Priest Gyoshin statue

A major cultural development of the Nara and Heian eras was the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Japan. Buddhism had been introduced in the sixth century but had a mixed reception until the Nara period, when it was heartily embraced by Emperor Shomu. Shomu and his Fujiwara consort were fervent Buddhists and actively promoted the spread of Buddhism, making it the "guardian of the state" and strengthening Japanese institutions through still further Chinese acculturation. During Shomu’s reign, the Todaiji (Great East Temple) was built, and within it was placed the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), a sixteen-meter-high, gilt-bronze statue. This Buddha was identified with the Sun Goddess, and from this point on, a gradual syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto ensued. Shomu declared himself the "Servant of the Three Treasures" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the law or teachings of Buddhism, and the Buddhist community. [Source: Library of Congress ]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote: During the Nara Period, “Buddhism had already gathered momentum in Japan and the number of priests and nuns had increased greatly as well. While in the early years Buddhist clerics were governed by high-ranking priests known as sogo – chosen with considerable autonomy by the Buddhist community, over the years and by 701, the imperial court issued more and more sets of regulations to govern priests and nuns and their daily lives and personal activities. Collectively, these regulations were called the Soni Ryo and Provision Article 27 of Yoro Soni Ryo made it clear that the government sought to prohibit preaching outside temple precincts and to force priests and nuns to live and work within their religious communities. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

“During the Nara period the power and influence of Buddhism grew under the supervision of Buddhist monks who had studied in and returned from Tang China. Temples in Japan accumulated vast landholdings during this era, their priests gained tremendous political influence (particularly during the reigns of Emperor Shomu and Empress Shotoku). Buddhism in Japan had the stamp of Tang control: ten Buddhist masters who had studied in Tang China as well as the superintendents placed in charge of temple property, extended state control over all Buddhist matters. With the burgeoning numbers of worshippers and clergy, many temples had to be constructed. There were about two hundred temples at the beginning of the period but over a thousand at the end of it. Thus Buddhism gained official recognition as the state religion, and the network of Buddhist temples served to buttress the authority of the central state.

“During this time, there flourished in Nara six major well-known schools of groups of teachers and students who focused each on a particular doctrinal system of study. All of these academic schools were affiliated to Todai-ji Temple and were the “officially recognized” religious centres, signifying the central importance of the Todaiji Temple. However, Nara Buddhism encompassed more than these six schools and the temples of Nara Buddhism were not exclusively affiliated with any school.”

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; Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji Temple Websites: Enryaku-ji Temple official site; Marathon monks ; Tale of Genji Sites: The Tale of (Good Site) ; 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

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple was built in 741 to be the central temple of all provincial temples established in Japan. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and restored in the mid-1990s, it embraces several buildings and is the main temple of the Kegonshu sect of Buddhism. It was built under Emperor Shomu (701-756) in hopes of keeping Japan peaceful so he could devote himself to Buddhism, and rebuilt in 1692 and 1709.

The original main temple is said to have been even more spectacular than the one that exists now. The original was 86 meters wide, 29 meters wider than the current building, and the Buddha was covered in gold. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, white walls and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from hall. Both were later destroyed.

Daibutsuden (within Todaiji Temple) is the world’s largest wooden structure. Built to house the world’s largest Buddha, it is a masterpiece of wooden architecture. Many of the criss-crossing beams are positioned without nails. In addition to the Buddha there are towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors and gods. One large wooden pillar contains a small hole large enough for some people to crawl through and is about the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. The pillar shows that the structure is imperfect and has room for improvement. It is said that those who crawl though it will receive enlightenment and have all their prayers answered. Nearby is Kaidan-in Hall, which was once used for ordination ceremonies and contains clay images of the Four Heavenly Guardians; Sangatsu-do-Hall, the oldest building in the Todaiji Temple complex; and Nigatsu-do Hall. The two stone lions at the temples south gate are believed to have been made in China.

History of Todaiji Temple and the Great Buddha

Todaiji guardian
According to Kanshu Tsutsui, the chief administrator of Todaji, to build such a large statue and buildings, workers had to dig down 2.5 meters over a 90 meters by 60 meter area — larger than a football field — to find firm ground. The concrete-like layers of clay, ballast and sand placed on the firm ground were similar that layers below the Great Wall of China. “It was built using architectural styles of ancient Chinese palace buildings,” Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. “In China, the style was applied to building Buddhist temples when Buddhism entered the country from India, and it was later imported to Japan via the Korean Peninsula.” [Source: Shinichi Yanagawa, Daily Yomiuri, January 7, 2010]

After completing the 2.5-meter-high platform craftsmen made a mold to cast the Buddha statue. After the casting was done then the columns were raised for the building. The platform as well was the statue from the knees down are filled with sand. These parts survived the fire that brought down the original buildings. Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University, said, “I believe construction technologies here had already surpassed those of China at that point.”

