Nigatsudō Burned Sutra

Artist: Unidentified Artist

Period: Nara period (710–794)

Date: ca. 744

Culture: Japan

Medium: Hanging scroll; silver ink on indigo-dyed paper

Dimensions: 9 3/4 x 21 1/8 in. (24.8 x 53.7 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, Mrs. Jackson Burke Gift, 1978

Accession Number: 1981.75


This fragment of a handscroll, now mounted as a hanging scroll, comes from an original set of sixty handscrolls donated to the Todaiji temple in Nara in 744. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of the practice of transcribing Buddhist texts using precious materials. The copying of religious writings was thought to confer spiritual merit on all involved in the project, including the donors, scribes, and craftsmen who prepared the materials, and so was done in great numbers during this period. This fragment is a section of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Japanese: Kegongyo), one of the most revered Buddhist texts in East Asia. The characters are written in a special form of regular script that is balanced and even, with each stroke clearly visible to maximize legibility. The thickened downward diagonal strokes and exaggerated hooks at the end of some strokes lend a sense of ornamentation and elegance.

Fire damage is visible along the base of this sutra fragment. The accident occurred in February 1667 when sparks from torches used in annual purification rites ignited a blaze. Because the effect captures the Buddhist idea that everything is impermanent, "burned sutras" (yakekyo) such as this came to be highly prized.