Temple: Buddhist Temple Compounds in East Asia

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Symbols of the Buddha and precursors of Buddhist monuments appeared in China in the Western Han dynasty (206 bce9 ce). During the Eastern Han (23220 ce), Buddhist images and places to worship them had made their way to the Chinese capital and many provincial regions. By the fourth century ce multicultural monastic communities practiced Buddhism in China's westernmost regions, including oasis towns in what are today Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Gansu province. By the next century, temple compounds had sprung up in cities, towns, and secluded, mountainous areas in every part of China, and Buddhism and its architecture had reached the Korean peninsula. By the end of the sixth century, the religion flourished in all three East Asian countriesChina, Korea, and Japan.

In general, the movement of Buddhism and the temple compound was eastward, initially from India to Central Asia, to China, to Korea, to Japan, but occasionally transmission of architecture and ideas occurred via alternate routes that bypassed Central Asia or Korea, for instance. Wherever Buddhism went, the temple compound was the core of both monastic and religious communal life. Its size and complexity increased with time, such that new sects gave rise to new architectural forms and building arrangements. Patronage often was a direct reflection of imperial interest in the faith. Constructed almost exclusively with local materials, the architecture of temple compounds was adapted to every climate and region of East Asia. Yet through two millennia of history, the core structure and the primary purposes of the Buddhist temple compound as a setting for Buddhist worship and education have remained constant.

Temple Compounds in China

Buddhist temple compounds presented the first serious challenge to the highly developed, coherent, codified, and even rigid Chinese architectural system. For more than two thousand years prior to the appearance of Buddhism, individual Chinese structures had been supported by timber frames made of primarily straight pieces of wood. By the time Buddhism entered China, cantilevers in the form of bracket sets had been introduced to help support the weight of large, prominent roof eaves, and ceramic tile had become the primary material for roof coverings. The system was employed for emperors and commoners alike, in palaces and ritual halls of the sovereign, humble dwellings, and altars that were built by both groups. Ground plans of all these structures were almost invariably four-sided, the one exception being ritual halls that excavations suggest had circular and octagonal rooms. Principles of axiality and four-sided enclosure dominated Chinese construction; the latter was so important that it was almost impossible to find a structure without an arcade-enclosed courtyard adjoining or in front of it. Buildings and space multiplied along orthogonal lines, sometimes joined by arcades, in either direction. Except for watchtowers or gate-towers, before the entry of Buddhism, Chinese buildings were one-story high. These principles of Chinese construction and space would influence and usually govern imperial and religious building across East Asia until the twentieth century.

Construction in China's first Buddhist centuries

Three fundamental architectural forms of early Indian Buddhist construction stupa, caitya, and vihāra had to be accommodated by the Chinese system in order for Buddhist temple compounds to exist. All three were achieved during the centuries of disunion between the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 and reunification under the Sui in 581. During this period, many of the non-Chinese rulers of small and short-lived dynasties and kingdoms were eager patrons of a religion whose origins were as foreign on Chinese soil as were they. By the end of the sixth century, Buddhism had become the dominant religion in every region of China and its borders.

The most striking symbol of Buddhism on the Chinese landscape was the tower-like structure known as a pagoda, the Western name of the East Asian version of the stupa. The stupa had already undergone transformation along the route eastward across Central Asia from its initial Indian form of a circular plan with an egg-shaped dome capped by a balustrade-enclosed harmikā to a taller, occasionally four-sided monument. Its primary purposes as a relic mound, either for the remains of a Buddhist or other sacred relics or to mark a sacred place or event in the history of the faith, remained the same. At least five versions of the pagoda stood as parts of Chinese temple compounds before the beginning of the Tang dynasty (618907). Three examples of pagodas with four-sided plans are represented by the single-story, nearly square Four-Entry Pagoda at Shentong Monastery in Licheng, Shandong, restored in 611; the multistory pillar-pagoda whose perimeter decreases story by story from base to top; and the multistory pillar-pagoda of uniform perimeter dimensions from first story to last. The latter two are found near centers of Buddhism in China that included major clusters of Buddhist worship caves. Both forms of pillar-pagoda had roof eaves marking each story. The fourth and fifth pagoda types taper in size from base to roof. One has an octagonal and the other a dodecagonal ground plan. Numerous octagonal pagodas survive from every period of Chinese history, but the only surviving, and only known, twelve-sided pagoda was built at Songyue Monastery on Mount Song, Henan, in 523. All pagodas of the early period have replicas on their exterior facades of the doors, windows, and corbel bracketing found on contemporary Chinese wooden architecture. Those that survive are brick or stone masonry.

