Sanjusangen-do is a popular temple building in Kyoto which was completed in 1164. It is officially known as ‘Rengeo-in’ or ‘Hall of the Lotus King’ which houses 1,001 human-sized statues of the goddess Kannon. Its temple hall is the longest wooden structure in Japanese history and measures around 120 meters. The temple has actually been destroyed by fire in the past and was rebuilt in the 13th century.
The main deity of the temple is Kannon, an East Asian spiritual figure of mercy. Buddhists believe that when a person dies, they are placed by the goddess in the heart of a lotus where they are sent to the celestial realm or pure abode. The main statue of the deity has been sculpted by Tankei, a Japanese sculptor of Kei School, in the 12th century. He was also the son of Unkei, a master sculptor. Since then, the statue has been considered a national treasure of Japan.
Kannon is equipped with 11 heads and 1,000 arms. The heads help the deity in witnessing the human being’s suffering while the arms enable her to help them.
On both right and left sides of the statue are a thousand of other life-sized Kannons placed side by side in 10 rows and 50 columns. These are made of Japanese cypress, a slow-growing tree popular in the country. These are also clad in gold leaf and it is said that 124 of these statues come from the original temple while the remaining 876 statues have already been rebuilt due to the fire.
In front of the center statue is 28 guardian deities. They can be seen with different actions and expressions. The most popular of these are Agyo and Ungyo who are known as Buddhist protectors. They can also be seen in other Buddhist temples in the form of a frightening wrestler-like statue.
Knowing that Japanese beliefs is better represented with the temples and shrines that have been built with all the co-existing statues, Sanjusangen-do is a great place to learn more about the goddess Kannon, so check it out when you’re next in Kyoto!
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