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Date: late 16th-early 17th century
Medium:Wood, lacquer, gold gilt, and glass
Geographic Location: Japan
Dimensions: Overall: 45 x 40 x 30 in. (114.3 x 101.6 x 76.2 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, Wendover Fund in memory of Alfred and Juanita Bromberg and the Cecil and Ida Green Acquisition Fund
Object Number: 2008.25.A-H
Buddhism originated in India in the sixth century B.C. and is based on the teachings of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni [SAH-kyuh-moo-nee], or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Although no longer widely practiced in India, Buddhism has spread through South and Central Asia and as far as Japan through trade and missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Though considered to have officially been introduced to Japan in 538 A.D., Buddhism may have been brought by foreign monks long before that. At the time of Buddhism’s introduction, some in Japan opposed the arrival of this new religion due to the prevalence of Shintoism, a religion that deifies nature spirits and the spirits of ancestors. Many early Japanese-Shinto spirits eventually fused with Buddhist holy figures, and this sculpture of Emma-O is believed to be from a Shinto/Buddhist shrine. Several forms of Buddhism gained popularity throughout Japan, most famously Zen Buddhism, but Chinese Buddhist influences remained present as seen in this sculpture of Emma-O, the Japanese version of the King of Hell.
Though no form of Buddhism believes in heaven or hell in the Christian sense, in Japanese Buddhism, hell was seen as a space situated under the earth that contained eight hot and eight cold regions. Each of the hot hells further subdivided into sixteen distinct hells, creating 128 total hells of fire. The concept of heaven and hell had no precursors in the indigenous Shinto tradition and was introduced to Japan through the Hindu and Tantric Buddhist traditions coming out of China. The Tantra, a 1500 year old set of Indian spiritual practices, created a body of Hindu and Buddhist traditions that aim to transform the mind and body through radical and unconventional methods, such as ritual cannibalism and copulation with dead bodies. The purpose behind the Tantric practices and wrathful deities such as Emma-O was to accelerate the process towards enlightenment and transcend ordinary life’s emotions of fear and disgust.
Emma-O is the Buddhist version of Yama, the Hindu god of death. He is one of the Kings of Buddhism (Ju-O) and leads a panel of ten judges known as the kings of hell. Each of these kings presides over their own court, through which the newly deceased must pass and receive judgment. The ten judges examine the karma of the deceased. Karma is the accumulated effect of all actions taken during a person’s life. Buddhism does not believe in the concept of sin, and karma reflects one’s detachment from earthly illusion or ignorance rather than number of “good” or “bad” deeds. By weighing karma, Emma-O can decide proper penalties and rewards, and assign the deceased to one of the “six roads” or reincarnations that range from heaven to one of the many hells.
Emma-O’s Chinese judicial robes and large black hat with the Chinese character “king” emphasize his importance in the judgment process. His menacing expression, intensified by the piercing stare of his glass-inlay eyes, derives from Tantric images, which greatly influenced Buddhist art in Japan. The reason behind Emma-O’s monstrous appearance, common in Asian art and sometimes referred to as the “demonic divine,” is his role as a protector who drives away evil and guards temples, tombs, and dharma or Buddhist divine law. However, Buddhist followers make offerings to Emma-O and regard him as a benevolent force due to his ability to perform miracles and grant those with positive karma a favorable reincarnation.
In the underworld eighteen generals and eighty-thousand soldiers surround Emma-O. He is flanked by two heads, one male and one female, who see and smell the sins of the deceased. After appearing before Emma-O, the demons in the underworld lead the sinner before a mirror where they see their past sins reflected. Next, the sins are weighed and the sentence given. Eternal suffering is not present in the Buddhist tradition. Condemnation to one of the hells is for a fixed period, and one can be delivered from the torments of hell through prayers and offerings of the living. The deity to whom the prayers are addressed goes into the hells to rescue the soul, which is reincarnated on earth or in a paradise.
This sculpture was created during the late Momoyama period, when the cult of Emma-O was still popular. With the decline of Ashikaga power in the 1560s, the feudal barons, or daimyos, began their struggle for control of Japan. The ensuing four decades of constant warfare are known as the Momoyama (Peach Blossom Hill) period, which gained its name from the site of the last great architectural project of the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Through the efforts of three warlords, including Toyotomi, unity was gradually restored and Japan brought under a single, unified authority.
The Momoyama period is characterized by two distinct phases of style: the opulent and robust, to which Emma-O belongs, and the sparse and understated. The opulent and robust phase included lavish ornamentation applied to architecture, furnishings, paintings and garments. The second phase set up a counter-aesthetic in response to the opulent and robust style by returning to the simplicity of historical precedents.
2. What can this figure’s attire and the object he holds tell us about what type of person he might be and his purpose?
3. Why might it be necessary for this figure to appear frightening?
4. Do you believe this object is secular or religious? Cite visual clues that support your hypothesis.
5. How does this object challenge or confirm your ideas about Buddhism?
|Learn about the Monoyama period in Japan.|
|Listen to a sound design created by UT Dallas students in response to Emma-O.|
|Curator Anne Bromberg discusses Emma-O.|
|Curator Anne Bromberg discusses Emma O's connection to the collection.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.