The Nara period of Japanese history lasted a relatively short time, from 710 to 794. However, its sacred Buddhist culture, exemplified by an astounding abundance of temples and shrines, has bequeathed literally and metaphorically divine sacred treasures. This is reflected in the title of a very special exhibition of Sacred Treasures from Nara at the British Museum, Nara: Sacred Images From Early Japan.

Nara was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road that brought Buddhism to Japan in the period from the 500s to 700s, transforming indigenous society. It was the site of so many temples and shrines that it became the capital of Japan during the Nara period. Several times these sacred buildings withstood partial destruction.

As the curator of this exhibition, Tim Clark, writes about the later Nara history: ‘During the civil war in 1180, and again in 1567, large swathes of Nara were destroyed, but on each occasion the city rose from the ashes. It is an inspiring story of faith and renewal.

Just last year, in 2018, work was completed on the grand, newly constructed Central Golden Hall (Chukondo) at Kofukuji temple’.  Somehow it had survived wars, repeated fires and other natural disasters, but was in poor shape. Its famous slender five-story pagoda housing sacred sculpture is part of one of the most important monasteries in Nara. All of the great temples and shrines of Nara remain active centres of religious study, ritual and worship, as well as tourism, mainly Japanese.

Sacred Treasures from Nara Come to London

The British Museum is collaborating with Nara Prefecture and other organisations to bring 15 rare sacred treasures from Nara to London, which are both Buddhist and Shinto, including five Japanese National Treasures and six Important Cultural Properties. They are displayed together with related important Japanese and Chinese paintings from the British Museum’s own collection.

Buddhism has generally coexisted peacefully with the traditional beliefs in spirits of nature and ancestors (kami), which came later to be called Shinto. I asked Dr Tim Clark, head of the Japanese section, Asian Department, at the British Museum,  about this apparently harmonious relationship between such different faiths, and how the worshippers of Shinto had reacted to the arrival of Buddhism. Clark responded: ‘In Japan of the pre-modern era, kami and Buddhist deities were understood to be related. This syncretic association was widespread, a phenomenon known as a shinbutsu shugo (kami-Buddha syncretism).

System of Provincial Temples, Kokobunji

In 741, Emperor Shomu established a system of provincial temples (kokubunji), intended to protect the state. Todaiji temple was one of these, with its imposing bronze Great Vairocana Buddha (Birushana-butsu) as the main image for worship, and still the symbol of Nara today. It was first consecrated in 752, and popularly known as the “all radiant” Buddha’. Clark continued: ‘It symbolised the strong identification in this early period between the imperial house and the great transnational Asian faith, often referred to as “state Buddhism”. The consecration was presided over by the Indian monk Bodhisena (704-760), and this was a cosmopolitan event for the nascent Japanese state. There are records of colourfully international rituals in which some 10,000 monks participated, and many different kinds of music and dance were performed that had been transmitted to Japan along the Silk Roads.

Todaiji, Central Temple

‘Todaiji became the central temple of a nationwide system, of which three of the six Buddhist sects originally established in the Nara period – Hosso, Ritsu and Kegon – still continue to this day.’ But ‘at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), a radical separation of Buddhism and Shinto was ordered by the new Meiji regime as part of modern nation building.’

During the era in which Buddhism was introduced to Japan, aspects of nearby cultures, especially Chinese and Korean, contributed to the transformation of Japanese indigenous culture, rocking its traditional foundations. Clark added, ‘It was a time of particularly intense cultural exchange with continental Asia. Buddhism is said to have arrived in Japan in 538 or 552… Along with the new religion came new systems of government aimed at enhancing the power and authority of the imperial institution, as opposed to that of prominent families, some of whom, like the Mononobe family militated against the championing of Buddhism by the rival Soga family, but they were defeated in  587.’

New Forms of State and Religious Organisation

Clark enlarged on Japan’s transformation: ‘Along with the new religion came new forms of state and religious organisation, court rank, bureaucracy, land ownership, law and taxation. New technologies of building and craft were also introduced. In addition, prior to the introduction of Buddhism, there had been no writing system in Japan before the adoption – and later adaptation – of the Chinese character system’. Japanese culture has been enriched from the wider world in all periods, as we can see from the highly significant sacred treasures selected for the exhibition at the British Museum.

Highlights from Sacred Treasures from Nara

Highlights of these Sacred Treasures from Nara include a sublime gilt bronze sculpture of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as the ‘Dream-changing Kannon’, a National Treasure dating from the late 7th/early 8th century. Clark writes in his article for the British Museum magazine: ‘Since at least 1690 it has been believed that praying to this image will change bad dreams into good ones. Apparently the association between the sculpture of the Bodhisattva of Compassion and “dream-changing” is relatively recent, documented back to 1690 and is the popular name by which this famous sculpture is known in Japan today.’ Clark describes its sculptural style as having ‘a beguiling naturalism in the sensuous depiction of the physical body of the deity, emphasised by closely clinging robes and scarves.’

Bohisattva of Compassion

This Bodhisattva of Compassion was loaned by the vast religious complex of Horyuji temple, set amid pine trees. It is on the site of a former palace of Prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622), an early champion of Buddhism in Japan. Relating to the dream-changing Bodhisattva, the east section of the temple houses a Temple of Dreams (Yumedono). The name poetically relates to a legend that Prince Shotoku saw in a dream a celestial being who enlightened him about a sutra (a scripture attributed to the Buddha or Buddhist doctrine).

