BUDDHIST TEMPLES AND STUPAS

BUDDHIST TEMPLES AND BUILDINGS


Shwedagon pagoda in Yangoon, Myanmar

There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3) monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines.

Local temples are essentially self sufficient and rely on their own lands and support from the local lay community to keep going. Property belongs to the community. There is not a hierarchy of priest, bishops and archbishops like there is Christianity.

The word pagoda is sometimes used to collectively describe stupas and temples but generally refers to Japanese- and Chinese style towers inspired by South Asian stupa. The word pagoda is derived from dagada , the word used for relic chamber in Sri Lanka. Classic Japanese- and Chinese-style pagodas usually have multiple stories, each with a graceful, tiled Chinese-style roof, and a top roof capped by a spire. The base represents the earth, the spire symbolizes heaven, and the connecting piece symbolizing the cosmic axis, to the Way.

Monasteries, See Monastery Architecture

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Gyantse Stupa in Tibet
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

History of Buddhist Temples


Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodhgaya, where Buddha experienced his enlightenment

The word for temple in many languages is the same as cave. Many early Buddhist temples were "artificial caves" that attempted to recreate the atmosphere of Buddhist caves in northern India. Describing what they were probably like, the historian Paul Strachen wrote: In his book Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma , "the now spartan brick gu [temple]" was "cluttered with regal objects and requisites, a clamor of activity as food offerings were shuttled from the kitchens down passageways crowded with chanting devotees, brightly colored wall paintings, gilded furnishings and flapping banners and hangings...the usual plain, seated Buddha image, found in the deserted temples of Pagan today, would have been bathed, perfumed and dresses with the finest and most costly garments."

The architecture of Buddhist temples is influenced by the architecture of country in which they are found and various traditions of Buddhist architecture. Japanese pagodas, for example, have unique Japanese features that are modeled after Chinese-style pagodas, which in turn were modeled after Indian stupas.

Because ancient wood temples were often destroyed by fire, temples today are usually made of brick and stone with brass and iron ornaments. Chinese pagodas were often built to commemorate important leaders or event or house important artifacts or documents.

Many Buddhist temples are located in the forests and mountains. There are two reason for their remote locations: first, mountains and forest have always been associated with spiritual purity, and second, Buddhist monks were often persecuted and remote location gave them some safety. In China, Japan and Thailand temples are often in the middle of town.

Stupas

Stupas are generally solid, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic such as a hair or tooth from Buddha, relics or remains of eminent Buddhist figure, or a sacred Buddhist scripture. They are modeled on ancient Indian burial mounds. The base of the stupa is often sealed with a copper plate incised with a vishva-vajra crossed thunderbolt design that is regarded as protection from evil. Stupas themselves were venerated as symbols of the Buddha.


Dhamekh stupa in Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon

Buddhist stupas symbolize the Buddhist concept of the universe. The solid dome that rises up from the square or circular base is a representation of the dome-shaped sky enclosing the world-mountain, which pierce the dome to form a small balcony at the summit. At the center of the dome is a mast that represents that axis of the earth which rise from the waters that surround the world up to the cosmos. Square bases often also symbolize the earth. The shape of stupas may have been inspired by the staff and begging bowl of the wandering Buddha.

All stupas contain a treasury filled with various objects. Many contain jewelry and other “precious” objects. It is not necessary that the jewelry be expensive. What is important is the symbolic value that is important, not the value in monetray terms. It is believed that the more objects placed into the stupa, the stronger the energy of the Stupa will be. Stupas generally have a Tree of Life, a wooden pole covered with gems and thousands of mantras. It is placed in the central channel of the stupa during a ceremony or initiation, with participants holding colorful ribbons connected to the Tree of Life. These participants pray hard and send their most positive and powerful wishes and blessings, which are stored in the Tree of Life.

History of Stupas

After Buddha’s death his relics were divided and a number of stupas were built to house them. Although no ancient stupas remain the relics they housed are believed to have been saved and placed in other stupas. Many of the oldest stupas date back to the period of Buddhist expansions during the rule of King Ashoka (268-239 B.C.) The objects inside stupas are often unknown. A gold reliquary excavated from a 2nd century B.C. stupa in Bimaran Afghanistan was decorated with images of Buddha and Hindu gods. The reliquary is believed to have contained the ashes of a revered saint or some object he touched.

Stupa developed in India in the 3rd century B.C. and were general objects of worship for Buddhists before the formation of Buddha imagery, sculpture and painting. Sanchi stupa, built near present-day Bhopal, India, is the oldest. It is shaped like a half sphere and built to allow worship around it. The functions of Buddhist stupas were also diffused, and shapes show a variety of styles in each cultural area. [Source: Takashi Sakai, Nihon Kôkogaku, May 20, 2008]


Great Stupa in Sanchi

Stupa is a Sanskrit word that literally means “to heap” or “to pile up.” Some scholars believe that stupas predated Buddhism and originally were mounds of dirt or rocks built to honor dead kings. Later, these scholars say, the Buddha imbued them with spiritual meaning. Sylvia Somerville wrote in her book on stupas: “This explanation runs counter to Buddhist tradition, which maintains that because the stupa conveys enlightened qualities, it could only have been revealed by the mind of enlightenment. …In fact, some stupas, such as the Swayambhunath Stupa in Nepal, are believed to be self-arising expressions of enlightenment.” [Source: “Stupas: Symbols of Enlightened Mind” by Sylvia Somerville]

Stupas are the oldest Buddhist religious monuments. The first Buddhist ones were simple mounds of mud or clay built to enclose relics of Buddha. In the third century B.C., after his conversion to Buddhism, Emperor Asoka ordered the original stupas opened and the remains were distributed among the several thousand stupas he had built. Stupas at the eight places associated with the life of the Buddha were important before Ashoka and continued to after his death. Over time, stupas changed from being funerary monuments to being objects of veneration. As this occurred they also changed in appearance changed also. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Over the centuries many old stupas became pilgrimage sites. Famous ones became the center of complex ceremonial areas. They were often surrounded by a railing with gateways, through which pilgrims entered the ceremonial ground. Stone lions guarded the entrances. Outside vendors sold food and offerings to pilgrims.

