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Masters of Mercy: Buddha's Amazing Disciples

Fantastic Monasticism

Two boys with newly shorn heads bow down before a group of rakan.
Scroll 18 Zoom
The ritual of tonsure, or shaving of the head.
Scroll 17 Zoom

Tonsure, Five Hundred Arhats: Scrolls 17 and 18

Kano Kazunobu (1816–63)
Japan, Edo Period, ca. 1854–63
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
Collection, Zōjōji, Tokyo

The ritual of tonsure, or shaving of the head, upon entry into the Buddhist priesthood is a practice that continues to this day. Notable in the right scroll are the similarities between the paired elder rakan and youths. Beyond depicting an important moment of initiation for the aspirants, the message is that the rakan have a moral responsibility to ensure generational continuity.

In the left scroll, two boys with newly shorn heads bow down before a group of rakan. At top, a senior rakan holding a curved scepter is seated in a throne-like chair draped with a priestly stole. Parents observe the ceremony in the foreground with their backs to the viewer—a compositional device not often seen in Buddhist painting.