The Buddha in New Jersey
I periodically return to the world headquarters of Becton Dickinson and Company (BD) in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey to clean and repair the world’s largest wood sculpture of the Buddha.
Wait a minute…New Jersey? Not somewhere in Asia? What’s he doing in New Jersey?
Completed in 1993, this astonishing sculpture was carved by a team of Japanese craftsmen following an age-old Buddhist tradition as a project of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). It took over 2 years to complete.
The plaque beside the immense sculpture reads
Yasuhiko Hashimoto, Jinichi Itoh & Isao Yanagimoto, 1990-1993 Alaskan yellow cedar, Japanese lacquer, gold leaf FUDO MYOH-OH (Immovable King of Light). Created by Japanese artists at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Fudo represents a fierce and raging manifestation of the Buddha’s power against evil. The warrior stands motionless and firm upon a rock ready to protect humans from their greed and negativity. He appears as he has for hundreds of years, holding a rope in his left hand to symbolize bondage to ego and self-indulgence. In his right hand he holds a sword poised to cut loose those bonds and all other impediments in the way of enlightenment. Ancient interpretations of Fudo Myoh-oh show him as a messenger of the Buddha and as such he is given a boyish body, but because he combats evil and symbolizes the destruction of wickedness, his face is filled with rage. Traditional Buddhist literature describes him as having bulging eyes and ferocious, protruding teeth. The braid over his left shoulder suggests his servant status. Fudo is also loved for his ability to control disease, subdue enemies, and to assist in the acquisition of wealth and peace. The sculpture was made according to techniques dating back to the 11th century. It was fabricated with the help of students at the Maryland Institute College of Art and donated to Becton Dickinson by the Institute to insure its preservation as a work of art and as a symbol of friendship and understanding between Japan and the United States. The Becton Dickinson sculpture is the largest Fudo Myoh-oh in the world.
When completed in 1993 MICA sought a permanent location for this giant 2-and-a-half-story sculpture. BD’s campus of beautiful award-winning buildings became a perfect home with its large sunlit atriums. The Buddha was placed in one such room at the head of an ornamental pond, providing humidity that helps prevent damage to the wood. A large hole was cut into the side of the building to install the sculpture.
Art Conservation Techniques
My assistant and I spent 2 days removing dust and repairing sections of gold and silver leaf.
We used special brushes made of squirrel hair. Unlike other brush hairs, squirrel has no barbs which is ideal for removing dust without damaging the leaf or lacquer.
Scaffolding was carefully constructed so that no part of it touches the sculpture while allowing close contact with every surface. Gloves are worn at all times so that the corrosive oils in our hands never come in contact with the art.
The scaffolding costs several thousand dollars for our 2 days of use. Luckily, the dust buildup takes about 5 years before it becomes visible and thus requiring our services again.
Known as Fudō Myō-ō, this is the wrathful Buddha venerated especially by the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.
Fudō converts anger into salvation with a furious face that subdues all impediments to the spiritual goals of wisdom and compassion.
His devil-subduing sword represents wisdom cutting through ignorance. His rope symbolizes several things – catching and binding demon impediments to knowledge as well as the terribly binding and restrictive quality of our egos and ignorance. The third eye in his forehead is all-seeing. He stands upon a rock representing the immovability of faith.
Fudō is also worshiped as a deity who can bring good health and financial success.
Myō-ō is the Japanese term for a group of warlike and wrathful deities known as the Wisdom Kings. All Myō-ō statues appear ferocious and menacing, protecting the teachings, removing all obstacles to understanding, and forcing evil to surrender. Introduced to Japan in the 9th century, the Myō-ō were originally Hindu deities that were adopted into Buddhism. In Japan, among all the different Myō-ō, Fudō is the most widely venerated.
We finished our work, bowed respectfully to Fudo and wished him well until our next scheduled visit, or until his venerable protector, BD’s Projects & Facility Services Manager, Tony Albanese, calls again.
Recently, a reader contacted me. Peter Wechsler was a student at MICA when this sculpture was created and became a life-long friend of the chief sculptor, Mr. Hashimoto. He kindly shared his fascinating memories.
