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.
While it was being built a large colony of foreigners lived near the capital, immigrants from China and Korea, some well-born and learned, some gifted craftsmen, able to cast the wonderful bronzes that would be placed on the altars of the new buildings. Prince Shotoku, while himself superintending the leveling of the terraces and the choice of beams to support the heavy roofs of the buildings, as legend has it, had spared no efforts to attract these architects, artists, and craftsmen. He encouraged them with his patronage and praise; the work seemed favored in every way.
The Golden Hall of Horyu-ji holds three particularly important large seated Buddhas, over each of which is an elaborate wooden canopy with a coffered ceiling. These canopies have rims at the top, where, fitting into the angles, small heavenly musicians were placed, as well as marvelous celestial birds. The earlier ones (from the seventh century, from which this illustration is drawn) were made of camphor wood. Later, after a disastrous thirteenth-century fire, others were made of cypress.
In Buddhist iconography apsarases (musicians of this sort) were much loved figures who expressed their love of the Buddha by making music, by dancing, by floral offerings and the like.
The canopies may once have carried as many as twenty-four apsarases, but the number is now much reduced. The little figures and the core of the lotus on which each sits were carved from a single block of wood, the lotus petals being attached separately afterward. They carry a variety of instruments: lutes, cymbals, drums, recorders, flutes, and were painted with bright colors, as were the filigree mandalas which surround them like halos. This lacy tracery was carved from a thin section of camphor wood, giving an effect of great delicacy. The vermilion, malachite, cinnebar and ochre shades which once made them brilliant are now muted and soft, adding to their fragile, ethereal appearance.
These gentle little players, with their mild contented mien, lend a cheerful human air to the magnificence of the Buddhas and the extraordinary flamboyance of the mythical birds which share with them the canopy rims. No detail of their perfection would have escaped the keen aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese worshipers; who loved their temples not only for their spiritual influence but also for their beauty and taste. Their lives were usually circumscribed and monotonous; it took the festivals and ceremonies of the religion to enlighten them by their beauty and order, and the perfection of such carvings, as well as their symbolic significance, played no small part.