Beauty and a Flowered Beast

We thought that we had found the epitome of serenity the other day in a sculpture almost hidden in the Dabney Garden at Caltech.

The life-size bronze depicts a man identified as “Ten Jin.” He sits casually side-saddle aboard a water buffalo, contemplating a book, a gourd of wine in his left hand. Flowers decorate the horns of the buffalo. The animal seems to be grazing among the delicate leaves beneath an old olive tree that adorns the lovely garden--isolated from the frantic, compulsive activity of the modern world by the high wall and 11 centuries of time.

But appearances can be deceiving. Delores Bremner, a practitioner of Oriental art herself, did some research for us and found that, “for such a placid-looking person, this figure had a rather violent and colorful life.”

The sparse identification on the statue refers simply to Ten Jin as a 9th-Century Japanese philosopher. That he was not. He was in fact Sugawara Michizane, born around the year 840, a poet and statesman of such exceptional ability that a jealous political rival set out, through slander, to destroy his career. He died in tragic, angry exile around 903. In the days after his death the imperial palace was beset by bolts of lightning, appalling floods devastated the countryside and both the evil rival and the emperor died prematurely. Courtiers were convinced that Michizane’s spirit had returned to avenge his unjust treatment. They took defensive action, erecting a shrine at Kitano, north of Kyoto, to appease Michizane’s soul. He was deified as Tenjin, god of heaven, patron of scholars and writers. The legend lives in some of the greatest ancient scrolls of Japanese art.

The half-ton bronze sculpture of deity and buffalo is of relatively recent construction. It was made in the late 19th Century and brought to America about 1901. It once adorned Adolph L. Bernheimer’s Oriental garden, a tourist attraction in Pacific Palisades until the gardens started to slide into the ocean. Dr. Edwin H. Schneider bought it at auction and kept it in his own garden until he gave it to Caltech almost 20 years ago.


Michizane did not commute to his work in the emperor’s palace aboard the flowered buffalo, our research indicates, although we find that thought diverting some mornings on the Pasadena Freeway. The unknown sculptor modeled his work after earlier paintings that also placed Tenjin on a buffalo--a graceful way of reflecting the value of being close to nature and the serenity to be found in nature, according to David Kamansky, director of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

In that there must be a message as appropriate to the 20th Century as to the 9th.