Midway through my Fulbright stay I was joined by my husband, writer Jonathan Blunk, for a three-week visit. Together we made a side trip to Japan, where we both had contacts to meet and research to pursue. In Kyoto and Tokyo, I was able to view Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and gardens that I had long studied from afar, and talk with four university professors about bird-figures in Japanese myth and religion. Though I went looking for the famous Tengu in Kyoto, I found many symbolic images of crows, phoenix, herons, and winged apsara, or celestial beings, among architectural ornaments. There was a beautiful carved wooden Garuda (called Karura in Japan) inside the Buddhist Sanjusangendo; it was one of 28 deities of Hindu tradition guarding 1,001 Kannon sculptures. (No photos were allowed, so I sketched on my iPad.)
Surprising discoveries on this trip were remarkable historic Chinese artifacts housed in Japan. The National Tokyo Museum had a collection of niche carvings from Guangzhaisi Temple (later moved to Baoqingsi Temple) from Tang-dynasty China in the 7th-9th centuries. Among them was a Buddha Triad overseen by two immortals riding cranes, on either side of a winged bird with two human heads. This central emblem remains a compelling mystery to me, and I’m hoping to find answers to explain this fascinating image.
The museum also had a small but complex terracotta sculpture from 5th-century Yotkan, China, of a double-human-headed bird, male and female, called in the English translation a “Jivajiva Bird,” or “Jivajivata” in the Sutras. This means a “together life bird,” from the Sanskrit story about the soul (Jiva) being like two birds in a tree, one that eats the sweet fruit and one that watches. There are variations on this story and its lesson. Interestingly, there is also a “Jian Jian bird” in Chinese myth, which is a bird with one eye and one wing. It is said that only when two Jian birds join can they survive, like a husband and wife together.