In 743, Emperor Shomu on an imperial visit to Shigaraki Palace in Omi Province proclaimed that he wanted a colossal image of Vairocana (Biru-shana butsu in Japanese) Buddha to be cast. Work began immediately in Omi Province, but was suspended in 745 when the emperor returned to Nara. The work was recommenced in 747 at Nara’s Todaiji Temple which had already been designated one of the provincial temples of Yamato Province.
What was the great appeal of the Great Buddha?
It was this. Although the great many state and provincial temples had been built for the hope of gaining peace and prosperity for the state and its subjects, the Great Buddha project was different in one important respect. Temples were always built for the purpose of securing the temporary healing or happiness and eternal salvation of the imperial family or of members of notable clan members such as the Fujiwara and Tachibana clans. In constructing the Great Buddha, no mention was made of the material or spiritual welfare of the great aristocratic families – what was emphasized was the fruit of cooperation on the part of all devout Buddhists.
The idea for the construction of the Nara Buddha is said to have begun with Emperor Shomu and his empress Komyo, in consultation with the great monk Gioki. Gioki traveled through much of Japan bearing the proclamation of the Emperor announcing the project of the Great Buddha of Nara and inviting the contribution of all, “It is our desire that each peasant shall have the right to add his handful of clay and his strip of grass to the mighty figure.” The project thus embodied not only imperial and aristocratic patronage but also the labours of even the humblest peasant.
Through the merits accruing from the good work and contribution of believers, all believers would receive the same blessings as the emperor himself and would attain the same state of enlightenment. Vairocana is the principal buddha of the Kegon-kyo (Flower Garland Sutra), a text that describes the Vairocana Buddha as the great light that governs all things and that dwells in the Pure Land of the Lotus Womb. The Nara Buddha was a cosmic Buddha that was central to the order of the universe.
In this project, hence, were the seeds – the beginnings of Buddhist universalism – that would continue to be developed in the Heian period that was to follow. Many provincial temples would cease to function and fall into ruin by the middle of the 10th century, but Todaiji and the Great Buddha would survive over the centuries — their survival perhaps in part due to the Great Buddha’s universal appeal that would remain entrenched in the consciousness of the people.
The colossal Great Buddha construction project
The Great Buddha project utilized the labour of 2,600,000 people, 499 tonnes of bronze and 440 kilogrammes of gold. It was said that it had used up all the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals. Artists had come from all over Asia, particularly from India and China, to help create the 16 meter (52 feet) high bronze statue. The Great Buddha required 8 castings over a period of 3 years. The Emperor is said to have assisted the erection work with his whole court, and ladies of the highest rank are said to have carried clay for the model on their brocaded sleeves.
The project finally completed in 749, an official “eye-opening” consecration ceremony of unprecedented splendour was held to showcase the Great Buddha in 752. It was attended by Emperor Shomu, his consort Komyo and their daughter Empress Koken and all major court officials, civil and military. Thousands of monks came from all corners of Japan and the rest of Asia together with members of the court, foreign ambassadors, and army officers – they came to take part in the ceremony to open the eyes of the great Buddha at Nara. The Emperor Shomu held one end of a cord to which a paint brush was attached. An Indian monk Bodhisena perched on some high scaffolding, used the brush to paint on the irises of the Buddha’s eye to instil it with life.
The largest cast bronze statue in the world – it was and still is a magnificent sight to behold – despite having suffered damage from fire in 1180 and civil wars in the 16th century. Housed in the Great Buddha Hall, the Nara Buddha (also called Daibutsu in Japanese) is surrounded by a halo from which three hundred gold statues were hung.
The monk Gioki lived only just long enough to see his great life-work completed, dying the day after the inauguration ceremony.