Burnt Sutra


Featured Fragment 2: X2010:1.36


The piece featured here is an example of what is known as a “burnt sutra” (or yakekyō): a sutra scroll or book that has survived a fire. The accompanying Geirinsō slip identifies it to be a fragment of the “Nigatsudō burnt sutras.” The Nigatsudō sutras were a set of sixty scrolls of the Flower Ornament Sutra copied in the eighth century, originally stored in a temple hall called Nigatsudō at a Buddhist monastery of Tōdaiji in Nara prefecture, Japan. This set accidentally caught fire during an annual festival in 1667, leaving scorch marks on many of its volumes.

The sutra was copied in silver ink on indigo-dyed paper. It is currently pasted onto a light-blue backing paper. The upper 3/4 of the paper is completely lost, and the bottom few characters are barely visible. The heat discolored much of the silver to a blue-pink color, while the burnt edges of the paper create a beautiful gradation of deep brown to brown-purple.

“Burnt sutras” were and still are prized collectables. The patterns accidentally created through the chemical reaction of the fire are mesmerizing, and they capture the Buddhist teaching of impermanence in a poetic way, adding to its appeal.

The glue residue around the peak of the fragment shows that browned tips may have peeled off after the piece was secured onto the backing paper. Beyond the burnt edges, the small pieces of paper that flaked off are carefully pasted, evidencing the owner’s effort to preserve as much of the fragment as possible.

With regard to the act of fragmentation of the sutras, the situation here is rather different from the “One-Character One-Buddha” example earlier (X2010:1.8). The disruption to the integrity of the sutra has already been done, not by the act of cutting, but by fire.

In Fragment X2010:1.36, the small pieces of paper that flaked off are also carefully preserved. In effect, what we are witnessing is the destruction by fire in slow motion. But from the evidence of careful mounting, we can understand that this gradual decay was most likely not the intent of the original owner. The intent here probably was more a preservation of this burnt fragment as it came to this owner – a crystallization or celebration of impermanence in permanent stop motion.

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