Temples of the East

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Although not considered as a Theravada Buddhist country, Japan has Zen Buddhism – which is widespread across Japan – as well as traces of Mahayana Buddhism. Just like it is in Sri Lanka, Japan also boasts many ancient historical and architectural sites which are Buddhist temples. In fact, there are quite a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan which are ancient Buddhist shrines. As Vesak Poya Day is just around the corner, let us take a look at two of Japan’s most iconic Buddhist World Heritage Sites.

Hōryū-ji

 Hōryū-ji (Temple of the Flourishing Dhamma) is a Buddhist temple located in Nara Prefecture. Along with another temple called Hokki-ji, Hōryū-ji was declared as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name of Buddhist Monuments in the Hōryū-ji Area.

The temple’s full name is Hōryū Gakumon-ji which means Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law. The complex serves both as a seminary as well as a monastery.

The most iconic monument in the temple is its wooden pagoda which is considered as one of the oldest manmade wooden structures in the world. The five-storey pagoda is 32.45 metres tall and it is believed bone fragments of Buddha are enshrined in the pagodas relics. 

  The temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan and therefore, every structure, monument, and object in the temple is well-cared for and considered as objects of national heritage. Currently, the temple consists of two areas, namely; Sai-In (west wing) and To-In (east wing)

Kondo – located in the Sai-In – is another old wooden structure. Essentially a prayer hall, the Kondo measures 18.8 metres by 15.2 metres. The wooden building has two storeys and only the ground floor has a double roof.

Yumedono (Hall of Dreams) is located in the To-In and is one of the main constructions in the east wing. It is built on the grounds where the private palace of a prince called Prince Shōtoku used to be. The name of the hall was coined in the Heian period after a legend that says a Buddha arrived as Prince Shōtoku and meditated in a hall that existed there.  

The temple was originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku and was completed in 607 CE. The temple was originally called ‘Wakakusadera’ and the current name was given to the temple as a tribute to the father of the Prince. During a restoration process in 26 January 1949, a fire broke out and destroyed a mural belonging to Asuka Period which was considered as a national treasure. The incident shocked the country and based on the unfortunate event, 26 January is now observed as the ‘Fire Prevention Day for Cultural Properties’

 Kiyomizu-dera

Located in Kyoto – the cultural capital of the country – Kiyomizu-dera is one of the oldest Buddhist shrines in Japan which carries much religious and cultural importance. In tourism point of view, the temple is one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto where many flock during spring to take part in ‘Hanami’ – the iconic cherry blossom viewing happening in every April.

Kiyomizu means pure water and staying true to its name, the temple boasts lots of pure and clean water sources courtesy the streams that flow through the temple starting from the picturesque mountains surrounding the temple. The temple is included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites for its historical and religious importance but it attracts millions of tourists annually for its breathtakingly beautiful landscape and natural surroundings.

The temple complex includes several shrines, including Jishu Shrine which is dedicated to the god of love and good matches. The shrine has two ‘love stones’ placed 10 metres apart which single visitors looking for love try to walk between with their eyes closed. It is believed those who make it is sure to find their true love or soul mate soon. 

The origins of the popular Japanese expression, ‘to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu’ – which is the Japanese equivalent of the popular English saying, ‘to take the plunge’ – can be traced to Kuyomizu-dera. During Edo Period there was a common practice which involved people jumping off a stage at the temple which is 13 metres high. It was believed ones who survive the plunge are the lucky ones and their wishes will be granted. During Edo Period 234 jumps were recorded with a survival rate of 85.4 per cent. The practice was officially prohibited in 1872.

Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 778 CE but the iconic buildings of it were added to the temple only in 1633. Despite the majority of ancient buildings are wooden, not a single nail is used in constructions. It is located on the foothills of Mount Otowa and Otowa Waterfall is located within the temple premises. The three streams of the waterfall fall into a pond from where pilgrims can drink water. It is believed that drinking water of the pond has miraculous powers to heal and grant wishes.   

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranweera