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Fudō Myōō (Achala-vidyaraja)

Met curator Sinéad Vilbar on inner conflict in Fudō Myōō (Achala-vidyaraja) dating from Japan’s Heian period, 12th century.

Fudō Myōō is the most widely represented of the Buddhist deities known as Myōō, or Kings of Brightness. A fierce protector of the Buddhist Law, he is a direct emanation of the Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the principal Buddha of Esoteric Buddhism. The first sculptures of Fudō made in Japan were seated, but standing sculptures like this one were carved beginning in the eleventh century. Fudō uses his sword to cut through ignorance and his lasso to reign in those who would block the path to enlightenment. The heavy weight of the shoulders and back is planted firmly on the stiffened legs, appropriate for a deity whose name means the “Immovable.”

Images of Fudō are often housed in temple halls called Gomadō where a fire-burning ritual called the goma-e is performed. The ritual involves the burning of incense and other possessions to symbolically destroy defilements. This statue, originally composed of six hollowed-out pieces of wood, was formerly the central icon of the Kuhonji Gomadō in Funasaka, twenty miles northwest of Kyoto. The hall has not survived. Fudō would once have had a mandorla carved in the shape of wild flames and inserted behind him into the rock upon which he stands.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Video transcript

I’m quite stubborn, and this figure appeals to me because he is Fudō, the immovable one. Think of him as a guardian, he’s like the bouncer of Buddhism. He’s there to protect Buddhist law. Someone of my height would find him quite intimidating, but it still draws you in. He’s very sinewy, but he’s got this round belly like a child’s. If you think of the sort of stubborn five-year-old who is not going to leave the house until he gets what he wants. He’s got one squinty eye, his fangs coming out, you’re gonna stop and be quiet. Halls dedicated to him in Japan are places where you can go and have things burned, to burn all your impurities. The sword is there really just to cut right through the crap and then the lasso is basically there to grab anybody who might be trying to mess with Buddhism. A lot of it is fighting your own psychological battles. Meditating with images like this is about identifying with your whole body. You can feel where he’s got tension. You can feel where he is stable. I like to think that I can get into his particles, be where he’s been. Kuhon-ji, the temple he’s originally from, didn’t survive. I like to think that the materiality of that memory is encased in him. Knowing that these things were taking place in front of him, that in between where I stand and where he stands and it’s not there now, but in my mind it can be when I’m looking at him.