Through the Open Gate of Heavens: The Tōdaiji Objects and Salvation in Vairocana’s Lotus Treasury World
2. Vairocana’s Universe on the Bronze Pedestal
I [Rocana] dwelled in the Lotus Flower Platform Store World Ocean [Lotus Treasury World], which was surrounded by a thousand petals, each petal holding one world, which became a thousand worlds. I transformed these into a thousand Śākyas overseeing a thousand worlds. As a consequence, each petal world further contained ten billion Mount Sumerus, ten billion suns and moons, ten billion of the four continents, ten billion Jambudvīpas, and ten billion bodhisattva Śākyas, sitting beneath ten billion bodhi trees, each expounding the bodhisattva mind-ground about which you have raised a question. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine Śākyas each manifested ten trillion Śākyas in the same way. Each of these thousand buddhas sitting atop the flowers was one of my transformation bodies. Each of the ten trillion Śākyas was one thousand Śākya transformation bodies. I am the source of all of these, and my name is Rocana Buddha.16
At this time the thousand buddhas sitting on lotuses17 and the ten trillion Śākyas got up from the blazing lion thrones in the lotus flower store world and each returned [to his original place*]. Their entire bodies emitted inconceivably numerous rays of light, and in each of these there appeared innumerable buddhas. At once, they took innumerable blue, yellow, red, and white lotuses and offered these to Vairocana Buddha. Having finished receiving and memorizing the above-taught “Chapter on the Dharma Access of the Mind-ground”, each took his leave and departed from this lotus flower store world.18
…Children of the Buddha! [Regarding] this Lotus Treasury World Ocean: there is Mt. Sumeru with myriads of wind disks…The upper-most wind disk is called the “Treasury of Extraordinary Illumination”, which supports the Fragrant Ocean Ornamented with Universal Illumination of Maṇi Jewels. This fragrant ocean holds a large lotus flower called the “Fragrant Banner with Varying Illuminating Blossoms”. The Lotus Treasury World Ocean is within this lotus. Its four directions are flat, pure, and firm. The Diamond Mountain rings around its edges. Its land, sea, and trees are all differentiated.19
3. Stabilizing Imperial Sovereignty through Kegon Teaching
4. Tōdaiji Objects Transform Inside the Pedestal into Vairocana’s Universe
5. Tōdaiji Objects and Buddhist Benevolence as Kōken’s Filial Act
…The summer eighth day of the fifth month, Tenpyō Shōhō 9 , when Mars rested on the fire-cock direction, was the last day of your highness’s Buddhist serving of meal and repentance ceremony for the one-year anniversary commemorating the death of the Retired Emperor. At this time, Indra, sympathetically resonating with your and Queen Dowager’s utmost sincerity, opened the gate of heavens, observed down at the magnificent deeds and acknowledged your highness’s reign, blessing it with a hundred years of longevity…61
Śākyamuni Buddha, residing in the state of the fourth concentration (dhyāna) in the royal palace of Mahēśvara, together with innumerable Brahmā kings and inexplicable, untold multitudes of bodhisattvas, expounded the chapter of the Dharma gate of the mind-ground as explained by Vairocana Buddha in the world of the lotus flower platform store [Lotus Treasury World]. At that time the body of Śākyamuni emitted the radiance of wisdom, which illuminated from the heavenly palaces to the worlds of the lotus flower platform store. All the sentient beings in all of the worlds, seeing each other, were overcome with joy, but as they were unable to know the causes and conditions of this illumination, they all had thoughts of doubt. Countless celestial beings also gave rise to doubt… Śākyamuni then lifted the great assembly from this world, returning to the world of the lotus flower platform store, where amid a palace with hundreds of billions of rays of red-tinged adamant they saw Vairocana Buddha. A million lotus flowers vividly shone from above his seat. Then Śākyamuni and the members of the great assembly simultaneously bowed in reverence at the feet of Vairocana Buddha.66
6. Transgressions, Repentance, and Tōdaiji Objects
My disciples, you should compassionately engage in the practice of releasing captive animals into the wild. All men have been our fathers, and all women our mothers. In our numerous past lives, there is no one who has not been our mother or father. Therefore, sentient beings in all six destinies have all been our fathers and mothers. If we were to slaughter and eat them, it would be the same as slaughtering and eating our own parents, as well as slaughtering [and eating*] my own former body. All lands and waters are my former body; all fire and wind are my original essence. Therefore you should always carry out freeing captive animals so that living beings can continue to be reborn and undergo rebirth…On the day of the death of your father, mother, or elder or younger siblings you should request a Dharma teacher to deliver a lecture from the Bodhisattva Vinaya Sutra [Bonmōkyō] in order to convey blessings on the deceased that they may attain a vision of the buddhas and be reborn as a human being or as a celestial.69
My disciples, if you see someone who is ill, you should always make offerings to them, no differently than you would for the Buddha. Among the eight fields of merit, that of caring for the ill is foremost. If your father or mother, teacher, fellow monk, or disciple is ill, handicapped, or suffering from any kind of ailment, he or she should be cared for until their illness is removed.82
My disciples, if you see any sentient beings violating the eight precepts, the five precepts, or the ten precepts, or who are defying the prohibitions by way of the seven heinous acts or the eight difficult circumstances, or any other kind of violation of the precepts, you should encourage them to repent.86
Institutional Review Board Statement
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Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
I would like to express my gratitude to the guest editors, Drs. Soonil Hwang and Youn-mi Kim, and to the anonymous reviewers for the careful reading of the manuscript and suggested revisions.
