From Temples to Tearooms 


Through history, a great many copies of Buddhist scriptures were produced and donated to temples and shrines across Japan. With the rise in popularity of tea culture and calligraphy collecting, especially beginning in the Edo period, scriptural copies produced by famous historical figures and eminent calligraphers came to be appreciated not necessarily for their spiritual merit as Buddhist texts, but more for their calligraphic hands.

Copied scriptures in handscroll and accordion-style codices came to be cut into sheet size or even smaller oblong fragments with just a few lines of text to facilitate mounting as a hanging scroll for a decorative alcove (tokonoma) in a tearoom or pasting in a calligraphy album. The appreciation of fragmented Buddhist scriptures continues well into the twentieth century and even today. The thirty-six pieces in the JSMA collection were fragmented under similar circumstances.



Fragments from the same source may be cut and mounted very differently for different purposes. For instance, the piece above (X2010:1.36) from the JSMA collection is an example of a “burnt sutra” (yakekyō 焼経). It is discussed further in “Scholar’s Picks,” exploring the symbolic implications of preserving a damaged devotional manuscript.

The accompanying dealer’s slip attributes this fragment to be from Nigatsudō 二月堂of the Buddhist monastery Tōdaiji. On the fourteenth day of the second month, 1667, the Nigatsudō hall caught fire during an annual ceremony, Shuni-e 修二会. The so-called “Nigatsudō burnt sutra” are the fragments of the Flower Ornament Sutra (Kegonkyō 華厳経) salvaged from the ashes of this conflagration. The JSMA fragment is a small but lovely piece, preserving just a few characters from the bottom of the original sutra. When you look closely, you can still see the glowing silver with which the scripture was copied against the scorched brown indigo-dyed paper. The smallness of the fragment and the beauty of its detail draw the eyes in, making it appropriate for an intimate viewing. Those who have already read the “Tekagami” section of this website may notice that the width of this fragment (and in fact of all of the JSMA sutra fragments) makes it a perfect fit for a tekagami album.

The Oregon Tekagami also includes a total of 24 sutra fragments scattered across its front and back sides, including the two pieces attributed to Emperor Shōmu and his consort Kōmyō at the very beginning of the album (See “Kiwame as the Prerequisite for a Tekagami Appreciation”). One can easily imagine the JSMA fragment fitting beautifully among, for instance, some of the more vividly colorful shikishi poetry cards, or next to a fragment from a small codex introduced by Dr. Sasaki Takahiro in the Oregon Tekagami “Scholars’ Picks” (Scholars’ Pick 1).

However, there were other ways to crop and mount Buddhist scriptures, many of which were initially stored as handscrolls. See, for instance, the magnificent example of another section from the “Nigatsudō burnt sutra” mounted as a hanging scroll in the collection of the Portland Art Museum.

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