Kawagoe wrote: In his organization of the country, Emperor Shomu applied the principle of the mandala. A mandala was a geometrical figure in which shapes and colours were arranged as a symbolic matrix of the universe. The Todai-ji that was dedicated to the Buddha Vairocana in the centre of a lotus flower with a thousand petals and symbolized the universe. Millions of copies of sutra and wood engravings of religious images were made for distribution to the pilgrims who thronged the temple. These were the first printed documents in Japan. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

Shinichi Yanagawa wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The name Todaiji literally means giant temple east of the capital. It served as an institute of higher learning for monks and as the headquarters of Kokubunji temples established by Emperor Shomu across the nation to propagate Buddhist teachings. He dispatched to the temples monks with knowledge in medicine, civil engineering, arts and other fields.“Emperor Shomu intended to raise cultural standards in rural regions with the culture of the capital,” Tsutsui said. “The monks instructed people to build reservoirs as a countermeasure against famine and to repair roads and rice fields. The monks also taught people how to build comfortable houses and which medicines to take. “The temples were bases for carrying out such community projects. Building the Great Buddha was a project to help people understand the importance of cooperation in building a better society,” Tsutsui said. “Some people say the Great Buddha was constructed to show foreign countries the power of the nation, but it was not that simple.”

Daibutsusan (Great Buddha of Nara)

Daibutsusan, the world's largest bronze Buddha
Daibutsu (within Daibutsuden) is the world’s largest bronze Buddha by some reckonings. Originally constructed between 735 and 749, the colossal sitting Buddha statue is 72 feet high, weighs over 550 tons and is covered with almost 300 pounds of gold. Housed in the Great Buddha Hall, the Nara Buddha (also called Daibutsu in Japanese), it is surrounded by a halo from which three hundred gold statues were hung. The image took two years to cast and three more to polish and cover in gold leaves.

The Buddha is a representation of the Cosmic Buddha, who gives rise to new worlds. Buddhists believe the statue emits divine light to the far corners of the universe and each lotus leaf it sits upon represents a separate universe. The Buddha is believed to have been built to pray for peace and bring relief to a people who had suffered years of drought, famine, political violence, earthquakes and smallpox. It was also intended, some say, to show off the power of Emperor Shomu, who is said to have wanted a Buddha large enough to bring good fortune to everyone. The Great Buddha was completed three years after his death.

The statue’s sullen facial expression may have something to with the fact it lost its head in an earthquake in 9th century and suffered damage from civil wars in the 16th century. In 1180 and again in 1567, its right hand was melted in accidental fires. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the head rebuilt in 1692. The present statue is only two thirds the size of the original.

Daibutsu is the largest bronze image (at 14.98 meters, 49.1 feet) from the ancient world and the largest single-caste bronze image. There are larger bronze Buddhas in the world. The Ushiku, a 110 meters modern-day bronze Buddha, was completed in 1995 in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan. The Spring Temple Buddha in China is 128 meters tall. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

During the annual cleaning event in August the giant Buddha statue is dusted by monks sitting on chairs suspended by ropes from the ceiling. The cleaning takes 2½ hours and is conducted by 210 monks, who wear white uniforms and begin their work after a ceremony to remove the statue’s soul to avoid any impurity to Buddha’s image.

Construction of the Daibutsu (Great Buddha of Nara)

According to Todaji records 2.6 million people were employed to construct the original Daibutsuden wood building and more than half million worked on gold plating the bronze statue, which took five years. About 500 tons of copper and 8.5 tons of tin was used to cast the original Buddha and 440 kilograms of gold and 2.5 tons of mercury were used to plate the statue using a technique in which the gold was mixed with mercury at a ratio of 1 to 5 and placed on the statue and heated so the mercury evaporated away leaving the gold. The work was done relatively quickly so the construction could be completed in time for the 200th anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 752.

