Hibutsu are Buddhist images that are normally withheld from public view for religious reasons; they are enshrined in zushi (miniature shrines in temples) with the doors closed.
In Buddhist temples, the doors of the Butsudo (Buddhist shrine) are normally open so that the Buddhist image can be seen from outside, but zushi that enshrine hibutsu are usually closed except for a certain period when the hibutsu are unveiled to the public. The practice of retaining Buddhist images, which were intended as idols for worship, in zushi with the doors closed is quite unique in Japan even among East Asian countries where Buddhism has prevailed. In this country, hibutsu are often found with Buddhist images that are the principal icons of well-known temples, as well as the temples that are deep-rooted in folk beliefs, including pilgrim stamp offices of the 33 Temples of Saigoku, fudasho (temples where amulets are collected) and those in reijo (sacred ground). In the following, we'll focus on hibutsu in Japan.
Some hibutsu are so-called 'absolute hibutsu,' which are completely withheld from public view, but most are unveiled to the public on specific days (this practice is called 'gokaicho' or 'kaihi,' both meaning 'opening the gate').
Like the Amida (Amitabha) triad image at Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano, some Buddhist images have never been unveiled to the public; a statue called 'omaedachi,' a copy of the hibutsu (literally, 'standing in front'), is exhibited on the day of 'gokaicho.'
So far, no major progress has been made in the research on when and why hibutsu came into existence; the questions remain unanswered. At least, there is no record about hibutsu in or before the Nara period. According to 'Koryu-ji Temple sizai kotai jitsuroku cho,' an inventory list of Koryo-ji Temple's assets (completed around 890), the principal image of its Kon-do hall, 'Reiken-yakushi-butsu' (the Healing Buddha), was placed in the 'naiden' (inner shrine) that can be locked; this reveals that the Yakushi Buddha image was treated as a hibutsu by the end of the 9th century at the latest.
Some say that Shinto (indigenous religion of Japan) shrines may have affected the birth of hibutsu. The doors of the main hall of a Shinto shrine are usually closed and occasionally opened for special rituals as well (this practice is also seen in kamidana (household Shinto alters) and soreisha (alters that enshrine the souls of ancestors), which are usually closed and opened only for specific services). Primarily, Shinto gods are invisible. Although Shinto god images came into existence by the early Heian period under the influence of Buddhist sculpture, they were secretly placed deep inside the shrines as 'go-shintai' (an object of worship) and were seldom unveiled to the public.
It is said that the temples of the Shingon and Tendai Sects have relatively more hibutsu than those of Jodo (Pure Land) Sect and the Zen Sect. When seen by Buddhist image, hibutsu are more often found with Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha of Medicine and Healing) images, which are often worshipped as the principle image of Esoteric Buddhism temples, and with Kannon Bosatsu (Goddess of Mercy), which includes Juichimen Kannon (Eleven-faced Avalokiteshwara), Senju Kannon (Thousand Armed Avalokiteshwara), and Nyoirin Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), and Fudo Myoo (Acala, one of the Five Wisdom Kings); thus, hibutsu are considered to have a bearing on Esoteric Buddhism.
Like Kangiten (Nandikesvara, Ganesh in the Buddhist pantheon) (the figure of a man and a woman with elephant heads and human bodies embracing each other), erotic designs may have been hidden from public view as 'they may have caused the misunderstanding of the doctrine.'
When seen by sect, the temples of the Shingon and Tendai Sects are more relatively to withhold their principle images from public view. Among the principal images of the major temples of the Tendai Sect, the images of the following Buddhist gods are all treated as hibutsu: Yakushi Nyorai at the Konpon-chudo hall of Enryaku-ji Temple, Shaka Nyorai (Shaka Buddha) at the Saito-shaka-do hall of Enryaku-ji Temple, Miroku Bosatsu (Buddha of the Future) at the Kon-do hall of Onjo-ji Temple (also known as Miidera Temple), and Nyoirin Kannon at the Kannon-do hall of Onjo-ji Temple. The Ashuku Nyorai (imperturbable Buddha, free from anger, considered identical to Yakushi Nyorai) image, the principal image of the Kon-do hall of Kongobu-ji Temple on Mt. Koya of the Shingon Sect, was destroyed by the fire of 1926 together with the hall that had housed it, leaving the image forever unknown as they had been strictly hidden from public view and no photograph had been taken.
At the temples of the Jodo Sect and Zen Sects, hibutsu are relatively few in number. But, this does not mean that no hibutsu are found within these temples: Zojo-ji Temple (Minato-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture), the main temple of the Jodo Sect, for example, treats the principal image of its Ankoku-den hall, the Amida Nyorai image (commonly known as Kuro-honzon) (literally, black principle image) as a hibutsu.
