Fri, Aug 14, 2020

From Nara: Wishing in prayer to the Rushana-butsu (Great Buddha) at Todaiji

SPECIAL FEATURE: Praying for an end to COVID-19 (Part I)

Priests pray for an end to the pandemic at the Great Buddha Hall of the Todaiji temple in Nara. (The Yomiuri Shimbun)

Japan suffered a major epidemic of smallpox in the first half of the 8th century. Consequently, a great number of temples and shrines were established in the ancient capital of Nara in prayer for the safety of the nation. Confronted by the threat of COVID-19 today, the same temples and shrines in Nara are now in prayer for an end to the pandemic.

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The sunlight had just begun to fall on the rooftop of the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) at Todaiji — the head temple of the Kegon school of Buddhism — in Nara.

Twenty or so priests gathered there in front of the Rushana-butsu (Great Buddha). The 15-meter tall seated bronze statue is the honzon (principal statue of worship) of the temple. The priests all wore masks as they seated themselves, distancing one another.

Soon, the hall echoed with the chanting of the sutra. Worshippers were pressing their palms together in prayer. Gongyo (morning service) was now in session.

In the 8th century, when Nara was the capital of a war-torn nation, the people suffered immensely from the plague that spread throughout, and also from famine. The gravity of the situation prompted Emperor Shomu to issue an edict, which in essence stated that the people needed to support each other, and call upon them to help build the Great Buddha.

The history of Todaji stems from the prayers of the people of ancient Nara.

The temple is now struggling to deal with the COVID-19 crisis just as much as anyone else. Earlier this year, visits to the Great Buddha Hall were restricted to help prevent the spread of the virus. This month, the annual ominugui of the Great Buddha (Aug. 7) to wipe clean the statue was cancelled.

Given the situation, the priests are trying to figure out what should be done. Holding the morning service was just one answer. Since April, they have been holding services at noon also to pray for the recovery of the infected and an end to the pandemic. On Aug. 13-15, the temple will live stream from Great Buddha Hall for people to join them in prayer from far away.

“What am I supposed to do [in this situation]? People around the world are all made to ask themselves the same question,” says Fumon Sagawa, 69, the abbot. The pandemic has not yet ended and we are still seeking an answer.

From the Aug. 13 evening edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun (Osaka)

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