Tôdai-ji, located in Nara, is one of the earliest and most significant Buddhist temples in Japan. Its Daibutsuden, or "Great Buddha Hall," is considered the largest wooden building in the world, and houses the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Tôdai-ji is also home to the Shôsôin Imperial Storehouse, which contains numerous National Treasures - objects from the Nara period (8th century) of immense historical importance.
Emperor Shômu ordered the construction of Tôdai-ji in 743, to serve as a national Imperial temple. It was to be the head temple in Japan of the Kegon school of Buddhism, a school particularly favored by Shômu. The site chosen for the temple was previously that surrounding the hermitage of the Kegon Buddhist master Rôben; he would later become the temple's first abbot.
Construction began on the temple in 747; it was a huge financial undertaking for the Imperial Court, and one of the largest temple projects, and Buddhist sculptural projects, in the Buddhist world at the time. Originally known as Kokubun-ji, the temple was renamed Tôdai-ji shortly afterwards. The construction of the temple and of its Great Buddha were a means by which the Yamato state (i.e. Japan) showed the rest of the Buddhist world (mainly China & Korea) its wealth, power, and devotion.
The Great Buddha was completed and dedicated in a grand ceremony on 752/4/9. Ten thousand monks, four thousand musicians and dancers, and seven thousand officials were in attendance, along with the Indian priest Bodhisena (704-760), who performed the key ritual element of the ceremony by painting in the sculpture's eyes. As part of this grand eye-opening ceremony held for the sculpture, Emperor Shômu is said to have officially declared himself "a servant of the Three Treasures of Buddhism."
An ordination hall, or kaidan'in, was established at Tôdai-ji in 755; there, the Chinese monk Ganjin, quite possibly the only man in Japan capable of ordaining other monks, ordained 400 people, including Empress Kômyô. When Emperor Shômu died the following year, Kômyô established the Shôsôin Imperial Storehouse on the grounds of Tôdai-ji, and donated roughly 600 objects to be held there, including textiles, musical instruments, metalware, and other gifts from Tang Dynasty China, Korea, and as far afield as Persia.
The temple wielded great political influence at various times in its history, particularly in the Nara and Heian periods, and became embroiled in armed conflict at times as well. Throughout much of the late Heian through Muromachi periods, Tôdai-ji was likely the largest landholder and powerholder (kenmon) in the archipelago. Tôdai-ji, along with nearby Kôfuku-ji, came under attack from the forces of the Taira samurai clan in 1181 for this reason; the temple had opposed the Taira both politically, and militarily, fielding forces of warrior monks in support of the opposing Minamoto clan. The 1181 siege of Nara saw the destruction of Tôdai-ji, Kôfuku-ji, and Gangô-ji, and the deaths of roughly 35,000 people. The temples were rebuilt shortly afterwards, however. The Buddhist priest Shunjôbô Chôgen (1121-1206) was placed in charge of the reconstruction project, and of organizing campaigns for collecting monetary contributions. Saigyô became one of a number of prominent figures of the time who went on a journey to the provinces in order to campaign for contributions.
Reconstruction of Tôdai-ji's daibutsuden was completed in 1195 and a rededication ceremony was held for the structure; Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo visited the temple at this time, offering a sizeable contribution, and paying his formal respects to the emperor. The Nandaimon, destroyed in a typhoon in 962, was rebuilt in 1199, and survives from that time today. The structures rebuilt at this time, the Nandaimon in particular, incorporated new elements of architectural style, brought back to Japan by Chôgen, who visited China three times between 1167 and 1176. The new architectural style he created based on the latest trends in China at that time came to be known in Japan as daibutsu-yô, or "Great Buddha style," because of its prominent use at Tôdai-ji.
The Daibutsuden that stands today dates back to 1707, when the hall was destroyed and rebuilt at roughly 70% of its previous size. Yet, even reduced in size, it remains the largest wooden building in the world.
The temple has undergone renovations numerous times in its long history; one of the most significant recent restoration projects took place from 1906-1913.
Within the grid system of Nara's streets, Tôdai-ji takes up 64 city blocks. However, that large space is actually only sparsely filled with buildings. Many sub-temples or other structures exist today that were not part of the original plans and are much later additions.
