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Death of the Historical Buddha in Zen Buddhism Research Paper


Remarkable aesthetic qualities of images depicting Gautama Buddha’s encounter with the nirvana or Nehanzu (the nirvana images) suggests that of all the events in the sage’s life, his death occupied an extremely important place in the imagination of Japanese artists. Paintings of the event are rare artifacts of the cultural tradition of Japan; therefore, a hanging scroll Death of Historical Buddha, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is justly famous. The moment of historical Buddha’s nirvana is “one of the quintessential motifs in Buddhism” that is of particular interest from the iconographic and historical perspectives.[1]

Buddhism reached Japan after its Indian heritage has undergone remarkable transformations in China. It arrived on the island with thousand-year-old canons of thought that directed a pious act of the creation of hanging scrolls.[2] The Buddha, who is also known as Sakyamuni, occupied the highest position in the Buddhist iconographic rank; therefore, both composition and the artists’ brushwork were guided by the strict rules of iconography.[3] The astonishing depiction of historical Buddha’s death carries important implications for practitioners of Buddhist doctrine: the promise of nirvana was fulfilled with the sage’s attainment of final release that was witnessed by numerous commoners and monks. As such, the nirvana images were used as harbingers of hope that compelled their beholders to abandon their anxieties caused by Sakyamuni’s absence from the realm of mortals and accept the tenets of Zen Buddhism.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the hanging scroll Death of the Historical Buddha in the context of Zen Buddhist doctrine and practice. The paper will argue that naturalistic traditions of Japanese art were developed as a result of an encounter of Japanese canon of thought with visual and theological canons of Chinese Buddhism.

Visual Analysis

The hanging scroll Death of the Historical Buddha is a perfect example of an idiosyncratic subgenre of the nirvana images, which permeated Japanese art in the sixth century after the adoption of Buddhism.[4] The composition of the nirvana images rests on two essential elements: a golden body of the sage with his head pointing to the West and feet to the East, and a group of lamenting followers who observe his nirvana.[5] The scroll depicts canonical nirvana narrative, in which the enormous body of reclining Buddha is strategically positioned at the physical midpoint of the composition, thereby directing the viewers’ attention to the most important stage of his spiritual enlightenment. Gautama lies on his right side with his head turned to the viewers; he is positioned in such a manner in order to immediately reveal that he has actually met the final stage of enlightenment. This tradition of representing the final life event of the teacher was borrowed by Japanese Buddhist artists from the traditions of Chinese and Gandharan art.[6] The figure of the first person who was able to escape the wheel of continuous reincarnations dominates the hanging scroll. In accordance with Japanese Buddhist canons, the Buddha’s dimensions surpass those of the surrounding figures. According to Visser, “this important feature is certainly no Japanese innovation, as is clearly proved by two nirvana paintings in Tun-Huang.”[7]

The Buddha is surrounded by lamenting followers who cannot comprehend the significance and joy of the process of casting down the shackles of carnal existence by their teacher and, therefore, are overwhelmed with grief. Unlike laypersons who have not achieved a high level of understanding of the negation of desires, Bodhisattva Jizo, whose head is free of an elaborate headdress and whose face is touched by a charm of calm dignity, observes nirvana in peaceful serenity.[8] He stands next to Gautama collected and composed, and holds what appears to be a jewel. Eight other Bodhisattvas stand behind the teacher; their faces and postures show signs of enormous grief. The creatures dressed in princely garbs, flowing scarves, and golden necklaces of great beauty that contrast with ascetic features of the nearby trees. Their heads are adorned with jeweled crowns that are different one from the other and show their high-ranking within the iconographic canon of Japanese Buddhist art. Bodhisattvas are grayish-green and red. The colors underscore the vociferousness of their emotions: they stretch their arms and weep. The extreme agitation of other witnesses of nirvana, whose twisted in anguish figures suggest that they are not as free of passion as Bodhisattva Jizo is, fills the forefront of Death of the Historical Buddha. The monks and laypeople are overcome with sorrow to such an extent that they seem to be oblivious to their surroundings.

Amidst the followers of the Buddha are grieving, colorful animals and birds who make an interesting contrast with the cold, olive ground. Even the distribution of white, black, yellow, blue, olive, red, brown, green, and orange colors surrounding the golden body of the Buddha creates an almost uniform color pattern.

The aesthetic value of Death of the Historical Buddha lies in the harmony of the colors, impeccable composition and vigorous poignancy of the brush strokes, which is especially evident in the fauna that seems to be mourning along with the manifold figures depicted on the scroll. Even if one were to apply the most unforgiving standards to this remarkable exemplar of Japanese Nehanzu, they would discover that it exhibits artistic precision of the highest degree. Touching the Buddhist atmosphere and numerous details that merit appreciation helps to create emotional value that is inextricably connected with the hanging scroll’s aesthetic value.

