• Tag Archives Vihara
  • 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 Monastery architecture in China. Vihara (and 3)

    Previous post (-> link <-)

    In the Great Hall the main altar is found and on it is the image of Sakyamuni Buddha and his twoforemost disciples, Mahakasyapa and Ananda, or other Buddhas of the past eras. The arrangment and choice of personages in this altar varies from temple to temple. Most of the time Sakyamuni Buddha is depicted in an attitude of comtemplation with his disciples flanking him.


    Temples dedicated to Amitabha Buddha have his image at the centre, Sakyamuni Buddha and Bahaisajyagura, better known to the Chinese as ‘Yao-Shih-Fwo’, are each accompanied by two disciples.

    To the right and left of the main altar one usually finds the two Great Bodhisattvas, Manjusri (Wen-Shu-Shih-Li) and Samantabhadra (Pu-Hsien). The placement of personage are not really fixed

    On the east and west walls of this Great Hall are often arranged the figures of the Eighteen Arhats (Lohas) who are represented as possessing various kinds of supernatural powers.


    Along the north wall can be found the images of Jan-teng Fwo or Dipankara, the ancient Buddha who predicted Sakyamuni’s Buddhahood, and popular Bodhisattvas such as Kun Yin, Wen-shu, Pu-Hsien and Ti-stsang (Ksi-tigarbha), or other Bodhisattvas. Very often, an image of Kuan Ti, a warrior, the Protector of Buddhism, can also be found in this hall.

    It is here at the Ta-Hung-Pau-Tien that devout Buddhist offer their prayers and offerings of flowers, fruits and other gifts which are placed on the table in front of the main altar. Very often, behind the central images of this hall and facing northwards, is placed the images of Kuan-Yin P’usa, colloquially called the Goddess of Mercy

    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.
    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.

    The third, of Back Hall, is usually divided into several smaller halls (Tien) or rooms. The central hall is generally the altar of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, the right housing the funerary tablet of the temple founder, while the left may be the Teaching or Meditation Hall. On the side or behind these main buildings are the living quarters, the dining area and the kitchen.

    Picture 2 056 (11 of 12)

    DSC_9970 (3 of 12)

  • 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