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The Scroll Depicting Buddha's Death

釈迦涅槃図 One of the most respected sources for historical facts related to Buddha's passing into Nirvana is called The Sutra of the Great Extinction. According to the information recorded there, Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Śākyamuni, attained enlightenment at the age of 35 and for the next 45 years travelled all around India, sharing his wisdom and preaching the path to enlightenment. In his later years, Buddha reached Hiranyavati River, near Kuśinagarī, in Malla county, where he rested his disease afflicted body in a copse of eight saul trees, preached the Dharma one last time, then forever closed his eyes at the age of 80. Legend says that when Buddha passed into Nirvana, 52 Bodhisattvas, disciples, kings and high officials, powerful people from Malla county, yakshas (demons), rakshasas (female demons), as well as numerous animals gathered on that spot to mourn him. In Japan, Buddha's death is commemorated each year on the 15th of the second month, during a festival called the "Nirvana Festival", which started in the Nara era. In the Heian era artists began creating scrolls that depicted Buddha's death, which soon became important objects of worship in all temples.

 We can distinguish two styles (old and new) in the structure of a scroll depicting Buddha's death. The main exponent of the old style is a scroll kept at the Kongōbuji Temple, dated from 1086 and declared national treasure. The scroll was created during the Heian era and it shows Buddha in the center of the painting, a large figure with the arms by his side, his legs fully stretched. The viewer's perspective is from Buddha's feet, so that the right side of his sickbed is visible. The scrolls belonging to this particular style are usually rectangular in shape, with the horizontal sides longer than the vertical ones, and show few mourners and animals.

  The new style, which became popular during the Kamakura period, follows more closely The Sutra of the Great Extinction, showing a smaller figure of Buddha, who rests his head on his right arm, his legs crossed. The left side of his deathbed is presented to the viewers, and the number of attending mourners and animals is quite large. Naturally, both styles suffered gradual transformations along the years, works that show eclectic characteristics being produced, as well as works that clearly expressed the traditions of the age when they were created, or the personal feelings and beliefs of the artists. The beginning of the Edo period marks the time when the "Nirvana Festival" started being celebrated in villages, and the scrolls depicting Buddha's death became known among the common people, new artists (the first of whom was Chikubō from Nara) appearing one after the other. We can safely assume that one of the reasons for the increased popularity of the Nirvana Festival was the work of these artists, who competed among themselves in copying famous scrolls and spreading them among the common people.

 The scroll donated to Gatsuzōji in May 1696 has a length of 320cm and a width of 190cm, the dimensions of the actual painting being 192.5cm×145cm. When displayed in the Main Hall, it hangs from the ceiling down to the floor. The donor of this scroll was Taniguchi Hōsetsu (the devout believer mentioned before), who made this offering in the memory of his parents, as the inscription in center of the reverse side of the scroll suggests: "The wondrous Dharma for passage into the other world". However, the posthumous names of almost 1000 parishioners from that time are also written on the scroll.

  涅槃図上部中央 In the center upper side of the scroll the daimoku is written in gold paint, on the right side there is the shining full moon of 15th of the second month, and under it one can see Maya (Buddha's mother) who descends from Heaven under the lead of Aniruddha, after having heard the news of her son's death. In the center, four of the eight saul trees withered as soon as Buddha had finished his last sermon, while the other four stayed lush and green, a symbol of the fact that, although Buddha left this world, his teachings will endure and flourish forever. 涅槃図左部分

 On the left side of the saul tree copse one can see Buddha's staff, as well as the bag containing his brocade stole and his begging bowl. According to a legend that started circulating in the Edo period, this is the medicine bag that Maya threw from Heaven to help Buddha. This legend is also related to the tale about the cat in the scroll.

 With the exception of scrolls where the name of the depicted characters is inscribed, it is difficult to identify who appears in the painting. However, judging from their position in the painting, their clothes or crowns, we may say that the figure with three red faces, under the cloud in the middle of the scene is Asura, the one at Buddha's head is Kanzeon Bosatsu (or Avalokitésvara, commonly known in Japan as Kannon), while the man receiving The Sutra of the Great Extinction at the feet of the bed is Mākāśyapa (one of Buddha's ten disciples).

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