Monastic Architecture

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The monastery has been and remains the core of Buddhist communal life in all parts of Asia. Designated religious space first appeared in India in the late centuries b.c.e., and the importance, size, and complexity of Buddhist monastery buildings increased as the religion traveled eastward across Central Asia to China, Korea, and Japan. Always constructed with local materials, monastery architecture adapted itself to every region of Asia, from desert sands to snow-covered mountains, and the individual structures changed according to the worship requirements of every branch and school of Buddhist Asia. Yet its fundamental purpose as a setting for Buddhist worship and education has remained constant through more than two millennia.

Monastic architecture in South Asia

The origins of the Buddhist monastery lie in residential architecture at the time of the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhārtha. According to legend, a merchant once offered the Buddha and his congregation sixty dwellings for meditation and retreat. Thereafter it became fashionable for wealthy lay devotees to offer large complexes of buildings to accommodate the needs of monastic life. Although each structure was probably made of perishable materials, such as bamboo, thatch, and wood, the buildings included dwellings, private cells, porches, storehouses, privies, promenades, wells, bathing chambers, and halls of unspecified purposes. The same multiplicity of building functions, usually in a secluded location but close enough to the greater population to allow for alms collection, would remain standard for monastery architecture in East Asia. The conversion of residential space into Buddhist space, including the donation of residences for transformation into monasteries, would also become common in East Asia.

Three structures named in Sanskrit texts or inscriptions of the last centuries b.c.e. are associated with early Indian Buddhist monastic architecture: the vihāra, the caitya, and the stŪpa. All were constructed of enduring materials and were derived from vernacular architecture in which rooms of a covered arcade enclose an open courtyard. In a Buddhist context, vihāra refers to the residential cells of monks and the courtyard they define. Because a resident monastic population is fundamental to religious life, the Sanskrit term vihāra can, in certain instances, be translated as "monastery." The first meaning of caitya is mound or pedestal, but the concept of a locus for elevation quickly gave way to a more general meaning of "sacred place." In the vocabulary of Buddhist architecture, caitya is most often an adjective for hall (caityagṛha), and the most common form of caitya is a rock-carved worship cave with a stūpa inside. Some of the best examples of this kind of caitya hall are at Lmas Ṛṣi in the Barabar Hills and Bhājā and the nearly adjacent site, Karlī, both about one hundred kilometers southeast of Mumtaz (Bombay). Dated to around the third century b.c.e., the first century b.c.e., and the first century c.e., respectively, the exterior entry to each is marked by a pointed, horseshoe-shaped arch known as a caitya arch. The same archway appears in relief sculpture from contemporary stūpas at Bhārhut and SĀÑcĪ.

Although each is best known for its monumental stūpa and in some cases toraṇa (gateways) with relief sculptures recounting the life and legends of the Buddha, the monasteries Sāñcī in Madhya Pradesh, Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunikoṇḍa in Andhra Pradesh, and Taxila in present-day Pakistan included all three types of monuments in the late centuries b.c.e. and early centuries c.e. Moreover, all remained sacred sites of Buddhism to which architecture would be added through their history. Temple 17 at Sāñcī, for instance, built four centuries after the monastery's famous stūpa, is an excellent example of a Gupta temple.

Rock-carved monastic architecture

Full-scale monastic complexes were also carved into natural rock in India. Most famous are the caitya and vihāra of AjaṆṬĀ in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Consisting of twenty-eight caves excavated over ten centuries, Ajaṇṭā includes some of the best examples of architecture of the Gupta period (ca. fourth to seventh centuries), the stylistic pinnacle in Buddhist art production in India. Two distinctive cave types and all three architectural forms are preserved there. The majority of caves are vihāra-style, consisting of monastic cells enclosing a central, open, squarish space or an interior with pillars arranged in grid pattern. Caitya-style caves at Ajaṇṭā (numbers 9, 10, 19, and 26) are elliptical in shape with pillar-defined arcades and a stūpa at the interior end of the ellipse. Like the majority of caves at Ajaṇṭā, all the caitya-caves are MahĀyĀna. That is, the Buddha image is represented, often seated on in a stūpa, in the caitya chapels. In plan, it is hard to differentiate between a Mahāyāna and pre-Mahāyāna caitya- or vihāra-style cave. Inside they are immediately distinguishable, the early ones having an unornamented stūpa for circumambulation at the deepest point in the cave and the later ones with the Buddha image represented not only on the stūpa but in other sculpture and murals.