By Buddhist Image
Some images of Nyorai (Tathagata), Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), Myoo (Vidyaraja), and Tenbu (Celestial beings) are treated as hibutsu, and statues that typically do not fall in the category of 'Buddhist image,' including those of Suijaku (literally, trace manifestation) as Zao Gongen (the highest-ranking deity worshipped in Japanese mountain asceticism), and the Soshizo (sect founder images), as the image of Jianzhen are also treated as hibutsu. When seen by Buddhist image, Yakushi Nyorai, Kannon Bosatsu, and Fudo Myoo are more likely to be treated as Hibutsu; in general, Buddhist images worshipped at Esoteric Buddhism temples tend to be treated as hibutsu (Yakushi Nyorai, which is an exoteric Buddha, is often worshipped as the principle god of esoteric temples). Although all pilgrim stamp office of the 33 Temples of Saigoku worship the Kannon images, most of them treat as hibutsu; out of 33 temples, those that treat them otherwise are limited to the following: Minamihokke-ji Temple (Also known as Tsunosaka-dera Temple), the 6th pilgrim stamp office, Ryugai-ji Temple (Also known as Oka-dera Temple), the 7th, Hase-dera Temple, the 8th, and Yoshimine-dera Temple, the 20th.
Times When Hibutsu are Unveiled
There are various patterns in which hibutsu are unveiled.
Hibutsu unveiled for a relatively long period in every spring and fall: Kuze Kannon image (the god of salvation) at Horyu-ji Temple and Kisshoten (the goddess of beauty and prosperity) image at Joruri-ji Temple. Hibutsu unveiled once a month on a specific day: Senju Kannon image at Fujii-dera Temple in Osaka, where the image is unveiled on the 18th of each month, the day believed to have a bearing on the kannon. Hibutsu unveiled only on one or several days in a year: Shukongoshin (a gate guardian) image at the Hokke-do hall of Todai-ji Temple. Hibutsu unveiled only once in several years or decades: Senju Kannon, the principle image at Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto), which is unveiled to the public every 33 years. Many Kannon images are unveiled 'once every 33 years' because Kannon is believed to save the people by disguising itself into 33 different figures.
Hibutsu not unveiled in principle or those with the exhibition period not determined: Fudo Myoo image at the Goei-do hall of To-ji Temple. Absolute hibutsu (those not unveiled at all), even with their pictures not disclosed: Juichimen Kannon, the principle image at the Nigatsu-do hall of Todai-ji Temple.
The following are short descriptions of hibutsu considered historically and culturally important.
Kannon Bosatsu (Kuze Kannon) standing statue, the principle image of the Yume-dono hall of Horyu-ji Temple; the hall is the central hall of Toin (the east wing) of Horyu-ji Temple, which was built in the site of Ikaruga no miya (literally, Palace of Ikaruga) operated by Prince Shotoku. The Kuze Kannon image housed in a zushi placed in the middle of the hall is a wooden sculpture of the Aska period and considered to be the exact image of Prince Shotoku, and according to historical materials, this statue had already been treated as a hibutsu by the 12th century, the late Heian period. According to the prevailing view, Tenshin OKAKURA (the forerunner of Japanese art educators and researchers) and Ernest Fenollosa (an American philosopher and an art historian), who visited Horyu-ji Temple in 1884 (or 1886), opened the door of the zushi by brushing aside the opposition from Buddhist priests; this is how the Kannon statue came into view for the first time in hundreds of years. At this time, the statue was covered with a white long cloth. This story has almost become a legend; some say it unbelievable that the image had been completely kept out of sight for as long as hundreds of years before it was finally opened by Tenshin and Fenollosa.
Amida triad statue, the principle image of Shinshu Zenko-ji Temple; according to a record kept by the temple, the first Buddhist image presented to Japan by Sho Myoo (the King of Kudara, an ancient Korean kingdom) in the 6th century was somehow carried all the way to Nagano to become the principal image of the temple. This statue, which is known to have been treated as a hibutsu as early as the Kamakura period, is still an 'absolute hibutsu' even today. However, Zenko-ji Temple made a copy of the hibutsu called 'omaedachi-zo' (an important cultural property built in the Kamakura period, made of bronze), through which people can imagine what the hibutsu looks like. The Omaedachi-zo statue, made up of Chuson (the principal statue in a group of Buddhist statues) and two Ryowakiji (statues standing at both sides of Chuson) features the Ikko-sanzon (meaning the three icons carrying one large halo) and has characteristics in style, the gods' inso (the shapes expressed with their fingers), the way they are dressed, and the hokan (crowns) worn by the Ryowakiji. These features are commonly seen in the kondo-butsu statues (gilt bronze Buddhist statues of the Three Kingdoms period of the Korean Peninsula); it is highly likely that the hibutsu of Zenko-ji Temple came over to Japan from the peninsula in quite ancient times. Amida triad images of so-called 'Amida triad images of Zenko-ji temple-style,' which are seen in temples across Japan, are of the same style. Zenko-ji Temple has the period of 'gokaicho' (opening the gate) once every 7 years (more precisely, every 6 years, as the year of gokaicho is counted as the first year), and even in that period, it is the 'omaedachi-zo' image, not the hibutsu, that is publicly displayed.
