The Giant Buddha of Tōdai-ji: A Testament to Grandeur and Serenity

The Buddhist Channel, 3 July 2023

Nara, Japan -- The Daibutsu (大仏), also known as the Giant Buddha Vairocana of Tōdai-ji, is a remarkable symbol of human ingenuity and spiritual devotion. This awe-inspiring statue holds the title of being the largest gilt bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world and has fascinated countless visitors for centuries.

Its immense size and intricate craftsmanship not only demonstrate the power and influence of Buddhism in ancient Japan but also evoke a sense of reverence and humility. Let us delve into the details of this majestic sculpture.

The Statue

Standing at an impressive seated height of 1,498cm, the Daibutsu dominates the landscape of the Tōdai-ji temple complex. Officially named "Rushanabutsu," meaning "a Buddha to illuminate the world," this colossal figure exudes serenity and grandeur, leaving a profound impact on all who behold it. The statue serves as a reminder of life's impermanence and the eternal nature of enlightenment, encouraging visitors to reflect deeply.

Emperor Shomu commissioned the statue in 743, inspired by the Mahavairocana of the Hosenji Temple in Luoyang, China. Constructing this colossal Buddha required all the available copper in Japan, and an estimated 163,000 cubic feet of charcoal was used to produce the metal alloy for the bronze figure. Around 350,000 people worked directly on the construction of the statue, which took three years to complete. The head and neck were cast together as a separate element. As Emperor Shomu intended the Daibutsu to be a symbol of the state, it was designed to convey a more serious looking appearance while still showcasing a benevolent colossus radiating protective light over the land.

The Face

The face of the Daibutsu, measuring 533cm in length and 320cm in width, serves as the focal point of the sculpture. Crafted with remarkable precision, the facial features exhibit the mastery of the ancient Japanese artisans. While the initial idea for the statue was borrowed from the one in Luoyang, Japanese craftsmen added their own touches to localize some of the facial features.

The round face has a heavier-set appearance than its Chinese counterpart, with full cheeks and a prominent chin. The neck-folds are sculpted around a dropped chin. A distinct third eye is visible on the forehead, standing out from the overall darker structure. The mouth, spanning 133cm, is beautifully shaped and full, with the upper lips forming an "M" shape. The snail-curl hair on the Buddha's mane, representing one of the 32 signs of the Buddha's divinity, took an additional two years to complete after the commissioning of the entire statue.

The Eyes and Nose

The eyes, measuring 102cm in length, are wide and deep, casting a compassionate gaze upon all who approach. They look down from beneath the thick curved lids and slant towards the nose. Symmetrical brows arch above the eyelids, and the third eye on the forehead is placed just above the space between the brows, creating a harmonious connection with the nose. The nose itself measures 98cm in width and 50cm in height, emanating an air of regality and poise.

The Ears

The intricacy of the statue's ears is truly marvellous, with each ear measuring an astounding 254cm in length. Adorned with intricate carvings, these elongated ears symbolize the Buddha's heightened awareness and receptivity. They exemplify the meticulous attention to detail and reverence with which the Giant Buddha was crafted.

The Hands

The hands of the Giant Buddha, with palms measuring 148cm in length, are positioned in the mudra of fearlessness, embodying the Buddha's teachings of courage and strength. The middle finger, extending to 108cm, symbolizes the Buddha's ability to guide towards enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The sheer scale of the hands evokes a sense of protection and reassurance, offering solace to all who seek the Buddha's wisdom and guidance.

The Feet and Dharma Seat (Lotus Pedestal)

The Daibutsu's feet, with a thickness of 374cm, rest upon a copper lotus pedestal that elevates the statue to a height of 304cm. This elevated position metaphorically represents the Buddha's transcendence above worldly attachments and mundane concerns.
The copper seat itself, with its gleaming surface and dignified presence, adds to the grandeur and reverence of the entire sculpture. The lotus pedestal is adorned with incised hairline engravings featuring identical designs, depicting the "Lotus-Womb World-System" (Skt. Padmagarbha lokadatu; Jp. Rengezo sekai).

The petal designs are divided into two main parts: the upper half depicts a seated Shakyamuni Buddha at the center, expounding the Dharma, and surrounded by a group of eleven Bodhisattvas on each side, arranged symmetrically. The lower half consists of twenty-six horizontal lines with small Buddha-images and palaces between them, along with seven pairs of lotus petals, one turned upwards and the other facing downwards. The upward-turned petals are engraved with mountain ranges, palaces, and an inverted trapezium containing a small Sakyamuni traid and the heads of four animals.

This complex design can be described as a pictorial representation of the religious worldview presented in the Avatamsaka-sutra (Jp. Kegon-kyo). The petals are the only remaining remnants of the original statue, which was destroyed by fire in the 12th century. The current statue is a replacement from the 17th century but remains a revered figure, with an annual ritual cleaning ceremony held every August.

The Daibutsu's Consecration

Upon the completion of the Daibutsu in 752, a momentous "eye-opening" ceremony was held, attended by the entire Imperial court, government officials and Buddhist dignitaries from China and India. Empress Koken oversaw the ceremony, and the retired Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo were in attendance. During the ceremony, an Indian monk named Bodhisena is recorded as symbolically painting the Buddha's eyes, imbuing it with life. Emperor Shomu himself sat in front of the Great Buddha, vowing to be a servant of the Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Though no images of the ceremony have survived, a Nara period scroll painting depicts a solitary figure humbly positioned at the base of the Daibutsu, suggesting its awe-inspiring presence.

Daibutsu Today

The Daibutsu of Tōdai-ji is not merely a physical manifestation of religious devotion, it stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Buddhism in Japanese culture. It serves as a symbol of peace, wisdom, and compassion, inspiring visitors to embark on their own spiritual journeys in search of enlightenment. The immense size and intricate details of the statue serve as a reminder of the dedication and skill of the ancient craftsmen who brought this magnificent creation to life.

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