• Tag Archives Buddhist architecture
  • Buddhist temples, a primer in structure and iconography ( and 3)

    The Back Hall
    The Back Hall may exist or not. If it exists, it is usually divided into several smaller halls (Tien) or rooms for any of the Bodhisattvas or even to important Buddhist figures, such as Xuanzang, the monk who brought scriptures back from India. He is usually depicted bald (he was a monk), with a canopy over his head and a fly wisk in one hand. Or, in statues, with a kind of sceptre.


    Bodhitsattvas in there may be a representation of Dàyuàn Dìzàng Púsà (Kṣitigarbha – Earth Store or Hell Bodhisattva) among others. Usually depicted as a monk with a halo around his shaved head, he carries a staff which is used to alert insects and small animals of his approach, so that he will not accidentally harm them. This staff is traditionally carried by Buddhist monks. In the Chinese tradition, Ksitigarbha is sometimes depicted wearing a crown like the one worn by Vairocana.

    In Japan, Ksitigarbha, known as Jizō, or Ojizō-sama as he is respectfully known, is one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards. Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents. He has been worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō (水子供養, lit. offering to water children). In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that Jizō saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe, and letting them hear mantras.

    Ksitigarbha_Bodhisattva Japan

    Jizō statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, put there by people in the hope that it would shorten the time children have to suffer in the underworld. (The act is derived from the tradition of building stupas as an act of merit-making.) The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children’s clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Jizō would specially protect them.

    And, we need to take into account that in Japan, Ksitigarbha protects the travelers, so, we may put our trip under His Protection

    Like other bodhisattvas, Ksitigarbha usually is seen standing on a lotus base, symbolising his release from rebirth. Ksitigarbha’s face and head are also idealised, featuring the third eye, elongated ears and the other standard attributes of a buddha.



    The temple includes a set of cloister buildings unevenly distributed. The rooms tha open towards de cloister, which acts a distributor, often contain small shrines to specific Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or function as shops. The temple refectory is located in these buildings. The cloisters in some temples have the monks’ cells, or guest rooms for visitors.

    Temple room (Kyoto, Japan)

    2011-01-17 at 22-34-09

    Cloister in Shaolin Temple
    060426_shaolin (3 of 5)

    Cloister in Nara (?)
    2011-01-19 at 06-05-59

    Other cloisters in Japan


    2011-01-20 at 22-20-44

    2011-01-19 at 04-47-43


    The tă (Pagoda) is a stupa tower that is normally located to the rear of the temple, but can be found anywhere, if at all. Pagodas come in many different shapes and sizes, but are usually a number of storeys and have a spiraling staircase that you climb to get to the top. Commonly, they are either square or octagonal. Sometimes there is a chamber at each level, sometimes not. Some pagodas, particularly older ones, are made of solid stone and are not hollow or climbable. The pagoda is normally built over a reliquary that is buried in the ground.

    Photo Credits:

    Featured Photo, Shaolin Temple, Kyoto and Nara: Author

  • Buddhist temples, a primer in structure and iconography (2)

    After the Hall of Heavenly Kings, its four grimacing figures of warriors defenders of the Dharma we pass to the Courtyard, in which there is an incense brazier and, eventually two towers, the drum tower and the bell tower (which may be buildings, here a picture of Xian’s Bell tower)


    After the Courtyard, pilgrim enters the Great Hall (also called the Main Chamber). In this Chamber is the most important figure of the temple, Sakyamuni Buddha, in attitude of contemplation, to his right, Amitābha usually sits holding a jewel box to symbolize the precious teaching. To the left of Sakyamuni, Baiṣajyaguru usually holds a miniature pagoda or medicine box that contains healing herbs.

    buddha trinity

    There is then an iconography, Amitabha holds a jewel box (precious teaching) and Baisajyaguru with a miniature pagoda… and, at the same time, they represent the Holy Buddhist Trinity,

    The Trikaya, or three bodies of the Buddha.

    In the Mahayana tradition, the Sakyamuni Buddha (along with all other Buddhas) is believed to have had at least 3 bodies:
    1) nirmanakaya, or physical body, with which they come to earth to teach the Dharma,
    2) sambhogakaya, or manifestation body, with which the buddhas continue to reveal teachings to us (sentient beings) in dreams or visions, and with which they divinely intervene to help us out on the path
    3) dharmakaya, or their transcendent body, which is the manifestation of ultimate reality, and can thus not be talked about or described. This last body cannot be described or comprehended.

    So, the three figures do not really represent three different persons, but three instantiations of the same Buddha and not of God, as in the Christian religion.

    In front of the statues is an offering table and various small items used for adoration such as a few musical instruments used during chanting and a cushion in front of it for worshippers to kowtow their obeissance.

