The painted sculpture of priest Muchaku by Unkei (1148-1123) is one of the most highly valued Buddhist sculptures from the Kamakura Period Japan. Now this national treasure is on exhibit in the museum of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where I give weekly lectures on art and the brain. On Thursday I made a visit to the museum and stood before this masterpiece for quite a long time. What is remarkable about Muchaku is the individuality exhibited in the countenance, posture, and the overall character that radiates from the wooden object. Here, the individual reaches the universal, and the universal is housed in the individual.
The sculpture is not one of an abstract human figure, but of an individual with vivid sense of its unique existence. Muchaku is depicted as a thoughtful old man with wisdom. At the same time, however, there is an almost childlike innocence expressed in the subtle nuance of his face.
In the Buddhist tradition, sometimes a child is considered to be closer to enlightenment than a supposedly wise adult. Looking at Muchaku is an act of meditation as well as an appreciation of the greatest in art.