Prince Shotoku and his legacy at Horyu-ji

The Buddhist Channel, 16 June 2023

Nara, Japan -- Did you know that in some legendary tales, Prince Shotoku was associated with both the founders of Japanese Zen and Jodo Shinshu?

Sain-in Nandai-mon (South main gate, National Treasure).

The story goes that when Zen master Bodhidharma came to Japan, he met with Prince Shōtoku whilst under the guise of a starving beggar.

<< Prince Shotoku, when he was 17

The Prince asked the beggar to identify himself, but the man did not reply. Instead of going ahead, Shōtoku gave him food, drink, and covered him with his purple garment, telling him to "lie in peace". That beggar later died but his body was never found.

With regards to the story of Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, he dreamt of Shotoku in the form of Avalokitesvara at the height of his depression. In the dream he was asked by Shotoku to seek Honen, the founder of the Amida Buddhist movement in Japan. That was the start of his teachings of True Pure Land leading to the establishment of the largest Buddhist sect in Japan.

So why was Shotoku so prominently associated with two of the most highly regarded  Buddhist monks of Japan? For those new to Japanese culture and history, Prince Shotoku played a major role in introducing Buddhism to Japan and established many famous Buddhist temples, including Shitenno-ji and Horyu-ji. Without him, it is likely Buddhism would have never taken root in the country. He has even made multiple appearances on Japanese currency!

The Kodo (Great lecture hall) and the 5 storied Pagoda. Horyu-ji temple is one of the oldest wooden structures still existing in Japan

Today, visitors to Nara will have the opportunity to learn about Shotoku and his legacy in the temples of Horyu-ji. Situated in Nara Prefecture, the temple was founded by the Prince in 607. It is one of the oldest temples in Japan and the world, and it contains the world's oldest surviving wooden structures. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.

Horyu-ji has two main precincts: the Western Precinct and the Eastern Precinct. The Western Precinct is home to the central gate, the main hall and a five-story pagoda, which are all remarkable examples of ancient Japanese architecture and art.

The main hall houses some of the oldest statues of Buddha in Japan, dating back to the Asuka Period (538-710). The central gate is guarded by two imposing statues of Kongo Rikishi, the muscular deities that protect Buddhist temples. The pagoda is a symbol of the cosmic order and harmony in Buddhism.

The Eastern Precinct is where you can find the Yumedono, or Hall of Visions, which is dedicated to Prince Shotoku, who is revered as a patron of Buddhism and a cultural hero in Japan. The Yumedono houses a life-sized statue of the prince surrounded by other statues of Buddha and monks. The hall is named after a legend that says that Prince Shotoku appeared in a dream to one of his disciples after his death.

The Lotus Sutra, hand written by Shotoku >>

Horyu-ji also has a Gallery of Temple Treasures, which exhibits a part of the temple's huge collection of Buddhist art and relics. Visitors can see various statues, paintings, scriptures and objects that show the rich history and culture of Horyu-ji and Buddhism in Japan. Here you can view the “Seventeen –Article Constitution,” drafted by Shotoku. It was one of the first efforts to remake the Japanese state based on China's successful political system.

<< The 17 article constitution, drafted by Shotoku

Horyu-ji is not only a place of historical and artistic value, but also a place of spiritual significance. It is an abode where you can feel the presence of Prince Shotoku and his teachings, as well as the wisdom and compassion of Buddha.

Apart from experiencing the beauty and harmony of nature and architecture, it is also a place where one can connect with oneself and others through meditation and prayer. It's rich Buddhist historical background makes for great inspiration, demonstrating how deep reverence for a new religion helped shape the nation Japan is today.

If you are looking for a spiritual destination that will inspire you and enrich your spirit, Horyu-ji is definitely a must visit site. You can reach Horyu-ji by train from JR Nara Station in about 12 minutes. 

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