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:
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:
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”:
The gate itself is quite large up close:
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:
Anyway, past the Great Southern Gate is the Daibutsuden itself where dwells the great Buddha:
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:
Another view with cherry blossoms:
And just past the main gate of the Daibutsuden itself:
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
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 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:
Off to the right, you can see a reconstructed model of what Todaiji once looked like:
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.
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):
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.