    Sometimes, the hall will have a statue of Skanda and Guan Yu (a historical general) on either side of the entrance to protect the Dharma. The back two corners of the hall may have a statue of Pǔxián Púsà (Samantabhadra – universally worthy bodhisattva) on his elephant to the right


    and Wénshū Púsà (Mañjuśrī – Gentle Glory Bodhisattva) on his lion to the left.

    wenshu pusa British.Museum

    The hall will often be lined with statues of luóhàn (arhats – enlightened followers of the Buddha) and behind the principle Buddha image,

    lohan115 shaolin

    There is usually a statue of Kuan Yin (the Many Handed Goddess), the Goddess of Mercy, standing on a Makara (sea monster) against a screen filled with depictions of many holy beings.

    Kuan Yin, also known as Avalokiteshvara, is a bodhisattva who is one of the most widely worshipped deities among the Chinese. A bodhisattva is a compassionate Buddha-like being who has elected to postpone his or her own enlightenment in order to assist others on their journey. Commonly shown in female form, she is also known colloquially as the “Goddess of Mercy,” and is often depicted pouring from a vial containing “elixir of compassion.” Other representations of this bodhisattva have numerous arms and heads, symbolizing a limitless ability to relieve the suffering of others.


  • Buddhist Monasteries. A primer on Structure and Iconography (1)

    When the pilgrim enters a Catholic Monastery, Shrine or Church there are statues and/or paintings of different people, either Saints, or Vergins, or Martirs. Traditionally we all know who they are due to their respective iconography, say, Saint Anthony has always lilies (he devoted his Purity to the Christ in front of the altar the Blessed Virgin Mary – BTW, the interest on the sexuality of the Saints is a constant in Catholicism -), a book and Jesus young boy is in his arms. So, when we see a statue or a painting that shows a man, with some lilies, a book and bearing a boy, there is no need to ask, you may start preying to get an spouse (he is the Saint to pray if you want to do a good wedding).


    When you see a woman bearing his eyes in a tray, you got it, you are in front of Saint Lucy

    Santa Lucia_ Il Sassoferrato

    and, if instead of his eyes, the tray shows her breasts, you found Saint Agathe.


    Sometimes, the painter may decide to represent the sadistic act in itself

    agata del piombo

    We may ask… is something similar in Buddhist monasteries? Is there a similar iconography? In Western countries we are used to the “standard” representation of Buddha, the Meditating Buddha


    or this one


    and that’s all

    But Buddhist iconography is, at least, as rich than Catholic

    Pilgrims enter a Buddhist monastery, usually though a gate with no doors, the Paifang (the Torii in Japanese Temples) with multiered roofs.

    In front of the temple is a wall (that may have dragons on it if the Temple is sponsored by the Emperor), called Yingbi or Zhaobi (Shadow Wall). The aim of this wall is to stop evil spirits (it is well known that nor ghosts nor evil spirits can turn corners)

    Then he finds a gatehouse, usually flanked by grimacing guardians. They signify the beginning (Open Mouth) and the end (closed mouth) of everything


    Once the gate has been passed, pilgrim enters the first courtyard with a brazier in it, which is not intended to burn anything, but to collect alms. As a matter of fact, pilgrims throw coins in them for luck.

    There are then two towers, simetrically disposed one is the drum tower, and the other the bell tower, more important

    Then the pilgrim access the first building of the temple, the “Hall of Heavenly Kings”. Passing the doors pilgrims are confronted with an altar, and the “smiling buddha” (Mi-Lei-Fwo)

    laughing buddha

    The Hall of Heavenly Kings includes the four statues of the guardian Gods, which protect the Dharma. They defend the Devas (Gods) from the attack of the Asuras (Demons)

    Each Guardian God has his own iconography
    – Duo Wen Tian is the King of the North and carries a mongoose (generosity) and an umbrella as status symbol. The umbrella darkens the battlefield and blows winds against his ennemies. His skin in white, yellow or blue
    – Zēng Zhǎng Tiānwáng is the King of the South and carries a sword. When he throws the sword towards the sky, it becomes lightning bolts wich defeat monsters and ghosts. His skin is blue, green or black. He is the leader of pot-bellied dwarves
    – Chí Guó Tiānwáng is the King of the East. He carries a chinese lute, and when he plays it, his enemies are deafened and suffer terrible headaches. He is skin-coloured, and he rules over heavenly spirits who are wonderful musicians
    – Guăng Mù Tiānwáng is the King of the West. He carries a naga (a water snake) that he may throw in the air, thus drowning his ennemies. He is red-skinned and he rules over the nagas

    In the Hall of Heavenly Kings, directly behind Mi-Lei-Fwo, often separated by a wall, and facing the interior of the temple, is the great deva Wei-to, the Projector of Buddhist temples and the Faith. He is depicted clad in full armour and holding either a gnarled staff or a sceptre-shaped weapon resting on the ground. He is always facing the Great Hall known as the ‘Ta-Hung-Pau-Tien’ which is separated from the front hall by a wall or a courtyard.


    (To be continued)

  • Buddhist Monastery architecture in China. Vihara (2)

    To previous post (link)

    Buddhist Monasteries in China
    The Chinese Buddhist monastery or temple is fashioned after the imperial palaces and bears very little resemblance to the temples in India or other Buddhist countries. Generally there are three groups of buildings separated by courtyards. The monastery, like other Chinese structures, normally faces south.