Kawagoe wrote: In 743, Emperor Shomu on an imperial visit to Shigaraki Palace in Omi Province proclaimed that he wanted a colossal image of Vairocana (Biru-shana butsu in Japanese) Buddha to be cast. Work began immediately in Omi Province, but was suspended in 745 when the emperor returned to Nara. The work was recommenced in 747 at Nara’s Todaiji Temple which had already been designated one of the provincial temples of Yamato Province. [Source: Heritage Japan website,]

“The idea for the construction of the Nara Buddha is said to have begun with Emperor Shomu and his empress Komyo, in consultation with the great monk Gioki. Gioki traveled through much of Japan bearing the proclamation of the Emperor announcing the project of the Great Buddha of Nara and inviting the contribution of all, “It is our desire that each peasant shall have the right to add his handful of clay and his strip of grass to the mighty figure.” The project thus embodied not only imperial and aristocratic patronage but also the labours of even the humblest peasant.

“The Great Buddha project utilized... 499 tonnes of bronze and 440 kilogrammes of gold. It was said that it had used up all the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals. Artists had come from all over Asia, particularly from India and China, to help create the 16 meter (52 feet) high bronze statue. The Great Buddha required 8 castings over a period of 3 years. The Emperor is said to have assisted the erection work with his whole court, and ladies of the highest rank are said to have carried clay for the model on their brocaded sleeves. The project finally completed in 749, an official “eye-opening” consecration ceremony of unprecedented splendour was held to showcase the Great Buddha in 752.

Why Did Emperor Shomu Build the Great Buddha of Nara

Emperor Shomu

Why did Emperor Shomu have the Great Buddha built? Kansho Tsutsui, the administration chief of Todaiji temple in Nara, told the Yomiuri Shimbun Emperor Shomu had Todaiji temple and the Great Buddha constructed to pray for the nation’s peace and to bring relief to the people because of years of drought, famine, political strife, earthquakes and smallpox. “Emperor Shomu hoped that people would realize their connection with nature and the universe,” Tsutsui said, adding, “The giant statue was a symbol for that purpose.”

Kosei Morimoto, an abbot at Todaiji told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “There’s a document that says the decision was reached by the emperor in 734 after he'd been worrying greatly about his leadership. Around that time, many people had starved to death after a series of natural disasters, including drought, famine and a major earthquake. People stole from one another to survive.”

“The emperor had studied Confucianism and Chinese history books for ideas about administering the affairs of state, and in this time of trouble he decided to shift his administration’s basic philosophy from Confucianism to Buddhism,” Morimoto said. “According to Confucianism, natural disasters occur to punish poor rulers. That idea tortured the sincere emperor. There had also been two smallpox epidemics, which killed four brothers of Empress Komyo along with high-ranking officials and many commoners. It’s said tens of thousands of people died from the disease. The capital became desolate.”

Morimoto said: “The emperor also blamed himself for the increase in crimes committed by commoners, and he had provincial temples and convents established across the nation to save those people’s souls. The principal image of the temples outside the capital was Shakamuni [an incarnation of Buddha], but for Todaiji, the capital’s temple, he decided to have the Great Buddha built as the principal image.” The empress established facilities to accommodate impoverished people, the sick and orphans. She was very concerned about people’s welfare.

Kawagoe wrote: Although the great many state and provincial temples had been built for the hope of gaining peace and prosperity for the state and its subjects, the Great Buddha project was different in one important respect. Temples were always built for the purpose of securing the temporary healing or happiness and eternal salvation of the imperial family or of members of notable clan members such as the Fujiwara and Tachibana clans. In constructing the Great Buddha, no mention was made of the material or spiritual welfare of the great aristocratic families – what was emphasized was the fruit of cooperation on the part of all devout Buddhists. [Source: Heritage Japan website, ]

“Through the merits accruing from the good work and contribution of believers, all believers would receive the same blessings as the emperor himself and would attain the same state of enlightenment. Vairocana is the principal buddha of the Kegon-kyo (Flower Garland Sutra), a text that describes the Vairocana Buddha as the great light that governs all things and that dwells in the Pure Land of the Lotus Womb. The Nara Buddha was a cosmic Buddha that was central to the order of the universe.

“In this project, hence, were the seeds – the beginnings of Buddhist universalism – that would continue to be developed in the Heian period that was to follow. Many provincial temples would cease to function and fall into ruin by the middle of the 10th century, but Todaiji and the Great Buddha would survive over the centuries — their survival perhaps in part due to the Great Buddha’s universal appeal that would remain entrenched in the consciousness of the people.”