The Daibutsuden sits just south of the center of the compound, facing south. It is eleven bays long by seven bays deep, or 285 x 170 feet, and 154 feet high. Before it lie the chûmon ("central gate"; rebuilt 1716), and beyond that, directly to the south, at the center of the southern edge of the compound, the Nandaimon ("South Great Gate"). The lecture hall (kôdô) was located behind the Daibutsuden, surrounded on three sides by the monks' quarters, and connected to the refectory to the east. A set of walls encircled these structures, creating, essentially, three plazas - one before the Great Hall, one behind it, and one behind that surrounding the kôdô. Today, this entire section behind the Daibutsuden is no longer extant, or at least not in that location.
The remainder of the temple's buildings lay at some distance from the Daibutsuden, outside of its immediate encircling walls (but still within the walls of the compound as a whole). A pair of 330-foot tall pagodas, each with their own encircling walls, stood just south of the chûmon, and to either side of it. These, too, are no longer extant.
The kaidan'in (ordination hall) built in 755, however, is extant, and actively in use. It lies to the west of the Daibutsuden, roughly halfway between it and the outer walls of the compound. The Tegaimon, originally one of three gates piercing the western wall of the compound, is the only original 8th century gate still extant on the grounds. Continuing clockwise around the Daibutsuden, the Shôsôin can be found behind the Great Hall, to the northwest. Two structures originally stood in the eastern portion of the compound: the Nigatsudô ("Second Month Hall") and Hokkedô ("Lotus Hall"). The Hokkedô, also known as the Sangatsudô ("Third Month Hall"), is the oldest extant building on the grounds, and was originally established as Kinshô-ji (or Konshu-ji), a temple in its own right, constructed c. 740-747 for the monk Rôben prior to the establishment of Tôdai-ji (some sources indicate it was built not for Rôben, but for Imperial Prince Motoi, a son of Emperor Shômu). It was previously also known as the Kensaku-dô, after the Fukûkensaku-kannon which was the chief object of worship in the hall; the name Sangatsu-dô ("Third Month Hall") derives from the fact that the hall observed its annual rituals in the third month.
When the building was rebuilt by Chôgen in 1199, two previously separate buildings were joined; the Hokke-dô now consisted of a worship hall in front, and a main hall directly behind it. It is said that this hall was the site of the first lecture on the Kegon Sutra in Japan.
At the time of its creation, the Daibutsu at Tôdai-ji, a representation of Dainichi Nyorai (Vairocana), was the largest cast-bronze statue in the world, at more than 50 feet tall and over one million pounds (500 short tons) in weight.
The current Daibutsu, the product of numerous repairs and reconstructions, is still the largest bronze Buddha sculpture in Japan, at 18.03 meters tall (including the platform; 14.98m tall without the platform), and weighing 250 tons. Its face is 5.33m long, and each eye is 1.02m long. The statue's ears are each 2.54m long, and its mouth is 1.33m wide. The urna is 30cm in diameter, and each of its 966 whorls of hair is 21cm high and 22cm in diameter.
The body of the Daibutsu was completed in 749, but other elements, such as the whorls of hair, and gilding, were not ready until 752. The eye-opening ceremony was held that year, and attended by numerous court nobility, as well as over 370 monks and officials from Silla (Korea), and a number of prominent Buddhist masters from China; there was even (at least) one monk from India who is said to have been present, and to have performed the actual painting-in of the Buddha's eyes. The sculpture's halo (or mandorla) was not finished until 771.
The Daibutsu was severely damaged in the 1181 fires set by the Taira warriors who besieged the temple. The Heike monogatari relates that:
...the head of that holy image - that face resplendent as a full moon - melted and fell to earth, and the body fused into a mountainous heap. Like an autumn moon, the eighty-four-thousand signs of Buddhahood vanished behind the cloud of the Five Deadly Sins; like stars in a night sky, the necklaces of the Forty-One Stages flickered in the wind of the Ten Evils. Smoke permeated the heavens; flames filled the air below. Those present who witnessed the sight averted their eyes; those afar who heard the story trembled with fear. Of the Hossō and Sanron scriptures and sacred teachings, not a scroll survived. It was impossible to imagine such a devastating blow to the Buddhist faith in India or China, to say nothing of our own country."
The Daibutsu was repaired quite quickly however; a celebration for the completion of repairs was held in 1185, less than five years later.
