This image shows the forest immediately behind the pagoda and the gravestones there, memorials to former monks and abbots of Muroji.
This sculpture of the Seated Shaka is located on an altar to the right of the center altar in the Miroku Hall at Muroji. Although it may have been brought to its present location from elsewhere as recently as the 19th century, this sculpture probably dates from the second half of the ninth century and it is regarded as an outstanding example of early Heian period sculpture. It is carved from Hinoki cypress wood and was carved almost entirely from one block of wood. A distinctive characteristic of the style of its period is the style of carving of the folds in the robe, a style known as the "rolling wave" style. Originally, the sculpture was coated with a gesso-like material and painted; only traces of that original finish remain today. Although the figure is relatively modest in size, at about 3 1/2 feet in height, it feels as if it is much larger than the actual physical dimensions, because of the small size of the space where it is viewed.
Along the side of the steps up the side of the mountain, one sees this Jizo figure. The Jizo is a spirit that cares for the souls of children who have died and the Jizo statues are very common throughout Japan, especially in temple compounds. The offerings left with this Jizo are interesting and mildly humorous, since the offerings include a container of "One Cup Ozeki," a brand of sake that can be purchased from vending machines. Also interesting are the branches in the vases, which appear to be branches of sakaki, a plant usually associated with Shinto, although there frequently are "cross-overs" between Buddhist and Shinto practices in Japan. (Sake, likewise, is usually associated with the Shinto offerings of sake, salt, and rice, associated with purification, as seen in images from the Hachiman Shrine in Morioka.) Some excellent information in these areas may be found in the Colorado College collection dealing with Japanese religion, materials contributed by Professor David Gardiner.
On the right side of the image, above the woman walking on the path, may be seen the bridge that crosses the Muro River. On the far side of the river (a stream at this point) is Muro village. In the foreground is the path that leads from the bridge to the entrance gate at Muroji (to the left, out of the photo).
This shows a detail of the photos on the poster of the restoration work on the five-story pagoda at Muroji. The photos show the reconstruction of part of one of the roofs of the pagoda.
This image of the five-story pagoda shows it in its environment, which is set into the forest, on the level above the Initiation Hall. Because it is not next to another structure, which would provide a sense of scale, one is not aware of the fact that this pagoda is, in fact, perhaps the shortest pagoda in Japan, at a height of about one half of that of many other pagodas. Despite that relatively diminutive scale, it is an exceptionally graceful creation and it has been designated as a National Treasure. The pagoda, along with the kondo, is one of the two oldest buildings extant at MurÃµji and it probably is the older of the two, with recently discovered evidence indicating that it probably was built c. 800. Unlike the kondo, it probably has undergone little change over the millennium since its erection, and when we look at it we may well be seeing what it looked like when completed around 1,200 years ago. This particular image of the pagoda was taken in the summer of 2000, after the restoration of late 1998 - 1999. Another image, ecasia000026, was taken in 1998, before the restoration, as evidenced by the age of the painted surface. In late September, 1998, between the time of the making of those two images, a typhoon uprooted some of the massive Japanese cedars, the crytomeria trees, near the pagoda and one of the falling giants struck the roofs at the rear of the pagoda, seriously damaging them. Funds were raised immediately for a careful rebuilding, restoration of the damaged portion and the work was completed almost immediately. Image ecasia000022 shows a poster that was produced at the time of the restoration effort and image ecasia000043 shows a detail from the bottom of the poster, which includes photos of the damage and of the restoration work in progress.
At Muroji, from the village, one crosses a foot bridge over the narrow Muro River to enter the grounds of the temple compound. Having crossed the bridge, the abbot's quarters and residence halls for the monks are straight ahead and to one's left. To the right is a walk leading to the Nio Gate, the entrance to the temple compound, proper, with its guardian figures on both sides of the gate. Also of interest at the gate is the stone stele, which is from the Edo period and which proclaims that Muroji is the "woman's Mt. Koya." At the great Mt.Koya center of Shingon Buddhism, founded by Kukai, women were forbidden from entering the precincts, while at Muroji they were welcomed and remain, today, important in their presence at Muroji. Passing through the gate, on one's right is the steep embankment of the river and, on one's left is a small pond with koi . The path ends straight ahead and at that point one turns left and ascends a set of stone steps to the next level of the compound, where the kondo and Mirokudo are located. This latter feature, the location of the kondo and Mirokudo to the left and on another level from the gate, is an important feature of Muroji. Until this time, Buddhist compounds in Japan followed more or less closely the classic scheme of Chinese Buddhist temples, in which the buildings were laid out symmetrically along a central axis, facing south. The variation at Muroji was a result, no doubt, of the topography of the site, that the compound is on the side of a mountain, rather than on a level site. The choice of that site, however, and the resulting rejection of a symmetrical axis, was significant and some say that this is an aspect of Muroji that represents an early Heian period "Japanization" of a Chinese model.