Naturalistic Traditions of Zen Buddhism

The subject of scrutiny cannot be separated from its religious context: Zen Buddhism regarded nature as a continuation of universal consciousness; therefore, Japanese artists wanted to externalize their inner Buddha through intense concentration on subjects of their works. In words of Waley, “the Buddha-nature is immanent not in Man only, but in everything that exists, animate or inanimate.”[9] Hence the obsession with the naturalistic representation of visual details, which was not inherent to Japanese art tradition before its encounter with philosophical tenets of Zen Buddhism. In order to better understand emerging naturalistic elements in the hanging scroll, it is necessary to consider the historical context in which the art piece was created.

Zen Buddhism was transmitted to Japan from China around the thirteenth century.[10] The religion quickly took hold and underwent substantial transformation because of the unrelenting influence of kami worship and native cults such as Shinto that through a process of syncretism merged discrete traditions.[11] The assimilation of Zen Buddhism in Japan was facilitated by the samurai class that showed a substantial level of cultural acceptance for the new worldview that also brought into Japan an elaborate writing and political systems, music, and technologies.[12] Furthermore, samurais opposed the privatization of the religion by elites and assisted its propagation among all social strata. As a result of the support from the samurai class, which was highly-respected in Japanese society, and the incorporation of syncretic elements in the Buddhist doctrines, religion became one of the most popular systems of spiritual beliefs in Japan. The popularity of Zen Buddhism in Japanese society can also be attributed to the fact that it supported personal expression, and encouraged intuition, and naturalism.

The introduction of new religious practices resulted in the emergence of a distinctive naturalistic aesthetic, which can be described by amorphous concepts Wabi and Sabi that “express a sense of rusticity, melancholy, loneliness, naturalness, and age.”[13] The Buddhist doctrines hold that the Buddha is manifested in “both man and nature, in both human activity and natural phenomena.”[14] The expression of the wabi-sabi aesthetic and the accompanying naturalism of Zen Buddhism is evident in the loneliness of grief-stricken witnesses of nirvana depicted in Death of the Historical Buddha. The irregular shapes of the Buddha followers, a general state of disheveledness of their robes, and the sense of movement that almost morphs all figures into an abstract force of melancholy are all parts of the iconographic layout of the nirvana images that was borrowed from the traditions of Chinese visual culture. It should be noted that despite appropriating numerous visual elements from works of Chinese artists, the emphasis on the naturalistic representation of pictorial subjects that was inherent to Japanese Buddhist doctrines led to notable changes of the nirvana images both in form and content.[15] The development of a unique Japanese microcosm of image creation was also predicated on the existence of disparate historical, ethnic, and cultural configurations between the two countries. The form was more autonomous in Japan; therefore, the pictorial representation of the moment of nirvana was substantially influenced by the unique socio-cultural conditions of the country.

The motif of perpetual transformation inherent to the nirvana images was used to introduce “further changes in the images’ formal configuration that, in turn, helped generate different kinds of responses” from their beholders.[16] The conceptual richness of this approach is especially evident in Death of the Historical Buddha, in which a lack of prescriptions on the number of mourners is used to portray a widespread acceptance of Zen Buddhism by flooding the hanging scroll with characters. Another use of the motif of perpetual transformation that warrants notice is the conspicuous coloring of flora on the scroll. On the right side of the painting, trees are fading and yellow; on the left side of the nirvana image, trees are vividly green and are blooming with life and vigor. Just like Gautama, who broke symbolic boundaries between death and everlasting presence, Zen Buddhism in Japan broke boundaries between different religious beliefs. It can be argued that the incorporation of these visual elements into the traditional Chinese nirvana image, was a sign of syncretism that helped to spread the new religion on the island.


The analysis of the hanging scroll Death of the Historical Buddha in the context of Zen Buddhism doctrine and practice showed that intertwining relationships between the religion and art led to the emergence of new naturalistic approaches to the visual expression of Japanese artists. Specifically, the naturalistic traditions of Japanese art were developed as a result of the encounter of the Japanese canon of thought with visual and theological canons of Chinese Buddhism.


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Fisher, Felice. “Japanese Buddhist Art.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 87, no. 369 (1991): 3-27.

Ishida, Ichiro, and Delmer Brown. “Zen Buddhism and Muromachi Art.” The Journal of Asian Studies 22, no. 4 (1963): 417-432.

Lee, Sonya. Surviving Nirvana: Death of the Buddha in Chinese Visual Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

Priest, Alan. “A Note on Japanese Painting.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 11, no. 8 (1953): 201-240.

Sherwood, Moran. “The Death of Buddha: A Painting at Koyasan.” Artibus Asiae 36, no. 1 (1974): 97-146.

Visser, Herbert. “A Japanese Painting of the Death of the Buddha in the Museum of Asiatic Art, Amsterdam.” Artibus Asiae 10, no. 1 (1974): 43-55.

Waley, Arthur. Zen Buddhism and its Relation to Art. London: Luzac & Co., 1922.

Watanabe, Masako. Storytelling in Japanese Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.

Met Museum. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Death of the Historical Buddha in Zen Buddhism'. 10 November.

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