    Shaolin Monastery


    Temples in China as Palaces
    In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chan (Zen) sect developed a new ‘seven part structure’ for temples. The seven parts – the Buddha hall, dharma hall, monks’ quarters, depository, gate, pure land hall and toilet facilities – completely exclude pagodas, and can be seen to represent the final triumph of the traditional Chinese palace/courtyard system over the original central-pagoda tradition established 1000 years earlier by the White Horse Temple in 67. Although they were built outside of the main temple itself, large pagodas in the tradition of the past were still built. This includes the two Ming Dynasty pagodas of Famen Temple and the Chongwen Pagoda in Jingyang of Shaanxi Province.

    This is the Labuleng complex, in Xiahe


    Buddhist Chinese Monastery Visit
    Entering the front hall, one is confronted by four huge images, usually made from wood, two on each side. These are the Four Heavenly Kings or Devas, the Guardians of the Four Directions and the hall is named after them as the ‘Si-Tien Wang Tien’.


    In this hall, one is greeted at the entrance, by the lovable and kindly Buddha-to-be, Maitreya Buddha, known to the Chinese as the ‘Laughing Buddha’ or ‘Ta-pao Mi-Lei-Fwo, with his fat paunch, looking joyously towards the entrance.

    laughing buddha

    Directly behind Mi-Lei-Fwo, often separated by a wall, is the great deva Wei-to, the Projector of Buddhist temples and the Faith. He is depicted clad in full armour and holding either a gnarled staff or a sceptre-shaped weapon resting on the ground. Wei-To, who is a general under the Four Heavenly Kings, is also accorded the title of ‘Protector of Buddhist Books’. He is always facing the Great Hall known as the ‘Ta-Hung-Pau-Tien’ which is separated from the front hall by a wall or a courtyard.


    (To be continued)

    Other views of Xiahe

    labuleng monastery





    Photo Credits: Featured Image. Temple in Japan (Carlos Griell)

    other photos from the Internet

  • Buddhist monastery architecture in China (1). General View

    Thanks to Umberto Eco’s the Name of the Rose, we all know the architecture of a Cistercian Monastery: the Church, and next to it the Cloister which is the Center of the public life of the Monastery. Monks sleep in the Dormitorium, which is open to the Cloister’s second floor, and pass their time on the ground level, either in the garden, in the Scriptorium or in the Refectorium. Next to it, logically, stands the kitchen. Usually there is a direct entrance to the Cloister, with storage for goods. The (usually spectacular) Capitular Hall opens, alone, towards the Cloister

    The abbot has his own appartments, usually in another building.

    Here is an example, Sant Pere de Rodes

    and here another, Santo Domingo de Silos

    So, it is easy, when entering a new monastery, to understand its structure, because all follow a similar pattern.

    Does Buddhist Monasteries in China follow some kind of plan?

    Well, this is a Buddhist Monastery Plan

    Vihara (Ajanta)

    A “standard” Buddhist Monastery includes:
    – the vihara (or the Prayer Hall) with cells for monks
    – the pagoda (an evolution of the Stupa), place in which to worship sacred statues or relics, usually at the opposite side of the Vihara entrance


    I n the second century BCE a standard plan for a vihara was established. (…) It consisted of a walled quadrangular court, flanked by small cells. The front wall was pierced by a door, the side facing it in later periods often incorporated a shrine for the image of the Buddha. The cells were fitted with rock-cut platforms for beds and pillows (Mitra 1971).


    As the symbol of Buddhism where people climb to have a bird’s-eye-view, it is often erected in temples. Pagodas can be made of stone, wood, colored glaze or metal. Pagodas have an odd number of layers. Seven-layer and Nine-layer pagodas are commonly built. The shape of cross-section is rectangular, eight-sided or even circular. Initially, the pagoda served as the central axis alongside which rows of halls and monks’ rooms spread out. Later, pagodas were built near the main palace hall


    Before Buddhism, great teachers were buried in mounds. Some were cremated, but sometimes they were buried in a seated, meditative position. The mound of earth covered them up. Thus, the domed shape of the stupa came to represent a person seated in meditation much as the Buddha was when he achieved Enlightenment and knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. The base of the stupa represents his crossed legs as he sat in a meditative pose (called padmasana or the lotus position). The middle portion is the Buddha’s body and the top of the mound, where a pole rises from the apex surrounded by a small fence, represents his head. Before images of the human Buddha were created, reliefs often depicted practitioners demonstrating devotion to a stupa

    The practitioner does not enter the stupa, it is a solid object. Instead, the practitioner circumambulates (walks around) it as a meditational practice focusing on the Buddha’s teachings. This movement suggests the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara) and the spokes of the Eightfold Path (eight guidelines that assist the practitioner) that leads to knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and into the center of the unmoving hub of the wheel, Enlightenment. .

    Here are three images of the Shaolin Monastery, in Henan Province

    060426_shaolin (3 of 5)

    060434_shaolin (4 of 5)

    060427_shaolin (1 of 5)

    Photo credits: Author
    Featured Image, Temple in Delhi
    Other images: Shaolin Temple, near Zengzhou