Sunday, 27 May 2012

Temple of a Thousand Buddhas

As mentioned previously, Buddhism still remains a mystery to both Jules and myself. Yet, since we have lived here, we’ve developed a healthy respect for its traditions and rituals as well as the various art forms that seek to represent it. As a cultural influence, it is so deeply embedded into the grain of Japanese life that its presence can be felt everywhere as we move around the country. Temples abound, each filled with sacred objects and diverse representations from the Buddhist faith. While many look very similar, we occasionally come across something that is quite unique. Such was the case with the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, which surprised us in terms of both its scale and visual impact.

This 12th century ‘long building’ is in itself quite monumental, but it is the interior that provides the surprise. It houses the most amazing assemblages of life-sized Buddha statues that are carefully arranged in 10 rows of 100. Covered in gold leaf, each are positioned in a standing pose and while they are said to be identical, the hand-made nature of each figure provides some nice subtle variations to their facial features. Directly in the centre of the mass of statues is a large gold Buddha and interspersed along the full length of the figures are 28 fierce looking guardian deities (supernatural beings).

As it is a sacred place, Jules and I removed our shoes to enter the wooden structure that has seen few changes over the centuries. As we rounded the corner the sight of the seemingly endless line of golden statues created quite an impact. The scale and order of the formation was impressive with each row rising up a level as it moved back. Naturally we had the camera at the ready, but were dashed at the last minute by a large threatening sign forbidding any images from being taken (not usually the case in Japan). We wondered whether this was a religious thing or the custodians simply protecting their commercial asset? Possibly the latter, as it seemed that religious propriety didn’t quite apply to the souvenir shop next door.

While we strolled the long walk passed all of the figures, we were amazed at the sculptural detail, which we learned was all completed by a most respected artist called Tankai (1173-1256), who apparently worked into his 80’s to complete the mammoth task. Quite an achievement and it is not at all surprising that this temple is now regarded as one of the National Treasure of Japan.

As we reached the southern end of the hall and prepared to undertake the long walk back, we learn that the building has yet another facet to it’s long history. In the 17th century, samurai began assembling at the Sanjusangendo Temple to practice their archery skills; this eventually led to an annual tournament called the ‘Tōshiya’. The contest continues to this day and is held in the west verandah of the temple where archers shoot arrows the full length of the 118 metre long hall. Originally these were flaming arrows, so its testament to the accuracy of the archers over the past 250 years that the wooden structure wasn’t accidentally burnt down. It was fascinating to view some of it’s history through the traditional woodcuts that hung on it’s walls, as we both marveled at how such a building could some how still exist after all these years.

With no photos allowed, this is an image of an old postcard (copyright free)

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