Nara: Todai-ji & Daibutsu

Once we made it past the deer, we were on to Todai-ji (Actually, you walk through the first set of temple gates and the deer are still everywhere. It’s only among the inner grounds – for which you need a ticket – that the temple grounds become deer-free. And even that is simply because they erected bars to keep the deer out along the second set of temple gates, and re-directed visitors to a smaller, human-only entrance around the corner.)

So you don’t quite get the significance of walking through the huge (HUGE!) temple gate and viewing the main temple hall beyond it, which is somewhat of a shame because it is, as I’ve mentioned previously – perhaps ad nauseum – the largest wooden building in the world.

But even without that direct approach, it is still a breathtaking building (and Don noted that even though the temple gates are absolutely massive, you can still see Todai-ji’s main hall looming above the giant gates, even though it is so much further back. And not on an incline. So you get some sense of its massiveness, deer-restraints or not).


It is hard to appreciate just how big this building is, and to get a sense of the scale (I will say this again about the Daibutsu, the giant Buddha statue. But it’s true in both cases). But look at the people standing at the entrance to the temple – and how small they seem in comparison. And then to consider that this was originally built in the 700s is just mind-boggling. (Again, I will say the same thing about the Daibutsu as well! Both the temple and the statue are impressive.)



The approach to the main hall.

Check out the lantern in the front. It too is huge, and it is hard to get a sense of its scale, because it is in front of such a massive building.


And finally, enough about buildings, next was time for the moment this Religious Studies PhD had been waiting for: seeing the Daibutsu, the Japanese casual term for, basically, Great (giant, huge) Buddha statue. There are Daibutsu throughout Japan, some bigger than this one, but for Wikipedia claims this statue in Todai-ji is the one to which Japanese are referring if they just speak of Daibutsu. Perhaps because this is the largest Vairocana Buddha in the entire world? (Vairocana Buddha is one of the very important conceptions/versions of Buddha in pretty much all branches of Buddhism. In Japanese, Korean and Chinese Buddhism, Vairocana is also considered the embodiment of emptiness, which strikes me as ironic but is also a favorite concept of mine within Buddhism. Also, fun fact: a really, really challenging concept to convey to college students. But fun once they “get” it.)  It could also be because this is widely identified as simply the largest Buddha statue in Japan – at least two of my guidebooks and several internet sites state this, but that is not true – it is among the largest, at 50 feet, but there is at least one stone, seated Buddha statue in Japan, at Nihon-ji, that is a little over 100 feet, and there is a brass standing Buddha statue, Ushiku Daibutsu, that is nearly 400 feet, including stand & lotus base. It could also be that Wikipedia is just wrong, of course, but I have also heard people refer to this statue as Daibutsu, as if it were the Daibutsu.


Aardvark and I posing outside a true-to-scale replica of the Daibutsu’s hands.

But back to this Daibutsu – My trusty guidebook suggests that in order to appreciate this 50 foot bronze statue properly, one must: “stop for a moment outside the main hall. Then, without looking up, step into the hall. Calm your thoughts. Now raise your eyes to behold the Great Buddha. This is probably the closest you can come to enlightenment without years of meditation. There are few sights in Japan that have as much impact as this cosmic Buddha – you can almost feel the energy radiating from its bulk.” (This description is from the mini-blurb at the start of the book identifying it as #11 of Japan’s Top 25, by the way.)

So I was beyond excited for this. Our trip to Nara was on Friday – and I’d spent Thursday morning at Shisendo, the temple closest to my heart in all of Japan, and Wednesday morning at Ryoan-ji, Obai-in, and Daisen-in, three of my top five other favorite temples in Japan. So I was feeling the Buddhist lure and was ready for a moment of awakening or transcendence or whatever overwhelming sensations might engulf me upon first viewing the Daibutsu. Sweet, patient, and only slightly sarcastic Don offered to guide me up the stairs and over the threshold into the main hall if I needed blindfolding, but I just walked up the stairs, stepped into the main hall and stepped off to the side with my head down, quite my mind as best I could (I’m actually not very good at quieting my mind at all – hence a lot of my insomnia), drew a breath, looked up, and…

…well, it was a big statue of Buddha. Bronze, I knew, but it has blackened with age and fires. And big, certainly, but not, like, breathtakingly big or anything.


