sacred Icons

In a recent study on medieval-period sculptors, Nedachi Kensuke has highlighted how the Insei period (Inseiki 院政期; 1086–1185)19 witnessed an increase in the worship of “old Buddhas” (kobutsu 古仏), namely, ancient sacred images repurposed and installed as main objects of veneration.20 The reasons for these choices were not economic, as often no expenses were spared, but rather decisions were linked to the power the images had accrued through time; older items were considered more efficacious because of their age and their previous use. This was especially true in the case of icons that had been in the same lineage or family continually for long periods, the repeated ritualization of which also helped cement bonds between members of these groups.21 Nedachi discusses, for example, the case of a statue of Amida Buddha originally sponsored by Taira no Tomonobu 平知信 (d. 1144) which was then restored and rededicated by his son, Taira no Nobunori 平信範 (1112–1187). Several annotations from Nobunori’s personal diary, the Hyōhanki or Heihanki 兵範記 (Record of the Soldier), dated between the sixth lunar month of 1167 and the end of the fifth month of 1168, explain how the statue was first transferred from its original location, Hachijō mansion 八条殿, to Chisokuin 知足院 and eventually refurbished and reconsecrated.22 Covered in soot and with the gilding wearing thin, Nobunori had decided to renovate it, “vowing to give rise to the thought of awakening,” and had asked an artisan to apply twenty leaves of gold.23 The entry reports that once the gilding was completed, the statue was reactivated by means of an eye-opening ceremony.24 In its best-known format, the practice entails dotting the eyes of the deity represented, an action believed to empower and activate it,25 but unfortunately the procedures to open the eyes of the Amida statue are not explained in the diary. However, Nobunori writes that after the completion of the rite, the statue was polished and a gem encased between the Buddha’s brows as byakugō 白毫 (Sk. ūrṇā).26 (For a similar statue, with a gem installed as ūrṇā, see the seated Amida Nyorai 阿弥陀如来 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [fig. 1]).

Wood sculpture with gold leaf of a haloed man
Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Seated Amida Nyorai, dated ca. 1250. Wood with gold leaf; H. 87.9 cm; W. 73 cm; D. 57.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1919, 19.140

Although the eye-opening ritual, practiced across different Buddhist contexts,27 is generally acknowledged as a means to consecrate newly created images, in premodern Japan it was not uncommon for a sacred icon to go through these procedures more than once, notably following major reparations. Famous instances include the Vairocana statue of Tōdaiji, for which we have accounts of eye openings not only for its inauguration,28 but also for the refurbishments held in Bunji 1 (文治 1; 1185) due to the severe damages suffered in the 1181 fire, as well as in Genroku 5 (元禄 5; 1692).29 Similarly, records of the restorations of the sacred image of Kōbō Daishi 弘法大師 (774–835) held in the Miedō 御影堂 carried out in Ōei 19 (応永 19; 1412) and Taiei 3 (大永 3; 1523) clearly indicate that eye-opening ceremonies were held upon completion of the works and offer a brief description of the practice while also listing the names and numbers of officiants.30 Hillary Pedersen’s article in this issue explores just such a case study with the Kakuanji Kokūzō Bosatsu sculpture.

While any intervention on icons enshrined at major cultic sites warranted lengthy celebrations, the example of Nobunori’s gilded Amida suggests that possibly shorter kaigen rites could be held for personal objects of worship as well. The diary of Ninnaji Abbott Shūkaku Hosshinnō 守覚法親王 (1150–1202), the Kita’in Omuro hinamiki 北院御室日次記 (Daily Journal of Kita’in Omuro), provides further evidence. In a series of short entries titled “Kyūbutsu jūkuyō no koto 舊佛重供養事 (Ritual services for old buddhas),”31 Shūkaku documents repeated ceremonies for “old” or “antique” Buddha images that he performed in the course of Kennin 1 (建仁 1; 1201). While the title refers to these rites simply as kuyō, most of the practices recorded by Shūkaku are in fact kaigen, which the imperial prince is asked to carry out again for a variety of reasons. First, as discussed above, icons are reconsecrated after repairs, even if minor. For example, on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth month, he visits his sister Inpumon’in 殷富門院 (1147–1216) to repeat the eye opening of a gilded Amida statue whose eyes had started to fade and needed minor retouching. Shūkaku notes that he had consecrated this icon for the first time the previous year, together with two images of Miroku 弥勒 and Fudō 不動, which are also ritualized on this occasion, even though nothing in the record indicates that they were renovated.32

In fact, not all eye-opening rites recorded by Shūkaku are repeated because of renovations. While in some cases the purpose is not explicitly stated, in others it seems that relocations, changes in ownership, and even memorialization of previous owners of an icon could elicit a new kaigen. For instance, in the entry dated the fourth day of the sixth month (of Kennin 1), Shūkaku states:

I had previously carried out a kuyō for a one-shaku-and-six-son (about 50 centimeters) Fudō statue made by the busshi 仏師 Inshō 院尚 and installed in the private worship hall (jibutsudō 持佛堂) of the monastic residence at Narutaki 鳴瀧, in order to transfer it from that hall. Because the engraving on this adamantine protector indicates that this is my object of veneration, today I am invited to Daishōin 大聖院 to repeat the eye-opening ceremony.33

In this instance, it would seem that Shūkaku performed first a ritual to move the statue from its original location, and then the “eye-opening” to mark its installation at a new worship hall. (While this image is no longer extant, figure 2 demonstrates a standard take on a Heian-period Fudō sculpture). Although this exact sequence of rites is not found elsewhere in the annotations, the monk repeats the eye-opening of a Miroku icon before taking it back to his private worship hall:

Fourteenth day of the twelfth month. I perform a kuyō and, at the same time, a kaigen for two Miroku statues, a new and an old one, installed in the jibutsudō at Kita’in. One statue is multicolored and measures one shaku, seven son; the other measures one shaku, six son. After this, I take the [older] statue to the Narutaki residence and install it again in its original location.

Wood sculpture of standing, robed figure with gold jewelry and sword
Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Statue of Fudō Myōō, 12th century. Joined-woodblock construction with traces of color and cut gold; h. 162 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975, 1975.268.163

Shūkaku adds that, in the case of this latter icon, the repeated kaigen has yet another function. While the image had already been consecrated by means of a two-part eye opening officiated by a monk named Yoshō 預昭 a month or so before (on the nineteenth day of the eleventh month), the rite he performs follows the esoteric teachings and aims at endowing the icon with the “five eyes and four bodies.”34 In all these instances, kaigen rites are thus held in conjunction with changes to an icon’s appearance and location, indicating that any physical intervention on a sacred image that had previously been activated required a new consecration.

