The Seated Statue of the Rushana-butsu (the Birushana Buddha) in the Todai-ji Temple (東大寺盧舎那仏像)

The seated statue of the Rushana-butsu in the Todai-ji Temple is a Buddha statue generally known as the 'Great Buddha of Nara.'
It is the honzon (principal image) of the Kondo (Daibutsu-den [Great Buddha Hall]) of the Todai-ji Temple in Nara City. Upon the wish of Emperor Shomu, the Rushana-butsu statue was started to build in 745, and a Kaigen kuyo-e ceremony (also called Tamashi ire ceremony [transferring soul ceremony]; an eye-opening ceremony to consecrate a newly made Buddhist statue) was hold in 752. The present statue received extensive repair during the medieval and early modern periods which kept its original parts only in the pedestal, the stomach and some parts of the fingers. The statue has been designated as a national treasure, specific to the sculpture section in the name of 'Dozo Rushana-butsu zazo' (the bronze seated statue of the Birushana Buddha).

The Great Buddha is officially called 'Rushana-butsu zazo' (the seated statue of the Birushana Buddha) and the Daibutsu-den 'Todaiji Kondo' (the main hall of Todai-ji Temple), however, they are described as 'the Great Buddha' and 'the Daibutsu-den' respectively in this section.

Details of the construction of the Great Buddha

An official history 'Shoku Nihongi' (Chronicle of Japan Continued) and the records of the Todai-ji Temple 'Todaiji Yoroku' (The Digest Record of the Todai-ji Temple) tell us basically how the Great Buddha was constructed as follows.

741: The Emperor Shomu issued a Mikotonori (imperial edict) for the construction of Kokubun-ji (a provincial temple) Temple and Kokubun-niji (a provincial nunnery temple).

743: The Emperor Shomu issued a Mikotonori to construct the Great Buddha at the Shigaraki no miya Palace located in Omi Province. The construction of the Great Buddha was started in the Koga-ji Temple near the Shigaraki no miya Palace.

745: The capital was returned in Heijo-kyo (the ancient capital of Japan in current Nara) after five years of the relocations from place to place such as the Kuni no miya Palace, the Shigaraki no miya Palace, and Naniwa no miya Palace. The construction of the Great Buddha was started anew in the location of present day Todai-ji Temple.

746: The original statue mold for the casting of the Great Buddha was completed.

747: The casting process of the Great Buddha began.

749: The casting of the Great Buddha was complete.

May 30, 752: Lavish Kaigen kuyo-e (Tamashi ire ceremony) of the Great Buddha was held.

As stated previously, the Great Buddha was planned to be built in the present Koga City in Shiga Prefecture at first, rather than in Nara. However, that construction plan was canceled due to some threatening events such as consecutive forest fires around Shigaraki no miya Palace, and the Great Buddha started to be built at the present location of the Daibutsu-den Hall of Todai-ji Temple at the same time with the return of the capital to the Heijo-kyo. Among technical experts engaged in the production, KUNINAKA no Muraji Kimimaro (also known as KUNINAKA no Kimimaro) as a Daibusshi (master sculptor), TAKECHI no Okuni and TAKECHI no Mamaro as a Chushi (metal caster) and others were recorded. In the Kaigen Kuyo-e ceremony in 752, many important people attended such as Daijo Tenno (the retired emperor) Shomu (already abdicated from the throne), Empress Dowager Komyo, and Empress Koken. It was said that about 10,000 Buddhist priests participated in the ceremony.
From the name list of the priests attended the ceremony remaining in Shoso-in monjo (documents of Shoso-in Treasure Repository), it is known that it was no exaggeration to say '10,000 Buddhist priests.'
Bodai Senna, a Buddhist priest from India, was in charge of the Kaigen doshi (an officiating priest to consecrate a newly made Buddhist statue or image by inserting the eyes). The brush used at the Kaigen (eye-opening) and the Gigaku-men Masks (masks for Gigaku, an ancient masked drama) used in the Gigaku performance for the dedication to the Great Buddha on that day, and others are present today as the Shoso-in treasures.

The Casting Technique of the Great Buddha Statue

The original mold' completed in 746 was for a mold to make a statue in bronze. The method of producing the original mold is assumed as follows.

First, the wooden pillars were put together in length and breadth. Around it, thin weaved branches or ropes, a kind of a 'kago' (woven basket), were wound up to make a general shape of the Great Buddha statue.

Next, covered it up with clay soil. It was coated with rough soil then gradually minute one on the outer side. Then a clay statue which was the same size of the bronze statue to be made was completed. This clay statue was called an original mold or Nakago (inside mold).

After the original clay mold was dried enough, an 'outside mold' (also known as megata in Japanese), which covered the whole original mold, was to be made of clay as well. Not to stick the Nakago mold and the outside, a method was supposed to be taken such as to insert a thin paper or to sprinkle mica between them.

