The main hall of the Saimyoji temple in Kora, left, and the three-storey pagoda survived an attack by warlord Oda Nobunaga. Picture: Yomiuri/Japan News.
Visitors may feel as if they are looking at a 3D mandala upon entering Saimyoji Temple in Kora, Shiga Prefecture. The first storey of a three-storey pagoda at the temple depicts the world of Buddha through richly coloured murals and paintings of Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) and other Buddhist icons.

The pagoda, a designated national treasure, was constructed during the Kamakura period (late 12th-early 14th century). I recently visited the temple to take in the world of Buddha and see the pagoda for myself before it was closed to the public earlier this month.

Saimyoji was founded in 834 and is one of the three Koto Sanzan temples east of Lake Biwa. The other two, Kongorinji in Aisho and Hyakusaiji in Higashiomi, are nearby. All three are associated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism. According to historical documents, the temple prospered during the medieval period when it had 17 main buildings and 300 residential facilities for monks.

Upon entering the three-storey pagoda, I was overwhelmed by the dazzling display of colours. A massive Dainichi Nyorai Buddha statue is seated on a shumidan dais in the centre of the space, with the dais’ four corner pillars each decorated with eight images of Bosatsu. The ceiling is grid-patterned and adorned with images of flowers painted with gold, vermilion and other bright colours.

The four walls also display eight murals that each depict an important scene from the Hokekyo, or Lotus Sutra, which is important to the Tendai sect. The paintings, however, have peeled considerably, which was perhaps inevitable given they are 700 years old.

Saimyoji faced its greatest crisis in 1571, when the mighty warlord Oda Nobunaga dispatched an army to the temple after destroying Hieizan Enryakuji, the headquarters of the Tendai sect in present-day Otsu.

All of the temple’s buildings burned to ashes except for the pagoda, the main hall and the Nitenmon gate. The main hall was built during the Kamakura period, while the gate was constructed during the Muromachi period (early 14th century to late 16th century). Today, the main hall is designated as a national treasure and the gate as an important cultural property.

Legend has it that the temple priests themselves burned a large amount of firewood to create the impression that the entire temple grounds were ablaze, discouraging Nobunaga’s army from continuing its attack.

Many in Oda’s awesome army were likely in awe of Buddha and did not want to burn down the elegant buildings and paintings, Nakano said. “I believe they pretended to be deceived and withdrew before attacking.”

Nakano’s explanation made sense. The army really must have been reluctant to destroy them. Thanks to this good fortune, people today can enjoy the murals depicting the world of Buddha, objects of faith since medieval times. - The Washington Post