Of course, my adopted home has also provided many navigational aids: the strange frequencies of the composer Takemitsu Tōru and the novelist Murakami Haruki; the woodblock prints and restlessly enquiring eye of Katsushika Hokusai (it’s somehow fitting that he moved house over ninety times before his death at the age of 88); and the poetic travelogues of Matsuo Bashō, documenting his extensive journeys and engagement with reality in pellucid 17-syllable verse. Sharing this need for motion is a figure I’ve found occupying my thoughts more and more in recent years. A contemporary of Bashō, as wildly prolific as Hokusai, yet virtually unknown outside Japan, the peripatetic monk Enkū (1632-1695) was a sculptor of Buddhist images. He vowed to carve 120,000 during his lifetime, and those that survive emit a powerful frequency of their own.
The unpainted wooden statues, ranging from a few centimetres to over three metres in height, depict a variety of divinities from the esoteric Buddhist pantheon. There are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Heavenly Generals and Fierce Spirits, protectors of the Dharma. While some are more elaborate and finely worked than others, most would fall easily under the Art History headings of ‘primitive’ or ‘folk’. Certainly there are moments that make me think of Congolese nkisi fetish figures (though without their pelts of driven-in nails), or the early 20th-century avant-garde – Brancusi or the bodily distortions of Picasso. Enkū’s principal tool was a nata, a kind of straight-edged billhook or small cleaver, ideal for chopping timber, less suitable for intricate detailing. This he combined with a few chisels of various shapes to produce carvings of simple forms and bold lines that dance with the angular rhythms of axe strikes. Where the wood is split, it is often left unsmoothed, still fibrous with splinters. Hands and fingers may be only roughly blocked out, like a preparatory sketch. The crest of Zennyo the Dragon King ripples with swift bites of the blade. The eyes of the Buddha Yakushi are two horizontal chisel-marks. The overall impression is of fierce bursts of concentrated energy, but this is almost always tempered by compassion – by a serene, enigmatic smile at the centre of each statue. On its reverse, ink-brushed or chiselled, are the date and place of making, signed on occasion ‘Enkū Shamon’, the latter a term for a Buddhist monk and a cognate of ‘shaman’. These inscriptions represent some of the only proof we have of Enkū’s movements around Japan.
There is a reason both for the paucity of documentary evidence and the unadorned appearance of the sculptures. Enkū was a hijiri or itinerant priest, part of a tradition dating back to the late eighth century of holy men who undertook extreme ascetic practices in the mountains, using the spiritual power they acquired to minister to the common people. Marginal figures outside the religious establishment, ‘half-monks half-laymen’ unaffiliated to any particular temple (whose own grand Buddhas were usually covered with gold leaf, pigment or lacquer), they were men of wild countenance who enwombed themselves in remote caves or stood beneath pounding waterfalls; who fasted for long periods through the coldest months of the winter, chanting sutras and mantras, before descending to the profane world of peasants to deliver prophecies, conduct exorcisms and cure the sick. Then they moved on, back to the mountains and away to other places – men of magic more likely to appear as characters in eerie folk tales than in the annals of officialdom. But where they did, their position as outsiders was only reconfirmed.
According to the records of the castle town of Hirosaki in the north of Honshū, the main island of Japan, Enkū was expelled as an undesirable, a mere ‘travelling monk’, in 1666. He subsequently crossed over to the island of Hokkaidō, which was then at the very edge of the Japanese polity, the fief of Matsumae having only a small foothold in the south of the island; warfare with the indigenous Ainu people was endemic. This was an era of tightening state control, of rigid social stratification and suppression of religious freedom. The samurai class were the undisputed rulers. Overseas travel was prohibited, and even domestic journeys were restricted by highway checkpoints. Christianity, a potentially destabilising influence, had been eradicated through torture and executions. The entire population was now officially required to register with a Buddhist temple. Whilst not technically illegal, hijiri such as Enkū were therefore in a precarious position. Transgressive, vagrant, somewhat anachronistic and certainly of ambiguous status, they were subject always to the whims of authority.
