Nara: Daibutsuden / Todaiji temple – what’s 1,270 years old is beyond comprehension

As a draw on my old photos sometimes I’ll hit upon a trip and I distinctly remember being there when my Parents visited me.  These are good memories, and not to be taken for granted.  Daibutsuden is the Great Buddha Hall in Nara.  The overall complex is Todai-ji or TodaijiDaibutsu is the largest copper Buddha in the world.  As with all major Japanese temples, this one has a tale.

Originally the site was a 8th Century temple built by Emperor Shomu to honor his infant son’s death.  This is when Nara was Japan’s capital, though the country was not totally united during this era.  The larger temple, and chiefly the Daibutsu came later, between 738-752.  It seems (by legend) that in order to finance such a grand undertaking Shomu had to cut a deal.  The Buddhist monk Gyoki would help, but only if he was allowed to teach Buddhism to the people.  This was part of a very complicated transition in Japanese religion where traditional Shinto beliefs began to evolve alongside Buddhism and they merged into a very unique Japanese version of both religions.

But as with all things religion, this transition had its opponents.  But money talks, and Shomu wanted what Shomu wanted, so he cut a deal with Gyoki who got what he wanted.  Here’s a relatively rare (my opinion) in history where an absolute sovereign and an important religious figure resolved their differences with compromise instead of bloodshed.  Contrast this with Henry II and the splattering of some random guy’s brains inside a random cathedral.

It didn’t come cheap.  Gyoki and his followers scoured the country for money and materials.  The statue itself brought financial difficulties to the entire country and gobbled up much of the country’s entire copper supply.  Weight: 500 tons, or the size of a decent sized ship by today’s standards.  Back then, it’d have been the largest ship in the world if it could have floated.

the man himself

his home

Like many temples in Japan, the original Hall burned down many times.  The current hall was finished In 1709, Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden, which houses the Daibutsu.  Bizarrely, it’s actually 1/3 smaller than the wooden building it replaced.  Even so, until the turn of the 20th Century it was still the world’s largest wooden building.  And like the temple, the statue itself has been repaired and redone many times over the years due to fire and earthquake damage, plus wars.

Plus it’s 1,270 years old and is thus beyond comprehension.  I’m a big believer that the human brain has limits and the idea that any one of us can properly conceive of 1,270 years inside our brains is asking too much.  It’s a long, long time, with countless lives and dreams riding along the waves of time all while Daibutsu hangs out and watches.  Bronze statues can’t talk.  But maybe if you listen, even if your brain can’t comprehend it, you can still learn from it.

Nyoirin-kannon is next to daibutsu

a pyre outside the main Hall, all these years later I still can’t shake the idea that I botched the angle of this shot

just one man, praying alone, riding the waves of time

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