Inside the Buddha

Felice Beato, 'Bronze statue of Buddha at Daibouts, Japan', between 1867-9. Albumen print 17.5 x 13.7 cm. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. Reference no.: PA1-f-021-057-2.


Standing at the heart of the Buddha
was less enlightening than hoped.

I was breathing hard.  You were

Metallic air.  You thought of being
in a shell, or deep inside an ear.

I thought of being in the belly
of a ship gone down, waiting for

the water pressing in.

Nineteenth-century visitors to the Daibutsu at Kamakura were impressed by a number of its features: its size; the fact that it had stood since the thirteenth century, surviving even the tsunami which had washed away the building surrounding it; and its demeanour. Some described the statue and its setting, and the activity they observed around it. A few noted they had gone into the statue through the base, and climbed to a viewpoint in the Great Buddha’s shoulder which let them look out over the surrounding landscape. None of the accounts I found indicated what it was like being inside it, or speculated about why such access was possible. Had the Buddha served as a look-out post? Was there a literal or metaphorical benefit to entering it?

Because it was an acknowledged sight for Western visitors, Daibutsu was a useful subject for commercial photographers who were the principal source of ‘souvenir’ images at the time. The scan above is from an album compiled by Alexander Fisher, a naval surgeon on the HMS Endymion, from 1869 into the 1870s. Held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, the album includes images by a number of different photographers in various countries, including New Zealand. The Daibutsu is one of the quieter photographs attributed to Felice Beato, which range from landscape views to studio shots – some delicately hand-coloured – of ‘scenes’ set up to illustrate local dress and customs ( – search for ‘Beato’). Fisher presumably provided the handwritten caption which is partially visible under the image: ‘Daibouts’.

The poem fragment is from the book-length sequence which formed my Masters thesis, a form of fictionalised biography of two people (a teacher and a marine engineer) who met while working in Yokohama in the late 1890s. Unlike my recent research project, it didn’t combine text and image, but I did spend a lot of time looking at nineteenth-century images from Japan as part of my broader research for the work. Seeing Daibutsu again reminded me what a pleasure this had been; I’ll post more on this, with some further examples of the hand-coloured photographs which were such a feature of the period, later in the year.