Nara Prefecture has the largest collection of the oldest and most precious Buddhist statues in Japan. Understanding something about the history and the specific meanings of the different statues affords a much deeper appreciation of each of the different temples in which they are housed.
The Origin of Buddhist Statues
In the 1st century, realistic images of Sakyamuni—the historical Buddha—were carved in stone in modern-day Pakistan and Northern India. Through contact with other religions, the Buddhist pantheon adopted new gods whose images were then carved by sculptors. Buddhism spread along the Silk Road and reached Japan in the mid-6th century, later spreading throughout the country. A wide range of Buddhist statues are enshrined in temples in Nara Prefecture, most of which are still venerated by Buddhists who come from all over Japan.
Four Basic Classifications of Buddhist Statues
Buddhist statues fall into four major groups. The classification is not a hierarchy of importance, but rather a ranking of the role each Buddhist deity plays. The different Buddhas’ facial expressions range from serene to wrathful, and each group has further distinguishing characteristics such as the style of clothing, hairstyle, and the number of limbs.
Types of Buddhist Statues
Nyorai are a relatively small number of Buddhas who have reached the highest stage of enlightenment. They are the central figures of Buddhist worship. Their hair is styled into tight curls, and there is a round protuberance on top of the head, said to represent wisdom. These two features are unique to Nyorai statues. Nyorai are dressed in a simple robe with no body ornamentation, which are signs of priesthood. A Yakushi Nyorai—the Buddha of Healing—is the principal figure of worship at Shinyakushiji Temple, and a Shaka Nyorai—the Buddha of Enlightenment—is housed at Murouji Temple.
Bosatsu, the Japanese transliteration of Bodhisattva, have reached enlightenment in their current existences, but have decided not to enter nirvana, ultimate enlightenment, so that they can help others to more enlightened states. The Kannon Bosatsu, the Bosatsu of Mercy, is one of the most revered of the group. The eleven-faces of the statue of Kannon at Kairyuouji Temple look in every direction to hear the pleas of all sentient beings. Bosatsu often have jeweled crowns on their heads, and other ornaments on their bodies and are dressed in luxurious garments, which are said to be traceable to aristocratic fashions in ancient India.
The fearsome Myo-o statues are quite different from the serene Nyorai and Bosatsu. These deities are characterised by their wrathful expressions and can often be seen engulfed in flame, bearing fangs, wielding weapons, or adorned with serpent or skull imagery. They represent the power of Buddhism to overcome the passions, and their role is to subdue evil spirits and convert non-believers. The Five Great Myo-o are the most prevalent. They guard the four cardinal directions and the centre. Jurin-in Temple is home to the sword-wielding Fudo Myo-o and the Saidaiji Temple houses the red-faced Aizen Myo-o.
There is a wide variety of Ten celestial beings, known as Devas in Sanskrit. They differ in gender and the roles they perform. Many are clad in armour, as one of their functions is to guard the Nyorai and Bosatsu. They are often to be found in temples, their stern eyes trained on their surroundings—the Zocho Ten at Todaiji Temple holds a spear and is stamping on the head of a demon. The female Ten deities are clothed like ancient Chinese noblewomen, and some are said to bring good luck.
How Buddhist Statues Have Developed Over Time
Distinct differences can be seen in the statues sculpted in the four periods of Japanese history between the mid-6th century and 1333. The reasons behind these changes range from pure aesthetics and technological advancement, to changes of government, to ease of transportation in the case of fires or natural disasters.
Early Asuka Period
Craftsmen of this period created statues to be seen from the front. Thus, the backs of the statues tend to be flat and can seem rather two-dimensional especially when viewed from the side. The statues are often very symmetrical. The faces are square with almond-shaped eyes and a distinctive expression known as an archaic smile—also a characteristic of Greek sculpture of the same period. Gilt-bronze statues were common during this time. After the introduction of Buddhism, initially many of the statues were imported from Korea and China after which statues were increasingly produced in Japan.
Late Asuka Period
Buddhism spread rapidly during this period. Craftsmen began to carve statues from a single block of wood, although bronze statues were still the most common. The statues became more three-dimensional, to give the statues a more balanced appearance. The faces began to be carved with a baby-like roundness. The eyes of many statues were designed to be smiling with the lower eyelid straight and the upper curved.
Named after the city that became Japan's first permanent capital, the Nara Period is characterized by lavish imperial spending on Buddhist images and architecture. As dry lacquer and clay replaced metal as the most common medium for the construction of Buddhist statues, sculptors were able to model the features of images in greater detail. Since these materials were also comparatively light and resistant to damage, the statues could be moved with relative ease in the case of fire or other natural disasters. Since lacquer in particular was also prohibitively expensive, however, these materials were gradually abandoned in favour of wood by the end of the Nara Period.
Japan’s first samurai military government ruled Japan during this period and Buddhism, which was previously the faith of the elite, began to spread amongst the common people. Reflecting the change in government, the sculptures of this period became more dynamic, muscular and realistic, characteristics favored by the new samurai government. In some cases, crystal was used for the eyes to give a more realistic appearance.
How to Pray at a Buddhist Temple
Bow before walking through the sanmon gate. Wash your hands if there is a place to do so. If you want to light candles or incense once you reach the main hall, do so before making your offering. Approach the main hall, bow once, and place a monetary offering into the collection box. Press your hands together in front of your chest and pray silently. Bow once when finished.
How to Pray at a Shinto Shrine
Bow before walking through the torii gate. As you approach the shrine, avoid walking in the middle of the path as this is reserved for deities. Purify yourself by washing your hands. Approach the main hall, bow, and place a coin into the offering box. Ring a bell if there is one. Bow twice, clap twice, then pray quietly. Bow once more when you have finished.
Explore and Experience Nara’s Buddhist Statues
Discover collections of Buddhist statues in one of the many museums, or tour the prefecture’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Find out what blessings you can receive from the different deities and experience the art of Buddhism first-hand.
Treasure Troves of Buddhist Art
Visit Nara's museums and temples and view collections of the finest Buddhist art.
Nara's World Heritage Sites
Tour Ancient Nara to see Buddhist statues in UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Blessings and Benefits from the Gods
Visit some of Nara’s shrines and temples and receive luck, love and even better eyesight.
Experience Ancient Nara through Hands-on Activities and Ritual
Take part in meditation sessions, tea ceremony, and create your own ink stick.
Nara:sacred images from early Japan
The British Museum hosts Buddhist treasures from some of Nara’s most important temples and shrines.
Temples and shrines for animal lovers
Discover how cherished animals have long played a role in Japan’s spiritual celebrations.