Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple) is a significant monastery-temple belonging to the Kegon sect of Buddhism. It was erected by order of Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇, 701-756) in the eastern part of Nara, the capital of Japan between 710-784, to become the most important religious institution within the network of provincial monasteries and convents (kokubunji) throughout Japan. Todai-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”, together with seven other sites including temples, shrines and places in the city of Nara.
Immense in scale, Todaiji represented the culmination of Buddhist architecture accomplished under imperial sponsorship. The principal image of the temple, a colossal bronze statue popularly called the Nara Daibutsu (Great Buddha of Nara), was installed in its main hall of worship, the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall). When it was completed in 752, the statue was the largest and most splendid ever produced in Japan. The image embodied the Buddha Birushana (毘盧遮那仏 Birushana-butsu; Sanskrit： Vairocana), who was regarded by the Kegon sect to be the cosmic, central Buddha, presiding over myriads of worlds, each in turn ruled by a lesser Buddha, as described in the Flower Garland Sutra (華厳経 Kegon kyō). The high image surpassed many of the contemporary Buddhist statues produced in Tang China (618-907) and became the symbol of Japan’s rise from a backward country to a highly developed one. Over the centuries the icon was severely damaged several times and finally restored to its present form in 1692.
Most of the Todaiji buildings extant today are restorations of earlier structures. They contain masterpieces of Buddhist sculpture made through the ages. The origin of Todai-ji goes back to the Kinshōsen-ji (金鐘山寺), a temple that had existed in the eastern sector of the present-day Todaiji compound. Here, Roben (良弁, 689-773), a scholar-monk of the Kegon sect who was to become the first abbot of Todaiji, had been active in 733. Roben is commemorated by a portrait-statue made around 1019 and kept in the Kaizan-dō (開山堂, Founder’s Hall). The Kon-dō or Daibutsuden (金堂 or 大仏殿, main hall) of Kinshōsen-ji, where Roben had worshipped, was referred to in a record of 749 as the Kenjakudō after its main cult image, the Fukūkenjaku Kannon (不空羂索観音, Sanskrit： Amoghapāśa). This building probably is the extent inner sanctuary of the Hokkedō (法華堂, Lotus Hall), popularly known as the Sangatsudō (三月堂, Third Month Hall), where the Lotus Sutra (Hoke kyō) is chanted yearly during the third month (sangatsu). The central icon of the Hokkedō is the Fukūkenjaku Kannon, a beautiful, dry-lacquer statue over 6.5 meters high, made around 746, which could have been the Kinshōji image mentioned above. On the same dais, to the left and right of the great Kannon, are preserved some of the most excellent lacquer and clay sculptures made during the Tempyō era (727-748). Behind the Fukūkenjaku Kannon facing north is enshrined a clay statue of the guardian deity Shikkongoshin (or Shūkongō-jin [執金剛]； Sanskrit： Vajradhāra). It was made around 733 and had been worshipped by Roben in Konshō-ji.
In 741, the Kinshoji became the provincial monastery-temple for Yamato Province (modern-day Nara Prefecture). At that time the temple was renovated and renamed Konkōmyō-ji after the Golden Light Sutra (金光明経 Konkōmyō kyō). Construction of a colossal Buddha had originally begun in Shigaraki, which served as the temporary capital in 743, but two years later, when Nara was redesignated the capital, the project was moved to Konkōmyōji.
The temple was first referred to as Tōdaiji in 747 when construction of its significant buildings was begun. An immense area extending over seven city blocks of Nara was allocated for the Tōdaiji compound. The ground was bounded by walls to the south, the west, and partially to the north. The eastern sector stretched into the Kasuga hills. There was a gate facing north and three leading into the city through the western wall, but the main entrance was through the Nandaimon (南大門, Great South Gate), which was on an axis with the Daibutsuden. Now reduced in size, this edifice initially had an 11-bay facade and 7-bay sides. It was 48.5 meters high and occupied an area of 88 by 51.5 meters. Between the Nandaimon and the Chūmon (中門, Inner Gate) that led to the precinct of the Daibutsuden were two seven-storied pagodas, one to the east and the other to the west, each 100 meters high. On an axis to the north of the Daibutsuden, flanked by a belfry and a sutra repository, was the Kōdō (Lecture Hall), enclosed on three sides by monks’ quarters that were connected to a refectory on the east by a corridor. So monumental were the major buildings of Tōdaiji that they were supplied with individual enclosures.