I met Hashimoto when he worked at MICA. He is from Fukushima, where I also studied temple carpentry. Fortunately, his family was OK after the earthquake, but were probably not too far from the nuclear plant. As I recall, he and two other sculptors, all students of the same teacher, came over to MICA together, but I think Hashimoto stayed the longest. I believe a patron in Japan supplied the money for the project. The sculpture was created using a traditional technique called ‘yosegi’ or joined wood, gluing together blocks of wood, in this case Alaskan yellow cedar.
They made a model of the sculpture, and sliced it into thin sections, each representing one 2″ thick section of the finished sculpture, or whatever the size of the materials they were using. They then glued these together and assembled them. The inside is hollow to save on materials and weight, and to avoid problems with humidity. They then started carving, using all hand tools which took quite a while. Then they painted it and inserted the glass eyes.
The paint is a very durable finish made from the sap of urushi, a relative of poison ivy, so those who use it usually have strong reactions until they develop a tolerance. It also requires humidity to cure. Then they applied the gold leaf.
After it was finished, there was an impressive fire ceremony with a Tendai priest. They also read a poem about Fudo Myo by Gary Snyder that I haven’t been able to find. However, I came across an interesting account of hiking in the Japanese mountains in 1969 by him that talks a little about Fudo Myo’s position in Japanese Buddhism.
I think they assumed that it would be easy to find a home for the statue when it was finished, but was too big for most interior spaces. It couldn’t be left outside without a building. We talked about building some sort of building, but it was also probably too religious for most public spaces. It was therefore a big relief when they made contact with the CEO of Becton Dickinson who was interested in Asian art. They were just building their new headquarters which sounded perfect. I went up there to visit when they installed it. The head and arms were removed and I could see marks where they had dragged it through the hallways. The space seemed perfect with a fountain for humidity and the skylight. I remember talking to one of the guards who said some of them were afraid to go in there at night. He said he went in there once and it was looking down at him with lightning visible through the skylight.
Later [in my career as a carpenter] I went over to Japan and worked on a temple where Hashimoto was creating carvings, and visited him a couple of times at his home in Kyoto. He later moved to Osaka and I visited him when I was there three or four years ago. I definitely recommend getting in touch. His house is a taste of an older Japan, and he would probably be happy to put you up…
And this from another reader, David Brown.
I was the Director of Exhibitions at MICA from 1989-96. Yashuhiko, the lead, and his two accomplished sculptors had a temporary studio in the parking lot of the old train station which housed among other things, the school’s library, the Decker Gallery, and grad and undergrad sculpture studios and classrooms.
Fudo was created in a three story temp studio made out of corrugated metal with large front doors. We checked on the progress almost everyday by looking through the gap in the doors, watching the work slowly come together.
I took the artist James Grashow there to see the work. Grashow was there to help oversee the installation of his giant standing sculpture called ‘Building Man’ and was so blown away that when I see him today, that’s always the first thing he brings up. We envisioned a battle between Building Man and Fudo, knowing full well that we didn’t stand a chance! Building Man is a cross between a skyscraper and a business man, complete with Gulliver-like tiny attendants, hanging off the side, washing windows, elevators in the shoes…a nice work for Grashow, who resides in Connecticut.
There was a series of ceremonies that blessed the creation but I can’t recall what they were or if I even attended.
Peter just unearthed photos of the fabrication.
A contemporary Buddhist statue thought to be the world’s largest wooden image of the deity Fudo Myo-O recently passed the 25th year since it was completed and installed in its permanent home on the U.S. East Coast, following a years-long collaboration between a team of Japanese sculptors and the Maryland arts community that embraced the project.
The cedar statue, which stands just over 10 meters tall, depicts “The Immovable King of Light” — a benevolent but fearsome manifestation of the Buddha who wields a sword, coiled rope and angry scowl against evils such as illusion and ignorance.
Yasuhiko Hashimoto, 64, the sculptor who initiated and led the effort along with colleagues Jinichi Ito and Isao Yanagimoto, said he felt drawn to the project at a time when Japanese culture was not well- known or appreciated in the United States.