Sanchi: Home of the World’s Oldest Stupa

Sanchi (30 miles from Bhopal) is a pilgrimage site that attracts worshipers from all over the world who come to see Buddhist art and architecture that dates back to the third century B.C. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989 and regarded as one of the most remarkable archaeological complexes in India, it contains monasteries and the world’s oldest stupa.

According to UNESCO: “On a hill overlooking the plain and about 40 km from Bhopal, the site of Sanchi comprises a group of Buddhist monuments (monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries) all in different states of conservation most of which date back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. It is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and was a major Buddhist centre in India until the 12th century A.D. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website ]

“ From the time that the oldest preserved monument on the site (Asoka's column with its projecting capital of lions inspired by Achaemenid art) was erected, Sanchi's role as intermediary for the spread of cultures and their peripheral arts throughout the Maurya Empire, and later in India of the Sunga, Shatavahana, Kushan and Gupta dynasties, was confirmed.



“Sanchi is the oldest extant Buddhist sanctuary. Although Buddha never visited the site during any of his former lives or during his earthly existence, the religious nature of this shrine is obvious. The chamber of relics of Stupa 1 contained the remains of Shariputra, a disciple of Shakyamuni who died six months before his master; he is especially venerated by the occupants of the 'small vehicle' or Hinayana. Having remained a principal centre of Buddhism in medieval India following the spread of Hinduism, Sanchi bears unique witness as a major Buddhist sanctuary to the period from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD.”

The ruins of about 50 monuments have been uncovered, “It would appear that the site was settled in the 3rd century BC at the time that the Emperor Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, who had defeated the Macedonian invaders and founded the Maurya dynasty, was converted to Buddhism (c. 250 BC). Asoka, whose queen was from the neighbouring town of Vidisha, founded, or at least embellished, a Buddhist sanctuary located at Sanchi. He also had a stone column more than 12 m high erected with his edicts carved on it.

“To the south of Asoka's column and predating it is an early brick stupa about 20 m in diameter and crowned with stone aedicula; a wooden railing encircles it. Now known as Stupa 1, this monument was enlarged under the Sunga and the Andhra dynasties (2nd and 1st centuries BC) and is the principal monument at Sanchi. It consists of a gigantic mound of sandstone surrounded by sumptuous porticoes with stone railings; its hemispherical dome measures 36.6 m in diameter and is 16.46 m high. It is particularly famous for the extraordinarily rich decorative work on the four monumental gateways (torana) that provide access. Positioned almost exactly in line with the four cardinal points, these gateways transpose into stone the structure of the wooden gateways: two pillars and three architraves reproduce the assembly of two posts joined by three rails.

“The lush carvings, prodigious creations in bas relief, high relief and in the round, are an iconographic treasure trove. The essential theme represented in the decorative work revolves around the former lives of Buddha. Numerous other themes were taken from legends and history. The fresh, wonderfully charming representations of plants, animals and humans, the narrative quality of the stories and the creativity apparent in the fantastic sculptured capitals and cornices combine to make this an unrivalled masterpiece of early Buddhist art. Sanchi has two other famous stupas dating from the Sunga period (2nd century BC). The torana of Stupa 3, executed in the 1st century, are exceptional works. Many other structures are found on the site: within the ruins of a wall dating from the 11th-12th centuries, Sanchi's final years are represented by monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries, all in varying states of preservation. Temples 17 and 45 and monastery 51 are among the most impressive structures.”

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Eight Great Stupas

Buddhist Temples

A temple is a place of worship as opposed to a shrine, which is a sacred place for praying. It generally contains an image of Buddha and has a place where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Temples attract large crowds during festivals or if they are famous but otherwise a fairly quiet. They are often sought as places for quiet meditation, with most acts of worship and devotion being done in front of an altar at home.

Buddhist temples are generally a cluster of buildings---whose number and size depends on the size of the temple---situated in an enclosed area. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house fore a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

Temples can be several stories high and often have steeply sloped roofs are often supported by elaborately-decorated and colorfully-painted eaves and brackets. The main shrines often contain a Buddha statue, boxes of sacred scriptures, alters with lit candles, burning incense and other offerings as well as images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and devas. The central images depends on the sect.

Buddhist temples come in many shapes and sizes. Pagodas found in China and Japan are perhaps the best known. Stupas, stone structure built over Buddhist scriptures or relics of the Buddha or famous holy men, are found throughout the Buddhist world. . Buddhist temples are designed to symbolise the five elements: 1) Fire, 2) Air, 3) Earth, symbolised by the square base, 4) Water, and 5)Wisdom, symbolised by the pinnacle at the top of the temple. All Buddhist temples contain an image or a statue of Buddha. [Source: BBC]

People sometimes donate money to temples and have their names hung on special wooden plaques attached to lanterns of the temple. Generally, the larger the donation, the larger the plaque. Buddha never viewed himself as an object of worship. He probably would not have been very pleased to see his birthday as the object of veneration and merit so crassly exchanged for money.

Many temples are tourist attractions and outing destinations for local people. Souvenir amulets and other offerings are sold in little shops or booths; the names of large contributors are placed in special boxes; and priests are available to perform special rites.

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Angkor Wat, a Hindu-Buddhist temple

Features of Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples usually contain numerous Buddha statues. The central Buddha images are often surrounded by burning incense sticks and offerings of fruit and flowers. Some contain the ashes or bone reliquaries of popular holy man. Many Buddhist temples face south and sometimes to the east, but never to the north and west which are regarded as unlucky directions according to Chinese feng shui. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

The main hall is usually found at the center of the temple grounds. Inside are images of the Buddha, other Buddhist images, altars and space for monks and worshipers. The main hall is sometimes connected to a lecture hall, where monks gather to study and chant sutras.. Other buildings include a the sutra depositor, a library or place where Buddhist scripture are kept; living, sleeping, and eating areas for monks, and offices. Large temples often have special halls, where treasures are kept and displayed.

