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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Gentle strokes create a gentle gaze

Jun. 20, 2017

A World Heritage Site in Japan has undergone a transformation. The Yakushiji temple in Nara, dating back over 1,300 years, had reconstruction work done on its Jiki-dou, or refectory. A ceremony was held recently to celebrate.

The Jiki-dou is a large hall where monks pray. It features a 6-meter square painting of the giant Buddha Amitabha, created by a master of traditional Japanese painting, and took 5 years to complete.

The artist who painted the giant Buddha Amitabha is 75-year-old Toshio Tabuchi. Known for depicting Japanese nature using delicate brushstrokes, he has received high praise and won many awards.

The refectory burned down around 1,000 years ago. Back then, 300 monks used to train and sleep in it.

Reconstruction of it began in 2012.

The plan was to rebuild and decorate it with a large painting of Amitabha.

“This might be my last big work and it will be challenging. I must create something that will last a thousand years,” Tabuchi said at the time.

Hoin Yamada was the chief priest of Yakushiji temple. He greatly admired Tabuchi’s work and decided to commission him for the project.

Yamada placed no restrictions on Tabuchi and simply asked him to create an inspirational Buddha for the modern era.

The Great Japan Earthquake occurred one year before the reconstruction of refectory began.

Priests from the temple visited areas affected by the quake and offered support to the survivors.

The priests hoped the new refectory would become a place for people to pray and rediscover their passion for life.

“I want to help people understand that a joyful Buddhist heaven awaits those who work hard to overcome their hardships. I want to help them think positively,” said Yamada.

Tabuchi is a master of Japanese painting, but it was his first time to create the image of a Buddha.

He started by sketching various statues from around Japan before deciding how to depict Amitabha.

After 3 months of investigating, he finally began a rough sketch.

Usually, the face would be drawn first, but Tabuchi decided to start with the body.

He finally began drawing the face, but he found it challenging.

“It's tricky because depicting the face as too beautiful and tidy might diminish the Buddha’s spirituality. The more I learn, the less able I am to give it shape,” he said.

To start things off, a large panel was set up in Tabuchi’s studio. He began work on a huge image of Amitabha, one year after he received the commission.

First, he projected his sketch onto the blank panel. He began drawing in rough lines based on his sketch and then added the finer details.

His challenge was to draw the face of a wise Buddha who accepts the prayers of the people.

Tabuchi felt the most important aspect of the facial expression is in the eyes.

“If the Buddha gazes at one point, it looks as though he can only help one person at a time. I want to draw a face with eyes that can see everyone and everything at once -- a face that can lift everyone’s spirits,” he said.

World-famous architect Toyo Ito, an important partner in the reconstruction project, visited Tabuchi.

For the first time, Ito revealed his design for the refectory’s interior.

The ceiling would be covered with special light-reflecting panels. The room would represent a paradise flooded with the light of Amitabha.

“Amitabha is a Buddha who is the source of boundless light. I designed the ceiling to show the light spreading, expanding,” said Ito.

Ito's plan inspired Tabuchi.

“I want to express the effect of paradise through the painting of the Buddha and the ceiling’s light,” said Tabuchi.

At the final stage of coloring his painting, Tabuchi used soft shades to create a sense of the paradise we will reach after experiencing suffering.

On May 26th, the Jiki-dou is finally complete.

Yakushiji Temple’s refectory is reborn in magnificent splendor after a 1,000-year rest.

The ceiling panels create a sky full of clouds. The surrounding walls are covered with scenes depicting the path of Buddhism in Japan.

At the center is Amitabha, gently gazing upon the people.

“I feel warmth bubbling up in me, and it’s strange, but I can’t stop crying." “At first I was stunned. I was very touched when I realized that my departed husband had been guided to that place,” the visitors said.

“Until it was complete, it was just a painting. But I’m really happy to see it transformed into something that can comfort people. I’m so fortunate to be a painter. I could not be happier with the result,” says Tabuchi.

Over 5,000 people visited the temple during a special 3-day memorial service. The refectory will remain open for public viewing until November.