Buddha Big, Buddha Bloom

Having enjoyed our day out of Kyoto, we went on another excursion on Wednesday, this time to the city of Nara, 25 miles to the south. Nara was the capital of Imperial Japan from 710 to 784 A.D., the “Nara Period;” thereafter, the capital was moved to Kyoto where it remained until 1868.

In 1998, UNESCO designated a number of locations in Nara, collectively, as a World Heritage Site, the Historical Monuments of Ancient Nara. These include the ancient imperial palace, a Shinto shrine, five Buddhist temples, and the associated grounds.

One of the Buddhist temples in the UNESCO designation is Kofuku-ji, our first stop in Nara. Upon first entering the temple grounds, we were greeted by the Nanendo, an octagonal “sub-temple.”

The main attraction at Kofuku-ji, though, is the 5-story pagoda, the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan at a height of approximately 165 feet.

As we walked the grounds, we attracted a number of Sika Deer. There are about 1,200 of these wild deer roaming Nara Park. They are considered sacred and the people here have been living in harmony with them for centuries. They are extremely tame, no doubt in part because visitors are encouraged to feed them “deer crackers,” available for purchase everywhere from local vendors. Deer-loving Dale was in her element.

Buddhism, mainly Mahayana Buddhism, came to Japan in the 6th Century from Korea. Buddhism originated in India and expanded into Central Asia and China long ago, following the Silk Road, and then into Korea. In 604 A.D., Buddhism was made the official religion of Japan by the Royal Court in place of the traditional religion, Shinto. During the Nara Period, the Imperial government fused religion with politics in an attempt to unify the clans. The government then undertook a building program, constructing Buddhist temples in all 66 provinces. These temples were all placed under the watchful jurisdiction of Todai-ji, the Imperial temple in Nara.

Thus, the most important Buddhist Temple in the UNESCO designation is Todai-ji, originally constructed in 8th Century, although most of its component structures have been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries.

Early Buddhist temples in Japan were required to have their main entry from the south. Here’s the Nandaimon, the Great South Gate into Todai-ji, beyond which is the Great Buddha Hall:

The front of the Great Buddha Hall, the main temple building of Todai-ji, is enclosed within a walled courtyard. There’s a middle gate between the Great Hall and the Nandaimon called the Chumon that opens into that courtyard, but it was locked and visitors to the temple were being routed around to the left to a side entry. Here’s a photo of the (locked) Chumon:

I took the next picture as we entered the courtyard of the Great Buddha Hall, the Daibutsuden, from the side entry. It’s hard to describe the enormity of this building, which, according to some sources, is the world’s largest wooden building. Those colorful little dots are people entering the Hall.

The Great Buddha Hall houses the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, Japan’s largest Buddha and the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue, a 400-ton casting. The Great Buddha sits upon a bronze lotus petal pedestal.

As with the Great Hall, it’s hard to sense the enormity of this statue from a photograph. The seated Buddha’s body measures 49 feet high and 43 feet wide – the head alone is 22 feet high from the shoulders to its top!

We walked around the side of the Great Buddha to look at a huge wooden statue to its left, although I neglected to find out who this is. Note in the photo on the right the size of the columns and the backdrop behind the Great Buddha statue.

Buddhism and Shinto have coexisted for centuries in Japan, each borrowing elements from the other. In fact, most Japanese Buddhist temples have Shinto shrines placed somewhere within their grounds and vice-versa.

Starting in the 1600s, however, Buddhism started to lose its luster and Shinto came to the fore as the government was taken over by a military regime headed by a Shogun (remember the Shinto shrines in Takayama built during this period?). In 1868, there was political upheaval in Japan when the Shogun returned political power to the Imperial family, an event known as the Meiji Restoration. The Emperor immediately banned Buddhism and adopted Shinto as the official religion of Japan. You might recall that in Shinto belief the Emperor is a kami – a living god; Buddhism does not have any similar precept. As I mentioned in a previous post, state-sponsored religion in Japan was ended by the Allies after their victory over Japan in WWII and that continues to be the case.

Today, approximately 80% of Japanese identify as Shinto and 70% identify as Buddhist, so it is obvious that the two religions continue to coexist in modern Japan with many Japanese adhering to both Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Author A. A. Gill says that the Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist.

While we found the temples in Nara to be quite fascinating, the highlight for nearly all tourists here is feeding and petting the deer. They are everywhere. This must be what it’s like in Hindu India with its sacred cows.

I chuckled as I watched a deer try to snatch one photograph’s wallet from his back pocket as he was setting up a photo. He might have done better taking a portrait of the deer, instead.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

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