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Yakushiji's Pagoda dates from 730

Yakushiji - Temples in Nara
An Imperial Healer

One of the Imperial Tombs I visit in Asuka, on my walk through its verdant fields to Asukadera, is the double grave of Emperor Temmu and his wife Empress Jito. It is a round hill, densely overgrown, adorned by a Shinto gate and surrounded by a small expanse of white sand to indicate ritual purity before the grave. A guardhouse sits to one side, but the policeman on duty seems to be taking his lunch break. The only sign of life is a gray cat with a wounded paw, which flees into the dense undergrowth when I arrive.

The tomb of Emperor Temmu is a good place for reflections on the transience of life: 'Thus the mighty have come to nothing.' It sounds like a hackneyed phrase, but in this case it is very appropriate, too. For mighty they were: Temmu was one of the few Japanese emperors who was more than a symbolic existence. After grabbing power by a coup d'etat, he governed with a strong hand, a rule that was continued by his wife after his death. Empress Jito set up Japan's first fixed capital, called Fujiwarakyo, in the northern part of Asuka. Temmu established new laws, a strong bureaucracy and a system of ranks. Of course in the process he did not forget to put himself at the apex of all and everyone in the country.

Temmu was the first Japanese emperor to call himself a 'living god,' and had court poets such as Hitomaro sing his praises in a most lavish way. Temmu, the 'child of the high-shining Sun,' 'who was destined to rule the land for ten-thousand generations' was literally glorified into heaven.

In the dome shaped hill before me, covered by a green riot of trees and shrubs, a handful of dust is all that remains of the man who once considered himself a 'living god'...

But Temmu was also a Buddhist and that makes me curious to see Yakushiji, the temple he founded.

The Main Hall seen through the South Gate
The Main Hall seen through the South Gate

An Imperial Temple
Yakushiji was originally founded in Fujiwarakyo, Japan's first 'fixed' capital, set up by Empress Jito in the area which now ranges from Kashihara to Sakurai in southern Nara. In other words, originally the temple stood not far removed from Asuka where I have just visited Temmu's grave. Construction was begun from 680 onwards, after a vow by Emperor Temmu wishing for the recovery of his Empress Jito from an illness. That explains the fact that the main statue is the Healing Buddha. The Golden Hall and its main image, a Yakushi triad, were finished in 688, but by then, ironically, the emperor himself had suddenly died of an illness and his wife sat on the throne as Empress Jito.

The total temple complex was only finished under the next emperor, Monmu. Shortly after that, in 718 Yakushiji was moved to the new capital of Nara, to Nishi-no-kyo, where I find it today. It is generally thought that the Yakushi Triad was taken from the Fujiwara temple, while the buildings were newly reconstructed.

Yakushiji was one of the most important temples in Nara, funded by the state. Unfortunately, it met early with disaster. A large fire destroyed most buildings already in 973. The Kondo Hall survived, but fell victim to a fire in 1528, by which the Yakushi statue was charred black. The only original building still standing in its prime glory is the East Pagoda. With such a history, today the temple might have been no more than a museum with some statues. On the contrary, I find a full temple layout, as since 1976 the temple has been working hard to restore the buildings it once lost: the West Pagoda was rebuilt, as was the Kondo Hall, the Chumon, and now the Lecture Hall has just been finished, too.

The new Main hall
The new Main hall

Frozen Music
Early Buddhism already brought the figure of the Yakushi Buddha to Japan. Yakushi is the Healing Buddha, but also the Physician of Souls. He heals illnesses of the body and dispels confusion of the soul. It is no wonder that in a pre-modern age when people were helpless against disease, a Healing Buddha would become very popular. But more importantly, the Yakushi was seen as a sort of general magician, to whom also prayers for assistance with matters in this world could be addressed. He was believed to protect the Emperor from illness and grant protection to the State. When Buddhism first entered Japan, it was seen as a technology to bring in benefits from the world of the unseen. That is why it received government sponsorship.

The Kintetsu station lies close to the north entrance of the temple, which is in fact the back gate, as the temple is oriented towards the south. On purpose, I therefore walk around the grounds. I cross the railroad tracks and follow a narrow road on the other side, where I have to walk so close to the houses that I rip my shirt on a nail. A small offer to get a good view of Yakushiji... On the south side I find a pleasant Shinto Shrine, dedicated to Hachiman, that has been paired with the temple. When I pass through the grounds, a friendly priest waves to me and gives me an English pamphlet about the shrine.

The temple's South Gate stands just behind the shrine and also faces a rather narrow road. The gate is therefore not very imposing, but from here the plan of the temple is beautifully clear: the modern (vintage 1971) Main Hall flanked by two elegant pagodas. The East pagoda dates from 730 and is the only original building remaining. The West Pagoda has been reconstructed in 1981 according to the original plan in wood. It still misses the patina of the old one, but its shape is graceful. The Lecture Hall, at the back of the Main Hall, was still under construction during my visit, but has been finished while I write this (2003), so that the original 7th c. temple layout has been completely restored again.

I stand admiringly in front of the East Pagoda. The American art historian Fenollosa poetically called its balanced beauty 'frozen music.' But a pagoda is more than a beautiful building, as I realize when I see a priest of the temple, who passes through the grounds, stand still and bring his hands together in front of his chest as a sign of silent prayer towards the pagoda. Pagodas were built on top of relics of the Buddha and therefore symbolize his presence. In the earliest temples, the pagoda stood in central position; only later, as is the case in Yakushiji, the pagodas flank the main hall with its statues. In other words, the statue of the Buddha took over the position that the Buddha's symbolic presence in the form of the pagoda had enjoyed.

