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Buddhism & Architecture

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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History and Value of Buddhist Architecture

a) Birth of Buddhist Architecture

Buddhism is a Religion that honours nature. Most Buddhist practitioners seek to transcend worldly, material Desires, and try to develop a close kindship with nature. Especially during the Time of The Buddha, disciples often lived in very simple and crude thatched houses, and were able to develop and maintain a peaceful and joyful Mind. Whether dwelling in a suburban area, a forest, by the waterside, in a freezing cave, or under a Tree, they were always comfortable in their living situation. However, as Buddhist disciples grew in number, it was proposed by King Bimbisara and a follower named Sudatta that a Monastery be built that would allow practitioners to gather in a common place and practice in a more organised manner. After The Buddha deeply considered and then wholeheartedly agreed with this idea, he gave his assent for devotees to make donations of Monasteries. As a result, the Jetavana Monastery, the Bamboo Grove, and the Mrgara-matr-prasada (Sanskrit Name of the donor) Lecture Hall were constructed. This was the beginning of Buddhist Architecture in India.

In China, in 67 C.E., there was debate between Taoists and two Buddhist Monks from India named Ksayapa-matanga and Gobharana. Due to this lively dialogue, the emperor's Interest and belief in Buddhism was ignited. Although Taoism was quite popular at this Time, the emperor accepted and honoured Buddhism, ordering the construction of a Monastery outside the city for Bhiksus (Monk: male member of The Sangha), and a Monastery inside the city for Bhiksunis (Nun: female member of The Sangha). This was the birth of Chinese Buddhist Architecture.

b) Types and Styles of Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist temples are often the center of cultural Activities. From a modern viewpoint, temples can be compared to museums, for they contain precious and spectacular Art forms, and in fact, are beautiful Art forms themselves. Like Art museums, they are a combination of architecture, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy. Temples offer a harmonised environment and a Spiritual atmosphere that allows one to become serene and tranquil. They are valuable places for distressed persons to lay down their burdens, soothe their Minds, and achieve a sense of calm.

In the early period of China, Stupas were the main architectural structures being built. It was not until the Sui and Tang Dynasties that the hall (or shrine) became the focus. A Stupa, sometimes referred to as a Pagoda, can be considered the "high rise" of Buddhist Architecture due to its tall, narrow shape that reaches toward the sky - sometimes with immense height. The concept and Form of the Chinese Stupa originated in India. The purpose of a Stupa is to provide a place to enshrine the Buddha's relics, where people can then come and make Offerings to The Buddha. beginning with a relatively simple style, the Stupa has been transformed in China, with improvements and innovations that demonstrate The country's artistic and architectural abilities. While maintaining a relatively consistent shape, Stupas are constructed in a variety of sizes, proportions, colours, and creative designs. Although you can find Stupas by waterfronts, in the cities, in the mountains, or in The country, they are all constructed to harmonise with and beautify the environment. The Stupa is indeed one of the most popular types of architecture in China.


The Buddhist Architecture of every region has its own unique character due to differing cultural and environmental factors. Close in proximity, Ceylon's architecture is similar to India's architecture. Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia also share a similar style, with structures that incorporate the use of wood into their design. Java's Stupas resemble those of Tibet, which are made of stone and represent the nine-layered Mandala (symbolic circular figure that represents The Universe and the divine cosmology of various religions: used in Meditation and Rituals). Tibet's large Monasteries are typically constructed on hillsides and are similar in style to European architecture in which the buildings are connected to each other, forming a type of street-style arrangement.

Buddhist temples in China are commonly built in the emperor's palace style, categorising them as "palace architecture." This layout is designed with symmetry in Mind, with the main gate and main hall in the center, and other facilities - including the celestial and the abbot's quarters - lined up on either side. On one side a ceremonial drum is placed, and on the other, a ceremonial Bell. Behind this symmetrical line of structures will be a guesthouse for lay visitors and the Yun Shui Hall for visiting monastics to reside during their stay.

The materials used in constructing the temples associated facilities include wood and tile, with the roof tiles painted a certain colour. Because wood is a difficult material to preserve over long periods of Time, China has very few palace-style temples that have survived from the early ages. We are fortunate, however, that Fo Guang Temple, built out of wood during the Tang Dynasty, still stands. The main palace-style hall of Fo Guang Temple is still relatively pristine in appearance and sturdiness, and gives us a sense of the grandeur of this Time. The exquisite Art of the Tang Dynasty, including sculpture, paintings, and murals, is still displayed today in this surviving temple, and allows us to understand that this era was China's high point of artistic expression. This temple became a national treasure and reminds us of China's golden age of Art and architecture.

