Butsuzo in the 21st Century: Promoting the 1,400-year-old Japanese Tradition of Buddhist Sculpture on Social Media
I was first introduced to Yujiro Seki, creator of the documentary Carving the Divine, in July when we started making arrangements for this interview. Due to my own scheduling difficulties and because of the film’s success on festival circuits, my discussion with Yujiro was delayed until very recently. My exposure to Carving the Divine and to the world of butsuzo, however, did not lie dormant during this time. In fact, thanks to Yujiro’s unabashed use of social media and regular newsletters, my knowledge and interest in the 1,400-year-old tradition of Japanese Buddhist sculpture only grew exponentially.
“Every time I send out an email there’s a chance of me annoying people, because email is very sensitive. Some people want to receive news all the time, some people don’t. So I need to be careful not to send messages out all the time, but still it’s considered pretty often compared with other people . . . because I send out a link to Carving the Divine TV and news every other week . . . I’m already pushing the envelope!” Yujiro admits with laughter.
Yujiro has dedicated seven years of hard work to his movie, which is currently doing the festival rounds and has yet to be released. Since the summer of 2019, the film has featured at the Madrid International Film Festival; the Guayaquil International Film Festival in Ecuador; the Religion Today Film Festival in Trent, Italy, where it was nominated for the special jury award; the Slemani International Film Festival in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq; the Australia Independent Film Festival in Brisbane; and the Universal Kids Film Festival in Istanbul. And this may only be the beginning, for the director continues to work diligently to promote his film to a worldwide audience.
Image courtesy of Yujiro Seki
That said, Yujiro’s mission goes far beyond the mere promotion of his documentary. Indeed, his aim is to bring awareness of the timeless art of butsuzo to the Western world and beyond. He explains that with 1,400 years of history, butsuzo is arguably Japan’s most important art form. While different aspects of Japanese culture such as kabuki, tempura, sushi, and sumo have become internationally recognizable, butsuzo remains virtually unknown—a fact that is beyond astounding to the filmmaker: “Butsuzo is not only art, it is a profound expression of how Japanese people coped with reality.”
In Yujiro’s view, butsuzo is profoundly spiritual, and its underlying idea is that of Brahman, which in the Hindu tradition denotes the supreme existence, absolute reality, or the ultimate source of everything. He points out the incredible dedication of the busshi, the woodcarvers who have created and replicated sculptures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist deities to absolute perfection: “You can pray to or celebrate any butsuzo you like, but in the end, it is connected to one butsuzo—Dainichi Nyorai, the Supreme Buddha from which, in Shingon Buddhism, the entire universe is said to emanate.”
And yet, Yujiro laments, in the Western world butsuzo is restricted to academia and museums, while back home in Japan it is everywhere but remains underappreciated: “Butsuzo is a very profound thing, but the thing is that it’s almost like air to the Japanese people—we just breathe in because it’s there everywhere, in the streets, the temples, and in the butsudan altars. The majority of us don’t think anything of it.”
Image courtesy of Yujiro Seki
Yujiro recognizes that his documentary is insufficient to make the full profundity of the art form recognized at home and abroad. Instead, the movie is a launching pad from which he can expose the world to butsuzo and to Buddhism: “I made something that is not easily understood—so the only way for me to get people to understand it is to do something different, which is to create a social media network to promote butsuzo.”
Recognizing that, in this day and age, social media is key to making information available and accessible, Yujiro relies on a multitude of social media platforms that work together to promote not only butsuzo, but also the context from which it is born. One such medium is Yujiro’s Carving the Divine TV, a YouTube channel that features short interviews with experts in the Buddhist world and beyond. Making complex and extremely rich Eastern philosophical traditions focused around Buddhism accessible to a wide audience is imperative to Yujiro, because it helps audiences to unpack the topics at a manageable pace and simultaneously builds the foundation on which butsuzo may be understood.
Yujiro Seki for Carving the Divine TV. Image courtesy of Yujiro Seki
“People who are very knowledgeable about [Buddhism] might not be satisfied by the approach we take in Carving the Divine TV. But Buddhism is very complex. It has 2,500 years of history,” Yujiro explains. “Carving the Divine TV is so ambitious because in 5–10 minutes you cannot possibly explain some of the difficult concepts that practitioners and scholars try to answer in a lifetime. But I do it anyway because if I don’t, then regular people won’t have access to this knowledge, access to what is so fascinating and interesting about Buddhism. So, once they get their feet into it and they understand something about it, they can explore more and have a deeper understanding of Buddhism. My channel is just to give people an open door.”
Enabling ordinary people to expand their knowledge is a goal that is close to Yujiro’s heart. He explains that this desire stems from his experience of studying filmmaking at the University of California, Berkeley. While he had counted on being shown the ropes at this prestigious university, he found himself bombarded with never-ending papers to read and assignments to complete, and was mostly left to his own devices. Although Yujiro successfully graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film, he worries that such a strict academic program can overwhelm one’s joy of learning.
Yujiro’s social media network is a means by which people can discover complicated topics at their own pace. “I don’t overwhelm people with difficult concepts and jargon,” he notes. “Some people get so caught up with these terms and they completely lose regular people. So that’s the purpose behind Carving the Divine TV.” In addition to his YouTube channel, Yujiro has created a blog titled Butsuzōtion, a Facebook page, an Instagram account and a Twitter account all dedicated to spreading the craft, art, and spiritual aspects of butsuzo within its Buddhist context: “I have Carving the Divine TV and Butsuzōtion, these are kind of my left-hand and right-hand men. They will promote the movie and the movie will promote the YouTube channel and the blog. All of the social media work together as a team.”
Yujiro explains that when he first started out on his mission to spread butsuzo, he called himself a social media dinosaur, recalling that he did not even know the meaning of the hashtag symbol. However, he quickly realized that social media was the only way he would get his message across, and Yujiro has since built a network that has been successful to the extent that he has been invited to lecture on the topic at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Finland as well as in Istanbul.
If you are interested in finding out more about butsuzo, or if you are curious about the “Yuji experience,” you can visit any of Yujiro’s social media links below. And if you too identify as a social media dinosaur, I would suggest simply signing up to Yuji’s newsletter—as long as you do not mind receiving email every fortnight, the filmmaker will take your hand and provide you with illuminating and manageable glimpses into the world of butsuzo.
Butsuzotion—A blog dedicated to Japanese Buddhist sculpture appreciation. This blog caters to visitors who would like to learn about butsuzo from scratch, while encouraging readers with exposure to butsuzo to share their knowledge. The blog’s aim is to promote an appreciation that goes deeper than surface-level admiration.
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
Carving the Divine: The Vocation of Japanese Buddhist Woodcarving
The Norbulingka Institute: The Safekeeping of Tradition
Butsuzо̄ in the Shell: The Buddhist Sculptures of Takuma Kamine
Expressions of Emptiness: The Paintings and Sculptures of Yoshio Ikezaki
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