Ceremony to Consecrate the Great Buddha of Nara

In 752, a magnificent ceremony was held to consecrate the new Buddha statue. The gold plating was completed only 53 days before the ceremony. At the consecration ceremony, Korean, Southeast Asian and Chinese dances were performed and an India monk who lived in Tang-era China brushed ink into the Buddha’s eyes. “Since [Tenpyo era] people strongly aspired to the culture of Changan, the dynasty’s capital, I think they wanted people from there to come to the ceremony,” Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University, told the Daily Yomiuri.

Shomu rescript

Shinichi Yanagawa wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The consecration ceremony was attended by 10,000 people, including Retired Emperor Shomu, Retired Empress Komyo and their daughter Empress-regnant Koken. Buddhist instruments used in the ceremony are included in the treasures of the Shoso-in repository. It had an international flavor due to cultural exchanges with other Buddhist Asian countries. An Indian monk, who had lived at Daianji temple after moving to Tang-dynasty China and finally came to Japan, brushed ink into the Buddha’s eyes. Folk dances of China, the Korean Peninsula and Indochina were presented on a special stage. Jianzhen, one of China’s highest ranking monks, who was better known as Ganjin in Japan, was to be invited to the ceremony, but he could not arrive in time due to the difficulty of the voyage and for other reasons. [Source: Shinichi Yanagawa, Daily Yomiuri, January 7, 2010]

Kawagoe wrote: “An official “eye-opening” consecration ceremony of unprecedented splendour was held to showcase the Great Buddha in 752. It was attended by...all major court officials, civil and military. Thousands of monks came from all corners of Japan and the rest of Asia together with members of the court, foreign ambassadors, and army officers...The monk Gioki lived only just long enough to see his great life-work completed, dying the day after the inauguration ceremony.” [Source: Heritage Japan website,]

Morimoto told the Daily Yomiuri: “It is said Bodai Senna, the Indian priest who led the ceremony, took a brush and black ink and drew pupils on the Buddha’s eyes to give the statue life. The brush was tied to the silk cord, which the emperor, empress and other participants held so they could share in the joy of the event. The cord was about 200 meters long.”

A concert was held at the ceremony. Various Japanese and foreign songs were sung. A gigaku play was also performed. Gigaku is a form of comical, silent drama where the actors wear different masks, and there’s musical accompaniment from percussion and flute. A 7th century gigaku mask in the Shoso-in collection depicts a ruddy-faced foreign king who lead a group of drunken men. It’s high bridged- nose and other strong features have led some to speculate the king was supposed to be a Persian. Gigaku is thought to have originated in the Wu kingdom of ancient China and was introduced to Japan by the Paekche kingdom on the Korean peninsula.

Empress Koken (Shotoku) and Rise of Buddhist Power in Japan

Empress Shotoku

Although these efforts stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion, Nara Buddhism heightened the status of the imperial family. Buddhist influence at court increased under the two reigns of Shomu’s daughter. As Empress Koken (r. 749-58) she brought many Buddhist priests into court. Koken abdicated in 758 on the advice of her cousin, Fujiwara Nakamaro. When the retired empress came to favor a Buddhist faith healer named Dokyo, Nakamaro rose up in arms in 764 but was quickly crushed. Koken charged the ruling emperor with colluding with Nakamaro and had him deposed. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Koken reascended the throne as Empress Shotoku (r. 764-770). The empress commissioned the printing of 1 million prayer charms--the Hyakumanto dharani--many examples of which survive. The small scrolls, dating from 770, are among the earliest printed works in the world. Shotoku had the charms printed to placate the Buddhist clergy. She may even have wanted to make Dokyo emperor, but she died before she could act. Her actions shocked Nara society and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession and the removal of Buddhist priests from positions of political authority. *

The first known example of mass printing was ordered by the Japan nun-empress Koken (718-770) to avoid a recurrence of a smallpox epidemic that occurred in 735-37. To expel the demons of disease she ordered 116 priests to have the people of Japan build one million four-and-half-inch-high, three-story pagodas with twenty lines of text written inside. The prayers were made with the world’s oldest known examples of copper printing on paper.

Influential Buddhist Monks in the Nara Period

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.

Kawagoe wrote: 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 practised 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 quit e unnconnected with the officially rcorganized 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.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Ray Kinnane

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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