“Is there more God in an elephant than an oyster?”
From Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones
Why I started this post – because I needed some kind of intellectual sorbet for a change:
This image was posted at Flickr by Premshree Pillai.
I decided to write a post about elephants in Japanese art because I thought it would be short and sweet and quick and I could give it – my mind – a rest for a while before I tackled a larger topic. It would like act like the sorbets which are offered to the diners in over-priced, hoity-toity restaurants which are intended to clear a person’s palette before the next course is served. Boy was I wrong. Oh, not about the scope of the use of elephants in Japanese art – there aren’t all that many – but about all of the other elephants I had forgotten about which I would find elsewhere. They are everywhere and they are damned impressive.
I must be getting old – no wait – I am getting old – no wait – I am old! What a trite thing to say. Like it needed to be said? Nooooo. But that is why a flood of elephants came back to engulf me after I started searching around for really juicy material to write about. It is a veritable cabinet des curiosités which I would hope will astound and amaze you.
One more thing before we begin: my use of the word ‘intellectual’. How presumptuous when I really meant only ‘a mental sorbet.’ ‘Intellectual’ sounded better, even if it wasn’t true. It sounded better, damn it – like the word ‘perspicacity’ always does. You know, one of those show-offy words used by pseudo-intellectuals (and others).
Now on to the elephants – a man in a disguise – he has his reasons:
This print is the right-hand panel from a triptych found at the Lyon Collection. The artist is Kunisada and dates from ca. 1847. The full triptych is shown below. Click on that image to go to the page dedicated to it.
Just sittin’ on an elephant –
There are quite a few examples of figures on elephants, some religious, some militaristic, some comical, some others that are religious, some as drivers and in certain other cases some more religious individuals. Caution: if you see a courtesan or an elegantly dressed and coiffed prostitute sitting on an elephant she might actually be a stand-in for a Buddhist deity or even a completely different Buddhist deity. Don’t worry about the confusion this may cause. It can all be figured out later.
Hokusai from http://www.mfa.org
The courtesan Eguchi as Fugen riding on a white elephant. This comes from the Kyosai Museum.
Fugen = Samantabhadra = 普賢
There is a lot of intellectual – there’s that word again – gobbledygook when it comes to the names associated with the Buddhist pantheon. It is the kind of thing you want to learn in the classroom so you can get an acceptable grade on a test. To the uninitiated Fugen means one thing, while Samantabhadra means something else – maybe. And this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It isn’t even an atom on the most tippy-top of that oversized ice-cube. It is an sub-atomic particle of the atom which rests up there until, of course, it melts, and again becomes one-again with the universe. But that said, even the character of Samantabhadra can be a bit confusing.
According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism Samantabhadra can be either a Buddha or a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint. In Japan it is generally viewed as the latter as evidenced by this beautiful shrine shown below from a museum in Paris where it is referred to as Fugen Enmei, the life prolonging Fugen.
“In China, the center of Samantabhadra’s worship is Emeishan in Sichuan province, which began to develop in the early Tang. According to legend, Samantabhadra arrived at the mountain by flying there on his white elephant, his usual mount.”
In the Tokyo National Museum is a designated ‘National Treasure’, an 12th century painting of Fugen.
Tokyo National Museum
There is a scroll painting from the Kamakura period in the Guimet showing Fugen in radiance atop a white elephant surrounded by the ten Rasetsunyo (羅刹女) or ten demon daughters. “Although some paintings of individual Rasetsunyo [female protectors of Buddhism] are known, they appear most commonly in groups of ten surrounding Fugen Bosatsu, a manifestation inspired by a passage in the last chapter of the Lotus Sutra in which Fugen promises his protection to all beings, including women, who read, recite and venerate this scripture.”
Although it isn’t clearly visible in this reproduction the elephant has six tusks which “…symbolize the six cardinal virtues of Buddhism” and much more –
In a description of the birth of the historical buddha, Guatama, Edwin Arnold wrote:
Thus came he to be born again among men.