Finally, opening the eye of an icon also created a bond between the ritual specialist and the icon, which in turn needed to be honored or at least accounted for. Thus, the entry for the fourth day of the sixth month, discussed above, records that Shūkaku was asked to reconsecrate a Fudō statue after its relocation to Daishōin because the inscription on the icon stated this was the monk’s personal object of veneration. More importantly, this bond was also believed to outlive the original owner or ritualist, as indicated by the entry for the fifteenth day of the eighth month of Kennin 1:

Memorial service (kuyō) for a gilded Amida Nyorai statue measuring three shaku in the jibutsudō of the Narutaki quarters. Last year, on the twelfth day of the fourth month, the former deputy preceptor (gonrisshi 権律師) Zōkaku 増覺 had consecrated this icon. Then, despite our innate hindrances, he mindfully approached the moment of death and was reborn in the Pure Land. Today, the darma-eye (hōgen 法眼) Kyōshū 慶宗, together with three other monks, performed the kuyō again to help the spirits of the dead (yūgi 幽儀) reach final realization.35

These passages suggest that the consecration of an image does something more than endow it with specific marks, such as the five sights and the four bodies, to transform the object into a living icon. It also establishes a lasting bond with specific individuals and localities. This bond is not only acknowledged in writing by Shūkaku, but also taken into account every time an icon is displaced, refurbished, or chosen for a ritual activity. Thus, Shūkaku reconsecrates his personal icons before or after relocating them, and memorializes the statue previously consecrated by the late Zōkaku to ensure that the same level of liberation attained by the gonrisshi would be extended to all those who have died. In discussing the uncanny nature of the Buddhist icon in East Asia, Bernard Faure draws attention to the fact that sacred images often work as doubles or substitutes not only of the deity they are meant to represent, but of the worshiper too.36 In esoteric ritual contexts, the identification between icon and ritualist is supported, if not warranted, by the processes of identifications at the core of these practices; but Faure also reminds us that an icon may function as a double through other forms of devotional activities, such as touching, giving offerings, and interacting with an icon.37 Yet, while the use of substitute bodies (hitokata 人形), and the general notion of body substitution (migawari 身代わり), aims at transferring a person’s ills, sufferings, and negative experiences onto the object, in these cases it also allows for the individual’s positive achievements to accrue to the material object. Upon the death of the master, the icon remains a permanent instantiation of his awakening. In this regard, the bond established through these ceremonies among the icon, its owners, and the ritual specialist amplifies the importance of restoring, reusing, and overall good care of sacred objects.

The brief accounts of the repeated ritualization of icons embedded in networks of close-knit familial ownership resonate with Gygi’s discussion of the social dimension of ningyō and how this affects ritual disposal.38 Through regular rituals carried out by the same individuals, an icon may come to retain something of the performer or sponsor to the extent that, eventually, it will materialize their presence even after their passing. Arguably, this personal bond and social embeddedness add a layer of complexity to the issue of the disposal of sacred icons. However, in the apparent absence of proper sending-off or disempowering rites, the recurring performance of eye-opening rites recasts these practices as something more than mere consecrations. Instead, depending on the circumstances, the kaigen is employed to reaffirm and reestablish or to override and recontextualize.

Repurpose? Not Even a Speck of Dust Can Easily Be Thrown Away

While restoration and reconsecration might have been the preferred, doctrinally suggested options, damaged sacred objects could not always be salvaged. This was not at all unlikely, as temples’ wooden structures made them and their precious contents particularly vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, thunderstorms, and floods, as well as to armed skirmishes. The regularity of these events necessarily required a theoretical and practical apparatus to deal with what remained of scriptures, icons, paintings, and other sacred items. Often when it comes to major objects of veneration, sources tend to recast destruction into miraculous escape. For example, according to the Ishiyamadera engi 石山寺縁起 (Legends of Ishiyama Temple), the eighth-century Ishiyamadera Kannon statue lost in the 1078 fire flew out of the blazing temple and found shelter on top of a tree (fig. 3).39 Yet, while the creation of miraculous narratives is consistent with this type of literature—engi provide, after all, foundation myths—these accounts tell us very little about what actually happened to a destroyed or incinerated icon. Instead, a closer look at personal diaries offers a different, more realistic perspective on the concerns and constraints faced by those in charge of sanctuaries that had suffered a major loss.

Colored ink drawing of haloed statue flying out of a burning temple against natural landscape
Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Kannon statue flying out of a burning temple, detail from the Ishiyamadera engi 石山寺縁起, scroll 4 of 5, National Diet Library, Tokyo, bibliographic ID000007276033, DOI: 10.11501/2589672

A case in point is an incident that occurred at Tōnomine in the second lunar month of Jōgen 2 (承元 2; 1208) and was recorded by Konoe Iezane 近衛 家実 (1179–1243) in his diary, the Inokuma Kampakuki 猪隈関白記 (Diary of the Inokuma Chancellor).40 The cultic site suffered a series of attacks at the hands of armed forces from Kinpusen 金峯山, which led to the destruction of several halls, monastic quarters, and sacred items. These attacks were not unusual; since the eleventh century, tensions between powerful cultic centers, which all had armed forces, often escalated into full-fledged conflicts. Tōnomine had traditionally been at the receiving end of violent attacks from another Fujiwara center of worship, Kōfukuji 興福寺, but also from Kinpusen.41

Among the objects destroyed was the main statue of Kamatari, which was reduced to dust. The statue currently on display at Tōnomine dates to the Tokugawa period, and another tenth-century one is impossible to see, but likely inspired later painted portraits (fig. 4).42 Not much can be said for certain regarding this icon. According to the Tōnomine ryakki 多武峰略記 (Short Chronicle of Tōnomine; hereafter ryakki), compiled in 1197, this statue was created by a sculptor of Omi 近江, called Takao Maru 高男丸. However, in the mid-tenth century, the fifth administrator (kengyō 撿挍) of the shrine-temple complex, Senman hōshi 千満法師, commissioned a new one to the busshi Enso 延祚, and installed the previous one inside it.43 The text does not explain why this happened, but it is possible that the icon had been damaged. The ryakki reveals that extensive reconstructions and reparations were carried out under Senman’s supervision, and coeval sources imply that the sanctuary had, in the ninth century, fallen in disgrace.44

Colored painting on hanging scroll of a seated man in court attire, flanked by two other men, seated below him
Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Fujiwara no Kamatari as a Shinto deity, Nanbokuchō period (1336–92). Hanging scroll; color on silk, h. 86.4 cm, w. 38.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Bequests of Edward C. Moore and Bruce Webster, by exchange, and Gifts of Mrs. George A. Crocker and David Murray, by exchange, 1985, 1985.16

In the Inokuma Kampakuki, the two statues of Kamatari are differentiated by using specific terminology. The older, made by Takao Maru, is called “true icon” (hon miei 本御影),45 “hidden icon” (ura eizō 裏影像),46 or “three-shaku icon” (sanshaku miei 三尺御影);47 the tenth-century example is referred to as either “life-size icon” (toshin goei 等身御影) or “visible icon” (omote miei 表御影). From these appellations, we can gather that the older statue measured three shaku (roughly 90 cm), and was kept hidden inside the newer one, which was instead meant to replicate, at least in theory, the bodily proportions of Kamatari. Furthermore, we can assume that the latter was the one normally visible in the ancestral hall, the Shōryō’in 聖霊院.

