Tōdai-ji, a Gigantic Monastery Built to Ward Off Disasters

The Buddhist Channel, 3 July 2023

Nara, Japan -- During the Tenpyo era (ca. 729 to 749), Japan experienced a series of disasters and epidemics. Recognizing these national catastrophes, Emperor Shomu (701 – 756) ordered in 741 the establishment of provincial monasteries and temples (寺,dera) in all 66 provinces of Japan. Tōdai-ji (東大寺), the “Great Temple of the East,” became the main temple of the Kokubun-ji, the national monastic system and the center of national ceremonies.

The Emperor and his wife Queen Komyo were devout followers of Buddhism and believed that such piety would protect the country from further danger. Emperor Shomu fused Buddhist doctrine with political policy and promoted Buddhism as the protector of the kingdom. The emperor’s main objective was to unite the various ethnic groups of Japan under his centralized rule and also to promote spiritual unity.

The Nara period operated under the Ritsuryo (律令) administrative system, Japan’s historical legal system based on Confucianism and Chinese legal philosophies. Under this system, Buddhism was largely regulated by the state through sogo (僧綱, clerical work). During this period, Tōdai-ji served as the main administrative temple for the regional temples and the six Buddhist schools of the time, namely Hosso, Kegon, Jojitsu, Sanron, Ritsu, and Kusha. Documents from this period also indicate that all six Buddhist schools had offices at Tōdai-ji, complete with staff, temples and their own libraries.

Since the temple served as a place for the comprehensive study of the six schools, it functioned more or less as a modern-day national university. Among them, the Kegon school held particular significance. As such, its principal deity, the Vairocana-Buddha was prominently displayed within its premises.

Tōdai-ji, along with six other temples, namely Dayan-ji, Gango-ji, Horyu-ji, Kofuku-ji, Saidai-ji, and Yakushi-ji, were known as Nanto Shichi Daiji (南都七大寺), which literally means "the seven great temples".

Center of Sangha Ordination

Japanese Buddhism still maintained the Vinaya lineage during this time, and all officially licensed monks and nuns were required to take their ordination under the Vinaya at Tōdai-ji. The first ordination platform in Japan was constructed at Tōdai-ji in 755, on the place where former Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō (701-760) received ordination by Ganjin (Chinese: Jianzhen 鑒真, 688–763) a year earlier. Ganjin was a Chinese monk who arrived after an arduous 7-year journey from China and helped propagate Buddhism in Japan.  In 762, ordination was given to a group of monks and nuns in the courtyard in by Ganjin in the presence of the Emperor and the imperial court.

Later Buddhist monks, including Kūkai and Saichō, also received their ordination here. During Kūkai's Sōgō administration, additional ordination ceremonies were added to Tōdai-ji, including the ordination of the Bodhisattva Precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra and the Esoteric Precepts, or Samaya, of Kūkai's own newly founded school of Shingon Buddhism. Kūkai added the Abhiseka Hall for the initiation of monks from the six schools of Nara into esoteric teachings.

Construction of Tōdai-ji

When completed in the 740s, Tōdai-ji was the largest construction project ever undertaken on Japanese soil. It was by far the most prestigious and wood-intensive project built at the time.

Upon completion of construction, wood harvested from at least 2,200 acres of local forest was used. Builders had to travel hundreds of kilometers from Kinai (current Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area) to find suitable wood. Entire forests were cleared to find the tall cypress trees for the poles, which were then transported at great cost. 118 dams were built to raise river levels to transport the massive poles. And those were just the columns, as the wood for the rest of the structure came from at least ten provinces.

Tōdai-ji included the usual components of a Buddhist complex. At its symbolic heart was the massive hondo (main hall), also called the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsu-den), measuring 50 meters high and 86 meters wide when completed in 752. The hall was supported by 84 massive cypress columns and housed a huge bronze Buddha Vairocana (Daibutsu) statue created between 743 and 752. Subsequently, two nine-story pagodas, a lecture hall, and monks' quarters were added to the complex.

Its construction combined the best craftsmen in Japan with the most modern construction technology. It was architecture that impressed, depicting the power, prestige and piety of the Japanese Imperial House.

However, the project was not without its critics. Every person in Japan had to contribute through a special tax to its construction, and the court chronicle, Shoku Nihon-gi, states that "...the people suffer from the construction of Tōdai-ji, and the clans worry about their suffering." According to records kept by Tōdai-ji more than 2.6 million people in total helped build the Great Buddha and his hall. They contributed rice, wood, metal, cloth or labor. 350,000 worked directly on the construction of the Buddha statue. The 16 m tall statue was built from eight castings over three years, the head and neck were cast together as a separate element.

After the destruction of Tōdai-ji in 1180, it was rebuilt under the supervision of the monk Chogen, who asked for help from all over western Japan. When it was rebuilt in the 12th century, it ushered in a new era of shoguns and helped found Japan's most famous school of sculpture.

Diminished Role and Decline

Tōdai-ji's role in maintaining authority diminished when the center of power in Japanese Buddhism shifted from Nara to Mount Hiei (Kyoto) and the Tendai sect, and when the center of political power in Japan shifted from the imperial capital to the shogun's base at Kamakura in the aftermath of the Genpei War (1180-1185). In later generations the Vinaya line also died out. Despite repeated attempts to revive it, no further ordination ceremonies were held at Tōdai-ji.

Tōdai-ji Today

The temple has undergone several reconstructions since then, with the most significant reconstruction of the Great Buddha Hall taking place in 1709. The temple also serves as the Japanese seat of the Kegon (Chinese: Huayan) school of Buddhism. The temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 as one of the "Historical Monuments of Ancient Nara", along with seven other sites including temples, shrines and sites in the city of Nara.

Visit: https://www.todaiji.or.jp/en/

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