About the Artwork

This painting depicts the assembly of the 'Thirteen Deities' (Jap. jusanbutsu) of the Japanese Shingon School of Vajrayana Buddhism. Shingon, meaning 'True Words', is derived from the Chinese and Sanskrit terms for mantra. This tradition developed from the teachings of a Japanese monk named Kukai (774-835), who studied in China for several years with Hui-kuo, the Seventh Patriarch of the 'Esoteric School'. After Hui-kuo died Kukai was recognized as the Eighth Patriarch, and was subsequently known as Kobo-daishi.

The Shingon doctrine is primarily based upon the Sanskrit texts of the Mahavairocana-sutra and the Vajrasekhara-sutra, and their two principal mandalas, which are known as the 'womb-realm' (Jap. taizo-kai) and the 'vajra-realm' (Jap. kongo-kai). Mahavairocana is the universal or 'Primordial Buddha' of the Shingon tradition, and the goal of its practice is to realize that one's essential nature is identical with Mahavairocana as the 'Ultimate Reality' of the dharmakaya. These doctrines of 'Japanese Esoteric Buddhism' are transmitted orally from master to disciple, and its practice essentially employs the 'three secrets' of mudra, mantra and meditation to purify the three aspects of body, speech and mind. The thirteen deities of the Shingon School are derived from the main deities of its two mandalas.

During the Edo period (1603-1867) it was customary for a child to be taken to one of the temples of these deities during each of the first thirteen years of its life, with each deity serving as an annual protector of the child's life until the onset of puberty. At the end of life they also serve to protect departed souls through the various stages of the afterlife: with the first seven deities protecting each seven day period during the traditional forty-nine day interval of the 'intermediate state' (Tib. bardo); and the last six deities corresponding to the memorial services performed on the hundredth day after death, and the first, second, sixth, twelfth and thirty-second year anniversaries.

© text by Robert Beer

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