Many of the other sculptures at Tôdai-ji are also of great art historical significance.
Kuninaka Kimimaro (d. 774) was a prominent Buddhist sculptor (busshi) of the time who headed a studio established temporary at the temple in order to produce images for the compound. A number of these original 8th century sculptures are housed in the Hokkedô, where fifteen sculptures, some in clay and some in dry lacquer, are organized in a specific mandala-like pattern around a dry lacquer Fukûkenjaku Kannon dating to the 740s, and 142 inches tall. Twelve sculptures housed in the Hokke-dô have been designated National Treasures, and another four are Important Cultural Properties; fourteen of these were created during the Tenpyô era (729-749) and are considered precious examples of the style of that era.
Statues of Nikkô and Gakkô flanking the Kannon, each 81 1/2 inches high, are considered among the finest examples of clay sculpture from this period. This arrangement also includes a pair of Niô (Guardian Kings) and set of Shitennô (Four Heaven Kings) in dry lacquer, each nearly 10 feet tall, as well as dry lacquer sculptures of Taishakuten and Bonten, each roughly 13 feet in height, all dating to the 8th century, and all considered of great art historical and religious importance. Another set of very significant sculptures of the Shitennô, also dating to the mid-8th century, can be found in the kaidan'in; these are made of clay, rather than dry lacquer.
Another sculpture in the Hokkedô, an image of Shûkongôjin (Vajrapani), is of particular significance. Made of painted & gilded clay, it is associated with Kinshô-ji, the temple established for Rôben in 733, ten years before even the order for Tôdai-ji's construction. A secret image, held to be especially powerful for its being hidden, this sculpture is only shown once a year.
It is unclear which of these sculptures were housed in the Hokke-dô originally, and which were not originally designed for the space (nor for this particular grouping of sculptures). There is a degree of consensus, however, that the two Niô, the Taishakuten, Bonten, and Shitennô were likely originally created to accompany the Kannon and Shukongô-jin, and that the sculptures of Benzaiten, Nikkô, Gakkô, and Kisshôten were not. The Benzaiten and Kisshôten were likely moved to the Hokke-dô after the temple's Kisshô-in hall was lost in a fire in 954, and the Nikkô and Gakkô sometime afterwards. Finally, the Hokke-dô's sculpture of Jizô dates to the 13th century, and its sculpture of Fudô-myôô to 1373.
A pair of Niô guardian figures housed inside the Nandaimon ("Great South Gate") of the temple, the tallest freestanding wooden sculptures in Japan. They were fashioned by Unkei and Kaikei, along with 18 assistants, over the course of 72 days in 1203, using multiple block construction. They are unusual in that they face inwards, towards one another, while most guardian statues installed in gates face forwards, outwards from the compound. A number of other sculptures made by Unkei for Tôdai-ji, including one of the bodhisattva Kokuzô and one of Jikoku-ten, do not survive today.
The complex also includes a shrine to Hachiman, which contains a particularly lifelike sculpture in wood by Kaikei, depicting the Shintô deity Hachiman in the guise of a Buddhist monk. This seated sculpture, in usually good condition with its painting intact, is 34 1/2 inches tall, and dates to 1201.
- Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
- Mason. p59.
- Mason. pp68-69.
- "Tôdai-ji Temple, Sangatsu-dô: Hokke-dô," pamphlet available on-site at Tôdai-ji.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 32.
- Mason. p60.
- Mason. p70.
- Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 273-274.
- Benkei and Minamoto no Yoshitsune claim to be traveling monks on precisely this campaign for contributions for the reconstruction of Tôdai-ji in the fictionalized Noh play Ataka and kabuki play Kanjinchô.
- Mason. pp185-186.
- "Kamakura daibutsu no tokuchô." Official website of Kôtoku-in. 2010.
- Roger Keyes, Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan, New York Public Library (2006), 40.
- Mason. p85.
- McCullough, Helen (trans./ed.) The Tale of the Heike. Stanford University Press, 1988. p196.
- Mason. pp87-93.
- Mason. pp187-188.
- Môri Hisashi. "Unkei: The Man and His Art." in Sculpture of the Kamakura Period. New York: Weatherhill, 1974. p45.
- Mason. pp191-192.