Two of the sacred treasures from Nara lent to the British Museum may well have actually featured at the dedication rituals of the Great Nairocana Buddha at Todaiji temple in 752. The first is a large, gilt-bronze Buddha and Birth ablution basin, a National Treasure of almost 90 cm in diameter, at the centre of which is a sculpture of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (Shaka) at birth. Clark told me that although ‘all the works loaned from Nara radiate spirituality, particularly impressive to me is this basin. It is not only because the birth and bathing of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni represent the beginnings of the great Buddhist religion. This representation charms us with its plump face and bright cherubic expression’.

Buddhist Traditions

According to some Buddhist traditions, immediately after his birth, Shakyamuni pointed to heaven and earth and stated: ‘In the heavens and on the earth below I alone am the honoured one’. Each year on 8 April, sweet tea is poured over the figure in the basin, in a ritual marking his birthday. The basin is incised on the outer surface with motifs suggesting a sacred world. These include lions, sacred beasts, an immortal flying on a crane, mountain landscapes and birds, grasses and flowers.

Another sacred treasure from Nara at the British Museum exhibition has stood immediately in front of the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji temple since its dedication. Two exquisite openwork gilt bronze panels surrounding the fire chamber of an octagonal lantern have survived a number of disasters. They feature bodhisattvas playing musical instruments. The panel featuring the Musical Bodhisattva (Onjo Bosatsu) playing cymbals is normally preserved in the Todaiji Museum.

13th-Century Reliquary

A highly elaborate, glittering, 13th-century reliquary is another of the sacred treasures lent for the exhibition, and comes from Saidaji temple. It is said to have contained relics of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Of pierced gilt-bronze, ‘the outer container, topped by a fiery jewel of rock crystal and gilt-bronze takes the form of a hexagonal building’ wrote Clark. ‘Through delicately pierced panels, decorated with dragons and flowers, we can see the present inner vessel of the so-called ‘stupa bowl’ (toman) type. This is topped with a canopy and a three-sectioned finial. Between the layers is enshrined a small seated Buddha performing the wisdom mudra (chiken-in). In this way, the very design structure of the reliquary itself reflects esoteric Shingon Buddhist teachings of the period’.

Toshodaiji Heavenly Kings

An imposing pair of wood sculptures called Heavenly Kings at the British Museum loaned by Toshodaiji temple, have only recently been designated as National Treasures. One of them is of Heavenly King Virudhaka (Zochoten), a rather threatening presence. However the viewer might react to this forceful being, he is called ‘Divine, or Heavenly’ and reputed to have been created by a Chinese sculptor from the 8th century. Clark told me that ‘the consensus among the sculpture specialists working on this special display is that the sculpture could perhaps have been made by Chinese sculptors who accompanied monk Jianzhen, founder of Toshodaiji temple to Japan in 753. It shows similarities with guardian figures of the later mid-8th century High Tang style in China.’

The 15 Sacred Treasures from Nara in London

I also questioned Clark about the selection process of the 15 sacred treasures from Nara lent to the British Museum. Why and how are these particularly significant as opposed to others? He replied: ‘The sacred sculptures and ritual objects have been selected in consultation with Nara Prefecture and the leading temples and shrines, as well as Nara and Tokyo National Museums and the Agency for Cultural Affairs. They embody a range of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs from the early and medieval periods, and are complemented by important paintings from the collection of the British Museum.’

Japanese and Chinese Paintings

These Japanese and Chinese paintings from Nara have surprisingly early links with the British Museum. In 1879, the British diplomat Ernest Satow (1843-1929) visited Horuji temple with a surgeon working for the Japanese government, William Anderson (1842-1900). Deeply impressed by the Nara treasures that had survived there, they commissioned a full-sized paper replica of one of the murals in Horyuji’s Golden Hall, which were bought by the British Museum in 1881. Due to Princess Akiko of Mikasa’s research, this painting was rediscovered only recently. As a large hanging scroll, it is normally preserved in the museum’s Hirayama Conservation Studio at Horyuji temple. Now it is on display in London. Attributed to Sakurai Koun, its ink and delicate colours are somewhat faded. Nevertheless, it is a graceful and moving tribute to the artistic and spiritual ambience that lives on at Nara.

In 1929, another English man, a British Museum curator, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), also visited Horyuji temple. Binyon commissioned a full-size (2.1 m) replica in ink, colour and gold on silk of another mural that was created by Niiro Chunosuke (1868-1954). The glorious result does full justice to a famous sculpture of the Bodhisattva of Compassion of the Never-Empty Noose (Fukukensaku Kannon), created circa 1200.

Nara – A Highly Charged Spiritual Place

Nara is a highly charged spiritual place, with its wealth of temples and shrines. It is also very atmospheric, with deer roaming through the park, grazing peacefully. These are sacred deer, which Shinto holds as messengers of the kami. Clark enlarges on their symbolism: ‘According to legend, in 768 the kami Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto  rode on a white deer from Kashima in Hitachi Province and appeared at Mount Mikasa in Nara. This event marked the founding of the Kasuga shrine’. The atmosphere at Kasuga shrine is as tranquil as the rest of Nara, its peaceful, sacred ambience enhanced by traditionally dressed women who maintain the site, and especially beautiful in spring, when pale mauve and white wisteria perfumes the air.

The Governor of Nara Prefecture, Arai Shogo, commented: ‘The British Museum has a long tradition of collecting and displaying cultural artefacts from all over the world. I am grateful that the museum has created this opportunity to display Buddhist sculptures and Shinto art from Nara in Japan, so as to convey their beauty and spiritual essence. Japan’s ancient capital city of Nara benefitted from cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, creating the foundations for traditional Japanese culture. We hope that people will savour this encounter with its deep cultural roots.’


Nara: Sacred Images from Early Japan to 24 November, at the British Museum, London, The locations are within the Asahi Shimbun displays in Room 3, and the Mitsubishi Japanese Galleries