That night the wife of king Suddhodana,
Maya, the Queen, asleep beside her Lord,
Dreamed a strange dream : dreamed that a star from heaven —
Splendid, six-rayed, in colour rosy-pearl,
Whereof the token was an Elephant
Six-tusked, and white as milk of Kamadhuk —
Shot through the void; and, shining into her,
Entered her womb upon the right. Awakened,
Bliss beyond mortal mother’s filled her breast,
And over half the earth a lovely light. Forewent the morn.
The dream of Maya from the Bharhut stupa, 2nd century B.C. Found at wikimedia.
Another versions says: “Queen Maya dreamed, the night before conceiving the Buddha, that she lay on a heavenly couch in a golden mansion in the Himalayas. The Buddha became a beautiful white elephant, bearing in his trunk a white lotus flower. He seemed to touch her right side and enter her womb. From this dream, some Buddhists believe that is how the Buddha was incarnate into Queen Maya.” Late the queen gave birth while standing by a tree holding onto one of its branches. The Guatama buddha was then born out of the side of her upper torso and when he was born he could walk and talk unlike ordinary infants.
For good measure, there is another image of Fugen from the same collection, but this one they believe to be Tibetan and from the 18th or 19th century. I just thought it was too striking to leave out. Also, if you look closely at the bottom of this painting a triangular stack of multi-colored sacred jewels bracketed on both sides by what appear to be six white tusks or something that looks very like them.
Tokyo National Museum
“The elephant hath joints, but none for courtesy;
His legs are for necessity, not for flexure.”
From William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
Let’s stay with the birth of Buddha for just a little bit longer –
There is a remarkable early print, signed Dōeki, in the Carnegie Museum of Art. It tells quite a tale – not only iconographically, but also in pursuit of its acquisition. Little to nothing is known of the artist, but it is a print that fascinated Dr. James B. Austin who was finally able to acquire it. Below is part of a letter Dr. Barton wrote to Roger Keyes:
Traditionally, the birth of Buddha is depicted is taking place in the ancestral garden which is called,
for reasons that I don’t understand, the Lumbini garden. His mother, Maya, is shown resting her hand
on a branch of a flowering Asoka tree and you can see her doing this in the upper right of the print. In
India, Buddha was often shown emerging from her right side but this is actually omitted in Chinese and
Japanese scenes as it probably offended Japanese sensibility…
At any rate, after the birth, Buddha was taken by Indra and placed on a lotus throne. This is shown in the
upper left of the print where the child is sitting on a lotus. He is then baptized, usually by Naga kings, or
occasionally by water pouring from four columns supporting a canopy. In this case it is two dragons, which
I suspect is part of the Chinese influence. Buddha is then shown having taken the “seven steps” with his right
hand raised to Heaven and his left hand pointing to the earth. In this way he proclaims his divine mission.
You can see him doing this right above the canopy, which I believe, is held over his father’s head.”
Carnegie Museum of Art
One thing Dr. Austin did not mention in the text shown above is the assembly of animals in the bottom center and right. In each case there are pairs of horses, oxen and elephants with their newborn mirroring the birth theme from above. Below is an enlarged detail of the elephants and their calf.
As an object d’art – inro
All I can say about this next piece is WOW! It was created by Ogawa Haritsu (小川破笠: 1663-1747). It is made of coral, porcelain, mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer.
© Trustees of the British Museum
A carved cinnabar example from the Met –
This inro is done in the tsuishu (堆朱) or layed red style of carving.
Here is another stunner from by Kakosai from ca. 1850-75. The curatorial files regarding this object state: “This example shows an elephant in rich covers on one side, and boys in Korean dress on the other. The spectacle of the relatively rare processions of Korean embassies through Japan to Edo resulted in an enormous interest in things Korean. Re-enactments formed part of certain Japanese festivals. Although elephants were never included as part of the official presents by the Koreans, elephant floats began to be included in some festivals. This inro shows one of these festivals.” I didn’t feel the need to show the back side of this inro, because images of Korean and Chinese boys will appear elsewhere in this post.
