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Baltimore's Buddha gets a stand-up ceremony


The face of the "king" is fierce. The eyebrows are arched in anger, the body posed in a martial stance, with large fangs protruding from the corners of his snarling mouth -- the better to drive away demons.

The face belongs to the world's largest Fudo Myoh-oh -- a 33-foot tall, six-ton incarnation of the Buddha's power against evil, sculpted day and night since June by three Japanese artists from about 30,000 pounds of Alaskan yellow cedar. Although the sculpture won't be finished until late next summer, ceremonies were held yesterday afternoon to mark its raising to a standing position at Baltimore's Maryland Institute, College of Art.

The Fudo Myoh-oh ("immovable king of light") is being built to drive off evil spirits from Baltimore, and its raising drew more than 500 people, including City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, diplomats and curious onlookers.

The crowd braved chilly afternoon winds to gather in front of a Japanese-style studio constructed for the Fudo Myoh-oh on the grounds of the Maryland Institute's Rinehart School of Sculpture at Mount Royal Station.

They were treated to a Japanese archery demonstration and then watched as four Buddhist monks from Japan blew conch shells and rang bells. Ceremonies blessing the sculpture ended with the lighting of a bonfire in celebration of the newest, and perhaps most unique, addition to Baltimore's cultural neighborhood.

"A sculpture is a small thing, even one that stands 30 feet," said the project's master sculptor Yasuhiko Hashimoto, 35, who has worked alongside Isao Yanaguimoto and Jinichi Itoh. "In addition to building a sculpture, we're building a bridge between the two cultures, Japan and the United States."

The project started 10 years ago, as the brainchild of a group of Japanese sculptors who wanted to carve a statue in the United States. Two years ago, the sculptors approached Richard Lanier, director of the New York-based Asian Cultural Council. He talked to his friend, Maryland Institute president Fred Lazarus, and Mr. Lazarus suggested Baltimore as a site. A patron of the sculptors, Japanese businessman Koji Oshiba, agreed to help sponsor the project, which will cost between $250,000 to $400,000 when it is completed.

Fudo Myoh-oh sculptures date back to the Kamakura era of 12th-century Japan, with the unique wood-sculpting techniques having been passed down through the generations. Unlike the days of old, sculptors today use power tools and other modern equipment in addition to the ancient carving techniques.

"This is a great symbol of friendship, working for cultural ties between our two nations," Mrs. Clarke said. "It's exciting so see an old tradition with new technology."

The Fudo Myoh-oh, despite its fearsome appearance, received a mostly favorable reception from area residents who attended yesterday's ceremonies.

"The Buddha is fantastic-looking," said David Friedhoem of Baltimore, who has walked past the studio the past few months. "I thought it might be interesting to see the ceremony. I've watched them work the last few months. I've seen them cut it and sculpt it. It's hard to believe it started from a lot of piles of wood."

"It's a unique project," said David Owens of Baltimore. "I support the arts and Baltimore affords special opportunities to artists. It's good for Baltimore and it's good for the world."

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