Some temples have shrines for making prayers to the dead filled with funerary plaques with photographs of dead relatives. The photographs are often of deceased people whose funeral ceremony was performed at the temple. Some temple feature sets of wooden plaques with the names of large contributors and other sets with afterlife names of deceased people. In the old days the afterlife names were only given only to Buddhist priests but now they are given to lay people who paid the right price and now in some places have become a kind of ranking system in the after life based in how much one has contributed..

Many Buddhist temples contain large bells, which are rung during the New Year and to mark other occasions, and cemeteries. The pathway to the temples is often lined with stone or paper lanterns donated by worshipers, or strung with prayer flags. Many temples are filled with small shops selling religious items.

Buddhist Temple Gates

Buddhist temples usually have outer gates and inner gates protected by statues or paintings of beasts, fierce gods, or warriors that ward off evil spirits. The gateways are composed of wood, stone, bronze or even concrete. The beasts include Chinese lions and Korean dogs. Fierce guardian gods and warriors on the outer gate sometime have lighting bolts coming out of their nostrils and a serrated swords in their hands. Their duty is to keep demons and evil spirits out of the temple area.

The inner gate at the antechamber to the temple complex is often guarded by four guardian kings, representing the four cardinal directions. The king in the north holds a pagoda representing earth, heaven and cosmic axis. The king in the east holds a sword with the power to evoke a black wind that produces tens of thousands of spears and golden serpents. The king in the west possesses lute. And the king in the south holds a dragon and a wish-fulfilling jewel.

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Some demon statues are covered with spitballs from worshipers who wrote prayers or petitions on pieces of paper, chewed them, and threw them on the demon statues in hope that the prayers would be answered. Usually they are fold paper.

World's Oldest Buddhist Shrine — Dating to the Buddha’s Time — Found in Nepal

In 2013, archaeologists said that structure inside Mayadevi temple in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, dated to the sixth century B.C. — when Buddha is believed to have been alive Associated Press reported: “Archaeologists in Nepal say they have discovered traces of a wooden structure dating from the sixth century B.C. which they believe is the world's oldest Buddhist shrine. Kosh Prasad Acharya, who worked with archaeologists from Durham University, said that the structure had been unearthed inside the sacred Mayadevi temple in Lumbini. The Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, is generally thought to have been born in about the sixth century BC at the temple site. The findings were published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity. [Source: Associated Press, November 26, 2013 )~(]

“Acharya said the traces had been date tested using radiocarbon and luminescence techniques. The archaeological team dug underneath previously known brick structures in the temple, and experts from the University of Stirling examined and collected the samples, he said. The team has been working at the site for the past three years. The site at Lumbini had been hidden under the jungle until it was excavated in 1896. )~(

“Previously, a pillar installed by the Indian emperor Ashok with inscriptions dating to the third century BC was considered to be the oldest Buddhist structure, Acharya said. "This finding further strengthens the chronology of Buddha's life and was is major news for the millions of Buddhists around the world," Acharya said. "Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," a Durham University archaeologist, Robin Coningham, said. "Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C."” )~(

Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered the tree shrine while what was initially supposed to restoration work Lumbini. "It has real significance," Coningham told The Guardian. "What we have for the first time is something that puts a date on the beginning of the cult of Buddhism. That gives us a really clear social and economic context... It was a time of huge transition where traditional societies were being rocked by the emergence of cities, kings, coins and an emerging middle class. It was precisely at that time that Buddha was preaching renunciation – that wealth and belongings are not everything." [Source: Elizabeth Day, The Guardian, December 1 2013 +/+]

Elizabeth Day wrote in The Guardian: “The early years of the religion took hold before the invention of writing. As a result, different oral traditions had different dates for the Buddha's birth. This is the first concrete evidence that Buddhism existed before the time of Asoka, an Indian emperor who enthusiastically embraced the religion in the third century BC. Legend has it that the Buddha's mother, Maya Devi, was travelling from her husband's home to that of her parents. Midway in her journey, she stopped in Lumbini and gave birth to her son while holding on to the branch of a tree. The research team believe they have found evidence of a tree in the ancient shrine beneath a thick layer of bricks. According to Coningham, it became clear that the temple, 20km from the Indian border, had been built "directly on top of the brick structure, incorporating or enshrining it". +/+

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Chinese Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples are generally a cluster of buildings — whose number and size depends on the size of the temple — situated in an enclosed area. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house for a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ Before the end of the fifth century there were reportedly more than 10,000 temples in China, north and south. Some were undoubtedly small, modest temples, but in the cities many were huge complexes with pagodas, Buddha halls, lecture halls, and eating and sleeping quarters for monks, all within walled compounds. These temple complexes provided a place for the faithful to come to pay homage to images of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and meet with clergy. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

The best evidence of the interior decoration of early temples is found in the surviving cave temples. Although only a few wooden buildings have survived from the Tang period or earlier, hundreds of cave temples have survived. Here we offer glimpses of the three most famous cave temple complexes, Dunhuang in Gansu Province, Yungang in Shanxi Province, and Longmen in Henan Province.

“The temples at which most Chinese monks and lay Buddhists worshipped were made of wood, built to last at most a few centuries. Some were in the mountains, built for monks who wished to remove themselves from the clamor of everyday life. Lay Buddhists might make pilgrimages to these mountain temples, but there were also Buddhist temples much closer at hand in every town and city. There are no extant urban temple complexes dating from Tang times, though there are some in Japan that were based on Chinese models. “

Temples can be several stories high and often have steeply sloped roofs that are supported on elaborately-decorated and colorfully-painted eaves and brackets. The main shrines often contain a Buddha statue, boxes of sacred scriptures, alters with lit candles, burning incense and other offerings as well as images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and devas. The central images depends on the sect.

