Hyakumantō Dhārāni.

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Hyakumantō Dhārāni.


Kyoto, Japan


[ca. 764–770 CE].


Scroll: 2¼ x 20½ in., pagoda: 8¼ x 3¼ in.

The oldest accurately datable, block printed-text on paper is recorded on miniature scrolls, or dhārāni (mantras), that Japanese Empress Shōtoku (718–770) commissioned to express her gratitude for the suppression of a rebellion by the Chancellor Emi no Oshikatsu and offer prayers for the future of the realm. However, her action also may have been an attempt to prove her piety after rumors had surfaced of an affair with the Buddhist monk Dōkyō.

A hollowed-out section of the tower of the pagoda holds this dhārāniscroll, one of four versions. Its design is thought to incorporate the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the finial representing the Buddha, the tower representing the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the base representing the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic community). 

I have long sought this dhārāni. My miniature book collection integrates examples of book history—in small format—from the earliest cuneiform tablets to marvelous contemporary artist’s and fine press books, from four inches to less than a millimeter square! I often admire the beauty of my books, the craftsmanship of the artists and artisans who created them, and I’m awed by their history.


Patricia Pistner