Hell Scrolls and Hungry Ghosts in Early Medieval Japan

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“A great whirlwind sprang up in the Nakamikado Kyogoku area [in Kyoto], and swept down through the city to around Rokujo. Over three or four blocks, every single house, large or small, in the path of the swirling wind was destroyed…The wind raised such a spiraling smoke of dust that the eye was quite blinded, and the dreadful roar drowned out all speech. The karmic wind of hell itself would be such as this, it seemed.”[1]

-Kamo no Chomei,

In his famous , Kamo no Chomei (c.1155–1216) wrote of numerous natural disasters to befall the capital in the late-twelfth century. Whirlwinds, earthquakes, and fires ravaged the capital. These seemed to be harbingers of doom. The political situation was just as disastrous. Having more or less ignored the countryside, powerful elites in court realized how little power they actually had. They were reliant on these rural elites to maintain order. Younger sons and distant cadet branches of important families had to go into the countryside in order to make a living. These rural landowners, warrior antecedents of the samurai class, gained much power and influence. The Fujiwara Clan had lost its power over the Imperial Court. Retired emperors and leaders from the warrior Taira and Minamoto Clans vied for political power. Religion also changed significantly. In the Heian period (794–1185), Buddhism was largely for the aristocracy. Shinto was largely a decentralized belief system. Nobles and commoners were adherents of Shinto. By the twelfth century, Buddhism began to spread beyond the aristocracy to a significant extent.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the fifth century from the Korean Peninsula. The early Imperial Court was divided between supporters of this new belief system (the Soga Clan) and supporters of traditional beliefs (the Mononobe Clan). It was only after the introduction of Buddhism, that the traditional belief system became known as ‘Shinto’ (‘Way of the Gods’). Eventually, the two religions became amalgamated. This was a centuries-long process with considerable struggle in the beginning. The Soga Clan triumphed, though Shinto was still useful as Emperor Temmu used it to justify the superiority of the nascent Yamato state as it expanded. Prominent early supporters of Buddhism included Prince Shotoku and Emperor Shomu. Before the Heian period, Buddhism was almost exclusively state-sponsored. During the Heian period, new schools came to Japan (the Tendai and Shingon). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, several more schools came to Japan (Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen). Jodo (Pure Land) rose in popularity as well. Each of these schools faced a certain amount of opposition and were not exclusively state-sponsored. Buddhist monks increasingly sought to reach the lower classes. I will go into greater detail on the various schools of medieval Japanese Buddhism in another article. The rest of this article will be concerned with several works of art produced in the twelfth century as Japan shifted from the Heian to Kamakura periods. With the spread of Buddhism, artistic worlds followed. Those analyzed are Hell Scrolls and Hungry Ghost Scrolls.

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Interest in Buddhist cosmology spread as more people sought salvation amidst the violence and chaos. Kamo no Chomei recorded a series of natural disasters contributing to an increase in Buddhist pessimism. In addition to fires and earthquakes, a plague killed many people in the capital. Chomei recorded “those who still looked reasonably presentable took to the streets, clad in hats and leggings, going from door to door, desperately begging. These miserable wretches could be seen staggering along one minute and fallen the next. Countless numbers starved to death by walls and roadsides. None knew how to dispose of all these corpses; the air was filled with their stench…as for the dry river bed, the bodies lay so thick that there was no room for horses and carts to pass.”[2] In such an environment, the artistic depictions of hell and the afterlife became vivid and morbid.

There is a term in Japanese Buddhism for degeneration of the Buddha’s teachings: mappo. This is the last of the Three Ages of Buddhism. The first (Shobo) is an age in which the Buddha’s disciples are able to faithfully uphold his teachings. The second (Zoho) is the age of semblance dharma, and the third (mappo) is an age of decline and degeneration. Mappo is also understood as Latter Day of the Law. The Mahasamnipata Sutra describes in detail the decline of the Buddha’s teachings and the disasters which were supposed to accompany this decline (civil unrest, famine, natural disasters). Such teachings had great appeal in those who had lived through the chaos of the late-twelfth century.

Both the Tokyo National Museum and Nara National Museum have Hell Scrolls from the twelfth century. Both are master works of late-Heian period artisanship. The hells make up one of the six realms a person enters upon death in the various cycles of death and rebirth due to the person’s deeds during life. Hell Scrolls depict sinners’ sufferings. Indeed, there are multiple levels of hell much like in Dante’s . The Tokyo scroll depicts murderers, thieves, and adulterers (among others). They are all naked and surrounded by flames.[3]

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The Hell Scroll at the Nara National Museum depicts the sixteen lesser hells described in the Sutra of the World Arising (Kisekyo). The provenance of this scroll goes back to the Imperial Court of the late-Heian period. It is probable that this scroll was part of a series commissioned by Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127–1192).[4]

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In addition to depictions of hell, depictions of hungry ghosts were popular during the late-Heian period. The Kyoto National Museum holds one of these scrolls, a designated national treasure from the twelfth century. Hungry ghosts are tormented souls, constantly seeking food and water. These souls are said to suffer until proper offerings are made at their funerary markers. The story depicted ultimately ends with salvation through the Buddha’s compassion.

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[1] Yoshida Kenko. Kamo no Chomei. McKinney, Meredith. . (Penguin Classics, 2013)., p.7.

[2] Ibid., p.9.

[3] emuseum.jp. Article on the Tokyo National Museum’s Hell Scroll (12th century, National Treasure).

[4] emuseum.jp. Article on the Nara National Museum’s Hell Scroll (12th century, National Treasure).

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Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Juggler | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

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