Detail of the Pagoda
Detail of the Pagoda

The Healing Buddha
I enter the Main Hall to meet those statues. The open doors already afford me a preview. The large Yakushi statue sits center stage and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. The Healing Buddha is imposing, to say the least. It is indeed an imperial statue, fitting the power of the court of Temmu and Jito. It is clear that this was a time of expansion and confidence. Sitting in lotus position, it has a full, well-proportioned shape. The bronze has an attractive dark luster, the result of exposure to the above-mentioned fire that destroyed the original gilding. I find it more pleasant than what the original, glittering gold must have been like and hope the temple will not include this statue in its restoration fever. The face is noble, although I cannot find the compassion here that some writers observe. To me, it is rather the detached face of an aristocrat. The right hand is lifted in the semui mudra, the sign of 'Reassurance' and the left hand rests on the knee in the gesture of 'Wish-granting.'

The two attendant figures are the Bodhisattvas of the Sun and the Moon, indicating that the Yakushi is ready to hear our call by day and night. They stand in 'hip-swing' position, bent at the waist with one foot lifted slightly upward. In contrast to the masculine character of the main figure, they are rather feminine in appearance.

Genjo-Sanzo-in
Genjo-Sanzo-in, the modern hall for Xuanzang

Kannon Redux
Yakushiji is one of the few temples in Japan that belongs to the Hosso school, originally introduced in China by the pilgrim Xuanzang, who studied its teachings during a 20-year long pilgrimage to India. His disciple Jion is regarded as founder of the school. In India it was originally established in the 4th century by Vasubandhu (J. Seshin) and Asanga (Mujaku). The school, which is also called the Yuishiki or 'Mind-Only School, is based on a very metaphysical premise: only the mind is real, the world is thought to have no independent existence. Although this philosophy played an important role in Japanese Buddhism until the Middle-Ages, it was given no new development by the practical-minded Japanese. Other major Nara temples as Kofukuji and Horyuji also belonged to Hosso, but it has been only a small stream in Japanese Buddhism.

Interesting is how Yakushiji managed to make a comeback in the late 20th century. Despite its important statues and pagoda, the temple had almost dwindled away. The popular abbot Takeda Koin was in the 60s and 70s responsible for drumming up popular support to strengthen the temple's finances and make the enormous rebuilding program possible. This was done by organizing sutra copying sessions, where the copied sutras would then be kept in the temple for a small donation. Copying sutras is a meritorious activity, and even more so if it leads to the rebirth of a major temple. Takeda Koin was a popular preacher and wrote many books that are still in print. Besides rebuilding the original garan or temple layout, Yakushi went even further, as to the north of the temple also the Genzo-Sanzo-in was set up, a chapel dedicated to a relic of the above mentioned Xuanzang. This chapel now has been fitted out with large wall-paintings by the famous contemporary painter Hirayama Ikuo. They depict the arduous journey Xuanzang made from China to India. On the chapel hangs Xuanzang's motto: Futo, 'I will not return East,' meaning he would not go back to China before his pilgrimage was accomplished.

I also visit the Toindo hall, behind the East Pagoda, to see the charming 8th c. bronze Kannon statue it possesses. This is a Sho-Kannon, which is the basic, non-esoteric form of Kannon. The statue is protected by the Four Kings standing in the corners of the altar. The casting of the bronze is subtle and masterfully suggests the folds of the thin dress. Although the Yakushi is a masterful, imperial statue I feel more attracted to the Kannon, who is after all the guardian of my pilgrimage. The Yakushi just is too imperial. I imagine that his noble face may even have been modeled on that of Emperor Temmu. This Buddha is only suitable to protect states or save emperors, he does not look as if he cares for the health of small individuals like myself.

I am sure I will be better off by putting my trust in the Kannon.

Temple Name:

Yakushiji
'Temple of the Healing Buddha'

Denomination:

Head temple of Hosso Buddhism

Foundation:

680 by Emperor Temmu

Address:

457 Nishi-no-kyo-cho,
Nara-shi,
Nara-ken
Tel. 0742-33-6001

Treasures:

Yakushi Nyorai Triad (Kondo, 7th c.)
East Pagoda of Yakushiji (730)
Kannon Bosatsu know as Sho-Kannon (Toindo, 7th-8th c.)
Painting of Kisshoten (Temple Museum, 8th c.)

Access:

5-min. walk from Kintetsu Nishi-no-kyo Station

Admission:

¥500
8:00-17:00

Festivals:

Flower Offering Ceremony (Hana-Eshiki), March 30-April 5.

The famous NT portrait of Kisshoten in the Daihozoden Temple Museum is exhibited from Jan. 1-15 and Oct. 8 - Nov. 10.

The Daihozoden is also open from mid-March - April 5 and April 29 - May 5. It has many treasures, such as a NT portrait of Jion Daishi, the founder of Hosso Buddhism.

On December 29 a ceremonial dust wiping (Ominugui) of the Yakushi Buddha takes place.

A festival for Xuanzang is held on May 4 and 5 in the Genzo-Sanzo-in.

Travel tip:

Also visit Toshodaiji Temple, which is only a 10 min walk from Yakushiji.

Resources:

The official website of Yakushiji has no English

The Healing Buddha by Raoul Birnbaum is a study of the Yakushi (Shambala, 1989)

A translation of the sutra on which the belief in the Healing Buddha is based can be found on the Buddhanet site (PDF file).

Copyright 2003-2006 Ad G. Blankestijn, Japan. All rights reserved.

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