The Daibutsuden, with its gigantic statue cast in gilded bronze, was completed in 752 when the grandest consecration ceremony ever held in Japan took place in the courtyard in the presence of the by-then retired Emperor Shōmu, his consort the Empress Kōmyō, and the reigning Empress Kōken. In attendance were 10,000 monks and dignitaries from abroad, who witnessed the ceremony symbolising the unity of Buddhism with the state. Splendid objects used during the ceremony were placed in the Shōsō-in (正倉院), a treasure house located on the grounds of Tōdaiji, northwest of the Daibutsuden.
In 754, a hall for the ordination of monks, the Kaidan’in kaidandō, was established by Jianzhen or Ganjin (鑒真 or 鑑真; 688–763), a noted Chinese monk who had been invited to Japan to introduce the orthodox ordination procedures of China. The Kaidan’in burned down three times, the present one dating from 1731. On its altar are placed images of the Shitennō (四天王, Four Heavenly Kings), which are outstanding examples of Tempyō-era clay modelling. By 798 the vast compound of Tōdaiji and its buildings were completed. According to Tōdaiji records, 50,000 carpenters, 370,000 metal workers, and 2,180,000 labourers worked on its construction and furnishings. The enormous expenses brought the Yamato state to the brink of bankruptcy.
Little remains of the eighth-century buildings of Tōdaiji except for the Tegai Gate (転害門 Tegaimon) of the western wall and the inner sanctuary of the Hokkedō. The Daibutsuden, the towering pagodas, and most of the other buildings were deliberately destroyed by the army of Taira no Shigehira in 1180 as punishment for the help armed Tōdaiji monks had extended to the rival Minamoto family during the Taira-Minamoto War. The following year the Taira were defeated, and reconstruction of Tōdaiji began under the direction of the abbot Shunjōbō Chōgen (俊乗坊重源, 1121-1206), who devoted the last 25 years of his life to the project. He is commemorated by a portrait-statue, made shortly after his death, that is enshrined in the Shunjō-dō (俊乗堂), a hall built in 1704. The Daibutsuden and other buildings were repaired or replaced in a bold style that Chōgen had observed during a visit to Southern Song China in 1167-68. It is characterised by deep, overhanging eaves supported by tiers of bracket arms with increasing outward projection. This new architectural style, known as the “great Buddha style” (大仏様 daibutsuyō) or the “Indian style” (天竺様 tenjikuyō) is well preserved in the Nandaimon, for which in 1203 the famed sculptors Unkei and Kaikei made the great guardian statues of the Niō (仁王, Benevolent Kings). The “Indian style” was modified shortly after Chōgen’s death, as may be observed in the sturdy bell tower, the Kaizandō, and other buildings.
In 1567, General Matsunaga Hisahide set fire to the Daibutsuden and various other buildings in the course of a battle. The Daibutsu, now headless, was not fully restored until 1692 when the rebuilding of Tōdaiji was sponsored by the Tokugawa shogunate. The Daibutsuden visible today dates for the most part from 1709. With its prominent “Indian style” bracketing and a facade only two-thirds its former length, it lacks the stylistic uniformity and refinement of its eighth-century predecessor. However, it remains to this day the most prominent edifice in Nara and is generally regarded as the largest wooden structure in the world. A magnificent view of the Daibutsuden is afforded from the Nigatsudō (二月堂, “Second Month Hall”), built in 1669 into a hill in the northeastern sector of Tōdaiji, where a famous ceremony known as Omizutori (お水取り), involving a water offering to the Eleven-Headed Kannon, is celebrated in the second month each year.
Visiting hours and admission:
Admission: 500 JPY regular ticket for the Daibutsuden, 500 JPY for the Kaidandō.
Opening hours: daily from 08:00 to 16:30 (November-February), 08:00-17:00 (March), 07:30-17:30 (April-September), 07:30-17:00 (October).
Address: 406-1 Zoshi-cho, Nara-shi, Nara 630-8211; phone: (0742) 22-5511.
By bus: a 7-minute bus ride from Kintetsu Nara Station to Daibutsuden-Kasuga-Taisha-mae Stop; 3-minute walk from the bus station.
- Todaiji Temple (official homepage in Japanese)
- Nara City Tourist Association
- Nara Park Area (JNTO Website)
- Historical Monuments of Ancient Nara (UNESCO Website)
- Japan Restores Old Temple Gods (Sterngold, James; New York Times, 28 December 1991)