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The Four Great Temples

The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Art, Archaeology, and Icons of Seventy-Century Japan

Donald F. McCallum
Copyright Date: 2009
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  • Book Info
    The Four Great Temples
    Book Description:

    Few periods in Japanese history are more fascinating than the seventh century. This was the period when Buddhism experienced its initial flowering in the country and the time when Asukadera, Kudara Odera, Kawaradera, and Yakushiji (the "Four Great Temples" as they were called in ancient texts) were built. Despite their enormous historical importance, these structures have received only limited attention in Western literature, primarily because they are now ruins. Focus has been placed instead on Horyuji, a beautifully preserved structure, but not a key temple of the period. Donald McCallum seeks in this volume to restore the four great temples to their proper place in the history of Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist architecture. Extraordinary archaeological discoveries in the past few decades in the Asuka-Fujiwara area provide the basis for the monumental task McCallum has set for himself. Three of the temples have been studied archaeologically, but one, Kudara Odera (the first royal temple in Japan), has until recently been known only through textual references—primarily those mentioning its nine-story pagoda, a format closely linked to the grandiose royal temples of China and Korea. A series of digs carried out between 1997 and 2001 at Kibi Pond yielded what are thought to be the remains of Kudara Odera. A platform, the appropriate size for a large pagoda, has been uncovered at the site, indicating the reliability of the textual sources. These results have necessitated a rethinking of early Buddhist architecture in Japan. The Four Great Temples gives the first detailed account in the English language of these excavations. In his detailed analyses of each of the four temples, McCallum considers historiographical issues, settings and layouts, foundations, tiles, relics, and icons and allows readers to follow their chronological evolution. A key feature is the interweaving of archaeological and documentary data to clarify numerous historical problems that have until now resisted plausible solutions. Although the focus is on temples, the book looks at broader political and religious developments that serve as a context for the study. It further makes an effort to unify data on great royal temples in China, Korea, and other parts of Japan, thereby providing cross-cultural insights into a matter that has frequently been discussed only in terms of a single region. The Four Temples is a masterful, multifaceted study that will fundamentally alter and enrich current understanding of Japan’s ancient Buddhist temples. It is sure to generate considerable discussion among scholars in the fields of Japanese and Asian history, art history, and Buddhist studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6473-6
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. 1-22)

    A visit to the site of any of the Buddhist temples considered in this book can be a profoundly melancholy experience, at least to anyone having a sense of their original role as the Four Great Temples (Yondaiji). These temples are not designated by a modern historical term but rather by one that appears in the ancient texts. The four — Asukadera, Kudara Ōdera, Kawaradera, and Yakushiji — were by far the most important architectural projects of the initial phases of Buddhism in Japan, what I refer to rather broadly as “the seventh century,” here defined to include the last...

  6. Chapter One ASUKADERA
    (pp. 23-82)

    In japanese history few periods saw more dramatic changes and perhaps none is more controversial than the five decades between ca. 580 and 630. Evidently the historians who compiledNihon shoki(720) fully realized that this was an era of fundamental importance for an understanding of the political and social development of their country, and thus great efforts were exerted in constructing a narrative that would tell the story in the way they wished it told. Here serious problems emerge, since their story did not always coincide with events and tendencies that would appear to have been determinative in the...

  7. Chapter Two KUDARA ŌDERA
    (pp. 83-154)

    Kudara ōdera has been one of the great mysteries of the seventh century — although amply documented in ancient sources, little information is provided in these texts relating to its precise location. How different this is from the situation of Asukadera. Scholars have long been puzzled about the problem, especially given the association of Kudara Ōdera with the royal family. Many questions arise, one of the most significant being was it really possible that a grand temple with a nine-story pagoda was actually constructed at such an early stage in the development of Buddhism in Japan. If our response to...

  8. Chapter Three KAWARADERA
    (pp. 155-200)

    Chapter 2 carried the narrative to the end of the period covered in this book, but here we must return to the appropriate chronological sequence, moving back to the middle of the seventh century.

    When Kōtoku died in 654, he was succeeded by Princess Takara, who reigned for a second time as Saimei (ca. 654–661). Although Kōtoku had built a large-scale palace at Naniwa, Saimei reestablished the “capital” in Asuka; the transition from palace to capital is vague, although the so-called Wa capital may represent the incipient developments leading to a greater differentiation of palace and bureaucratic structures. The...

  9. Chapter Four YAKUSHIJI
    (pp. 201-236)

    All of the Four Great Temples, inasmuch as they can be reconstructed, were grand establishments; the last, however, occupies an especially important place in the political, artistic, and religious history of Japan. With this temple we are dealing with one of the most significant monuments of early architecture in Japan, Yakushiji. Before turning to that matter, let us first consider some background for the temple, since it was conceived and created during a particularly lively period of Japanese history.

    The key political event of the later seventh century was undoubtedly the Jinshin Disturbance (Jinshin no ran) of 672, as it...

    (pp. 237-262)

    Are any early temples in Japan more important than the Four Great Temples? By now my response to this question should be apparent, for the fundamental goal of this study has been to demonstrate the key importance of this group for early Buddhism in Japan. Archaeological investigations have, in recent decades, shown clearly that the status given these temples in the documentary sources is generally accurate, and there can be no doubt as to their centrality during the seventh century. Vexing problems do remain, however, in the interpretation of textual references, with scholars taking varying positions as to their meanings.¹...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 263-296)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 297-304)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 305-318)
  14. Index
    (pp. 319-328)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 329-334)