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)

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Cloister in Shaolin Temple
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Cloister in Nara (?)
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Other cloisters in Japan


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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