The Great Buddha of Kamakura


Japan, although not an overly religious country, does cherish the religious element in the country’s cultural heritage. Lots of age-old traditions, cultural monuments, and customs in Japan are influenced by gods, legends, as well as Zen and Mahayana Buddhism.  Many of Japan’s historical and cultural sites are influenced by religion and among them the Great Buddha of Kamakura perhaps is the most popular religious monument. The sheer size of the statue alone is enough to make it much a popular monument and a travel destination for both local and foreign tourists but for the Japanese the statue means more than just a stand-out monument.

This giant Buddha statue is found in Kotoku-in – a Buddhist temple of the Jodo-shu sect in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. The temple is commonly known as Shojosen-ji. The giant bronze Buddha statue is a designated national treasure and is included in the Kamakura’s proposal to be included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list.

The history of the statue aligns perfectly with the heydays and the fall of the Japanese empire and its revival through industrial revolution to become one of the commanding economies in the world. The country had to go through a lot during its journey towards development and similarly, the statue’s history too is filled with tough times it had to endure. Therefore, the Japanese consider the Great Buddha of Kamakura to be an ideal symbol of both the fall and the rise of the nation.

The statue depicts Amitabha – a celestial Buddha that comes in Mahayana Buddhism. The name Amitabha means ‘endless world’ and the Japanese usually address their Buddha with honour in terms such as daibutsu hotoke-sama or mi hotoke-sama. One of the most common Japanese chants or mantras in veneration of Buddha goes like, Nama Amida Butsu Amitabha.

The seating Buddha statue has a gemstone on its forehead symbolising the ‘third eye’. The statue weathers all climatic adversities on its own without a luxury of an overhead cover and the sight of it from afar through rows of pine trees is an iconic and a grand one. The statue’s calm gaze is fixed upon the still water of the adjacent lake, and the gestures and the posture of the statue shows the wisdom and kindness Buddha possesses as well as the immaculate craftsmanship of the ancient Japanese artist.      

The statue was built in 1238. Since it was a made out of bronze the statue was completed in parts so even now, it can be sectioned into different parts. Altogether the statue weighs approximately 93 tonnes. It is 44 feet tall and one long earlobe is about 6.6 feet long. The mouth is 2.8 feet wide and each eye is about 3.3 feet wide. The distance between the two knees (the width of the statue) is about 30 feet while the circumference of the big toe is about 2.8 feet.

Some of the special features of the statue include; having half-circular eyebrows, horizontal eyes, and a long and prominent nose starting from the forehead. On the forehead is a gemstone that reflects bright white light on sunny days. A thin but long moustache can also be seen on the statue while the head is covered in curls curling clock-wise. According to scripts, there are 656 curls on the head of the statue. The creator has given ears of the statue much prominence and made them large and long. Next to the statue there is a pair of footwear on display which is thought to be used by Buddha. The statue is leaning on a wall which has entrances to enter the hollow inside of the statue. The visitors can buy a ticket and get to the top of the statue from inside.

The idea of building such a giant statue was first sprouted in the mind of Lady Inada no Tsubune – a servant of Shogun Yoritomo during 1147 – 1199. After the demise of her master she quit her job and devoted her life to raise funds to build the statue. Her efforts were well-received and praised by the Japanese people and many donated their wealth for her good cause. Especially, a Buddhist monk called Joko of Totomi collaborated with Lady Tsubune to build the statue.

Her efforts bore fruits in 1243 as she was able to unveil a giant wooden Buddha statue for the public to view and venerate. However, this wooden statue was destroyed by a storm in 1248 which prompted Lady Tsubune and Buddhist monk Joko to re-build the statue using bronze. The second project cost even more money than the first but the perseverance of the duo saw that the statue was re-built in bronze and unveiled again in 1252.     

The hall in which the statue was kept destroyed in a storm in 1334. It was re-built but was destroyed again in 1369 but was built again. In 1498 during Muromachi Period the Nankai Earthquake caused some tsunami waves to enter Kamakura which resulted in the hall being completely washed away. Since then, the statue has stood in the open air. In 1960 – 61 the statue was renovated for the last time. Ono Goroemon – a 13th-century Japanese sculptor 2 is largely credited for building the statue we see today.

The statue is often venerated by pilgrims and visitors. Among the objects offered to the statue, huge incense sticks and watermelon are quite popular. During the months of April and May when the Vesak festival of Japan is held, the vicinity of the Great Buddha of Kamakura is filled with tourists. It is an icon of Japanese cultural heritage as well as one of the most popular and beautiful Buddha statues in the world.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera