• Tag Archives Vihaya
  • 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)