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Head of Priest's Staff

Unknown13th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum
Kyoto, Japan

This shakujō, or priest’s staff, is one of the eighteen requisite possessions of a Buddhist priest. The staff consists of a head in the form of a metal loop inclosing a number of freely dangling small metal rings that is set on a spike connected to a handle. As the priest hits the staff on the ground while walking, or when he shakes it, the dangling rings jangle, resulting, it is said, in warding off snakes and beasts while he is doing his rounds asking for alms or out on a pilgrimage. In addition, as a sacred Buddhist musical instrument, the staff produces a mystical sound able to dispel the passions of the practitioner and to accelerate the awakening of compassion.
This staff head typifies Kamakura-period styles, with two indentations on both sides of the main loop. At the top, a sacred jewel (hōjū) sits on curled ferns, while pagoda shapes riding on clouds rest on the upper indentations, and crescent moon shapes representing the diamond tusk (kongōga) lie on the sides above the lower indentation. A five-elements pagoda stands in the center on the curled ends of the loop, and pure water pitchers rest on each curl. Two jangling rings remain on either side. The copper of their diamond-shaped cross sections has been bent to form a special Japanese quince shape, but the ends do not meet. The spike consists of four segments of lotus petals tightly bound by double rings, each segment having a distinctly different rendering.
Of note is that the MOA museum owns a gilt bronze shakujō head with the same number of rings and similar decoration down to minor details, suggesting that most likely both were made in the same workshop at about the same time. This important piece brings to light the true capacity of Kamakura-period Buddhist implement foundries, for the casting and carved metal finishing are extremely delicate, yet the work was given a solid, sturdiness in the process.

Details

  • Title: Head of Priest's Staff
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date: 13th Century
  • Type: gilt bronze, cast

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