The interior of the first level of the pagoda at Saimyoji Temple features a seated Dainichi Nyorai Buddha statue surrounded by richly coloured murals. 
Yomiuri/Japan News
The interior of the first level of the pagoda at Saimyoji Temple features a seated Dainichi Nyorai Buddha statue surrounded by richly coloured murals. Yomiuri/Japan News

The Buddhist murals that survived a war

World June 04, 2018 01:00

By Masanobu Watanabe
Japan NewsYomiuri
Kora, Japan

8,993 Viewed

Much of Saimyoji Temple in Japan was burned to the ground centuries ago, but its wall paintings are as vivid as ever



VISITORS MIGHT feel as if they are looking at a 3D mandala upon entering Saimyoji Temple in Kora, Shiga Prefecture. The first floor of a three-storey pagoda at the temple depicts the world of Buddha through richly coloured murals and paintings of Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) and other Buddhist figures.

The pagoda, a designated national treasure, was constructed during the Kamakura Period (late 12th century to early 14th century). 

I recently visited the temple to take in the world of Buddha and see the pagoda for myself before it was closed earlier this month.

The interior of the first level of the pagoda at Saimyoji Temple /Yomiuri/Japan News

Saimyoji was founded in 834 and is one of the three Koto Sanzan temples east of Lake Biwa. The other two, Kongorinji in Aisho and Hyakusaiji in Higashiomi, are nearby. All three are associated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism. 

According to historical documents, the temple prospered during the medieval period, when it had 17 main buildings and 300 residences for monks.

Upon entering the pagoda, I was overwhelmed by the dazzling display of colours. 

A massive Dainichi Nyorai Buddha statue is seated on a shumidan dais in the centre of the space, with the dais’ four corner pillars each decorated with eight images of Bosatsu.

The main hall houses a small shrine containing the temple’s principal image, which is usually hidden from the public, and several other Buddhist statues. Yomiuri/Japan News

The ceiling is grid-patterned and adorned with images of flowers painted with gold, vermilion and other bright hues.

The four walls also display eight murals depicting important scenes from the Hokekyo, or Lotus Sutra, which is important to the Tendai sect. The wooden doors and beams running between the pillars are also decorated with paintings of a bird inhabiting the Pure Land and an imaginary flower called a hosoge, among other images.

The paintings, however, have peeled considerably, which was perhaps inevitable given they are 700 years old. I understand why they are designated as an important cultural property and are recognised separately from the pagoda building itself.

The main hall, left, and threestorey pagoda survived an attack by the warlord Oda Nobunaga. Yomiuri/Japan News

Saimyoji faced its greatest crisis in 1571, when the mighty warlord Oda Nobunaga dispatched an army to the temple after destroying Hieizan Enryakuji, the headquarters of the Tendai sect in present-day Otsu.

All of the temple buildings burned to ashes except for the pagoda, the main hall and the Nitenmon gate. The main hall was built during the Kamakura Period, while the gate was constructed during the Muromachi Period (early 14th century to late 16th century). 

Today, the main hall is designated as a national treasure and the gate as an important cultural property.

Legend has it that the temple priests themselves burned a large amount of firewood to create the impression that the entire temple grounds were ablaze, discouraging Nobunaga’s army from continuing its attack.

“It’s a miracle the vivid colours of the murals remain even after enduring the flames of war,” said Eisho Nakano, 60, the temple’s chief priest.

Many in Oda’s army were likely in awe of Buddha and didn’t want to burn down the elegant buildings and paintings, Nakano said. “I believe they pretended to be deceived and withdrew before attacking.” Nakano’s explanation made sense as I observed these great treasures for myself. The army really must have been reluctant to destroy them. 

Thanks to this miracle and good fortune, people today can appreciate the murals depicting the world of Buddha, which have been objects of faith since medieval times.

Buddhist statues enshrined in the main hall’s rear area continue to be accessible to the public until September 30.