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


This lavishly illustrated fourteenth-century manuscript, produced on mulberry paper dyed indigo blue and executed in gold and silver, demonstrates the standards of excellence for which Koryō sutras are renowned. Like most Korean illuminated manuscripts of this period, it is presented in a rectangular accordion format that facilitated reading. The text is the second volume of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential Buddhist texts in East Asia and, along with the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most frequently copied sutra in Korea during the Koryō period. The Lotus Sutra presents in concrete terms the essence of Mahayana Buddhism—namely, the doctrine of universal salvation of all living beings and the attainment of Buddhahood, the ultimate aim of existence.

Read from right to left, the manuscript begins with the title, written in gold, followed by illustrations of episodes described in the inscribed text, executed in minute detail and lavishly embellished in gold. The illustrations are framed by a border of vajra (thunderbolt) and chakra (wheel) motifs, symbolizing indestructibility and the Buddha law, respectively. At the far right, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, shown seated on a dais behind an altar and surrounded by bodhisattvas and guardians, preaches to his disciple Shariputra in the company of other monks. In the upper left of the frontispiece is a scene illustrating the parable of the burning house, which relates the story of a wealthy man and his children. The children are playing in the house, unaware that it is plagued by demons, poisonous insects, and snakes and that it is also on fire. Their father, in order to entice his children away from the danger, offers them three carts, drawn by an ox, a deer, or a goat according to each child's preferences and interests. When the children exit the burning house, however, they each receive a cart even more magnificent than they expected. This parable illustrates how "expedient methods" (the modest carts) can lead sentient beings (the children) from the fleeting and perilous world of sensual perception (the house) to a greater goal, the vehicle of Mahayana Buddhism (the resplendent carts).

The second parable, shown in the lower left, concerns an old man and his son, who in his youth abandons his father and lives for many years in another land. As he grows older, he becomes increasingly poor and seeks employment in prosperous households. After wandering from place to place, he stumbles upon the new residence of his now wealthy and successful father. Not recognizing his father, the son flees in fear that he will be enslaved. His father, realizing that his son is incapable of living as the sole heir to such a prominent man, disguises himself as a moderately wealthy man and hires his son as a laborer whose job is to clear away excrement. Gradually, he entrusts his son with greater responsibilities, so that the young man grows accustomed to administering his master's affairs and slowly develops self-assurance and generosity. At this time, his father reveals his true identity and bestows upon his son his entire fortune. In this parable, the father represents the Buddha, and the son symbolizes the unenlightened sentient beings. Their master, recognizing that they are unprepared to accept this greater glory, waits until they adapt to their more modest roles before granting them the promise of ultimate enlightenment. At the end of the scripture, devotees are warned that those who disregard the Lotus Sutra will be reborn as deformed beings, as reviled as the wild dog being chased by the children in the lower left corner of the sutra's frontispiece. The text that follows the illustration is written in silver in a highly refined standard script (haeso; Chinese: kaishu).

The copying of sutras, the written texts that transmit the teachings of the Buddha, was widely encouraged in Buddhist practice, and patrons and artisans alike were rewarded with religious merit for their efforts. Every stage of the