As described with the image of the Nio gate at Muroji (image ecasia000004.jpg), one of the disctinctive features of the compound at Muroji is the fact that it is not laid out on a symmetrical axis, oriented along a north-south axis, and all on a level plot (for comparison, e.g., look at the plan of Yakushiji, Nara). From the level of the Nio gate at Muroji, one turns to one's left and ascends this set of stone steps to reach the next level of the compound, where there is a modest sized, open level area that is used for ceremonies. On that level, the kondo is directly ahead of one across from the top of the steps, the Mirokudo is directly to one's left, and the Haiden, an early 20th century addition, is to one's right.
Perhaps one hundred yards to the left and behind the pagoda, one begins a steep ascent up the side of the mountain to the Hall of Eternal Light. The stone steps lead one up the side of the hill in almost a straight line, going up the side of the hill for perhaps a quarter of a mile. At one point, off to the side of the stairs leading up the mountainside, one sees this short set of stone steps leading up to a niche carved out of the hill, where there is this small group of memorial stones.
This image shows the front of the Hall for Memorial Tablets, also known as the Hall of Eternal Light. As is seen here, the structure is extended out in space on scaffolding over the steep hillside. The white pieces of paper along the lines between posts on the edge of the porch are omikuji, printed "fortunes." They have been tied to the line here with a prayer that the deity may assist in the fulfillment of the fortune. Omikuji are very commonly found at Shinto shrines and represent, perhaps, a crossing over of a practice between Shinto and Buddhism.
The interior of the kondo, the Golden Hall, at Muroji includes a central area surrounded all around by a corridor. The central area, called the moya, contains an altar with five standing statues. In front of the altar figures are smaller carvings of the twelve generals, attendants of the Yakushi Buddha. The statue shown in this image is the central figure on the altar and represents the Shaka or the Yakushi Buddha. The figure, a large wooden sculpture (perhaps 7 1/2 feet tal), l is an outstanding example of early Heian sculpture, from the mid-ninth century, with traits such as the fullness of the cheeks, the separate coils of the curls in the hair, the sharp division of chest and abdomen, the use of many repeated parallel folds in the carving of the robe, and the overall solemnity of expression. Also noteworthy here is the painted aureole behind the Shaka, which is well preserved and presents images of the seven Buddhas of the past and present world cycles.
A view of the rectangular pool that lies in front of the Main Hall, the Kanjodo, the initiation hall, at Muroji. This is viewed with the hall at one's back, looking across the pool in the direction of the Muro River and Muro village on the other side of the river. There are orange koi in the pool and, in the spring, the surface of the pool is covered with petals of blossoms from nearby trees.
The entrance to the Hall for Memorial Tablets, at Muroji is on ground level of a small level area. Most of the hall, however, is built out over the steep hillside, supported on scaffolding, as shown in this image taken from the stone stairs as one approaches the small plateau.
This image shows the poster that was produced during the restoration of the five-story pagoda, which had been damaged by a typhoon in 1998.
Detail of the central bay of the Kanjodo at Muroji, showing part of the public portion of the hall. Included in the photo are the large vessel in which one may place a stick of lighted incense, the wooden offeratory box to the right of the incense vessel, and the container of sticks for fortunes on the right (see image ecasia000035).
This enlarged version of part of the image in file no. ecasia000001.jpg shows some of the lines engraved in the stone to depict an image of the Miroku Buddha. Again, the carving dates from 1207 or 1208, and is along the bank of the Muro River, along the approach to Muroji. The pattern of parallel curved lines in the image is stylistically interesting and might be compared with the linear pattern of the robe folds in the sculpture that is the central image in the kondo at Muroji, a sculpture that dates from the Heian period (image I.D. ecasia000007.jpg) or with the sculpture of the seated Shaka (ecasia000012.jpg), from the Mirokudo, Muroji, which dates from early Heian period.