Rock-cut monasteries and temple complexes were constructed in India through the course of Buddhist history. The details of architectural style were often of the period, so that a Gupta monastery might house a building whose structure, minus the iconographic decoration, would be hard to distinguish from a contemporary Hindu temple. In general, it can be said that Hindu architecture surged and Buddhist monastery construction began to wane after the Gupta period. By that time, however, monks and travelers from the east had come to India to study, and Indian Buddhists had traveled eastward. The midway points where meetings between Chinese and Indian monks occurred resulted in some of the most extraordinary Buddhist monasteries known. Monasteries in these points of encounter in former Chinese and Russian Turkestan, the presentday Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, and the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, survive as ruins in oases of the death-defying mountain ranges, deserts, and barren wasteland that characterize Central Asia.

Almost every oasis had a Buddhist presence, although chronologies of the sites and their architecture are sketchy. It is similarly difficult to trace the movement of Buddhist sects from one to another. Datable materials suggest Buddhist monasteries propagated in Central Asia by the third century c.e. and survived until other religions, such as Islam, or invasions of peoples, such as the Mongols, destroyed them. Like most construction in Central Asia, monastery buildings were almost without exception mud brick. Some of the earliest Buddhist monasteries in Central Asia are in Miran on the southern Silk Road in eastern Xinjiang province. An inscription and paintings date Buddhism in Miran to the second century c.e. Both freestanding temples and stūpas survive.

Buddhism was present in China by the first century c.e., and a growing number of sites such as the rock-carved elephant at Lianyun'gang in Jiangsu province attest to this fact. By the fourth century, Buddhist cave sanctuaries inspired by Indian models were carved in several regions of Xinjiang, in China proper, and at oases in China's westernmost territory. Most famous among the cave 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 of Western China; and Yun'gang, Tianlongshan, Xiangtangshan, Longmen, and Gongxian in the north central Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Hebei, and Henan. Additional cave sanctuaries have been studied in China in the last two decades of the twentieth century, in particular in Gansu, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and southeastern China, giving way to redating and refinement of chronologies. Still, it is not possible to suggest a clear path of transmission of Buddhism and its monasteries. Rather, monastery remains suggest that, from the third or fourth centuries through the ninth or tenth centuries, monks traveled and dwelt in Buddhist sites from Afghanistan, Persia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in the West to Central China in the East, alongside practitioners of other faiths; their monasteries consisted of rock-cut caitya halls, freestanding temples, and stūpas. The earliest monastery remains in China date to the fifth century. As far as can be determined, the dominant structures in early Chinese monasteries were a stūpa and Buddhist worship hall, with the stūpa often towering as a major monument in a town or city.

Monastic architecture in China

By this time, the stūpa had become four-sided in plan, closer in appearance to multistory Chinese towers of the late b.c.e. and early c.e. centuries than to circular stūpas of India or Central Asia. The Northern Wei (386–534) capital at Luoyang in Henan province contained 1,367 Buddhist structures or building complexes. Its two most important monasteries were Jimingsi, which had a seven-story pagoda, and Yongningsi, whose wooden pagoda rose 161 meters in nine stories. Each side of each story had three doors and six windows and was supported by ten pillars. 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 the Luoyang palace. It contained a three-meter golden Buddha. Also following imperial architecture, Yongningsi 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 sixty-six meters high and rose three stories. Yongning Monastery is said to have contained 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.