While three major fires devastated Tōnomine before the thirteenth century and the hall was damaged on each occasion, it seems that both statues managed to survive without requiring any major reparations until 1208. For this reason, the circumstances of the attack and loss of the main icon were extremely serious. The icon was not only regarded as Kamatari’s true body but also as one of the means through which he had continued to communicate with his descendants. Records show that, since at least the early eleventh century, the noise coming from cracks forming on the face of the statue, together with rumblings of the nearby tomb of Kamatari, were considered warning signs of unrest for the Fujiwara house and therefore meticulously divined.48 Unsurprisingly, this incident, followed by thundering sounds coming from the mausoleum, triggered an investigation into its causes, which resulted in disciplinary actions being taken against several clerics both at Tōnomine and Kinpusen,49 as well as debate on how to handle the burned remains.50 These proceedings took several months, and Iezane records the divinations and related petitions, the transcripts of missives, as well as the opinions of leading members of the Fujiwara clan. These documents reveal that disposing of what was left of the sacred image was a complex procedure, which could only be established after the dynamic of the incidents as well as broader considerations of a religious and social nature had been carefully interrogated.

Before turning to the matters discussed by the Fujiwara nobles, I will offer a short overview of the events based on the official report provided by Tōnomine two months after the attack and dated to the third day of the fourth month.51 On the morning of the third day of the second lunar month of 1208, Tōnomine was abruptly attacked by Kinpusen armed troops. The custodian (azukari 預) Gyōshin 堯心 together with four other monks, fearing for the safety of the two icons of Kamatari, decided to remove them from the Shōryō’in. The life-size statue was temporarily hidden underneath the large tree outside the hall and then hidden in Nakadera 中寺; the main miei was instead placed inside a chest of official documents and transferred to the private quarters of the highest cleric, Dharma Master Kangon (Kangon daihōshi 觀嚴大法師), as per his instruction. As the attackers continued to press their way into the mountain, the main statue was transported to another hall, the Dobutsudō 土仏堂, and hidden behind a large Shaka image. With the monastic lodgings engulfed by fire that very evening, this may have seemed like a providential decision. However, on the fourth day, the buildings on the western side of the mountain, including the Dobutsudō, were also set on fire, and by sunset nothing was left but charred debris and ashes. At dawn a group of five monks headed by Gyōshin tried to negotiate their way through the rubble to ascertain the status of the icon, in the hope of retrieving it, but struggling to access the still-burning building, they gave up. Later that day, they finally managed to enter the hall and, despite the impossibility of telling the ashes of the Buddhist statues apart from those of Kamatari, collected whatever they could and placed them in a box. This box was first buried at a secret location, deep in the mountain forest, and later installed next to the life-size statue that had miraculously survived the raid unscathed. The report concludes by asserting how difficult it had been to decide on the proper course of action during the attack, and how all choices had been made with the icon’s best interest at heart.52

At first, however, Iezane had received vague, nearly misleading information regarding the two statues. From the daily entries compiled since receiving news of the attack on the sixth day of the second month, it appears that he was initially led to believe that the main icon had been brought to safety. Whether this was an intentionally false report or simply an unfortunate misunderstanding due to the circumstances is hard to know. During and following the disturbances on the mountain, the commotion provoked by the extensive loss of buildings and sacred objects, paired with a series of unpropitious days for travel, meant that all communications occurred in a scattered manner and with unusual delay.53 It was only at the end of the month that a private dispatch informed the chancellor (kanpaku 関白), apparently in a rather unrefined manner, that the main icon had been irreparably lost in the fire.54

With the statue of their ancestor burned to dust, the Fujiwaras were now faced with a series of delicate decisions. Should they quickly move to commission a new statue of Kamatari as a substitute for the one that had been destroyed? Should the ashes retrieved from the burned hall be kept and, if so, where? Aside from the attack itself, should the leading clerics at Tōnomine be held responsible for the mishandling of the situation and charged with negligence? A group of high-ranking members of the clan were thus asked to express their opinions over these four points, based on a report redacted by the senior secretary (daigeki 大外記) Kiyohara no Yoshinari (清原良業; 1164–1210), which collected relevant Chinese and local antecedents.55 What emerges from these exchanges is that the careful consideration of issues of ritual propriety and materiality, based on the appraisal of similar instances, were all essential in establishing possible solutions to submit to the Onmyō 陰陽 bureau for divination. In what follows, I will focus on key aspects of the discussions over the first two questions, concerning the substitution of the icon and handling the ashes, respectively.

As far as the reconstruction of Kamatari’s miei was concerned, many believed this was not strictly necessary for two broad reasons: the existence of a specific etiquette to worship a spirit in absentia, and the presence of a second miei, the tenth-century life-size statue. Both are clearly articulated by the Confucian scholar and imperial preceptor Fujiwara no Chikatsune 藤原親経 (1151–1210):

Regarding the destruction by fire of the miei, although in the Sino-Japanese tradition precedents for remaking an icon exist, for many not reconstructing is the right thing to do. This is because of the nyozai no gi 如在之儀 described in [Yoshinari’s] report. Is not this why, among the various shrines of our land, there are many in which the true body (shōtai 正躰) has no seat? Furthermore, the life-size statue is safely in its seat, which is truly a miracle. This icon has been venerated since old and held in great respect. Thus, undoubtedly, it is more than adequate.56

The nyozai no gi—which may be translated literally as “as if present ceremony”—mentioned by Chikatsune takes after the renowned Confucian exhortation to sacrifice to the ancestors by acting as if they were in attendance.57 In Japan this practice is known to have been utilized whenever an emperor died before a successor had been chosen and installed. At these times, to ensure the continuity and legitimacy of power, the death of the emperor was not announced until after the accession had been completed, and until then the corpse of the deceased ruler was treated as still living.58 However, Chikatsune’s remarks, echoed by other Fujiwara kinsmen, suggest that this custom also applied to instances in which the material support for a kami 神 had been lost or irreparably destroyed, and was supported by examples, mentioned in their discussion, of different statues or sacred objects that had not been remade While this interpretation may point to a distinction between the spirit of Kamatari and its material support, whereby the former did not necessarily need the latter, the well-known efficacy of Kamatari’s miei could not be overlooked.59 Thus, reconstruction was also deemed to be impossible because the mantic powers of the miei depended upon its material form, making it theoretically irreproducible.