Okumura (1976). For an English summary of his argument, see Walley (2018, pp. 65–66).
Katsuura (2014, p. ii). For an accessible introduction to the Kōken’s career in English, see Bender (2022).
Scholars have proposed to interpret the visual program of the Great Buddha through an array of scriptures beyond Kegon and Bonmōkyō (e.g., Daichidoron 大智度論 or Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Scripture). This study follows Tomura Ataru’s 外村中 careful comparison that concludes that a relevant visual detail deriving from another scripture was not added to the Great Buddha unless it also adhered to the Kegon teaching. Toyama (2016, pp. 1–32).
Lowe (2017). Lowe’s study focuses on the activities of the Nara period scriptorium traceable through contemporaneous documents, particularly those stored in Tōdaiji’s Shōsōin repository. Based on the case study of a sūtra-copying project commissioned in 748, the author demonstrates that the three scriptures selected were carefully calibrated to address specific anxieties, which could only have been possible with commissioners’ engagement with the sūtras’ contents.
For an accessible introduction to the Tōdaiji objects in English, see Walley (2018, pp. 65–73).
Yoshimura (1972). For a concise timeline of key events surrounding the initial building of Tōdaiji, see Nara Kenritsu Kashihara Kōkogaku Kenkyūjo Fuzoku Hakubutsukan (2000).
In 758, Kōken abdicated to Junnin 淳仁 (733–765; r. 758–764) but continued to exude authority as the retired sovereign. Eventually, she reclaimed the throne in 764 and reigned for the second time until her death in 770 ((often called the Shōtoku 称徳 era to distinguish from her first reign). This study primarily concerns the period of her first reign, so it will refer to her as Kōken.
Morimoto Kōsei argues that Vairocana provided a name and visible form to the “Buddha body” (hosshin 法身; Sk. dharmakāya) already mentioned in Konkōmyōkyō. Asuka Sango describes that, in early Misai-e 御斎会 (involving a recitation of Konkōmyō saishō-ō kyō), a statue of the Vairocana Buddha and two bodhisattva attendants were placed on the imperial throne. Morimoto (2012, p. 298). Sango (2015, p. 16).
Ono (1915). For a concise summary of the debate, see Uesugi (1994, pp. 209–33).
According to Kimura Kiyotaka, Bonmōkyō adapted Kegonkyō’s worldview. Expanding on Kimura’s discussion, Yoshimura Rei points out that, in Tang dynasty China, the two sets of scriptures were understood to be in a “sibling relationship”; thus, in terms of representation, there was no notable distinction between Vairocana as the central deity for Kegonkyō or Bonmōkyō. Kimura (1977, pp. 149–52). Yoshimura (1999, pp. 53–54).
Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (hereafter T), 24:997c (Takakusu and Watanabe 1924–1932). The English translation is based on Muller and Tanaka’s translation of the Brahmāʼs Net Sūtra (Muller and Tanaka 2017) (hereafter BNS), pp. 5–6. In Muller and Tanaka’s translation, what appears above as “petals” of the lotus world is translated as “leaves”. This is most likely because the term used in the Chinese original, yō 葉 (C. ye), is a common quantifier used to count leaves. However, in the case of lotuses, the same quantifier is used to count the number of petals. For instance, the most common lotus design seen in lotus pedestals and architectural details in a temple is the “eight-petal lotus”, or hachiyō renge 八葉蓮華. For this reason, I have changed the “leaves” in the translation to “petals” for clarity.