Then, removed the outside mold.

Next, shaved the surface of the inside mold to a constant thickness.

The once removed outside mold was put together again, and melted copper was poured into the space between the inside and outside molds. The space created by shaving the surface of the inside mold would become the direct thickness of the copper for the completed statue. Because the Great Buddha was designed to be a gigantic statue, it had to be divided into a total of eight sections from legs to the head, requiring two years to be cast.

Those described the casting process in an extremely simple conceptual manner. It is supposed that there were many other processes such as some techniques to prevent gaps between the outside and inside molds, finishing surface after casting, installing of tightly-curled hair knots and the plating with gold. It would seem to be unimaginably difficult to overcome the physical demands in the construction of such a gigantic Great Buddha statue. It was said that many workers lost their lives through working accidents and mercury poisoning which was used as a solvent in the plating process during construction.

In addition, the structure of the statue is close to the modern expressional term of the Monocoque (French for "single shell") structure because the statue gained material strength through a single mold casting (as for the metal crust).

The intellectual and historical background of the construction of the Kokubun-ji Temples and the construction of the Great Buddha

In appearance, we can't distinguish from the statue of the Great Buddha and other Nyorai (Tathagata) such as Shaka Nyorai (Shakyamuni), but the Great Buddha is a Birushana-butsu (Birushana Buddha). Birushana-butsu was a Buddha teacher who had been taught in the Kegon-kyo (Avatamsaka Sutra; a body of Buddhist scriptures which were formed in Central Asia before and after 400 A.D., and it was brought to Japan via China), and was described as the head of a religious sect of 'the Lotus Matrix World' by the Kegon-kyo. Although the thought of the Kegon-kyo was profound and difficult to comprehend, on the extremely whole, the Emperor Shomu enshrined Birushana-butsu inside the Todai-ji Temple of the head of provincial temples. It is thought that he aimed Japan to be an ideal world like 'the Lotus Matrix World' in this effort.

In 741, the Emperor Shomu issued an order of Mikotonori to build the Kokubun-ji Temple and Kokubun-niji Temple in each province. The Todai-ji Temple was the Kokubun-ji Temple in Yamato Province, also placed as the head of provincial temples in Japan. There was the religious belief of the 'Konkomyo Saisho-o kyo' (Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra) in the intellectual background of the construction of Kokubun-ji Temples. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the early sixth century. During the era of the Emperor Shomu, two centuries had passed since the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Several major temples were built in the Heijo-kyo such as Gango-ji Temple, Yakushi-ji Temple, and Kofuku-ji Temple, and successive emperors deeply believed in Buddhism. In these national policy of seikyoitchi (unity of religion and politics), the 'Konkomyo Saisho-o kyo' (translated into 10 volumes by Gijo, also known as I Ching or Yi Jing, a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk), a set of Buddhist scriptures to guard the nation, was valued. According to this Buddhist scriptures, Shitenno (four guardian kings who are Goho zenjin [good gods protecting dharma]) come to a king who believes in this scriptures to protect the nation. Emperor Shomu ordered the construction of Kokubun-ji Temples for every corner of Japan and enshrined the statue of Shakyamuni and Konkomyo Saisho-o kyo Sutra. By doing this, he intended to stabilize the nation. In the early eighth century when the Emperor Shomu was acceding to the throne, precisely during the Tenpyo period (710 - 794), Japan lacked stability. In 737, four brothers of the FUJIWARA family, FUJIWARA no Muchimaro, Fusasaki, Umakai, and Maro who were central to the politics of the day, subsequently passed away by smallpox which raging at that time. In addition, there were continuous droughts and famine every year during the Tenpyo period. In 734, a massive earthquake caused extensive damage, then in 740, the preceding year when the Emperor Shomu issued a Mikotonori to construct the Kokubun-ji Temples, the FUJIWARA no Hirotsugu War occurred. This period was exposed by such social unrest. It is estimated that there was a wish of the Emperor Shomu to remove these social unrests and stabilized the nation behind the construction of the Kokubun-ji Temples and the Great Buddha in Todai-ji Temple.

Todai-ji Temple and TACHIBANA no Naramaro

In 752, the casting of the Great Buddha was completed and the Kaigen-e ceremony of the Great Buddha was held in grand style by the priest, Bodai Senna, from Tenjiku (present, India), as a doshi (ceremony leader). After the casting of the Great Buddha, the Daibutsu-den was started to be built to be completed in 758. However, these major construction projects depleted the national budget and worsened the Japanese financial condition. The Emperor Shomu had to face this reality, far removed from his wishful ideal. Actually, the aristocratic class and temples prospered and grew wealthy, while burdens to the farmers increased tremendously. Thus, there were always vagabonds and deaths from starvation in the Heijo-kyo, and Soyocho (a tax system, corvee: in Feudal Law, an obligation to perform certain services, the repair of roads, for the lord or sovereign) led to the near collapse of some regions. In conclusion, these constructions highlighted the major contradictions of the Taiho Ritsuryo (Taiho Code).

