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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Art: Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)

» School of/Style of Hirotaka, Japan

Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)

Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)
Artist / Origin: School of/Style of Hirotaka, Japan
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 19th century copy of 13th century original
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Ink and color on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 60 in. (152.6 cm.), 26 3/8 in. (67 cm.)
Location: The British Museum, London, UK
Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

“The Wheel of Life,” according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, contains six realms of birth (rokudō) that comprise the samsara cycle of reincarnation.

Human beings, it is believed, exist in this endless cycle of suffering until freed through the arduous process of achieving Enlightenment, or Nirvana. According to the seminal work Ojōyōshū (“The Teachings Essential for Pure Land Rebirth,” 984–985) by the Tendai monk Genshin (942–1017), the six realms are the possible states into which a person can be reborn. They consist of the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, demons, beasts, humans, and gods.

This hanging scroll depicts the realm of hungry ghosts, the place into which the greedy are reborn as pot-bellied, narrow-throated creatures possessed of insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst. The excessive attachment these beings had to worldly items in their previous lives is manifest in death as a ravenous desire to consume feces, human corpses, and other vile things. This particular work belongs to a set of ten hanging scrolls in the collection of the British Museum. The works, of which there were probably fifteen at some point, are nineteenth-century copies of a celebrated series of thirteenth-century paintings from Ryōzen-in at Yokawa on Mt. Hiei, now housed at Shōju Raigō-ji Temple, Shiga.

The hungry ghost motif was common in the religious imagery of Japanese Buddhism, sometimes appearing in series dedicated to all six realms, as is this case here. The large size of the works in the British Museum would have made them accessible to many individuals at once. However, hungry ghosts are also the exclusive subject of hand scrolls created for more intimate viewing, like the Gaki Zoshi in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Regardless of format, these frightening images served the same ends. Inherent in their warnings about what death might have in store were exhortations to fully embrace the principles of Buddhism.

Additional Resources

“The Six Realms of Existence.” Religion and Spirituality

Fisher, Robert E. Buddhist Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Kanda, Fusae. “Beyond the Sensationalism: Images of a Decaying Corpse in Japanese Buddhist Art.” The Art Bulletin 87.1 (March, 2005): 24–49.

Pilgrim, Richard B. Buddhism and the Arts of Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Tokyo National Museum Web site.

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