Japan. Temple’s ancient Buddhist statue turns heads with hidden images

FUKUYAMA, Hiroshima Prefecture–The hollowed out head of an ancient Buddhist statue kept at the Myooin temple here revealed sheet after sheet of “washi” traditional paper adorned with images of the revered religious figure.

The discovery followed the dismantling of the Maitreya statue, designated as an important cultural asset by Hiroshima Prefecture, for repair work.

There were also ink images of Bhaisajyaguru and Ksitigarbha.

Images of the three figures made with seal stamps cover nearly every inch of space. 

The wooden seated statue sculpture is the temple’s principal object of worship. Located in the Kusadocho district, the temple belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

The statue is venerated at a five-storied pagoda erected in 1348 during the period known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties that has national treasure status. 

Temple officials believe the seated statue was created around that time and delivered to Myooin to celebrate its completion.

The sheets of paper were uncovered this past summer as the statue was being dismantled for repair work. The fragile sheets of paper were removed to prevent further deterioration and so the images could be examined more closely.

This led to expectations the discovery would shed light on the circumstances behind the construction of the wooden pagoda 676 years ago.

According to Fukuyama city’s cultural promotion division, the sheets of paper come in three types.

One consists of 10 sheets of washi, each measuring 23 centimeters by 16 cm, tied together with paper string. Each washi is characterized by numerous stamps bearing ink images of Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru and Ksitigarbha standing next to one another.

Another consists of a stack of smaller sheets of paper stamped with Buddhist images. The third was a single piece of paper showing not only a Buddhist pattern but also some characters on a part of the paper.

A representative of Fukuyama’s cultural promotion division noted that an ink image of Buddha often depicts only one figure, which is stamped repeatedly. To have three figures incorporated into a single seal at the same time is rare.

“The three represent the three worlds of the past, the present and the future,” he added. “We still have much research to do.”