The original phrasing is 千花上佛, literally “buddhas on one thousand flowers”. The translation rendered these “flowers” as “lotus petals”. Based on visual conventions of similar scenes, the quote above corrects it to simply “lotuses”.
T24:1003b. BNS, pp. 38–39. Notations original to the translation will be marked with an asterisk. Also see Matsumoto (1986, p. 57).
T10:39a. Unless otherwise noted, translations of Kegonkyō are mine.
For a recent English language discussion on the impact of Wu Zetian’s (武則天; c. 624–705) on the Buddhist activities on Shōmu and Kōmyō, see Wong (2018, pp. 169–219). For an accessible discussion of the images of Vairocana Buddha in Korea, see Park (2012, pp. 261–90).
At both Longmen Grottos and Tōshōdaiji, each petal on the lotus pedestal includes just one miniature image of the seated Śākyamuni Buddha.
T9:395b and T10:2a.
T24:1000a. BNS, pp. 20–21.
For instance, Shinjō’s three-year lecture on the Old Translation performed at Konshuji 金鐘寺 beginning in 740 impacted the future conceptualization of Tōdaiji. Horiike (1980, pp. 386–31). For a related discussion on the visiting monks stationed at another prominent Nara temple of Daianji 大安寺, see Wong (2018, pp. 202–10).
Famously, Zasshū 雑集 (Miscellany; compiled 731) in Shōmu’s hand includes an inscription from a Vairocana image. Morimoto (2012, pp. 296–99). For a discussion in English of Shōmu as an active agent in the reconceptualization of Yamato kingship through Buddhism, see Piggott (1997, pp. 236–79).
According to Nakabayashi Takayuki 中林隆之, the first half of the eighth century was a transitional period from the Old Translation to the New Translation. For instance, the lectures during the eye-opening ceremony were based on the New Translation, but copies of both the Old and New Translations were offered to the Tōdaiji statue. Nakabayashi (2015). In English, see Morimoto (2012, pp. 291–305).
Shoku Nihongi (hereinafter SN), Tenpyō Kanpō 1 (749). Intercalary 5.20. Aoki et al. (1992, 3:80–83). Translation of Shoku Nihongi is mine.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756).6.10. Aoki, 3:164–165.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 1 (749).4.1. Aoki, 3:64–65. The phrase opens Shōmu’s edict presented to the Great Buddha celebrating the discovery of gold from the northeastern region.
Regarding Jianzhen’s arduous journey and his legacy in English, see Wong (2018, pp. 221–50). For the translation of The Great Master of the Tang Travels East, see Bingenheimer (2003, 2004).
Kōchi Shōsuke argues that Shōmu made unprecedented political maneuvers regarding succession, including appointing as his heir his newborn son by his consort of non-royal lineage, Kōmyō, elevating Kōmyō’s status to Queen Consort (kōgō 皇后) after the death of their son, and subsequently appointing their daughter Princess Abe as his heir while a grown son from another consort was still alive. Kōchi attributes his unconventional maneuvers to Shōmu’s own birth as a son of Monmu and Miyako, his non-imperial consort of Fujiwara descent. Kōchi (2014, pp. 67–101).
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 1 (749).Intercalary 5.20. Aoki, 3:80–83. Shōmu was the first Yamato sovereign to take a tonsure.
The authorship of this commentary is a vexing issue that is outside of the purview of this article. What is relevant to this discussion is the fact that, at the time of Shōmu, no doubt was raised as to its authenticity as Prince Shōtoku’s own composition. For more in English on this commentary, see Dennis (2017, pp. 449–507), and Walley (2015, p. 122).
STJ, s.v. “Shōman bunin”. Shōmangyō gisho states, “Although Śrīmālā was originally an inconceivable being, she appears in the world at the seventh stage of the bodhisattva”. For the English translation of the commentary, see Dennis (2011, p. 13).
Including Kōken, six female sovereigns ruled between the sixth and eighth centuries, all of whom exhibited leadership equal to or surpassing that of their male counterparts. However, customarily, female sovereigns were considered to be transitional in their role, installed at a time of crisis with no male heir of suitable lineage or age. Kōchi (2014, pp. 45–52).
Half a century earlier, the first and only female sovereign of China, Wu Zetian, already employed a similar logic of reincarnation to legitimize her rule. For an accessible discussion of Wu Zetian’s Buddhist-inspired politics, see Chen (2002, pp. 114–17).
