Sutra Picture Book for the Illiterate

An extremely rare kind of sutra — Shingyo or E Shingyo — created for the largely illiterate population of Japan. On the first panel: Namudaiji daihikanzeon [the name of the Goddess of Mercy].

65 woodcut scenes. 20 panels (each panel measuring 160 x 75 mm.), joined in accordion style (orihon). Total length: 1315 mm. Each panel printed by woodblock. Japan: mid- to late-Edo.

Sutras, sacred texts believed to preserve the actual words of the historical Buddha, were written or printed as a major industry in many temples in Japan. By the 7th century, sutra copying was an organized activity, and this tradition of copying or printing sutras has continued to the present day.

Originally, sutras were maintained as oral traditions, passed from one generation to the next amongst a largely illiterate and poor population. But there was another solution: to create woodcut picture sutras, such as ours, to instruct those who could not read, including criminals in rehabilitation and those without any earlier ethical instruction. Early examples such as this are very rare; these sutras tended to be “read to death.”

The woodcuts begin with the name of the goddess, Namudaiji daihikanzeon. The woodcut illustrations on each panel are prompts for chants based on sounds evoked by the images; for example, a sheaf of rice (soku), women’s breasts (chi), the character for the number one (itsu), dice (sai), the heads of rice stalks (ho) would be chanted in one phrase. Each woodcut is accompanied by the kanji and hiragana characters.

On the final panel is printed Ushu shonai shinkando ban [“The province of Dewa (now Yamagata and Akita prefectures) Shonai area [unknown temple name] woodblock”].

Minor browning but a nice copy. In a chitsu.

Price: $4,500.00

Item ID: 6482

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