However, there was no agreement over this matter. General of the Right Guard (udaishō 右大將) Tokudaiji Kintsugu 徳大寺公継 (1175–1227) argued that making replicas of powerful objects of veneration, whether Buddhas or kami, was neither unheard of nor problematic. He mentioned that, just as in the case of the copies of the Śākyamuni image first commissioned by King Udayana, while the new icons are not the same as the original, they are still considered powerful and worthy of veneration. Through this example, Kintsugu implies not only that making a new statue of Kamatari could not be said to go against protocol, but also that in some cases new icons end up being endowed with the same qualities as their illustrious predecessors. It was certainly the case for this life-size miei, which he claimed “is special and capable of wonders. It seems as if the ancestor’s spirit (shōryō 精靈) has remained in this image!”60

The Fujiwaras had good reasons to believe this was the case. For one, the icon had survived the heinous attack unscathed, and this was seen by some as proof of its power.61 Most importantly, however, it seems as if the statue had also inherited its predecessor’s mantic abilities. On the evening of the thirteenth day of the fourth month, nearly two months after the main icon had been destroyed, the grave of Kamatari rumbled, and on the following day at noon, the face of the life-size statue cracked (haretsu 破裂). Shortly thereafter, a fire broke out in the southern part of the capital, and spreading quickly due to strong winds, it burned down several residences. This calamity affected several Fujiwara families, including those of some of the individuals involved in the inquiry—such as Tokudaiji Kintsugu, Kiyohara no Yoshinari, and Fujiwara no Yorizane (藤原賴實 1155–1225)—and claimed the life of the child of Senior Assistant Minister of Popular Affairs (minbu taifu 民部大輔) Minamoto no Yorifusa 源賴房 (dates unknown). Immediately, diviners were summoned to establish whether the cracking was a warning against the fire or not, and whether the clan had more to fear. Indeed, the response suggested specific unlucky days for all male Fujiwara members.62 This led Iezane to remark that the efficacy of the life-size icon was surprisingly like that of the original one.63 Given these extraordinary circumstances, even divining whether a new statue should be made or not seemed unnecessary, and the matter of the reconstruction of the miei was considered as settled.

This decision was also linked to the presence of possibly more-important remains: the ashes of the main icon. However, this turned out to be an even thornier issue. As the accounts received by Iezane made clear, since the beginning it had been impossible to establish whether any of the ashes retrieved from the wreckage of the halls belonged to the icon of Kamatari or not. In doubt, the monks at Tōnomine had collected them, stored them in a dedicated container, and eventually installed them next to the surviving icon. Yet, they had acted without any previous consultation and with no divinations having been carried out. This threatened to escalate the already uncanny string of unpropitious events: the troubles on the mountain, the loss of the main ancestral statue, and the uncertain nature of its remains.

Common ground was found in the agreement that simply throwing them away because they were potentially spurious was not possible. Coming from the site where the main icon had been concealed, it is likely that the ashes included something, no matter how infinitesimal, of the original icon, and this could not be overlooked. Therefore, the following three options were considered: leaving the ashes in their current container near the life-size icon; leaving them in their current container and burying them in the ground at an appropriate location; or placing them inside the surviving life-size icon.64

Precedents for all these alternatives existed, indicating that it was customary for melted or incinerated parts of different objects of worship to be kept and re-enshrined. Tokudaiji Kintsugu offered as an example the burning of the sacred mirror (yata no kagami 八咫鏡) that occurred in Chōkyū 1 (長久1; 1040). On this occasion, nothing at all was left of the regalia, and only after repeated efforts were a few small gilded particles identified and kept by the Jingikan 神祇官. Although Kintsugu mentions this only briefly, other sources indicate that in this instance the remains of the mirror, together with other remains from the site where they had been found, were all stored in a dedicated casket and continued to be venerated.65 Nagakane further mentioned the case of a heavily damaged silver image of Yamashinadera 山階寺 (another name for Kōfukuji), of which only scraps of metal had remained. Apparently, these had been placed inside another Buddha statue.66

Storing items inside Buddhist icons is acknowledged as a widespread practice in the Sino-Japanese tradition. Cavities of wooden statues have yielded quite a diversity of materials, ranging from grains, coins, and pouches of medicinal substances to sutras, dedication texts (ganmon 願文), talismans or objects bearing mantras or dhāraṇīs, miniature icons, relics, and even reproductions of internal organs (figure 5 is a photograph of the internal organs found inside the Seiryōji statue).67 Scholars generally identify two main purposes behind such practices: first, enlivening images as part of consecration rituals; and second, creating a bond (kechien 結縁) between religious bodies and the laity.68 However, Mitsuhashi Tadashi has suggested that depositing remains of damaged icons inside newly made ones, as a way of respectfully discarding them, is a practice attested to since the early Heian period. Among the earliest examples, he discusses two wooden statues, the ninth-century Senjū Kannon 千手観音 of Dōjōji 道成寺 in Wakayama prefecture and the Fukūkenjaku 不空羂索 of Kanzeonji 観世音寺, both of which have yielded remains of earlier icons. The latter also includes a written record specifying that the remains were inserted following a fire that severely damaged the icon in the seventh year of the Kōhei era (康平 7; 1058).69 In all these cases, the remains are identifiable because elements of the image have retained their shapes, thanks to inscriptions inside the new statue or historical records. However, ashes, scraps of metal and gold, and other such fragments often found in statues’ cavities may not be as easily linked to a previous icon in the absence of clear signposting. Existing examples as well as the exchanges recorded by Iezane nevertheless suggest that enclosing sacred debris within another icon could have been more common than has been previously thought. Furthermore, it seems that this custom was not limited to Buddhist statues. Nagakane in fact pointed to the example of the sacred body (gotai 御体) of Shirayama Shrine 白山神社 in Kaga province, severely damaged in a 1070 fire,70 and Sukezane to a recent incident that occurred in the early thirteenth century at Hiyoshi Hachiōji Shrine 日吉八王子神社, during which one icon was reduced to ashes. In both instances, the remains were placed inside new icons.71

