Ep. 067: Asuka-dera, Japan's Oldest Temple

With Japan's oldest Buddha statue

You know, for a belief system that espouses, as in the Third Chan Patriarch's Faith in Mind, that one oughtn't discriminate between one thing and another, Buddhism spends a lot of time labeling things "the biggest this" and "the oldest that."

Case in point: Asuka-dera, a small and very modern-looking temple outside of Kyoto, is considered by many to be "the oldest temple in Japan."

Let's pay a visit in this episode of--


With its founding dating to 588 (though some say 596), Asuka-dera may very well be "Japan's Oldest Temple," in one sense at least, as official adoption of the religion dates only to the year before, as the result of a battle (though it was known as early as 538 or perhaps 552, when one of the Korean kingdoms sent several Buddhist artifacts as gifts). But naturally, in the millennium and a half since, things like buildings must have arisen and fallen many, many times.

Asuka-dera's tiny main hall

Originally much larger--as much as 650 feet on a side--it had a five-story pagoda at its center, with halls on three sides. The buildings of that temple were moved into Nara in 718 after that city became the capital, and that relocated temple became Gango-ji; what remained on the site was a much smaller version of the original Asuka-dera. Abandoned by the Muromachi Period, it was restored in 1632; what we see today is built on an 1826 restoration.

Today it's essentially just a simple gate into a gravel courtyard containing some fine "found" statuary, a bell tower, a small hall housing the Buddha, and a few even smaller buildings around it. Behind the hall is a small garden enclosed by other buildings, including a small museum. Yeah, it's small.

A precious gorinto ("mini-pagoda") on the edge of a neighboring rice field

But there is a different criterion for what constitutes a "temple" in Japan. The main image or honzon found in the temple is thought to be, in a sense, the temple itself. Thus, if a building or an entire compound burns down, say, but the honzon is saved, the temple has maintained continuity. Some say the statue at Asuka-dera has literally never been moved since it was first placed there.

The Asuka-dera Daibutsu

The Asuka-dera Daibutsu has a striking face.

The honzon at Asuka-dera, as opposed to the modern buildings, is likewise considered the "oldest" in Japan. It was created (they say) in 606 by the famed Busshi (Buddha-statue master) Kuratsukuri no Tori, called "Tori Busshi." It is a bronze image of a seated Shakayamuni (though some say he is the Medicine Buddha), nine feet high. But if he were standing he would be around 16.5 feet; nevertheless, it's a bit of a stretch to call him a daibutsu or "Great Buddha"--but they do.

Some of these fingers are original.

His right hand is raised in the Abhaya Mudra or "No Fear" gesture; his left is lowered in the "Boon-Bestowing" gesture, or Varada Mudra.

"The usual Japanese frippery…"

Only part of his face, one of his ears (some sources say left, some say right), and three fingers on his right hand are original (the rest having been replaced piece by piece over the centuries), as is the granite base on which he sits. The statue supposedly contains "15 tons of copper and 30kg of gold," according to one site. The usual Japanese frippery surrounds him; I would love to see him in a more austere setting, but maybe that's just me!

The "elegant, small statue of the Amitabha" to the right of the Buddha

To the right (as we face him) is an elegant, small statue of the Amitabha Buddha dating to the Heian Period (794-1185); to his left, another, of Prince Shotoku--essentially the founder or at least first booster of Buddhism in Japan--as a Bodhisattva, from the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). Shotoku was the son of Emperor Yomei, and the grandson (perhaps) of a famous clan leader.

And this leads us to a quick look at the Soga family.

The Establishment of Buddhism in Japan

Japanese Buddhism did not have an easy time in its early days, being seen as a challenge to the power of the established state religion, Shinto. In Episode 061 I mentioned "the anti-Buddhist Mononabe clan"; they were opposed by the Soga clan under Soga no Umako. Make no mistake, this was no mere religious difference but a fierce political rivalry that ended at the 587 Battle of Shigisan, in which the heads of the Mononabe clan were killed, making the Soga the de facto leaders of Japan.

Prince Shotoku as a Bodhisattva, to the left of the Buddha

A legend says that as the battle was turning against the Soga side, Umako's young relative (and later son-in-law), Shotoko, cut down a sacred tree and made from it an image of Buddhism's Shitenno, the militaristic Four Heavenly Kings, vowing (with Umako) to build a temple to them if the battle turned in their favor. It did (thanks more to a keen archer, one suspects, than to supernatural aid), and Shitenno Temple in today's Osaka--another contender for Japan's oldest temple--was the fulfillment of that vow.

Umako subsequently set Empress Suiko--his niece, and Shotoku's aunt--on the throne in 592, establishing the system in which emperors and empresses were often figureheads, to a greater or lesser extent controlled by powerful interests behind the throne. Prince Shotoku was appointed regent to Suiko in 593.

The Ishibutai Kofun, presumed burial place of Soga no Umako

If Soga no Umako's name sounds familiar, by the way, you may be remembering him from Episode 026, where I mentioned that he was probably the original occupant of the Ishibutai Kofun or "Stone Stage" burial mound less than a mile from Asuka-dera. (Currently both Asuka-dera and Ishibutai are on a "Tentative List" for acceptance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of a cluster of archaeological sites in and around Asuka.)

On My Last Visit

Despite the modern setting, to step into that small hall and bow to that statue--perhaps, if it's true that he has never been moved, in the very spot where Buddhists down through the ages have stood to venerate him--is a thrilling experience. The presence of school kids learning their country's history was just icing on the cake!

Kids and a docent

After my 2001 visit, I wrote:

I prayed in front of [the statue], which was quite a feat. Given its status as the oldest blah blah blah, as you would expect it is overrun with school kids. And unlike some temples, this place doesn't require them to enter quietly and sit reverently through a lecture. They're allowed to enter as they will, react naturally ("IT'S BIG!"), and be themselves. Once I got used to it, I found this quite pleasing. They had worksheets to fill out, and the docents got in a few shots here and there, but mostly they just seemed to be free to relate to the Big Guy any way they chose.

Good teachers!


Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Photo Essay Friday again? Already? Let's whiz around to a number of temples in China to take a look at some of the denizens of various 500 Arhat Halls.