Buddhist temples usually have red pillars while Taoist temples have black ones. Just inside a Buddhist temple gates are statues or images of the Four Heavenly Kings of the Four Directions and Maitreya, the chubby laughing Buddha. The main hall features three large statues seated on lotus flowers: the Buddhas of the past, present and future. Behind them is often a statue of Guanyin, the multi-armed Goddess of Mercy.

Many temples are funded by donations with large amounts of money for prestigious temples coming from Buddhists in Hong Kong and Taiwan and elsewhere around the world. Some Chinese Buddhist temples invite Tibetan monks in an effort to attract to more followers.

Chinese Temple Architecture

left Chinese temples---whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian---have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.

Chinese temples are often comprised of many buildings, halls and shrines. They tend to be situated in the middle of towns and have north-south axises. Large halls, shrines and important temple buildings have traditionally been dominated by tiled roofs, which are usually green or yellow and sit atop eaves decorated with religious figures and good luck symbols. The roofs are often supported on magnificently carved and decorated beams, which in turn are supported by intricately carved stone dragon pillars. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

Pagodas are towers generally found in conjunction with temples or viewed as temples themselves. Some can be entered; others can not. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the heavens were round and the earth was square. This concept is reflected in the fact that pagodas have square bases rooted to the earth but have a circular or octagonal plans so they look round when viewed by the gods above in the sky.

Early Chinese-style pagodas were modeled after Indian stupas. Pagoda architecture arrived with Buddhism but over the centuries developed a distinctly Chinese characteristics that influenced the architecture in Japan and Korea and other places.

Chinese Temple Features

Many temples have courtyards. Often, in the middle of the courtyard is a small bowl where incense and paper money are burnt. Offerings of fruit and flowers are left in a main hall at the intricately-carved altars, often decorated with red brocade embroidery with gilded characters.

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Temple under construction
Traditional Chinese temples contain wall paintings, carved tile walls and shrines to gods and ancestors that in turn are wonderfully decorated with wood carvings, murals, ceramic figures and plaster moldings with motifs that the Chinese regard as auspicious.

On the outside of temples there are often stone walls with simple carvings; gates with statues of fanged, bug-eyed goblins, intended to keep evil spirits away; and monuments of children who displayed filial piety to their parents and virgins who lost their fiances before marriage but remained pure their entire life.

Wealthy Chinese temples often contain gongs, bells, drums, side altars, adjoining rooms, accommodation for the temple keepers, chapels for praying and shrines devoted to certain deities. There is generally no set time for praying or making offerings---people visit whenever they feel like it---and the only communal services are funerals.

At Chinese temples orange and red signifies happiness and joy; white represents purity and death; green symbolizes harmony; yellow and gold represents heaven; and grey and black symbolize death and misfortune. Swastikas are often seen on Chinese temples. The Chinese word for swastika (wan) is a homonym of the word for "ten thousand," and is often used in the lucky phrase "chi-hsiang wan-fu chih suo chü" meaning "the coming of great fortune and happiness." See Hinduism, Buddhism

Fayuan Temple in Beijing: an Example of an Urban Chinese Buddhist Temple

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: Fayuan Temple (Dharma Origin) in Beijing was first completed in the late seventh century during the Tang. Over the last thousand plus years, the temple was destroyed by warfare, fire, and even an earthquake. Thus it has had to be rebuilt many times, and most of its surviving buildings date to the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Worshipers enter through the main gate. The side buildings are of secondary importance. They include halls to patron saints, halls to remember loved ones and temple offices. The next layer out is made up of buildings used by monks and nuns rather than lay people. There are dormitories, study halls, and dining halls for those who live in the temple. /=\

The main gate is also called the mountain gate. Looking inside we see an incense burner set before the first central building and a pair of lions guarding the door, which are common to many kinds of buildings in China, not just Buddhist temples. Passing through the gate we glance to our right and left and see the drum and bell towers respectively. As the name implies, the drum tower houses a large drum and the bell tower, a bell. /=\

The central buildings are ones of primary importance. They house the shrines to Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities as well as scriptures and holy relics. The characters over the door in the he first central building tell us it is the hall of the Divine Kings, the guardians of this temple. These temple buildings are good examples of traditional Chinese architecture. Even today there are attempts to incorporate elements of traditional Chinese architecture into new temple buildings. /=\


Fawant Temple, second oldest in China


The main altar in the Main Hall is on the left side as you enter. A gilded Buddha statue almost four meters tall stands in the center, flanked by two other figures. In front of them are a ceremonial incense burner, candles, a vase of flowers, and plates with offerings of fruit. Further back in the temple compound we find the building that houses the Buddhist scriptures. /=\

Chinese Buddhist Temples Activities and Acts of Worship

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Common forms of Buddhist practice for lay persons include visiting temples to pray, burn incense, place offerings of fruit or flowers at altars, and observe rituals performed by monks, such as the consecration of new images or the celebration of a Buddhist festival. Buddhist women's association meet for worship. Ceremonies at tenmples are held for things like the enshrinement of an image of a wealthy patron. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Joss sticks (incense sticks) have traditionally been an important component of Taoist religious practice. Worshippers believe the smoke helps waft prayers towards their deities. Today the sticks are also fixtures of Confucian and Buddhist worship. Sometimes they are even part of Christian rituals. Worshippers normally light three joss sticks in the courtyard of the house of worship, and place them in sand-filled containers or in specially prepared racks. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division,1967 ++]

Joss sticks and incense burners are found in family altars, spirit houses, and temple courtyards and before the figures of Buddha. Not all joss sticks are fragrant as some are primarily for smoke and have only the faintest odor. However, the more favored joss sticks are the ones with incense which serves both as a means of veneration and as a practical deodorizer. Few homes are without a joss stick to be utilized for some reason. Traditionally, joss sticks have been handmade. Basically the joss stick is made with a thin bamboo stick, which is painted red, Part of the stick is rolled in a putty-like substance-the exact formulae are guarded by their owners. ++