Textile reproductions of internal organs with written inscriptions
Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Textile viscera of the Śākyamuni statue of Seiryōji, Seiryōji, Kyoto. The cavity containing the viscera and other items was sealed in Kaifeng, China, in 985 CE. Photo by author

Be that as it may, the presence of prior cases was not considered sufficient to settle the matter through discussion alone. Lingering reservations about the broader motives behind the destruction of the miei, paired with the initial haphazard handling of its ashes, which went against all usual protocols, were thought to be a risk for further calamities. Nagakane feared installing the ashes in Shōryō’in as much as throwing them away, and thus wondered whether finding a more suitable location at Tōnomine to inter them would be more appropriate.72 Therefore, unlike the issue of reconstruction, it was agreed that this matter could only be resolved through divination. As recapitulated by Chikatsune:

There are no sources and no antecedents for this kind of ashes, but even if it is difficult to ascertain whether these belong to the sacred icon, they cannot be thrown away. While installing them inside the identical icon may be a convenient solution, such a fire is an unusual omen from heaven. As a clan, we should be careful. However we look at it, it is impossible for the burning of a numinous icon (reizō 靈像) not to be suspicious. Whether the ashes should be kept in the shrine or not should be determined through divination.73

Considering the precedents outlined above, it was concluded that the divinations should first attempt to establish whether depositing the ashes of the burned icon inside the remaining statue would be propitious or not. On the twenty-fifth day of the fourth month, a group of seven Onmyōji carried out the divination, and the response was affirmative.74 A few days later, written announcements (kōbun 告文) were sent to the three shrines of Kasuga, Oharano, and Yoshida, explaining the incident and the outcome of the divination. Finally, on the twenty-eighth day of the sixth month, the ashes of the miei, previously placed in a small box measuring six-by-four son that was carefully wrapped in paper and tied with string made of paper intertwined with red cloth, were deposited in the life-size statue of Kamatari.75 Aside from a purification carried out on the preceding day by the Onmyōji Kamo no Nobuhira 賀茂宣平and the pronouncement of the kōbun, no mention is made by Iezane of any other rite to mark the installation.


What happens to damaged or destroyed icons, sacred statues and paintings? Does their power vanish just because their exterior features have been blemished and their material structures come apart? Or is there still value and efficacy trapped in their disfigured or decomposed remains? As the above examination as well as the article by Sherry Fowler in this issue suggest, the answer is not straightforward. Admonishments not to let sacred items decay by caring, cleansing, bathing, and refurbishing them reassert the crucial importance of the visual, aesthetic dimension of religious objects, and how tightly connected they were to their devotional and ritual efficacy. However, the careful preservation of minuscule debris—the fragment of a broken mirror, a grain of melted metal, or even a speck of dust coming from a damaged icon—suggests that the value and potency of sacred icons were also thought to transcend their lavish or wholesome appearance, all the while remaining deeply material. In this context, as already highlighted by Fabio Rambelli and Eric Reindrs, sacred images could never be truly destroyed. Their coming apart always allowed for the coming together of something else that was, at the same time, ontologically different but inherently identical to what it was before.

Nevertheless, if the speck of ashes left from the burning of Kamatari’s miei may function as a synecdoche for the founder’s power, its preservation and installation inside an identical statue is a telling metaphor for the authority of the Fujiwara clan. Given the importance that the tomb and statue of Kamatari had in guiding and sanctioning the clan’s political role, the loss of the main icon would constitute much more than a negative omen. In this sense, the Fujiwara nobles tasked with deciding what to do with the likely spurious ashes ruled out the possibility of discarding them, and instead opted to divine whether storing them in the surviving image was propitious or not. The fact that no divination was held to settle the matter of the ashes’ origin meant that there was no interest in entertaining the possibility that nothing was left of the founder’s statue, as this probably would have been much more unsettling. The crux of the matter, then, is not that sacred icons could not be destroyed, but rather that they were not allowed to simply disappear. This is because, as the examples presented here suggest, the power they instantiate is not only that of a deity or an ancestor they represent but also that of the individuals, clans, and communities that possess them. The two types of power necessarily support each other, and their relationship is always nurtured and renewed through interactions. The latter are not limited to simple devotional activities toward the icon, but also include its protection and maintenance and inquiries around the circumstances of the sacred image. In this sense, the power of the ashes of Kamatari’s statue is established precisely through the very act of debating and divining the events that led to their generation. The discussions and ritualized investigations surrounding these remains arguably constitute a form of re-signification and repurposing of the sacred icon.

This logic is also at work in the examples of repeated eye-opening ceremonies presented above. In those cases, items are not damaged and not necessarily in need of repair but are reconsecrated as part of spatial reconfigurations or changes in ownership. Although not explicitly articulated in the sources explored, which only provide snapshots of ritual activities, it appears as if, through emplacement and ritual manipulations, something of the surroundings and of the performer accrued to the icon. These bonds needed to be periodically reinforced or dissolved, and Shūkaku resorted to the kaigen precisely to facilitate either of these processes. Whether or not the kaigen rite could be recast as a repurposing rite demands more research into its premodern utilizations, but from the instances discussed here we can perhaps start questioning our interpretation of the rite as a form of ritual activation and empowerment that marks the change of a mere object into a sacred one. As others have convincingly argued, a clear-cut distinction between what is inert and what is empowered did not always exist in the context of premodern Japan. Thus, the very notion of “enlivening” an image may have had a different meaning than the one we ascribe to it today.

The lack of dedicated rites to handle damaged icons does not mean these occasions were not handled ritually. Quite the contrary. Nearly every decision surrounding the move, renovation, and replacement of a sacred image required the repeated intervention of yin-yang masters, Buddhist monks, or both. In fact, as the case of Kamatari shows, having to consider a diversity of different human and divine factors was a lengthy procedure that could not easily be settled through standardized ritual procedures. While further research needs to be carried out on the origins of deconsecrating rites, the instances explored here indicate that it was necessary for religious specialists and institutions dealing with sacred remains to operate on an ad hoc basis, deciding what praxis and what ritual was appropriate depending on the specific circumstances.

What is clear from this preliminary analysis is that changes/alterations to icons, whether intentional or accidental, were never presented as requiring deactivation or suspension, but always reconsecration and repurpose. This may reinforce the idea that sacred items were simply not conceived of as terminal commodities, even when reduced to ashes, and thus may partly explain the lack of sending-off rites in premodern contexts. The sacred object, in this guise, becomes an almost limitless receptacle that can never truly be allowed to disappear and is thus caught in a seemingly endless cycle of reuse as long as even a speck of its dust remains.

