NARA–“The Great Buddha should not be admired only for its giant size. I hope visitors to the temple will understand why the Great Buddha was constructed and imagine the livelihoods of the people and the belief that happiness could come through harmony with nature,” said Kansho Tsutsui, the administration chief of Todaiji temple in Nara.
In the Nara period (710-784), which began with the relocation of the capital to Heijo-kyo, in present day Nara, Buddhist culture flowered, reaching a peak with the eye-popping consecration ceremony for the Great Buddha in April 752.
Emperor Shomu (701-756) had Todaiji temple and the Great Buddha constructed to pray for the nation’s peace and to bring relief to the people because of years of drought, famine, political strife, earthquakes and smallpox.
“Emperor Shomu hoped that people would realize their connection with nature and the universe,” Tsutsui said, adding, “The giant statue was a symbol for that purpose.”
While the 15-meter-tall bronze Great Buddha was constructed for the purpose of worship and peace, it was accumulated construction know-how and technology that made its construction possible.
Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University, said, “Behind the successful construction of the Great Buddha and Daibutsu-den hall was an unprecedented construction boom that continued for about 30 years after the capital relocation.” Daibutsu is the Japanese name for the Great Buddha.
Indeed, the Great Buddha project ordered by Emperor Shomu in the early 740s employed a great number of highly skilled construction workers and sculptors who might have gone without work otherwise, Ohashi said.
“The Great Buddha and Daibutsu-den couldn’t have been constructed without these elite workers of [the then] construction ministry,” he added.
The Nara period is also known from a cultural point of view as the Tenpyo era. The name was taken from a period between 724 and 749 during Emperor Shomu’s reign, and it came to represent the entire Nara period and beyond due to the flourishing of Buddhist culture.
To mark the 1,300th anniversary of the capital’s relocation in 710, commemorative events, exhibits and international conferences will be held in Nara Prefecture throughout the year. The reconstruction of Daigoku-den Imperial audience hall, which was used for enthronement, is to be completed in spring, and the building will be open to the public.
The ancient capital attracts many foreign tourists because of its magnificent temples and Buddhist statues. Treasures at Shoso-in repository, some of which bear Central Asian designs and indicate the capital was the eastern end of the Silk Road, are major tourist attractions.
The iconic Great Buddha and the building in which it is housed, Daibutsu-den hall in Nara, were restored and rebuilt in 1692 and 1709, respectively, after being destroyed due to political strife.
The originals, however, were even more magnificent. Covered with gold plate, the statue of the Buddha shone like the Golden Pagoda of Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto. The hall, which remains the world’s largest wooden building, measuring 47 meters high, 57 meters wide and 50 meters deep, was even larger in its original version at more than 86 meters wide.
Its enormous columns were painted vermilion, the ceiling beams were yellow and the window frames were green, contrasted by white walls and black roof tiles.
“It was built using architectural styles of ancient Chinese palace buildings,” said Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University. “In China, the style was applied to building Buddhist temples when Buddhism entered the country from India, and it was later imported to Japan via the Korean Peninsula.”
But the Great Buddha and Daibutsu-den were much larger than their counterparts in China.
Two seven-story, about 90-meter-tall pagodas–Saito (West Pagoda) and Toto (East Pagoda)–had stood at opposite ends in front of the hall. Both were constructed several years after Daibutsu-den was built, and both were later destroyed.
To build the 380-ton statue and the much heavier Daibutsu-den hall in the precinct, workers had to dig 2.5 meters deep over a 90-meter by 60-meter area to reach firm ground.
They then created multiple two- to three-centimeter layers of clay, ballasts and sand before building the lower half of the platform.
The engineering technique used to attain a density similar to concrete is the same as that used to build the Great Wall of China, Ohashi said.
After completing the 2.5-meter-tall platform, they made a mold to cast the Buddha statue. Only after completing the casting were they able to erect giant columns, Ohashi added.
“The platforms as well as the statue from the knee down are filled with sand,” said Kansho Tsutsui, the administration chief of Todaiji temple. “This might be one reason these parts survived two fires.”
