This image shows the center altar in the Miroku Hall at Muroji. The sculpture on the altar is a carved wooden figure of the Miroku Bosatsu, a sculpture that is perhaps 3 feet high, dating from the 8th century. Dr. Fowler points out that this sculpture almost certainly was not the original sculpture on the center altar, which would have been a figure of the Miroku Buddha, rather than a bosatsu. -- Although some of the ritual objects in Buddhist temples vary somewhat from one sect to another, some objects are used in all sects. In this image we see the cushion on which the celebrant would sit in formal Japanese sitting posture, knees bent, sitting on the ankles. The rounded bronze object to the right is a "bell," with its open end at the top; it is struck on the outside with a padded stick, which produces the rich, resonant sound that accompanies and punctuates Buddhist chants. Also evident are three items found at all Buddhists altars, namely, flowers, incense, and light (candles). Often, as here, there also are offerings of fruit.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.