天龍寺 Imperial Exile, Dragon Dreams, and the Price of Power

I visited Tenryuji a while ago when my sister and cousin were visiting. Tenryuji is one of those temples that is both beautiful and has a rich history. This temple tells a tale of enemies united after battle, of a shrewd monk and of the start of a new Shogunate.

Tenryuji 天龍寺, meaning ‘heavenly dragon temple’, was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339. Takauji had just become Shogun, the very first of the Ashikaga shogunate which would last over 200 years. As one would expect of a great Shogun, he had commissioned the construction of Tenruji, a magnificent temple, to commemorate the recently deceased Emperor. However, all is not as it appears in this founding moment. Ashikaga and the late Emperor GoDaigo had been friends before becoming enemies, an enmity that would divide the Japanese imperial court in two for 60 years.

This begins with the accession of Emperor GoDaigo to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He had always looked back on the times of direct imperial rule as a golden age, and intended from the start to overthrow the ruling Kamakura shogunate and take back imperial power. The Kamakura shogunate heard of his plans and exiled GoDaigo, replacing him with a more compliant Emperor. He planned in exile, gathering forces. One of those that allied themselves with GoDaigo was Ashikaga Takauji.

Godaigo marched on Kyoto and established himself once again as Emperor, sending forces to remove the Kamakura shogunate. This move was successful and GoDaigo set about reestablishing direct imperial rule. However, Takauji was nervous and feared samurai rebellion (and probably wanted a slice of power for himself). When there was a rebellion in Kamakurea, Takauji set off to put it down but took Kamakura for himself, declaring himself shogun. Though he said he allied himself with the imperial court in Kyoto, his old friend GoDaigo denounced him, declaring that he should be executed.

GoDaigo sent forces to overthrow Takauji’s new Ashikaga shogunate, but they failed. Takauji’s forces marched on Kyoto but were defeated. He regrouped for a year before trying again, this time victorious. GoDaigo’s court was exiled to the South, establishing themselves as a rival court to the Ashikaga’s new Emperor Komyo. Thus started the period of Nanbokucho, or ‘North and South courts’.

When GoDaigo died, Takauji had Tenryuji founded in his honour by the most famous monk of the time (and his personal friend) Muso Soseki. This attempt to honour the late Emperor suggests that though he betrayed him to seek power, there was a great deal of respect between these two men. In fact, Ashigaka Takauji is praised by Muso Soseki as fearless, merciful and very generous, the last two characteristics are slightly unexpected of one who’s life story is so shaped by his quest for power. Perhaps this veneration of GoDaigo was a sign of his true feelings of friendship towards the exiled Emperor.

Tenryuji had beautiful gardens as well as a special room with a huge dragon painted on the ceiling. This dragon was painted to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the death of Muso Soseki, the monk that founded the temple. Muso Soseki was a teacher, calligrapher, poet and garden designer (and of course a monk). He allied himself with the Ashikaga family before they had fully taken power, shrewdly putting himself in a great position. He helped to spread zen Buddhism throughout Japan during the Ashikaga shogunate, helping to legitimise the shogunate and bolster the power of his religion. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the ceiling room, so here is one I found on the web to give you an idea.

The obsession with dragons at Tenryuji goes back to its founding. It was originally named Ryakuo Shiseienji, but Takauji Ashikaga’s brother dreamed of a golden dragon around the time it was founded. This was taken as a sign and the name was changed to Tenryu Shiseizenji instead. Tenryu 天龍 means ‘heavenly dragon’.

Tenryuji played an important role in the history of Japan; Japan’s courts refused to submit to the Chinese tributary system, which would see Japan as a junior in the relationship. Tenryuji did submit to the tributary system and became the link between Japan and Ming China for trade. This bolstered Zen Buddhism’s power greatly, as they were effectively controlling trade with one of Japan’s most important trade partners. In return China chose the abbot of Tenryuji. This arrangement lasted until the 19th century; though there are periods where historians claim Japan was ‘closed off’ to the outside world, the truth is there were several unofficial channels, such as the link at Tenryuji, which remained open.

Tenryuji also has a number of sub temples, some of which are open to the public. We stopped by Kogenji 弘源寺, a temple dedicated to Kannon founded in 1429. The temple pillars have cuts in the wood from samurai testing the sharpness of their swords during the Hamaguri rebellion of 1864. These were pro-imperial forces that were seeking to restore direct imperial rule through capturing the emperor (not entirely sure how that would work). They failed and a lot of Kyoto got set on fire, which seems to be the default result of anything happening in pre-modern Kyoto.

There we had tea and a small sweet. It was a lovely experience – the temple garden was pretty and it had a small display of screens and other artefacts (sadly no photos).

Tenryuji is well worth a visit, and you can incorporate it into a day trip to Arashiyama; there is also the bamboo grove (which I will write about soon!) and the monkey park (which I have written about here). This temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Kyoto’s 5 main Zen temples. It can be a little expensive to go around all the sections – the ceiling room, the gardens and the main building inside all cost 500円 (£2.70) each. We did not do the insides of the temple as you can pretty much see most of it from the outside. The gardens and the ceiling are worth it in my opinion.

奈良 Buddha of Bankruptcy

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.

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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.

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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.P1070276 P1070288 P1070286 P1070294 P1070296

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.