Joss sticks are very reasonably priced, and it is good for the common people that this is so, for few acts of devotion could be complete without the lighting of joss sticks. These may be placed in sand-filled containers either in the temple courtyard or in racks located in front or on top of an altar. Sometimes after burning joss sticks are placed in front of a Buddha statue, the ascending smoke from the burning joss stick is thought by some to have beneficial aid in pleasing that power to whom worship is made, or prayers offered. ++

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Japanese style

Japanese Buddhist Temples

There are 70,000 Buddhist temples in Japan. They are places of worship not shrines (sacred places for praying). Shrines are usually associated with Shintoism. A temple generally contains an image of Buddha and has a place where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Temples attract large crowds during festivals or if they are famous but otherwise a fairly quiet. They are often sought as places for quiet meditation, with most acts of worship and devotion being done in front of an altar at home.

Buddhist temples are generally clusters of buildings, whose number and size depends on the size of the temple. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house for a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

The architecture of Buddhist temples is influenced by the architecture of Korea and China, the two countries that introduced Buddhism to Japan.

Early Japanese Buddhist temples consisted of pagodas, which were modeled after Chinese-style pagodas, which in turn were modeled after Indian stupas. Over time these pagodas became one building in a large temple complex with many buildings.

Buddhist temples built in the 7th century featured vermillion-painted columns and eaves supported and decorated with mythical beasts sculpted in "dry-lacquer" (layers of hemp cloth glued together and covered with lacquer) or guilt bronze. Unfortunately no original examples of this style of architecture remains. The earliest Buddhist paintings had a strong Indian influence.

Large Kyoto temples, such as Chionin temple--- the head temple of Jodoshu Buddhism? have no danka (community-support system) and are run like large companies. The 150 priests who work at Chionin receive a salary from the temple. The majority of the salaried priests have their own small temples elsewhere, but the support of their danka alone is not enough. They use their Chionin salaries to subsidize their own small temples, much like Sakakibara used his salary from the university to sustain his temple.

Types of Buddhist Temples and Buildings in Japan

There are three main types of Buddhist Temples: 1) Japanese style (wayo), 2) Great Buddha style (daibutsuyo), and 3) Chinese style (karayo). These in turn vary according to the Buddhist school and the historical period in which they built.

The main hall (kondo or hondo) is usually found at the center of the temple grounds. Inside are images of the Buddha, other Buddhist images, an altar or altars with various objects and space for monks and worshipers. The main hall is sometimes connected to a lecture hall.


A monk at Mtizuzoin Temple in Tokyo told the Daily Yomiuri,”When people think of temple, they tend to think of it as a shadowy, scary kind of place. This is because temples have long been regarded as being associated with death. This stems from the fact that many people only visit the temple for Buddhist rites” for the dead.

Other buildings include a lecture hall (kodo), where monks gather to study and chant sutras; the sutra depository (kyozo), a place where Buddhist scripture are kept, and often shaped like a log cabin on stilts; living, sleeping, and eating areas for monks; and offices. Large temples often have special halls, where treasures are kept and displayed. Some have a pagoda. Many temples have small shops that sell religious items.

Features of Buddhist Temples in Japan

Japanese style pagodas have multiple stories, each with a graceful, tiled Chinese-style roof, and a top roof capped by a spire.

The central images in the main hall is often surrounded by burning incense sticks and offerings of fruit and flowers. Inside the temple there is one set of wooden plaques with the names of large contributors and another set the afterlife names of deceased people. In the old days the afterlife names were only given to Buddhist priests but over time they were given to lay people who paid enough money and now are almost used as ranking system in the after life.

Many Buddhist temples contain large bells, which are rung during the New Year and to mark other occasions, and cemeteries. Chion-in Temple in Kyoto contains the largest bell in Japan (a massive 74-ton bronze made in 1633). Ringing the massive bell requires 17 monks, 16 of them to raise the giant wooden hammer by pulling it away from the bell with hanging ropes, while the 17th monk rides the hammer, ready to push off with his legs in the split second before impact. The chime produced by the bell lasts for 20 minutes. When Albert Einstein visited Chion-in in 1922 he investigated the bell and said that the assertion that the bell was inaudible directly underneath it when it was struck was based on sound physics.

Many temples use concrete that has been expertly camouflaged to look like wood. Near many Buddhist temples are stone Jizo figures with red bibs and a staff in one hand and a jewel in the other. They honor the souls of children who have died or been aborted. See Above.

Buddhist Images in Japan

There are four main types of Buddhist sculptures found in Buddhist temples, each conveying a different level of being in Buddhist cosmology: 1) Nyorai (“images of Buddha”); 2) bosatsu (“bodhisattvas”); 3) deities and spirits such as ten (“heavenly being or devas”) and nio (“guardian tens”); and 4) myoo (“kings of wisdom and light that serve as protectors of Buddhism”). The most common myoo, Fudo Myoo, is usually a menacing-looking holding an upright sword.

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Bosatsu are distinguishable from nyorai by a more human like appearance and a top knot of hair or a crowed headpiece, sometimes with smaller figures in the crown. One of the most common bodhisattvas found in Japanese temples is Jizo, a bodhisattva who helps children and travelers. Kannon (Avalokitesvara) appears in 33 different manifestations, including the Goddess of Mercy, is also very popular, especially with pregnant mothers.

Nyorai images are recognizable by their simple robes, lump on the head (symbolizing wisdom) and "snail shell" curls of hair. Common images found in temples include 1) Shaka (the Historical Buddha), recognizable by one hand raised in a praying gesture; 2) Yakushi (the Healing Buddha), with one hand raised in the praying gesture and the other holding a vial of medicine; 3) Amita (Buddha of the Western Paradise), sitting down with the knuckles together in a meditative position; 4) Dainichi (the Cosmic Buddha), usually portrayed with in princely clothes, with one hand clasped around a raised a finger on the other hand (a sexual gesture indicating the unity of being; and Maitreya (Buddha of the Future).

