By Kanichi Okumura
NARA–It was raining heavily on the afternoon of Nov. 1, the first day of the three-day ceremony to commemorate the completed renovation of Toshodaiji temple’s Kondo main hall, reminding people of the storms faced by the Chinese priest Ganjin during his voyage to this country.
“Let’s enjoy the coincidence of this downpour to feel an element of the hardships Ganjin experienced,” said Atsushi Nishiyama, director of the curatorial division of Nara National Museum and an expert on Ganjin’s achievements, during a discussion with actress Fumi Dan in front an audience of hundreds standing in front of Kondo hall.
In the morning under clear skies, Shunkai Matsuura, chief abbot of the temple, brushed an eye on the also-renovated Rushanabutsu seated statue, the temple’s principal image housed in the hall, and priests threw 6,000 paper flowers in the air to celebrate the completion of the 10-year-long refurbishment project, the largest of its kind since the temple was established in the late eighth century.
Ganjin (688-763), known as Jianzhen in Tang-dynasty China, where he was one of the highest ranking monks, embodies the centuries-long relationship of Japan and China.
“Exchanges with the Tang dynasty are one of the highlights of Japan-China relations,” Nishiyama said. “Ganjin brought with him a wide range of Chinese culture–including cuisine–which was at its zenith.”
He is known to have brought miso and also a kind of cheese to Japan.
“We readily accepted the culture and advanced technology from China through Ganjin,” Nishiyama said.
Ganjin made several unsuccessful attempts at coming to Japan before he finally arrived here in 753 aboard a vessel carrying Kentoshi (the nation’s official delegates).
Although the Tang emperor banned him from going to Japan because he was so highly valued, he tried to stow away on private vessels to reach the destination. But his attempts either failed at port or because the vessels were forced to turn back because of storms.
On his fifth attempt in 748, a storm knocked his vessel off course to Hainan Island south of mainland China. However, the storm also proved beneficial as the rain was used for much-needed drinking water and other purposes.
Ganjin finally reached Japan on his sixth attempt in 11 years. A high-ranking Kentoshi official let him secretly board a vessel that left China in November 753 and eventually arrived in Satsuma, now Kagoshima Prefecture, a month later.
He is said to have completely lost his sight or become nearly blind on arrival due to the difficult voyage.
According to historical documents, plans were made for Kentoshi delegates to make as many as 20 trips between Japan and Tang-dynasty China from 630 to 894. They are confirmed to have set sail more than 10 times. More than 500 Japanese usually embarked on a fleet of four vessels to learn the advanced knowledge from the dynasty, but many lost their lives during the voyages.
The 753 voyage that brought Ganjin to Japan is regarded as equally significant historically to the 804 voyage that carried Saicho and Kukai, who would later become the nation’s supreme Buddhist leaders, to the dynasty.
In February 754, Ganjin and his followers arrived in the capital Heijo-kyo after sailing through the Seto Inland Sea to a port in Naniwa, now Osaka.
Ganjin was invited to Todaiji temple, where he held rituals to initiate Retired Emperor Shomu, who reigned until 749, and many other distinguished people into the precepts of Buddhism in front of the Great Buddha. He lived there for five years.
In 759, the Imperial Court gave him a plot in the U-kyo area of the capital once occupied by an Imperial family member on which to establish his own ashram. There he founded Toshodaiji.
He was invited to Japan by the Imperial Court mainly to establish genuine Buddhist precepts to be followed by monks.
“At that time, many people claimed to be monks, because monks were exempt from paying taxes,” Nishiyama said.
To combat the problem, the government established criteria for becoming a priest. Ganjin was one of the most famous priests in China and was entitled to conduct the initiation rituals.
According to the “Toseiden Emaki”–a picture scroll telling stories of Ganjin’s efforts to get to Japan–two Japanese monks, Yoei and Fusho who were dispatched with Kentoshi delegates, called on Ganjin at his temple Damingsi (known as Daimyoji in Japan) in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, in 742. Following Emperor Shomu’s orders, they asked him to send someone to Japan to deliver the Buddhist precepts.
Ganjin looked around at his apprentices and asked for volunteers. When no one responded–one monk even expressed his reluctance, saying Japan was a distant place and the voyage perilous–Ganjin decided to go himself. He said he would risk his life to spread Buddhism. About a dozen of his apprentices then changed their minds and decided to accompany him.
The vivid “Toseiden” illustration of the voyage and Ganjin’s commitment to international exchange has attracted many Japanese and foreign readers.
Translations of the stories on the scroll into Italian and Swedish are under way for the first time and are expected to be completed by March 2011.
One day in mid-December, the two European researchers who are doing the translations visited Nara National Museum to discuss them with Nishiyama.
“I’m overwhelmed by Ganjin’s determination to get to Japan and spread true Buddhism, even risking his life and eyesight,” said Prof. Maria Migliore of the University of Salento, in Lecce, Italy, specializing in Chinese literature of ancient and medieval Japan, adding, “Toseiden is so realistic that I could sense that Ganjin was a man of purpose.”
Migliore also said: “Ganjin embodies the international character of the Tempyo era in the eighth century, but few European researchers are aware of the active exchanges between Japan and East Asia at that time. I’d like more Europeans to understand relations among ancient Asian nations.”
