Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan is a popular tourist attraction, but it also has a ton of history behind it. During the Nara and, to a lesser extent, Heian Periods, when Buddhist institutions were tightly regulated in a Chinese-style Confucian bureaucracy called the Sōgō (僧綱, Office of Priestly Affairs), Todaiji represented the central temple in a large administrative network of provincial temples. In time, the centers of power moved north into what is now Kyoto, and Todaiji diminished in importance but it remains culturally very significant, not the least of which because it is one of the older temples in Japan and retains a lot of unusual traditions and customs not found elsewhere.
Most people come to Todaiji to see the Great Buddha (大仏, daibutsu) statue which was so expensive to build that it nearly bankrupted the country:
But the Todaiji temple complex has many other cultural treasures that are more off the beaten path, but very rewarding for the curious explorer. One of my favorites is the Nigatsudō or February Hall (二月堂). The February Hall is one of the oldest buildings on site, and is the site where the famous Shuni’e ceremony takes place.
The February Hall is, ostensibly, a temple devoted to the bodhisattva Kannon (and I can assure readers at the altar was splendid), and since at least the 8th century, monks at this temple have practiced a special devotional (and repentance) rite called the Shuni’e (修二会), which takes place from March 1st to the 14th. Sources on the Shunie rite are scarce in English, but among other things consist primarily of two acts:
- Omizutori (お水取り) – The drawing of water from a sacred well as an offering to Kannon bodhisattva, and if I recall correctly, this water also includes water from all past years’ ceremonies. It’s possible there is some water from the very first ceremony. The water itself is drawn from Wakasa Well (若狭井戸, wakasaido) in a building on the premises called the Akaiya (閼伽井屋) (photo here).
- Otaimatsu (お松明) – The fire ritual in which sparks are showered down from the balcony of the February Hall on lay followers below. The sparks are said to bring good fortune to those whom they shower upon. This ritual is held every day during the Shuni’e festival, though it takes on even greater importance from the 12th to 14th.
The video I posted above is an example of the Otaimatsu ceremony in action. The very large balls that are being burned are, according to the website, Japanese cedar (杉, sugi). Unlike the Otaimatsu, the Omizutori is more of a private ceremony, and not normally open to the public, though documentaries in Japanese do exist.
Having been to Todaiji twice in my life, and the February Hall at least, I always get a feeling of awe when I go there. As a Buddhist temple, it is more tourist-oriented these days than it was in the Nara Period, but it still retains a powerful cultural-historical significance that few temples in Japan can match. It continues to be one of my favorite temples for this and many other reasons.
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