Joining the pagoda as a focal point of worship in an early Chinese temple compound was the Buddha hall, in which were enshrined the main devotional images of the worship complex. Worshipers could enter Buddha halls, in contrast to pagodas, which sometimes could be entered but in other instances had imagery carved on the exterior and were circumambulated during worship. The earliest extant wooden Chinese Buddha halls are from the eighth and ninth centuries. From excavated remains and written descriptions we know that Buddha halls of the sixth and seventh centuries were rectangular in plan and of one story.

The site of Yongning Monastery in the Northern Wei (493534) capital at Luoyang in Henan province is one of the most extensively excavated and described temple compounds of the early period of Buddhist architecture in China. Its rectangular wooden pagoda soared 161 meters in nine stories. Each side of each story was supported by ten pillars and had three doors and six windows. The doors were vermilion lacquer, held in place with golden nails. Golden bells hung from each corner of each level. The Great Buddha hall directly to its north was fashioned after the main hall of audience of Luoyang palace. It contained a three-meter-tall golden Buddha. Also following imperial architecture, Yongning Monastery was enclosed by a 212-by-301-meter mud-earth wall, 3.3 meters thick, with a gate on each side. Its main gate, seven bays across the front, was 66 meters high and rose three stories. The others were two stories high. Records inform us that Yongning Monastery had a thousand bays of rooms, among which were monks' quarters, towers, pavilions, and the main Buddha hall and pagoda behind one another at the center. Yongningsi (temple compound) was just one of 1,367 Buddhist structures or temple compounds in the Northern Wei capital during its forty-year history. The main southern capital in Jiankang (present-day Nanjing) had 480 monasteries during the third through sixth centuries. Although not all received the kind of imperial patronage lavished on Yongning Monastery, whether converted from residences, built anew, or expanded from earlier structures, every temple compound had a pagoda and Buddha hall, and usually at least an entry gate and one enclosing corridor joined to the gate or surrounding the two main structures. All were Chinese versions of the vihāra, the second Buddhist structural type imported from India. Like their Indian predecessors, most contained residential architecture for monks, and, even more so than in India, the Chinese Buddhist temple compound was a group of courtyard-enclosed spaces. Unlike many Indian vihāra, pagodas projected above the low walls of temple compounds, and were sometimes the only feature that made it possible to distinguish a Chinese temple compound from a palace complex.

The last architectural form inherited from Indian Buddhist temple compounds was the caitya. In China, the caitya took the form of a rock-carved worship cave. The Chinese had occasionally carved tombs into natural rock prior to the entry of Buddhism. In at least one instancethe panorama of rock-carved imagery from the Han dynasty at Lianyungang in Jiansu provinceBuddhist deities are believed to have been carved into the face of rock. The concept of worship in a cave-temple, however, was inherited from India by way of Central Asia. Cave-temples with relief sculptures and paintings decorating their interiors, along with freestanding temples in oases along the Silk Routes, were seen by Chinese merchants before the fall of the Han dynasty. By the end of the fourth century, cave-temples in the vicinity of Dunhuang in Gansu province showed a unique blending of Chinese and South Asian structure and iconography. Structural and decorative features of cave-temples in Xinjiang and Gansu continued to bear signs of the native communities of monks and merchants from every part of Asia as late as the tenth century. Most famous among cave-temple monasteries are, from west to east, Kizil, Kumtura, and Bezeklik in Xinjiang; the Mogao and other cave-temple groups in the Dunhuang region, and Maijishan in Gansu province; and Yun'gang, Tianlongshan, Xiangtangshan, Longmen, and Gongxian in the north central Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Hebei, and Henan. Additional cave-temples studied in the twentieth century Gansu, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, southeastern China, and Liaoning in the Northeast is giving way to the redating and refinement of chronologies for all of China's cave-temples.