Author Biography

Benedetta Lomi, PhD (SOAS University of London), 2011, received a Laurea magistralis in Sinology and East Asian languages and cultures from Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice (2004). She is currently senior lecturer of East Asian religions at the University of Bristol. Previously, she was assistant professor of East Asian studies at the University of Virginia, and postdoctoral fellow in Japanese Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the material and visual culture of Japanese Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the performative, healing, and transformative dimensions of Buddhist rituals, scriptures, and objects, including the ways in which people engage in ritual activities or with devotional objects to shape their bodies and minds, as well as the degree to which religious practices actively transform the physical world. Email:


  1. The rationale for considering Buddhist icons as much more than mere representations has been discussed by numerous scholars. Among the most important contributions are probably Bernard Faure, “The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze,” Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998): 766–813; Robert H. Sharf and Elizabeth H. Sharf, eds., Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); and Cynthea J. Bogel, With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icons and Early Mikkyō Vision (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).
  2. The practice is also referred to as heigen sahō 閉眼作法, literally meaning “eye closing” ceremony, but this seems to be a less common term in the ritual collections. Charlotte Lamotte mentions a variety of other expressions employed in contemporary Japan, such as tama nuki 魂抜き, or “removing the tama”; “La pierre qui vit: naissance et mort des statues dans une ville de pèlerinage,” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie (2013): 441.
  3. For more on this issue, see Lamotte, “La pierre qui vit”; Katja Triplett, “The Making and Unmaking of Religious Objects: Sacred Waste Management in Comparative Perspective,” in Materiality in Religion and Culture: Tenri University–Marburg University Joint Research Project, ed. Saburo Shawn Morishita (Zürich: LIT, 2017), 143–54; and Fabio R. Gygi, “Things That Believe: Talismans, Amulets, Dolls, and How to Get Rid of Them,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 45.2 (2018): 423–52.
  4. The earliest account and more or less systematic discussion of the hakken I could find in an esoteric context is included in Shōzen’s 性善 (1676–1763) Sanbōinryū Dōsen sōjō kuketsu 三寶院流洞泉相承口訣 (Master-to-disciple oral transmissions of Sanbo’in Master Dōsen), in Shingonshū zensho 真言宗全書 (hereafter SZ), vols. 33–35. There are also a number of manuscripts held at Kōyasan, such as the Kobutsu hakken shōshō 古仏撥遣召請 (Invocations to send off old Buddhas) and the Kobutsu hakken 古仏撥遣 (Sending off old Buddhas), as well as at Osu Library at Shinpukuji, such as the Kobutsu shūho hakken hyōbyaku 古佛修補撥遣表白 (Pronouncement of intention to repair or send away old Buddhas), 278–60-5,2コマB), but they all date to the nineteenth or twentieth century.
  5. Sarah Horton, Living Buddhist Statues in Early Medieval and Modern Japan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 12.
  6. Indeed, as Fabio Rambelli and Eric Reinders have pointed out, although the destruction and desecration of sacred sites have been common throughout Japanese history, they are nowadays rarely acknowledged by these institutions; Buddhism and Iconoclasm in East Asia: A History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 49–57.
  7. Rambelli and Reinders, 12.
  8. For a short overview of some of the monastic regulations on preserving sacred objects and temples’ possessions, see Rambelli and Reinders, 29–34.
  9. Sūtra of Resolving Doubts during the Age of the Semblance Dharma (Ch. Foshuo xiangfa jueyi jing; Jp. Bussetsu zōbō ketsugi kyō 佛說像法決疑經), Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (hereafter, T.) 85, 2870. For a translation of the scripture, see Kyoko Tokuno, “The Book of Resolving Doubts Concerning the Semblance Dharma,” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr., abr. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 187–201. This scripture is mentioned by several medieval Buddhist masters, from Kakuzen to Shinran.
  10. T. 2870: 1337b09–11.
  11. T. 2870: 1336a16–18.
  12. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō zuzō (hereafter Tz.) 5: 571–80.
  13. Tz. 5: 576b–577c.
  14. Tz. 5: 576b. In the Collection of the Essentials of the Various Sūtra (Ch. Zhujing yaoji; Jp. Shokyo yūshū 諸經要集; T. 54, 2123) compiled by Daoshi 道世 (d. 683). The passage Kakuzen is referring to is found in lines 24a21–22. Although the quotation in question is not found in the Sūtra of Resolving Doubts, the overall meaning of it is in line with its teachings.
  15. Sūtra of the Wise and the Foolish (Ch. Xianyu jing; Jp. Gengu kyō 賢愚經), T. 4, 202.
  16. Tz. 5: 576b–577b.
  17. The Three Thousand Regulations for Great Bhikṣus (Ch. Dabiqiu sanqian weiyi; Jp. Daibiku sanzen igi 大比丘三千威儀), T. 24, 1470. Although the translation of this text is attributed to An Shigao 安世高 (fl. 148–180), it is probably an apocryphal Chinese text.
  18. This scripture also provides another set of five regulations specific to sacred icons, which are also included in two scriptures by the Tang monk Daoshi, Collection of the Essentials of the Various Sūtras and the Grove of Pearls in the Garden of the Dharma (Ch. Fayuan zhulin; Jp. Hōon jurin 法苑珠林). The five rules are: 1) hold it firmly; 2) always use a clean wipe; 3) never rub the face and eyes of the statue with one’s hands or scratch it with one’s fingers; 4) always offer flowers; and 5) encourage people to scatter them on the image; T. 24, 1470: 923b25–27; T. 53, 2123: 583b2–7; T. 53, 2122: 24b12–17. Although he does not address them in the section on stupa, it is very likely that Kakuzen was aware of the existence of procedures for the regular upkeep of Buddhist images included in these sutras.
  19. This refers to a period of Japanese history in which retired emperors ruled from behind the scenes, specifically the rulership of the retired emperors Shirakawa 白河天皇 (1053–1129; r. 1073–87), Toba 鳥羽天皇 (1103–1156; r. 1107–23), and Go-Shirakawa 後白河天皇 (1127–1192; r. 1155–58).
