Illustrated Manuscript of the Lotus Sutra

Artist: Unidentified Artist

Period: Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)

Date: ca. 1340

Culture: Korea

Medium: Accordion-format book; gold and silver on indigo-dyed mulberry paper

Dimensions: Image: 9 x 4 1/2 in. (22.9 x 11.4 cm)
Overall: 13 x 4 1/2 x 7/8 in. (33 x 11.4 x 2.2 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1994

Accession Number: 1994.207


A seminal Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra was among the most frequently copied sutras in East Asia. Illustrated Buddhist scriptures produced at the Royal Scriptorium were highly valued not only on the peninsula but throughout northeast Asia. The volumes usually have a rectangular accordion format and calligraphy written in gold or silver pigment on indigo-dyed paper, often preceded by elaborate frontispiece illustrations, as seen here. This fourteenth-century example (volume two of the Lotus Sutra) demonstrates the standards of excellence for which Goryeo sutras are renowned.

The illustration is divided into two halves and addresses the question of universal salvation and ways to enlightenment. The book is read from right to left.

Far right: The preaching scene. Seated on a high pedestal and surrounded by bodhisattvas, heavenly kings, and two of his disciples, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni preaches to a third disciple, Shariputra.

Upper left: The parable of the burning house. A father (representing the Buddha) promises animal-drawn carts to his child (representing sentient beings) to tempt him away from poisonous insects, snakes, and the burning house (the perils of the mortal world). Once outside, the child is rewarded with one grand carriage (the “one vehicle” of Mahayana Buddhism).

Lower left: The story of the prodigal son. The destitute son (representing sentient beings) works for a rich man, whose true identity is his father (the Buddha). Starting as a laborer, the son works his way up to more prestigious jobs and, in the end, is bequeathed the wealth of the father.