The Buddhist paintings (specifically ban幡, or banners used in Buddhist ritual) that Sir Mark Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot took from Dunhuang and brought back to England and France feature images of flowers and Buddhist deities painted in gold and silver. These images were produced during the Tang Dynasty (ninth century). During this time, in the Tang capital of Chang'an, Huiguo had Lizhen and some ten or more other disciples paint the two mandalas (Womb and Diamond). This was so he could give it to his disciple Kukai (774-835). Kukai returned to Japan in 806, but from 829 until 833, he had the Takao-Mandala made for the Abhiseka Hall at Jingoji (in Takao, Kyoto). Over four meters long and wide, this mandala was a major work. It featured Buddha images painted in gold and silver on magenta-colored silk.
In this essay I compare the gold and silver painting methods reflected in Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang with those used in Japanese mandala painting. Through this comparison, I will investigate the meaning of the “yugen method”, which is surely considered the most fundamental painting technique used for gold and silver esoteric paintings. I will also demonstrate that the aesthetic appreciation of gold and silver was closely related to the gold and silver patterns for vessels (dishes, water jugs, Buddhist implements, urns, and so on) standardized in the Tang period. The “yugen method” of esoteric Buddhist painting uses gold and silver paint on an indigo background to create the sense that the Buddha is rising into the sky. I will trace the ways in which this style reflects both the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, which prizes merit making, and the culmination of artistic representations of Buddhist deities.