Buddhist monks played a prominent role in the imperial administration. They served as engineers helping to build roads, bridges and irrigation systems and worked as clerks and scribes. In return the imperial court helped Buddhism spread to provinces by decreeing that each should establish a monastery for at least 20 monks. The Kegon (Huayen in Chinese) sect was the dominant sect.

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage Japan: "Apart from the centrally authorized schools of Buddhism, there existed the so-called “mountain Buddhism” movement. Furthermore, some Nara Period priests devoted themselves to religious life in remote mountain temples such as Hiso-dera (or Hoko-ji) in the Yoshino district of the Yamato Province. Priests who had gained extraordinary powers as a result of religious practice in such isolated spots often went on to become influential special ritualists at court or at major temples. This movement of Buddhism called mountain Buddhism provided a great stimulus for the development of Nara Period Buddhism and its magical practices ranked as one of the pillars of Buddhism along with the academic practices and studies pursued at one of the official temples of the period. (However, it should be noted that apart from Buddhism, the people also practiced at the time shamanist magical practices from the continent, indigenous pre-Buddhist magic as well as the Chinese Taoist magical practices that were also very popular). [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

“There arose a kind of popular practical Buddhism that was quite unnconnected with the officially recorganized temples. Two such privately ordained monks associated with mountain Buddhism were Taicho (682-767) known as the Great Sage of Koshi and En no Gyoja of Mt Katsuragi. Such monks did not conform to the manners and standards of the capital and so were rejected by the secular and religious authorities as undesirables. The closer they were to the people, the more severely they were persecuted by the authorities usually on two grounds: – for being privately ordained, and by their popularity for disturbing the status quo of church and state. They were also accused of going into the mountains on their own and of setting up hermitages and of abiding in isolated spots and pretending to teach the Law of Buddha.”

Websites on Nara- and Heian-Period Japan: Essay on Nara and Heian Periods ; Wikipedia article on the Nara Period Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Heian Period Wikipedia ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency; List of Emperors of Japan ; Nara Nara Prefecture site ; Temples and Shrines in Nara Park: Kofukuji site; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Todaiji Temple Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Nara and Heian Art Sites at the Metropolitan Museum in New York ; Heian Art at the British Museum ; Nara Art at the Tokyo National Museum ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents



Ganjin (688-763), known as Jianzhen in Tang-dynasty China, was a major figures from the Nara period. A high-ranking monk in China, he is credited with introducing Chinese-style Buddhism to Japan in the 7th century. was instrumental in bringing Chinese culture and Buddhism to Japan. He helped give Buddhism in Japan a formal structure by defining what it was to be a monk and a priest and introduced things like miso and cheese. Disciples and craftsmen that accompanied him brought knowledge about Buddhist sculpture, painting and architecture to Japan.

Ganjin was born in present-day Yangzhou, Jiangsu, not far from Shanghai. He entered the Buddhist Daming Templeat age 14, studied in Chang’an at age 20 and returned 6 years later to become the abbot of Daming Temple. Ganjin is also said to have been well-versed in medicine and to have created a hospital within Daming Temple. [Source: Heritage Japan website,]

Ganjin first five efforts to reach Japan, beginning in 743 were thwarted by shipwrecks, storms and government red tape. In autumn 742, an emissary from Japan invited Ganjin to lecture in his home country. Despite protests from his disciples, Ganjin made preparations and in spring 743 was ready for the long voyage across the East China Sea to Japan. The crossing failed and in the following years, Ganjin made three more attempts but was thwarted by unfavourable conditions or government intervention.

Kawagoe wrote: “In summer 748, Ganjin made his fifth attempt to reach Japan. Leaving from Yangzhou, he made it to the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of modern Zhejiang. But the ship was blown off course and ended up in the Yande commandery on Hainan Island. Ganjin was then forced to make his way back to Yangzhou by land, lecturing at a number of monasteries on the way. Ganjin travelled along the Gan River to Jiujiang, and then down the Yangtze River. The entire failed enterprise took him close to three years. By the time Ganjin returned to Yangzhou, he was blind from an infection.”

