Todai-ji and Emperor Shomu’s “Three Treasures”

During Emperor Shomu’s reign in the 8th century, Japanese central government resembled a theocracy, with the Emperor declaring himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” — the Buddha, the Buddhist law and the monastic community of priests, monks and nuns.

Todai-ji was conceived as the centre of Emperor Shomu's universe

Todai-ji was conceived as the centre of Emperor Shomu's universe

Emperor Shomu decreed that the state would establish a nationally sponsored temple (kokubunji) in each province (the idea originated with his great-grandfather Emperor Temmu). He also decreed that a great central temple be built in the capital to oversee the chains of temples. Todai-ji Temple was the result (dedicated in a ceremony in 752), and in 760, adjacent to it, the Lecture Hall (Kodo) and Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) were completed. Two seven-story pagodas were added to either side of the building a few decades later.

The Great Buddha Hall was a mammoth building, and even though the current building is a reconstruction of the original and a third smaller (in space though not in height) than the original one built by Shomu, it is still the largest wooden building in the world.

The Great Buddha Hall, Todai-ji Temple

The Great Buddha Hall, Todai-ji Temple

The Great Buddha Hall housed the huge gilt bronze image of Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha (Biru-shana butsu in Japanese), the relic that gave Emperor Shomu a great claim to fame.

The Daibutsu or Vairocana Buddha, Todai-ji Temple

The Daibutsu or Vairocana Buddha, Todai-ji Temple

The image took two years to cast and three more to polish and cover in gold leaves. The massive gilded bronze image of the Daibutsu has survived till today, although possibly not in its original form, having been restored following damage in various fires, natural disasters. In the 9th century, an earthquake knocked off its head. In 1180 and again in 1567, its right hand was melted in accidental fires. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the head rebuilt in 1692. It is the largest bronze image at 14.98 m (49.1 ft) from the ancient world (there are larger bronze Buddhas the Ushiku, a 110 m modern-day bronze Buddha completed in 1995 in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan and the 128 m  Spring Temple Buddha in China).

In his organization of the country, Emperor Shomu applied the principle of the mandala. A mandala was a geometrical figure in which shapes and colours were arranged as a symbolic matrix of the universe. The Todai-ji that was dedicated to the Buddha Vairocana in the centre of a lotus flower with a thousand petals and symbolized the universe. 

Shingon Buddhist mandala. Painting (Janette Ostier collection, Paris)
Shingon Buddhist mandala. Painting (Janette Ostier collection, Paris)

Millions of copies of sutra and wood engravings of religious images were made for distribution to the pilgrims who thronged the temple. These were the first  printed documents in Japan.

3 responses to “Todai-ji and Emperor Shomu’s “Three Treasures”

  1. Hi,

    Above it states that the Great Buddha survived intact until today. That is surely not correct. I think it has been destroyed twice. Isn’t that the case?

    Enjoy your site very much.

    Paul

    • Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. I have amended it to indicate the possible areas of the statue where changes to its appearance may have occurred. “…has survived till today, although not in its original form, having been damaged in various fires, natural disasters. In the 9th century, an earthquake knocked off its head. In 1180 and again in 1567, its right hand was melted in accidental fires. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the head rebuilt in 1692.”

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