Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How to watch and enjoy Japanese temples- make the best use of your trips to Japanese temples and shrines(1)

Buddhist temples in Japan are rich in history and romance. They contain many of the most exalted masterpieces of Japanese art and architecture. Temples dominate the average sightseer’s itinerary. Yet without the understanding of basic Buddhist beliefs or the development of sects, they can seem to be old and dark halls filled with many mysterious icons. The structure of temples and Buddha images reflects the basic tenets of each Japanese religion. Therefore, it is well worth the effort, for not only interested persons, but also all visitors, to learn to read temples and Buddhist images as a way to understand Japanese religion, and of course, Japanese culture.

During Buddhism’s long journey to Japan – through India, Central Asia, China, Korea- local gods and goddess were adopted. It consists of intricately ranked pantheon of deities, which conveniently mirrored the stratification of Japanese society. At the top were Nyorai(如来 or Buddha) and Bosatsu(菩薩 or Bodhisattva). The enlightened Sakyamuni was known as Shaka (釈迦) which is one of ‘Nyorai’ or ‘enlightened one’. The Buddhist deities have relations with the sect and period in which they are particularly prominent; however, one will see most of these deities in all types of temples, and from all periods.

Mahayana Buddhism worships several nyorai (如来) besides the historical Buddha or Shaka. Each nyorai is a different aspect of the same ultimate truth, and the relationships between them are explained by complicated theories about reincarnations, different ‘worlds,’ and different era. This idea is somewhat similar to Hinayana Buddhism in which the Buddha was born in 550 worlds before being born to be the real historical Buddha. In sculpture, their identifying marks include simple monk’s robes devoid of ornamentation, hair composed of snail curls, lotus, and a flower that symbolizes the capacity of every living being to rise out of the slime of existence and achieve nirvana.

Bosatsu(菩薩)or Bodhisattva are compassionate beings which postpone their own nirvana in order to save all sentiment beings. At the same time, they are manifestation of nyorai, and do his work in the world at large. In sculpture, two bosatsu often flank an image of this nyorai, forming a trinity. They are princely figures, with long tresses and jeweled ornaments, because they need to impress ordinary people with Buddha’s wisdom. Because bosatsu do the ‘leg work,’ they are commonly portrayed in active and standing poses.

The arrival of Buddhism in the mid-sixth century precipitated a profound cultural transformation in Japan. Places dedicated to the worship of Buddha were constructed, their architectural forms originating in China and Korea. Shotoku Taishi (573-621), the crown prince and regent during this seminal period, sought to use Buddhism as a unifying ideology transcending the individual clan. He attempted to entrench Buddhism alongside Shinto as a pillar of Japanese belief system. He built the first true Buddhist temples in Japan. These temples also served as powerful magic to cure ailments more physical than spiritual. One such temple was Horyu-ji (法隆寺) which was built in the south of Nara in 607.

Horyu-ji is regarded as the cradle of Japanese Buddhism. In fact, there are other temples older and more important than Horyu-ji, such as Gango-ji in Asuka and Shitenno-ji in Osaka, but none of their original building has survived. It contains the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world. The exceptional works of arts, including ancient images of Buddha, are housed here.

Horyu-ji has a famous Shaka trinity. This sitting Shaka has his right hand raised in a ‘do not fear’ mudra, with his left palm extended downward to the worshipper in the attitude of giving a sermon. However, Shaka is often shown standing. His two bostasu attendants are usually Monju, who rides a lion, and Fugen, who rides an elephant.

Horyu-ji’ pagoda, which is one of Horyu-ji’s oldest building and the oldest one of its kind in Japan, houses a famous sculpted scene showing a prostrate, dying Shaka, surrounded by grieving disciples.

Horyu-ji was dedicated to Yakushi(薬師), the nyorai of healing, to fulfill a vow made by Shotoku when his imperial sire became gravely ill. Yakushi also holds his right hand in a gesture of ‘do not fear’. His left hand usually holds a medicine jar; sometimes, instead he is seated on a rectangular dais, representing a medicine chest. He also often has seven little nyorai in his halo (for his seven manifestations) and is generally flanked by two bosatsu, Nikko(日光) and Gakko(月光)(Sunlight and Moonlight). He is also often surrounded by the Twelve Divine Generals, who are associated with the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Horyu-ji also houses thousands of small Miroku(弥勒) who is a follower of Shaka, Miroku is promised to appear as a nyorai billions of years in the future to save all beings. He is portrayed as a youth sitting with one leg crossed over the other, a hand resting lightly on his cheek, deep in thought.

The ancient Yamato temples, for example, 法隆寺, 四天王寺, and 薬師寺are strikingly different from temples elsewhere in Japan. These early temples convey openness, grandeur, and clarity of plan. They are also rather stark, without that organic luxuriance that makes later temples, such as those in Kyoto so pleasant to roam. These early temples were built as divine worlds, where neither man nor nature impinges upon and ideal of perfection. Though it is often said the Japanese have an innate preference for asymmetry, these temples are symmetrical, in strict accordance with the Chinese pattern. The temple layout is called the Shichi-do garan (七堂伽藍), or temple court with seven halls- pagoda (塔), main hall (金堂or本堂), lecture hall (講堂), drum and bell tower (鼓楼or 鐘楼), sutra repository (経蔵), dormitories (僧房), dining hall (食堂). The temples in early Nara sects were laid out in flat, open areas, but were no more access for it; surrounded by cloisters, they were off limits to ordinary people who at that time knew little about Buddhism anyway.

Many deities which are ranked in the Ten (deva) category were also absorbed into Japan. They were appointed ‘defenders of the faith.’ From the very beginning of Japanese Buddhism Ten were placed as guardians around a temple’s principle image.

Nio(仁王): Two important Hindu deities which are known in Japan as Bon-Ten. They are half-naked musclemen who guard the temple gates. One opens his mouth to pronounce ah, the other closes it for un (the first and the last letter of Sanskrit alphabet). These two sounds are alpha and Omega in Sanskrit alphabet, and thus represent eternity and completeness. The two famous pair of Nio called Taishaku-ten(帝釈天)are guarding the Todai-ji’s Hokke-do hall and the Refectory of Toshodai-ji.

Shi-tenno(四天王): these four heavenly kings stand at the floor corners around the main image, guarding the cardinal directions. The most important is 毘沙門天guarding of the north (the dangerous direction) and holding a pagoda in his palm. The Shi-tenno usually stomp demons underfoot.
The important Yamato temples in early Nara period are Horyu-ji法隆寺, yakushi-ji薬師寺 Toshodai-ji, 東大寺, 元興寺(Gango-ji), and kofuku-ji興福寺.

To be continued


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