There are many reasons to visit the impressive Todai-ji Temple in Nara, but its sheer size must be the main attraction. The temple is only two-thirds of its original size, due to fires and alterations over the centuries, yet it is still the largest wooden building in the world. An enormous and costly project, Todai- ji was ordered by Emperor Shomyo in the mid-8th century to highlight the position of Nara as a powerful Buddhist site and Japan’s capital. Inside is a magnificent 53-ft (16-m) high seated bronze statue of the Buddha—the largest in Japan.
The imperial court at Nara embraced Buddhism in the 8th century, during the reign of Emperor Shomyo (r. 724-49). Shornyo built temples in every province and used this vast network to consolidate control of his empire. However, he is best known for commissioning the Todai-ji Temple and its Great Buddha Vairocana statue in 743. The statue was a phenomenal endeavor that took seven years to complete, consumed most of Japan’s bronze production for several years, and left the country almost bankrupt. When the temple finally opened in 752, Shomyo personally painted the statue’s eyes and declared himself the Buddha’s servant.
TODAI-JI TEMPLE’S CONSTRUCTION
Japan has extensive forest resources, and wood was a favored building material for centuries, particularly for temples, mainly because of its ability to endure weathering in winter. This has, however, also meant that such structures are highly susceptible to devastating fires. Todai-ji Temple’s Great Buddha Hall is constructed in the traditional post-and-lintel style. The base of the hall has posts anchored along a rectangular perimeter. This rigid geometric shape marks the boundary between the material and divine worlds. There are 62 pillars supporting the grand, sloping roof. A unique roof construction (Wooden Hall) is effective in resisting the many major and minor earthquakes that hit Japan.
BUDDHISM IN JAPAN
Buddhism was founded in India and arrived in Japan via China and Korea in the 6th century. Prince Shotoku (573-621) promoted Buddhism in its early days. Initially, despite incorporating parts of its belief system, Buddhism had an uneasy relationship with Japan’s oldest religion, Shinto. Buddhism lost official support after Shinto was declared Japan’s national religion in 1868, but it flowered again after World War II. Today, the beliefs and morality of Buddhism permeate modern Japanese life, especially the Zen Buddhist emphasis on simplicity and mental control. Buddhist temples in Japan include a main hall (hondo), with a stark interior, a cemetery, a small Shinto shrine, and, often, a tiered pagoda housing a relic of the Buddha.
GREAT BUDDHA HALL
The main hall of Todai-ji was rebuilt several times after natural disasters in the 12th and 16th centuries. The enormous figure inside is a jaw-dropping sight. Occasionally, it is possible to see monks climbing onto the Buddha’s raised hand to dust the statue.
Great Buddha Vairocana
The casting of this vast statue required hundreds of tons of molten bronze, mercury, and vegetable wax. Fires and earthquakes have destroyed the head several times; the current head dates from 1692.
This statue of a “Celestial Guardian” dates from the mid-Edo period (1603-1868).
Above Nara, the ancient city that was once Japan’s capital, sits Todai-ji Temple. The curved roof is almost hidden by the surrounding trees.
The unusual bracketing and beam-frame construction of this vast structure, built in 1688-1709, were possibly the work of craftsmen from southern China.
The striking roofline, with its golden “horns” and curved lintel, was an 18th-century embellishment.
This statue of Kokuzo – the deity of wisdom and memory – was completed in 1709.
Pillar with Hole
Behind the Buddha is a large wooden pillar with a small hole bored into it. Tradition holds that those who can squeeze through the opening will attain enlightenment.
This figure of a “Celestial Guardian” dates from the same period as Koumokuten in the rear of the hall.
Niyorin Kannon Bosatsu
Like the Kokuzo bosatsu to the left of the Great Buddha, this “fulfiller of all wishes” is an “Enlightened Being.” The statue dates from 1709.
The Omizu-tori, or water drawing festival, has been celebrated at Todai-ji Temple since the 8th century to signal the arrival of spring. During the festival, which is held from March 1 to 14, water is ritually drawn from a sacred well in the early hours on the 13th day to the sound of music. Enormous torches are used to purify the water.
752: After enduring fires and earthquakes, Todai-ji Temple is finally completed.
1180, 1567: The Great Buddha Vairocana’s head melts in raging fires.
1998: The Todai-ji complex at Nara is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.