Kōfuku-ji: A Temple Born Out of A Wife's Prayer

The Buddhist Channel, 30 June 2023

Nara, Japan -- With a history of more than 1,300 years, Kōfuku-ji in the prefecture of Nara is one of Japan's oldest and most famous Buddhist temples.

Its history begins in 669, when Kagami no Okimi (d. 683) founded a Buddhist chapel, Yamashina-dera, in modern-day Kyoto to pray for the recovery of her husband Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-669) from illness.

In the wake of the Jinshin Rebellion of 672, the temple was moved to Umayasaka in Nara, where it was renamed Umayasaka-dera and then relocated to its present site at the time of the establishment of the Heijo Capital, now the city of Nara in 710.

Under the patronage of Kamatari's son, the great statesman Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720), the temple was renamed Kōfuku-ji, "the Temple that Generates Blessings," in reference to a Buddhist scripture called the Vimalakirti Sutra.

In the first half of the eight century, Kōfuku-ji emerged as a leading center of the Hossō (Chinese: Faxiang) School of Buddhism1. This philosophical tradition, which famously holds that all phenomena are projections created by the mind that appears to experience them, was brought to East Asia by Chinese monks in the seventh century, and introduced to Kōfuku-ji by the monk Genbo (d. 746) in the year 735.

During the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1180) periods the temple expanded rapidly under the patronage of the court and the powerful Fujiwara clan, and gradually merged with nearby Kasuga Shrine, the ancestral Shinto shrine of the Fujiwara family.

As the dominant political force in the region, Kōfuku-ji was granted a shogunal mandate to oversee Yamato Province (modern-day Nara Prefecture) during the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods. Kōfuku-ji was the Fujiwara's tutelary temple and enjoyed prosperity for as long as the family did. The temple was not only an important center for the Buddhist religion, but also retained influence over the imperial government, and even by "aggressive means" in some cases.

When many of the Nanto Shichi Daiji2, such as Tōdai-ji, declined after the move of capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto), Kōfuku-ji kept its significance because of its connection to the Fujiwara.

In the 15th century, Kōfuku-ji entered a period of political and economic decline that culminated in a catastrophic fire which destroyed most of the temple complex in 1717. During the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), Kōfuku-ji was targeted by the anti-Buddhist policies of the central government, forcibly separated from Kasuga Shrine, and ultimately abandoned by its monks. It was eventually granted permission to re-establish itself as a religious institution, and continues today as a head temple of the Hossō Sect of Buddhism.

Kōfuku-ji has a number of important structures within its vicinity. Here is a list of the main ones.

Central Golden Hall

The Central Golden Hall, reconstructed in 2018, holds great significance as both the newest and most important structure within the Kōfuku-ji temple complex.

The term "golden hall" refers to a building primarily designed to enshrine Buddhist icons. Typically adorned with gilded images, the light from candles and oil lamps reflects off these sacred figures, giving the entire structure a golden radiance symbolizing the illumination of the world through Buddhist teachings and wisdom.

Kōfuku-ji historically boasted three Golden Halls. Among them, the Central Golden Hall stood out as the oldest and most significant, positioned at the center of the temple between the Eastern and Western Golden Halls. Originally constructed between 710 and 714, it was commissioned by Fujiwara no Fuhito (659–720), the founding patron of Kōfuku-ji.

The Central Golden Hall housed various images, including the historical Buddha Shaka Nyorai (Skt. Śākyamuni) with two attendant bodhisattvas, two Elven-headed Kannon figures, depictions of the Four Heavenly Kings, and a set of images representing the heavenly palace of Miroku (Skt. Maitreya), the Buddha of the future.

Throughout history, the Central Golden Hall faced destruction on seven occasions due to fires. It wasn't until 1819, over a hundred years after the most recent fire, that donations from the people of Nara enabled the construction of a small temporary hall.

By the 1970s, the state of this structure had deteriorated to the point of abandonment, leading to its complete demolition in 2000. Subsequently, a new building, meticulously replicating the dimensions and architectural style of the original Nara-period (710–794) structure, was erected on the same site. This reconstruction, the first of its kind in more than three centuries, was ceremoniously consecrated in October 2018 and is now accessible to the public.

