Okutsumarakyo Sutra, known as “May 1st Sutra,” Scroll 3

  • Japan
  • Nara period
  • 8c
  • Handscroll, ink on paper
  • H-26.5 W-954.7
    Important Art Object
Catalogue Entry

(known as May 1st Sutra)
Nara period, 8th century
Handscroll, ink on paper
Height, 26.5cm;
overall length (including cover sheet), 954.7cm

This is one scroll from a set of the entire sutra canon (Issaikyo) commissioned by Empress Komyo (701-760) in memory of her deceased father, Fujiwara Fuhito, and her deceased mother, Agata-no-Inukai Michiyo, to pray for the happiness of the generations of emperors, the loyalty of their retainers, the salvation of the general populace from their confusion and hardships, and as a pledge to the eternity of the Buddhist faith. The end of her dedicatory inscription notes that it was "inscribed on the 1st day of the 5th month of the 12th year of the Tempyo era," and thus this sutra has come to be known as the "May 1st Sutra."

According to the Shosoin text Shakyo Shohon-cho (Dainippon komonjo, volume 7), the process of copying all of these sutras began 4 years prior to the date of the inscription, on the 29th day of the 9th month of 736 (Tempyo 8) in the sutra copy offices of the Empress's palace. The version of the sutras by Hsuan-fang (Genbo), the fourth generation patriarch of the Hosso sect, was used as the basis for this copy. According to volume 16 of the Shoku nihongi, Genbo went to Tang China in 716, and after gathering some 5,000 or more scrolls of sutras and commentaries and various sculpted Buddhist images, he returned to Japan in 735 (Tempyo 7). These 5,000 plus sutra scrolls then refer to the Kaigen Shakkyo-roku (edited by Chisho and established in K'ai Yu∃an 18, 730) as the authoritative basis for the copying of the entire sutra literature. This Buddhist canon consists of 5,048 scrolls of sutras and was the basis for the "May 1st Sutra."
The process of copying all of these sutras did not end on the 1st day of the 5th month, but rather continued until around 749 (Tempyo Shoho 1). With the addition of books and texts not included in the Issaikyo, the project consisted of the copying of more than 7,000 scrolls.

The calligraphy style of this sutra was of course not limited to a single style or hand, given that the copy process continued for approximately 15 years and included the entire Buddhist canon. In any event, many of these scrolls are prized for their powerful strokes of sutra script style calligraphy drawn in thin brush lines and their supple lines and carefully applied dotting. In terms of calligraphy style, there is no finer example of a Japanese plain-paper sutra than the "May 1st Sutra."

At present, there are 750 scrolls in the Shosoin Sacred Text Repository, and approximately 250 scrolls are dispersed in the rest of the world. This extant group of close to 1,000 scrolls represents the largest extant group of Nara period Issaikyo sets. Indeed, the "May 1st Sutras" are representative examples of Nara sutra copies in terms of both quantity and quality. EA