During the recent examination and study of the physical construction and surface details of the RISD Museum’s 12th -century Dainichi Nyorai Buddha, three painted Japanese inscriptions have come to light. Due to the age of the sculpture and the inscriptions, they are not completely legible, but partial translations of two of the inscriptions were possible with the aid of our Japanese interpreter, Mayumi Lincicome, in consultation with Professor Ikumi Kaminishi of Tufts University. One of the inscriptions is clearly visible on the back of the torso, but a second inscription directly under the upper proper left arm had been obscured since 1936, when the Buddha was initially installed at the Museum. No reference to the inscription had been made in the curatorial files, so this was an exciting new discovery.
The two legible inscriptions appear to be from different hands. Both are written in abbreviated or “bullet” form in Chinese characters (Kanji), which was common for official documentation from medieval times until the 19th century. According to Professor Kaminishi, the inscription on the back of the torso is more modern than the one located under the arm. It is also more formal in presentation and less beautifully written than the inscription under the arm. The newly discovered inscription appears to have been written by a very practiced hand and is aesthetically more elegant. It is interesting to consider that because this older inscription was hidden from view, it might imply a more private undertaking between the writer or original sculptor and the Buddha, and was not meant to be shared with others. While the later inscription is located on the reverse of the figure where it is only partially hidden from viewers who do not have access to the sculpture in the round, it is still in plain sight and definitely less discrete than the inscription hidden under the arm. The third inscription, located on the back of the head, is too worn to be read. It is hoped that perhaps in the future, new technologies will allow this writing to become more legible.
The inscription on the reverse of the torso is believed to be a commemoration by Zenro, of Banshuu province (modern Hyogo prefecture, southwest of Kyoto prefecture), who was perhaps a monk or a patron). The name is composed of Zen, which is of Korean origin, and ro, which is of Chinese origin. The commemoration can be translated as
For Bodhi (supreme enlightenment)
Peace and comfort in the present life and the afterlife (peaceful salvation)
Nine bows [a gesture to show deep respect]
The newly discovered inscription under the Buddha’s left arm appears to be older than the first inscription. It reads
Observed by Nishimori Yoshinosuke
Ryozo [probably the name of the Buddhist image maker/sculptor]
A third line is unreadable due to abrasion.
The Chinese characters inscribed on the surface are not phonetic but are idea-based, so interpreting their specific meanings is difficult without better context.
The third inscription, also discovered during this conservation project, is too abraded to be read and translated. Infrared photography is often useful in revealing inscriptions that are difficult read, and RISD Museum photographer Erik Gould used infrared reflectography photographic techniques in the hope of revealing more of the painted inscription. Unfortunately, this technique did not present additional information useful for our interpreters.