Ganjin in Japan

Ganjin's tomb

The blind Ganjin finally made it to Japan on his sixth attempt. He had been banned by the Chinese Emperor from visiting Japan because he was so highly valued at home but was determined to come and finally made it by secretly boarding a Japanese emissary ship returning to its home country. After an arduous sea journey of several months, the vessel landed at Kagoshima in southern Japan in December 753. Ganjin finally reached Nara in the spring of the next year 754 and was welcomed by the Emperor.

At Nara, Ganjin presided over Todaiji and helped to ordain hundreds of monks. In 759 the imperial court granted Ganjin a piece of land in the western part of Nara. There he founded a school and also set up a private temple, Toshodaiji . In the ten years he was in Japan, Ganjin not only propagated the Buddhist faith among the aristocracy, but also served as an important conductor of Chinese culture. He is credited with having introduced Ritsu Buddhism or monastic rules to Japan. The Chinese monks who travelled with him introduced Chinese religious sculpture to the Japanese. [Source: Heritage Japan website,]

Ganjin had some success spreading Buddhism in Japan and sent 19 groups of Japanese students to China. They in turn brought back knowledge of Chinese culture, medicine and other things. Ganjin died in 763. A famous dry-lacquer statue of him made shortly after his death (and therefore thought to be in his likeness) can still be seen in his temple at Nara. Recognised as one of the greatest of its type.

Gyoki, Bodhisattva of Japan (668-749)

Kawagoe wrote: Gyoki was born in 668 in Otri county, Kawachi Province (southern Osaka), to family of Korean Paekche descent. Gyoki took Buddhist vows at age 15, entering Asukadera in Nara (founded in 569) (alternative version:theology at the Kandai-ji temple, studied Buddhism from Dosho and Gien at Yakushiji temple). However, though employed by the government as an official priest, he was not satisfied with the prevailing form of Buddhism which he saw as benefiting the welfare of the court nobles, and not the masses. He then quit his official job in 704 at age 36 to propagate Buddhism for salvation of the suffering people and to practice philanthropy,traveled through different provinces to preach Buddhism and making pilgrimages mostly in Osaka and Nara areas. [Source: Heritage Japan website,]


“Gyoki is best remembered for his efforts to help the poor mainly in Kansai region, for roaming the countryside propagating the teachings together with farming techniques to oppressed people hungry for both and for building 49 monasteries and nunneries that functioned as hospitals for the poor. Gyoki was arrested since his activities, which contravened secular laws, were carried out in a time when the government maintained strict control of Buddhists by confining them to temple grounds for academic study. Besides being perceived as an uncontrolled spiritual power, Gyoki’s arrest was likely related to reports of huge gatherings of rural people he was organizing. This was seen as an imminent political threat to the instable power of the capital.

“Though persecuted for troubling peasants, Gyoki was nevertheless given a pardon, perhaps as the government realized his popularity (the people called him ‘Gyoki Bodhisattva’) and sought to harness it instead and soon Gyoki came to influence Emperor Shomu (701-756) and to play a key role in the building of the Todaiji temple. Emperor Shomu had planned to construct a great Buddha statue in Nara but the project was so huge that state funds alone were not enough to cover the total cost. So the emperor sought Gyoki’s help to raise funds. Accepting the emperor’s request, Priest Gyoki immediately began fund-raising campaigns. His philanthropic activities are thought to have mobilized support so that enough alms were collected soon afterward, enabling the casting in 752 of the bronze Great Buddha statue at Todaiji was able to be completed.

“During the construction of Todaiji Temple, the government recruited Gyoki and his fellow ubasoku monks to organize labor and resources from the countryside. He also produced constructions of several ponds. He also contributed to social welfare building roads, bridges, irrigation dykes, ponds and reservoirs and other civil engineering projects, and helped construct a number of temples. As such, Gyoki came to achieve great fame as a Buddhist philanthropist. Unfortunately, he had passed away just before the consecrating ceremony for the statue took place. In praise of the priest’s achievement, the emperor conferred on him the title of Dai-sojo, or the Great Priest, the highest rank given to priests.

Mandala of Taima: A Representation of Nara-Era Pure Land Buddhism

Detail of the original Taima Mandala

Pure Land Buddhism (the Chinese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that gave birth to Zen Buddhism) made its way to Japan in the Nara Period. The Mandala of Taima is one of the Three Joudo Mandalas revered by followers of Pure Land Buddhism. The work is called the Taima Mandala because the original version in Japan had been handed down at Taima-dera, Nara. It is the most complete depiction of the Kangyou hensou , or the "transformation scene" hensou of the Kanmuryoujukyou . It is a religious image usually hung to the left of the main altar in the sanctuary of a Pure Land joudo temple. The pictorialization was based on a commentary on the Buddhist sutra by Shandao (613-681).