  20. Nedachi Kensuke 根立 研介, Nihon Chūsei no Busshi to Shakai: Unkei to Keiha Shichijō Busshi wo Chūshin Ni 日本中世の仏師と社会: 運慶と慶派・七条仏師を中心に (Japanese medieval Buddhist sculptors and society: Unkei, the Kei school, and the Shichijō Busshi) (Tōkyō: Hanawa Shobō, 2006), 25–35.
  21. Nedachi Kensuke, 25–35.
  22. Nedachi Kensuke, 27–28. The corresponding passages are found in volume 3 of Hyōhanki in Shiryō taisei (hereafter ST) 17, 224b; and volume 4 of Hyōhanki in ST 18, 74b–78a.
  23. Hyōhanki 4, ST 18, 74b–75a.
  24. ST 18, 77a.
  25. In fact, there does not seem to be just one standard procedure to activate newly created images in the Heian and Kamakura periods. The rite is not included as a discrete category in ritual compendia, but rather as one possible ritual step in the context of specific liturgies or besson 別尊 rituals. Among the instructions included in esoteric manuals, the most common refer to the recitation of mantras and dhāraṇīs while sealing the eyes of an image with specific mudras. There are, however, differences in the mudras performed and the mantras and dhāraṇī recited, depending on the text or liturgy of which they are a part. For example, according to Genkai’s 元海 (1093–1156) Atsuzōshi 厚造紙 (Thick notes), the eye-opening rite follows the pattern set in the jūhachidō 十八道 and consists of purifying the eyes of the Buddha by sprinkling them three times with perfumed water. He also adds that an older form of the rite required marking the icon with fragrant water using the tip of a brush, something that apparently is no longer as common (T. 78, 2483: 279b23–29). The Taimitsu 台密 collection Shijūchō ketsu 四十帖決 (Forty-notebook collection) instead instructs to mark the eyes with the mudra of Butsugen 仏眼 while circumambulating the altar in a clockwise direction three times. The Tendai Asabashō 阿娑縛抄 (Compendium of A, Sa, Va) also includes a very brief description of the eye-opening rite, focused on the recitation of the mantra of Butsugen (TZ 9, 570). In all these contexts, the rite is aimed at endowing the image with the “five eyes” (gogen 五眼; see note 34 below; T. 75, 2408: 946c6–9), a crucial element of eye-opening in esoteric rites. Tōmitsu 東密 sources, such as the Hishō mondō 祕鈔問答 (Collection of secret questions and answers), also tend to indicate what should be done in case the images used are new (T 79, 2536, 371b10; 393c8–12). It is worth mentioning that kaigen was not performed to activate ritual images only, but to ritually empower the ajari and the initiates as well. For a discussion on eye-opening rites and their functions beyond the consecration of sacred icons in premodern Japan, see Katja Triplett, Buddhism and Medicine in Japan: A Topical Survey (500–1600 CE) of a Complex Relationship (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 73–78. For an overview of the rite in China, see Michel Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 165–211; and John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 59–69.
  26. TS 18, 77a.
  27. For a discussion of image animation in the East Asian context, see Bernard Faure, “Iconic Imagination,” in Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 237–63. Among the works dealing with image consecrations in the South and Southeast Asian context, see Richard Gombrich, “The Consecration of a Buddhist Image,” Journal of Asian Studies 26.1 (1966): 23–36; and Donald K. Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
  28. For example, the account of the eye-opening ceremony of the Tōdaiji’s Daibutsu exists in various documents included in Dai Nihon bukkyō zensho (hereafter DNBZ) 121:90–114; 122:20–33.
  29. Tōdaiji zōryū kuyōki 東大寺造立供養記 (Records of the commemorative rituals for Tōdaiji’s reconstructions), Gunsho ruijū 24, 401–2.
  30. Records of the image refurbishments and related rites are found in Miedō daishi miei shūfuku kiroku 御影堂大師御影修復記録 (Records of the restoration of the founder’s image in the Miedō), in Kōyasan bunsho 高野山文書 6, Dai Nihon komonjo (hereafter DNK) uchiwake 1 (大日本古文書家わけ第一 高野山文書之六), 187–200.
  31. ST 4/17, 547–48, 561.
  32. ST 4/17, 562.
  33. ST 4/17, 547.
  34. ST 4/17, 547. In esoteric scriptures, Buddhas are endowed with “five eyes” (gogen 五限), allowing them to apprehend all phenomena as they truly are: 1) the physical eye, which apprehends material forms; 2) the heavenly eye, which apprehends past and future, as well as cause and effect; 3) the wisdom-eye, which apprehends emptiness; 4) the dharma-eye, which apprehends upāya; and 5) the buddha-eye, which includes all the preceding four. The “four bodies” refer to the “four kinds of dharma body” (shishu hosshin 四種法身): 1) the “self-nature” dharma body (jishō hosshin 自性法身), that is, the dharma body as revealed to Bodhisattvas; 2) the “enjoyment” dharma body (juyū hosshin 受用法身); 3) the earthly or “manifest” dharma body (henge hosshin 變化法身); and 4) the universal manifestation of the dharma body (tōru hosshin 等流法身) as it appears to beings in all realms of existence.
  35. ST 4/17, 547.
  36. Faure, “The Buddhist Icon.”
  37. Faure, 803.
  38. Insert link to contribution in this edited volume. See also Gygi, “Things that Believe,” 234–52.
  39. DNBZ 117, 190b.
  40. Dai Nihon kokiroku 大日本古記錄15: 16 (hereafter DNKR).
  41. For an overview of the conflicts between Tōnomine and other cultic sites, see Mikael S. Adolphson, The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 36–46.
  42. Kuroda Satoshi has done extensive research on the extant images of Kamatari (both painted and sculpted) and typologized its main iconographic traits. Although he gained access to over one hundred portrait images of the Fujiwara ancestor, a small minority of which are statues, he was not given permission to see the Heian-period example. We thus do not know what this statue looks like. Kuroda Satoshi 黒田 智, Chūsei shōzō no bunkashi 中世肖像の文化史 (Cultural history of medieval portraits) (Tokyo: Perikansha, 2007), 41–80. For an overview of the establishment of Tōnomine as a sanctuary dedicated to Kamatari and its development in connection with the Tendai school until the tenth century, see Paul Groner, Ryōgen and Mount Hiei: Japanese Tendai in the Tenth Century (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), 327–29. For further discussion on these two icons, see my recent “Withered Wood and Dead Ashes—Making Sense of the Sacred Bodies of Kamatari at Tōnomine,” Religions 13.5 (2022): 439,
  43. DNBZ 118, 504b.
  44. Allan G. Grapard, “Japan’s Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shinto and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (‘Shimbutsu Bunri’) and a Case Study: Tōnomine,” History of Religions 23.3 (1984): 252–53.