Juichimen Kannon standing statue, the principal image of the Nigatsu-do hall of Todai-ji Temple; the hall locates at the foot of the mountain east of Daibutsu-den (the Great Buddha Hall) and is famous for its water-drawing festival called 'Omizutori.'
Omizutori' is officially called Shunie (a Buddhist mass held in February by the lunar calendar), where people repent and confess all their sins and mistakes to Juichimen Kannon, the hall's principal image, and pray for their happiness and prosperity as well as their country's peace and stability. An inner room called naijin in the Nigatsu-do hall houses two Juichimen Kannon statues called O-gannon (big kannon) and Ko-gannon (small kannon), both of which have been treated as hibutsu and put under strict control, although it is not known since when they have been treated as such; even priests who perform the 'Omizutori' ritual never get to see them. However, only the halo of the Kannon which was damaged by the fire of the Nigatsu-do hall in 1667 has been retained in a different place and publicly exhibited (it has been deposited in Nara National Museum). The halo, made of bronze, 226 cm high, carries the images of many Bosatsu Buddha carved on its surface although it is heavily damaged, and is considered to have been made in the Nara period.
A List of Well-known Hibutsu in Japan
As there are too many hibutsu in Japan, it is impossible to list them all here; we limit them to those that are well-known, including the ones designated as national treasures.
Hibutsu unveiled every year in a certain period, typically in spring and fall. Kissho-ten standing statue (important cultural property) at Jyoruri-ji Temple (Kyoto): unveiled on January 1- 15, March 21 - May 20, and October 1 - November 30. Kannon Bosatsu (Kuze Kannon) standing statue, the principal image of the Yume-dono hall (national treasure): unveiled on April 11 - May 5, October 22 - November 3. Aizen Myoo (Ragaraja) seated statue (important cultural property) at Saidai-ji Temple (Nara): unveiled in late October - early November. Juichimen Kannon standing statue (national treasure) at Hokke-ji Temple (Nara); unveiled in late March - early April, early June, and late October - early November.
Hibutsu unveiled once a year on specific days
Senju Kannon standing statue (national treasure), a principle image of Fujii-dera Temple (Osaka): unveiled on the 18th of each month
Juichimen Kannon standing statue (national treasure), the principal image of Domyo-ji Temple (Fujiidera City): unveiled on the 18th and 25th of each month and January 1 - 3.
Hibutsu unveiled on only one or a few days per year
Nyoirin Kannon seated statue (national treasure), the principle image of Kanshin-ji Temple (Osaka): unveiled on April 17 and 18. Shukongoshin standing statue (national treasure) at the Sangatsu-do hall of Todai-ji Temple (Nara): unveiled on December 16. Shunjo Shonin (a Buddhist priest from the late Heian period to the Kamakura period, who restored Todai-ji Temple which had been destroyed in wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans) seated statue (national treasure) at Todai-ji Temple: unveiled on July 5 and December 16. Ryoben Sojo (a Buddhist priest in the Nara period, who helped build Todai-ji Temple) seated statue (national treasure) at Todai-ji Temple: unveiled on December 16. Sougyo Hachimanshin (literally, "Hachiman Shinto deity disguised in a priest") seated statue (national treasure) at Todai-ji Temple: unveiled on October 5. Fukukenjaku Kannon (Amoghapasa (manifestation of Amalokitesvara)) seated statue (national treasure), the principle image of the Nanen-do hall of Kofukuji-Temple (Nara): unveiled on October 17. Ganjin-wajo (Jianzhen) seated statue (national treasure) at Toshodai-ji Temple (Nara): unveiled on June 5 - 7. Daigensui Myoo (a Buddhist deity believed to have the virtue to convert impurity into purity) standing statue (important cultural property) at Akishino-dera Temple (Nara): unveiled on June 6. Prince Shotoku seated statue, the principal image of the Shoryoin the hall of Horyuji-Temple, and those of Yamashiro-o (Prince Shotoku's son), Eguri-o (Prince Shotoku's younger brother), Somaro-o (Prince Shotoku's younger brother), and Eji hoshi (a Buddhist priest from Korai, an ancient Korean kingdom) enshrined in the hall (all are national treasures): unveiled on March 22 - 24. Shaka sanzon (Shaka triad) seated statue, (national treasure), the principal image of the Kami-no-mido hall of Horyu-ji Temple: unveiled on November 1 - 3. Prince Shotoku standing statue, the principal image of Koryu-ji Temple: unveiled on November 22. Yakushi Nyorai standing statue (important cultural property), the principal image of Koryu-ji Temple: unveiled on November 22.
