Day Two in Nara, part 2: Todaiji Temple

The second temple we saw in Nara, not far from Kofukuji was none other than Todaiji itself, head of the Kegon sect of Buddhism. I have been to Todaiji five years before, but somehow felt the trip was incomplete, and with more background in Buddhism, I felt I could appreciate it more. Tōdaiji (東大寺) was once the great central temple in Japan’s kokubunji system and ordination platform for all monks in the Nara Period. This sign near the entrance (more on that later) sums up Todaiji Temple nicely I think including its origins with Emperor Shōmu1 and the eminent Kegon-school scholar Rōben:

Todaiji Plaque

As the center of power shifted further and further away from Nara toward the north then east (Kyoto, Kamakura, Tokyo, etc), Todaiji’s eminence was eclipsed. By this time, the ordination process of Buddhist monks in Japan had also changed, so Todaiji’s role diminished further and further. Nevertheless, despite many wars, fires and such the temple still retains a powerful dignity and history few temples can rival. Frankly, I never get tired of the place.

This post is the first of two posts on Todaiji, as there is soooo much to cover, I cannot do it all in once post. This map alone shows how much is actually there, most of it overlooked by tourists:

Todaiji Map

Today though I focus on the main attraction: the daibutsu (大仏) or Great Buddha, which deserves plenty of attention.

The main entrance of Todaiji is the great south gate, or nandaimon (南大門), which was packed with people and the famous “Nara deer”:

Todaiji Nandaimon Gate

The gate itself is quite large up close:

Inside the Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji

From there you can see the daibutsuden (大仏殿) or Great Buddha Hall, but more on that later. If you were to look left and right you’d see the almost ubiquitous Niō (仁王) guardians found at many Buddhist temples. In the case of Todaiji though, they are immense:

Todaiji Guardian of Outer Gate

Anyway, past the Great Southern Gate is the Daibutsuden itself where dwells the great Buddha:

Todaiji Daibutsu Gate

You actually have to enter not through the front entrance, but through a side-gate off to the left. Still, as I passed near those gates, I really could imagine the old days when the Emperor would come in a procession to make offerings, and the most eminent scholar-monks of the Nara schools would accompany him. Todaiji in its glory days was truly magnificent I imagine. Once I paid the entry and came into the side gate, I was treated to a nice view:

Todaiji Daibutsuden

Another view with cherry blossoms:

The Daibutsuden and Cherry Blossoms

And just past the main gate of the Daibutsuden itself:

The Daibutsuden

Inside the hall of course, is the immense, IMMENSE statue of Vairocana Buddha, the main deity of Kegon sect Buddhism, which sadly did not photograph well:2

The Great Buddha of Nara

In Japanese, he is known by a few names such as dainichi nyorai (大日如来) or birushana butsu (毘盧遮那仏), which is just a Japanese transliteration of Vairocana Buddha. In the case of Todaiji, the latter is almost always used. From there, one circles clockwise around the Great Buddha and first encounters Kokūzō Bodhisattva (虚空蔵菩薩):

Kokuzo Bodhisattva far away

Kokuzo Bodhisattva is mainly a Buddhist deity in the esoteric traditions, but otherwise not that well known among Western audiences. If you go past Kokuzo Bodhisattva, you can then see one of the Four Guardian Deva Kings: Kōmokuten (広目天) whose eyes are ever awake and vigilant:

Todaiji Guardian King

Off to the right, you can see a reconstructed model of what Todaiji once looked like:

Todaiji Scale Model

The plaque, hard to read in this photo, gives an impression that Todaiji was far larger in those days with two huge pagodas, and a larger Great Buddha hall. As the central, national temple in Japan during the Heian Period, this was only fitting, but as the temple was destroyed and burned down during subsequent wars, the was rebuilt under more modest design.

If you go further, behind and to the right of the Great Buddha, you will see another of the Four Guardian Deva Kings: Tamonten (多聞天) who hears all.