The oldest wooden architecture in China survives at four monasteries in Shanxi province of the late eighth and ninth centuries of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Still resembling palace architecture, Buddhist halls also became models for sarcophagi in the Tang period. The most important monasteries were commissioned by the emperor or empress, usually for national capitals or sacred Buddhist peaks.

It was still common in the Tang dynasty for imperial residential architecture to be transformed into a Buddhist monastery. The residence of the Prince of Wei, son of the second Tang emperor, was transformed in 658 into a monastery of more than four thousand bays of rooms with thirteen major Buddhist halls arranged around ten courtyards. One hall measured 51.5 by 33 meters at the base. It was not the main hall, which was considerably larger. By the Tang dynasty, it is possible to associate building plans with Buddhist ceremonies. Halls used for ordination of Zhenyan (Shingon in Japan) monks were divided into front and back areas, the private back space for the initiation rite in which the Womb and Diamond World maĒḌalas were removed from the wall and placed on a low central table or the floor. Other halls had a central inner space for the altar and images and an enclosing

ambulatory defined by pillars. Both hall types and fullscale monasteries are depicted in Buddhist murals and paintings on silk of the period.

From the Song (960–1279), Liao (907–1125), and Jin (1125–1234) dynasties, monasteries with numerous buildings survive all over China. As was the case earlier, a pagoda or multistory pavilion and main Buddha hall on the same building line dominated some monasteries. Tenth- or eleventh-century monasteries with pagodas or pavilions as their focus include Dule Monastery in Hebei province, whose pavilion and front gate date 984; Fogong Monastery in Shanxi, whose 67-meter pagoda, the tallest wooden pagoda in China today, dates 1056; and Fengguo Monastery in Liaoning, whose main hall was built in 1013.

One of the most extensive lines of main structures survives at Longxing Monastery in Zhengding, Hebei province, where a hall to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, a hall to Ŏākyamuni Buddha, an ordination platform, and a pavilion to Avalokiteśvara known as Dabei or Foxiang Pavilion stood on the main axial line behind the front gate; 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 monasteries. Shanhua Monastery in Datong in Shanxi province 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 sūtra collection of each monastery. A sūtra hall, often a pavilion or other multistory structure, was another standard feature in Chinese monasteries of this middle period.

By the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), centered in Hangzhou, monasteries of the Chan school dominated Buddhist architecture. The major monasteries of this meditative school were dominated by seven halls arranged along a north-south line: a front gate, a Buddha hall, a Vairocana hall, a dharma hall, 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.

By the thirteenth century, monastery architecture in China was marked by great variety. The lack of consistency can in part be explained by numerous Buddhist schools and by an increasing syncretism in Buddhist and Daoist worship that gave rise to new sects. Often a twelfth- or thirteenth-century Buddhist monastery was architecturally indistinguishable from a Daoist one until one entered the halls and saw the statues and paintings. In addition, Daoist precincts could be constructed at Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist precincts at Daoist temple complexes.

Lamaist monasteries in China

By the fourteenth century, Lamaist Buddhist architecture also was present on the Chinese landscape. The most representative structure of a Lamaist Buddhist monastery is the bulb-shaped pagoda known as a dagoda, often painted white. The Lamaist pagodas of Miaoying Monastery, built in 1279, and in Beihai Park, built in 1651, still rise above much of the rest of Beijing's architecture. Lamaism and its architecture dominated the regions of China adjacent to Tibet, the center of this branch of Buddhism, in particular the areas of Sichuan and Gansu and regions adjacent to them in Ningxia Hui, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia. Patronized by the Manchu rulers of the last Chinese dynasty, Qing (1644–1911), some of the most creative architecture of China's last three imperial centuries stands at Lamaseries. The most purely Tibetan monasteries, in Qinghai and Sichuan, include multistory stone buildings with small windows and flat roofs, the style famous on the mountainous terrain of Tibet. The Sino-Tibetan style of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu, represented by Wudangzhao in Baotou or Xilituzhao in Hohhot, both in Inner Mongolia, is characterized by the axial arrangements seen in Chinese monasteries but with great sūtra halls in the block style of Tibet, as well as numerous funerary pagodas. Often several buildings are interconnected into one block-like structure, but roofs may be of Chinese glazed ceramic tile.

