Let us begin our Buddhist side of my visit to Nara. If you were hoping for more cute deer, don’t worry, they were everywhere and I have countless deer pictures so I’ll include some more in this post too. The main Buddhist temple that we visited in Nara was Todai-ji, the temple that pretty much everyone who visits Nara goes to see.
Todai-ji 東大寺, was once one of the seven great temples of Nara, a term that refers to the most powerful temples in Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794). The Nara period can be characterised by the flourishing of Buddhism and its influence upon the elite and the imperial family. Several members of the imperial family actually became monks, something that worried many people who saw Buddhism as a non-native invading religion. It was at Todai-ji that this imperial religious fervour reached a fever pitch.
Todai-ji was founded by Emperor Shomu in 728, quickly becoming a temple of influence and power. Emperor Shomu, worried by the large number of disasters during his reign, decided that in order to bring peace to the land he must ensure the spread of Buddhism. Therefore he issued an edict that promoted the construction of provincial temples throughout the land to counter the blight of rebellion, smallpox and poor harvests. I suppose when you’re in power and all of that happens you have to look like you’re doing something, even if realistically there’s not a lot you can do.
It was at Todai-ji that all Japanese monks of this period were ordained, making it one of the most important temples in Japanese history. In addition, this temple is where the Daibutsu 大仏, or great buddha can be found. This too was built by Emperor Shomu, who felt that he must construct a great Buddha to show the appreciation of the Buddha by the Japanese people. This is the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, (there are other larger statues of different Buddha) in the world. Vairocana is the Buddha that represents the East Asian concept of ’emptiness’. The Buddha was constructed through donations of bronze and other materials that were persuaded out of the Japanese people, and it was gilded in imported gold. Many later accounts of the construction blame the construction of the Daibutsu for the subsequent near-bankruptcy of Japan and shortage of bronze. Rather amusing that the Buddha of emptiness also emptied Japan’s treasury…
The Daibutsu was finally completed in 745 and it is estimated 350,000 people worked on its construction. It weighs 500 tonnes and measures nearly 15m tall. Unfortunately around a century later, in 855, the head of the Daibutsu fell off and further donations had to be taken from the people in order to construct a more stable head. I am not sure if these were genuine donations or if they were ‘donations’ that were ‘requested’ by the Emperor. Shomu himself, in a final act of piety, became a monk upon his retirement.
The current building of Todai-ji dates back to 1709; like most wooden temples in Japan the hall burned down several times. The current structure is actually 30% smaller than the original and lacks the two pagodas the original had. There was a small scale model of the original Todai-ji in the temple itself. The current structure was the worlds’ largest wooden building until 1998. It is now beaten by a Japanese baseball stadium among others. I really liked the gold horns on the top of the main building, they remind me of a samurai helmet. It’s certainly something different to other temples, something you start to appreciate when so many look similar.
Inside the main hall was the main Buddha as well as a couple of rather large flanking Buddha. We saw a long queue of children with their parents waiting for apparently nothing, until I noticed that the children were taking it in turns to crawl through a small hole at the base of one of the wooden pillars and then have a photo taken stuck halfway through. This apparently ensures enlightenment later in life (the crawling, not the photo, one assumes). You can only do this as a child, unless you are very small, as most adults simply will not fit through the hole.
A small shrine outside was dedicated to what looked like a skeleton. The idea was that if you touched the figure where you were suffering from some kind of pain or disease, it would be cured if you prayed at this shrine. I had a go because I was very allergic at the time, though I feel that it was eventually the medicine that fixed me.
Todai-ji is an impressive structure and definitely worth seeing. It, along with Kasuga Shrine in my last post, is a designated World Heritage Site. Unlike the shrine, it did cost money to enter (around 500円 I think), but it’s definitely worth it.