More than 1.6 million people were employed to construct the wooden building, and more than 510,000 people worked just to gold plate the bronze statue. About 500 tons of copper and 8.5 tons of impure tin were used to cast the statue, and about 440 kilograms of gold and 2.5 tons of mercury were used for plating, according to Todaiji records.
Despite labor-intensive, time-consuming work, the construction team had to finish the project within nine years by the Great Buddha’s eye-opening ceremony in 752, which was to be held to mark the 200th anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan.
Although the gold plating and the statue’s golden backdrop were incomplete, the ceremony was held as scheduled in front of the giant structures, which were unlike anything the people had ever seen.
“I believe the construction team was confident it could complete the project on schedule,” Ohashi said.
However, their work was interrupted when Emperor Shomu relocated the capital from Heijo-kyo and changed the construction site of the Great Buddha. Otherwise, they likely could have finished the ornamentation as well.
Emperor Shomu transferred the capital out of Heijo-kyo between 740 and 745, partially due to political upheaval in 740.
Moreover, when he ordered the construction of the statue in 743, the Great Buddha was to be built near his Imperial villa in Shigaraki, current Koka, Shiga Prefecture.
Although parts of the construction began there, the emperor transferred the capital back to Heijo-kyo in 745, and the project had to be restarted almost from the beginning at the current site. Todaiji was founded outside the Ge-kyo area of the capital in that year. Only seven years remained until its construction deadline.
As it happened, they started gold plating the Great Buddha–a procedure that took five years to complete–only 53 days before the ceremony. They used a gold amalgam made by melting gold with a one-fifth ratio of mercury and heated it so that only the mercury would evaporate during the plating, according to Todaiji records.
Although the current reconstruction of 27-meter-tall Daigoku-den hall on the Heijo Palace site has taken about 10 years, the massive Buddha project only took seven years, an astonishing achievement.
The construction methods for Buddhist architecture and statues were first introduced by two skilled workers from the Paekche kingdom in the Korean Peninsula in 577. A project to construct Asukadera, the nation’s first temple in the Asuka region–present-day Asukamura, Nara Prefecture–was mapped out 10 years later as Japanese workers mastered new skills, Ohashi said.
The number of experienced workers and sculptors gradually increased as several major temple projects were launched.
In the late seventh century, four temples of Asukadera, Kawaradera, Yakushiji and Daikandaiji became state-run entities, and their construction and maintenance were financed by the government.
To carry out these projects, teams of skilled construction workers and sculptors were formed. The elite workers learned the latest methods retrieved by delegates who traveled aboard Kentoshi ships to Tang-dynasty China.
In 710, the capital was relocated 18.4 kilometers to the north from Fujiwara-kyo to Heijo-kyo, creating an unprecedentedly long construction boom.
In Heijo Palace, the construction of an Imperial domicile and other buildings began just after the Imperial verdict to relocate the capital in 708.
In 710, Fujiwara no Fuhito, an influential noble and politician who orchestrated the capital’s relocation, began reconstructing his family’s temple, Kofukuji, in the Ge-kyo area of the capital. Three state-run temples of Yakushiji, Daikandaiji (now Daianji) and Asukadera (now Gangoji) moved to the capital, and reconstruction started between 716 and 718, according to Ohashi.
The streets of the nation’s first full-fledged capital were arranged in a grid, modeled after Changan, the ancient capital of the Tang dynasty.
The dimensions of its main section, which was divided into U-kyo (western capital) and Sa-kyo (eastern capital), were 4.8 kilometers from north to south and 4.3 kilometers from east to west. The Ge-kyo section, an extension of Sa-kyo east of its northeastern section, ran 1.6 kilometers from east to west and 2.1 kilometers from north to south.
About 100,000 people are thought to have lived in the capital, with Imperial family members and court nobles totaling a little more than 100, according to the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.
The grounds of the one-kilometer square Heijo Palace, which was located in the northern end of the main grounds, were encircled by a roofed earthen wall. Inside were the Imperial domicile, government business quarters, gardens and other areas. Palace buildings such as the Daigoku-den Imperial audience hall were built in traditional Chinese styles.
The residences of nobles, officials and others and commercial areas were built during the construction boom.
Some other famous temples such as Toshodaiji and Saidaiji were built in the capital after completion of the Great Buddha.