Three Asuka and Nara period swords with an incised Northern Dipper motif remain, including one in the Shōsōin repository from the 756 offering. The other two examples—in Hōryūji and Shitennōji—are associated with the Four Heavenly Kings, the protectors of a state. For more on the Northern Dipper motifs on swords, see Sugihara (1984, pp. 1–21).
The definition of jōbuku is broad. Kōsetsu Bukkyō-go jiten lists the following: suppression, control, harmony, and submission; to restore balance and calm; to regulate and subjugate; to suppress poison with medicine; regulate one’s body and mind; training; to restore one’s conduct to the correct way by suppressing and removing evil; to suppress evil within oneself; to teach the enemy to relinquish malintent; and to quell those who are one’s obstacles. Nakamura (2001), s.v. “jōbuku” 調伏.
SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757).7.12. Aoki, 3:212–215.
For instance, after Shōmu’s illness in 745, Tachibana no Naramaro 橘奈良麻呂 (725–757) challenged Princess Abe/Kōken’s legitimacy multiple times, which culminated in his attempted coup in 757. Katsuura (2014, pp. 102–19, 134–35, 141–43).
Regarding the identification of these swords, see Walley (2018; 2022, pp. 29–34).
SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757).8.23. Aoki, 3:226–227.
For evolution on sacred mountain worship in China, see Munakata (1991, pp. 1–48).
Examples include Caves 249, 285, and 428.
The surface ornamentation of the Tamamushi Shrine is in fact characterized by repeated inclusion of mountain landscape motifs to the point that the physical presence of the shrine itself serves as a symbolic mountain. Chan (2018, pp. 63–75), and Walley (2012, pp. 320–21).
Hida Romi argues that the mountain landscape on the Hōryūji murals expressed the deities manifesting themselves in the devotees’ realm. Hida (1997, pp. 91–114).
The jar went through a significant repair soon after its initial discovery in the early twentieth century, which unfortunately was never documented. However, based on its shape and the quality of the ornamentation, it was likely produced domestically during the Nara period. Tsukamoto (2015, p. 332), and Tōdaiji Myūjiamu (2013, p. 133).
Nagaoka (2012, pp. 41–57). In English, see Dorothy C. Wong’s contextualization of the rising cult of esoteric deities at Tōdaiji within Wu Zetian’s legacy. Wong (2018, pp. 184–200).
Maeda et al. (1969, pp. 79–87). For an overview of the debate, see Kawase (1994, pp. 235–62).
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756).6.22. Aoki, 3:164–167.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756).6.21. Aoki, 3:164–167.
SN, Tenpyō Kanpō 1 (749).7.2. Aoki, 3:82–83.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756). 12.30. The order was reiterated on the fifth day of the first month of the following year. Aoki, 3:170–171, 174–175.
T24:1004a. BNS, p. 42.
欲使以此妙福无上威力翼冥路之鸞輿向花蔵之宝刹 (kono myōfuku mujō no iriki o mochite myōro o tasuke kezō no hōsatsu ni fukashimen to omou). SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756).12.30. Aoki, 3:170–171. The reading of the passage and its interpretation are based on the transcription and annotation in Aoki, 3:171–172. I have translated a few characters more literally to clarify the nuance. For instance, the character for tasuke (翼) in “myōro o tasuke” (翼冥路) here means to “assist”, but this character as a noun also has the meaning of “wings”. Thus, the connotation here is to help propel or levitate by providing wings (figuratively, or in this case, literally). Ranyo (鸞輿) refers to Shōmu in this context, but its actual meaning is “palanquin of a heavenly sovereign”.
Kōmyō’s vow includes a prayer that begins with “I humbly pray that with this bliss would give wings to the sage [Shōmu] to long wield the wheel of dharma and swiftly arrive to the realm of treasures of the Lotus Treasury World…” (fushite negawakuba kono myōfuku o motte sengi o tasuke tatematsuri nagaku hōrin o yorokobi sumiyakani kazō no hōsatsu ni itari 伏願持茲妙福奉翼仙儀永馭法輪速到花蔵之宝刹). Much later in her career, Kōken (now returned to throne for a second reign) once again employed a similar phraseology in her prayer accompanying the Buddhist canon (issaikyō 一切経) she dedicated to Shōmu in the fifth month of 768. Katsuura (2014, p. 232).
