Warfare, Disaster, and Persecution... the Buddha Statue Survived Them All
An Asset in Nara Listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1998.
The Origin of the Name
Tō-dai-ji, literally meaning "a big temple in the east" was initially named "Kin-shō-ji" (Golden-Bell-Mountain Temple), and built by Emperor Shōmu in 728, in memory of his son Motoi who died very young.
Later in 741, the emperor issued "the Imperial Edict to Construct Provincial Monasteries and Convents", in which the temple was designated as the Monastery of the Province of Yamato (presently Nara). Upgraded to the provincial category, the temple changed its name from Kin-shō-ji to "Kō-Myō-ji" meaning "Golden-Light Temple".
It was not until the Great Buddha Statue was built at this location that the temple began to be known by the present name of "Tō-dai-ji". Upon the consecration of the Buddha statue, the temple complex was restructured as a new and larger-scaled sanctuary including the Grand Hall with the Buddha statue enshrined. Located at the east of the capital Heijōkyō, the temple came to be referred as "the temple located eastward". A Shōsōin (Treasure) Repository archive includes the mentioning of the name "the Big Eastern Temple", virtually meaning "Tō-dai-ji".
The Shōsōin Repository was created as a storehouse to contain the belongings of Emperor Shōmu, which were donated by Empress Kōmyō, his widow, after his death.
Tōdaiji Temple bases its doctrine on the Avatamsaka (jpn. Kegon; translation from Chinese Huayanjing) sutra (or buddha-avatamsaka-nama-mahavaipulya-sutra). The word "avatamsaka" means "flower adornment" or "a flower garland" in Sanskrit.
The Avatamsaka sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra compiled between 500 and 600 years after Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddharta Gautama), the founder of Buddhism passed away. The sutra features the Buddha's discourses given during the initial stage of his ministry, and reveals the supreme state of his elightenment - profundity of the truth. Because of the contents that are too unfathomable to comprehend even for his disciples, the sutra is ranked one of the most intricate Buddhist sutras.
Probably due to this forbidding difficulty, the sutra was popularly studied in the time around the emperor Shōmu. In 740 (in the time of Kin-shō-ji temple), a priest named Rōben took initiatives in organizing lectures on the sutra. The project was given so much prestige that an eminent priest (his name was Simsang) was invited far away from Silla (an ancient dynasty in the Korean Peninsula) as a lecturer.
The lectures used the 60 fascicles of the Avatamsaka sutra, a set of Chinese version of literature translated by Buddhabhadra. It took the class three years to finish the first round of lectures by working on 20 fascicles each year.
Rōben later became the first chief administrator of Tōdaiji Temple.
The Great Buddha Statue
Measuring approx. 15 meters high, the statue represents Vairochana (literally meaning "One that radiates like the sun"), a conceptual figure of Buddha, which is described in the Avatamsaka sutra.
When Emperor Shōmu declared his Edict to Construct the Great Statue of Vairochana Buddha in October 743, his choice as the temple location was Shigaraki, in Shiga prefecture today. However, soon he had to give up on the site, simply because it was suddenly hit by a series of disasters: multiple mountain fires and an earthquake. To the superstitious minds of ancient times, it meant an ominous sign to say that the place was doomed. Thus, the site was moved to the Kon-Kō-Myō-ji Temple location, namely, where Tōdaiji Temple is presently located.
The construction of the statue started in 745. Due to the extravagant size, it required tedious procedures and a long time. Eight partial castings had to be conducted to form the body, and this process needed three years starting from September 747. The head, furnished with Rahatsu or tightly-curled hair knots was installed onto the body in 751, when the hall to house the statue had been almost completed. In April following year (752), the Eye-Opening Ceremony for the Buddha Statue was held.
Some records say, however, the ceremony was carried out at a somewhat premature timing, and there were several unfinished parts in the construction of the hall. The forwarded schedule seemed to have a reason. The society at that time was rife with unfortunate incidents such as epidemic outbreaks and aristocratic conflicts, and the emperor hoped the consecration of the Buddha statue might save the situation. It also coincided with the time when royal authority began to wane and the aristocrat gradually enhanced its power.
