Continental Art and Religion for the Daibutsu Great Buddha at Todaiji Museum


The famous Daibutsu Great Buddha, perhaps the object most symbolic of Nara and certainly throughout many periods the most representative of the power of Buddhism in Japan, was dedicated in Todaiji temple in 752 after an immense nationwide effort to gather resources for its construction – and its dedication was accompanied by much fanfare. In fact, what took place was something of an international gathering, in as far as Japan could be international at the time. Patron of this gigantic icon Emperor Shomu, his family, and his court hosted representatives of other Buddhist countries, including China and India, who were feted with a grand “opening ceremony”, Buddhist rituals, dance performances, and a display of the surfeit of the realm. They also received a wealth of luxurious tributary goods made as offerings to the Buddha which were duly stored away in the Shoso’in repository, and many of which, because of this careful method of preservation, have been maintained in exceptionally good condition. These objects make their way out for public appreciation once a year at the Shoso’in exhibition at Nara National Museum, but other valuable and beautiful pieces related to Todaiji are kept in its own museum, situated steps away from the temple itself.


When a Buddhist statue, especially an important one, is installed in a temple, dedicatory objects are often deposited beneath its altar, and some of what has been excavated from the gigantic platform where the Buddha sits (at 15 metres high today one of the biggest bronze statues in Japan) as well as what was used in the grand opening ceremony, is on display at Todaiji Museum. Since the Great Buddha has gone through several iterations because of destruction (the present one dates from 1691), excavations have been possible. It is well worth a visit to the museum to put the experience of this giant Buddha into historical and spiritual context, because although many of the exhibits are unsurprising – if impressive – early statues, others give us a less predictable insight into what Buddhism and its icons meant in the mid-8th century to the rulers of the realm, which is illuminating in terms of political significance, material production, and even the meaning of the objects. As cynical as some today may find the excessive – and depletory – resourcing of metals from all over Japan for the Emperor’s extravagant enterprise, the extraction of votive objects from beneath or in front of the Great Buddha’s altar to be displayed in a museum is simultaneously as subject to skeptical interpretation as it is attestation to a sincere faith in the 8th-century and even a religious fear. And certainly, the declared intention of true believer Shomu for the statue was explicitly concerned with enlightenment for all. Unearthed crystal, amber, and glass beads, of value at the time, as well as (often engraved) bowls of precious metal and even coins, which can be seen at the museum, were gifts conventionally bestowed to the earth deities when a new temple was constructed as a means of asking permission to build, and requesting protection of the new site, a diplomatic arrangement with the non-human occupants of the land. The same logic applied to the installation of a major Buddhist icon, though the objects also lavished honour on the Buddha represented who was considered to be somehow animate and capable of exerting power. But like many grave goods in various ancient cultures, these were objects of beauty and utility never intended for human eyes or human use. More stunning still as offerings to the unseen world (that of Buddha, earth deity, or death-journey traveler) are the gold swords that were buried. Their scabbards were decorated with winding grapevine arabesques of gold plate and jewel-like stones. The originals are severely deteriorated but a gleaming 2016 reconstruction reveals the astonishing luxury of the originals, and the high design skills involved in their making. Converse to these hidden pieces, cruder wooden masks from the early theatrical dance tradition of Gigaku with lively, humorous expressions tell us of the performances given before the audience of international and local dignitaries upon the consecration of the Great Buddha.


In Buddhist temples, there is a practice of placing objects and icons inside small pagodas placed on altars. These were used in rituals, and the 8th century icons of lacquer-pattered gilt bronze of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and Taho, the Buddha of Many Treasures, enlightened long before Shakyamuni, are an example from Todaiji’s Precepts Hall altar. According to the Lotus Sutra (which came to have immense significance in Japan), Shakyamuni, who is depicted here gesticulating with mudras used in teaching, was invited by Taho – hands serenely folded beneath robes and draped in jewels – to sit beside him in a pagoda which appeared floating in the air beside the historical Buddha’s assembly. These convey something of the sutra-based faiths engaged in by the monks of Todaiji during its earliest period. As do the statues of two female Buddhist deities in polychromed clay, a material that fell out of use shortly afterward, who are based on descriptions in the Sutra of Golden Light. Both are in the rare form and dress of T’ang period Chinese noblewomen, another trend that softened and developed as Buddhism became further and inevitably incorporated into Japan’s own ways, sense of beauty, and fashions of aristocratic women. In addition to these beautiful works, there is a spectacular 9th century 1000-armed Kannon Bodhisattva statue and a small meditating bodhisattva that is thought to have belonged to Emperor Shomu himself.



“Dragon in Buddhism”, a small, special selection of Todaiji’s religious art, is currently on display to coordinate with the upcoming Year of the Dragon, based on the Chinese zodiac calendar. The Great Buddha’s dedication ceremony was during a Dragon Year too, as was the year, 740, in which he determined to build Todaiji temple. The dragon brought rain-making powers into Buddhism in India and was also a protector of the faith (just as the earth deities placated with gifts would be protectors of the temples in Japan). It mixed with Taoism in China on its way to Japan, and in its encounter with Buddhism each zodiac sign, including the dragon, was associated with a protective Buddhist being. The exhibition shows a 12th century warrior figure with a dragon-head as a belt-buckle, an example of the fabulous military imagery often employed in Buddhist culture. Other pieces include an elaborate dragon mask from the following century for a court dance (pictured on the exhibition flyer, above), a large, evocative ink painting based on Chinese precedents, which captures the movement of the dragon in ways only ink, brush, and the innovative sweeping techniques Chinese art introduced could, and a colourful 19th century painting of the Dragon King who lived in an ocean palace protecting relics and sutras of the Buddha.


A visit to Todaiji Museum puts one’s “own encounter with the Buddha” – as an introductory video screened in the entrance passage puts it – into the context of the encounters with it by the peoples of the past and of other cultures and is a highly recommended addition to the whole experience.


The “Dragon in Buddhism” exhibition runs from December 25th to February 9th


Access to Todaiji Museum: Walk east on Noborioji-cho for about 20 minutes from Kintetsu Nara Station (map)


Admission (permanent exhibition and “Dragon in Buddhism” exhibition):

Apr – Oct: 9:30 – 17:30 (Last admission 17:00)
Nov – Mar / 9:30 – 17:00 (Last admission 16:30)



Adult: 600 yen
6-12 years old: 300 yen


Please feel free to contact us here at Kansai Treasure Travel any time for further details, travel advice, or a custom tour, and see our 1 Day Nara and Uji Private Tailor-made Tour


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