Todaiji Guardian King 2

The other two Guardian Deva Kings are absent from the Great Buddha Hall, though I don’t know why. Perhaps they existed once and were destroyed, or simply were never there. At any rate, completing the clockwise path around the Great Buddha is none other than Kannon Bodhisattva in the esoteric Nyorin form simply called nyoirin kannon in Japanese (如意輪観音):

Nyoirin Kannon at Todaiji

Normally, Nyorin Kannon is represented with six-arms, not two, so I am not sure what the difference if any is, nor will I attempt to speculate. The point is that Kegon sect Buddhism had a lot of esoteric elements, as Nara Buddhism as a whole did, and this is clearly reflected in the statues shown here. From what I’ve read of early Japanese Buddhist history, the Nara sects of Buddhism had already imported esoteric literature and teachings before the time of Kukai and Shingon Buddhism, but there were large gaps in knowledge and training. The Sanskrit sections of the Buddhist texts could not be read for example (sometimes mantras had already been transliterated into Chinese), so among Kukai’s accomplishments was to bring back a comprehensive training program in a purely esoteric teaching, as well as training to read Sanskrit. Nara Buddhist schools incorporated esoteric elements, but also had many exoteric elements and were often more focused on scholarly research, while Shingon is purely esoteric school that frequently and amicably collaborated with the Nara Buddhist establishment.

From here, we bought a few gifts at the bookstore here. Years ago, I purchased a book titled “Tales of the Old Todaiji” which has beautiful illustrations and stories from the Nara Period onward often with Buddhist elements at this very gift store, and I still treasure that little book (and even read a couple shorter stories to “Baby” when she was younger). It’s also here I purchased my pilgrim book so long ago. This time around, I purchased a set of small ink paintings relating to the Shuni-e rite of Todaiji (more on that in another post), and a little charm for wisdom.3 I bought a little pink charm for my daughter who was thrilled, since she loves princesses and pink things. :) The two of us also wrote a prayer to my wife on an ema votive as well for offering.

From here, we traveled back out, and I decided to venture up the hill to see the famous “February Hall” or Nigatsudo. More on that in a later post. Stay tuned!

Namu Amida Butsu

1 The same Emperor who commissioned the building of the Eastern Golden Hall at Kofukuji which I also saw.

2 Plenty of good images on the Internet though. Worry not.

3 Normally I steer clear of charms as they usually deal with mundane issues like illness, easy birth or passing entrance exams, but I was pleased to see one on wisdom itself.

5 thoughts on “Day Two in Nara, part 2: Todaiji Temple

  1. Doug;
    dazzling, mind-boggling! I wonder if the architecture is related in some way to kegon philosophy. The Nyoirin Kannon is beautiful, maybe the 6 arms are a later development. I love the combination of Kegon and Pure Land worship. I’m hoping a book I just took out “Domesticating the Dharma’ about Korean Hwaon will explain more
    thank you for this fabulous visit & links. I cannot wait to go. I wonder how many belong to in Kegon Shu, I bet it’s small:)

  2. It is pretty dim in the main hall, all right, but I was able to get pretty good shots of the Daibutsu with a high ASA number and some judicious editing on the computer. No flash, of course! Thank the FSM for digital photography.

    Someday I hope to be able to spend enough time in the Nara area to cover more of the Todaiji complex. But my favorite place in the vicinity is Horyuji; the tremendous antiquity of those buildings gives me a shiver just being near them.

  3. Also want to say that I am appreciating your travelogue very much. It’s almost like being on another Japan trip myself.

  4. I like the wisdom omamori Doug;
    they do help, here is a really interesting link to a Wall St Journal article on charms & superstition
    Kegon Shu has about 40,000 temple members & 47 temples. The website involved traditional stuff like shakyo, chanting Heart Sutra, a tiny sect, hope it prospers!

  5. Hi guys!

    Rory: I enjoyed the WJ link you posted. I did once open up an omamori and saw what was inside, which was a piece of wood, and a small white paper with seed-syllable written there. I felt bad, but I had to know what the deal was. I still believe they may or may not have some power though, so within reason, I feel like getting one once in a while. Maybe it’s just a need for religion reassurance. As for Kegon shu, they don’t seem to be particularly interested in reviving right now. I heard there’s one temple in Hawaii but it’s not open to the public, and there seems to be little overseas effort on their part. The English language resources were pretty minimal too. I guess they’re happy they way they are now.

    JonJ: I’ve been there twice, and never managed to take a good shot. Ah well. If I had more time, Horyuji and Toshodaiji were very high on my list, but we spent way more time than expected on Todaiji and Kofukuji. I know that feeling though of chills when you encounter something so ancient. :)

Comments are closed.