It’s been almost five years since I found myself for the first time in the Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura and, after doing the small zigzag from the entrance to the garden, came across the Big Buddha Amida-nyorai sitting on his round stone platform, seemingly indifferent to the hundreds of tourists photographing him from every possible angle. I don’t know if it was the actual size of the statue, the walk under the hot sun (Kotoku-in is in the Hase area, about half an hour from Kamakura’s central station) the instant grounding in reality of the countless images I’d seen until that moment or the memory of my father speaking about “the big Buddha of Kamakura” in what was probably the spark that triggered my interest in Japan about thirty five years ago but it’s not an exaggeration to say that for a few seconds I stood truly breathless. Even more interesting (?) is the fact that even though I have visited the temple at least half a dozen times since (the last one was the day before yesterday), each and every time I’ve felt the same start if only for a fraction of a second.
The idea of over-magnifying religious symbols and figures is not, of course, a Japanese invention: priests all over the world have been building huge monuments, temples and likenesses of gods since time immemorial, their motives so obvious that they should seem childish to the modern man’s mind. Still, it seems that no matter how much we evolve, every time we come across something big (especially if it is human-shaped and especially if it is dressed in a cloak of super-naturalness) a comparison mechanism inside us is activated and we feel, literally and metaphorically small and, therefore, insignificant. There is little doubt that the people who created him (the story speaks of Inada-noTsubone, lady in waiting of the shogun Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, of a priest from Totomi called Joko and of the casters Ono Goroemon and Tanji Hisatomo) seven and a half centuries ago had all these in mind but I’m not sure that what makes the Big Buddha remarkable is only his size.
Although initially housed in a building that was destroyed twice by a typhoon and once by a tsunami (after the third time the temple officials probably got the hint and didn’t rebuild) the Buddha seems as if he was made to blend with the surrounding environment; the best spot to view him is from a little further and from there his size appears to be dwarfed by the hill behind him. Even his color, the green of the bronze’s rust that has completely replaced his initial golden plating seems much more natural and makes him one with the trees in the temple’s grounds; knowing the passion of the Japanese for the “pathos of things” (mono no aware/物の哀れ), that is, the futility of our world I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that his makers built him to function not in their times but in ours and not to inspire awe but to remind that no one, god, man or buddha can escape transience.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.