According to Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System (JAANUS): As with the Amida joudo hensou , the painting subject focuses on an Amida triad, Amida sanzon , Amida surrounded by bodhisattvas, bosatsu . In the center background is an ornate palace representing Amida’s paradise, the gokuraku joudo . In addition, the left vertical pannel or court shows the story of Prince Ajatasatru (Jp: Ajase Taishi ) from the preface of the sutra. In the right vertical and lower horizontal courts the story is continued with additional depictions of the Sixteen Contemplations juurokukan that Shaka preached to the king’s wife as a guide to visualize Amida’s paradise. [Source: JAANUS, 2001 +++]

“Thirteen Contemplations are arranged on the right side and the remaining three contemplations, commonly referred to as the Nine Stages of Rebirth kubon raigou or kubon oujou , are placed in the bottom court. Scholars believe that the original Taima mandara was a large-scale embroidery imported from Tang China. It is believed that in 763 during the Nara period Chuujou Hime had it woven with lotus threads guushi based on a vision she had experienced. Thus the original woven work is sometimes also called the Guushi mandara . The miraculous weaving of the 4.5 meters square tsuzure-ori , usually translated as "figured (hand woven) brocade", is said to have been accomplished by a nun who was believed to be a human incarnation of the bodhisattva Kannon , the main attendant to Amida. +++

“This work is still preserved today at Taimadera in fragments with a great many Kamakura period repairs. From the Heian period, with the increasing popularity of Pure Land beliefs, the work grew ever more revered. In the Kamakura period a disciple of Hounen (1133-1212) — Shoukuu (1177-1247), founder of the Seizan branch of the Joudo sect — actively propagated the teachings of the Taima mandala. Hence, at this time numerous commentaries on the iconography were written and many copies of various sizes were also painted. The most notable was the well known work from 1217 preserved in Zenrinji , Kyoto which is regarded as the closest extant copy. Numerous later copies also exist. Moreover, the illustrated scrolls of the "Legends of the Taima Mandala" Taima mandara engi emaki (Koumyouji), with its vivid illustrations and text of the mandala’s miraculous origins, played an important role in the diffusion of Taima mandala beliefs.” +++

Story the Mandala of Taima

Kawagoe wrote: According to tradition, Chujo no Tsubone, the daughter of a nobleman Yokohagino Dainagon, lost her mother, and so aspired to the Pure Land where she should have been born. She was said to have copied one thousand volumes on Pure Land Buddhism and offered them to Taimadera Temple, before becoming a nun. In 763 she became a nun at the Taima-dera, Nara Prefecture, and received the Dharma name Honyo (“Dharma-suchness”). Wishing to see the Amida, she began a seven-day meditation on him. On the sixth day a nun appeared and instructed Honyo to gather a hundred horseloads of lotus-stems. When this was done in three days with the help of her father, the nun appeared again and span the lotus fibers into thread. When she had dyed the threads in the five Buddhist colors, another nun appeared and wove them into a Pure Land mandala overnight. Honyo was greatly rejoiced to see this, and asked their names. The first nun said that she was an incarnation of Amida and the second nun, Kannon (Avalokiteshvara). Since then, Honyo diligently contemplated this mandala, and successfully attained birth in the Pure Land in 775. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

Taima Mandala by Juneji Kuwana

“The Taimadera Mandala and the model of the Pure Land depicted in it would continue to inspire through the centuries and form one of the most enduring beliefs of the Japanese people. Later Pure Land scrolls however, depicted people in Heian dress. After the 13th century, the mandala became popular when Shoku (1177-1247), a disciple of Honen and the founder of the Seizan school of the Jodo sect, visited Taima-dera in 1229 at the request of its resident priest, Ken’a, and carefully examined the mandala. Deeply impressed by its grandeur and its precise presentation of the Contemplation Sutra in accordance with Shan-tao’s (613-681) commentaries, Shoku wrote a detailed commentary, entitled Taima-mandara-chuki, 10 fasc. He had a painter make copies of the mandala and donated them to various temples and Nembutsu centers. He also had wood-blocks of it carved, which he distributed in Japan and China.

