6 Temples and 1,000 Years of Japanese Buddhism (Part 1)

With countless temples in and around Kyoto, deciding which ones to visit can be an overwhelming challenge. There are multiple ways to plan an itinerary, from cherry blossom to autumn foliage to World Heritage status. After multiple visits I have discovered another interesting angle — the evolution of Buddhism in Japan.

A truly amazing fact about Kyoto and its neighboring area is the preservation of temples from different eras in Japanese history. Unlike in Europe where in most instances there is a millennium gap between the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, an architectural trail remains in Kyoto and Nara from the beginning of Buddhism’s introduction in the 6th century onward to the relatively recent past.

After visiting seven temples, one from each of the major eras from the Asuka to Edo periods, I have come to develop a new appreciation of Japanese heritage. I like some more than others, but each is an important piece of a puzzle and together they have become an apparatus that safeguards Japanese history, both religious and secular.

Asuka period (538–710)

Introduced from China

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China via Korea in the year 538, that marked the beginning of the Asuka period. At the onset Buddhism was treated as a political tool by the opposing Soga and Nakatomi clans. Buddhism was branded as the face of a wide-ranging reform platform which attempted to introduce progressive Chinese social and economic policies into Japan. The reformists eventually won, giving Buddhism a foothold among the ruling class. Many academics and officials were sent to China, picking up knowledge ranging from calligraphy, literature, religion, architecture to agriculture.

Hōryū-ji 法隆寺

Horyu-ji receives relatively little visitors and offers a sense of tranquility that’s absent in many other famous temples in Kyoto. Even if you are getting tired of temples, Horyu-ji is unlike any other in the area and merits a visit.

Only a handful of buildings from the Asuka era survive to this day, among which the most outstanding is the Horyu-ji complex in Ikaruga, two train stations away from Nara. First constructed in 607, only the pagoda survived a devastating fire in 670 when much of the complex was burned down. The complex was rebuilt in 711. Major fires in 990, 1435, and 1949 damaged large parts of the complex, but Horyu-ji’s status ensured hasty restoration each time. The pagoda is now one of the oldest wooden structures in the world.

The remains of a few Buddhist structures that predate even Horyu-ji can be found in Asuka, 25 km south of Nara and the site of the capital of its namesake period. Those structures were highly resemble of buildings from the same period in China and Korea. A century later, Horyu-ji had imbued those foreign influences with local characteristics, and the result was the first sign of a branch of Buddhism that’s unique to Japan.

Nara period (710–794)

Relocated to Nara

Multiple friends of mine prefer Nara over Kyoto, stating the compact town has everything Kyoto has to offer with half the traffic. My visit was less favorable — the crowd was even worse than Kyoto’s and with the exception of Todai-ji I didn’t find Nara to offer much to justify spending time away from Kyoto. But seeing the city that eventually paved the way for Kyoto’s ascension do provide a deeper understanding of the latter as both cities were modeled after Chang’an (today’s Xi’an).

After almost two centuries in Asuka, Empress Genmei moved the seat of the government slightly north to Nara. The new capital incorporated a grid layout similar to Chang’an. Buddhist teaching was brought back by envoys sent to the Sui and Tang courts in China, as well as refugees of Baekje who had escaped from instability in Korea. These elements planted the seeds of what later became Kyoto.

Buddhism was widely practiced by the ruling class as a validation of their status. The teaching was dominated by the Six Schools of Nara Buddhism, all of which were imported from China and closely resembled existing mainland Asian Buddhist thoughts. Three key drivers were the Chinese monk Jianzhen, who introduced the Ritsu sect, and the Japanese monks Tendai and Kukai, founders of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism in Japan, respectively.

Todai-ji 東大寺

東大寺 Tōdai-ji, Nara

Instability persisted and the capital was again relocated eight decades later, but a construction boom befitting of a capital had put Nara on the map ever since. Of all the Nara period buildings, the most notable is Todai-ji, one of the Seven Great Temples and home to the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world. The temple was founded at a time of great political and social turmoils, and soon it took on a role as the head of all the provincial temples. Todai-ji retained its influence until the Kamakura era.

