The Buddha at Kamakura - Japan

The Buddha at Kamakura - Japan

Souvenir Series #11

Oh ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when the heathen pray,
To Buddha at Kamakura!

Curiously, this verse about a statue in Japan begins the first chapter of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim (1901) a story set in India about a young European lad who has “gone native.”

Kimball O’Hara is the orphaned son of a dissolute Irish soldier – “a poor white of the very poorest” – adopted by a half-caste woman with an opium habit. Kim is a ragamuffin, wild and free, who befriends an old Tibetan Lama and together the unlikely pair end up on an eccentric and circuitous adventure travelling through northern India together. The young boy, Kim, is Kipling’s idealised bridge between the East and West. It is a puzzling novel which, somewhat out of joint with the time when it was penned, explores the Anglo-Indian fascinations of its author to the full – posing its readers many questions. Indeed, if “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” – what are we to make of Kipling’s idea of the Buddha at Kamakura?

At its heart much of Kipling’s work is marked by a distinct pessimism. Man lives in a state of constant war with the world around him. All is but a welter of chaos and mayhem waiting to descend. He is chiefly remembered today as 'the poet of empire' on one hand, and the father of the Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1902) on the other. As such, he is a hard literary figure to quantify. Fantastically popular in his day, he is now tainted with post-colonial guilt for being ‘the foremost poet of Victorian Imperialism.’ But he was very much a man disjointed and out of place. Born in India, but British; not an Indian, but neither wholly at home in his mother country, Britain. The curious melancholy found in his works is not as nihilistic, nor quite as intensely navel gazing, as the works of his contemporary, Joseph Conrad. But both Kipling and Conrad lived long enough to witness the Great War, an upheaval which in effect began an epochal sequence-shift of global transitions that would in time bring an end to the high era of Western imperialism.

Readers today still truly love Kipling’s Kim. Perhaps because of the author’s sympathies with arguably his most memorable character. Kim, the boy, is perhaps an attempt by Kipling to reconcile the diversity of a mixed up world of opposites. It can be read as an ecumenical plea for openness, for tolerance, for reconciliation, for magnanimity, for understanding. The book does this by skilfully offering up parallels, pairing the active and the passive; the secular and the sacred; youth and age; the individual and the community – this structure forms the moral and intellectual heart of the book. Indeed, Kim is described as the “Little Friend of all the World.” And as such, he subverts the subaltern with sympathies which weren’t exactly common for the novel’s time. Kim is actually one of us, but he’s also our key to accessing the inner lives of those who are not us – he is as much one of them, those who are the Oriental ‘other. Kim is the true child of empire in the sense that he has no particular home but rather he has the whole world for a home instead. Interestingly though, Kim is not a ‘eurasian’ child, he is specifically of European descent; but nevertheless he perhaps represents the cross-cultural unity which, Kipling perhaps suggests, we should all be seeking.

For whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither man nor beast,
May hear the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura.

Kipling visited Kamakura in 1892.  In From Sea To Sea (1899), he rather poetically described the place as “Kamakura by the tumbling Pacific, where the great god Buddha sits and equably hears the centuries and the seas murmur in his ears.” My Rough Guide is less romantic and rather more dismissive, but I’m with Kipling – I think the place is sublime. I’ve visited the Great Buddha, the 大仏 ‘Daibutsu’, several times and it is true that it attracts a huge number of visitors, particularly on holidays and weekends when the weather is fine; but there’s something to the serenity of the statue which seems to transcend the noisy throng of people. If anything they bring a sense of life which sets the Buddha in a human context, as you clearly sense that the Buddha is truly loved. Maybe it’s something about his pose, or the calm set of his face, as well as his sheer size and his surprising age. 

Completed in 1252 and built under the orders of Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, the Daibutsu is made entirely of bronze. There is a little side door beneath the stone pedestal through which you can actually climb inside the statue. Two large louvers in the statue’s back allow light and air inside, and here you can better appreciate how the Buddha is constructed of multiple sections which have been fused together. Outside the seams have been burnished so that the surface appears smooth, continuous and unbroken. The Great Buddha was originally covered in gold leaf, traces of which can still be seen if you look carefully. Originally the Daibutsu was housed within a temple building, probably rather like the Great Buddha of Tōdai-ji at Nara (built in 1709), but a series of earthquakes and tsunamis over time repeatedly destroyed the temple yet always leaving the Great Buddha remaining seemingly unmoved. A celestial hint perhaps that the Diabutsu wanted to remain sitting out in the open, hence since 1498 he has sat in calm meditation beneath the slow rotation of the stars and the sun.

My first encounter with the Daibutsu was actually in Tokyo when I came across this rather weighty statuette on an antiques market stall by Shinobazu Pond in October 2003. Made of moulded red resin he sits 23.5 cm high, 14 cm wide, and 10 cm deep. On Christmas Day of that year I made my first visit to Kamakura, but on that occasion I never actually reached the Daibutsu. I spent the day getting there, leaving the train at Kita-Kamakura and making my way, down the valley on foot, visiting the Zen temples that line this route. But I took too long doing so and by the time I reached Kamakura itself – the Daibutsu was closed. Instead, the spiritual end to my journey found me sitting alone on the beach, watching the sunset whilst attempting to eat sushi without it being stolen by enormous dive-bombing kites!

A few years later though, I returned to see the Daibutsu properly; this time buying the small silver Buddha as a souvenir (4.5 cm high, 3.5 cm wide, 2.5 cm deep). The little silver Buddha still sits by my desk, acting as a salient reminder of the importance of contemplation and serenity; and hopefully acting as a totemic brake on the absurdly frantic pace of the modern world with all its impossible demands.

I also have a magnificent old book, entitled Wonders of the World, which was published in the early 1920s (worthy of a future Waymarks article of its own), which has an impression of the Daibutsu embossed onto its spine. Inside, under one of several entries for places in Japan, the book marvels at the science and statistics of the Daibutsu: “A description of it seems nearly sacrilegious when brought down to measures and weights. Its height is forty-nine feet and circumference ninety-seven feet two inches. The length of the face is eight feet five inches, and in the huge forehead is set a silver boss thirty pounds in weight and fifteen inches in diameter. The eyes, fashioned in pure gold, look out from lids three feet eleven inches long, whilst the ears and nose have dimensions of six feet six inches and three feet nine inches respectively. The mouth is three feet two inches from corner to corner, and on the head are eight hundred and thirty curls, nine inches high each.”  

It’s curious to note that this secular emphasis on the scientific and the statistical is paralleled at the Big Buddha on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, which was built much more recently. When I visited in 2007 there was a very assertive display of information panels in the rooms underneath the Big Buddha which proudly outlined the technical feat of construction which the huge monument embodied, also emphasising the political point that it was one of the last major beneficent civic projects completed during Hong Kong’s period of British colonial administration (which only ended in 1997), but said almost nothing about the Buddha or the religious tenets of Buddhism which such an image is usually meant to convey. This seemed like quite an oversight to me. But making this observation at the time very much put me in mind of Kipling and Kamakura. I think Kipling might well have reflected the same. An act of faith can certainly produce as well as transcend a technical marvel, but is the technical feat a more transcendent universal which crosses or unifies a cultural and temporal divide?

A tourist-show, a legend told,
A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
The meaning of Kamakura?

But when the morning prayer is prayed,
Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made
No nearer than Kamakura?

Related Reading on Waymarks:

Wonders of the World (forthcoming)

Tian Tan – the Big Buddha of Lantau (forthcoming)

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