Japan Buddhist art in eighth-century Nara: Emperor Shomu

Japan Buddhist art in eighth-century Nara: Emperor Shomu

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Emperor Shōmu was born in 701 and died in the mid-750s. Yet, despite the passage of time, his legacy remains potent today culturally and religiously. This concerns the consolidation, entrenchment, and expansion of Buddhism in Japan during his reign. 

Buddhism had entered Japan much earlier. However, under Emperor Shōmu, the Buddhist faith would underpin the historical legacy of the Nara Period that dominated the majority of the eighth century. 

Ironically, unlike ultra-modern Japan concerning development and technology, the current male-dominated political elites refuse to accept a female Empress. Yet, Emperor Shōmu abdicated in favor of his daughter Princess Takano who became Empress Kōken.

His reign lasted between 724-749. Emperor Shōmu was a holy disciple of the three jewels concerning the Buddhist faith. This relates to the potent trinity of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Therefore, after his abdication, he naturally became a Buddhist priest because his faith meant everything to Emperor Shōmu – who was now entering the final years of his life. 

The esteemed poet Yamabe no Akahito composed elegant poems during the journeys of Emperor Shōmu between 724-736. Thus his poetry provides a glimpse into the world of Emperor Shōmu and the Nara Period.

In one delightful poem by Yamabe no Akahito, he wrote:

All-knowing,
My great lord,
Has raised on high
The palace of Yoshino:
Fenced in by mountains,
Hidden by a blue-green ring;
And as the river flows,
Pure across the flats,
In springtime
The flowers bloom profusely and,
In autumn,
The mists rise across;
As the mountains,
Stretch on and on,
And as the river
Never ceases,
The hundred-fold
Palace courtiers
Come constantly, and depart

Buddhism became the “guardian of the state” under Emperor Shōmu. Hence, from 741, when he established the system of Buddhist provincial temples – and further developments before Emperor Shōmu abdicated – he set in motion the entrenchment and expansion of Buddhism that would guide Japan long after he parted from this world. 

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