“Shoku’s commentary was followed by many others, including the extensive one by Shoso Yuyo (1366-1440), the eighth abbot of the Chinzei school of Jodo sect and the founder of the Zojoji temple in Tokyo. Copies of the mandala were widely used as “etoki” (explanation of the teaching by a picture) as well as objects of veneration. Later in the Edo period (1603-1867), with the undiminished popularity of the Taima Mandala, more copies were made in various reduced sizes. These were called the Dokutan Mandala.”

Nara-Era River Purification Rituals

Kawagoe wrote: “During the Nara period, river rituals were important and frequent events for the court and for the common people as well. The Oho-harae or Great Purification, a great purification rite performed by the Imperial court, was established as one of the most important and most solemn ceremonies of the Shinto religion. But the ceremonial rite was also performed by the population of the whole country — from the Princes and ministers, the higher and lower officials of the Imperial court down to the common people, all had to be purified and freed from sins, pollutions and calamities. The chief ceremonial rite was performed in the capital, near the South Gate or Suzaku-mon Gate (Gate of the Scarlet Bird) of the imperial palace, and it was essentially the purification of the court, a rite carried out to purify all the higher and lower officials of the Imperial court. The ceremonial rite was also performed at all the public shrines of the whole country. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

“River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and may have imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings. In Japan, offerings of pottery at river sites had also been made since prehistoric or protohistoric times by local communities, Excavated finds by archaeologists indicate the purification ritual practice began at least as early as the Kofun era (large quantities of miniature earthern pots were found from the river area of the Mizokui site, Ibaraki city, Osaka; one of them with a face etched onto the pottery).

Copy of the original Taima Mandala

“Until the Nara period, o-harae ablution events were performed at various irregular times and as the need arose, but from the Nara period onwards, o-harae became regular bi-annual court and shrine events as carried over till today. The “Great Purification” came to be held regularly on the 30th June and 31st December. This was because the mid-ninth century, the Nara court in adopting Chinese Tang dynasty style of court etiquette and government, had established an official bureau of yin-yang geomancy masters who went to work institutionalizing and regulating the expulsion rituals and the management of pollution taboos.”

Tao beliefs and principles were adopted at the Nara court, “however not all smooth-going and could prove hazardous, it seems, for a courtier. The Nara court saw a fierce rivalry between court practitioners of yin-yang practices and the ecclesiastical order of Buddhist priests. Magical yin-yang practices were tightly supervised at the Nara court — the Nara court, for example, issued a prohibition against the use of Taoist magical charms for driving out malign spirits and curing illnesses (which was not the case with the Tang Chinese court). There were also severe punishments those who engaged in the observation of heavenly portents for the purpose of interpreting good and bad omens to beguile peasants. The high ranking minister Prince Nagaya’s fall had had to do with his Taoist-like practices that included the use of elixirs and incantations employed in rites aimed at healing the ailing crown prince – due to rumours of the day that he had made use of a curse to kill the crown prince born to Komyoshi consort of Shomu. During the reign of Kammu, the head yin-yang master of the Yin-yang Bureau was accused of performing magical curses against Kammu and joining in a plot to rebel.”

Human, Horse and Boat Effigies from Nara-Era Japan

Kawagoe wrote: “At the Saragunjouri-iseki site of what was once the ancient Heijo capital, the following harae artifacts have been recovered: one human-shaped bronze effigy; five human-shaped wooden effigies and four wooden effigies in the shape of pointed board; five horse-shaped clay figurine; five pottery pieces with human face in black ink and six pieces of miniature pottery. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

“Pottery with faces painted in black ink have been excavated from the Mizutare archaeological site of Nagaoka Palace in Kyoto Prefecture. Archaeologists have also found fragments of earthenware jars that had been tossed into a dried-up riverbed of a tributary of the Yamatogawa River (in today’s Yao city, Osaka) in a ritual to bring salvation and ward off illness. Distinctive faces had been painted in black ink on the small pottery jars. Along with the pottery jars, seven types of coins were discovered, along with Kocho-Junisen copper coins from the Nara (710-784) period (as well as Kangen-Taiho coins minted in the 958 which suggests the practice continued through the early Heian (794-1185) period).

