Home > Kyoto This Month >> Inspired by Kyoto

Inspired by Kyoto
An Offering to the Immortal Force of Compassion and Mercy

Essay courtesy of Maxine Lu, the wife of Tom Doncourt. Editing support by Daniel Coogan and Lisa Schell and photo courtesy of Chuck Bernklau.

Sanjusangen-do! It is hard to hold on to the beauty of the moments. Videos, photos, drawings...nothing will really do it. Catching the glimmer in the giant Kannon's crystal eye / The dust hanging on the elaborate jewelry from the upper ranks of the bodhisattva army / The weight of the feeling of a thousand years...

My husband Tom, an artist, poet, and musician, wrote these words in his journal after his last trip to Japan and while creating one of his last works of art, a painting of the Kannon army of bodhisattvas in the Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Tom was a senior preparator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He built and installed many pieces for the museum, some of which he created out of wood, his favorite medium. Before working at the Museum of Natural History, Tom was a carpenter.

Tom Doncourt's workspace at his Brooklyn Heights, NY apartment (his main studio was Tower Mews in Oakdale, NY)

Over the last twenty years of his life, Tom visited Kyoto four times but his interest in Japan began as a young man when he came across images of temples and Buddhas at his local public library. He treasured those images and memorized the information about them. He assumed that the temples and their contents were so special that they must be in remote monasteries, closed to the general public. Upon further research, he found that they were in Kyoto, and several of them were open to the public. Many years later, I made arrangements for his first trip to Japan.

Tom Doncourt (1955-2019) in his studio

Long before he finished the painting of the bodhisattva army, Tom had committed himself to make art as an offering to the Kannon army at the Sanjusangen-do Temple.

I want to make works as a kind of offering to this immortal force of compassion and mercy. It is a quality that I find most ''desirable'' in all philosophies, whether Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. It has to do with the state of sensitivity that also leads me to make art. One must ''see'' the world, be sensitive to it. When you know how things really are, how they flow together like a great stream, how can you not feel compassion? Making this art will help me personally. It is a good thing to do. Perhaps I will work on it slowly over a course of years.

In the eighteen years after that commitment, he made several sculptures, created a small garden, wrote songs, made videos, and painted under the influence of his discoveries in Kyoto. One of the many songs Tom wrote is ''Philosopher's Path,'' a song about a path we walked together during our first trip to Kyoto. He made videos of the running water, finding the sound to his liking. As he often did as a child, he made a leaf boat and watched it travel quickly down the canal. On the path we discovered the delightful Otoyo-jinja Shrine, a shrine devoted to mice. Unbeknownst to us, the mouse we saw was carrying sacred sake, a symbolic celebration of good harvests and happy childbirth. What a blessing this was, since Wendy, our only child, was on the way. We passed the red bibbed Jizo statues, the Buddhist patron deity of children and travelers.

Tom & Maxine in Kyoto

''Philosopher's Path''
[Search for ''Philosopher's Path, Tom Doncourt on YouTube:

The flickering tongues of your arrows and flames licking at my city walls, peeling golden paper from the sugar wafer

And yet there is a well-kept path lined with beauty where still a garden grows Every little thing in life is here...

I made a leaf into a boat, watched the current catch it and bear it away, running past the temple and the graveyard

Water's running through the things I think, pulling me where the tree's reflection meets the running ink

A dragon struggles not to drown in a roiling fountain

Through pools of mercury over the footprints of a crane, dripping from the lips of a lion's basin

Every little thing in life is here...
Every little thing in Life

Three years ago, when Tom was diagnosed with incurable pulmonary fibrosis from working in carpentry during his youth and with substances such as resin and fiberglass, we immediately made plans to return to Kyoto while Tom was still able to travel.

At the Sanjusangen-do Temple he not only saw the many figures at Sanjusangen-do Temple but also the many hollow wooden blocks that were carved to create each figure. He noted the lacquer and the gold leaf. He spent much time contemplating the sacred space within each figure.

In the cool, dark, reverent hall of the Sanjusangen-do, he stood drawing on a large cream-colored sketch pad. The window at that particular spot was open, casting a light diffused by a white rice paper screen. The light shone on the nearby Kannons of Mercy, enabling him to draw their details. He said, ''These are bodhisattvas of healing and compassion... we can't have too many of them.''

I stood in that hall, Sanjusangen-do, for five or so hours over two visits to capture two drawings. The drawings are simply to ascertain a composition from my own point of view for paintings.

When he returned home from Japan for the last time, he completed the painting of the bodhisattva army in two years. He passed away shortly thereafter.

I love Japan so much it brings tears to my eyes.

Sanjusangen-do Temple
Although popularly known as Sanjusangen-do Temple or the Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, officially the temple is known as Rengeo-in: Temple of the Lotus King, considered the most powerful esoteric form of Kannon (The God of Mercy) for the bestowal of prosperity, cure of illness, eradication of evil, and assurance of enlightenment. The original hall burnt to the ground in the disastrous fire of 1249, it was reconstructed on the same site and rededicated in 1266. The principal image in the temple is the 3.3 meter-tall, seated ''1,000-handed Kannon with Eleven Faces'' (Juichimen Senju Kannon) with eyes made from crystal. The main Kannon is accompanied by 28 other statues of Kannon's faithful followers (all National Treasures) and the 1,001 standing images of the same Kannon, all sculptured in amazing detail.

Sanjusangen-do Temple
Across from the Kyoto National Museum; Open 9:00-16:00 (Nov. 16th-Mar.), 8:30-17:00 (April-Nov. 15); Admission 600 yen; sanjusangendo.jp