Daijo Tenno Shomu died on June 8, 756. The TACHIBANA no Naramaro War occurred in August of the same year. TACHIBANA no Naramaro, who was arrested on August 8, confessed the revolt for the investigation by FUJIWARA no Nagate as follows.
The constructions of Todai-ji Temple and others forced people to endure hardship.'
I planned a revolt because politics were tyrannical.'
Here, Nakamaro had no ready answer since Nagate refuted as follows.
In the first place, the construction of the Todai-ji Temple started during the lifetime of your father, TACHIBANA no Moroe.'
You don't have the right to say something about it.'
First of all, it is none of your business.'
The TACHIBANA no Naramaro War was planless and a hasty action. However, the fact that the Todai-ji Temple was used as a pretext for the rebellion showed the construction of the Todai-ji Temple itself aimed to realize only the Emperor's ideal. This was a tremendous project without any thought of problems such as its actual work situation, the financial circumstances, and so on. The war revealed these truths to the public.

The Two-time Destruction by Fire and the Revival

In the decades following the completion, the Great Buddha had cracks and began to slant. In an earthquake in 855, the head of the Great Buddha fell off the statue, but was repaired soon after. Later, the Great Buddha and the Daibutsu-den were twice consumed by fire during the period of the Genpei War and the Sengoku period (period of warring states) respectively.

The Destruction by fire due to TAIRA no Shigehira

The first destruction occurred in 1180; the war by TAIRA no Shigehira (Nanto Yakiuchi [the Incident of the Taira clan's army setting fire to the temples in Nanto, Nara]) burnt down the entire Kofuku-ji Temple. This fire resulted in a tragic incident, the burning down of major buildings of the Todai-ji Temple. At this occasion, Chogen SHUNJYOBO (1121 - 1206), a priest in the position of Daikanjin (priest to collect contributions) made every effort to revive the Todai-ji Temple. Kanjin' (temple solicitation) was originally meant to promote a relationship with the Buddha, and then turned to be to collect contribution for the revival of a temple. It would also be represented in the name of the Buddhist priest who honored the position. Chogen gained the cooperation of CHIN Nakei, a metal caster who visited Japan from Sung in this period, and others in completing the revival of the Great Buddha. A Kaigen-hoyo ceremony (an eye-opening ceremony) was held in 1185. At this ceremony, the Emperor Goshirakawa took a brush of the Kaigen to perform the ceremony. In addition, in 1195, the Rakkei hoyo (a memorial service to celebrate the construction of a temple) of the Daibutsu-den was held in the presence of the Emperor Gotoba, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, Masako HOJO, and so on.

The Destruction by fire due to Hisahide MATSUNAGA

The second destruction of the Great Buddha and the Daibutsu-den was the direct result of the war by Hisahide MATSUNAGA (for the details of the war, please refer to the battle of the Daibutsu-den of the Todai-ji temple) in 1567. Different background and time from the previous reconstruction, it was not pursued as intended this time. The Daibutsu-den was reconstituted with-in a temporary temple, however, was collapsed during severe winds in 1610. The Great Buddha had its head fallen off and spent several decades in a decrepit headless style with opening to the weather.

In 1685, by permitted Kokei Shonin (1648 - 1705) from the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) to collect fund for the revival of the Great Buddha, the reconstruction started at last. In 1691, the restoration was completed. The Great Buddha which blessed in a consecration ceremony in the following year and the Daibutsu-den completed in 1709 are exited today.

The height of the present Great Buddha statue is approximately 14.7 meters and the perimeter of the stylobate is 70 meter. Although the head part was repaired in the Edo period and the body part from Kamakura to Muromachi periods, some parts of the statue, such as the pedestal, the right side, the sleeves from both arms, the thigh, and so on, remain their original part in the Tenpyo period. A graphic representing the world view of the Kegon-kyo (Avatamsaka Sutra) engraved on the renben (lotus petal) of the pedestal is valuable as an artifact in Tenpyo period.

The present Daibutsu-den is 57.5 meters wide in front (from east to west), 50.5 meters depth, and 49.1 meters height from the base to the ridgepoles. Although the height and the depth of the present building are almost the same as those of the original, the width is about two thirds of it (the original width was about 86 meters).
Together with the Goei-do Hall (hall dedicated to the sect's founder) of Shinshu-honbyo Mausoleum, the Daibutsu-den is generally introduced as 'one of the largest architectural wooden structures in the world.'
(Incidentally, as modern constructions in and after 20th century, the hangars [aviation term] of airships which U.S. Navy built across the United States from 1942 to 1943 [nine of them exist today], the Odate Jukai Dome in the Akita Prefecture, and so on, are larger scale than the Daibutsu-den.)