Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Preview: The Ushiku Daibutsu

"Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice."

That was the command that summoned up the titular Beetlejuice in the 1988 film starring Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, a simple three-time repetition of the eponymous main character's name. I defy anyone who watched it not to have tried it at least once, and then been secretly disappointed when a cantankerous Michael Keaton in make-up didn't suddenly appear.

The same trick can be used in Buddhism, or more specifically the branch of it called Mahayana Buddhism which is prevalent in China and east Asia, when relating to a particular Buddha called Amitabha Buddha. Without getting too technical, Amitabha is a buddha originally derived from an incredibly ancient and otherworldly monk who by the power of his virtue created a perfect world removed from our usual world of time and space, into which the virtuous can aspire to be reborn. Or, in fact, you don't need to be all that virtuous at all - you just need to be able to repeat his name at least ten times to be guaranteed rebirth in his celestial world. A shortcut to heaven if you will: Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha. However, before you get too keen on this easy doctrine, there then follows more complicated sets of commands, including pretty specific visualisations of Amitabha at the point of death, and bear in mind that the more dedicated practitioners might repeat Amitabha's name 50,000 times or more each day, which given that there are only 86,400 seconds in a day is a pretty demanding task. You can forget about a morning lie-in or going for a pint in the evening.

Amitabha's world was called the "Pure Land" and has lent itself to the widespread Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism, popular especially in Japan. In the way of most religions, this sect has further branched off, into a school called Shin Buddhism, named after its 13th Century founder, Shinran. He was a simplifier and cut out a lot of the rituals that had been amassed, and created a new chant - Namu Amida Butsu, or "I take refuge in Amitabha Buddha". However, saying this over and over again doesn't, like the earlier repetition, get you a rebirth in a heavenly world, it's just a way of expressing gratitude to Amitabha. An ongoing thank-you.

The simplified Shin Buddhism quickly became popular among the masses in Japan who were busy just trying to grow enough food and stay alive, and didn't have time for the confusing array of rituals and lengthy education otherwise required from the other more complex schools of Buddhism. It is now the most widely practised branch in Japan. And in tribute to Shinran's efforts, and Amitabha himself, we have the Ushiku Daibutsu.


Ushiku is a town of just over 80000, about an hour north-east of Tokyo, and Daibutsu simply means "big buddha" and that pretty much describes what we have here: a really big statue of Buddha in Ushiku. It's the third biggest statue in the world, after the Spring Temple Buddha and Laykyun Setkyar, but still clings onto the proud boast that it is the tallest, as recognised by the Guinness Book of Records. Like Akshardham Temple and its Guinness-recognised biggest Hindu temple claim, the backing of Guinness might be terrific publicity but it doesn't make it true. The Guinness Book of Records is, after all, a popular best-selling annual and not a cultural or scientific body charged with clinical recordings of mankind's most important excesses. Which is why it features the likes of "fastest 100m hurdles while wearing flippers" (19.278 seconds) and, ahem, "most snails to remain on face for ten seconds" (forty-three snails, up from the previous record of just eight). But in fairness, at the time of Guinness's recognition of the Ushiku Daibutsu as the tallest statue in the world upon its 1993 completion, it was entirely true. They just haven't quite got round to removing the plaque at the entrance yet...

The Ushiku Daibutsu was built to commemorate the birth of Shinran, over 800 years after, and takes the massive image of Amitabha Buddha. The head of it may look familiar: it's an image originally inspired by a mixing of classical Greek and Buddhist styles two millennia ago and, along with the fat chuckling Buddha, now readily available in shops as figurines or garden ornaments, but it's on an altogether bigger scale from the shop-bought Buddha heads. At 20 metres high, and almost as wide, the head is as big as a department store, and the proportionately massive ears at 10 metres each are like buses resting vertically at either side. The entire statue is 100 metres tall, standing on a 10 metre base and 10 metre lotus platform, making for a total of 120 metres.

Like all good statues, you can go inside the Ushiku Daibutsu, with four levels open to the public. These include prayer and study halls, but for the non-devout like myself there's the attraction of the observation deck located 85 metres up, embedded in Amitabha's chest. As a long-time fan of going up tall buildings, this is a good thing. The statue also appears to be the highest point for quite some distance, being visible from all the surrounding area, therefore commanding an impressive view.


What elevates the third biggest statue in the world ahead of the first and second? That remains to be seen, although height alone does not determine a great structure. The Ushiku Daibutsu looks to be a statue, to Western tastes at least, that is a little less gaudy than its larger brothers, and the monocolour of its bronze plating and Greco-Buddhist style being simpler and more aesthetically pleasing. The Buddha image is more recognisable too, although this arguably stems more from produce in new-age shops than understanding of Buddhist iconography, and certainly doesn't stem from the Ushiku Daibutsu, which is just a very large modern version of this image. Despite being so massive however, from photos the statue does appear to have a peaceful, tranquil quality. As the statue isn't widely known, even in Japan, there won't be hordes of tourists to dispel this tranquility.

I'll be visiting the Ushiku Daibutsu in March, and will give a fuller account of it then, as well as my own impressions.

Edit: this was removed from my list in March 2013

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