Tōdai-ji Temple


1. Tōdai-ji Temple

Tōdai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) is a Buddhist temple complex that was once one of the powerful 7 Great Temples located in the city of Nara, Japan.

Though it was originally founded in the year 738, Tōdai-ji was not opened until the year 752.

Its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsu-den) houses the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known in Japanese as Daibutsu.

The temple also serves as the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.

The temple is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara", together with 7 other sites including temples, shrines and places in the city of Nara.

2. Origins

The beginning of building a temple where the Kinshōsen-ji complex sits today can be dated to 728 CE, when Emperor Shōmu (701-756) established Kinshōsen-ji as an appeasement for Prince Motoi, his first son with his Fujiwara clan consort Kōmyōshi (Empress Kōmyō, (701–760)). Prince Motoi died a year after his birth.

During the Tenpyō era, Japan suffered from a series of disasters and epidemics:

It was after experiencing these problems that Emperor Shōmu issued an edict in 741 to promote the construction of provincial temples throughout the nation.

Later in 743 during the Tenpyō era the Emperor commissioned the Daibutsu (the great Buddha) to be built.

Tōdai-ji (still Kinshōsen-ji at the time) was appointed as the provincial temple of Yamato Province and the Head of all the provincial temples.

With the alleged coup d'état by Prince Nagaya in 729, a major outbreak of smallpox around 735–737, worsened by several consecutive years of poor crops, followed by a rebellion led by Fujiwara no Hirotsugu in 740, the country was in a chaotic situation.

Emperor Shōmu had been forced to move the capital 4 times, indicating a certain level of instability during this period.

3. Role in early Japanese Buddhism

According to legend, the monk Gyōki (668–749) went to Ise Grand Shrine to reconcile Shinto with Buddhism. He spent 7 days and nights reciting sūtras until the oracle declared Vairocana Buddha compatible with worship of the Sun goddess Amaterasu.

Under the Ritsuryō system of government in the Nara period, Buddhism was heavily regulated by the state through the Sōgō (Office of Priestly Affairs).

During this time, Tōdai-ji served as the central administrative temple for the provincial temples and for the 6 Buddhist schools in Japan at the time:

1. Hossō
2. Kegon
3. Jōjitsu
4. Sanron
5. Ritsu
6. Kusha

Letters dating from this time also show that all 6 Buddhist schools had offices at Tōdai-ji, complete with administrators, shrines and their own library.

Japanese Buddhism during this time still maintained the lineage of the Vinaya and all officially licensed monks were required to take their ordination under the Vinaya at Tōdai-ji.

In 754 CE, ordination was given by Ganjin, who arrived in Japan after traveling over 12 years and 6 attempts of crossing the sea from China, to Empress Kōken, former Emperor Shōmu and others.

Later Buddhist monks, including Kūkai and Saichō received their ordination here as well.

During Kūkai's administration of the Sōgō, additional ordination ceremonies were added to Tōdai-ji, including the ordination of the Bodhisattva Precepts from the Brahma Net Sūtra and the Esoteric Precepts, or Samaya, from Kūkai’s own newly established Shingon school of Buddhism.

Kūkai added an Abhiṣeka Hall to use for initiating monks of the 6 Nara schools into the Esoteric teachings. by 829 CE.

4. Decline

As the centre of power in Japanese Buddhism shifted away from Nara to Mount Hiei and the Tendai sect, and when the capital of Japan moved to Kamakura, Tōdai-ji's role in maintaining authority declined.

In later generations, the Vinaya lineage also died out, despite repeated attempts to revive it; thus no more ordination ceremonies take place at Tōdai-ji.

5. Initial construction

In 743, Emperor Shōmu issued a law stating that the people should become directly involved with the establishment of new Buddhist temples throughout Japan:

The Emperor believed that such piety would inspire Buddha to protect his country from further disaster.

Gyōki, with his pupils, travelled the provinces asking for donations.

Great Buddha | Tōdai-ji

According to records kept by Tōdai-ji, more than 2 600 000 people in total helped construct the Great Buddha and its Hall; contributing rice, wood, metal, cloth, or labour; with 350 000 working directly on the statue's construction.

The 16m high statue was built through 8 castings over 3 years, the head and neck being cast together as a separate element.

The making of the statue was started first in Shigaraki.

After enduring multiple fires and earthquakes, the construction was eventually resumed in Nara in 745, and the Buddha was finally completed in 751.

A year later, in 752, the eye-opening ceremony was held with an attendance of 10 000 monks and 4 000 dancers to celebrate the completion of the Buddha.

