Bulletin of the Nara National Museum"Rokuon Zasshu"

Nara National Museum

The Heike nôkyô is a set of sutra manuscripts comprising the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra, opening and closing chapters, a dedication, and other sections, for a total of thirty-three scrolls. These manuscripts were copied one chapter per scroll under the direction of Taira Kiyomori (1118-81) and other members of the Taira clan, before being placed in the Bronze Sutra Container with Gold and Silver Ornamentation of Clouds and Dragons and donated to Itsukushima Shrine (present-day Hiroshima Prefecture) in 1164. Kiyomori had ample knowledge of earlier large-scale sutra copying projects, such as the Kunôjikyô (alternately Ipponkyô shakyô) manuscript of the Lotus Sutra sponsored by retired Emperor Toba (1103-56) and his wife Taikenmon'in (1101-45), however he conceived and actualized the Heike nôkyô under an entirely new concept.

One factor motivating the creation of the Heike nôkyô may have been Kiyomori's belief in Shintô dragon deities (J. ryûjin). Though Kiyomori was the adopted son of Taira Tadamori (1096-1153), his natural parents were the retired Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129) and his lover, the younger sister of Gion no Nyôgo (dates unknown). Kiyomori's was raised by his aunt, who was closely related to the Gion Shrine in Kyoto (a Shintô shrine that worshipped dragon deities). A deeply religious woman, Gion no Nyôgo inherited from Shirakawa, and then passed on to Kiyomori, a wish-granting jewel-the attribute associated with the ascent to Buddhahood of the dragon king's daughter in the twelfth "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra-and Buddhist relics, which are strongly associated with wish-granting jewels. This background gave Kiyomori a deep grounding in ancient forms of indigenous dragon deity worship.

At the same time, Kiyomori was also involved in dragon worship through his participation in Buddhist rituals related to the Lotus Sutra. One such rite was the Sensô kuyô, in which one thousand priests chanted the scripture in order to appease the dragon king. This Buddhist ceremony was held frequently near Kiyomori's residence at Fukuhara (the Sannomiya part of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture) and at Itsukushima Shrine. One of the most famous chapters of the Lotus Sutra is the aforementioned "Devadatta" chapter (J., Daibadattahon), in which the daughter of the dragon king achieves enlightenment. One can imagine that as Kiyomori was conceiving the Heike nôkyô project, the image of the dragon king's daughter appearing from the depths of the ocean would have resonated in his mind as a metaphor for his then eight-year-old daughter Noriko (1157-1213, later Kenreimon'in, wife of Emperor Takakura).

Further associations with dragon worship can be found in literary allusions within Heike nôkyô frontispiece paintings. The culture of the Taira clan closely emulated that of the imperial court. It was just around this time that courtier Fujiwara Koreyuki (?-1175) wrote Genji shaku, the first commentary on the epic novel of court life, The Tale of Genji. Koreyuki was close to the Taira clan and has been confirmed as one of the calligraphers of the Heike nôkyô. We can therefore conclude that the frontispiece paintings to these manuscripts, almost identical in style to the narrative handscrolls of The Tale of Genji, evidence the proactive influence of Koreyuki in this project. We can also connect the Heike nôkyô with this literary classic through a reference in the novel associating the Akashi family-Genji, the Lady Akashi, whom Genji meets while in exile at Suma, and the Akashi Princess, who later becomes an imperial consort and gives birth to a prince-with the family of the dragon king. This imagery must have held high appeal for Kiyomori. It is my suggestion that Kiyomori associated himself with none other than the Shining Prince, Genji. By including Genji-like representations in the frontispiece paintings of the sutras, I propose that he was praying for the success of both his own future and that of his daughter Noriko.

For these reasons, we can conclude that the Heike nôkyô manuscripts reflect in a variety of ways both the culture and beliefs of Taira Kiyomori and the Taira clan.
Bulletin of the Nara National Museum Vol. 2, 3, March 2001