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On the Allure of Green: Landscape in Buddhist Practice from Dunhuang to Kyoto

by Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Yale University

From Dunhuang on the Silk Road to the Japanese capital at Kyoto, over a period of some two hundred years starting at the end of the eighth century, a paradigmatic form of landscape representation was seen inside the spaces used for Buddhist worship from cave to building. This landscape form was almost exclusively linked to multi-paneled screens, whether as they were depicted in facsimile on wall surfaces, or in actuality. It can be seen today at the Mogao grottoes, in a cluster of caves dating from the period of Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang between 750 and 850; and inside the Amida Hall at the temple Byodoin in Uji, completed in 1053, and on free-standing screens of the same period belonging to temple collections in Kyoto. This landscape form generally consists of a panoramic view of rolling green hills receding into space over a terrain rendered in beiges and pale browns. The green pigment, predominantly malachite, yields a cool surface tone, and as is typical of the pigment, appears as if suffused with light especially in contrast to the pale brown background.

In Japan this landscape mode came to be called yamatoe, "Yamato painting," and in modern times has been understood as specifically suited to native Japanese taste and aesthetics. It has also been understood as marking a departure from continental norms. What comes as a surprise, on examination of the Tibetan-era caves at Dunhuang, is that it is equally unique to Mogao of the ninth century. In fact the Japanese and Tibetan landscape modes are virtually identical, and both seem to depart significantly from the landscape styles associated with Changan (Tang) fashion.

This paper explores what such a paradigmatic form of landscape representation might mean in the broader context of Buddhist practice seen cross-regionally from the perspective of cultural systems on the periphery of the Tang imperium at its eastern and western peripheries. In particular it considers the iconographic ramifications of the green-over-beige geography as potentially linked to doctrinal and ritual developments having impact on the conceptualization of Buddhist spaces of worship.

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

Center for Buddhist Studies