Ashura 360: a new Buddhist iPhone app

Despite working in the IT industry, I usually don’t like gadgets and new things, however I do own an iPhone since moving back to the US, and have become pretty addicted to it.1 Having a portable device that lets me look up Japanese words online (via the excellent and edit/update this blog remotely has made my life a lot easier, but I tend to refrain from downloading a lot of iPhone applications especially ones that cost money.

However, while visiting the ancient Buddhist temple of Kōfukuji in Nara two, home of the Hossō sect and the Ashura statue, they were advertising a new iPhone app for their very impressive art collection: Ashura 360. The homepage explains that the application lets you view the famous statues in the Treasure House (the same statues I saw with my own eyes there), but also has additional information about Kofukuji Temple, sermons and other things. If you search iTunes or the application store for “Ashura” you can find it.

The cost for the application is ¥600 or $5 US to download, which is relatively high. However, since reading Rev. Tagawa’s book on Yogacara Buddhism, I’ve gained an increasing respect and interest in this once powerful sect of Buddhism, and I also admire Kofukuji’s efforts to revive themselves, but also stay on the edge of technology. I couldn’t wait to get back in the US and download it.2 Also, I wanted to try it first before advertising it to a wider audience.

The application is quite large actually, 70MB, and now I see why. It contains very detailed images, but also lengthy Buddhist sermons by Rev. Tagawa himself, head of Kofukuji temple. The catch was that sermons are in Japanese only, which was quite a surprise. I hoped that at least the sermons would have an English-translation manuscript or something, but they didn’t. Kind to cool to hear his voice though.

However, the app overall is pretty cool. Currently of the 8 deva statues at the Treasure House, they’ve published two so far, including the famous Ashura statue (shown in Ashura 360 homepage), and others will be “unlocked” as new updates come out. True to the iPhone you can pan around the statue and also zoom in to see the head more closely. They also come with a small explanation and additional comments by Rev. Tagawa (which are in English, and pretty interesting).

The overall user-interface was a bit awkward at points, so they still have bugs to fix. The interactive map of Kofukuji was hard to use, but you can click on each building and get some history. I really, really wish I had this application before going to Kofukuji as the map would have been very useful. Also, the application comes with a 50% discount for admission into the Treasure Hall, which would have saved me ¥300, and practically pay for application itself. Since the discount is good through 2011, I just might use it again though as I rather enjoyed Kofukuji and plan on coming to Japan again for Shinran’s 750th Memorial in Kyoto next year anyway.

One unexpected feature I really liked was the illustrations, drawn by artist Nishi Yuu. These illustrations, which also get added with each update like the statue images, also contain Buddhist sermons and are really well done. The second illustration about the Golden Drum, the same one that is the central theme of the famous Golden Light Sutra (chapter 3 and 4),3 is my favorite, as is the next illustration about Ashura deva’s conversion to Buddhism. These were an unexpected treat, and I enjoyed reading them a several times over. I noticed the recurring theme was repentance, a common subject in Buddhism especially Mahayana Buddhism, and since Hosso Buddhism is very mainstream Mahayana, this makes sense.

So the next question is: is the application worth $5?

I say “yes” if:

  • You like downloading a very artistic, Buddhist iPhone application.
  • You have an interest in Hosso Buddhism, Nara culture, and/or Kofukuji.
  • If you think you might go to Nara by the end of 2011, then definitely get this app as the map and discount are great.

I hope the makers of Ashura 360 fix the bugs, but I do enjoy the application as it is. The fact that more and more illustrations and statue images will be provided on a rolling basis also helps justify the cost to me as a long-term investment.

Check out the website at least, and if you like it, give it a try. Enjoy!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Namu Amida Butsu

Update: Version 2.0 came out last week, and includes three new 360 statues to view, but you have to pay an additional $0.99 for this. That bothered me, so now I give this application 3 out of 5 stars (previously 4 out of 5). It was nice to unlock the rest, but having to pay extra on top of what you already paid is bad for customers. Tokai Publishing should have just priced this upfront.

Update 2: Version 2.1 came out two weeks ago, and had a critical bug that prevented a user from downloading and purchasing the last 3 deva statues. I reported the problem on iTunes to the developers, and was surprised to see a fix in place 2 days later. The good responsiveness by the providers of Ashura 360 adds a star back to my rating. Now I rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

1 Admittedly I have been a Mac convert since about 2007, but like to be frugal about it, rather than always buying the latest and greatest product. Think of me as a “quiet convert”. :)

2 Reason why I had to get back to the US first is that I don’t like using my credit cards online much, so whenever possible, I buy gift cards instead with cash, and use that to buy things online (e.g., iTunes, etc). Then I don’t have to worry about stolen cards at least online. In this case, my iTunes balance wasn’t enough to cover the app right there. In Japan you can pay for online orders at convenience store terminals or ATMs which also allow you to pay cash. Safe and convenient.:-)

3 During the heyday of Nara Buddhist culture, the Golden Light Sutra was recited daily at the national (kokubunji) temples including Todaiji for its frequent theme of protection and prosperity of a nation that embraces the Dharma (see chapter 1 among others). The practice seems to have gradually died out, though it’s not clear how or when.