Todai-ji : Home of Buddha
After a long week of dull cloudy days, the sun was finally shining through. Mani had finished off with her classes for the day. So after lunch, we decided to go far a walk to Todai-ji. It was a working day and we were hoping the crowd would be less compared to the weekends. The last time we were at the park, it was late in the evening and the Hall had closed down for the day. Shrines and temple in Japan close down pretty early at 5 pm in most places. The last entry time being around 30 minutes before closing time.
We walked down to Todai-ji from the University. It feels nostalgic, walking on these narrow lanes with vintage wooden houses.
We were in Nara Park in no time. Unfortunately, there was no let down in the number of visitors. As we entered the temple grounds, the greedy deer from the park came running begging, but I was out of acorns. The clouds came back to torture us. A light drizzle had started as I bought some senbei for the deer. We were quickly surrounded by the naughty Shika (deer). After feeding them, we walked towards Todai-ji.
Along the approach to Todai-ji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce-looking Asuras. The statues were carved in the 13th century by the sculptors Unkei and Kaikei. They are about 30 feet high and particularly impressive at night when they are beautifully illuminated during festivals. The statues represent the Nio Guardian Kings. Known as Kongo Rikishi , the statues, one with mouth open, the other with mouth closed are said to represent life and death. These two guardian kings are Vajradharas or thunderbolt holders, called Shukongōshin, appear to be Asuras, demons from Indian mythology. At Shinto shrines, however, the Nio guardians are replaced with a pair of koma-inu (shishi lion-dogs) or with two foxes.
Just beyond the gate, is a beautiful pond. The area though smells awful from the deer crap. Just up ahead is the entrance to the main grounds of the temple.
The admission booth is inside the outer Hall. From the booth itself one can see the huge Daibutsuden. As we walked towards it, I felt like a tiny person. Todai-ji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building. The Todai-ji’s grounds are spacious. Within the precincts of the temple are an array of other buildings in the hills, including halls and storehouses that spread over a big part of northern Nara Park.
Founded in 745 on the instructions of Emperor Shomu, the vast temple at Todai-ji was constructed as a symbol of imperial power and took over 15 years to complete. Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon sect of Japanese Buddhism and Vairocana Buddha is considered by followers of the sect to be the spiritual body of the historical Buddha – Gautama Buddha or Sakyamuni. The construction of Todai-ji and the bronze Buddha used up extensive amount of bronze, and by the time it was completed in 751, it had dried up Japan’s bronze resources for years to come.
Todai-ji also has a strong connection with India, my home country. At that time, the Great Buddha and the Todaiji were erected as per the request of Emperor Shomu, many Indian monks in China teaching Dhamma and translating Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. In 730 CE the Japanese envoy to the Chinese court, met Bodhisena, a Buddhist monk from south India, and invited him to visit Japan. After a harrowing journey Bodhisena and his fellow monks arrived in Osaka and later moved to Nara in the year 736. Monk Bodhisena helped spread the use of Sanskrit and establish Huayan Buddhism in the country. On the invitation of Emperor Shomu, when the temple was inaugurated, Monk Bodhisena took a huge brush and filled in the pupil of the eyes of the Great Buddha.
The original main temple is said to have been even more spectacular than the one that exists now. The original was 86 meters wide, so 29 meters wider than the current building, and the Buddha then was covered in gold. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, white walls and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from hall. Both were destroyed over period of time.
The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. The 15 meter tall Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. Daibutsusan is the world’s largest bronze Buddha. After achieving enlightenment in what is now the small town of Bodh Gaya in Bihar, northern India, the Buddha sat for a week in deep meditation and it is this pose that is represented in the giant statue. Originally constructed between 735 CE and 749 CE, the colossal sitting Buddha statue is 72 feet high, weighs over 550 tons and is covered with almost 300 pounds of gold.
The Todai-ji Buddha has been severely damaged over the years. In one such instance in the ninth century, its head was knocked down during an earthquake. On two separate occasions, first in 1180, and again in 1567, its right hand melted in a fire that also ravaged the temple. Each time, the statue was repaired to what we see today.
In addition to the Buddha, there are two towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors.
Towards the back of the Daibutsuden Hall, several detailed miniature models of the former buildings are on display.
Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Quite a few kids were going through in there. I had no chance.
We went around a full circle around the Buddha statue and came up to the exit. Several souvenir shops can be found in the hallway near the exit where we bought a few key-chains and handkerchiefs.
Outside to the right of the temple is a statue of Binzuru Pindola Bharadvaja, seated in the lotus position. One of 16 Arhats designated by the Buddha Sakyamuni at his death to keep spreading his teachings. There is a belief that the statue has a gift of healing. One who touch a part of Pindola and then touch the same part of his body would have it cured.
It was truly a memorable experience visiting Todai-ji. I may not be a religious person but I love the wonderful tales these historic places tell. It was getting dark and the street lights were beginning to come on, surrounding us in a romantic light. In the cool breeze, we slowly started our walk back towards the city.