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
When foreigners came to Japan – sometimes with their elephants – it would cause quite a stir:
“The arrival of each foreign embassy was a major event that attracted hordes of curious sightseers. ‘A million onlookers swarmed like ants on the riverbanks,’ wrote one Korean when he passed through Osaka in 1682…”
Below is a triptych by Chikanobu from 1897 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that shows a replaying of the Korean delegation visiting Japan in the 18th century. This particular triptych represents the Sannō festival (山王祭) with the Chiyoda Palace in the background.
“An ancient Shinto shrine had long existed on Mount Hiei, an auspicious site outside Kyoto. When a Buddhist monastery was established there at the end of the eighth century, the monks continued to respect traditional Shinto practices. Buddhism’s official policy was to incorporate indigenous religions, and religions tended to absorb each other and be able to coexist in Japan. When the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei presented a petition to the emperor in Kyoto, they would take with them the carriage containing the image of the Shinto deity. One of the names of this god was Sannō, meaning ‘Mountain King,’ and the tradition of carrying the image in a procession developed in the Sannō festival.” (Quoted from Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by John Stevenson.)
“The Sanno shrine became a shrine of exceptional importance in Edo. It was moved three times as a result of enlargements to the castle, and in 1650, it was finally placed at Hoshigaoka near Akasaka where it is to this day. The Festival of Sanno on 15 June was one of the most spectacular of the year. An immense procession involving 60 decorated chariots, bearing figures of monkeys and a white elephant, passed through a large area of the town and, by special favour, it was allowed to go through the castle. There are prints which show the procession entering the Hanzo gate. The Shogun also took part in the parade. In modern times, Sanno Hill, with its beautiful sanctuary surrounded by old trees, with its long flights of steps and the restaurants which were grouped on its slopes, formed one of the most agreeable parts of Tokyo. Sadly, the fire bombing of 1945 destroyed it, thus making the rebuilding a lengthy process.” This is quoted from The Shogun’s City: A History of Tokyo by Noël Nouët, pp. 30-31.
Ōta Nanpo (大田南畝: 1749-1823) and his elephants –
Ōta Nanpo was one of the great comic writers of the late Edo period. He was incredibly versatile with an enormous range of subjects. Below is one of his verses which I ran across looking more elephant stuff.
First visit in Ōiei,
By Kyōhō were on good terms,
But the third time they come, we have to send them back,
These newfangled elephants.
I found this in An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-City, 1750-1850 and wouldn’t have a clue what it means if it were for an explanatory note. “The verse refers to three times elephants were brought to Japan: Ōei [応永] 15 (1408), Kyōhō 13 (1728), and Bunka 10 (1813). The last time the elephant was returned because it was brought by the British, who did not have trading rights. The 1408 visit is dubious, but by contrast, a well-attested import in 1574 is unmentioned. The verse likens the elephant to a customer becoming familiar at a brothel, justified as shinzō, meaning both ‘new elephant’ and ‘trainee prostitute.’ ”
I also ran across a book in the Waseda Library of six different elephant sketches once owned by Ōta Nanpo. Below is just one of them.
Waseda University Library
Japanese lacquer on wood bowl (saucer or plate or tray or dish) of indeterminate age, but strikingly beautiful –
© Trustees of the British Museum
Washing the elephant in Japan –
There is a print by Harunobu from ca. 1766-67 of a young man selling fans. He has set up his portable booth and has approximately 26 fans or more on display. One of them is an image of some boys washing an elephant. Notice that a ladder is needed. Next to the full image is a detail of that fan.
On a fukusa (袱紗): Made of satin (shu – 繻) embroidered with silk and metallic threads. The curatorial files at the Victoria and Albert Museum say: “This textile cover is called a ‘fukusa’. Traditionally in Japan, gifts were placed in a box on a tray, over which a fukusa was draped. The choice of a fukusa appropriate to the occasion was an important part of the gift-giving ritual. The richness of the decoration was an indication of the donor’s wealth, and the quality of the design evidence of his or her taste and sensibility. This fukusa is beautifully embroidered with the image of an elephant being washed. In 1798 two elephants were taken to Japan. Their apperance aroused great interest and excitement, and one of them was presented to the shôgun (military leader). The design on this fukusa implies that the gift it covers is likewise a great rarity that has been carefully prepared.” This dates from the first half of the 19th century.
