Remembering Todaiji and Nara

(Dedicated to Tornado and Dai Chi. This is kind of a re-post from the old blog, but heavily revised, and with a lot more pictures.)

In Japan’s ancient capitol of Nara (奈良) you can find the massive temple complex of Tōdaiji (東大寺), with its massive, massive, MASSIVE statue of Vairocana Buddha. The temple is actually one of the most important in Japan and (historically) for Japanese Buddhism, so let me share a bit of background.


Tōdaiji is a very old and venerable temple in Japan, devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva. In the first wave of Japanese Buddhism, the temples and monks were very tightly regulated by the state, and its Office of Priestly Affairs or Sōgō (僧綱). In those days, temples were only allowed to have a number of monks ordained per year, and many of their activities were dictated by the government. Tōdaiji served as the central administrative temple for what Japan was at the time. In those days, monks could still ordain under the ancient Vinaya code* and all monks had to ordain at Tōdaiji. Even later, famous monks like Kūkai and Saichō both had ordination there.


Tōdaiji declined in prestige over the years as its sect, the Kegon sect (Hua-Yan Buddhism) also declined. Kegon eventually was absorbed by Shingon Buddhism, which cherished the Kegon teachings, but provided a practical means of realizing them through tantra.

In any case, besides its wonderful cultural heritage, Tōdaiji is still one of the largest temples in all of Japan. Here’s me standing before the main hall of the Great Buddha statue:

Todaiji Temple, main hall

The building is even larger than it looks. To the right is a lovely view of the temple grounds:

Todaiji Courtyard

Inside the temple houses the immense statue of Vairocana Buddha, who was the central Buddha of the Kegon, and later Shingon, sect of Buddhism:

The Great Buddha of Nara, Todaiji

However, I didn’t understand Buddhism well at the time, so I misunderstood the statue to be of Amida Buddha, or Shakyamuni himself. Vairocana is the embodiment of Buddhist emptiness itself, the ever-shifting, fluctuating web of inter-dependencies that comprise existence. He is also the central figure in the important East Asian Buddhist text, the Brahma Net Sutra, which I spoke on a while back.

To see the ceiling of this room, you have to tilt your head all the way back. It’s really that tall and huge. This picture does not adequately convey the just how large this room is.


On Vairocana Buddha’s left I also took a picture of the guardian here:**

Todaiji Guardian

This guardian is Kōmokuten (廣目天, modern Japanese 広目天), the king whose ever vigilant (lit. “his eyes are wide open”). He belongs to the Four Heavenly Guardian Kings or shitennō (四天王) that protect Buddhism and the Buddha, each watching over one of the four cardinal directions. They are mentioned in a number of Buddhist texts, but especially the Golden Light Sutra, which was very popular in Tōdaiji’s heyday. In those days, the Emperor had decreed that there should be a temple in each of the four directions (from the capital) to chant the Golden Light Sutra*** daily for the nation’s protection, hence its imagery was popular in Buddhist temples from this era.

On Buddha Vairocana’s right is another statue:

Todaiji Wish-Fulfilling Kannon Bodhisattva

This is statue is of the famous Kannon Bodhisattva, but in a specific form called the Cintamanicakra form. In this form, Kannon holds the Wheel of the Dharma, and a wish-fulfilling jewel (“mani” in Sanskrit), and sometimes has 6 arms (though not for this statue). The Wheel of course is a very popular symbolism in Buddhism, while the jewel symbolizes Kannon’s efforts to help all beings. In Japanese he is called nyoirin kannon (如意輪観音). This is a form that is found in esoteric Buddhism (such as Shingon), but also sometimes in regular Buddhism as well, and according to this blog (and the plaque they photographed), this form has a lot of important iconography.

The Deer Park

The other thing that Tōdaiji is famous for is the deer:

Todaiji Deer Park 2

The deer are completely tame because no one harms them here. Deer were thought to be sacred in Shinto beliefs, and since Buddhism as an important religion at the time blended a somewhat with native Shinto beliefs, a deer park was setup and deer have lived there since. The deer just kind of roam around eating stuff, not unlike the cows that wander the streets of India.

For my next visit

I missed out on visiting the famous Nigatsudō, the “February Hall” (二月堂), which is noted for its view as well as the Shuni-E ceremony mentioned below. Tōdaiji is also famous for an image of the Bodhisattva Kannon, that’s said to be sealed off so that no one at all knows what it is except for a few clergy.

Tōdaiji, being a very old temple, has a great deal of tradition that I would love to delve into more if I ever visit Nara, Japan again. I would really like to see the Shuni-E ceremony that happens in March. The ceremony has gone on for 1,200 years, and is centered around Kannon Bodhisattva, but also utilizes both fire and water in its two-week long rituals.


Nara, compared to Kyoto, is a much quieter city, but has a great deal of history like its larger neighbor to the north. However, between the two, I think I find Nara more interesting in a way. Don’t get me wrong, I really, really enjoyed both cities, but Nara had a quiet, ancient, feel to it that was just awesome. I wish I had spent more time exploring Tōdaiji and other temples in the area, but someday I hope to visit again, but this time I will take Baby with us. :)

Hopefully she’ll enjoy my history lectures more than my wife does. ;) Just kidding, babe. :D

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. More up to date post, with more pictures, can be found here.

* – Later in history, the Vinaya lineage died out, despite efforts to revive it. Other sects attempted to supplant it anyways, notably the Tendai sect under Saichō.

** – The photo looks grainy because the photo was pretty dark and I had to enhance things later to see clearly.

*** – Particularly the liked to chant the first chapter of the sutra which contains verses asking the Hindu Goddesses and other figures to protect the nation.

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5 Comments on “Remembering Todaiji and Nara”

  1. Kyoshin says:

    I didn’t much like Todaiji as it seems kind of pompous but I did like the Nio by the gates which are much more dynamic than anything in the temple itself:

  2. Doug says:

    Ah yes, I forgot about those. I don’t have that among the photos I took of Todaiji, but I do have similar photos from other sites. I am glad you brought that up, actually! That’s a good topic for this here blog. ;)

    For reference (to myself…), according to this very helpful website, they are Agyō 阿形 (mouth open, left) and Ungyō 吽形 (mouth closed, right) and are the two Guardian Kings, or niō (仁王).

  3. Tornadoes28 says:

    I have not been to Nara or Kyoto yet but I also think I would appreciate Nara a little more due to the more quiet atmosphere and even older history.

  4. Hey,

    You are right. Todaiji’s buildings are absolutely enormous. Its even hard to believe how big they are when you are standing right in front of them. I really enjoyed Nara and the museum. I couldn’t stay because we ran off to Yagyu Zato. I didn’t have a chance to see the Kōmokuten or Bodhisattva but the deer and I became good friends. much bowing and feeding, bowing and feeding.

    Thanks for the great photos.

    The Agyo and Ungyo were awesome. Of what I was able to see, they were my favorite too.


  5. Doug says:

    Matthew: I never did feed the deer. They looked scary to me for some reason. I really thought one would ram me from behind or something, but maybe they just wanted me to feed them. :P

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