History of Survivals
The Tempyō Era (710 - 784) saw the temple's glorious days. However, as the period drew closer to the end, the temple began to slide into a long dark age. An earthquake in 855 hit the statue and ripped off its head. To repair the damage, a high priest called Shinnyo Hosshin-ō (Tathagata Dharma Prince) led the reconstruction project, which was completed in 861 by conducting the Eye-Opening Ceremony. But, soon a fire burned down the Assembly Hall and a storm destroyed the South Gate and the Big Belfry. Repair operations followed the disasters.
At the end of the Heian Period (794 - 1192), the conflict between the Ghenji and the Heike Clans became intense. The warfare between the clans caused the destruction of major parts of the temple premises including the Buddha's Hall in December 1180. Shunjō Bōchōgen, a priest, started the restoration the following year, and the Eye-Opening Ceremony took place in 1185, followed by the cosecration of the Buddha's Hall in 1195, and the comprehensive consecration of the entire temple area in 1203.
In the latter part of the Muromachi Period (1338 - 1573), the society was in a chaotic state. The nation had lost its central power and divided into many warlord fractions fighting over the dominance. Drastic social changes were every day events: the lower echelon toppled the upper and took over their positions, reversing the hierarchical order. This spirit of upward move filled the society and a war situation was ubiquitous throughout Japan. In 1567, the temple complex was destroyed again, but this time there was no one who would dare to plan for a reconstruction project. The Buddha statue was left, for long time, in the hall remains with the roof ripped off, and dubbed as "a Buddha Sitting in a Roofless House".
A movement toward the reconstrution had to wait until the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), when the high priest Ryūshō-in Kōkei appealed to the Tokugawa shogunate to rebuild the temple. One hundred years after the last destruction, the restoration finally took place; the Eye-Opening Ceremony of the Buddha statue and the consecration of the Buddha's Hall were held in 1692 and 1709 respectively. The size of the temple complex was however, reduced to 2/3 of the original one. A series of repair and maintenance operations have been carried out since then up until today.
Later in the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), the temple was once again at stake when the movement to abolish Buddhism occured, which, the temple managed to overcome.
Major repairs were performed on the Buddha's Hall in the Meiji and Shōwa (1926 - 1988) Periods to maintain the temple in good shape. In 1998, Tōdaiji Temple was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site and is highly valued as an asset in Nara, an ancient capital of Japan.
Emperor Shōmu (701 - 756/Reign: 724 - 749)
Born to father Emperor Mommu and mother Miyako of Fujiwara, Emperor Shōmu is the 45th emperor. When his father Mommu passed away at 25, he was only seven years old. Too young to become a full-fledged ruler of the nation, his grandmother momentarily took over the reign as Emperor Genmei until her grandson grew up. When Shōmu was 14 years, he was assigned as the Crown Prince, and his aunt succeeded to the throne as Emperor Genshō at age of 37.
Shōmu assumed the throne at age of 24 in 724. In those days, the Fujiwara Clan was becoming an overwhelming political power. As Emperor Shōmu was a grandson of Fujiwara Fuhito, a strong figure of the clan, his enthronement was empowered by the clan's authoritative support. However, the emperor didn't want to see conflicts among clans. Wishing for a better society free from turmoils and epidemics, he earnestly devoted himself to Buddhism. His initiative to build provincial monasteries and convents as well as creating the Great Buddha Statue seemed effective solutions to the turbulent age, but he wasn't aware that all this would increase burdens on the citizens, who would be subjected to extra services in form of labor, in addition to their normal tax paying duties (levies in form of rice/labor or textiles/agricultural crops).
As the result of large-scale construction projects, the emperor had to see his authority declining. He was urged to approve humiliating laws to "Grant Hereditary Ownership of Lands for Three Generations" and to "Grant Permanent Hereditary Ownership of Cultivated Lands". Due to the enactment of these laws, the basic principle of "All People and All Lands Belong to the Emperor" was becoming obsolete. As the emperor was losing his power, the aristocrat began to increase their influence and ownership of lands.