Work in Progress: Risaku Suzuki - Kyozuka, Kumano

Risaku Suzuki - Kyozuka, Kumano

For the upcoming Tsuka exhibition at CCP we have commissioned the wonderful Risaku Suzuki to produce a new series of photographs in response to the themes investigated. Risaku made works at the Kyozuka of Tsuruginoyama, Kumano-Shingu, Sone-zaki and Nachi in Kumano, Japan. This region is very familiar to the artist and his most well-known and sublime work, KUMANO, was also made amongst these stunning landscapes and communities. The new series is titled Kyozuka, Kumano and the photographs were made with a large-format 8x10” camera and will be exhibited as exquisitely detailed contact prints.

Text by D. Max Moerman

Kyōzuka (経塚)or sutra mounds, mark the sites of human intervention in which Buddhist scriptures, images, and ritual implements have been buried in the earth to preserve the teachings through an anticipated age of decline and disappearance and to pray for the future salvation of oneself and others.  From the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, thousands of kyōzuka were constructed at temples, shrines, and sacred mountains throughout Japan.  In the Kumano region of southern Wakayama Prefecture –– an ancient landscape of this and the other world, a legendary realm of death and rebirth –– kyōzuka mark the sites of ritual practice and religious aspiration: the three shrines of Kumano, known as Hongū, Shingū, and Nachi, and the forested paths between them.  As physical and spatial memorials of an earlier age, the sutra mounds of Kumano serve as milestones of the pilgrim’s progress, landmarks of a buried past, and time capsules of a future yet to come.

The Tsuruginoyama Kyōzuka (剣の山経塚) takes its name from the Mountain of Swords, a site of eternal suffering in the geography of Buddhist hells.  Pilgrims pass this toponym along the Nakahechi route toward the Kumano Hongū shrine, which represents the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  

Kumano Shingu Kyōzuka (熊野新宮経塚)
The Kumano Shingū Shrine, identified with Yakushi, the Buddha of Healing, is located thirty-five kilometers south of the Hongū Shrine, where the Kumano River empties into the Pacific.  The kyōzuka of the Shingū are clustered around Mount Kannokura, a rocky outcropping above the shrine, reached by series of steep stone steps. The straw rope girding the rock mark it as the locus of divine descent. A center for Buddhist ascetics in the premodern period, Mount Kannokura remains the site of a major fire festival held annually in the lunar new year in which hundreds of local men undergo rites of purification, climb the holy mountain, ignite a sacred fire, and stream down the hillside with flaming pine torches from which villagers kindle their hearths.  Archeological excavations at Mount Kannokura have unearthed hundreds of Buddhist texts, objects, and images buried in the sacred landscape.  Eleven separate kyōzuka were found to contain a total of one hundred and twenty-three copper sutra containers as well as stones inscribed with scriptural passages.  In addition to the texts embedded and inscribed in the terrain, three hundred and eighty-three ritual implements, and seventy-nine images of the Buddhist pantheon of the Kumano shrines were buried at Mount Kannokura.

Sonae-zaki Kyōzuka (備崎経塚)
The remains of some forty sutra mounds have been found at Sonae-zaki, an area near the former site of the Kumano Hongū Shrine, which was located on the small island of Ōyunohara at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi rivers.  The former site of the shrine, now absent of architecture and overgrown with trees, remains only a place of memory. The route of Kumano pilgrims to the Hongū Shrine was mapped onto the cosmology of the Nine Levels of Rebirth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.  Arriving at the Hongū, where Amida was enshrined, was a thus a passage from death to rebirth in which pilgrims reached their heavenly goal after wading across the shallow waters to the other shore of paradise.  Although the inscriptions on the sutras and other objects buried at kyōzuka often speak to an anxiety over the preservation of the Buddhist tradition until the advent of Miroku, the Buddha of the Future, they also address more personal concerns about the death and the afterlife on the individual.  The sutra mounds of Kumano signal such an overdetermined landscape and embody a form of memorialisation neither singular nor settled.

Nachi Kyōzuka (那智経塚)
The Kumano Nachi Shrine, located beside a one-hundred-and-seventy-meter waterfall at the headwaters of the Nachi River, is dedicated to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whose island paradise is believed to lie in the distant southern sea.  Excavations of kyōzuka near the base of the Nachi waterfall have discovered more than a thousand items.  Notable among them are ten small gilt bronze images of Kannon, three of Yakushi, two of Amida, and one of Miroku.  Those who practiced austerities in Kumano mountains envisioned the topography as a three-dimensional Buddhist mandala. Among the most remarkable objects unearthed from the Nachi kyōzuka are cast bronze images comprising a complete Diamond Realm (Kongōkai ) mandala dating to the twelfth century.  The buried mandala consists of images of various buddhas and bodhisattvas, twenty-two images of the symbolic forms of other deities, and forty-one ritual implements and altar tools. Other excavated items include one hundred and fifty-three sutra containers, seventeen mirrors incised with images of Buddhist deities, three miniature stupas, and thirty-nine stones inscribed with sutra passages.  Beneath the visible surface of Kumano’s landscape lay another invisible and subterranean world, a deeper strata of meaning, buried for nearly a thousand years.

By D. Max Moerman, Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College, Columbia University


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