“I knew America to be a free and open-minded country, though at the time (in the early 1990s) Americans tended to see Japan as an industrial nation represented by its cars,” said Hashimoto, a native of Fukushima Prefecture who lives in Osaka. “Creating a Buddhist statue was a way to help introduce them to the depth of Japan’s spiritual culture.”
The project, which took place over the course of three years, officially began in the summer of 1990 at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. With outside funding including from a Japanese arts patron and local in-kind donations, the sculptors worked in a temporary studio built for the purpose in a campus parking lot to bring the massive 6-ton figure to life.
While not explicitly aiming to create the world’s largest statue of its kind, Hashimoto wanted to exceed both the 5-meter Fudo Myo-O the trio had previously made for a temple in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture as well as the 8-meter historical masterpieces by 12th/13th-century sculptors Unkei and Kaikei, whose realism in depicting Buddhist deities greatly influenced the present Fudo’s style.
“The audacity of size is a tremendous statement in this work,” said Jane Elkinton, an Asian art specialist who witnessed the sculpture’s creation as a professor at the Maryland Institute.
She explained that while “the stance, lay of the drapery with its elegant flutters, and proportions” of the giant work are consistent with Japanese tradition, it also embodies a “humanistic quality” for the sake of Western viewers by changing the customary blue skin to a warmer, human tone and shifting the typically straight-ahead angry glare to a “less confrontational” gaze to the side.
The sculpture team used the “yosegi zukuri” or joined-block technique to assemble the figure from multiple hollow parts, giving students and visitors an understanding of an artistic practice perfected in 11th-century Japan.
“The greatest aspect of the project was the overwhelming generosity on the part of the sculptors,” Elkinton said. “Hashimoto inspired everyone who visited his studio with his talent, his ready communication, and his enthusiasm.”
From its early stages, the project sparked interest among students who either assisted in the sculpture work or helped spread the word beyond campus. Kerrie Bellisario, a senior at the art school when the project was starting, heard about it through her library job and soon got involved as a liaison for the press and a guide for visiting groups.
“Jinichi Ito taught me basic carving techniques, and with a group of schoolchildren we did some carving on one leg of the Fudo,” she recalled. “Seeing the Fudo, carving it, and being introduced to Japanese culture was such an eye-opening experience for the children.”
Bellisario went on to visit Japan a number of times while organizing an international art exhibit in Hiroshima, a collaboration with other students from the sculpture project that became an important early step toward her career as a design teacher and international curator.
“If it weren’t for the Fudo project which led to the Bridge (program in Hiroshima), I can’t imagine what path my life would have taken,” she said.
More than a year after getting under way, the team finished its detailed carving work and assembled the unpainted figure at its full height for the first time in 1991.
The lacquering, painting, gold leaf work and other finishing touches were completed after a six- month hiatus, during which arrangements were made to donate the piece to Becton, Dickinson and Company for its headquarters in northern New Jersey, where it still stands today.
Every few years, conservators visit the medical technology company’s 140-acre (about 567,000-square-meter) campus to attend to the statue, removing dust with special squirrel-hair brushes and reapplying gold leaf as necessary.
“I’m grateful the piece continues to be cared for so well, and also for the open-mindedness of everyone who embraced the project in the first place,” Hashimoto said.
“Although we couldn’t readily express in English what we wanted to share, the experience let us communicate with American people whose kindness and curiosity about the world we will never forget.”
Following completion of the project, Hashimoto continued to sculpt fine-art pieces that have appeared in shows across Japan and abroad, while Ito resumed his work in temple carpentry.
Yanagimoto, alongside whom Hashimoto had apprenticed under the late Japanese Order of Culture- winning sculptor Seiko Sawada, has since become a university professor.
The deity Fudo Myo-O, known as Acala in the Hindu tradition where it originated, gained prominence in Japanese Buddhism over a thousand years ago, particularly in the burnt-offering ceremonies of the Shingon sect.
The protector god was depicted in wood sculptures in Japan as early as the 9th century, with larger figures in a standing position appearing in the 11th century as the joined-block technique advanced.
Myokei Matsumoto, a well-known Japanese sculptor of Buddhist images, is reportedly at work on a wooden Fudo in excess of 10 meters for a temple in Saitama Prefecture, with completion expected around the opening of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.”