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At Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara, I Touched Buddha’s Nostril

Yes, in Nara, we went to Tōdai-ji to see the largest bronze statue of the Buddha. We saw the deers too. But I’ll always remember Nara as the place where I touched Buddha’s nostril.

The deers in Nara Park

The truth is I was dead tired when we got to Nara. My legs felt stiff from all the walking and part of me just wanted to sit somewhere peaceful and watch the deers. They come down from the forest, the tour guide said. So tame that you can actually pet them. You may feed them, if you wish, although it is advised that you feed them rice crackers that you can buy from the hawkers in the park.

The tour guide was saying something about a legend that the deers were messengers of the Shinto gods, but my attention was divided and my focus wasn’t all that sharp. I was staring at the little black spheres scattered all over the grounds.  In my excitement to see the deers and touch them, I almost failed to notice them when we first entered the park. But as soon as I realized what they were, I felt differently.

Deers roaming freely in Nara Park
Deers roaming freely in Nara Park

Poop.

It’s nature, I know. Animals eat and they poop. And tourists were feeding the deers non-stop so they were pooping endlessly too. But I really didn’t want to spend too much time hopping from spot to spot to avoid the poop. Hopping didn’t even sound pretty considering how much my legs hurt. If there was nowhere to sit to watch the deers with no poop in sight, I’d rather go and see the temple instead. More walking instead of hopping sounded better.

The Great Buddha Hall

The Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara
The Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara

I moved away from the tour group and found a spot where I could take photos. With autumn leaves, of course! I wasn’t sure if I wanted to walk all the way to The Great Buddha Hall, but… It’s the largest wooden structure in the world. And although its reconstructed form is nowhere near the size of the original that was built in the 8th century, Tōdai-ji Temple is still massive. So is the bronze statue of the Buddha inside it. Did I really want to miss all that?

The tour guide had secured tickets for everyone in the group. We entered the gate and I held my breath when I saw The Great Buddha Hall up front.

Front view of The Great Buddha Hall, Tōdai-ji Temple Complex, Nara
Front view of The Great Buddha Hall

Approaching The Great Buddha Hall, the feel was different. I didn’t know it at the time but, later, I read that the reason for building the Tōdai-ji Temple was to somehow appease Buddha.

Nara Daibutsu

During the first four decades of the the 8th century, Japan went through major upheavals. Conspiracies, revolts, droughts, famines and a smallpox epidemic that wiped out a third of the population had weakened the country.

In 741, Emperor Shōmu issued a law calling for the construction of provincial temples across the country to impress Buddha to look kindly upon the country and end all disasters. Tōdai-ji was named head temple of the Yamato Province.

The 500 tonne bronze statue of the Buddha at Todaiji Temple, Nara
The 500 tonne bronze statue of the Buddha

And to let Buddha know that the emperor was serious in his petition for peace and prosperity, no expense was spared in the construction of the statue of the Buddha. Known as the Nara Daibutsu (Great Buddha), the 16-meter high statue weighing 500 tonnes (500,000 kilograms) almost bankrupted the country.

Was the project worth the price? Well, if you look at it from the point of view of a smart businessman, you can consider it as an investment. The high price was the capital but the returns in terms of peace and prosperity could have been unlimited. The problem, of course, is that gods don’t play by man’s rules. The instability went on until, finally, the emperor lost power and shōguns ruled Japan.

Shitennō guardians

Statues of Tamonten, Guardian of the North (left) and Komokuten, Guardian of the West (right) in The Great Buddha Hall, Todaiji Temple, Nara
Tamonten, Guardian of the North (left) and Komokuten, Guardian of the West (right)

Two other figures inside The Great Buddha Hall that were impossible to miss are statues of two of the four Shitennō guardians. Why there are only two, I have no idea. In Japan, it is traditional to have all four flanking the Buddha.

Buddha’s nostril

There are more art works in The Great Buddha Hall than I could absorb in one afternoon. Some, I cared enough to remember and even read up on after I got home. Others, I hardly recall. But one thing I will never ever forget is “Buddha’s nostril.”

It’s a hole on the base of one of the pillars inside The Great Buddha Hall. At first, I couldn’t understand why people were crowding over it. My friend, Kat, said I should touch it because it would make me intelligent. Huh? I wanted a photo of the hole! But the crowd trying to touch it was so thick that I couldn’t frame the hole without so many hands and arms covering it. So, I just wiggled through the crowd and touched it myself. Intelligence over photography didn’t seem like a bad deal at all.

Yes, there’s a legend attached to the hole in the pillar. But something got lost in translation out there in Nara. The legend says any worshipper who can fit through “Buddha’s nostril” will be granted enlightenment in the next life. Well, even if I had known that at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to fit in the hole anyway. And, even if I could have managed to squeeze myself into the hole, would I do it for something that will only be fulfilled in my next life? What if there’s no next life?

So, merely touching “Buddha’s nostril” granted me nothing except the eternal remembrance of my willingness to do anything for more intelligence, no matter how seemingly silly. But then again, isn’t that part of the fun of traveling? To paraphrase a proverb attributed to Saint Ambrose, “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do.”

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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