Nyorai images are often depicted with two bodhisattvas in a triad configuration and/or are backed by a nimbus a (large wooden board with Buddha and other images carved or painted on them).

Temple Gates at Japanese Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples usually have outer gates and inner gates protected by statues or paintings of beasts, fierce gods, or warriors that ward off evil spirits. The gateways are composed of wood, stone, bronze or even concrete. The beasts include Chinese lions and Korean dogs. Fierce guardian gods and warriors on the outer gate sometime have lighting bolts coming out of their nostrils and a serrated swords in their hands. Their duty is to keep demons and evil spirits out of the temple area.

The inner gate at the antechamber to the temple complex is often guarded by four guardian kings, representing the four cardinal directions. The king in the north holds a pagoda representing earth, heaven and cosmic axis. The king in the east holds a sword with the power to evoke a black wind that produces tens of thousands of spears and golden serpents. The king in the west possesses lute. And the king in the south holds a dragon and a wish-fulfilling jewel.

Some demon statues are covered with spitballs from worshipers who wrote prayers or petitions on pieces of paper, chewed them, and threw them on the demon statues in hope that the prayers would be answered. Usually they are fold paper.

Temple Rituals and Etiquette in Japan

Temples are places where people pray, meditate participate in religious ceremonies, make offerings, light incense and candles, offer food to monks, meditate alone or in groups, chant mantras, listen to monks chant mantras, attend lectures or discussions led by respected teachers . Individual may also seek counseling from monks on nuns on personal matters. Buddhists are not required to visit temples.

One needs to take one's shoes off only if entering a temple. Hats should also be removed. Do not clap at Buddhist temples as you would at a Shinto shrine.

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The great bell at Chion Temple in Kyoto

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are usually made after tossing a coin into the saisen-bako (offering box). Offerings left at shrines include coins, apples, business cards,

Many Japanese visiting temples and shrines attach omiyuki folded paper fortunes to trees in the belief it will bring them good fortune. At some Buddhist temples visitors pay ¥300 for the privilege of writing the prayers on wooden rice spatulas.

Borobudur: the Ultimate Buddhist Temple

Borobudur, in Central Java, Indonesia, is the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. It was built during over a half century by the Sailendra Dynasty after Mahayana Buddhism was introduced from the Srivijaya Kingdom of South Sumatra in the early half of the 8th century AD. Many Buddhism images and reliefs in Borobudur were made referencing Gandavyuha and Vajrayana/Esoteric Buddhism from Sri Lanka and East India. [Source: Takashi Sakai, Nihon Kôkogaku, May 20, 2008]

The stepped pyramid shape without an inner space as found at Borobudur is found in neither India nor Sri Lanka. And there are no stupas with that similar shape in Southeast Asia prior to Borobudur. Similar shaped monuments are found only in South Sumatra etc. This type of monument, originating from the mountain religions of Megalithic culture that predated the introduction of Buddhism continued through the Historical Age. Borobudur can be seen as a massive monument of this origin, decorated in Buddhism style.

Borobudur, ranks with Pagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia as one of the great archeological sites of Asia, if not the in world. The eminent Dutch archaeologist A.J. Bernet Kempers called it "a Buddhist mystery in stone. An actual meeting of Mankind and the Holy. A shining tower of the law." It’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word "Vihara Buddha Uhr" which means "Buddhist monastery on the hill." Borobudur is located in Muntilan, Magelang, in the Kedu Valley, in the southern part of Central Java. It is about 100 kilometers from Semarang.

Borobudur is a square 123 meters (403 feet) on each side and 32 meters (105 feet) high.Constructed of unmortared grey andosite and volcanic basalt stone and surrounded by lush green fields of the Kedu Plain and tourist infrastructure, it is about the size of a stadium, and took about 80 years to build. Four large volcanos, including the often-smoking Mount Merapi, and numerous hills are visible in the distance. The temple’s design in Gupta architecture reflects India's influence on the region, yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian. The monument is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.

20120501-Borobudur_2008.JPG
Borobudur in Java

Borobudur is a step pyramid, built around a natural hill, comprised of a broad platforms topped by five walled rectangular terraces, and they in turn are topped by three round terraces. Each terraces is outlined with ornaments and statues and the walls are decorated with bas reliefs. More than two million blocks of volcanic stone were carved during its construction. Pilgrims have traditionally walked around the monument in a clockwise manner moving up each of the five levels, and in process covering five kilometers.

Unlike most temples, Borobudur did not have actual spaces for worship. Instead it has an extensive system of corridors and stairways, which are thought to have been a place for Buddhist ceremonies. Borobodur also has six square courtyards, three circular ones, and a main courtyard within a stupa at the temple’s peak. The entire structure is formed in the shape of a giant twirling staircase, a style of architecture from prehistoric Indonesia.

Borobudur is a three-dimensional model of the Mahayana Buddhist universe. The climb to the top of the temple is intended to illustrate the path an individual must take to reach enlightenment. At the main entrance on the east side, visitors can not even see the top. Scholars believed this was intensional. At the top was the ideal of Buddhist perfection, the World of Formlessness. The architecture and stonework of this temple has no equal. And it was built without using any kind of cement or mortar!

