One of the most famous, revered, and beautiful of the ancient Buddhist temple enclaves in the world is that of Horyu-ji, the Temple of the Exalted Law, which lies southwest of today's Nara. Founded in 607, it still stands as a monument to the religion, to scholastic achievement, and, perhaps most of all, to art. It is a treasury. This was understood by the Allies during World War II, when - in great part through the efforts of Langdon Warner - it was designated a protected area and spared the risk of bombing. It has, however, in its long history sometimes suffered terrible fires, after which it has always been scrupulously rebuilt.
In 552, an important date in Buddhist annals, the King of Paekche in Korea sent the Emperor of Japan a gilt bronze image of the Buddha, with a message commending the religion to him. Japan's religious ideas were at that time mostly confined to the nationalistic tenets of Shinto and the magic of the shamans: the hour was ripe for the country's entry into a wider sphere of thought. Buddhism met with great interest in court circles, the imperial family becoming its patrons, and the aristocracy following their lead.
Prince Shotoku, a young scion of the imperial house, distinguished by his piety, and of great influence, renounced his claim to the throne and devoted his life to the advancement of the faith, particularly among the common people. It was he who established the temple monastery of Horyu-ji, choosing a site in the foothills that overlooked the Yamato plain, not far from the palace. It came to cover thirty-two acres, which were walled in and whose most important buildings (as in all such places) were the pagoda and the kondo, or Golden Hall, where the chief images of the Buddha were placed.
Buddhism, then flourishing in many Far Eastern lands, not only served to unite its adherents in the faith, but tended to create something of an international climate, widening the horizons of peoples hitherto little aware of a greater world. This was true of Japan, though here as elsewhere the converts were often far from single-minded in their beliefs and clung to many old ways while partly embracing the new. In spite of this muddying of the waters there was an immense amount of temple building and of the propagation of Buddhist doctrines and ceremonies for many centuries, and though hierarchies developed, Horyu-ji continued to hold a position of supremacy and esteem.