Presently, the Central Golden Hall houses a variety of sacred objects, including an image of Shaka Nyorai dating back to 1811, Kamakura-period (1185–1333) sculptures of the Bodhisattvas Yakuō and Yakujō, the deity Daikokuten, the Four Heavenly Kings, and an enshrined image of the goddess Kisshōten (Skt. Lakṣmī) from the Nanbokuchō Period (1336-1392). The most distinctive feature of the hall is the "Hossō Pillar," entirely adorned with large portraits of the patriarchs belonging to the Hossō School of Buddhism.

Three-storied Pagoda (National Treasure)

The construction of the three-storied pagoda dates back to 1143 when Fujiwara no Kiyoko, also known as Kōkamon’in, commissioned its creation. Kiyoko was the consort of Emperor Sutoku, and the pagoda was initially built as part of the temple complex. However, in 1181, the entire temple complex was destroyed, leading to the subsequent erection of the present structure. Today, it stands as one of the oldest buildings at Kōfuku-ji alongside the Northern Round Hall.

Rising to a height of 19 meters, the pagoda showcases the elegant and intricate design characteristic of Buddhist architecture during the Heian Period (794–1185).

Elaborate decorative elements adorn the inner sanctuary of the pagoda, including pillars, lintels, the ceiling, inner walls, and the inside faces of the four doors. These embellishments consist of floral arabesque patterns and paintings depicting various Buddhist figures, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, pavilions, and potential depictions of patrons. Within the first story of the pagoda, there are four murals on wooden panels. Each mural portrays 1,000 images of one of four Buddhas: Yakushi facing east, Shaka facing south, Amida facing west, and Miroku facing north.

Additionally, on the eastern face of the central pillar, there is an image of the goddess Benzaiten. It is believed that this image was installed in the temple by the renowned monk Kōbō Daishi, also known as Kūkai.

Surrounding the Benzaiten image, there are depictions of 15 attendants. At the crown of Benzaiten, there is a Shinto-style torii gate, beneath which a snake with the face of an old man is coiled. This combination signifies the amalgamation of the Indian goddess Benzaiten (Sarasvatī in Sanskrit) with the indigenous Japanese deity Ugajin.

Five storied Pagoda (National Treasure)

The Five-storied Pagoda of Kōfuku-ji Temple was initially constructed in 730 by Empress Kōmyō (701–760), who was the daughter of Fujiwara no Fuhito (659–720), the founding patron of Kōfuku-ji. Throughout its extensive history, the pagoda suffered five separate fires, but the current reconstruction dates back to 1426.

Standing at a height of 50.1 meters, it holds the distinction of being the second-tallest wooden pagoda in Japan today, after Tō-ji in Kyoto. Renowned for its prominent eaves, this structure skillfully incorporates elements of both the Nara Period's architectural style (710–794) and the dynamic design of the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), during which it was last rebuilt.

Within the pagoda, sculptures of the Four Buddhas of the Four Directions are enshrined, accompanied by two attendant Bodhisattvas on each side. This arrangement symbolizes the Mahayana Buddhist perception of time and space.

The north-south axis signifies the progression of time, while the east-west axis represents space. The southern direction houses Shaka (Skt. Śākyamuni), the Buddha of the past, while the northern direction houses Miroku (Skt. Maitreya), the Buddha of the future.

Amida, the Buddha of Western Pure Land, is situated in the west, and Yakushi, the ruler of the Eastern Pure Beryl Radiance Realm, resides in the east. The convergence point of these two axes represents the present moment in the current world. This significant location is occupied by the central pillar, which rests upon a stone foundation, rumored to contain a vessel housing relics of the Buddha.

Eastern Golden Hall (National Treasure)

The Kōfuku-ji temple complex has been home to three Golden Halls: the Central, Eastern, and Western halls. The Eastern Golden Hall was originally constructed in 726 under the request of Emperor Shōmu (701–756) as a prayer for the recovery of his aunt, retired Empress Genshō (683–748).

This magnificent hall housed a triad of sacred figures on its central altar: Yakushi Nyorai, commonly known as the Medicine Buddha, along with his attendant Bodhisattvas Nikkō and Gakkō. Surrounding these central images were various other depictions. The altar itself was adorned with glazed green tiles, symbolizing the Pure Beryl Radiance Realm, the sacred realm associated with the Medicine Buddha.