The transmission of Buddhism and the rock-carved temple compound never followed a clear or direct path from South to East Asia during the five centuries (fifth to tenth) during which the architectural form flourished in Central Asia and China. Features of Chinese architecture, notably the ceramic tile roof and pillar-supported structure raised on a high platform with bracket sets, appeared in the murals and in reliefs at each of the sites named above by the fifth or sixth century. Often these indicators that Buddhism had entered the Chinese sphere existed alongside worshipers whose non-Chinese ethnicity was emphasized in the paintings or sculpture. Even after the facial features of figures that decorated the walls of Chinese caitya halls had become Sinified, elements of South Asian architecture persisted. One of the most common decorative features in Chinese cave-temples is the pointed, horseshoe-shaped arch called a caitya arch.

Temple compounds after 800 ce

The impermanence of wooden architecture has meant that rock-carved cave-temples, paintings of temple compounds on the walls of cave-temples, and excavated remains provide the most reliable evidence of comprehensive Buddhist worship space before the tenth century. Eight individual Buddha halls have been identified from the period 782 to 966, most with original images and some with wall paintings. Six are in Shanxi province, one is in Hebei, and one in Fujian. All but one are of the humble variety, with three or five bays across the front, indicating that their temple compounds either were not recipients of imperial patronage or were constructed in times of political and budgetary turmoil.

In China, the most important temple compounds, including rock-carved worship caves, were commissioned by the emperor or empress, often in or near national capitals, sometimes near their burial sites and other times on sacred Buddhist peaks. Second-grade temple compounds often were commissioned by prefectural governments. Third-grade monasteries would be founded by princes and princesses, high-ranking nobility, or wealthy merchants. The same groups patronized temple compounds in Korea and Japan. The least distinguished temple compounds were built by local funds of private individuals.

The greatest temple compounds of the Sui dynasty (581618) dominated their capital city Daxing (Chang'an under the Tang dynasty, today Xian). Daxing Mountain Monastery spanned an area 525 by 562 meters. Dachangding Monastery was three times as large, with eastern and western divisions and a pagoda that soared more than 97 meters. It was still common at this time and in the subsequent Tang dynasty for imperial residential architecture to be transformed into Buddhist temple compounds. The residence of the prince of Wei, son of the second Tang emperor, was transformed in 658 into a monastery with more than four thousand bays of rooms and thirteen major Buddhist halls arranged around ten courtyards.

By the Tang dynasty, it is possible to associate building plans with Buddhist ceremonies. Halls used for ordination of Zhenyan (Jpn., Shingon) monks were divided into front and back spaces; the private back space was used for the initiation rite in which the Womb and Diamond World maalas were removed from the wall and placed on a low central table or on the floor. Other halls had a central altar with images where the pagoda-pillar had stood in cave-temples, and an enclosing ambulatory defined by pillars. Both hall types and full-scale monasteries are depicted in Buddhist murals and paintings on silk of the period.

