Conflagrations within medieval architectural masterpieces have been on my mind this past fortnight. A week ago, I stood in Kyoto’s Sanjūsangen-dō temple, established in 1164 CE and given its present form in 1266. Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, which partially burned down on Monday, was constructed in the same era, begun in 1160 and completed in 1260.

Sanjūsangen-dō is dedicated to Kannon, who is the Japanese form of the Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara and, as a sidelight, the inspiration behind the Canon brand name.

The temple’s exterior does not match up to many of Kyoto’s splendid edifices, though the length of its hondo, or central hall, stands out immediately. So long is the hall that its veranda was used in archery contests from the 16th century onwards.

Its interior contains 1,001 life-size statues of Kannon, carved from wood and covered in gold leaf. They stand in serried rows, filling the enormous hondo except for passages at the front and sides left free for visitors. The sculptures are identical in size, posture and demeanour but reveal their individuality on close observation.

At the hall’s centre sits a giant gold bodhisattva with many heads and arms, the eyes closed in meditation and hands together in a namaste. In front of the thousand and one gentle Kannons are fearsome-looking guardians, Japanese versions of Vayu, Lakshmi, Varuna, Garuda, and other Hindu divinities. They provide a fascinating window to a period when Indian Buddhism absorbed Hindu iconography and transmitted it to China and beyond.

While taking in the stunning collection, an image disturbed me, of a fire engulfing the hall, melting the gold from the faces of sculptures before consuming them entirely. All is burning, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, the Buddha had preached. Those flames were metaphors, but the Ādittapariyāya Sutta’s apocalyptic tone felt appropriate to the context of my imagined catastrophe.

Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the laboratory that created the first atomic weapons, had been reminded of passages from the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first successful detonation: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one”, and, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Inside the Sanjūsangen-dō temple in Kyoto, Japan. [Photo credit: Devin Lieberman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]
Inside the Sanjūsangen-dō temple in Kyoto, Japan. [Photo credit: Devin Lieberman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

How Kyoto escaped the bomb

Had it not been for a quirk of personality, Sanjūsangen-dō’s hondo, along with the room in Nijo castle where centuries of de facto samurai rule in Japan came to an end, the dazzling Golden pavilion, the hundreds of vermillion gates of the Inari shrine, the Koizumi Dera temple built without using a single metal nail, the numerous other sites in Kyoto that receive millions of locals and tourists each year, and thousands of more humble structures in which citizens lived or worked would have faced a fury brighter than a thousand suns.

Kyoto, Japan’s capital for over a thousand years, the beating heart of the nation’s culture, headed the list of cities identified by the targeting committee charged with choosing where Little Boy and Fat Man would be dropped in August 1945.

Prominent among the scientists on that committee was John von Neumann, perhaps the most brilliant mind of the twentieth century and a ruthless hawk. From von Neumann’s perspective Kyoto offered the perfect target, a city of substantial size, left intact through weeks of American firebombing, ringed by hills that would help focus the blast, and packed with wooden buildings.

Since it was an intellectual hub, the targeting committee felt that many survivors would understand the implications of this utterly different form of devastation and be influential enough to convey their understanding to the highest authorities in Tokyo, precipitating a surrender before American lives were risked in a land invasion.

What saved Kyoto was the intervention of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who fondly remembered the time he had spent in the city. Some historians surmise he had travelled there on his honeymoon. Needing a cause beyond the beauty of Kyoto’s monuments, he argued that destroying the town would deliver such a bitter psychological blow that it would damage the United States’ chances of bringing Japan to its side in the emerging conflict against the Soviet Union. Stimson won the day.

On July 24, 1945, Kyoto was removed from the top of the list of targets and Nagasaki introduced at the bottom. On August 9, 1945, poor visibility around the preferred target Kokura sealed Nagasaki’s fate as the second city to endure a nuclear attack.

Flames and plumes of smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,France on April 15. (Photo credit: Fabien Barrau/AFP).
Flames and plumes of smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,France on April 15. (Photo credit: Fabien Barrau/AFP).

Fragility of life

Had Kyoto stayed on the list and been bombed, it would have been rebuilt after the war, as Dresden has been rebuilt, and as the Notre Dame will be rebuilt after the terrible fire. Since many of the Japanese city’s wooden shrines have faced accident and arson in the past, reconstruction is neither unfamiliar nor shunned. However, most Japanese are gratified it was left intact, and Stimson’s idea that an unbridgeable bitterness could have arisen from its destruction might not have been misconceived.

We went to Tokyo and Kyoto in the hope of catching the cherry blossoms in bloom, and were lucky enough to get the timing right. The Japanese love these flowers not only for their beauty, but also their transience, which imbues appreciation of the blooms with a sense of the fragility of life. We don’t treat buildings made from heavy masonry or sturdy wooden beams the same way, but the idiosyncratic sparing of Kyoto and the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral suggest they share more with cherry blossoms than we generally allow.