September 20 – A Statue of Buddha Loses Its Protective Hall

Posted on September 20, 2016

It is fascinating to think about which things we create and build can “stand the test of time,” can outlive us, can last decades or centuries or even (rarely) millennia.

For the most part, only things made of
stone, bone, shell, pottery, and other
hard materials can last for millennia.
When we study pre-historic cultures, it might be wise to stay humble by reflecting how few of our actions and passions could be reconstructed hundreds or thousands of years from now from the artifacts (objects) that would still be around then. So we probably are unaware of a LOT of what pre-historic people did and cared about, as well, right?

Still, we have to use what evidence we do have to learn about their lives, to reconstruct as much of their reality as we can. Those peoples who drew pictures and/or recorded in writing their history left us a lot more data about their lives and cultures.

Today I bring you the history of a famous Japanese landmark: the Great Buddha of Kamakura, in the Buddhist temple called Kōtoku-in.

This is a lovely statue of the Buddha statue, but it's hard to tell how large it is.

The photo below is helpful in showing the size:

Around 1233, sculptors began carving a giant wooden Buddha, a project paid for by the fundraising efforts of a noblewoman and a Buddhist priest. After ten years of hard word, the Buddha was completed.

However, just five years after the completion, a storm damaged the sculpture and destroyed the building (or “hall”) that housed the statue.

Back to the fundraising efforts, big time. This time around, the Buddhist priest suggested that the statue be a little more sturdy, made of bronze.

They were going to need a LOT more money.

The statue was probably cast in 1252, and it was gilded with gold. Once again a hall was built to house the statue.

That hall was destroyed by a storm in 1334.

It was rebuilt.

The hall was damaged by another storm in 1369. (What's with it with these building-maiming storms?)

It was rebuilt again.

This time the hall lasted more than a hundred years. That is a really long time, for sure. This time, when it was destroyed, it wasn't by a mere storm – it was by a tsunami!

You see, on this date in 1498, an earthquake caused a tsunami – and that gigantic wave washed away the hall built to protect the Great Buddha statue.

But the statue itself was fine. Sure, by now almost all of the gold had flaked or washed off – we can still see a little in the folds of the statue's ears – but the statue is more than 43 feet (13 meters) tall! And it weighs about 102 tons (93 metric tonnes)! It wasn't going to wash away...

Ever since that day, the bronze statue has remained uncovered, unprotected, in the open air.

You can see what the inside of the Great Buddha looks like --
and how light enters the hollow interior -- in these photos.

I believe that the graffiti is removed as soon as it is discovered.

Pigeons no doubt leave
unsightly droppings on
the statue. But they can't
read and understand the
sign; people can, and they
should know not to graffiti the
statue even without a sign!
By the way, it almost seems silly to think of a merely wooden building protecting a monumental bronze sculpture, but maybe the whole idea wasn't protection from storms and waves. It may have been meant as protection from people! I read that there used to be 32 bronze lotus petals at the base of the statue, but now only 4 remain. And I'm sad to report that there is graffiti in the hollow insides of the statue!

Whoever would graffiti an amazing and really old statue, a work that is holy to some, has got to be lacking some pretty important qualities. I think that they probably didn't read the sign at the entrance to the grounds – or at least they didn't take the message to heart:

Stranger, whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the Temple of Bhudda [sic] and the gate of the eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence."

(In case you don't know, “[sic]” is placed into quotes to indicate that a misspelling or other mistake is original to the quote. In this case, I didn't misspell “Buddha”; whoever created the temple's sign did.)

The Great Buddha of Kamakura in the snow!

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