It was in the middle of the sixth century, when Buddhism crossed the sea from the mainland, that Japanese society began to develop in a systematic way. Buddhism did not replace Shinto, the ancestral religion which holds that everything in nature is somehow alive. This lovely belief is woven into the earliest consciousness of the Japanese nation. Buddha soon sat down among Shinto’s gods in peace and harmony.
Of all the countless temples and Buddhas that have sprung up since the sixth century, none is more symbolic of the smooth join between Japanese past and present than the colossal bronze figure in Nara known to Japanese as the Daibutsu, and to wondering foreigners as the Great Buddha (page 843). I have seen three men standing casually in the outstretched palm of this 53-foot, eighth-century masterwork. The statue consumed 437 tons of bronze as well as 286 pounds of pure gold from a mine discovered just in time to gild this great figure.
At Todai-ji, Nara’s famous temple, administrator Ryuei Moriya explained to me that the Great Buddha had not always been so lucky. “The Daibutsu’s head was shaken off in an earthquake in 855, and his head and right hand melted when the great hall in which he sits—one of the largest wooden buildings in the world—burned down in 1180. The head was lost again in another fire in 1567.”
Eighth-century Nara, with its broad avenues and its many temples and palaces, was magnificent beyond anything that had gone before in Japan. Life had turned overwhelmingly Chinese: architecture, court etiquette and dress, the very language in which everything from imperial edicts to sutras to love poems was written. Perhaps 10,000 persons of the 100,000 in Nara and the five million in Japan as a whole were involved in this beehive of learning and assimilation, but they changed the nature of their society forever.
And, in the process, they changed what they borrowed, making the material into something new and special and quintessentially Japanese. Professor Masaaki Ueda of Kyoto University has made a lifelong study of this curious phenomenon, and he explains it this way: “When we import something, we age it, and if it is found to be good, it is consumed. In old wine containers we put new sake. We Japanese have no revolutions, but we have very enthusiastic evolutions!”
Early in 793, Emperor Kammu commanded that a new capital be built, on the model of the Chinese capital at Ch’ang-an. Larger and more magnificent than Nara, Kyoto was at first named Heian-kyo, “capital of peace and tranquillity.” The city prospered; by the ninth century it held perhaps 100,000 people and 20,000 houses. The fascination with Chinese arts and sciences persisted. Scholars and statesmen continued to write in Chinese characters, even though a Japanese phonetic system was devised, according to legend, by a Buddhist named Kobo Daishi (774-835). To write in Japanese was, in a scornful phrase of the tenth century, to write as a woman writes.