From the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties of the mid-tenth through mid-thirteenth centuries, monasteries with numerous types of buildings survive all over China. A pagoda or multistory pavilion and main Buddha hall remained the most important structures in most Chinese temple compounds from this period. Sometimes the two were on a building line that dominated the temple compound. Temple compounds of the period with pagodas or pavilions at their focus include Dule Monastery in Yi county, Hebei, whose pavilion and front gate are dated 984; Fogong Monastery in Ying county, Shanxi, whose 67-meter pagoda, the tallest wooden pagoda in China today, dates to 1056; and Fengguo Monastery in Yi county, Liaoning, whose main hall was built in 1013. At Fengguo Monastery, a law (dharma ) hall for expounding the Buddhist scriptures stood on the main building line with the 48.2-by-25.13-meter main hall and pavilion behind the front gate. East and west of the central line were pavilions to the Three Vehicles (triyāna ) and Amitābha Buddha. A covered, pillar-supported arcade of 120 bays enclosed Fengguo Monastery. Longxing Monastery in Zhengding, Hebei, which was begun by imperial Song patronage shortly after the establishment of the dynasty in 960 and whose buildings were repaired or restored during the next century, included an even longer line of main structures: a hall to the Sixth Patriarch, a hall to Śākyamuni Buddha, an ordination platform, and a pavilion to Avalokiteśvara known as Dabei or Foxiang Pavilion, which stood on the main axial line behind the front gate. In addition, pairs of side halls, pavilions, and towers framed each major courtyard in front of one of the axially-positioned structures.

The pairing of pagodas and pavilions on either side in front of a main hall became standard in tenth- to thirteenth-century Chinese Buddhist temple compounds. Shanhua Monastery in Datong, Shanxi, consisted of a front gate, a hall of the three deities, and a main hall along its main building line, along with two pairs of halls and a pair of pavilions joined to the covered arcade that enclosed it. One of the pavilions at both Shanhua and Longxing monasteries contained the temple compound's sūtra collection. A standard feature in Chinese monasteries of this middle period, the sūtra hall was often a pavilion or other multistory structure.

By the Southern Song dynasty (11271279), the majority of temple compounds were dedicated to the Chan sect. The major monasteries of this meditational form of Buddhism were dominated by seven halls arranged along a north-south line: a front gate, a Buddha hall, a Vairocana hall, a law hall, front abbot's quarters, abbot's quarters, and a room for seated meditation. Buildings for mundane affairs, such as storage halls and dormitories, filled the space on either side of the main building line. Monks' quarters sometimes contained a single huge bed on which monks meditated and slept. Other monasteries of the period had a hall dedicated to the five hundred arhats (luohan ). In addition to accounts by Chinese pilgrims and records kept at the monasteries, knowledge of Southern Song monasteries such as Tiantongsi is preserved in accounts of Japanese Buddhist pilgrims to south China. An important account is the illustrated record of Gikai, who visited the five headquarters of Chan Buddhism in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, including Ayuwang (King Aśoka) Monastery in Mingzhou, in 1259.

By the thirteenth century, great variety was found in monastery architecture in China. When a monastery contained three main buildings, for instance, the most important Buddha hall could be right behind the main gate or last in line. The lack of consistency can in part be explained by the presence in China of numerous Buddhist sects and by an increasing syncretism in Buddhist and Daoist worship that gave rise to new sects. Often a twelfth- or thirteenth-century Buddhist temple compound was architecturally indistinguishable from a Daoist temple compound on the exterior; upon entering, however, statues and paintings confirmed the temple's affiliation. In addition, Daoist precincts could be constructed at Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist precincts at Daoist temple compounds. Guangsheng Monastery in Hongdong, Shanxi, contains a Buddhist and a Daoist hall constructed in the first quarter of the fourteenth century.

By the fourteenth century, Lamaist Buddhism had pervaded the Chinese landscape. The most representative structure of a Lamaist Buddhist temple compound in China is the bulb-shaped pagoda known as a dagoda, often painted white. The Lamaist pagoda of Miaoying Monastery, built in 1279, and the one in Beihai Park, built in 1651, still rise above much of the rest of Beijing's architecture. Lamaist temple compounds dominated the regions of China adjacent to Tibet, in particular areas of Sichuan, Ningxia Hui, and Qinghai, as well as Inner Mongolia. Patronized by the Manchu rulers of the last Chinese dynasty, Qing (16441911), some of the most creative architecture of China's last three imperial centuries stands at Lamaist temple compounds.