Ta'er Monastery in Qinghai is of this type. Most impressive are the Sino-Tibetan Lamaseries of Chengde (formerly Jehol) in Hebei province. Site of a summer palace of the Qing emperors, Chengde had twelve temple complexes, known as the Eight Outer Temples after the eight offices through which they were administered in the eighteenth century. Often the monasteries contain Chinese-style architecture in the front and Tibetan-style buildings behind. One monastery even had architecture that replicated the Potala palace in Tibet. Dominated by great sūtra halls, traditional buildings dedicated to, for example, the four divine kings, are also present at the Eight Outer Temples. This kind of regionalism in architecture was widespread in Qing China, giving way not only to scores of residential styles among the "minority" peoples of the empire, but also to Sino-Burmese Buddhist monasteries in Xishuangbanna in southwestern Yunnan province near the border with Myanmar. Traditional Buddhist monasteries never disappeared from China. Yonghegong, a princely palace in the heart of Beijing that was turned into a lamasery during the eighteenth century, with its main halls painted red and golden rooftops on an axial line, represents a Chinese-style lamasery. In other parts of China, Chan monasteries continued to be built and restored, especially at historically sacred locations, such as the four great peaks: These include Wutai in Shanxi province, dedicated to Mañjuśrī; Putuo, the unique island setting off the coast of Ningbo, dedicated to Avalokiteśvara; Emei in Sichuan, dedicated to Samantabhadra; and Jiuhua in Anhui, dedicated to Kṣitigarbha. The later monasteries of traditional sects retained axial arrangements but were larger than their pre-fourteenth century predecessors, with two new hall types, the diamond hall and the hall of divine kings. Both halls were incorporated into Lamaist construction in China. Also new in the fourteenth century were brick halls, nicknamed "beamless" halls, which stood in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous wooden buildings of Chinese construction.

Monastic architecture in Korea

Since initial contacts in Northeast Asia, things Chinese were transmitted to the Korean peninsula. Buddhism entered Korea from China officially in 372. Although not every Chinese Buddhist school became popular in Korea, most were known to Korean monks who traveled to China or through Chinese Buddhist missionaries. Korean Buddhist monasteries thus contained the standard structures of Chinese monasteries. A standard plan in Korean Buddhist monasteries has an entry gate with a pair of divine kings on each side, followed by a dharma hall and main hall.

Buddha halls, pagodas, and cave sanctuaries all are found in Korea. Korea's best-known Buddhist monasteries, Pulguksa and SŎkkuram, both in the outskirts of Kyŏngju, capital of the unified Silla kingdom (668–935), borrow from monastery traditions of China and represent two distinctly Korean types of Buddhist architecture at the same time. Pulguksa consists of a front gate and 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, however, are elevated on stone foundations. Pulguksa's twin pagodas are also made of stone, the predominant and uniquely Korean material of early pagodas. Sŏkkuram is Korea's most famous Buddhist cave sanctuary. The greatest concentration of Buddhist rock-carved niches and worship spaces in Korea is on Namsan (South Mountain), also in the vicinity of Kyŏngju. The largest monastery in Korea is T'ongdosa, located between Kyŏngju and Pusan. One of the most noteworthy monasteries is Haeinsa, where an extensive set of woodblocks of the Korean canon survives.