I was not moved as much as I’d hoped to be, at least right away. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high. Perhaps it was because it really was hard to get a sense of the scale of the Buddha statue from head on, inside a building so massive itself it perhaps diminished the full effect of the Buddha? (This Nara Buddha is bigger than, for instance, the Great Buddha at Kamakura, and I was immediately impressed by that one when we went in 2011, but I think it might be because it was outside, and there were recognizably big things like trees for scale, and that we could go right up to it, rather than it sitting on a huge pedestal as in Nara – and also that we saw the Kamakura Buddha at twilight and the lighting was stunning too, although my photo below will not convey it accurately.)

Kamakura Buddha, 2011

So I was a little let down. But, I had had so many amazing temple moments in the past few days it would be hard to expect every trip to a temple to move me in some way.

And then I saw a replica of one of the lotus leaves in which this great Buddha statue is sitting. Because these lotus leaves are intricately carved with both images and sutras, there were a few reproductions where visitors could look more closely, since the actual ones on which the Buddha statue sits are nearly entirely hidden from view, behind the railings of the platform on which they are perched above everyone’s heads.

FullSizeRender 36.jpg.Each lotus leaf – so, just the little things in which this statue is seated – are much bigger than my 3-year-old.

So that started to bring home the perspective of size.

And walking around the statue did, too.


For instance, visitors can walk closer to this statue here – one of Buddha’s bodhisattva attendants. This statue is massive, and would be considered an important and enormous statue in most temples around the world.


But then you see the Great Buddha sitting next to it, and this statue is just dwarfed.


See the little Buddhas circling the Big Buddha?

They are normal big-statue size.
(Also, I loved that when viewed from the side, the looked like a little ferris wheel of Buddhas going round and round.)


Every aspect of the statues were intricately detailed – you can see little carvings on the side here; even the backs of the statues – not the deities themselves but the background parts of the statues – had complex decorations carved onto them. They didn’t come well in my iPhone photos, because the lighting was not great, but that further my point: they weren’t even really designed to be seen, but still the creators of these massive sculptures paid great attention to every aspect.


I tried to get Aardvark in the photo for some sense of scale, but it’s just impossible, especially since she is so close to the camera and the statue is so far away.

So instead, you can just appreciate that she is forming a mudra with her hand in honor of the Great Buddha behind her (she really is!) – what a cutie! I’m telling you, this kid is a secret Buddhist.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that this statue really IS staggeringly huge, and even though it didn’t hit me the very first instant I laid eyes on it, it is incredibly moving. To consider how much effort, skill and ingenuity must have gone in to creating a sculpture THIS big – and that it was made almost 1,300 years ago – is just incredible. (Apparently, it took a few tries to get it right – okay, fair enough. Still amazingly impressive.) And then to transport it. And fit it into the building – or fit the building around it?! It is pretty crazy. That is some serious devotion – to Buddhism, or to the Emperor who commissioned it, or both. In any case, it was really amazing. It was hard to tear myself away from the statue, once I was under its spell. (I started to leave – and took the photos at the end of this post – and then went back in because I was not ready to part with the statue, and needed another few last glances.)



Forgot this picture in the last post: Don’s class outside the main gate, right before we entered.

This picture looks innocent enough,

but here is what is actually happening:


Deer be everywhere!

As we left Todai-ji, with daylight fading all around us (we closed the temple out. The massive doors to the main hall were closed well before we were off the premises), we were still impressed at Todai-ji, the Daibutsu, and just the general beauty of the day.


Some of the students lingering by the door.


Some walking off into the sunset.


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