Borobudur resembles a giant stupa, but seen from above it forms a mandala. The great stupa at the top of the temple sits 40 meters above the ground. This main dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupa. Five closed square galleries, three open circular inner terraces, and a concentric scheme express the universe geometrically. At the center of the top of the temple is a beautifully shaped stupa which is surrounded by three circles of smaller stupas that have the same shape. There are 72 of these, each with a Buddha statue inside. Touching them is supposed to bring good luck. Unfortunately many had their heads lopped off by 19th century explorers looking for souvenirs. The 72 small latticed stupas look like perforated stone bells. The temple is decorated with stone carvings in bas-relief representing images from the life of Buddha— the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

Borobudur is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The ten levels of the temple symbolize the three divisions of the religion’s cosmic system. As visitors begin their journey at the base of the temple, they make their way to the top of the monument through the three levels of Budhist cosmology, Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). As visitors walk to the top the monument guides the pilgrims past 1,460 narrative relief panels on the wall and the balustrades.

Book: Borobudur: Tales of the Buddhas by John Miksic


Borobudur, northwest view


History of Borobudur

Borobudur was built by the Sailendra Dynasty kings in the 8th and 9th centuries, around that time that Charlemagne ruled Europe. When it was completed an epic poet from Ceylon wrote: "Thus are the Buddha incomprehensible, and incomprehensible is the nature of the Buddhas, and incomprehensible is the reward of those who have faith in the incomprehensible."

According to UNESCO: Founded by a king of the Saliendra dynasty, Borobudur was built to honour the glory of both the Buddha and its founder, a true king Bodhisattva. This colossal temple was built between AD 750 and 842: 300 years before Cambodia's Angkor Wat, 400 years before work had begun on the great European cathedrals. Little is known about its early history except that a huge army of workers worked in the tropical heat to shift and carve the 60,000 square meters of stone.

Why it was built remains a mystery. There are no written records on the subject. No ancient cities have been found nearby. There is no clear sanctuary as a place of worship and no room to store icons. Many historians and archeologists believe that Borobudur is not a temple but rather a kind of advertisement for Buddhism. According to an expert on the subject, John Mikic, Borobudur was built to “to engage the mind” and to “give a visual aid for teaching a gentle philosophy of life.”

Borobodur was an active religious center until the 10th century when it was abandoned for reasons that are not clear. At the beginning of the 11th century AD, because of the political situation in Central Java, divine monuments in that area, including the Borobudur Temple became completely neglected and given over to decay. In 1006 volcano Merapi erupted violently in conjunction with a violent earthquake that left the landscape covered in ash, landslides and volcanic mud and force much of the population in the Borobodur area to flee to eastern Java. But this is not believed to be the reason it was abandoned.

For the next 800 years it lie, for the most part undisturbed, gathering a cover of moss, dirt and vegetation until it was found in 1814 by Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the British lieutenant governor of Java. He recognized that the monument was a "remarkable for grandeur of design, peculiarity of style and exquisite workmanship." The ruins were cleared and restored on a small scale by the Dutch who turned it into a picnic spot and built a teahouse on the pinnacle. Major restoration work was conducted under the Dutch between 1907 and 1911. The first restoration campaign was supervised by Theodor van Erp. A second one was led more recently (1973-82).

Architecture of Borobudur

According to UNESCO: “With its stepped, unroofed pyramid consisting of ten superimposing terraces, crowned by a large bell-shaped dome, Borobudur is a harmonious marriage of stupas, temple and mountain that is a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture and monumental arts. Laid out in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha, Borobudur Temple Compounds is an exceptional reflection of a blending of the very central idea of indigenous ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The ten mounting terraces of the entire structure correspond to the successive stages that the Bodhisattva has to achieve before attaining to Buddhahood. [Source: UNESCO]


Borobudur cross section


Borobudur was built in three tiers: a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental stupa. The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs, covering a total surface area of 2,500 square meters. Around the circular platforms are 72 openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha. The monument was restored with UNESCO's help in the 1970s.

The boundaries contain the three temples that include the imaginary axis between them. Although the visual links are no longer open, the dynamic function between the three monuments, Borobudur Temple, Mendut Temple, and Pawon Temple is maintained. A harmonious marriage of stupas, temple-mountain and the ritual diagram, this temple complex was built on several levels around a hill which forms a natural centre. The first level above the base comprises five square terraces, graduated in size and forming the base of a pyramid. Above this level are three concentric circular platforms crowned by the main stupa. Stairways provide access to this monumental stupa. The base and the balustrades enclosing the square terraces are decorated in reliefs sculpted in the stone. They illustrate the different phases of the soul's progression towards redemption and episodes from the life of Buddha. The circular terraces are decorated with no fewer than 72 openwork stupas each containing a statue of Buddha.

The main temple is a stupa built in three tiers around a hill which was a natural centre: a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental stupa. The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs, covering a total surface area of 2,520 m2. Around the circular platforms are 72 openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha.

The vertical division of Borobudur Temple into base, body, and superstructure perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology. It is believed that the universe is divided into three superimposing spheres, kamadhatu, rupadhatu, and arupadhatu, representing respectively the sphere of desires where we are bound to our desires, the sphere of forms where we abandon our desires but are still bound to name and form, and the sphere of formlessness where there is no longer either name or form. At Borobudur Temple, the kamadhatu is represented by the base, the rupadhatu by the five square terraces, and the arupadhatu by the three circular platforms as well as the big stupa. The whole structure shows a unique blending of the very central ideas of ancestor worship, related to the idea of a terraced mountain, combined with the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds consists of three monuments: namely the Borobudur Temple and two smaller temples situated to the east on a straight axis to Borobudur. The two temples are Mendut Temple, whose depiction of Buddha is represented by a formidable monolith accompanied by two Bodhisattvas, and Pawon Temple, a smaller temple whose inner space does not reveal which deity might have been the object of worship. Those three monuments represent phases in the attainment of Nirvana.


Borobudur relief


Bas Reliefs at Borobudur

Decorating the walls along the pilgrimage route at Borodudur is the world's largest ensemble of Buddhist bas-reliefs (if laid end to end, they would extend for six kilometers). The reliefs depict the Buddha’s journey from life on earth, on the lower levels, to enlightenment on the upper levels. The 160 bas-relief panels at the ground level terrace depict the World of Desire, a state of spiritual development in which an individual is a slave of desire. Many of the bas-reliefs show the consequences of evil deeds such as gossip and murder.

