The Blind Seeker of Toshodaiji


Mankind’s religious sentiments have often been reinforced by the awe created by powerful forces of nature. But occasionally such forces have played a more direct role in some of the great religious stories, like that surrounding one of Japan’s most famous temples, Toshodaiji, founded 1,246 years ago by Jianzhen, a blind Chinese monk, known in Japan as Ganjin.

The history of the temple, whose exquisite treasures are now on display at the Tokyo National Museum, is circumscribed by two of the most powerful forces of nature, namely typhoons and earthquakes. It could only be built after its founder had braved typhoons to reach Japan; while the present exhibition is the result of damage from the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake.

Built in the then capital of Nara, the temple served as a showcase of Chinese Buddhist architecture and sculpture, and a repository of accurate Buddhist scriptures and practices. As such, exhibition curator, Mitsuharu Iwasa, explains, it had an enormous cultural influence on Japan.
“Because Japan is an island surrounded by the sea, we have always been deeply interested in overseas culture,” he points out. “This is also true today, but back in those days Chinese culture was the newest and the best, and things ‘made in China’ were highly regarded.”
Added to the historical significance of Toshodaiji, is the drama of Jianzhen’s several attempts to reach his destination. After typhoons helped defeat two invading Mongol fleets in the 13th century, the Japanese were quick to ascribe this to divine intervention, terming the winds kamikaze, but, ironically, when similar meteorological phenomena deferred the arrival of Jianzhen, the religious aura of the traveler was only enhanced. This was because the trials that he faced on his journeys and his ultimate success in reaching his goal, became a powerful metaphor for the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Before Jianzhen’s arrival, Japan had steadily been going Buddhist for nearly two centuries. But the difficulty of the sea voyage meant that Japanese Buddhism was cut off from the more developed and doctrinally correct schools of Buddhism in China. Also, Buddhism’s rapid growth in Japan meant that there was a great need for order and discipline. So, in 733, in one of history’s great acts of headhunting, the Japanese Emperor Shomu sent envoys to Tang Dynasty China to recruit a top Buddhist master to reform the religion.

In 742, after several years in China, the envoys asked Jianzhen, who was then abbot of Daming Temple near Yangzhou, to come to Japan. He is said to have responded with the words, “For the sake of Buddhism, how can I begrudge my life?” This was because the voyage to Japan was considered extremely dangerous at that time.

In the event, this proved to be the case, as his first two voyages ran into fierce gales. It seemed as if Japan’s Shinto gods were doing all in their power to stop this further encroachment on their influence by a foreign religion. On one voyages, Jianzhen was blown off course as far as Hainan Island and shipwrecked on a deserted coast for several months. After being rescued, he became infected with a disease that blinded him on the long journey back to Yangzhou.

According to Iwasa, because of the reverence in which he was held, there was reluctance on the part of the Chinese government and his fellow monks to let him go on such a dangerous journey. Interference from this quarter seems to have thwarted three of his attempts. However, on his sixth attempt and third sea voyage he finally reached his destination in 754. Once in Japan, he not only reformed Japanese Buddhism, he also created a cultural revolution, introducing new styles and techniques of architecture and sculpture.

It might seem strange that one blind Chinese monk could have such a big impact on Japanese society, but, as Iwasa points out, he traveled with a large retinue. For example, on his second attempt, it is recorded that he traveled with 17 monks and 85 craftsmen. More than a mere missionary expedition, this was a major transfer of technology.

Although Japan’s typhoons played the main role in the saga of Jianzhen, the catalyst for this exhibition was Japan’s other notorious force of nature, earthquakes. Following the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake, it was discovered that Toshodaiji’s Kondo (main hall) had gradually become unstable and needed full-scale restoration work. Starting in 2000, the work is expected to last until 2010. In the meantime, all the treasures of the temple, including even the giant statue of Vairocana Buddha, are without a permanent home and are available for exhibition.

The museum display recreates the original settings of the Kondo, with the Vairocana Buddha surrounded by several protective deities. This great seated statue was made using the dakkatsu kanshitsu (hollow dry lacquer) method that involves modeling the image first in clay, then wrapping it in hemp soaked with lacquer, which can be sculpted with great artistry and sensitivity to create a final image. After drying, the clay is removed and a wooden framework inserted, making the statue easier to move. The protective deities are mainly carved from solid blocks of wood with some retouching, using kokuso urushi (wood waste lacquer).

With its enigmatic expression and dark patina, the Vairocana Buddha almost creates an aura of menace, reinforced by the scowling expressions on the faces of the protective deities. This contrasts with the other aspect of the exhibition, which features more soothing and meditative works from the Mieido (image hall). Foremost among these is the incredibly detailed and lifelike statue of Jianzhen himself.

Usually displayed only once year, on the 6th of June, the anniversary of his death, this sculpture, which was also made using the dakkatsu kanshitsu method, was commissioned by Jianzhen in his final days. Not only does it seem an extremely realistic portrait, suffused with an aura of gentle spirituality, but it has some interesting details. Those who get close enough will notice the painted-on eyelashes, ear hair, and even stubble, while the eyes of this blind monk seem to radiate a light that speaks of mystical inner visions, although Iwasa points out that this is merely because the more exposed parts of the statue, have been darkened from centuries of incense smoke.

Also well worth seeing from the Mieido are the 68 sliding door and wall paintings by Nihonga (Japanese style) painter Kaii Higashiyama. These delicately painted works present scenes of beauty from China and Japan connected with Jianzhen, which add considerably to our sense of the man and his legend. "Moonlight Evening in Guilin" (1980), a depiction of the fantastically shaped peaks and rocks in Southern China, is a scene with which he would have been personally familiar from his one year sojourn there following another failed attempt to reach Japan, while the sweeping beauty of "The Sound of Waves" (1975), executed in blue azurite, conjures up the power and the majesty of the great ocean that first frustrated, then finally brought Jianzhen to Japan.

South China Morning Post
6th February, 2005

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