In the sutra devoted to Yakushi Nyorai, the “Medicine Master Buddha,” the Buddha vows to illuminate the minds of sentient beings, cure the sick, and heal those with physical limitations. Yakushi was the first Buddhist deity in Japan to have a temple dedicated to his name and worship. Yakushiji was founded in 680 by Emperor Tenmu (r. 672–686) when his chief consort, subsequently Empress Jitō (r. 687–696), became ill. She recovered, but Tenmu did not live to see the temple completed in the Fujiwara capital. The main icon was a gilt-bronze triad with a seated Medicine Master Buddha at the center flanked by two standing attendant bodhisattvas. Neither the temple nor the triad survives.
Yakushiji was “moved” circa 718 from Fujiwara to a new capital in
Nara (710–794), along with other temples important to the sovereigns of the day. The main hall of the relocated Yakushiji houses a bronze Yakushi triad; the central statue, more than eight feet high, sits atop a striking five-foot-tall pedestal. The “move” of temples and icons from one capital to another can refer to either a physical move or a relocation of the temple in name only. Because the layout and surviving buildings of the Nara Yakushiji closely follow the plan of the earlier temple, some scholars believe that it was physically moved to Nara and that the main icon was relocated along with it. This debate has been at the center of scholarly research concerning the pedestal for a century.