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
On Imari porcelain of the Edo period, 19th century –
Tokyo National Museum
As a zōkimoto, an elephant shaped vessel –
This dates from the 18th century. Below that is a detail from a Chinese bronze casting from ca. 1000 B.C. Amazing how traditions live on.
Tokyo National Museum
Below is a Chinese ritual wine vessel, a zun (尊), in the shape of an elephant. Only a detail of the front is shown. It dates from the latter half of the second millennium BC. Mark Elvin in his The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China says: “That elephants were abundant in the Northeast, Northwest, and West during the archaic age is clear from the elephant bones found in Shang and Shu archaeological sites, from the cast bronze elephants of this time,and from records on oracle bones that mention elephants being sacrificed to the ancestors.”
Below and from approximately is this tiny jade elephant found in the tomb of the warrior queen Fu Hao (Ch: 婦好). It is very small physically, but huge in conception. If my calculations are correct it is only 2.36 inches long and about 3,250 years old, at least. Amazing.
Before we leave the subject of East Asian vessels in the shape of an elephant there is one more you should see. It is from the Samsung Museum of Art collection and dates from the late 15th century. It was exhibited in 2011 at the Met where they noted: “As an objet d’art to the contemporary viewer, it is delightfully quirky with appealing sculptural and tactile qualities.”
Samsung Museum of Art
On screens –
This next piece is by one of my most-very-favorite Japanese artists, Ito Jakuchu (伊藤若冲: 1716-1800). This man’s art is so far ahead of its time it is scary. This white elephant is only one of a pair of screens. The other one shows a black whale sending a column of water up from its spout. Glory, glory.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the screen from the Price Collection. I mean, look at this thing. It looks like tile-work, but it isn’t. It just looks that way. Brilliant.
However, it doesn’t stop there. What a remarkable age for truly creative and expressive artists. Case in point, Nagasawa Rosetsu (長沢芦雪: 1754-99). Below is one of a pair of magnificent screens. This one shows a reclining elephant over-filling its six panels with blackbirds casually going about their lives while sitting on its back. The other screen – not shown here – shows a huge, recumbent water buffalo with a puppy sitting, propped up against unconcernedly against the body of this beast. There is something very Zen in these images.
Mary Griggs Burke died in 2012. Much of her estate collection of Japanese masterpieces was dispersed a month ago, mid-March 2015, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Museum of Art. Burke was born and raised in St. Paul in a mansion on Summit Avenue. One of the greatest pieces, another 6-panel screen by Rosestsu, showing children crawling and romping all over an apparently docile and happy elephant was given to the MIA.
Minneapolis Museum of Art – Burke bequest
Oh my goodness… this one is astounding!
This color version of the the six-panel screen seen above is in the collection of Muryōji Temple (無量寺).
As a part of an elemental – dare I say ‘obsessive’ -motif: Filial piety and elephants
Shigeharu from the Lyon Collection
Kuniyoshi from http://www.mfa.org
Kuniyoshi from the Worcester Museum of Art
Kuniyoshi from a private collection
Kuniyoshi from http://www.mfa.org
This next print by Kuniyoshi is one of my ultimate, most, absolutely favorite prints of all time. Not only is the Daruma in a golden circle gorgeous, but the blind men with the elephant is whimsical and charming in the extreme.
The parable of the blind men and the elephant is based on one of the eighty stories told by the Buddha as object lessons. This is from udāna (6.4): “At one time the Lord was staying near Sāvatthī in the Jetta Wood at Anathāpandika’s monastery.” Everyone around him seemed to be disputatious, arguing that their way was the true way. The Buddha tells of an early king who had to deal with this same situation. So he instructed that his men bring together all of the people near by who had been blind from birth. Each was to be ‘shown’ a part of an elephant – the trunk, a leg, the body, an ear, the tail, the hairs on the end of the tail, etc. – and then asked what this elephant’s nature was. Each had his own interpretation – a water jar, a winnowing basket, a plow, a post, a mortar, a pestle, and so on. None knew the true nature of the whole, much like the scholarly discussions of eternity/non-eternity, the infinite/the finite, ad nauseum. Hence, people who hold to only one view of things are blind to all of the other views.
