The “Nara period” of Japan covers the years AD 710 – 784. During most of this time, Nara was the capital of Japan. One of the major cultural developments in this period was the proliferation of Buddhism. The expansion was promoted by Emperor Shōmu, who ordered the construction of temples all over Japan. For the capital, Shōmu mandated the construction of a great Buddha (Daibutsu – 大仏) and the Tōdai-ji temple (東大寺) complex. According to history professor Tokao Sakaehara: “Todaiji Temple and Daibutsu were representations of Emperor Shomu’s intentions to redeem the nation and royal power through Buddhism and to unify the national political state”. Daibutsu eye-opening ceremony or Kaigen took place in the year AD 752. Kaigen means to enshrine a newly built Buddhist image and to put a spirit as opening eyes. Since their construction, the buildings of the temple were destroyed and rebuilt several times.
I started the day visiting the Kasugataisha Shrine, which is also located in the Nara Park, and then I went to Tōdai-ji. I arrived at the Second Month Hall (Nigatsu-dō) of the Tōdai-ji complex. The building is on a hillside from where you can see the city of Nara. This structure of the temple is best known for Omizutori, a ceremony celebrated every March when huge flaming torches are held out from the temple balcony. As in my previous visit some years ago, the purification fountain called my attention. It is a flower shaped basin with a dragon holding a sphere.
Not far down the hill, it is the Great Buddha Hall. It is a big wooden structure. Inside is the Daibutsu, the statue of Vairocana Buddha, the Cosmic Buddha or the Universal Light. The 15-meter-tall Buddha is made of bronze and originally it was covered with gold. He is sitting with his hands in a meaningful gesture or mudra. The right hand is held upright with the palm facing out, meaning “do not be afraid”. The palm-up left hand signifies the fulfillment of wishes.
Two statues flank the Daibutsu: at the right-side, there is golden statue of Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu; at the left-side, there is statue of Kokuuzo-bosatsu. Bosatsu is the name of any Buddhist saint that, having reached enlightenment, postpone entry into nirvana to help all living beings.
Also inside the Big Hall (Daibutsu-den – 大仏殿 ), there are two big statues of Buddhist guardians. Kōmokuten guardian of the West: he combats evil and encourages enlightenment. In his hands he holds a writing brush and a sutra. The sutra symbolizes the power of Buddha’s teachings to overcome ignorance. The other is Tamonten, guardian of the North: he knows and hears it all. In his left hand he holds a spear, in his right hand a pagoda, a treasure from which he gives wealth to the worthy.
I went out the temple trough the Great South Gate, the main gate of Tōdai-ji. The structure dates from the 13th century.
The gate houses a pair of Ni-ō, who keep the grounds of the temple free of demons and evil spirits. One of the statues has the mouth open and the other closed, combined they represent the opposites that appear in our consciousness.
For Buddhists Tōdai-ji is a place of reverence. For all visitors, Tōdai-ji is a special place because of its large dimensions, its long history, the numerous objects loaded with symbolism that are preserved there; because one perceives the peculiar coexistence between Shintoism and Buddhism … and yes, also for the many deer one encounters nearby.
References and other links
Sakaehara, Towao. (2003). The Prayers of the Retired Emperor Shomu. Performing Arts and Politics of Todaiji Temple in the 8th century. Japanese Ancient History Graduate School of Literature and Human Sciences. Osaka City University.