A Visit to Nara, July 9, 2010

A Visit to Nara, July 9, 2010
Sharen Pula, The Park School
Our train sped across the basin of Kobe; the skyline punctuated the hillside. Storm clouds rolled across the peaks. The mountains, like sleeping dragons, awoke from their slumber. Puffs of heavenly smoke rose from their nostrils. The day's hunt would soon begin.
Our group sat quietly on the train--perhaps influenced by the hushed tones of the local people or just caught in the morning's reverie. The train stopped, we disembarked and after a short walk found ourselves in front of Kofukuji temple, one of the most ancient Buddhist temples in Japan. Here, in a beautiful 5-storied pagoda during the eleventh and twelfth century when the country was ravaged by civil wars, an army of soldier monks protected this structure from harm. Later in the same century, the Kofukuji temple was attacked and reduced to ashes. With efforts from the best architects and craftsmen the complex was rebuilt.
Our next stop was the Treasure Hall. As we walked through the hall, numerous wood sculptures stood as a silent but strangely eloquent testimony of the past glory of this temple. Behind one of the glassed in cases sat six monks of the Hosso Sect. Although I could not read the Japanese descriptions, their hand positions and expressive facial features seemed to tell a story of their own. One seemed to be a gentle spirit dispensing wisdom and guiding the common people on their journey through life. Another possessed a rather stern look that seemed to demand that others heed his words. Their eyes struck me. Like the icons of Ethiopia and Russia, these obsidian orbs looked deep into the souls of those who passed by.
In an alcove, a twelve hundred year old bronze lantern stood before us. Surprisingly, it seemed untouched by the ravages of time. I found this particularly striking. There are buildings in our own cities that exist no longer than forty years, and here before our very eyes stood this lantern, an erect and proud symbol of a time long, long ago.
Around the corner, was a fine bronze bell cast in 727 CE----the second oldest temple bell. Though rather sparse in decoration, it presented a simple form and elegant proportion. Another case housed 12 Heavenly Generals. They were sculptured in relief on wooden boards. The free representation of movement and remnants of decorative gold leaf made these figures spring to life. Their job---to guard the faithful--a compelling argument for believers. I got to thinking about how similar some aspects of religious practice are---lights, bells, disciples/saints, hand washing, and guardian figures.
It was time for lunch. We had the pleasure of a local culinary dish--Shabu Shabu--sort of a onepot wonder of beef, noodles and veggies. Quite tasty!
We headed for Todai-ji, a temple the Emperor Shomu had built in the 8th century. It is the largest wooden building in the world and symbolizes the inverse in the center of a lotus flower with a thousand pearls. We approached the Great south Gate. Along the way, the deer of Nara, protected animals in these parts since they were considered messengers of the gods, meandered on grassy areas as well as the main promenade. Some were in search of tasty handouts. Others were just curious about the strange two legged creatures that had invaded their space.
Within the walls of the temple reside many statues, among them the Great Buddha, a massive gilded bronze statue 16 meters high. Although it was an amazing experience to stare at the statues within, I found the approaches to the temple equally engaging. Along the walkway was a grassy field leading up to the temple. Pots of lotus flowers made me slow my pace. Peering through the foliage of low hanging branches, I watched as the steady stream of visitors with their umbrellas, floppy brimmed hats and other paraphernalia disappeared and the temple facade rose towards the heavens. Its massiveness set off by the gold horns resting at the highest point on its roof. My mind was quick to imagine life when these temples were symbols of wealth and power. The rain continued. The steady downpour was somewhat refreshing to the skin. As I left Todai-ji, I took one last look over my shoulder. This structure--this place--so steeped in tradition---so awe inspiring.
The group scattered to various corners of Nara--some searching for artifacts, some for good deals, some for food. By dinnertime, conversations about the day's events still peppered the table talk. "What if I had seen these structures when I first traveled abroad instead of Chartres Cathedral? Would I have fallen in love with them as I did the French Cathedrals? No doubt I would have!"
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Posted by: Susan Brown
Post date: Saturday, July 10, 2010 - 04:54
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