Although the central concern of Piggott’s essay is on a period of Kōken/Shōtoku’s reign that postdates the timeframe of this article, her discussion of the importance of the filial relationship to Shōmu through Kōken/Shōtoku’s political career is informative. Piggott (2003, pp. 47–57).
SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757).3.20 and 8.13. Aoki, 3:176–177, 220–221.
五月八日開下帝釈標知天皇命百年息. SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757).8.18. Aoki, 3:222–223.
SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757).8.18. Aoki, 3:222–223. The translation of the quoted section is mine, but a full translation is available in Bender (2010, pp. 233–35).
A related discussion appears in Lowe (2017, pp. 74–79).
Specifically related to mortuary culture, Yamato Takeru 日本武尊 (one of Keikō’s sons in the imperial mythology and a legendary warrior) was believed to have transformed into a “white bird” (shiratori 白鳥) upon his death and ascended to the heavens. Nihon shoki, Chūai 1.11.1. Sakamoto et al. (1994, pp. 320–21).
For a discussion of bird worship in Japan, see Hirabayashi (2011, pp. 113–33).
SN, Yōrō 6 (722).11.19. Aoki, 2:124–125.
T24:997b. BNS, pp. 4–5.
T24:1005c. BNS, p. 51.
Groner (2018, p. 29). Emphasis in original.
T24:1006b. BNS, p. 55.
Sesshō kindan is one practice where the teaching in the Sūtra of the Golden Light and Kegon scriptures overlap. The earlier practices during the Tenmu and Jitō’s reign followed the former scripture, and not yet Bonmōkyō.
SN, 3:494–495n30. Groner points out “releasing of animals” and “prohibition on storing weapons” were among the precepts in Bonmōkyō that had major impacts on Buddhism across East Asia. Groner (2018, p. 35).
SN, Tenpyō 17 (745).9.15 and 9.17. Aoki, 3:14–15.
A list of major hōjō during Shōmu and Kōken’s reigns can be found in Yoshida Takashi’s endnote in Aoki, 3:494–495n30.
T24:1007b. BNS, p. 62.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 6 (754). 10.14. Aoki, 3:148–149.
Kondō (2014, pp. 393–94). For other hypotheses questioned by preceding studies, see Yoneda (2018, pp. 245–46).
SN, Tenpyō Hōji 1 (757). 8.25. Aoki, 3:228–229.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 4 (752). 4.9. Aoki, 3:118–119.
Fascicle 1 of both Old and New Translations lists gods and celestial beings that visited the Buddha. See T9:395c–396c, and T10:2c–4c.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 1 (749). 12.27. Aoki, 3:96–97.
SN, Tenpyō 2 (730).4.17. Aoki, 2:234–235. Establishment of hiden-in appears in later entries, including the eulogy for Kōmyō. See SN, Tenpyō Hōji 4 (760).6.7. Aoki, 3:352–353. For an introduction to Kōmyō’s legacy as a Buddhist patron, see Wong, Buddhist Pilgrim-monks, pp. 200–2. Morimoto Kōsei positions establishment of seyaku- and hiden-in within the broader seventh- and eighth-century state-wide relief efforts. Morimoto (2011, pp. 7–25).
T24:1005c. BNS, p. 51.
SN, Tenpyō Shōhō 7 (755).10.21, Tenpyō Shōhō 8 (756).4.14 and 4.29. Aoki, 3:154–155, 156–159.
Kōmyō included items belonging to the Fujiwara lineage in the 756 offering, while on the first day of the tenth month, 758, she made an additional offering of calligraphy by her own father, Fujiwara no Fuhito. For this reason, it is safe to assume that Kōmyō herself was well aware of the association between filial piety and the Bodhisattva Precepts.
The three-year prohibition Shōmu issued in 745 protected shishi 宍, which broadly meant “meat”, but for this period, more specifically deer and wild boars. Hirabayashi (2011, p. 138).
T24:1005b. BNS, p. 49.
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Walley, A. Through the Open Gate of Heavens: The Tōdaiji Objects and Salvation in Vairocana’s Lotus Treasury World. Religions 2023, 14, 457. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040457
Walley A. Through the Open Gate of Heavens: The Tōdaiji Objects and Salvation in Vairocana’s Lotus Treasury World. Religions. 2023; 14(4):457. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040457Chicago/Turabian Style
Walley, Akiko. 2023. "Through the Open Gate of Heavens: The Tōdaiji Objects and Salvation in Vairocana’s Lotus Treasury World" Religions 14, no. 4: 457. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040457