Todai-ji Buddhist Temple: History & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll explore the Todai-ji temple complex in Nara, Japan. With over 1,000 years of history and many national treasures, it's a must see for anyone visiting the country.

The Todai-ji Buddhist Temple Complex

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Japan, no doubt your list of places to see will be long. However, you may not know of one place that absolutely belongs on your list, a can't miss experiences to treasure for a lifetime! The Todai-ji Buddhist temple complex in the city of Nara in the Nara Prefecture, offers wondrous beauty and interest in its own right, but also houses around 9,000 cultural artifacts and treasures from over 1,000 years of Japanese history. If that hasn't captured your attention, maybe you can be enticed by giant statues throughout the complex! Did we mention you also get to spend time with hundreds of rare, tame deer?

Main Hall of Todai-ji temple complex (Daibutsu-den)
Main Hall of Todai-ji Temple Complex

A Temple Fit for a Prince

Before becoming the sprawling Todai-ji temple complex, the site originally held a smaller, opulent temple to house the spirit of the deceased Prince Motoi who tragically died before his father, Emperor Shomu, could pass down the throne. 15 years later, the emperor proclaimed his will to create a Great Buddha on the site and to move the nation's capital to Nara, known at the time as Heijo.

Over the next six years, workers constructed a gigantic Buddha statue in bronze, occupying most of the nation's bronze production, and a great hall to house the figure. The consecration ceremony came in 752 A.D., a lavish event, but Emperor Shomu wasn't there, having passed away three years prior. His legacy lived on through the temple complex through the holding of grand rituals for national prosperity and the training of generations of Buddhist monks.

A Cycle of Destruction & Rebirth

Over the centuries, natural disaster and human conflicts brought destruction to the temple. A powerful earthquake toppled the head of the Great Buddha statue in 855 A.D., while the Lecture Hall, West Pagoda, and Monk's Quarters suffered in subsequent years from fires and lightning strikes. All were restored, including the statue.

In 1180 A.D., the temples throughout Nara were attacked by a warlord who burned half the complex, including the Great Buddha Hall. The Great Buddha statue took five years to restore, while the entire complex took ten years. Fortunately, the destruction and restoration revived interest in scholarly activities, drawing a large, new wave of students wishing to become monks.

Finally, the complex burned again in 1567 A.D., caught in the middle of a battle between two warring clans. The restoration took much longer, as the nation's war-torn economy faltered, leaving only enough to coat the statue's head in a protective copper sheath. It took over a century before monks could gain support for a proper restoration with the resulting complex, consecrated as each segment was finished between 1692 and 1709, we see today.

Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall)

What Can We See at Todai-ji Today?

The Great Buddha & Great Buddha Hall

So, what can we see when visiting the Todai-ji temple today? A reborn site destroyed repeatedly to rise from its own ashes? Naturally, the first feature to draw visitors is the Giant Buddha statue, known as a Daibutsu. Even today, it's the world's largest bronze Buddha, standing nearly 50 feet tall and weighing over 500 tons. It's formed in the Vairocana image, basically the all-inclusive image capturing the universal aspects of the Buddha.

The building housing the statue, known as the Great Buddha Hall or Daibutsu-den, attracts visitors, as well. At 157 feet high, it remained the world's largest wooden building until 1998 when a Japanese stadium surpassed it. Interestingly, the current building is smaller than the original hall by 30%. Inside the hall, around the Great Buddha, visitors often crawl through tiny openings in the support pillars which are believed to possess healing power.

Daibutsu (Great Buddha Statue)

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