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Japan’s Historic Todai Temple Offers Relief for Families Living with Serious Illness

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Tōdai-ji's Golden Hall. From wikipedia.org
Tōdai-ji’s Golden Hall. From wikipedia.org

One of Japan’s most famous and historically significant Buddhist temples, Todai-ji in the former Japanese capital of Nara, continues to play an active, socially engaged role in the community. The extensive grounds of the temple complex are also home to a unique boardinghouse that reaches out to people living with serious illnesses and disabilities.

Established in September 2010, the center aims to offer a measure of comfort and brief respite in the lives of seriously ill people—in particular, children with severe disabilities—and to provide much-needed support for their families. In the seven years since it was founded, the boardinghouse has extended a compassionate welcome to more than 80 families. 

The facility is manned by a community of volunteers, who maintain the premises and prepare meals using vegetables grown in the nearby garden, with doctors and nurses on hand in case of emergencies. Funded mainly by donations, the boardinghouse offers its services free of charge, dependent on a referral by a doctor.

Misato Komiyama, a quadriplegic, celebrates her birthday with family members and volunteers at the boardinghouse. From kyodonews.net
Misato Komiyama, a quadriplegic, celebrates her birthday with family members and volunteers at the boardinghouse. From kyodonews.net

One of the refuge’s recent guests was 26-year-old Misato Komiyama from Shiga Prefecture in western Japan. Her stay at the boardinghouse with her parents last summer was the family’s first overnight trip together in five years.“It was a precious time for us,” said Misato’s mother, Keiko, who celebrated her daughter’s birthday at the center with a special meal prepared by the volunteers. “My daughter looked so happy and everything was new to us.” (Kyodo News)

A quadriplegic, Misato is wheelchair-bound and requires assistance from a ventilator to breath. Keiko admitted that her daughter’s condition was a constant source of worry for the family, who had to be alert for sudden changes in her condition. “It has been really hard for us but we have never felt unhappy,” she affirmed. “Misato has given us a lot of happiness and is a treasure we never want to lose.” (Kyodo News)

With few such boardinghouses in Japan, demand is high, so each family is only permitted to visit the center once, observed Dr. Kiyotaka Tomiwa, who heads Todai-ji Medical and Educational Center and was instrumental in establishing the boardinghouse. 

“You should know that your life can still be wonderful with your family, even if you have a disability or have not much time to live,” he emphasized. “I hope the parents will feel thankful for their children.” (Kyodo News)

Misato visits nearby Nara Park and feeds rice crackers to the deer. From kyodonews.net
Misato visits nearby Nara Park and feeds rice crackers to the deer. From kyodonews.net

Todai-ji was one of seven historically influential Buddhist temples in the city of Nara, a former capital of Japan from 710–94. Founded by Emperor Shomu (r. 724–49) as the head temple of a network of provincial monasteries throughout Japan, the extensive complex, constructed largely from wood, has been rebuilt and restored on numerous occasions since its founding due to fires, earthquakes, and other disasters. The temple complex now forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” which comprises five Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine, a palace, and an old-growth forest.

Home to the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, housed in the main hall, Todai-ji also serves as the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism—the Japanese transmission of the Huayan school of Mahayana Buddhism that first flourished in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907).

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Japanese temple boardinghouse provides respite to seriously ill, families (Kyodo News)
Nara temple’s boardinghouse provides respite for seriously ill and their families (The Japan Times)

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