Which is just the way I like my personal totems to be. I may never have experienced any verbal or physical abuse in Japan, but there is still constant rejection of a more subtle kind. I’ll forever be a foreigner, however long I live here. The photo ID I’m obliged to carry used to be called an Alien Registration Card and featured one of my fingerprints on the front, as though my latent criminality could somehow be discerned in its lines and whorls…
But even totems have their own priorities. Enkū went to Hokkaidō not so much to evade the State as to spread Buddhism and its message of salvation from the sufferings of existence. Apparently conceived out of wedlock and orphaned at the age of seven when his mother drowned in a flood, Enkū entered the priesthood as a child, eventually abandoning the security of a temple post at 23 for a life of wandering and asceticism. His profound faith was a fixed point of certainty – in a sense, a dwelling place of its own. But this is not faith as chin-stroking abstraction. Although we tend to think of Buddhist monks as placid, detached, even indifferent to this world, the tradition of esoteric Buddhism within which Enkū operated was closely melded with the native religion of Shintō, which is strongly place-based. Mountains, the sites of a hijiri’s seclusion and the tangible origin of his power, were the vessels of the gods long before the arrival of Buddhism (and, in the case of Hokkaidō, were sacred to the Ainu even before the spread of Japanese Shintō). Buddhist cosmology, in the form of the mandala, was often mapped directly onto such landscapes, so that to scale the slopes of certain hills or peaks was to inhabit, both physically and spiritually, the Diamond-Realm or Womb-Realm Mandalas. A concept called honji suijaku further attempted to reconcile the two faiths by positing that Shintō gods were gongen or ‘temporary manifestations’ of Buddhist divinities. Many of the statues Enkū carved while in Hokkaidō are of such avatars: statues that are simultaneously the gods of specific mountains and emanations of the Bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit).
Enkū, then, was a hands-on man. A this-worldly monk. Constantly on the road, yet deeply involved with each place he visited, he always worked with locally-sourced wood to create an image that would function as the focus of worship for that particular community. Cypress, cedar, chestnut, even reclaimed beams and rafters. Any old piece of tree was pressed into use, however knotty, warped or wormy. A single log might be split along its length to produce three thin statues. Over time this making-do became an essential part of the aesthetic, as Enkū developed a highly abbreviated and minimalist style. The natural texture and twist of a stump would become the folds of a Buddha’s robes, no carving required beyond the benevolent face. There is even a whole sub-genre of his work known as koppa-butsu or ‘offcut Buddhas’, hundreds of figures made from slivers and chips, the waste products of a much larger sculpture. The outline of a body deftly cut out, eyes and mouth chiselled in, a gingerbread Buddha conjured in an instant.
The cynical, English part of my brain considers this a fine way to meet that daunting quota of 120,000. But cynicism has no truck with love, and love, as implied by a statue’s smile, is the philosophical underpinning of Enkū’s work. In 1679, while meditating beneath a waterfall, he received a divine revelation from the god of Mount Hakusan, which he then inked on the backs of four separate statues: 是有廟即世尊 (‘This too is a shrine of the Buddha’). Everything has its Buddha-nature, its innate radiance. Everything participates in the same story. Not even a single splinter of wood can be disregarded. It’s a sentiment that recalls the first stanza of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
The World Wide Web is a wondrous invention for an immigrant like myself. Cheap communication with distant family, instant updates on the motherland. The technology lets us know so much. Or, alternatively, the technology stops us knowing anything. Far from evolving into a utopia of pluralism and expanded consciousness, our digital age is characteristically hermetic, myopic, moronic and narcissistic. Time is frittered, attention scattered. Conversely, to engage with one thing with full bodily commitment is somehow to know everything. Armed with a blade and a fistful of chisels, Enkū reveals more about reality than all our databanks of dross combined.
It probably helps that carving is the most revelatory of techniques, the art form most akin to giving birth. Proceeding by subtraction rather than addition, it allows an inner form to emerge from the material, as demonstrated vividly by Michelangelo’s unfinished statues. Half-in half-out of a womb of rough marble is a perfectly rendered human torso. But whereas the Italian seeks to enact the Christian myth of dead stuff transmuted into living flesh, Enkū’s Buddhas never transcend their origins. Wood remains wood. Indeed, some sculptures differ little from a block of firewood, and all clearly bear the marks of their making. The run of the chisel, the hack of the nata. There is a visceral sense that this birth is happening now, that nothing is ever finished, that Buddha-nature is not static. You can smell the cut wood.
Or maybe you could if you weren’t shuffling past to the gift shop or leafing through a book of photographs. Public interest in Enkū has surged in Japan since the 1960s, resulting in both a tidy trade in stolen works and a spate of forgeries. Of the approximately 5,300 statues so far authenticated (it would seem that pledged target of 120,000 was either unachieved or a merely symbolic number), many are currently in private ownership or museums. It has become harder and harder to see the statues in their original settings. I first came face to face with one within the concrete fastness of an Osaka gallery, and rely for my regular fix on the stylish black and white pictures of Gotō Hideo. While it’s true the universality of Buddha-nature endures any amount of uprooting, even to print, the same cannot be said for the localism of Shintō, that equally vital element in Enkū’s religious practice. To divorce statue from place is to block half of its frequency. To quote the folklorist Gorai Shigeru: ‘A cave deep in mountains untainted by humans; a small shrine in a forest buried in grass, known only to woodcutters; a lonely temple hall visited by villagers once or twice a year on festival days; the dust-covered dais of a run-down temple with no head priest. It is in just such places that Enkū’s Buddhas breathe – and appear somewhat pleased with themselves.’1
19th May 2018
The air holds a charge here in Yoshino, this mountainous district in western Japan. The energy of trees and fast-flowing water. We’re in the village of Tenkawa, Heavenly River, and our infant son is delighted to stretch his limbs after two hours in the car. Two hours and 60 kilometres, from the plain to the north where we live, with its trappings of civilisation – dual carriageways flanked by identikit stores – until concrete yielded to cryptomeria, to a snaking road, hairpin bends, a short diversion due to a landslide, and tunnels that punched through the heart of the rock for several kilometres at a time. This is ancient terrain, stomping ground for ascetics and pilgrims, a land of microclimates, of forested peaks and shadowy valleys, that were hard to reach until modern engineering stitched them all together.
