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Tōdaiji Temple is the largest single wooden structure in the world and contains the largest statue of Buddha in Japan, possibly the largest in the world since the destruction of a large Buddha in Afghanistan. It is in any case the largest bronze Buddha in the world.

The temple was built in the Nara period (710–794 C.E.) at the behest of Emperor Shōmu (701–756, r. 724–749). In 741, in order to establish Buddhism throughout the land and consolidate the power of the imperial throne, Emperor Shōmu had national monasteries (kokubunji) and convents (kokubunniji) built. In 743, the emperor ordered the construction of a statue of Rushana Rushanabutsu), later known as Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha) or simply Daibutsu (Great Buddha).This Buddha, called Vairocana Buddha in Sanskrit, was built as the central image for a memorial hall to his son, who had died at an early age. This hall developed into a temple called Konshu-ji, which was later turned into the national temple of Yamato Province and given the name Konkōmyō-ji. The temple began to be called Tōdaiji (Great Eastern Temple) from around the end of 747.

Legend has it that 420,000 people contributed to the building of the Buddha and 2,180,000 worked to build it. Since the population of all of Japan at that time was only 5–6 million, this number may be exaggerated (another source says that “workers mobilized for the construction of the temple numbered as many as 1,665,000 man-days”). The Buddha was completed in 751, having consumed most of Japan’s bronze production for several years and leaving the country almost bankrupt.

The temple was officially positioned as one of many state-established provincial temples. However, since the chief object of worship of the temple is such a magnificent Buddha, a magnificent temple was built to reflect its importance, and Tōdaiji was from the beginning the head of all the provincial temples. Today it is the Head Temple of the Kegon Sect of Buddhism, serving as a place of prayer for peace and affluence on earth, as well as a center of Buddhist doctrinal research. Over the centuries, Todaiji has produced many famous scholar priests.

Vairocana Buddha (“Buddha that shines throughout the world like the sun” or “Universal Light”) is the central Buddha in the Kegon Sutra. The statue of Vairocana Buddha is made from cast bronze, which was then plated with gold. The statue was consecrated in 752 but was damaged and repaired several times in the following centuries. The current hands of the statue were made in the Momoyama period (1568–1615), and the head was made in the Edo period (1615–1867). The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) was burned in the fires of war in 1180 and 1567, and the current building is actually the third-generation structure, which was built in the Edo period (completed in 1709). The width of the current building is approximately 33% smaller than that of the original structure, but it still ranks as the largest wooden structure in the world.

Seven of the buildings in the temple complex are National Treasures, including the Shoso-in, a storehouse for Buddhist statues and other works of art (more than 20 of which are also National Treasures). The original complex also contained two 100-meter pagodas, probably the tallest buildings in the world at the time. These were destroyed by earthquake. The only original parts of the Daibutsu are the lotus-petal throne and the drapery part of the left femoral region. The octagonal lantern in front of the Daibutsuden is the only other artifact remaining intact from the original temple.

Although attention is deservedly focused on the Great Buddha, the Daibutsuden deserves consideration as well. Even at two-thirds its original size, it is an impressive structure, 57.01 meters (187.03 feet) long, 50.48 meters (165.61 feet) deep, and 48.74 meters (159.89 feet) high. It has 112,589 roofing tiles weighing some 1,200 tons. Supporting this massive weight are 62 pillars, each so huge that three people joining hands together are required to encircle it. The latticework ceiling has three levels, the highest of which is above the Great Buddha. In this part of the ceiling are two massive beams (koryo) laid atop the supporting pillars. The fascinating story of how these gigantic timbers were found, felled, and transported to Nara is detailed in a series of Web pages beginning with an article on The Ancient Capital of Nara and the Old Temple Todaiji.”

Marker at entrance to Tōdaiji, proclaiming it part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”

Matthew and Barney in front of the Nandaimon (Great South Gate) entrance to Tōdaiji. The two guardian Benevolent Kings (Niō) in this gate are the largest in Japan.

Joan and Tom in front of the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) of Tōdaiji

The Great Buddha. The Buddha was cast in bronze in an era when wooden sculptures were the norm. According to the archives of Tōdaiji, materials used to cast the Great Buddha were about 443 kg of copper, 7,560 kg of refined wax (for soldering), 392 kg of tempered gold, and 198 kg of mercury. The Buddha’s hair, which has been described as “like a spiral perm,” consists of 966 balls whose diameter is 18 cm and whose height is 30 cm each. The Buddha is surrounded by a “halo” or “aura” of smaller bodhisattvas. These are graduated in size so that they all appear the same size from the worshipper’s perspective. Although this is not a very good photo, it is my own, and I have not found a better one online, not surprising since the temple is dark and the statue is very large.

Some more Daibutsu statistics:

  • Seated height of the Buddha: 14.98 meters (48.91 feet)

  • Height including the pedestal: 17 meters

  • Height of the Buddha if he were standing: 30 meters

  • Length of head: 5.41 meters (17.75 feet)

  • Length of eyes: 1.02 meters (3.34 feet)

  • Width of nostril: 0.5 meters

  • Length of ear: 2.54 meters (8.33 feet)

  • Height of lotus petal: 3.05 meters (10 feet)

  • Weight: 250 tons

This photo of the Daibutsu does give a better idea of the position of his hands (mudras). The position of the right hand signifies “Do not fear.” The position of the left hand means “Welcome.”

Tamonten, Guardian of the North, one of the Shitennō or Guardians of the Four Directions. Tamonten and Kōmokuten (Guardian of the West) are the only two Shitennō depicted in the Daibutsuden.

Model of the original Tōdaiji; note the two pagodas.

One of the rear pillars of the temple is pierced with a hole that is said to be the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. Legend has it that if you can squeeze through, you are guaranteed a place in Heaven. Here Matthew demonstrates that his place is assured.

A parting shot of the Daibutsuden