Over the course of time, the Eastern Golden Hall fell victim to fire on five separate occasions, with the most recent incident occurring in 1411. The current hall was completed in 1415 and intentionally incorporates archaic architectural elements from the Muromachi Period (1336–1573).

These features include a covered porch that extends across the entire width of the front of the building, three-stepped bracket complexes supporting the rafters, a hipped roof instead of a pitched roof, and a tiled stone floor, all intended to recreate the ambiance of the original Nara-period (710–794) structure.

Today, the Eastern Golden Hall houses a remarkable collection of images that offer a panoramic view of the rich history of Japanese Buddhist art. Among these treasures is the central copper-alloy statue of Yakushi Nyorai, cast during the Muromachi Period.

Additionally, there are copper-alloy statues of the Bodhisattvas Nikkō and Gakkō from the Hakuhō Era (late seventh century), wooden statues of the Four Heavenly Kings from the Heian period (794–1185), as well as wooden statues of Monju Bosatsu, Yuima Koji, and the Twelve Heavenly Generals from the Kamakura period (1185–1333). These diverse and significant artworks collectively contribute to the cultural and spiritual significance of the Eastern Golden Hall at Kōfuku-ji.

Southern Round Hall (Important Cultural Property)

The Southern Round Hall, currently known as the ninth station on the pilgrimage route of the "Thirty-three Temples of Western Japan," was originally built in 813 by Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu as a memorial chapel for his father Uchimaro.

Throughout its history, Kohfukuji has served as the ancestral temple of the influential Fujiwara clan, which is considered the most powerful aristocratic lineage in Japanese history. One branch of the Fujiwara family, known as the "House of Regents," gained significant political and economic prominence, and they revered Uchimaro and Fuyutsugu as the founders of their lineage. As a result, the Southern Round Hall held a special status as the protective shrine for this influential family.

Throughout the years, the hall faced destruction by fire on four separate occasions, with the most recent incident occurring in 1717. The current architectural style of the hall, erected between 1741 and 1789, emulates the design of earlier periods and appears to have been influenced by the Northern Round Hall, which was completed in 1210. Notably, the undulating gables of the worship hall attached to the front of the building showcase distinct features of Edo-period architecture, prevalent from 1603 to 1868.

The primary focal point within the hall is a depiction of Fukūkensaku Kannon, a three-eyed, eight-armed deity, commonly referred to as "the Kannon who bears the infallible snare." This divine figure adorns a deer skin draped over its left shoulder.

Additionally, the hall contains a collection of six seated images portraying Japanese patriarchs of the Hossō School and standing images depicting the Four Heavenly Kings. These sculptures, crafted by the renowned sculptor Kōkei and finalized in 1189, have been designated as National Treasures, signifying their exceptional cultural and historical value.

Getting there:

From JR Nara Station, either walk eastward for approximately 15 minutes along Sanjōdōri Street, or board the City Loop Bus (No. 2) and alight at the “Kenchōmae” bus stop. From Kintetsu Nara Station, walk eastward for approximately 5 minutes along Noboriōji Street.

Visit: https://www.kohfukuji.com/


Photo credits: All photos by the Buddhist Channel.


1. Hossō is one of the six schools of Buddhism during the Nara period in Japan and one of three schools (the other two being Kegon and Ritsu schools) which have survived till this day. Hossō is the continuation of the Chinese Faxian school which in turn was based on the Yogacarya school of India. The school was transmitted to Japan by Japanese scholar-monks who studied in China with Faxian masters such as the monk Xuanzang (Jp. Genjo) and K’uei-chi (Jp. Kuiji), and became one of the most powerful of the six Nara schools.

2. Nanto Shichi Daiji (南都七大寺), literally "the seven great temples of the southern capital (meaning Nara)", is a historical common name generally referring to the powerful and influential seven Buddhist temples located in Nara. They are:     Daian-ji (大安寺), Gangō-ji (元興寺), Hōryū-ji (法隆寺), Kōfuku-ji (興福寺), Saidai-ji (西大寺), Tōdai-ji (東大寺) and Yakushi-ji (薬師寺).
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