Monastic architecture in Japan

Early Buddhist monasteries in Japan are believed to have followed the patterns of continental East Asia, transmitted directly from China or from China by way of Korea. Much can be learned about East Asian monasteries from Japan's monasteries because more pre-ninth-century wooden architecture survives in Japan than anywhere else in East Asia. As was the case in contemporary China and Korea, the main structures of Japanese monasteries of the Nara period (710–784) were the Buddha hall and pagoda. Their arrangements, however, signaled distinctive types believed to follow regional variations in Korea and probably also in China. At Shitennōji in Osaka, for example, whose plan dates before the Nara period, to 593, the pagoda and hall are on an axial line, matching the arrangement that was implemented in China at Yongning Monastery in the late fifth or early sixth century. At Hōryūji and Kawaharadera, the pagoda and main Buddha hall, known in Japan as kondō, were built side by side.

At Asukadera, south of Nara in Asuka and dated to the sixth century, three kondō 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. Eighth-century monasteries of Japan also inform us of the range of buildings in an active temple complex of the early period in East Asia.

Hōryuji, for instance, had a gatehouse, kondō, pagoda, and covered arcade connected to the gatehouse at its core, as well as a south gate, lecture hall, monks' dormitories, sūtra library, bell tower, refectory, and administrative offices, and a separate precinct with an octagonal hall dedicated to Prince SHṠTOKU (574–621).

The Great Eastern Monastery in Nara (Tōdaiji) had south and middle gates, its main Buddha hall, another gate, a lecture hall, and monks' quarters on the main building line, and twin pagodas, halls for ceremonies of the second and third moons of the year, an ordination hall, and a treasure repository located elsewhere. None of these buildings was unique at Hōryūji or Tōdaiji. Monasteries 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 schools rose in Japan. In contrast to monasteries of the Nara capital, early Heian-period monasteries had smaller buildings located in remote, often mountainous settings. Not only were the clergy kept distant from court affairs, the new mountain monasteries were primarily for esoteric Buddhist schools, especially Tendai and Shingon, which had been transmitted to Japan from China at the turn of the ninth century.

Although monastery structures 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 lotus pond in front of it. The Phoenix Hall (at the ByŌdṠin) in Uji, once the residence of one of Japan's wealthiest families, and the Golden Hall of Chusonji in Hiraizumi are typical Fujiwara-period (951–1086) monastery buildings.

By the end of the Heian period, however, monasteries that were much less ornate became popular. Single-bay square halls dedicated to AmitĀbha, Buddha of the Western Paradise, were common. Austere monastery construction was characteristic of the next period of Japanese history, the Kamakura (1185–1333). Austerities were suited to Zen, the dominant form of Buddhism among the military rulers of Japan. Five great Zen monasteries and countless small ones covered the mountainous village of Kamakura; these were modeled after the great Chan mountain monasteries of Southern Song China. The front gate of a Zen monastery was two stories with a triple entry and access to the second floor, where statues of the sixteen arhats often were found. The main hall was known as the butsuden, or Buddha hall. Public ceremonies were held in the butsuden, whereas lectures and other assemblages of monks took place in the dharma hall, a structure also found in Chinese monasteries of the eleventh century. Both in Kamakura and in Kyoto, Zen monasteries 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 single-bay square hut (hōjō), the kind of dwelling used by the earliest Indian Buddhists, but the structure became increasingly important and lavish by the end of the Kamakura period.

Yet another hall type in Zen monasteries was the shariden, the relic hall. Examples of all these structures remain in Kamakura and most survive at one of the best examples of Zen architecture outside Kamakura—Tōfukuji in Kyoto. Whereas some Kamakura-period monastery architecture originated in two areas of China's southeastern coast, and came to be known as Indian style or Tang style, in contrast to native Japanese style, monastery architecture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries displayed a uniquely Japanese architectural aesthetic. As represented by the monasteries of the Silver and Golden pavilions, Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji in Kyoto, the return of the Japanese capital to Kyoto was coincident with a return to luxurious living among the military lords of Japan's Muromachi period (1338–1573).

Buddhist monasteries continue to be built and restored in China, Korea, and Japan at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and are preserved as historic relics in India and Central Asia.

See also:Central Asia, Buddhist Art in; China, Buddhist Art in; Himalayas, Buddhist Art in; Hōryūji and Tōdaiji; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Monasticism; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


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Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt