November 18, 2010

Celestial Being or Mutation? Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji Temple


Entering Great Buddha Hall in Todai-ji Temple in Nara, first you are welcomed by Great Buddha with the gestures of his hands.  The hand positions have religious meanings.  With his right hand in 施無畏-Semui position, he tells you "Do not be afraid. I will protect you". With his left hand in 与願-Yogan position, he tells you "I will grant all your wishes and prayers". 
 Great Buddha is called Vairocana in Sanskrit, meaning Shining Light of the Universe. He lights every corner of the universe without any shadows.  His light reaches all of the beings in universe to save them. He is the sun in the Buddhist  universe.

Once you come into Great Buddha Hall, you are already in his paradise. So, even the butterflies in front of Great Buddha are celestial beings and reside in his paradise.  As they are the celestial , they have  eight legs instead of six legs.

But over the past  ten years, these butterflies have been attracting attention of people specializing  in the development biology, and have served like the mascots or symbols for the research of homeobox genes. The homeobox genes play critical role in specifying the proper number and placement of segment structures ( such as legs, antenna, and eyes)  during the  embryonic development.  If the genes show abnormality, mutation will occur.



 When one development biologist visited Todaiji, he encountered these eight-legged butterflies.  "Homeotic Mutation!", he thought. And he chose one of the butterflies as the design for his book, "Master Control Genes in Development and Evolution: The Homeobox Story"in English , "ホメオボックス・ストーリー”in Japanese.  There he introduces the episode of the butterflies,  that more than one thousand years ago, the ancient Japanese might have been already chasing the clue of  the mystery of the  homeotic mutation.
"Very inspiring!", I heaved a deep sigh of amazement.   However, the present Great Buddha Hall is the third one which was rebuilt in 1709 since the hall was burnt down two times and rebuilt two times. So I am not sure whether the first Great Buddha Hall had eight-legged butterflies or not. I hope it had them. Imagine in the 8th century, an artist caught an eight-legged butterfly and took it as the celestial butterfly.  He soon decided to make bronze butterflies with eight legs to offer them to Great Buddha. More than 1000 years later, one development biologist came to Nara from the distant country.  He met  the eight-legged butterflies and connected development biology to the acient people in Nara,  transcending time.

I want  to ponder it, bathing in the lingering depth of  his idea.

9 comments:

  1. This mystery about eight-legged butterfly is interesting.

    There seems to be a family crest of eight-legged swallowtail.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Stardust,

    Exactly! They look like the family crest of a swallowtail of Heike Clan.

    I remember another example of a divine being with an extra leg. It is 八咫烏(やたがらす)- mythical three-legged crow which guided the first emperor of Japan from Kumano to Yamato(present Nara). Japan Football Association chose it as their symbol.

    I want to find our if there are more examples like these.

    ReplyDelete
  3. snowwhite,
    I'm also interested in this.

    There is also an "eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon (yamata-no-orochi)" in Japanese mythology. "Eight" has special meaning as you know and is often related to Shinto (ex. yaoyorozuno kami) or Buddhism (ex. octagonal lantern or hall).

    No only in Japan but also in the world, for example in Greek mythology, there are multi-headed or multi-legged animals, too. And we know "double-headed eagle" as an emblem in the Europe.

    To take these things into consideration, I think the eight-legged butterflies at Buddha Hall of Todaiji must be mythical or celestial butterflies, not the mutated ones of the real world.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Stardust,

    Thank you for your ceomment.

    I agree with you. Eight is the spsecial number in Japanese culture. But, I think the meaning of eight differs from thing to thing. For example, in many cases, the number eight refers to countless or many. But I do not know why eight was used.

    What I got interested in is the point whether the ancient people saw eight-legged butterflies, a three-legged crow or they just imagined them.

    When I think about the albino animals such as white deer, white tigers, white snakes, white foxes and so on, the anceient people might have taken the rare animals as divine. Albino is also a kind of mutation.

    I am enjoying the world of imagination. And these eight-legged butterflies have surely stimulated people's imagination.

    Besides the number eight, it is interesting to think about symbolic numbers such as thirty three, fifty three, one hundred eight, etc in Shinto and Bddhism.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "the number eight refers to countless or many. But I do not know why eight was used."

    Perhaps the shape of 八,eight for Chinese character, makes people imagine enlarge in number and scale.
    By the way, the shape of 8, when it is laid down, looks like ∞, infinity.

    ReplyDelete
  6. haricot,

    Thank you for your comment on the number 8.

    You are right!!  

    The shape of 八 is called "末広がり”meanaing enlarging toword the end and symbolizes fertility and prosperity. I must have thought 8 in Chinese character, 八.

    ∞ and 8, Wow! If we lay down 8, it becomes ∞.

    Is this by chance?? It interested me very much.

    ReplyDelete
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