Picturing the Afterlife: The Shōjuraigōji Six Paths Scrolls and Salvation in Medieval Japan

PhD defended at: 

Princeton University


Miriam Chusid



The set of Six Paths paintings completed in the mid-thirteenth century and owned by Shōjuraigōji temple in Shiga Prefecture represents one of the most ambitious attempts to render the first chapter of The Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land (Ōjōyōshū, 985) in pictorial form. The Essentials extols the virtues of the nenbutsu, or recitation of Amida Buddha’s name, as a paramount practice for attaining birth in the Pure Land and salvation at the time of death. The first chapter, more specifically, describes the suffering in the six paths of rebirth—hell, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and celestial beings—to emphasize the urgent need to practice the nenbutsu to avoid an afterlife filled with torture and affliction. Indeed, both mediums present a similar view of the cosmological structure of the Buddhist universe, and the paintings, like the descriptions in the text, depict the various punishments that await a person in each of these realms should he or she commit transgressions or neglect Buddhist practice while alive.

In my dissertation, I reexamine and contest the claim that the paintings served as entirely faithful illustrations of The Essentials. In challenging a longstanding methodology in Buddhist art history that gives primacy to scripture and understands images as consequences of its production, I investigate the role of text in the painting process by focusing on those places where the images diverge from the writings they purport to illustrate. Through a close analysis of the Shōjuraigōji scrolls, and by drawing on contemporaneous paintings that also depict the six realms, as well as courtiers’ diaries, votive inscriptions, Buddhist iconographic compendia, narrative tales, and architectural records of halls designed for funeral services, I argue that these images reveal shifts in belief and practice, and in turn, informed the meaning of the very texts from which they derived their authority. I show how the Shōjuraigōji scrolls became the new archetype of hell-related imagery employed in a ritual context for the benefit of the deceased and to ensure liberation for those still living.

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