This is a view of the path, the steps leading up the mountainside at Muroji to the Hall of Eternal Light, also called the Hall for Memorial Tablets. It is a very steep and long climb, consisting of 400 steps built in the 1860's. It also is a beautiful walk up the mountainside, as the steps pass through a quiet forest of giant crytomeria trees. As suggested in the description of the kondo, with its placement in a "natural" wooded site, the presence of nature at Muroji is important and points to a change in the role of nature in relation to Buddhism in Japan, compared, e.g., to the role of setting at earlier temples such as Horyuji. This use of natural setting at Muroji is, of course, consistent with the central awareness of nature in traditional Japanese culture and aesthetic values. The construction of Muroji in the forest no doubt reflects also the intent to remove the temple to the quiet of the mountain site, away from the political environment of the capital.
This slide of the pagoda at Muroji was taken in the spring, 1998, before the typhoon damage of September 22, 1998, and the subsequent restoration work on the pagoda. The slide shows the first story of the five-story pagoda, which is only 8 feet square. Also shown is the detail of some of the bracketing that was used in Buddhist pagodas and other temple buildings. The bracketing is perhaps less important here, structurally, than in other temple compounds, because the roofs here, at Muroji, are covered with cedar bark, rather than the very heavy tile of other temples.
Next to the Hall for Memorial Tablets is a Founder's Portrait Hall, a 14th century memorial to the 8th century priest, Kukai. Kukai had traveled to China, where he studied under a great Chinese master, Huiguo. Kukai was named the successor to Huiguo, but instead of remaining in China, he returned to Japan, where he founded the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism. He was intimately tied to the history of the great complex at Mt. Koya and to the history of Muroji. On the hill behind the Founder's Hall is a seven-story stone stupa, said to mark the secluded spot to which Kukai came to sit.Â½he Portrait Hall, itself, contains a wooden sculpture of Kukai as an object of veneration.
This image shows a detail of the exterior of the kondo at Muroji. It is front corner of the kondo, showing the veranda that runs across the front of kondo (see image 000008) and the bay at the front of the kondo, which extends along the front also, forming a worship space inside the kondo. The veranda and the front bay were added to the original structure during the Kamakura period and their addition necessitated the extension of the roof, resulting in the peculiar structure seen here.
As one walks down the mountainside from the Hall of Eternal Light, the Hall for Memorial Tablets,when one reaches the point where stairs end on relatively level ground, one sees the five-story pagoda ahead, slightly to the left of the path, beyond a group of crytomeria trees. In the foreground on the left, next to the path are, again, a group of memorial stones marking the graves of monks from the temple community from centuries past.
The kondo at Muroji is one of the original structures remaining from the early Heian period, although it has, of course, undergone numerous repairs and reconstructions since then. Nonetheless, it retains some distinctive characteristics. It is one story in height and has a sense of horizontal balance, rather than the vertical movement of, e.g., the kondo at Horyuji. The roof is cedar bark, rather than the tile of other temples. Rather than being situated in a level compound, surrounded by the defining and containing cloister wall of that compound, the kondo at Muroji stands alone and is fitted with sensitivity into the natural surrounding of the mountainside forest. Hence, in scale, proportion, use of materials, and setting, the kondo at Muroji might be viewed as being perhaps a re-assertion of some indigenous Japanese aesthetic preferences. Interestingly, that suggestion is based entirely upon visual elements, but if we study some of the religious history of Muroji and Mt. Muro, we find some intertwining of Buddhist and Shinto rituals, which might make the suggested aesthetic blending of elements even more plausible. -- BRIEF INTRODUCTORY NOTE RE: MUROJI'S HISTORY: The compound at Muroji is the result of a long history of shift and change, architecturally, artistically, and in terms of religious history. It is a fascinating history and one explored in great richness in the recent landmark work of scholarship, Sherry D. Fowler's Muroji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese Buddhist Temple (Honolulu: University of Hawai'I Press, 2005). -- E.g., although we think of Muroji as being a Shingon temple, over its history, at various times, it was aligned closely with other schools of Buddhism, as well. At one point it became a court case whether Muroji should be classified as a Shingon temple or as a sub-temple of Kofukuji, associated with Hossoo school. Shingon advocates constructed a history of Muroji that inserted Kukai to assert the Shingon tradition of the temple and he was, no doubt, very important in the history of Muroji, while the temple was, in fact, founded by Kengyoo, a Hossoo monk from Kofukuji. Dr. Fowler comments, "ninth-century Murooji might be considered a site for monks specializing in ascetic training who followed teachings associated with Hossoo, Tendai, and Shingon." (p.53) -- Adding to this richness of religious history are several other elements that deserve mention here. Mt. Muro was regarded as a sacred space in Shinto tradition, one associated with the dragon believed to reside there, to whom annual rituals were dedicated. That sense of the sacred may be part of why this was chosen as the site for the temple, Muroji, and there continue to be festivals intertwining elements of Shinto and Buddhism. The sacredness of this spot has been enhanced by the legends that Kukai returned from his time in China with relics that he buried at a secret location on Mt. Muro. Still, today, the mountain beyond the Founder's Hall is regarded as a space too sacred to be entered by laity.