Fo Guang Temple and the other temples that have persevered through the passage of Time - although there are not very many - reveal the modifications of structure, decoration, and construction methods that change and evolve through different eras. They also serve as the visual, material memory of a certain age and area, helping us to study the region's architectural and cultural history. However, as mentioned above, despite the fact that China has 5,000 years of history, preserved architecture is very limited. It is not simply due to the use of wood, which is highly susceptible to Fire and decay, that prevents us from having more standing temples from the early ages to study today. Other reasons exist for the rarity of remaining temples. For instance, around the 16th century, some dynasties that rose to Power ordered the demolition of the previous dynasty's major architecture. Or, temples were harmed or even destroyed in various bouts of War and aggression. Regardless of the materials used in construction - wood, stone, clay, etc. - it was nearly impossible for an abundance of temples to survive due to human rivalry. Fortunately, Buddhist Cave Temples were relatively immune to weather destruction, and for the most part they also escaped human desecration. They are well preserved and make it possible to witness traditional architecture and ancient Art.

Modern Buddhist temples often imitate ancient architecture. For example, the main shrines of Taiwan's Fo Guang Shan, the United State's Hsi Lai Temple, and Australia's Nan Tien Temple are all designed based on Chinese architecture from the early ages. Many Buddhist temples today not only honour and preserve the Chinese culture, they have introduced and spread Chinese culture around the globe.

c) Cave Temples

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In the history of Chinese Buddhist Art and architecture, the most important link is the rock cave, or cave temple, and all of the Art contained within. Cave Temples are cavities of various sizes that are chiseled directly out of solid rock, sometimes directly on the face of sheer cliffs. Many are quite enormous. Within the rock Caves, there are ornately carved Statues, sculptures, and colourful paintings of The Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and Sutras. This artistic practice was started in 366 C.E. by a monastic named Le Zun, and continued until the 15th century. In some places, entire mountainsides are decorated with innumerable Cave Temples and gigantic carved Statues. Among these countless Cave Temples, Dung Huang cave is the most famous for its impressive and grandiose mural. Other well-known Caves in China include Longmen Caves in Louyang, Yungang Caves in Datong, and the Thousand Buddhas Cave in Jinang. Yungang Cave is especially well known for its grand size.

The creation of Cave Temples occurred over thousands of years, spanning several dynasties, and, unlike wooden temples that suffer dilapidation from the elements, are sheltered by massive rock and therefore remain standing as remarkable and majestic testimonials to Buddhism flourishing throughout China. The magnificence and grandeur of Buddhist Art within the Caves has awed the World and has captured the essence and detail of the teachings for all visitors to behold. In the Eyes of artists and archaeologists, this type of Buddhist Architecture is especially full of Life, Beauty, and evidence of the transformation and Evolution of Buddhist Art throughout Time. They are treasures that hold an important place in China's cultural, artistic, and architectural history.

-From the booklet, Building Connections: Buddhism & Architecture published by Buddha's Light International Association, Hacienda Heights, USA.

Significance of architectural elements and layout of Nan Tien Temple

Chinese temple architecture has long been influenced by secular building design, especially that of imperial palaces. Structures and colours used throughout Nan Tien perpetuate this tradition. Grandiose roofs, visible from afar, indicate status: The greater the height and slope, the higher the rank. The Main Shrine thus has the most lofty and impressive roof. In dynastic China the colour yellow was used exclusively by the emperor. Hence, terracotta yellow roof tiles are Symbols of importance, as are the yellow temple walls. Small mythical creatures lining the roof hips are traditional guardians against Fire, a real danger in the days when the entire structure would have been built of wood. While much of Nan Tien's roof framing is largely made of steel, it mimics timber construction with painted end beams extending under the eaves.

Red is another auspicious colour associated with the emperor. It was used to cover imperial columns, beams, and lintels, as is also the case at Nan Tien. Palace balustrades were typically carved white marble; Nan Tien's concrete balustrades are fashioned in a similar manner and painted white.

Another element reminiscent of imperial design is the prominent raised podium used for Buddha or Bodhisattva statuary located at the rear of each shrine; it is akin to that upon which the emperor was enthroned in royal audience halls.

As in traditional palace layout, axial geometry reflecting an established hierarchy directs Nan Tien's courtyard plan of lesser buildings leading up to the most significant. The courtyard arrangement furthermore implies a seated Buddha with the Main Shrine as the head, the surrounding buildings as the arms, and the courtyard as the lap.

The Path of progression through the complex - ascending stairs to the Front Shrine, more stairs to the courtyard, continuing along a central walk to a final set of stairs before the Main Shrine - is similar to a Buddhist's journey along the Middle Path to Enlightenment.


In addition to the shrines dedicated to particular Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, temple compounds usually include a Meditation hall, Sutra library, and residence for monastics. Nan Tien incorporates these plus other facilities necessary for day-to-day function: A museum, conference room with advanced technology for conferences and simultaneous translation, auditorium which is well equipped for large gatherings, dining hall which provides vegetarian buffet lunches to the public and Pilgrim Lodge which offers accommodation for visitors as well as participants for retreats or celebrations held at Nan Tien.

-From the book, Entry Into the Profound: a first step to understanding Buddhism published by International Buddhist Association of Australia Incorporated.