The Indian priest Bodhisena performed the eye-opening for Emperor Shōmu.

The project cost Japan greatly, as the statue used much of Japan's bronze and relied entirely on imported gold.  48 lacquered cinnabar pillars, 1.5m in diameter and 30m long, support the blue tiled roof of the Daibutsu-den.

Maps that include some of the original structures of Tōdai-ji are rare, though some still exist today. Some of these structures include the 2 pagodas, the library, lecture hall, refectory, and the monk's quarters located behind the main hall.

Tōdai-ji functioned not only as a place of worship and Buddhist practice, but as a place of higher learning and study.

Much of what contemporaries now know about the original layout of the temple comes from the writings of monks who lived and studied there.

The original complex contained 2 x 100m pagodas, making them some of the tallest structures at the time. They were located on each side of the complex, one on the Western and one on the Eastern side. The pagodas themselves were surrounded by a walled courtyard with 4 gates.

These were destroyed by an earthquake. One of the Sōrin finials survived and is standing at the spot where one of the pagodas used to stand.

The Shōsōin (treasure house) was its storehouse, and now contains many artefacts from the Tenpyō period of Japanese history.

6. Reconstructions post-Nara Period

Southern Gate | Tōdai-ji

The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsu-den) has been rebuilt twice after fire.

The current building was finished in 1709, and although immense - 57 metres long, 50 metres wide and 49 metres high - it is actually 30% smaller than its predecessor, being reduced from 11 to 7 bays wide due to lack of funds.

Until 1998, it was the world's largest wooden building.

The Great Buddha statue has been recast several times for various reasons, including earthquake damage:

The current hands of the statue were made in the Momoyama Period (1568–1615), and the head was made in the Edo period (1615–1867).

The existing Nandaimon (Great South Gate) was constructed at the end of the 12th century based on Daibutsuyō style, after the original gate was destroyed by a typhoon during the Heian period.

The dancing figures of the Nio (guardians), the 2 x 8.5-metre-tall guardians at the Nandaimon, were built at around the same time by Unkei, Kaikei and their workshop members.

The Nio are an A-un pair known as Ungyo, which by tradition has a facial expression with a closed mouth, and Agyo, which has an open mouthed expression.

The 2 figures were closely evaluated and extensively restored by a team of art conservators in 1988-1993. Until then, these sculptures had never before been moved from the niches in which they were originally installed.

This complex preservation project, costing $4.7 million, involved a restoration team of 15 experts from the National Treasure Repairing Institute in Kyoto.

7. Great Buddha Dimensions

The temple gives the following dimensions for the Great Buddha statue:

Height: 14.98 m
Face: 5.33 m
Eyes: 1.02 m
Nose: 0.5 m
Ears: 2.54 m

The statue's shoulders are 28 meters across and there are 960 curls atop its head. The Birushana Buddha's golden halo is 27m in diameter with 16 images each 2.4m tall.

Recently, using x-rays, a human tooth, along with pearls, mirrors, swords, and jewels were discovered inside of the knee of the Great Buddha; these are believed to be the relics of Emperor Shōmu.

The statue weighs 500 tonnes.

8. Temple precincts and gardens

Tōdai-ji belfry

Various buildings of the Tōdai-ji have been incorporated within the overall aesthetic intention of the gardens' design. Adjacent villas are today considered part of Tōdai-ji. Some of these structures are now open to the public.

Over the centuries, the buildings and gardens have evolved together as to become an integral part of an organic and living temple community.

The Tōdai-ji Culture Centre opened on October 10, 2011, comprising a museum to exhibit the many sculptures and other treasures enshrined in the various temple halls, along with a library and research centre, storage facility, and auditorium.

9. Major historical events

The temple originally had 2 large pagodas on either side of the complex, which used to be among the tallest structures of its time.

728: Kinshōsen-ji, the forerunner of Tōdai-ji, is established as a gesture of appeasement for the troubled spirit of Prince Motoi.

741: Emperor Shōmu calls for nationwide establishment of provincial temples, and Kinshōsen-ji appointed as the head provincial temple of Yamato.

743: The Emperor commands that a very large Buddha image statue shall be built - the Daibutsu or Great Buddha - and initial work is begun at Shigaraki Palace.

745: The capital returns to Heijō-kyō, construction of the Great Buddha resumes in Nara. Usage of the name Tōdai-ji appears on record.

752: The Eye-opening Ceremony celebrating the completion of the Great Buddha held.

855: The head of the great statue of the Buddha Vairocana suddenly fell to the ground; and gifts from the pious throughout the empire were collected to create another, better-seated head for the restored Daibutsu.