Muroji, kondo, exterior, architectural detail The kondo at Muroji, built in the early Heian period, still reflects much of its original character and feeling, although it also has been repaired and changed many times over the past millennium since its construction. In this image of the end of the kondo, we can see clearly what was the original middle point of the end wall, with a pillar at the center of the wall. Originally the ridge of the roof would have been directly above this point but, as we can see here, the ridge of the roof is now to the right of the middle pillar of the end wall. This shift occurred during the Kamakura period, when an extra bay was added across the front of the kondo to create a worship space, and a veranda was extended off the outside of that bay. These additions disrupted the symmetry of the original structure and necessitated the addition of a curious element to the front side of the roof, shown clearly in the previous image, Muroji, 008 (ecasia000011).
This is the Mirokudo, the Miroku Hall, also called the Maitreya Hall, at Muroji, as seen from the veranda of the kondo. The Mirokudo is a smaller hall, and later in date than the kondo, having been moved to this site from Kofukuji during the Kamakura period. It contains a main center altar and two smaller side altars. The center altar, as seen in the next image, ecasia000012, is devoted to a figure of the Miroku Bosatsu, and one of the side altars, image ecasia000013, holds the wooden carved sculpture of the Seated Shaka, an exceptional example of ninth century (early Heian) sculpture.
Muroji (Muroo temple) is perhaps 15 miles southeast of Nara City, in the "mountains" of Nara Prefecture (mountains similar to the American Catskills or the foothills of the Appalachians). One takes a train from Nara station into the countryside, then transfers to a local train to reach the station near Muroji. From that station, one takes a bus that runs hourly to travel the several miles along a winding, two lane road to the small village of Muro. Muro village shares with the road a narrow strip of flat land between the Muro River and the steep hillside that rises perhaps 100 yards from the river embankment. It is a small rural village and retains something of the feel of the Japan of decades past. Whether because of its relative inaccessibility or because it is not listed in tour books, the temple of Muroji does not attract the crowds that daily visit the temples of Kyoto and Nara, and few of the visitors to Muroji are not Japanese. [During the summer and fall of 2000, the road was being straightened out some and widened. It will be interesting to see whether this brings more visitors and more commerce to Muro village, and changes the feel of the community.] The road from the train station to the village of Muro parallels the Muro River for most of the way. -- Perhaps a mile or two from Muro village, one comes upon this surprising sight on the opposite side of the river. Carved into the stone of the bluff on the bank of the river is a shallow relief carving of the Miroku Buddha and, to the lower left of the Miroku figure, a mandala carved in stone. The carving is almost flat, and is more in the nature of a linear engraving on the stone than it is a 3-dimensional sculptural work. The carving dates from the very early Kamakura period, around 1207 or 1208. Image ecasia000002 is an enlarged version of this image and it shows detail of some of the lines in the engraved image. The carving was asssociated with Onodera, another temple, besides Muroji, associated with Kofukuji in Nara. Along with the construction of the Miroku Hall at Muroji, the stone Miroku is an expression of Kofukuji's devotion to the Miroku.