Traditional Buddhist monasteries never disappeared from China. Chan monasteries continued to be built and restored into the last Qing century, especially at sacred locations, such as the Four Great Peaks; Wutai in Shanxi province, dedicated to Mañjuśrī; Putuo, the island off the coast of Ningbo, dedicated to Avalokiteśvara; Emei in Sichuan, dedicated to Samantabhadra; and Jiuhua in Anhui, dedicated to Kitigarbha. The later temple compounds of traditional sects retained axial arrangements and often were larger than their pre-fourteenth-century predecessors. These temple compounds included two new hall types, the diamond hall and the hall of divine kings, both of which also were incorporated into Lamaist construction in China. Also new in fourteenth-century temple compounds were brick "beamless" halls that were a sharp contrast to the ubiquitous wooden buildings of Chinese construction.

Temple Compounds in Korea

Buddhism entered Korea from China officially in 372. Although not every Chinese Buddhist sect became popular in Korea, most were known there. Thus Korean Buddhist temple compounds contained the standard structures of Chinese monasteries. A standard plan in a Korean Buddhist temple compound, a plan that is equally common in China, includes an entry gate with a pair of divine kings on each side, followed by a law hall and main hall, and often additional halls behind or on the sides of this core group. As in China, almost all Korean temple compounds have Buddha halls and pagodas. Rock-carved cave-temples also are found in Korea, but are much rarer than in China.

Korea's best-known Buddhist temple compounds are Pulguksa and Sŏkkuram, both outside Kyŏngju, capital of the united Silla kingdom (668935). Pulguksa consists of a front gate with two halls directly behind it, and smaller halls dedicated to buddhas or bodhisattvas in their own precincts. The entry and most of the enclosing corridors of the monastery are elevated on stone foundations. Pulguksa's twin pagodas, similarly, are made of stone, the predominant Korean material of early pagodas. Sŏkkuram is Korea's most famous rock-carved Buddhist cave-chapel. The site with the greatest concentration of Buddhist rock-carved niches and worship spaces in Korea is Namsan (southern mountain), also in the vicinity of Kyŏngju. In addition to thousands of images, Namsan has a pair of stone pagodas. The largest temple compound in Korea is T'ongdo, located between Kyŏngju and Pusan. One of the most noteworthy is Haein Monastery, which has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times; Haein Monastery houses an extensive set of woodblocks for the printing of Buddhist scriptures and the Tripiaka Koreana.

Temple Compounds in Japan

Although rock-carved cave-temples were never constructed in Japan, more pre-ninth-century wooden architecture from Buddhist temple compounds survives there than in any other East Asian country. Among remains from the Asuka and Nara periods (552784 ce) are main Buddha image halls known in Japanese as kondō (literally, "golden hall"), octagonal halls that commemorate men important in a temple compound's history; multistory pagodas, including two miniature pagodas; lecture halls for teaching the scriptures; and gates, enclosing corridors, a sūtra repository, a monks' dormitory, and a refectory. Through these structures, as well as excavated remains and literary descriptions, temple compounds of the first Buddhist centuries in Japan, as well as China and Korea, have been reconstructed. It is known, for example, that three arrangements dominated temple compounds in Japan in the first Buddhist centuries. At Shitennōji in Osaka, the pagoda and hall are on an axial line, the arrangement implemented in China at Yongning Monastery, as well as in the temple compounds at Miruksa (early seventh century) of the Silla kingdom and Gumgangsa (sixth century) of the Paekche kingdom of Korea. At Japan's Hōryūji, whose four oldest buildings date to around 700, and at Kawaharadera, the pagoda and main Buddha hall were placed side by side. At sixth-century Asukadera, south of Nara in Asuka, three main Buddha halls enclosed a dominant central pagoda on all but the south side. Yet another Nara-period plan included twin pagodas on either side in front of the main hall. Each of these plans is suggested by excavated remains in Korean kingdoms of the sixth and seventh centuries; they are also seen in murals dating from the seventh and eighth centuries on the walls of cave-temple compounds in China after Dunhuang. Expansive temple compounds of eighth-century Japan, including Hōryūji and Tōdaiji, inform us of yet more kinds of structures that survive in rebuilt versionsbell and drum towers used to keep time and call monks to prayer, halls for ceremonies of certain moons of the lunar year, ordination halls, and treasure repositories. Temple compounds could also include shrines to monks or monk-founders, halls to individual buddhas or bodhisattvas, gardens, bathhouses, and anything else that offered full-service life and education to the monastic and sometimes lay community.