On two occasions in the 1670s, Enkū secluded himself on nearby Mount Ōmine and completed four statues (and one figurine), presently enshrined in a neat temple with the dimensions of a garden shed. Crime prevention being paramount, it also has CCTV and glass screens in front of the altar. The elderly warden buttonholes us the moment we arrive and insists on turning on the overhead light, which makes it hard to see past the reflections. He’s a kindly man, however, who’s happy to let our son beat the hell out of the priest’s woodblock, so while he and my wife chat, I stoop and cup my hand against the glass.
From half a metre to a metre and a half in height. Early-to-mid-career Enkū, a more deliberate mode. He’s been sculpting for a decade by this point and has yet to enter his bold, pared-down phase. Astonishing freshness. Some wormholes, but no patina, no toll of heavy years. The grain of the cryptomeria is exquisite, sinuous. Tiger. Racoon. The deity Kongō Dōji (Kaṇi-krodha in Sanskrit) has circular markings around his eyes. Lines of dark and pale brown run down the river goddess Benzaiten (Sarasvatī), echoing the carved folds of her robes. But wood remains wood. And more than that – these statues are essentially still trees. They share the same vertical strength and upward growth, the same settled grace. Away from the hype of the exhibition or the focusing frame of the page, they are also as unassuming – as ignorable, even – as individual trees in a forest. Yet pay them your full attention and they start to draw you in, speak to you, collude. It occurs to me that dwelling, true belonging, can never derive from bureaucratic sanction, from residence permits or property rights (for how can you ever own, in any meaningful way, a tree or an Enkū?), but only from mutual recognition. From reciprocation.
Amongst the four trees, a seed. Once contained in a hollow in the back of the principal figure here, the Bodhisattva Shō-Kannon (Ārya-Avalokiteśvara), and now displayed in a perspex box, is a six-centimetre-high ‘womb-Buddha’ sitting on a lotus flower. A Buddha in a Buddha in a temple in this valley of trees. My son beats the woodblock, and everything smiles.
No sculptures have been found dating from the last three years of Enkū’s life. It appears he abandoned carving in order to try to become a sokushimbutsu, a ‘Buddha in this body’. This macabre practice involved giving up all cereals for an austere diet of berries, nuts and tree bark. The idea was to consume the bare minimum necessary to stay alive, while gradually reducing body fat and absorbing the preservative qualities of resin. After 1000 days, the monk was buried in an underground chamber with an air hole but no further sustenance. He would die in the dark, meditating in the lotus position. Eventually, when his naturally mummified body had been disinterred, it was established as the chief image in a temple. A dozen such corpses, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, can still be seen today in the north of Japan, but Enkū’s body has not survived. His chamber was on the bank of a river, part of the same network that had flooded and killed his own mother, and it seems likely his remains decayed in the damp ground before mummification could occur.
Return to the womb. Eat trees. The sculptor striving to become sculpture, living flesh to inert matter in a grim inversion of Michelangelo. Death, though, was not the aim. It was believed the sacred mummy was simply in a deep meditative trance and would revive with the appearance of Miroku (Maitreya, the Future Buddha) in 5,670,000,000 years’ time. Even personal totems have their own priorities.
As a child, I never had my own bedroom. Being a twin, I even shared a womb. As do we all. The nurturing Earth, its domed sky. Maybe the waymarkers we really need are the very phenomena of the world itself. Nothing is ever static. Everything is made afresh at every single moment. This year, as in every year, I’ll help my father-in-law plant out the rice. The cool mud sucking at my feet, the paddy frogs diving for cover. The next time you wake up and don’t know where you are, get outside and cleave some wood. Feel the grain of the place. Trace its lines and whorls.
1. Gorai, Shigeru, Enkū-butsu – Kyōgai to Sakuhin [Enkū’s Buddhas – His Life and Work], Tankōsha, Kyoto, 1968, p.112. Translation my own.