The panels that begin on the second level represent the World of Form and depict episodes from the Buddha's life or other sacred Buddhist stories and the life's of the Bodhisattvas. Like the stained glass windrows in European churches, there purpose was partly to educated the illiterate masses about religion. Some of the reliefs are exquisitely crafted and deeply incised. Others have a more dashed off look. Look for the ones that shows a white elephant entering the womb of Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, and a revered monk sailing in boat filled with treasure.

The ten levels of Borobudur are believed to be representations of the Mahayana school of philosophy which describe the ten levels of Bodhisattva that must be passed to attain the Buddhist perfection. Of the monument’s 2,672 relief panels, 1,460 are narrative, while the other 1,212 are decorative. UNESCO has recognized these panels as the largest and most comprehensive ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world. There are bas-reliefs of sea battles. processions of elephants, warriors and dancing girls, monsters, musical instruments, houses, clothes and customs that give some insight into the everyday life of the of people in 9th-century Indonesia. Unfortunately many of the bas-reliefs have been worn away by weather, pollution and time and damaged by vandals and antiquities thieves.

According to UNESCO: Stylistically the art of Borobudur is a tributary of Indian influences (Gupta and post-Gupta styles). The walls of Borobudur are sculptured in bas-reliefs, hailed as the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world, unsurpassed in artistic merit, each scene an individual masterpiece. The narratives reliefs on the main walls read from the right to left, those on the balustrade from left to right. This was done for the purpose of the Pradaksina, the ritual circumambulation which the pilgrims make moving on the clockwise and keeping the sanctuary to the right. [Source: UNESCO]

The Karmawibangga reliefs on the hidden foot are devoted to the law of karma. The Lalitavistara series do not provide a complete biography of the Buddha, from the Hushita heaven and end his sermon in the Deer Park near the Benares. Jataka are stories about the Buddha before he was born as Prince Sidharta. Awadana are similar to Jataka, but the main figure is not the Boddhisatva, and the saintly deeds are attributed to other legendary persons.


locations of the Borobudar reliefs


The stories are compiled in the Dvijavadana (Glorious Heavenly Acts) and the Awadana Sataka (Hundred Awadanas). The first twenty panels in the lower series of the first gallery depict, the Sudhanakumaravadana. The series of reliefs covering the wall of the second gallery is devoted to Sudhana's tireless wanderings in search of the Highest Perfect Wisdom. The story is continued on the wall and balustrade of the third and fourth galleries. Its depiction in most of the 460 panels is based on the holy Nahayana text Gandavyuha, the concluding scenes being derived from another text, the Badracari.

Reading the Bas Reliefs at Borobudur

Reading the bas reliefs at Borobudur requires a specific technique. The panels on the wall read from left to right, while those on the balustrade read from right to left, conforming with the pradaksina, a ritual performed by pilgrims who move in a clockwise direction, whilst always keeping the sanctuary to their right. The story begins and ends at the eastern side of the gate at every level. Stairs connect each level to the next from each direction of the compass, but the idea is to always ascend from the stairs at the eastern corner. The panels depict stories of Karma, of passion, robbery, murder, torture and humiliation. But not all are negative. Some panels also tell of the cause and effect of good deeds, and describe the behavior of the Javanese Society of that day, from religion to livelihood to social structure, fashion, and even the various types of plants and animals. Ultimately, it describes the human life cycle: Birth – Life – Death.

Kamadhatu is a picture of highly populated world still dominated by Kama, or lust. This zone is at the bottom level of Borobodur, and is therefore not visible due to some added construction. Some say these structures were added to strengthen the building’s foundations, while others speculate that they have been added to conceal the obscene content of the reliefs. For visitors that wish to see these reliefs, the Karmawibhangga Museum displays pictures of the Kamadhatu.

Lalitawistara are a series of beautifully sculpted reliefs that depict the history of Buddha, starting from his descent from Heaven, to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, and finally to his first teachings in the city of Banaras. Lalitawistara consists of 120 panels, but yet does not tell the complete story of Buddha. These reliefs are found on the temple walls in hallway 1 on level 2.

Jataka and Awadana are reliefs telling of Buddha, before he was reborn as Prince Siddharta. These are also engraved in hallway 1 on the second level, and tell of Buddha’s kindness and self-sacrifice as he was reincarnated in various forms of human or animal. It explains of how good works are what set humans apart from animals, and tells of the stages of preparation to the next and higher level of Buddha. Awadana also tells the story not of the Buddha figure, but of the Prince Sudhanakumara. The stories on the awadana reliefs are compiled in the books Kitab Diwyawadana, (A Diety’s noble deeds,) and Kitab Awadanasataka, (A hundred awadana stories.)

Bhadracari is a row of 460 neatly carved reliefs along the walls and balustrades. These reliefs are scattered throughout various levels of the temple and tell of Sudhana, the son of a wealthy merchant, who wanders in quest of the ultimate knowledge or truth. These panels are based on the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, entitled Gandawyuha. The story tells of 10 great vows made by Bodhisattva Samantabadhra concerning his Buddhist practice, which later became the leading guidelines of all Bodhisattvas, and particularly of Sudhana.


what it might have been like when Borobudur was a working temple


Understanding the Thousands of Relief Panels of Borobudur From the 5th to 7th levels of the temple, there are no reliefs on the walls. This is because these levels represent the nature of the “Arupadhatu,” which means “without tangible form.” At this level, people are free from all desires of any shape or form, but yet have not attained Nirvana. On this level, there are several Buddha statues placed inside stupas. At the 10th and highest level of the temple, is the largest and tallest stupa in Borobudur. Within this stupa was found the Imperfect Buddha or Unfinished Buddha, which can now be found in the Karmawibhangga Museum.

Image Sources: Wikicommons Media, Japanese National Tourist Organization

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2019

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