Visiting Tōdai-ji 東大寺

Tōdai-ji 東大寺 is a temple complex of prime historical importance in Nara, Japan. It was founded in the eighth century under Emperor Shōmu (701-756).

(Click images for larger view)

I would consider it the Nalanda University of Japan in that it housed for centuries numerous scholars and practitioners of various Buddhist schools. In the present day it is a popular tourist attraction, but still maintains an invaluable library and continues to attract faithful Buddhists.

One unique feature of the site and surrounding areas are the herds of tame deer.

These deer are said to be wild, but are quite fine with humans petting them. They also enjoy being fed regularly by tourists. The deer freely roam around Nara and are well-treated by the locals and visitors. They are said to be messengers of the kami and as such enjoy a comfortable life within the city.

Following classical Chinese custom the main temple faces south towards a gate with three entryways. Here the sign above reads Great Kegon Temple.

Within the gate on the left and right sides are giant dharma guardians carved from wood.

As one approaches the Daibutsu-den 大仏殿 or main temple the size of the building becomes clear. While the temple itself dates back to the 8th century, the main building was rebuilt twice due to severe fire damage. The present structure was completed in 1709.

Within the main temple one stands before a towering image of Vairocana Buddha, otherwise known as the 'cosmic Buddha'.

On the statue's right side one finds the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha 虛空藏, who is the guardian of the treasury of all wisdom and achievement.

Taking a few steps further one sees Virūpākṣa 廣目天王, the guardian of the west who rules over nāgas (serpents or dragons) and pūtanas (a kind of demon or ghost that is said to cause fevers). Said to be an epithet of Śiva.

On Vairocana's immediate left side is the Bodhisattva Cintāmaṇi-cakra-Avalokiteśvara 如意輪觀音, who is said to save beings with a wish granting jewel and the dharma-wheel.

Finally on the far right one finds Vaiśravaṇa 多聞天王, who is guardian of the north and looks over yakṣas and rākṣasas. The two dharma guardians present in the temple are two of the four celestial kings (caturmahārājakāyikāḥ) charged with protecting the six heavens of the desire realm.

The images themselves are of superb quality and were clearly crafted by skilled hands. These kind of statues would have taken a lot of time and effort to complete. In prior ages such operations were funded by the state which facilitated their pefection.

Besides serving as a core facility for pilgrims to visit and pray at, Tōdai-ji has also in history served as an education facility. Gyōnen 凝然 (1240-1321), one of the great Buddhist scholars and authors in Japanese history, resided here where he wrote many works. The temple complex and surrounding areas also served as a kind of meeting ground for various schools of Buddhism which no doubt facilitated discussion and debate.

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