  45. DNKR 15:4, 168.
  46. DNKR 15:4, 187.
  47. DNKR 15:4, 194.
  48. Grapard, “Japan’s Ignored Cultural Revolution,” 247–55.
  49. For example, the high prelate (dai sōjō 大僧正) of Kinpusen, the cleric Shin’en 信円 (1153–1224), was stripped of his role, and seven other people were also condemned and sent away.
  50. The events and subsequent deliberations occurred during the second and third month of Jōhen 2. During this time, Iezane focused solely on this issue. DNKR 15:4, 160–208.
  51. DNKR 15:4, 201. The report is signed by the temple’s superintendent (tsuina 都維那), supervisor (jishu 寺主), elder (jōza 上座), head ajari (Kengyō ajari daihosshi 撿挍阿闍梨), and the Dharma master Kangon 大法師觀嚴, who all witnessed the events.
  52. The full report is found in DNKR 15:4, 200–201.
  53. To make matters worse, it was not always possible to carry out divinations. For example, while Iezane asks Nobuhira to carry out a séance already on the eighth day, the onmyōji declares that the first propitious day to do so is the twelfth. DNKR 15:4, 161–62.
  54. DNKR 15:4, 168.
  55. These included Middle Counselor (chūnagon 中納言) Fujiwara no Chikatsune 藤原親経 (1151–1210), Captain of the Right Division of Outer Palace Guards (uemon no kami 右衛門督) Fujiwara no Takahira 藤原 隆衡 (1172–1255), Controller of the Left (sadaiben 左大辨) Fujiwara no Nagakane 藤原長兼 (d. 1214), Minister President (dajōdaijin 大政大臣) Fujiwara no Yorizane 藤原賴實 (1155–1225), and several others. As kampaku, Iezane held considerable power at court but also had equally heavy political responsibilities. At the time of the attacks, Iezane was at the very beginning of his role as chancellor and obviously extremely concerned about handling the consequences of the destructive attack in the appropriate manner.
  56. DNKR 15:4, 191.
  57. 祭如在,祭神如神在: “Sacrifice as if present.” That is, sacrifice to the spirits as though they were present. My translation of Analects 3.12 is from Donald Sturgeon, Chinese Text Project (D. Sturgeon, 2006–20), accessed January 2020,
  58. Hori Yutaka 裕, “Tennō no shi no rekishiteki ichi: ‘Nyozai no gi’ zo chūshin ni’” 天皇の死の歴史的位置「如在之儀」を中心に (The emergence of the undying Tennō in the Heian period), Shirin 史林 81.1 (1998): 38–69. Donald Thomas Conlan has discussed how, in the fourteenth century, Nijō Yoshimoto 二条 良基 (1320–1388) and the Sanbo’in 三宝院 monk Kenshun 賢俊 (1299–1357) deployed this same notion to justify enthronement of Go-Kōgon 後光厳 (1336–74) in the absence of the sacred regalia; From Sovereign to Symbol: An Age of Ritual Determinism in Fourteenth Century Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 130–49.
  59. DNKR 15:4, 193–94.
  60. DNKR 15:4, 196–97.
  61. Fujiwara no Sukezane 藤中納言資 (1162−1223), for example, indicates that this icon had been revered for many years and had proved to be efficacious. DNKR 15:4, 190.
  62. DNKR 15:4, 187–89.
  63. DNKR 15:4, 188.
  64. Some argued, for example, that it could be appropriate to inter the ashes outside Shōryō’in. DNK 4, 193.
  65. DNKR 15:4, 197. In fact, the mirror had burned several times before, and similar discussions over its conservation or its recasting were held among the court nobility. For a short overview, see Akira Akiyama, “Relic or Icon? The Place and Function of Imperial Regalia,” in The Nomadic Object: The Challenge of World for Early Modern Religious Art, ed. Christine Göttler and Mia M. Mochizuki (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 439–40. For the early eleventh-century melting of the mirror and subsequent discussions over its reconstruction, see Mikael S. Adolphson, Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 81–83.
  66. DNKR 15:4, 194.
  67. For an overall discussion of these practices and related materials, see Kurata Bunsaku 倉田文作, Zōnai Nōyūhin 像内納入品 (Articles placed inside icons), Nihon No Bijutsu 日本の美術 86 (Tokyo: Shibundo, 1973), 48–57. Among the most famous examples are the Shaka statue of Seiryōji, which contains replicas of internal organs together with other materials, and the Jizō statue of Denkōji. Regarding the former, see Oku Takeo 奥健夫, Seiryōji Shaka nyorai zō 清凉寺釈迦如来像 (The Shaka Nyorai icon of Seiryōji), Nihon No Bijutsu 日本の美術 513 (Tokyo: Shibundo, 2009). For the Jizō statue and its contents, see Hank Glassman, “The Nude Jizō at Denkōji: Notes on Women’s Salvation in Kamakura Buddhism,” in Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Pre-Modern Japan, ed. Barbara Ruch (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2002), 383–88.
  68. Pei-Jung Wu, “Wooden Statues as Living Bodies: Deciphering the Meanings of the Deposits within Two Mañjuśrī Images of the Saidaiji Order,” Artibus Asiae 74.1 (2014): 75–96. James Robson has written on the type of materials found in Chinese statues and assessed it against other Japanese and East Asian examples; see, for example, “The Buddhist Image Inside-Out: On the Placing of Objects Inside Statues in East Asia,” in Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange, ed. Tansen Sen (Singapore: ISEAS, 2014), 291–308. Robson recently co-edited a special issue of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie dedicated to consecration rites in Korean Buddhism, which contains several articles discussing the practice of enlivening icons by introducing specific objects into their cavities, known as pokchang 腹藏 (abdominal storage). This custom is specifically discussed by Jeong Eunwoo in “The Formation of the Buddhist Pokchang Tradition during the Koryŏ Period and Its Significance,” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 28 (2019): 23–46.
  69. Mitsuhashi Tadashi 三橋正, “Heian kizoku no zōbutsu shinkō no tenkai: shō kondō butsu no yukue” 平安貴族の造仏信仰の展開:小金銅仏のゆくえ (Buddhist statues in Heian nobles’ religious life: Focus on small gilt-bronze Buddhist statues), Bukkyō Bunka Gakkai Kiyō 佛教文化学会紀要 4–5 (1996): 61–64.
  70. DNKR 15:4, 190. This incident is also reported in the Fusō ryakki 扶桑略記 (Concise chronicle of Japan) and dated to the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month of Enkyū 延久1. See Kokushi taikei (hereafter KT) 6, 818.
  71. DNKR 15:4, 194. According to the late thirteenth-century Hyakurenshō 百練抄 (A hundredfold polished mirror), on the twenty-ninth day of the third month of Genkyū 1 (元久1; 1204), a meeting was held to discuss the possible reconstruction of the main icon, destroyed in a fire the previous year. KT 14, 174–75.
  72. DNKR 15:4, 193.
  73. DNKR 15:4, 191.
  74. DNKR 15:4, 202–3.
  75. DNKR 15:4, 221–22.