Here is another version:
A great king summons blind men and has them touch various parts of an elephant.
The one who touches the tusk says an elephant is like a Japanese radish (daikon);
the one who touches the ear says an elephant is like a winnowing basket;
the one who touches the head says an elephant is like a stone, etc.
The elephant is the buddha nature,
and the blind men sentient beings of ignorance.
The quote seen above – the bold print at the end is my choice – comes from Zongmi on Chan, footnote 62, p. 250.
For the quibblers: I know that some people who read the above quote will be gnashing their teeth. So, this is for you: the blind man feeling the trunk compares it to a giant snake, the one feeling the tail thinks it is a rope, the one at the leg thinks it is a tree trunk, the ear a fan, and the body a wall.
Of course, Kuniyoshi was not the only nor the first to illustrate this parable. There is a print by (or more likely after) Hanabusa Itchō (英一蝶: 1652-1724) in the collection of the Library of Congress illustrating the same tale.
Library of Congress
In the introduction to the book Udāna and the Itivuttaka: Two Classics from the Pali Canon John Ireland wrote: “Although this parable may be better suited to Jainism than to Buddhist doctrine – a theory of partial truth being somewhat un-Buddhistic – the story is probably older than both and is still used today by modern Hindu teachers.”
In 2012 77% of Americans thought we had been visited by aliens. That came from a survey taken by the National Geographic Society. Only 17% said they didn’t believe in such things as aliens or UFOs, but some of them just weren’t sure. Why am I mentioning this? Because, below I have posted a humorous print by Kuniyoshi of a tengu and an elephant making contact. To me, this print is like the 77% that believe. Show me a tengu. Show me an elephant.
Here is an early description written in 1639 of a visit of foreigners in the 1500s:
From this ship emerged an unnamable creature, somewhat similar in shape to a human being,
but looking rather like a long-nosed goblin. Upon close investigation, it was discovered that
this was a being called a “Padre.” The length of the nose was the first thing which attracted
attention: it was like a conch shell attached by suction to his face. His head was small;
on his hands and feet he had long claws,- his teeth were longer than the teeth of a horse.
What he said could not be understood at all: his voice was like the screech of an owl.
One and all rushed out to see him, crowding all the roads.
As long as men have conceived of tengu, half-man/half-bird, there are men who swore they had seen them. But how many of them could prove it? At the time of Kuniyoshi, many men could swear that they had actually seen an elephant, but none of them could prove it except to other ‘true’ witnesses/believers. Which men were more credible? It all depends on which chorus you belong to. And, oh, by the way, I am in that diminished less than 17% who don’t believe in aliens, UFOs or anything else – and, yes, I CAN prove it. Just ask me.
One other point which I find absolutely hysterical is that 65% of Americans thought that Barack Obama would do a better job of fighting off an alien invasion than George Romney would. That’s sounds about right to me. What if we were invaded by hordes of tengu? Would anything be different? Now all we have to do is take a new poll and see if Obama or Netanyahu would be better at fending off (imaginary, fictitious) birdmen. My vote goes to…
In 1595 Sir Philip Sydney wrote:
For as in outward things to a man that had neuer seene an Elephant, or a Rinoceros, who should tell him most exquisitely all their shape, cullour, bignesse, and particuler marks, or of a gorgious pallace an Architecture, who declaring the full bewties, might well make the hearer able to repeat as it were by roat all he had heard, yet should neuer satisfie his inward conceit, with being witnesse to it selfe of a true liuely knowledge: but the same man, as soon as he might see those beasts wel painted, or that house wel in modell, shuld straightwaies grow without need of any description to a iudicial comprehending of them, so no doubt the Philosopher with his learned definitions, be it of vertues of vices, matters of publike policy or priuat gouernment, replenisheth the memorie with many infallible grounds of wisdom, which notwithstanding lie darke before the imaginatiue and iudging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of Poesie.