Migliore has just completed an Italian translation of “Nihon Ryoiki,” a collection of Buddhist narratives of the early Heian period (794-1192).
“In that ancient time, this East Asian island country enjoyed intellectual exchanges with China, East Asia and even the Middle East,” said Noriko Takei-Thunman, a Japanese literature professor at the University of Goteburg, who has lived in Sweden since 1970. Exchanges between Japan and the Middle East can be traced through the Shoso-in treasures.
She added: “It was part of global interrelations. Europeans can learn about the long-term cultural exchanges in East Asia through Ganjin’s life.”
Although there are English, French and German translations, Thunman emphasized the importance of the Swedish translation of “Toseiden,” saying: “It’s crucial for Swedish students and researchers to pursue their study [on Ganjin and related matters] in their native language for related study to follow and the scope of research to broaden.”
“[My students] initially became interested in Japanese pop culture, such as animation and manga, but they had little historical perspective,” Thunman said. “But this led to a growing number of students who have become interested in Japanese culture in general.”
“Toshodaiji is a symbol of long-term historical Japan-China ties,” said Taichi Ishida, secretary of Toshodaiji.
“Ganjin brought two dozen disciples, craftsmen and other people with him from China, and oversaw their efforts to spread knowledge of miso processing, Buddhist sculpture, painting and many other fields,” he said. “Ganjin himself may have prescribed medicine to Retired Emperor Shomu and Retired Empress Komyo.”
According to Nishiyama, although Ganjin had an enormous influence on Japanese culture, it was forgotten both in Japan and China until Yasushi Inoue wrote about Ganjin’s trip to Japan in the best-selling novel “Tempyo no Iraka” in 1957, which was made into a film in 1980.
“He came to be admired again in both countries through the two works,” Nishiyama said.
Chinese President Hu Jintao’s trip to Toshodaiji during his one-day visit to Nara Prefecture in May 2008 pointed to the importance of the temple in Japan-China relations.
At the temple, Hu worshipped at Ganjin’s statue, which was made soon after his death in 763, and is a designated national treasure.
Hu also presented the temple with a miniature Kentoshi vessel, which is now displayed at the entrance of the Nara Prefecture Office.
Hu seemed impressed by chief abbot Matsuura’s explanation that Toshodaiji had maintained four buildings since the Nara period (710-784), including the Kondo main hall and Kodo lecture hall.
The buildings are known as being representative of Tempyo architecture.
Unlike the major state-run temples of Daianji, Yakushiji and Todaiji, private contributions played a more important role in the construction of Toshodaiji.
Toshodaiji’s construction included relocating a government building from Heijo Palace to the temple site to become Kodo lecture hall in 760.
But due in part to financial difficulties, the Kondo main hall was not completed until about 20 years after Ganjin’s death.
Another reason for the delay was that Ganjin prioritized the Kodo lecture hall because his main mission was to convey true Buddhism to the Japanese monks.
Even so, worshippers and tourists visit Kondo main hall today to see its time-tested beauty and valuable statues, such as its principal image, Rushanabutsu, and the Yakushinyorai and Senjukannon statues standing by its sides.
Kondo main hall had previously undergone major renovation at least four times–in the 13th, 14th, 17th and late 19th centuries. Most of the pillars and beams are original, but the roof was most likely replaced during the third renovation.
Toshodaiji was among the temples of Nara affected in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Because the pillars of the main hall were severely damaged, the temple decided to carry out a thorough refurbishment. Eventually, 35,000 out of 44,000 tiles of Kondo hall roof were replaced.
Funding, however, was a major problem. The cost was estimated at 1 billion yen to 1.5 billion yen. The annual renovation cost over 10 years was about 100 million yen a year, well beyond the temple’s financial capacity.
TBS broadcasting company in Tokyo offered support. To raise funds, it proposed an exhibition of the Ganjin statue–which is displayed to the public only once a year in June at the temple–in about 10 major cities.
Toshodaiji agreed, bringing the Ganjin statue and other treasures of the temple a great deal of attention over the last 10 years. As the final stop, Nara National Museum hosted an exhibition in April and May last year.
“Toshodaiji may not have been one of the most prosperous temples in Nara, but it surely has been one of the most important throughout our history [in terms of relations with China],” Nishiyama said.
To illustrate the historical significance of Kentoshi, the Nara National Museum will hold an exhibition to introduce history of the envoys with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka, from April 3 to June 20. The “Toseiden” picture scroll will be displayed among more than 200 items.
A reproduction of a Kentoshi vessel of 30 meters long, 10 meters wide and 15 meters high including the mast, will be completed by March and displayed at the Heijo Palace site as part of Commemorative Events of the 1,300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital.
In commemoration of the 1,300th anniversary of the relocation of the nation’s capital to Heijo-kyo, this second installment of the three-part series “Heijo-kyo and Temples” introduces Toshodaiji temple and its founder Ganjin, a high-ranking Chinese priest who risked his life to come to Japan to disseminate the authentic teachings of Buddhism.
The third and final installment of this series will be carried on Jan. 28.