Coincident with the move of the main capital to Heian (Kyoto) at the end of the eighth century, esoteric Buddhist sects, particularly Tendai and Shigon, both transmitted by monks who had traveled to China to study their teachings, rose in Japan. In contrast to the temple compounds of the seventh and eighth centuries that dominated Japan's capital cities, early Heian-period monasteries had smaller buildings located in remote, often mountainous settings. Thereby, the clergy were kept distant from court affairs. Muroji in Nara prefecture, Daigoji and Jingoji on the outskirts of Kyoto, and many of the monasteries of the sacred Buddhist peak Koya, trace their origins to this period. So does the Eastern Monastery, Tōji, in Kyoto. Although buildings of temple compounds in the middle part of the Heian period remained small in comparison to their Nara counterparts, decoration became lavish. The change corresponded to the surge in Pure Land Buddhism, whose monasteries often included a re-creation of the Buddha's paradise, or Pure Land, in the form of a hall with a lotus pond in front of it. The Phoenix Hall of the Byōdōin in Uji, once the residence of one of Japan's wealthiest families, and the Golden Hall of Chūsonji in Hiraizumi are typical Fujiwara-period (9511086) monastery buildings. By the end of the Heian period, however, much less ornate temple compounds became popular: one-bay square halls dedicated to Amitābha Buddha of the Western Paradise were common.

Austere construction characterized temple compounds of the next period of Japanese history, named Kamakura (11851333) after the location of its capital, when the power of government lay in the hands of the military ruler known as the shogun. Austerities suited to a militaristic age were compatible with Zen Buddhism, a meditational sect, which became popular across Japan beginning in the thirteenth century. Like Esoteric and Pure Land Buddhism, Zen was transmitted from China. Yet even from the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, when Chan (Jpn., Zen) flourished in South China, few temple compounds survive intact, in contrast to the scores of Zen temple compounds with original structures in Japan. Zen temple compounds are known for two-story entry gates where portrait statues of the sixteen arhats were installed on the second floor. The main Buddha hall of a Zen temple compound, where public ceremonies were enacted, was known as butsuden. Other assemblages of monks took place in the law hall. Both in Kamakura and later in Kyoto in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, Zen temple compounds consisted of public reception space, used chiefly by the main abbot; abbot's quarters; halls for study and meditation; a hall for sūtra recitation; a hall dedicated to the monastery founder; and usually gardens. The abbot's quarters traced its origins to a humble one-bay square hut (hōjō), the kind of dwelling used by the earliest Indian Buddhists, but these became increasingly important and lavish by the end of the twelfth century. Yet another hall type of Zen temple compounds was the shariden, the relic hall. Examples of all these structures remain in Kamakura and most survive at one of the best examples of a Zen temple compound, the Tōfukuji in Kyoto. Two styles of Kamakura temple compounds originated on China's southeastern coast. They were differentiated by the names Indian style and Tang (or Chinese) style, even though their buildings used Chinese components from base to roof. Other temple architecture of the period and as late as the fifteenth century was designated Japanese (native) style and mixed style.

The return of the shogunate to the Japanese capital in Kyoto ushered in the Muromachi age (13381573), a period of luxurious living represented by the Silver Pavilion and the Golden Pavilion. Each was a devotional-meditational-reception hall for the private use of the shogun at his residential-religious building complexes. The in-town shogunate residences also included tea huts and Zen meditational gardens, sometimes made largely of rocks. The Muromachi period was the last age of great innovation in Buddhist temple architecture in Japan.

Temple compounds survive, are restored, and built anew in China, Korea, and Japan today. After a millennium-and-a-half of history, they are still centers of Buddhist education, worship, and communal life.


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Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt (2005)

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