“Excavated from the Kannonji site, which were once old riverbeds of a branch of the Yoshino River during the Nara period, were large numbers of artifacts, including pottery and wooden boat effigies and other implements. Also among the artifacts are thin boards shaped into a human outline, and faces drawn in ink. One board is split down the center, broken into upper and lower halves has realistically painted thick eyebrows, and the beard and moustache. Together with the boat effigies made of wood, they are thought to have been used in a harae rite.

“Some scholars believe that the use of effigies in Nara period river rituals in particular is associated with ancient Chinese witchcraft techniques may go back to the Han dynasty or even earlier as outlined in Chi Songzi zhangli an important Taoist text and ritual compilation) were later introduced into Japan.”

Jianzhen (Ganjin)

Did Nara-Era Japanese Throw Coins Into Water for Good Luck

In March 2006, the Asahi Shimbun reported: “Everybody at some time has tossed a coin into a fountain, or elsewhere, for good luck. It turns out the practice has been around for well over 1,000 years, probably longer.That, archaeologists say, may explain the recent discovery of rare copper coins from the Nara (710-784) and early Heian (794-1185) periods at a dried-up riverbed here. The coins are special because they are what are known as Kocho-Junisen, a term used for 12 types of copper coins minted in Japan by the imperial court of the time. [Source: Asahi Shimbun, March 13, 2006 -]

“These included so-called Kangen-Taiho coins that were minted in 958 and were the last “made in Japan” coinage before the imperial court switched to relying on imports from China. Archaeologists said seven types of coins were discovered, along with fragments of earthenware jars that suggest they were tossed into a tributary of the Yamatogawa river in a ritual to bring salvation and ward off illness. Distinctive faces were painted in black ink on the small containers. In total, 23 Kocho-Junisen coins were found out at the site. The coins all were stamped with the Chinese character mon, which apparently specified its value. -

“Researchers speculated the coins were intentionally tossed into the river. “Maybe it was a public servant, or someone who was in such a position who could obtain coins, who repeatedly conducted the rituals by the river,” said a board of education official. The tributary ran north-south for about 80 meters and is between 10 and 15 meters wide. The coins were found scattered along the entire stretch of old waterway. -

“One coin, known as Wado Kaichin, is thought to be the first copper coin minted in Japan. Researchers dated it to 708. Other precious finds include five so-called Ryuhei Eiho coins from 796; seven Showa Shoho coins from 835, and one Teikan Eiho coin from 870. Most of the coins had been freshly minted when they were tossed into the river. In 1998, 61 Wado Kaichin coins were excavated from the site. -

“Archaeologists say religious rites and other ritual ceremonies were probably performed along the riverbank for 100 years or so. Masayoshi Mizuno, professor emeritus of archaeology at Nara University, said: “It is extremely rare to discover a batch of Kocho-Junisen together at one site.”“ -

Sacred Swords of Todaiji

In 2010, Kyodo reported: “Two swords found under the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple in the Meiji Era have been identified as sacred swords that had been missing for some 1,250 years since around 760 after Empress Komyo, the wife of Emperor Shomu, who built the Buddha, dedicated them along with other items to the temple, the temple said. The swords, decorated with gold, silver and lacquer, appear on the top of about 100 swords in the weapon list of the Kokka Chimpo Cho (book of national treasures to Todaiji) kept at the Shosoin repository at the temple. They are considered important historical materials. [Source: Kyodo, Japan Times, October, 28, 2010 +/]

“The swords were discovered at the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) along with other items, including a silver pot near the pedestal on which the Great Buddha sits when three holes were created nearby for research purposes, and were designated together as national treasures in 1930. When maintenance workers recently took an X-ray of the swords, they found the inscriptions “Yoken” and “Inken” on the blades, which indicate the swords are highly likely those called “Yohoken” and “Inhoken” that the Empress dedicated in 756 at a memorial service for the Emperor, who died earlier in the year. The swords were likely removed from the Shosoin treasure list at the request of the Empress and buried in the location where they were found. +/

“The discovery nonetheless begs the question why Empress Komyo, who died in 760, bothered to remove them from the treasure list and buried them under the foot of the Great Buddha, experts say. Ikuo Mori, an expert in historical archaeology and an honorary professor at Tezukayama University in Nara, said he believes the Empress did so “hoping that the Buddha hall would last forever.” +/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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