Wait a second! I thought you said there was no such thing as indigenous elephants in Japan.
Well, in the first place, I don’t remember saying any such thing and in the second place… You know, if I were to have an internal dialogue between myself and my other self, which is how all this started – almost, it would have begun something like the subject line of this section. Actually, I hadn’t really thought about it one way or the other, but I should have. If there could be mastodons living in and roaming what is now Missouri along with human hunters at the same time – look up the Mastodon State Historic Site – then why shouldn’t there have been elephants in Japan that went extinct. In fact, there were, but I didn’t know that until earlier today when I was looking for other stuff.
But let’s go back to the beginning when all of this was set in motion. Of course, I don’t mean 120,000 years ago or more, but when sea levels were much lower and there was a land bridge from the east coast of Asia to Sakhalin Island and on to Hokkaido. That was when a now extinct species of elephant lumbered over to what is now the Japanese archipelago. Actually for our purposes, it all starts in more recent times with the birth of Heinrich Edmund Naumann (ハインリッヒ・エドムント・ナウマン) in 1854 in Germany. In 1875 he was invited by the Meiji regime to come to Japan to teach and do research. As a result he is now known as one of the fathers of modern Japanese geology.
Photograph of Heinrich Edmund Naumann – found at wikimedia.
However, in 1881 or 82 he made a real name for himself with the publication of Über japanische Elephanten der Vorzeit – which was a study of the fossils of prehistoric elephants dug up in Japan. “He did not excavate these fossils; they were in collections of Japanese antiquarians and unearthed by Westerners for more than a decade preceding this report.”
So there had been elephants in Japan, the Paleoloxodon naumanni. and today there is a museum on Hokkaido, the Chūrui (忠類) Naumann Elephant Museum.
A sure cure for a headache – elephant’s breath
There is a little known author from Alexandria, Achilles Tatius, who wrote in Greek sometime before the 2nd century A.D., perhaps. In Book IV of his romance Leucippe and Cleitophon is this strange description about an elephant: “I once saw an extraordinary sight; there was a Greek who had put his head right into the middle of the animal’s jaws; it kept its mouth open and breathed upon him as he remained in that position. I was surprised at both, the audacity of the man and the amiability of the elephant; but the man told me that he had in fact given the animal a fee for it, because the beast’s breath was only less sweet than the scents of India, and a sovereign remedy for the headache. The elephant knows that he possesses this power of healing, and will not open his mouth for nothing; he is one of those rascally doctors that insist on having their fee first. When you give it him, he graciously consents, stretches open his jaws, and keeps them agape as long as the man desires; he knows that he has let out on hire the sweetness of his breath.”
What about the other kind of white elephant?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a ‘white elephant’ as “something that requires a lot of care and money and that gives little profit or enjoyment”.
An aside – how the Virgin was impregnated aurally: In Buddhism the historic buddha, Guatama, was born out of the side of the upper torso of his mother while she was standing holding onto the branch of a tree. This is a curious concept which seems to have its own version in medieval and Renaissance European Christianity. In Europe true believers thought that Mary was filled with the radiant light of God when the archangel Gabriel was sent to tell her that was to give birth to the Christ Child.
The image shown below from the collection of the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City. It probably represent s a passage from Luke and dates from the late 15th century in Italy.Below is part of the text from the King James version – written some time after the sculpture.
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
It shows the Virgin kneeling on the right with the archangel kneeling before her just left of the column in the center. In the upper left corner – it is very difficult to make out here – is an image of God with his hand raised in blessing. However, below that and to the right on a diagonal is the image of the Holy Ghost, the dove, flying toward Mary. Hanging on the the tail feathers of the dove is the Christ Child. His spirit enters through her ear by the word of God.
Nelson Art Gallery
Please come back often because I will be adding comments and images over time. Thanks!