Ep. 089: A Small Hall and a BIG Buddha

The Nan'en-do at Kofuki-ji, the Great Buddha at Todai-ji, and one more temple in Nara

Number 9 on the Saigoku Pilgrimage is a single hall in a formerly-great but these-days-diminished temple in Nara. It also happens to be a fifteen-minute walk from Todai-ji, home of Japan's largest statue of the Buddha. We'll visit both--plus one more--in this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

The ninth stop on the Saigoku Kannon route (see Episode 044) is the Nan'en-do, an eight-sided hall that can be taken in in its entirety in about three minutes. Kofuku-ji, where it's located, has around a dozen buildings of note today--most of which were built in the 12th-18th centuries--but it was once home to around 175 buildings, and was one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara (which itself was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794).

The Nan'en-do

The name Nan'en-do means "South Circular Hall," with its eight sides "rounded off" in the name, and contrasting it to the Hoku'en-do or "North Circular Hall." Built in 1741 (though perhaps founded in 813), it houses a statue of Kannon, earning it its place on the circuit. It is the only Saigoku temple located in central Nara.

The temple itself is dedicated to Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. Kofuku-ji was founded in 669 in what is now Kyoto; was moved to what is now Kashihara in Nara Prefecture in 672; and arrived at its current site in Nara proper in 710, the year Nara became Japan's capital. Its fortunes rose and fell with those of its patrons, the often-powerful Fujiwara clan. Like many Japanese temples, it has been destroyed many times by civil war and fire, and some of its "lost buildings" are even now being rebuilt, a major one--the Chukon-do, or "Central Golden Hall"--having just been completed in 2018.

The Nan'en-do from head-on

It's the connection with the Fujiwaras, and the temple's former prominence, that accounts for Nan'en-do's being on the Saigoku circuit despite being just a Kannon Hall. Somebody pulled some strings to ensure that whatever other vicissitudes it may have suffered, the temple could always boast a certain amount of popularity for this reason alone.

Today Kofuku-ji is national headquarters of the Hosso (Yogachara or "Consciousness Only") Sect, which we mentioned in Episode 085.

The sketchy notes I took regarding my photos on the day of my "official" visit seem to indicate that I strolled past the Nan'en-do and took literally one picture before moving on to the massive Todai-ji. I didn't even shoot any of the other buildings on the grounds! (However, I'm sharing two pictures that I took on a subsequent visit.) To make up for this deficiency, I have done something for this episode that I (almost) never do: I scanned a picture of the hall's Kannon from one of my guidebooks, even though I didn't actually see it (the hall is open only one day a year, and I missed it by over a month).

The Fukukenjaku Kannon scanned from a Japanese guidebook

The statue represents an unusual figure called Fukukenjaku Kannon, or the "Avalokiteshvara with a Never-Empty Lasso (or Unfailing Net)." One of her six hands (perhaps the bottom right in the photo, but with the rope missing?) holds a rope used to catch erring souls and lasso them into enlightenment. This is an esoteric form of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

And that, as I often say, is that.

But wait! There's more!

On that very same day, my friends and I pushed on to Todai-ji (home of that Big Buddha) and Horyu-ji across town. With Kofuku-ji these two make up what one website calls the "Big Three must-see temples of Nara." Let me just give you the highlights of each.


Todai-ji and the Great Buddha of Nara

Oh, deer!

Todai-ji, home of the Great Buddha, lies on the eastern side of the city of Nara. It really is just a fifteen-minute walk from Kofuku-ji, a stroll through Nara's "Deer Park" (inspired by the one in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha gave his first sermon). The deer are charming and sometimes aggressive, but it's just so cool to see them roaming around.

The Great South Gate to the Great Buddha of Nara. The kings are located in two bays facing inward; this is unusual, as they usually face front. It's a bit more intimidating to walk between them as they face you!

The Buddha and the hall we see today are the result of repairs and rebuilding over the centuries. The current hall--magnificent as it is--is said to be a third smaller than the original, and the hands and head of the Buddha were replaced in the Momoyama and Edo periods respectively (1568-1615 and 1615-1867). This detracts not at all from its splendor.

It has been my delight to visit Todai-ji on at least three occasions. The temple has for centuries been the "National Cathedral" of Japan. The Big Buddha is of course the temple's Big Draw, but not to be missed are the huge statues of the figures called in China Heng and Ha, but in Japan the Kongo Rikishi, or the Ni-o ("Two Kings") found in the Nandai-mon ("Great South Gate"). (See Episode 027 for more on these figures.)

The Kongo Rikishi in the gate to the Nara Daibutsu. Despite the effect of the chicken (or pigeon) wire, I wanted you to see them. The dynamic curves of their figures are often reproduced.

They are magnificent. But being located behind chicken-wire (to keep away the pigeons) they're a little hard to photograph. Each stands nearly 28 feet tall, and their dynamic poses increase the awe one feels when looking up at them. So does the fact that, unlike their counterparts in other temples, they face in, to the space between them, rather than out toward approaching visitors. This increases the apprehension one feels in passing through.

During a 1988 restoration project a number of documents and sutras were discovered inside the statues, presumably placed there when they were carved in 1203 (supposedly in just 69 days). The gate itself was finished at the same time, and stands over 83 feet above its stone pedestal.

The Great Buddha Hall is said to be the world's largest wooden building.

Passing (with caution) these fiercesome figures, we approach the compound containing what is claimed to be the largest wooden structure in the world. The Daibutsu-den ("Great Buddha Hall") is 187 feet wide, over 165 feet deep, and 160 feet high. The figure inside, of Vairochana Buddha (my favorite!) is comparably large, sitting nearly 50 feet tall.

The Great Buddha himself

He is impressive. His face is 17-1/2 feet tall, his eyes 3 feet 4 inches wide, his nose 1 foot 8 inches long, and his ears 8 feet 4 inches high!

Only the tiniest can take this shortcut to enlightenment.

For fun, there is a hole in one of the building's pillars, to the right and somewhat behind the seated statue. It's supposed to be the size of one of the Great Buddha's nostrils, and they say that if you can make it through this small hole, you are guaranteed instant enlightenment. Seems only school kids are going to get it! Another visitor asked my to try it; I struggled to figure out how to say "Jaws of Life" in Japanese.


Horyu-ji on Nara's West Side

I have visited a dozen or so temples in Nara proper, but as this one rounds out the "Big Three," and I visited it on the same day as the other two in November of 1999, I'll toss it in here.

The niomon (Two Kings Gate) and pagoda at Horyu-ji.

Horyu-ji is one of the many temples located on Nara's quieter west side. I love this place. The first time I came here, I met a group of Japanese-Korean students (third generation or more in Japan). Their teacher was explaining to them that this temple wouldn't be here if Korea hadn't sent Buddhist missionaries. Unquestionably one of the oldest temples in Japan, and claiming the oldest wooden buildings in the world, Horyu-ji is a masterpiece. I'll just share a couple of pictures, and then we're done.

This temple's kings are unusual. Does the one on the left look a little like Darth Maul?

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And that really is that. 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: Visit an ancient pagoda and an exemplary collection of statues at Shanghai's Longhua Temple.