Built to impress, twice
When completed in the 740s, Tōdai-ji (or “Great Eastern Temple”) was the largest building project ever on Japanese soil. Its creation reflects the complex intermingling of Buddhism and politics in early Japan. When it was rebuilt in the twelfth century, it ushered in a new era of Shoguns and helped to found Japan’s most celebrated school of sculpture. It was built to impress. Twice. What is a shogun?
Buddhism, Emperor Shomu and the creation of Tōdai-ji
Buddhism quickly became associated with the Imperial court whose members became the patrons of early Buddhist art and architecture. This connection between sacred and secular power would define Japan’s ruling elite for centuries to come. These early Buddhist projects also reveal the receptivity of Japan to foreign ideas and goods—as Buddhist monks and craftspeople came to Japan.
Buddhism’s influence grew in the Nara era (710-794) during the reign of Emperor Shomu and his consort, Empress Komyo who fused Buddhist doctrine and political policy—promoting Buddhism as the protector of the state. In 741, reportedly following the Empress’ wishes, Shomu ordered temples, monasteries and convents to be built throughout Japan’s 66 provinces. This national system of monasteries, known as the Kokubun-ji, would be under the jurisdiction of the new imperial Tōdai-ji (“Great Eastern Temple”) to be built in the capital of Nara.
Why build on such an unprecedented scale? Emperor Shomu’s motives seem to have been a mix of the spiritual and the pragmatic: in his bid to unite various Japanese clans under his centralized rule, Shomu also promoted spiritual unity. Tōdai-ji would be the chief temple of the Kokubun-ji system and be the center of national ritual. Its construction brought together the best craftspeople in Japan with the latest building technology. It was architecture to impress—displaying the power, prestige and piety of the imperial house of Japan.
However the project was not without its critics. Every person in Japan was required to contribute through a special tax to its construction and the court chronicle, the Shoku Nihon-gi, notes that, “…the people are made to suffer by the construction of Tōdai-ji and the clans worry over their suffering.”
The statue was inspired by similar statues of the Buddha in China and was commissioned by Emperor Shomu in 743. This colossal Buddha required all the available copper in Japan and workers used an estimated 163,000 cubic feet of charcoal to produce the metal alloy and form the bronze figure. It was completed in 749, though the snail-curl hair (one of the 32 signs of the Buddha’s divinity) took an additional two years.
When completed, the entire Japanese court, government officials and Buddhist dignitaries from China and India attended the Buddha’s “eye-opening” ceremony. Overseen by the Empress Koken and attended by the retired Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo, an Indian monk named Bodhisena is recorded as painting in the Buddha’s eyes, symbolically imbuing it with life. The Emperor Shōmu himself is said to have sat in front of Great Buddha and vowed himself to be a servant of the Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha, Buddhist Law, and Buddhist Monastic Community. No images of the ceremony survive but a Nara period scroll painting depicts a sole, humbly small figure at the Daibutsu’s base suggesting its awe-inspiring presence.
Chogen and the rebuilding of Tōdai-ji in the Kamakura Era (1185-1333)
The Genpei Civil War (1180-85) saw countless temples destroyed as Buddhist clergy took sides in clan warfare. Japan’s principal temple Tōdai-ji sided with the eventually victorious Minamoto clan but was burned by the soon-to-be defeated Taira clan in 1180.
Chōgen was unique in his generation in that he made three trips to China between 1167-1176. His experience of Song Dynasty Buddhist architecture inspired the rebuilding of the temples of Nara, in what became know as the “Great Buddha” or the “Indian” style.
Kei School of Sculpture
The large scale rebuilding after the Genpei Civil War created a multitude of commissions for builders, carpenters and sculptors. This concentration of talent led to the emergence of the Kei School of sculpture—considered by many to be the peak of Japanese sculpture. Noted for its austere realism and the dynamic muscularity of its figures, the Kei School reflects the Buddhism and warrior-centered culture of the Kamakura era (1185–1333).
Ecology, craftsmanship & early Buddhist art in Japan
The grand Buddhist architectural and sculptural projects of early Japan share a common material—wood—and are thus closely linked to the natural environment and to the long history of wood craftsmanship in Japan.
When Korean craftsmen brought Buddhist temple architecture to Japan in the sixth century, Japanese carpenters were already using complex wooden joints (instead of nails) to hold buildings together. The Koreans’ technology allowed for the support of larger, tile-roof structures that used brackets and sturdy foundation pillars to funnel weight to the ground. This technology ushered in a new, larger scale in Japanese architecture.
Monumental timber framed architecture requires enormous amounts of wood. The wood of choice was cypress, which grows up to forty meters tall and has a straight tight grain that easily splits into long beams and is resistant to rot.
Tōdai-ji’s reconstructed main hall was only half the size of the original and its pagodas several stories shorter. The availability or scarcity of quality local wood was a major factor in the design and evolution of architecture in Japan. For example, the growing scarcity of cypress of structural dimensions led to innovations that allowed carpenters to work with less straight-grained woods, like red pine and zelkova.