The influence of the Tenpyo era can still be seen in the design and cultural artifacts of temples in Nara.
“The Heijo-kyo relocation created opportunities for the elite workers to further improve their skills as several major projects were carried out simultaneously in the capital over about 30 years,” he said. “They were inspired by seeing the construction sites where others were working, and many Buddhist statues were made while the temples were renovated.”
Because the building boom had already begun to decline when the Great Buddha project was ordered by the emperor, it was greeted enthusiastically by the workers. To carry out the project, government forces joined with the people using all available technologies.
“In that period, travel was restricted, but those who wanted to join the project were allowed to come to the capital,” Tsutsui said.
The consecration ceremony was attended by 10,000 people, including Retired Emperor Shomu, Retired Empress Komyo and their daughter Empress-regnant Koken. Buddhist instruments used in the ceremony are included in the treasures of the Shoso-in repository.
It had an international flavor due to cultural exchanges with other Buddhist Asian countries.
An Indian monk, who had lived at Daianji temple after moving to Tang-dynasty China and finally came to Japan, brushed ink into the Buddha’s eyes. Folk dances of China, the Korean Peninsula and Indochina were presented on a special stage.
“Since [Tenpyo era] people strongly aspired to the culture of Changan, the dynasty’s capital, I think they wanted people from there to come to the ceremony,” Ohashi said. “I believe construction technologies here had already surpassed those of China at that point.”
Jianzhen, one of China’s highest ranking monks,
who was better known as Ganjin in Japan, was to be invited to the ceremony, but he could not arrive in time due to the difficulty of the voyage and for other reasons.
According to Tsutsui and other sources, Buddhist statues began being made 500 years after the death of Buddha, who is said have lived from 566 B.C. to 486 B.C. The construction of massive stone monuments began in the fifth century in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and Luoyang, China. But there are no records indicating statues of a similar size being built in India, where the religion originated.
Bronze statues were also built in China. But it is not known whether there was anything like the Great Buddha there.
The name Todaiji literally means giant temple east of the capital.
It served as an institute of higher learning for monks and as the headquarters of Kokubunji temples established by Emperor Shomu across the nation to propagate Buddhist teachings. He dispatched to the temples monks with knowledge in medicine, civil engineering, arts and other fields.
“Emperor Shomu intended to raise cultural standards in rural regions with the culture of the capital,” Tsutsui said. “The monks instructed people to build reservoirs as a countermeasure against famine and to repair roads and rice fields. The monks also taught people how to build comfortable houses and which medicines to take.
“The temples were bases for carrying out such community projects. Building the Great Buddha was a project to help people understand the importance of cooperation in building a better society.”
Tsutsui said the same spirit could seen in the reconstruction projects of Daibutsu-den and Great Buddha, as they were made with governmental support and public donations.
Tsutsui said: “I hope the 1,300th anniversary of the relocation of the capital to Heijo-kyo will be a chance for people to think about how the people lived and strived for happiness, believing both in Buddhism and Shintoism.
“Some people say the Great Buddha was constructed to show foreign countries the power of the nation, but it was not that simple.”
The commemorative events began with New Year’s Eve countdowns at the four locations in the prefecture representing Chinese mythological deities of Seiryu (blue dragon), Byakko (white tiger), Genbu (a creature with the body combining a turtle and a snake) and Suzaku (phoenix-like bird) for east, west, north and south. Some temples plan to display their secret statues to the public during the year.
The exhibits include computer graphics of ceremonies at Daigoku-den hall and ancient life in the capital. An exhibit to show details of Kentoshi delegates will be held at the Nara National Museum. The events will include folk arts from other Asian nations. The organizers also plan to host commemorative ceremonies in autumn and invite distinguished guests from abroad.
They expect the anniversary to attract an additional 13 million people and contribute to a greater understanding of Japanese history.
Today, The Daily Yomiuri will begin a three-part series, titled “Heijo-kyo and Temples,” on the Kansai & West page to introduce aspects of Tenpyo culture and the temples associated with it. The first installment focuses on Todaiji temple and the reasons for the construction of the Great Buddha. The second installment of the series will be carried on Jan. 21.
(Jan. 7, 2010)