New Perspectives on the RISD Dainichi Buddha

In the summer of 2019, the RISD Museum was delighted to receive a request from Professor Yamada Osamu from the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geidai) to perform a photogrammetry analysis of the museum’s colossal Dainichi Buddha. Professor Yamada and students from Tokyo Geidai’s Sculpture Conservation and Restoration Laboratory had long been collaborating with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as Japanese institutions on 3-D projects of Japanese Buddhist sculptures.  Photogrammetry studies can produce 3-D models of objects using measurements obtained from numerous 2-D images. Using this approach, the Tokyo Geidai team was able to recreate many historical sculptures in a 3-D form that helped inform their restoration projects. Click here to see the project site. 

Three-dimensional imaging also provides increased accessibility to objects—a particularly useful tool in current times. The ability to see the RISD Buddha in 3-D adds not only a new viewing experience, but it also opens up new avenues for research and further studies. Experience the 3D model here.


One of the largest Japanese Buddhist sculptures in the United States, the 12th-century Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha) is a dominating presence in the RISD Museum. Almost 9 feet 8 inches tall, this serene figure has been exhibited in the same room on the 6th floor of the museum since 1936. According to museum records from the 1930s, the Buddha was said to have been made for a temple affiliated with the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

The Japanese Shingon sect was founded in the 9th century by a monk named Kūkai (774–835) who journeyed to China and studied “True Word” (Japanese Shingon, Chinese Zhenyan) teachings. Based on ritual practices surrounding the Mandala of the Two Realms, this sect of Buddhism emphasizes the importance of meditation as a means to reach enlightenment. According to Shingon philosophy, the Buddha has two forms—the phenomenal and transcendental, which are manifested visually in cosmic diagrams known as the Diamond and Womb mandalas. Central to these cosmic diagrams is the Dainichi Nyorai. Sculptural forms of the Dainichi were also made for Shingon temples, exemplified by the RISD Buddha.

When Kūkai returned to Japan, he spread the teachings of Shingon. He encouraged followers to meditate by focusing on the mandalas, reciting chants, and forming specific hand gestures (mudras). Rather than learning Buddhist texts, practitioners repeatedly practiced meditation rituals that would bring them spiritually close to the Dainichi Nyorai. Sculptural forms of the Dainichi, such as RISD’s Buddha, were likely housed in the main hall of a Shingon temple complex and because this sculpture was carved and decorated on the reverse as well as the front, we know it was meant to be viewed in the round. RISD’s enormous figure, hands forming the dhyana mudra—the gesture for meditation and the attainment of spiritual perfection—invites reflection and contemplation.

Purchased in 1936 by the RISD Museum from the Japanese art dealer Yamanaka and Company, this wooden sculpture traveled to Providence in pieces and was assembled on site. While the larger pieces including the head, torso, and lap were individually carved from hollowed blocks of Japanese cedar and then fitted together with iron pins, the arms and hands are solid wood. This construction, known as the yosegi-kuzuri technique, revolutionized the production of monumental sculptures in 12th-century Japan, as it enabled the transportation of individual pieces to a specific location, where they were assembled. Over time, when a sculpture deteriorated or became damaged, this construction technique facilitated repairs and restoration efforts, as the sculpture could be taken apart and reassembled.


The Buddha had remained in the same position on the 6th floor since he first arrived at the RISD Museum. Because the doorways to the exhibition room have never changed in size, we know that the Buddha arrived in parts and was reconstructed in situ. It was undisturbed until 2014, when the Buddha had to be deconstructed and relocated to a safe conservation workspace as the museum upgraded its fire-suppression system. 

The disassembly of the Buddha was an intriguing process. Although it is constructed of 33 individual wooden blocks, we were able to reduce and simplify the disassembly into 11 parts. The head, upper arms, forearms, and hands were disassembled easily, as the original joinery was thoughtfully constructed using the mortise and tenon technique, which is pressure-fit. Although the torso and lap sections were composed of multiple pieces, they were able to be moved as two complete units because they are hollow, making them light in weight. In total, only a handful of the original iron-alloy clips had to be removed during the process of disassembly. Originally there would have been special religious items contained within the hollow of the Buddha, however these were not with the Buddha when it arrived at the museum in 1936. For documentation purposes, a time-lapse video was made in-house documenting both the disassembly and the reassembly processes to provide a valuable visual reference to aid museum conservators, curators, and researchers in the future.

The RISD Buddha is truly in remarkable physical condition. Most colossal Buddhas from the same period that have survived to the present day are made of bronze. Bronze is composed of copper and tin, making it harder and more resilient than softer Cryptomeria Japonica wood of which the RISD Buddha was made. Typical deterrents to a wooden sculpture’s survival include wood-boring insects, excessive exposure to water, bio-deterioration, rot, and fire. The very fact that the wood composing this magnificent sculpture has survived approximately 800 years is quite a feat. Many Japanese wooden Buddhas were protected with multiple layers of urushi, a traditional natural lacquer, but there is no evidence of any remaining lacquer coating RISD’s Buddha. 

There are, however, other clues to earlier restoration techniques. The upper portion of the Buddha’s head was covered with a long-fiber Japanese paper that appears to have been painted with traditional sumi ink. It is believed that this paper layer is not original but was applied later to conceal disfiguring insect holes that are present especially on the back of the head. A wooden insert appears to have been carefully placed into the face to patch the right cheek. Both wooden forearms as well as the right big toe and the front edge of the garment are all restorations that were present in 1936 when the sculpture first arrived at the museum.

One of the most perplexing conundrums about the RISD Buddha is the presence of minute remnants of unmercerized (pre-1844) cotton threads around very small brads located on the figure’s right armband.  Was the Buddha shrouded in cloth at one time? Why? Curiously, the Buddha’s left ear lobe (which is no longer extant), the large hole on the left side of the Buddha’s head, and both hands indicate advanced signs of wood decay from insects, water damage, or both. These areas were never restored. Is there an explanation for this?

Disassembling the Buddha uncovered new aspects that invite deeper research and study. Besides the material variations mentioned, the discovery of several inscriptions on the sculpture also confirm different restoration efforts made over time and point to likely origins of the figure in Japan. Additionally, there is evidence of wooden dowels on the interior of the clasped hands, which would seem to indicate that this Buddha once held something that is no longer extant.

By creating a 3-D model of the RISD Buddha that can be so easily manipulated on the computer, Professor Yamada’s reconstruction enables more accurate comparisons to other extant wooden sculptures from the same period.  By overlaying various 3-D images, researchers may be able to further categorize and ultimately hypothesize about specific artisans or schools of artists who could have created this rare and magnificent Buddha. Additionally, studies comparing and contrasting historic repairs on similar wooden sculptures from the period could enable us to better understand traditional restoration techniques over time.

For RISD sculpture students, outside researchers and scholars, and visitors to the museum’s website, photogrammetry of the RISD Museum Buddha will allow for the greater study of this colossal sculpture.


Wai Yee Chiong
Assistant Curator, Asian Art

Ingrid Neuman
Senior Conservator