Five-storied Pagoda (Goju-no-To)

The Five-storied Pagoda at Horyuji Temple is the oldest pagoda of this type in Japan and one of the oldest surviving wooden towers in the world. It was erected during the Asuka period (593–710) to enshrine sacred relics of the Buddha. The bones and ashes of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, were distributed among his followers after he died some 2,500 years ago. A portion of these remains are said to be entombed about three meters below the base of the pagoda today. The base displays a series of four tableaux depicting scenes from the Buddha’s story. On the north side, he is depicted passing into Nirvana while his disciples surround him in mourning.

The pagoda is approximately 32.5 meters tall from the base and its central pillar is made from a Japanese cypress tree felled in 594. This pillar runs through the tower’s five tiers which use flexible wooden joints to help the structure absorb the seismic energy of Japan’s frequent earthquakes.

A unique feature of the pagoda, and one of the “seven mysteries” of Horyuji, are the scythes attached to the uppermost roof. Lightning was once considered a celestial monster, so swords and implements with sharp edges were added to the pagoda as it was said that this would prevent the celestial monsters from alighting on them. The pagoda was struck by lightning during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), but was unharmed. Later, talismans were hung on each level to protect against future strikes. Today lightning rods protect the building.

Clay Statue Tableaux

At the base of the Five-storied Pagoda are a series of Buddhist tableaux dating from 711 which are shaped like caverns and contain 97 clay figurines. The four sides of the tableaux represent famous scenes from the story of the Buddha. On the east side, Yuima, a layman, is engaged in a religious dialogue with Monju, the bodhisattva of wisdom. On the north side, the Buddha is passing from this world into Nirvana, mourned by his weeping disciples. The agonized faces of his devotees are depicted in the scene, as well as a doctor taking the Buddha’s pulse. The west side shows the division of the relics of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, when his remains were distributed among eight tribes after his death some 2,500 years ago. On the south side, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future known as Miroku Bosatsu in Japanese, has achieved enlightenment and is giving a sermon.

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