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That Shitennōji (also written “Shitennō-ji” or referred to—redundantly—as “Shitennōji Temple”) is a Buddhist temple can be discerned from the -ji suffix. Although Japan’s two major religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, now coexist peacefully and complement one another, this was not always true. At the turn of the seventh century c.e., when this temple was built, Buddhism and Shintoism were actually supported by warring factions.

The founder of Shitennōji was Prince Shōtoku, now canonized as a saint and recognized as the father of the Japanese nation. Born in 574 as Prince Umayado no Toyotomimi, the second child of Emperor Tachibana no Toyohi and Imperial Princess Anahobe, he showed signs of greatness even as a child. It is said that he could listen to ten people talking to him at once and that he was able to predict the future. As a child he became proficient in Chinese doctrines and classics. In 592, at the age of 18, he became Crown Prince and Regent for Empress Suiko, who reigned until 628. This position gave him de facto control of the Japanese government.

At this time, the imperial court was divided into two rival groups, one led by Soga-no-Umako, who proposed building a state on the foundation of Buddhism, and the other led by Mononobe-no-Moriya, who supported Japan’s traditional Shinto religion. Prince Shōtoku, who was a strong proponent of Buddhism, was Umako’s ally. The Prince prayed for help to the Shitenno (Four Buddhist Guardian Kings) and promised them an official Imperial temple in their honor if the Shitenno helped him to be victorious. Moriya was killed by one of Prince Shōtoku’s soldiers, and the Prince’s Soga clan eventually emerged victorious. True to his word, Prince Shōtoku immediately began construction on a grand temple in the honor of the Four Guardian Deities, which he named Shitennōji (Temple of the Shitennō).

The Shitennō (Four Heavenly Kings, also called the Guardians of the Four Directions, Four Celestial Guardians), protectors of Buddhist law and of humankind, are four gods (devas) often found standing at the four corners or along the four sides of Buddhist temples or altars. From the eighth century on, all four are depicted as warriors, wear armor, carry military weapons, stand with one foot crushing a demon beast, and are usually very ferocious looking. Jikokuten is the guardian of the east and maintains the world; Zōchōten guards the south and relieves people of their suffering; Kōmokuten, guardian of the west, sees through evil; and Tamonten guards the north and listens to prayers and protects holy places. Jikokuten holds a sword, Zōchōten a spear, Kōmokuten a writing brush in his right hand and a sutra scroll in his left, and Tamonten a treasure in his left hand and a spear in his right. If there is any paint left on the statues, Jikokuten will be green, Zochoten white, Komokuten red, and Tamonten blue.

The temple Prince Shōtoku built in their honor was organized in four parts, each with the purpose of helping the Japanese people attain a higher level of civilization. This Shikai-In (Four Institutions) is centered around the seven-building Garan (Central Complex) in which a Kyoden-In (Institution of Religion and Education, of which the present IBU is a part) was housed. This Garan consists of a Five-Storied Pagoda, a Main Golden Pavilion (Kondō) housing an image of the Nyorai Kannon, and a Lecture Hall (Kodō) enclosed by a covered corridor containing three Gates (the Deva Gate, the Western Gate, and the Eastern Gate), and surrounding this central complex are the Great South Gate (Nan Dai Mon) Middle Gate (Chumon), and an East Gate (Higashi no Mon). To the west is a Stone Torii Gate, and to the east of that another gate that is widely accepted as the Eastern Gate to the Western Paradise. To the north of this Garan, Prince Shotoku built a Hiden-In (Welfare Institution), a Ryobyo-In (Hospital), and a Seiyaku-In (Pharmacy) for the purpose of providing essential care to the people of Japan. All four of these institutions are still active today, providing a wide variety of direct support to all in need.

This was only a start for Prince Shōtoku, who before his death in 622 at the age of 49 had built 46 temples throughout the Nara-Osaka region. He also wrote commentaries on the Buddhist sutras. Most importantly, however, in 604 he issued his Seventeen-Article Constitution, which established a moral basis and political foundation for a sound Japanese government and subsequently came to be regarded as prescribing the fundamentals of Japanese life for the next 1400 years. In addition to his study of the sutras, Prince Shōtoku researched in many fields of learning such as astronomy, geography, and history. One of his most important secular works was the compilation of a complete history of Japan that has become the basis of Japanese history to this date. He also developed many public works projects such as ponds, moats, and roads for the benefit of the people.

The source of the above information is a page at the Web site of International Buddhist University (IBU). For (much) more information about Prince Shōtoku and Shitennōji , see “Shitennoji Temple and Prince Shootoku.”

As is the case with most temples in Japan, Shitennōji’s buildings are not original but have been reconstructed each time they were damaged by war or natural calamities. The temple was last completely rebuilt in 1963, and this time it was built with modern materials (including concrete), yet tastefully, imitating both the exact floor plan and the curves of brackets and beams in the real wooden temple that was lost in the fires of World War II. Still, the temple precincts are designated as rare historic remains, and the temple is recognized as Japan’s oldest officially administered temple and as “the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism.”

Here are a few pictures of the temple [click on each thumbnail to see a larger picture]:

The Deva Gate or Middle Gate (Chumon). The spire of the pagoda can be seen behind the gate.

The Five-Storied Pagoda. The five levels represent the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and heaven.

The Niō in the Deva Gate. The Niō (Benevolent Kings) are a pair of protectors who stand guard at the entrance to most Japanese Buddhist temples, one on either side of the gate. The gate itself is often called the Niō-mon (Niō Gate). Their fierce and threatening appearance wards off evil spirits and keeps the temple grounds free of demons and thieves. According to one explanation, each is named after a particular cosmic sound. The open-mouthed figure is called Agyo, who is uttering the sound “ah,” meaning birth. His close-mouthed partner, Ungyo, is saying “un” or “om,” meaning death. Other explanations for the open and closed mouths include (a) mouth open to scare off demons, closed to shelter/keep in the good spirits, and (b) “ah” is the first letter in the Sanskrit alphabet and “un” is the last (the same is true in the Japanese syllabary), so the combination symbolically represents all possible outcomes (from alpha to omega) in the cosmic dance of existence.

The Western Gate, through which we entered the Garan. The pagoda can be seen at right and the Kondō at left.

Gokurakumon (Paradise Gate) on the west side of the temple precinct. The Torii Gate can be seen behind it. Note the mundane 21st-century background just outside the temple precinct.

Inner courtyard of the temple precinct, showing the Deva Gate (with Nan Dai Mon behind it) at right and part of the pagoda at left.

Main Golden Pavilion (Kondō) and pagoda with Eastern Gate at far left.

The Amida Nyorai Buddha inside the Kondō.