A Story of Faith and Art

 

In the year 766, the original Otagi Temple was first built in Higashiyama near Gion by order of Emperor Shotoku. At the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1192), the temple was washed away when the nearby Kamo River flooded. However, it was re-established by Senkan Naigu (918-984), a priest of the esoteric Tendai sect of Buddhism. Locals cherished the new temple, installing a statue named Yaku-yoke Senju Kannon (the thousand-armed Kannon Boddhisattva that protects against bad luck), carved by Senkan Naigu himself.

The temple’s current principal image was created in the middle of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), at approximately the same time that the main hall of the temple was once again rebuilt. The eyes of the statue are not symmetrical, expressing the duality of Buddha’s mercy; strictness on one side and tenderness on the other, a rare site to behold. The temple’s hall and gate were transferred to their current location in 1922 in order to preserve them. However, the temple has been ruined time and again by natural disasters such as typhoons.

 
 

In the year 1955, Kocho Nishimura (1915-2003), a Buddhist statue sculptor and restorer who became a Buddhist monk himself, was ordered to be the chief of Otagi Nenbutsuji. Thus began the artistic transformation of Kyoto’s most oft-ruined temple.

Over a period of 10 years starting in 1981, reconstruction work was in full swing. Much of the temple grounds underwent dismantling, restoring, and repairing. The main project of the era was the creation of 1,200 carved statues that now cover the hillsides. These are rakan, the followers of Buddha, created by everyday people who made a pilgrimage to learn carving under the guidance of Kocho Nishimura. He urged them to bring forth the unique, personal figures that were hiding in the stone. Some rakan are posed deep in serious prayer, while others are smiling, laughing, or holding objects that hint at the carvers’ hobbies and passions. Nowhere else in Japan can you find such an eclectic mix of religious figures that combine both the sublime and the earthly.

 
 

Today, the temple continues on with this artistic vision. Nishimura’s son and grandson are both Buddhist priests, but also practice their own unique art. The Nishimura family continues to experiment with new ways of celebrating the Buddha’s message of happiness through music, photography, and video. Visit Otagi Nenbutsuji for yourself and experience how religion and art can mix in numerous surprising and charming ways.