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Todai-ji Buddhist Temple: Architecture & Statue

Instructor: Stephen Taul

Stephen has master's degrees in both architecture and city planning and has taught architecture design studios.

Explore the largest wooden building in the world, and admire the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Both are located at the Todai-ji Buddhist Temple.

Overview of Todai-ji

Can you imagine half the people in the United States working together on one project? According to folklore, it has been said that nearly half of the people in Japan helped to construct the Buddha statue at Todai-ji. Why was this such an important place?

Todai-ji, or Great Eastern Temple, in the city of Nara is one of the most famous temples in Japan. At the time of its construction, it was the head temple of all the local temples in the country. Today, it serves as the headquarters of the Kegon School of Buddhism.

Temple Complex

Entering through the Great Southern Gate, you would be met by two huge guardian statues, one on each side of the gate. Then, after walking along the central road, you would enter through the smaller gate and come into the courtyard before reaching the main hall.

Model of Temple Complex
Todai-ji Complex

Through the air, you could hear the sounds of the Bell Tower to the right of the main hall. Other structures on the campus include ceremonial halls, residential buildings and gates. The original temple complex would have included two 300-foot-tall pagodas. These were likely the tallest buildings in the world, but they have been destroyed by earthquakes.

Great Buddha Hall

The Great Buddha Hall at Todai-ji has been rebuilt twice due to fire since it was originally constructed in the 8th century. Although it is only seven structural bays wide instead of eleven like the first two, the current building from the 16th century is the same height and depth as the original. Surprisingly, even though this present structure is not nearly as wide as the first one, it is still the largest wooden building in the world.

Arriving at the Great Buddha Hall
Todai-ji Temple

Certain architectural features differentiated temples like this one in Japan from those in China. Wood represents life to the Japanese, so building out of wood was seen as a way to celebrate life. Raising the hall up on a platform allowed ventilation to prevent moisture from undermining the structure. The interior of the temple is bare wood to remind us of natural simplicity.

Detail of Great Buddha Hall
Todai-ji Temple

As one of Japan's most famous temples, it is a model of Tang-dynasty-era Buddhist architecture. Four main components comprised the design of the main hall:

  1. The rectangular base was marked by columns that some say represent universal order and structural strength.
  2. A gently sloping roof was employed to blend in well to the natural surroundings.
  3. The framework of brackets and rafters supporting the roof provide resistance against low-intensity earthquakes.
  4. The roof tiles were shaped to channel water to prevent erosion.

The Great Buddha

The statue known as Vairocana Buddha or Daibutsu means the light of wisdom and compassion that illuminates widely. The Buddha was dedicated in a unique and special way. A priest used a huge paint brush to paint in the eyes so that it would appear as if they were opening.

At the base of the Buddha are lotus petals that are engraved with images representing the world of enlightenment as described in scriptures. They symbolize the idea that we are not isolated but are a part of a vast interdependence, and that the whole universe is illumined by the Buddha's wisdom.

Vairocana Buddha statue
Vairocana Buddha

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