Like all Buddhist sects, the primary focus of Mikkyo is the cultivation of spiritual practices that will help to guide a person to awakening, satori. Mikkyo utilises rituals, mantras and visualisations, which correspond to the body, speech and mind, to create the conditions conducive to awakening. Therefore, all of the artefacts, implements and artworks related to Mikkyo are for the purpose of aiding the practitioner towards satori.
Esoteric Buddhist art focusses principally on the mandala art form, which acts as cosmic map for contemplation and visualisation practices. Mandalas also act as ritual manuals that guide the practitioner in their meditation practice. The mandala may depict a single deity or it may be composed of complex arrangements of deities. However, using the word “deities” is problematic because these images are really representations of one’s own states of mind that are the focus of ritual meditation practices. Fundamentally, they are ritual tools, rich in symbolism; however, they are also exquisitely beautiful works of art that can appreciated in their own right by non-practitioners as well. In this way, they function differently and are appreciated for their purely aesthetic value. It could be argued though that their aesthetic appeal stems from the awakened mind of the person who created them in the first place and so they appeal to a universal sense of beauty because they encapsulate cosmic truths.
In Japan, the mandala takes two-dimensional, three-dimensional and geographic forms. The two-dimensional form is familiarly seen as the large scrolls and paintings in temples and museums. These paintings are objects of meditation and are most fully enjoyed by sitting quietly and observing, and allowing the images to just flow over you. The mandala can also be a three-dimensional architectural form, most often seen as the pagoda (stupa) within the temple grounds, as well as a geographical form, found in the layout of the buildings within a temple precinct or even the layout of large geographical areas such as the mountains around Koyasan or the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, in which you immerse yourself in the mandala by traversing or dwelling in the mandala space itself.
The other major form of Esoteric Buddhist art is statuary: primarily made of carved wood or dry lacquer forms, the statues are representations of Buddhist deities. They serve a symbolic function similar to the mandala, but these statues can also be appreciated for their intrinsic aesthetic qualities. One of the difficulties in appreciating Buddhist statuary is understanding that their forms are determined by symbolic qualities, rather than an attempt to present a realistic human form. This is quite different to the appreciation of traditional religious statues in the West, where the statue is often a depiction of a realistic form that is intended to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Religious art in Europe tends to focus on creating a sense of awe, whereas Japanese Buddhist art is intended to create a focused mental state that aids the viewer in their practice of concentration on a particular mental attribute, such as compassion in the case of images of Kannon (Avalokitesvara).
A third major category of Mikkyo art are the implements used in the rituals: this is the most difficult area of aesthetic appreciation for non-practitioners because the function of the implements is often obscure. Again, appreciating the inherent beauty of these implements does not require lengthy explanation, but understanding their use and symbolism does inform that appreciation.
At a popular, folk level, Mikkyo artworks are often believed to have miraculous powers for healing, protection from evil, answering prayers, and providing worldly benefits, and temples with these miraculous images are popular destinations for pilgrims, who may or may not have personal affiliation with the sect of that temple. This is one of the distinctive characteristics of Japanese Buddhism in general.
Many of Japan’s wonderful National Treasures are Buddhist images, statues and implements, and most of those relate to the Mikkyo tradition. You don’t have to know or understand the symbolism of these images to enjoy them; however, it is hoped that some elucidation of their intended use will help you to better appreciate these great art works.
The most comprehensive overview of Japanese Buddhist art, in any language, can be found on Mark Schumacher’s wonderful online encyclopaedia Japanese Buddhist Statuary
English-language information about National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of Japanese Esoteric Art can be found within the pages of the eMuseum website, which collated treasures from the three major National Museums:
Kyoto National Museum
Tokyo National Museum
Nara National Museum
Information exclusively on Mikkyo art can be found on the Koyasan Reihokan Museum page