Sutra Container

  • Late Heian period
  • 12c
  • Cast bronze
  • H-28.4 D-12
Catalogue Entry

Late Heian period, 12th century
Cast bronze with lid
Height, 28.4cm; lid diameter, 12.4cm

The domed, umbrella-shaped lid with jewel-shaped knob is fitted on a cylindrical container, both forming a bronze sutra container. The lid has an attachment device on its underside to adhere it to the mouth edge of the cylinder, and the lid is hexagonal in shape. The 6 points of the hexagon are each pierced, and it is likely that these holes would have been used originally to support yoraku decorative jewel strings.
The cylinder itself is banded at mouth and base by 2 rows of protruding bands which add variation to the otherwise plain form. The cylinder is fitted with a single-cast base which gives an overall stability to the sutra container form, and a separately cast underplate has been attached to the bottom of the cylinder form.

Other examples of cylindrical sutra containers fitted with hexagonal umbrella-shaped lids with jewel-shaped knobs include an Important Cultural Property excavated at the Homanzan sutra mound in Dazaifu, Fukuoka prefecture, and similar examples have been excavated at the Shiten'nojisan sutra mound and are inscribed with 1106 (Choji 3) dates. The present sutra container can be suggested to have a similar date, and given that this sutra container shares the forms and methods used in these dated examples, the present sutra container probably dates from the first half of the 12th century, the height of the sutra mound construction.

The burial of sutras in sutra mounds began in 1007 (Kanko 4) when Fujiwara no Michinaga had a gilt bronze sutra container inscribed upon its burial at the Kinpusen sutra mound in Yoshino. It is apparent that a variety of reasons lay behind the creation of these sutra mounds. Clearly these mounds were primarily an effort to preserve the sutras expounding the teachings of the Buddha through the millennia of the age of the last law, or Mappo, that was said to be going to continue until the rebirth of Miroku (Maitreya) would provide salvation for humanity. The sutra mounds were intended to promulgate and protect these sutras, and the majority of these were based on stupas, and hence were diverse in shape. These sutras which preserved the teachings or remains of the first Buddha were thus equated with the Buddhist relics which were preserved in Buddhist stupas. The great majority of the sutra containers with finial knobs were of this cylindrical type with umbrella-shaped lids and jewel-shaped knobs. Some of these sutra containers bear inscriptions which read hoto, and thus the 6-sided circular hall which is called a Rokkaku Endo can also be considered a form that was consciously created as a hoto.
While it is not certain which sutra was contained in this container, the large form of the cylinder and the traces which remain on its interior suggest that it was likely either a Lotus Sutra set of 8 scrolls, or the 8 scrolls of the Lotus Sutra combined with 2 additional scrolls of another sutra.

While a section of the original surface remains intact, the majority of the container is covered with a bluish-green patina and the overall form of this container is a superb example of its type. SK