The 16 m tall Great Buddha was completed in 751, built through eight castings over three years and required the manpower of 350,000 laborers. Emperor Shōmu hoped the statue would protect his kingdom from the haunting of spirits and future epidemics; instead its immediate impact was pushing the economy to the brink and using up all of the stockpiled bronze supply. The statue had been recast several times — the hands and the head date back to the 16th and 18th century, respectively. The Great Buddha Hall was until 1998 the world’s largest wooden structure. Twice burned down by fire, the current version was erected in 1709.

While deer are considered in Shinto a sacred animal that act as messengers of the gods, they roam freely in Todai-ji’s ground in an act of coexistence of religions.

Heian period (794–1192)

Relocated again, this time Kyoto

Daigo-ji, one of Kyoto’s most renowned cherry blossom viewing spots and a World Heritage Site in its own right, is a worthwhile visit during the cherry blossom season. For the other fifty weeks of the year, this relatively far-flung temple doesn’t justify the long commute.

Emperor Kammu, worried about the growing clout of the clergy class, moved his capital first to Nagaoka-kyo, then at last Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794. Existing temples were forbidden to relocate to the new capital; the plan was to cultivate new ones without any political ties. The imperial house, while powerful on the surface, was largely a figurehead as the real power was controlled by the Fujiwara clan.

With a focus on using wood, especially native species such as cedar, pine and larch, the new capital developed a distinctively local element from its inspiration Chang’an. Surrounded by Mt. Tanba to the north, Mt. Hira to the west, Arashiyama to the east and Ogura Pond to the south, Heian-kyo’s location was believed to be blessed on all sides by the four guardians Shijin.

Daigo-ji 醍醐寺

Buddhism was heavily promoted by the imperial court. Many Buddhist temples were constructed, often a confluence of political and religious interests. A prime example was Daigo-ji, first founded as a mountain hermit in 874 by the monk Rigen-daishi. According to legend, the aristocrat-turned-priest encountered a deity atop a mountain in the Yamashina Valley and was led to a spring that “tasted like the finest milk.” (Daigo means “finest milk”, indicating the truest form of Buddhist teachings.)

Gradual expansions, eventually turning the complex into an upper and a lower sections, happened during the reigns of emperors Daigo, Suzaku, and Murakami. The former was buried and posthumously adopted Daigo-ji’s name. Throughout the rise and fall of Heian dynasties, Daigo-ji remained a political force, especially in the early 12th century when the Minamoto clan supplanted the Fujiwaras and installed its clan members as the temple’s head monks. Sanbō-in, the complex’s most important building, was completed during this period.

Fire decimated Daigo-ji in 1260, 1295 and 1336, and was almost completely destroyed in 1470 during the Onin War. The temple saw a revival when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified the country, held a sakura-viewing party at the site in 1598 and subsequently ordered the rebuilding of the complex. Sanbo-in was recreated according to the fashionable shoin architectural style of Hideyoshi’s time.

The rest of Daigo-ji was mostly refurbished according to their original style of the Heian period. Architectural wise, the differences between Heian period and the previous eras remained subtle. A breakthrough was the ability to construct buildings at remote locations. Daigo-ji was founded in the mountains on the outskirt of Kyoto and required careful planning to accommodate the uneven topography.

For Part 2, click here.


4 thoughts on “6 Temples and 1,000 Years of Japanese Buddhism (Part 1)

  1. I thought that Daigoji was great in the non-cherry blossom time. It ended up being a favorite–the gardens in the complex, museum, great long history and quiet due to probably fewer than 30 visitors at the end of the day made my visit great. I stayed in the area. It was not the most convenient place to stay for a Kyoto visit (although getting to Nara and Uji wasn’t so bad), the Daigoji area is a 15-20 min. walk to the train station. But if one detests the crowds of some of the most popular places and wants quiet and history, I recommend seeing or even staying in Daigo.

  2. Cal:
    Thanks for the reply. My thinking is since there are so many top-notch temples in Kyoto there is not much reason to put the time and effort to get to Daigo-ji, but surely each temple has its own uniqueness and its own admirers.

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