The Buddha and the Dragon Princess in the Lotus Sutra — for deciphering the Devadatta frontispiece in the Heike Nokyo set
The Heike Nokyo is a sumptuously produced set of Buddhist scriptural handscrolls that was commissioned by the Heike military aristocratic clan and offered to the Goddess of Itsukushima, the clan’s tutelary divinity, in the mid-twelfth century. The set is arguably the most sublime example of illustrated and decorated Buddhist scriptures in Japanese history. The Heike Nokyo includes twenty-eight scrolls of the Lotus Sutra each of which is decked with a beautiful multicolor frontispiece that captures central motifs of the sutra’s each chapter. Among them the “Dragon Princess” frontispiece of the Devadatta chapter scroll (Chapter Twelve) that depicts the Dragon Princess’s proffering her legendary jewel to Shakyamuni Buddha is particularly renowned for its splendor. However, unlike other sutra illustrations from the same period, the Dragon Princess here does not transform herself into a male figure, nor does she fly away to a buddha land in the south in order to be reborn there as a male Buddha. Furthermore, in contradistinction to the depiction in that chapter of the sutra in which the Buddha receives her jewel on Eagle Peak, in the Heike Nokyo frontispiece the Buddha sits on a heavenly pure land; and Dragon Princess stands effortlessly on ocean waves. No previous scholarship succeeded in deciphering this frontispiece as a narrative painting. I argue that the Dragon Princess frontispiece represents an unusual effort by erudite Heike court ladies who grounded themselves on the authentic Sui and Tang Chinese doctrinal commentaries in order to reject the popular yet vulgar gender-biased interpretation of the Dragon Princess episode -- that is, she had to change her sex before she was able to attain enlightenment. The frontispiece aims at establishing a superior interpretation of the princess’s episode in the Lotus Sutra that positively illustrates female Buddhist practitioners’ agency in both attaining their own enlightenment and providing salvation to other beings, both male and female.