Huge Buddha with historic past to find new home in local Japanese garden

A giant statue of a Buddha with a storied past will soon take center stage at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.

We can thank a San Diego couple who collect Japanese artifacts and Hurricane Katrina. The 11-foot-tall bronze statue, created nearly 300 years ago by celebrated artist Takumi Obata, reigned over the gardens of Kamakura, Japan, before being shipped to Mississippi in 1930.

The massive statue became the pride of the Middlegate Japanese Gardens created 70 miles east of New Orleans by entrepreneur Rudolf Hecht and his wife Lynne, as a reminder of their travels in Japan.

The Great Buddha, as it was called, sat peacefully on its bronze lotus flower base, until Hurricane Katrina stormed in on Aug. 29, 2005. Winds ravaged the gardens and left nothing but debris in its wake. The Buddha was riddled with rips and punctures. Its neck, arm and crown were broken, and the pieces were sold at auction with other artworks.

The buyers were San Diego art collectors Eugene and Marian Gabrych who made repairs and placed the Buddha in their own garden until donating it to the Japanese Friendship Garden last year.

“We contacted a restoration company and asked if anything could be done to restore it,” said Luanne Kanzawa, executive director of the Japanese Friendship Garden Society of San Diego. After securing grants for restoration, landscaping and placement, the society moved ahead.

Last Friday, the statue was returned after four months of restoration. Its resting place near a tranquil stream and waterfall is now being prepared by a landscape specialist imported from Japan to properly place the surrounding boulders.

An official dedication ceremony is expected in December.

“This is the first time we’ve acquired an artifact with this kind of value,” Kanzawa said. “It’s the oldest artifact we have at the garden.” She calls the Buddha a treasure that the society wants to share with the public.

Read more from Diane Bell's column here.

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