The Yakushiji temple, located in Nara, Japan, is the headquarters of the Buddhist Hosso sect and one of the most important temples in the country. Originally founded in 680 CE at Fujiwara-kyo but then relocated to Nara in 718 CE, its famous three-storey East Pagoda is original. Most of the other structures at the complex, although they follow traditional designs, were reconstructed in the 20th century CE following a destructive fire in the 16th century CE. The complex boasts many fine examples of early Buddhist art, notably the bronze Yakushi Triad which dates to 690-718 CE. Yakushiji is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Yakushiji temple was founded in 680 CE in Fujiwara-kyo, then the capital of Japan. The idea came from Emperor Tenmu (r. 672-686 CE) who, after his wife fell seriously ill with an eye affliction, wanted a temple built in honour of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing (of both the body and soul). In a strange twist of fate, Tenmu died before his wife, but the latter, now reigning as Empress Jito (r. 686-697 CE), continued to support the temple project and construction was completed in 698 CE.
Relocation to Nara
Nara, 30 km south of modern Kyoto, was made the new capital of Japan in 710 CE, a position it held until 784 CE. Capitals moved relatively frequently in ancient Japan prior to the 9th century CE because, when an emperor died, it was considered inauspicious for his or her successor to remain in the same city. Nara, then known as Heijokyo or Heijo, was selected because of its central location and proximity to important waterways. Another peculiarity of Japanese emperors was to move entire buildings to their new capital and this was the case with the Yakushiji temple in 718 CE. The distance between Fujiwara and Nara is 20 km (13 miles), but this did not deter Empress Gensho (r. 715-724 CE) who not only had the temple moved but also enlarged so that it became one of the ‘Seven Great Temples of Nara.’
Yakushiji, in what is today the southwest suburbs of Nara, is the head temple of the Hosso Buddhist sect which was founded according to the principles of Ganjo Sanzo, a Chinese monk who lived in the 7th century CE and who travelled widely across East and Central Asia and India. Of the six major sects of Buddhism in ancient Japan, Hosso is the only one still in existence today.
The Hondo or Main Hall, sometimes referred to as the Golden Hall, has a wooden flooring but the original was probably of clay. The exterior, a 20th-century CE reconstruction, is typical of the great halls in many other Buddhist temples. The Hondo has an impressive pagoda on each side of it in a symmetrical architectural plan known as the Yakushi style; the temple was the first to have such a layout. Each pagoda has three storeys, although, because of the addition of extra roofs (mokoshi) for decorative purposes, they appear to have six storeys from the outside. The East Pagoda (To-to), which dates to the 8th century CE, is considered one of the finest examples in Japan, stands on a stone platform, and rises to a height of 33 metres (108 ft). Each floor has a balustraded verandah, and the pagoda’s bronze spire or filial is 10 metres (33 ft) high.
Other structures include the Toindo (East Hall) which was first built in the 13th century CE, the Hozoden (Treasury) and the Daikodo (Lecture Hall) where up to 100 monks once studied. The octagonal Genjo-Sanzion (Mausoleum) was built in 1981 CE and contains the remains of the Hosso sect’s spiritual founder, while next to it there is a hall containing paintings which show the life of Ganjo Sanzo by the celebrated artist Ikuo Hirayama (1930-2009 CE) who is most famous for his depictions of Silk Road landscapes.
Yakushiji boasts some of the finest Buddhist sculptures in all of Japan. Amongst the star pieces are the Yakushi Triad inside the Main Hall. These bronze figures were cast sometime from 680 CE to 718 CE when they were moved to Nara along with the original temple. Miraculously, the figures survived the terrible fire of the 16th century CE, although they did lose much of their gilding and so now appear black. The central figure of Yakushi Nyorai is seated on a medicine chest in a departure from the more usual allusion to the Buddha’s healing skills by having him hold a medicine bottle in one hand. The reliefs on the bronze box, which show sacred animals representing the cardinal directions and various demons, show a marked influence from Chinese and Indian Buddhist art while the vine and grapes border is typical of the Japanese art of the period. The figure of Yakushi is 4.3 metres (14 ft) in height while the attendant bodhisattvas standing either side are just a little shorter, measuring 4 metres (13 ft). All three figures are backed by large gold halos which are intricately carved and include the customary high-relief figures of seated Buddhas.
The art historian and former Commissioner of Fine Arts to the Japanese government Ernest F. Fenollosa ascribes the Yakushi Triad to the great Japanese sculptor known as Giogi. On the statues themselves, Fenollosa boldly states:
They are, perhaps, the finest standing bronze figures of the whole world…Taking the Yakushiji group as a whole, it does not seem extravagant to say that its aesthetic value would alone repay a student the whole time and expense of a trip from America to Japan. (136)
Set behind the figure of Yakushi is a stone relief, depicting the footprints of Buddha, which was consecrated in 749 CE. Measuring 47 cm in length (18.5 inches) and including auspicious Buddhist symbols, such footprints were often shown at shrines in medieval Japan. They are here accompanied by an inscription of 21 verses which sing the Buddha’s praises and which were chanted by believers visiting the shrine.
The East Hall contains a fine bronze figure of Sho-kannon (aka Kwannon or Guanyin), the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Believed to have been a gift from the king of the Korean kingdom of Baekje (18 BCE - 660 CE) which had close relations with Japan, it dates to the late 7th century CE or early Nara Period (710-794 CE). Standing on a three-tiered base and 1.9 metres (6.3 ft) tall, the curvaceous figure with clinging robes is a typical example of the style of East Asian sculpture adopted from Tang Dynasty China (618-907 CE). The statue stands amidst sculptures of the four Shitenno guardians, the Buddhist deities of the cardinal directions.
One figure that has not managed to stay in its original home is another statue of Kwannon, this one carved from wood. Now on display in the Nara Imperial Household Museum, the figure dates to the 8th century CE and is typical of Nara Period sculpture. The figure has ten small heads arranged around the crown of the main head and stands 1.9 m (6.3 ft) tall. The left hand holds a small bulbous jar, while the clothing hugs the sensuous but solid-looking figure.
Finally, the Treasury building of Yakushiji contains a great number of Buddhist artworks which include sculptures, paintings, and examples of calligraphy. As is common in Japan, some of the most precious artworks are only displayed on special occasions, and this applies to perhaps the most significant work, an 8th-century CE painting on hemp which shows Kichijoten, a Buddhist deity of fertility and good fortune, but thought to be modelled on Empress Komyo (l. 701-760 CE).
The West Pagoda and other buildings, including, as mentioned, the Main Hall, Daikodo, and Toindo were all reconstructed on their original sites after a devastating fire had destroyed the originals in 1528 CE. This work was not carried out until the 20th century CE, though, as Yakushiji struggled to regain its former prominence in the intervening centuries. A large-scale restoration project of the whole site began in 1971 CE and is still continuing today.
This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.