What is Kyōgire?
At the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), there is a group of thirty-six kyōgire 経切or “sutra fragments.” These are fragments taken from copies of Buddhist scriptures.
Buddhism was born in India around the fifth century BCE through teachings of a man named Gautama Siddhârtha, who was revered as the Buddha, or the “awakened one.” His followers listened to his sermons and emulated his conduct in life. Hearing, understanding, and executing the Buddha’s words, thus, was at the core of this religion since its inception. After the Buddha passed away, his closest disciples began sharing stories in their effort to remember his entire teaching. His words were eventually recorded in writing, and as the religion spread eastward through South, Central, to East Asia, they were also transmitted primarily as written texts that were subsequently translated and studied.1
The canon of Buddhist scriptures includes not just the words of the Buddha (called sūtra, or more commonly written in English, “sutra”), but also Buddhist precepts (vinaya) and commentaries on sūtra (abhidharma). This canon in its entirety is called the “three baskets” or tripiṭaka. Copying, reading, and disseminating any part of this tripiṭaka was believed to accumulate great merit (The practice of sutra copying still continues in Japan today, see video below).
The JSMA collection focuses exclusively on copies of sutras. It includes representative pieces from all periods of Japanese history and a few from the Korean peninsula, making it a comprehensive and educationally valuable set.
See, for instance, the intriguing fragment that includes part of the Lotus Sutra copied on an indigo-dyed paper using gold (X2010:1.5). The fragment is only 12.6 x 4.5 cm in size. The paper is divided into upper and lower columns. Each column is 5.4 cm in height, and the width of each line within the column is merely 0.5 cm. A total of 17 characters are written in each of these lines, which allows us to get a sense of how tiny the characters are. Its smallness is underscored when it is compared to a more standard-sized copied sutra (X2010:1.4), which has the paper height of about 26 cm.
According to the dealer’s identification slip accompanying this fragment, this miniature sutra was discovered from the hollow interior of a Buddhist statue. Beginning particularly in the Heian period when wood became a primary material for constructing a Buddhist statue, the practice of inserting a cache inside a devotional image gained popularity. Devotees would place objects such as copies of scriptures, relics, prayer beads and other precious objects, and one’s own bodily fragments (e.g. hair, teeth, fingernails, or even umbilical cords) as a way to enliven the statue and establish spiritual ties with the deity (See, for example, the variety of cache discovered from the statue of Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge.) Although we do not know to which statue our miniature sutra originally belonged, it is still a reminiscence of a particular devotional use of copied sutras.
1. For an article introducing the beginning and spread of Buddhism accessible online, see, Tansen Sen, “17 – The Spread of Buddhism,” in The Cambridge World History, vol. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 447-480, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-world-history/spread-of-buddhism/3FDC0DD76C76AF2CFA056ACD9E620C66/core-reader. ↩