Hibutsu unveiled every few years or decades
Amida triad standing statue, the principal image of Moto-zenko-ji Temple (Nagano): unveiled once every 7 years. Nyoirin Kannon seated statue (important cultural property), the principal image of the Kannon-do hall of Onjo-ji Temple (Shiga): unveiled once every 33 years. Nyoirin Kannon seated statue (important cultural property), the principal image of Ishiyama-dera Temple (Shiga): unveiled every 33 years and on the year of enthronement. Senju Kannon standing statue, the principal image of Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto): unveiled every 33 years. Juichimen Kannon standing statue (national treasure), the principal image of Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple (Kyoto): unveiled on the Tatsu-doshi year (the year of the dragon, according to Chinese astrology). Miroku Buddha seated statue (national treasure), the principal image of Jisonin Temple (Wakayama): unveiled every 21 years.
Hibutsu whose exhibition periods are not determined
Ichijikinrin (Ekaaksarausnisacakra) seated statue (important cultural property) at Chuson-ji Temple (Iwate): unveiled on an irregular basis for special occasions.
Fudo Myoo statue, the principal image at Shinsho-ji Temple on Mt. Narita and its Nidoji (two children) statues (all important cultural properties). Sho-kannon statue, the principal image of Senso-ji Temple (Tokyo); never unveiled. No picture has been taken.
Yakushi triad standing statue, the principal image at Kanei-ji Temple (Tokyo) (important cultural property). Amida triad standing statue, the principal image of Zenko-ji Temple (Nagano); never unveiled ('absolute' hibutsu). No picture has been taken. The Omaedachi-zo image is unveiled once every 7 years (more precisely, every 6 years as the year in which the hibutsu is unveiled is counted as the first year).
Amida triad statue (important cultural property), the principal image of Kai-Zenko-ji Temple (Yamanashi)
Yakushi Nyorai standing statue, the principal image of the Konpon-chudo hall of Enryaku-ji Temple (Shiga): unveiled in 1998, 2000, and 2006.
Miroku Bosatsu statue, the principal image of Onjo-ji Temple (Shiga): never unveiled ('absolute' hibutsu). No picture has been taken.
Two Chisho-daishi (the posthumous name of Enchin, a priest of the Tendai sect in the early Heian period, the fifth head of Enryaku-ji Temple) seated statues (national treasures) at Onjo-ji Temple, called 'Chuson Daishi' and 'Okotsu Daishi.'
The former is unveiled on October 29 in a shoki hoyo (a Buddhist memorial service held on the death anniversary), but the latter has never been publicly displayed. But it has been unveiled several times at special exhibitions.
The Fudo Myoo (Acala, one of the Five Wisdom Kings) image (a painting and a national treasure) at Onjo-ji Temple is known as a hibutsu which has been handled with special care; the temple does not allow its picture to appear in books or other publications. However, it has been unveiled several times in special exhibitions.
The Yakushi Nyorai seated statue, the principal image at Zensui-ji Temple (Shiga) (important cultural property) was unveiled in 1949 and 2001, and in 2005, it was displayed in the exhibition titled 'Faith and Syncretism: Saicho and the Treasures of Tendai' held in Kyoto National Museum.
Kobo-daishi seated statue (national treasure) at the Mikage-do hall of To-ji Temple (Kyoto), carved by Kosho, the fourth son of Unkei (a sculptor of the late Heian and early Kamakura periods, who established a style of Buddhist sculpture that had an immense impact on Japanese art for centuries). This statue has never been unveiled to the public except for the purpose of academic research.
The Yakushi Nyorai seated statue (national treasure), the principal image of the Reimei-den hall of Ninna-ji Temple (Kyoto) was unveiled to the public in 1986 for the first time for the purpose of academic research.
The Kokuzo Bosatsu statue, the principal image of Horin-ji Temple (Saigyo-ku Ward, Kyoto City) is worshipped by people as the god of Jusanmairi (a practice of visiting the temple, celebrating their sons and daughters attaining manhood or womanhood at the age of thirteen). The statue has never been unveiled to the public since it was visited by Emperor Taisho.
The Juichimen Kannon standing statues, the principle image of the Nigatsu-do hall of Todai-ji Temple (Nara), come in two statues, O-gannon and Ko-gannon both of which have never been unveiled. No picture has been taken.
The Zao Gongen standing statue, the principal image of Kinpusen-ji Temple (Nara), was unveiled during 2004 to 2005, commemorating that holy places and pilgrim routes in the Kii Mountain range had been registered as World Heritage.