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Kiyomizu-Dera Temple: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are several great temples around the world. In this lesson, we're going to check out the Kiyomizu-Dera temple and see what makes it such a notable and inspirational structure.

Kiyomizu-Dera

Temples are supposed to be inspiring. Yes, they're physical spaces for people to meet and pray, but temple architecture is also supposed to inspire the soul towards specific spiritual ends. This is true everywhere, but we certainly appreciate it at the Kiyomizu-Dera temple in Kyoto, Japan. This incredible structure is named after a mountain, spring-fed waterfall that flows through the complex (Kiyomizu literally means ''clear water''), but is formally dedicated to the Japanese Buddhist bosatsu (deity-figure), Kannon. If there's one thing the temple certainly has, it's the ability to inspire!

Kiyomizu-Dera
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History

The story of the Kiyomizu-Dera temple dates back to the late 8th century CE. According to tradition, a Japanese monk of the Hosso sect of Buddhism named Enchin had a dream about a golden river flowing down Mt. Otowa above Kyoto. When we awoke, we went to the mountains and found an old man at the place in his dreams named Gyoei. Gyoei told Enchin that he had been there for 200 years, praying to the Buddhist deity Kannon. Gyoei asked Enchin to take his place so that he could make a pilgrimage and promised to return. Before leaving, he mentioned that the log he was sitting on was good wood, in case Enchin wanted to carve an image of Kannon.

Of course, Gyoei never returned. Enchin went in search of the old man, and found his shoes lying on the summit of the mountain. To someone with Buddhist knowledge, the meaning was clear: Gyoei was Kannon in earthly form, and had returned to heaven. Understanding this, Enchin quickly set to carving the log into an image of the bosatsu. Unfortunately, Enchin couldn't get the image right. He worked for 20 years, until finally meeting a warrior named Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. Tamuramaro was moved by the dedication and teachings of the monk, and decided to become his patron. Tamuramaro's own house would be taken apart and rebuilt here, as a temple for Enchin to finish the carving.

The original temple said to have been built by Tamuramaro is not the one you see over Kyoto today. That temple burned down centuries ago, as did several after that. Despite the many fires that ravaged the region, devoted monks and patrons always managed to get the temple rebuilt, and even increased the size of the overall complex over time. Among these patrons was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, considered by many to be the unifier of Japan, who frequented the temple in the 16th century and left behind a number of relics.

The temple took many forms over the years, as some building burned down and others were built.
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The temple as we see it, however, was the result of the Tokugawa shogunate, especially the avid patron, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun. The Tokugawa were powerful shoguns, or military warlords, who effectively ruled Japan in the emperor's name. They began restoring and rebuilding the temple, and filling it with art and relics. These efforts were completed in 1633 by a later Tokugawa shogun. This is the date formally given as the founding of the current temple you see today.

Architecture

The Kiyomizu-Dera temple has an interesting history, but its architecture is what really sets it apart, and what earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The overall complex includes 30 different buildings, most of which were also built in 1633. It's filled with Buddhist symbols, imagery, and statues. It's famous for its landscaping, and attracts thousands every year to see the cherry blossoms in spring and the red leaves of autumn.

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