Buddhist Temple

Buddhist Temple

The Buddhist temple is a sacred place usually composed of one or more buildings, and consists of the following elements:

the main hall of worship, which in the ancient Pali and Sanskrit languages is called vihara (विहार), but which in the various countries where Buddhism has spread has also taken on other names

the Bodhi tree, a ficus religiosa, which according to Buddhist tradition is the plant under which Buddha practiced the form of meditation called "anapana sathi bhavana" and attained nirvana.

the altar with the Buddha statue, which is often located inside the vihara, on which flowers, incense and other gifts are placed.

the building used as a reliquary called in Sanskrit stūpa (स्तूप) and in Pali "thūpa थुप," which contains Buddha-related remains or objects. It is found in major temples and also changes its name depending on the country in which it is located.
The monks' living quarters and refectories.



The earliest Buddhist monks were ascetics who frequently traveled to north-central India to spread Buddha's teachings and found shelter in caves.

Later the need arose to have a fixed location where they could meet, pray, keep Buddha's relics and shelter from the weather, and as time went on, the caves were furnished, carved and enlarged until they became full-fledged temples. The main halls of such temples came to be called chaitya.

The earliest construction art relating to temples was thus sculpture rather than architecture, and it was perfected to such an extent that several halls, including the chaitya and prayer hall, were excavated and carved in these caves, with decorations whose beauty can be compared to that achieved by carving wood.

Among the earliest evidence of the magnificence achieved by such carvings are those from the 2nd century B.C. in the caves of Karli and Kanheri in the Indian state of Maharashtra, the findings of which suggest that Buddhist appropriations in these areas date back to the 4th century B.C.

This art developed over the following centuries to its peak in the caves of Ellora, also in Maharashtra, and Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu.

The Chaitya

Originally the main part of the temple was the chaitya, which could be a hall, as was often the case in temples carved in caves, or a building, as in temples built in the open. It is also called an apsidal temple because of the presence of an apse, in the center of which is placed the reliquary known as a stupa.

Their shapes and sizes change depending on whether they were carved in rock or buildings, and on the area in which they were built, with appreciable differences between those in the southern and northern Deccan.

They generally have a rectangular floor plan with a semicircular apse on one of the short sides while on the opposite side is the entrance that demarcates the boundary between the sacred and secular areas.

Both the nave and the apse area are bordered by a colonnade that creates a side aisle used by pilgrims to circulate around the reliquary in veneration.

Its characteristic feature is to contain within it the reliquary, which is the chaitya's main object of worship. In later centuries it was preferred to build a special building to store Buddha's relics and the chaitya was replaced by the vihara.

With the decline of Buddhism in India, many chaitya were converted into Hindu temples in which the stupa was replaced by an altar dedicated to a deity of that religion.

Both Buddhist chaitya, including the one at Taxila in Pakistan and those at Sanchi and Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, and those converted to Hinduism, such as at Aihole in Karnataka, are still extant. The most striking are those carved in rocks as in the Bhaja and Karli caves in Maharashtra.

The Vihara

Vihara is a word taken from the ancient Sanskrit language (विहार) that means abode and indicates the place where the Buddha and his monks reside. It is the main room or building of the Buddha temple.

It is the main hall or building of the Buddhist temple, and has replaced the chaitya in that function. It differs from it in the absence of the stupa, which is erected outside, and the main object of worship inside is a usually large Buddha statue.

It is the most sacred place of prayer among those that make up the temple, and the most important ceremonies are held inside, such as the ordination of monks called in Pali and Sanskrit Upasampadā. Given its importance, the architectural finishes are the most elaborate in the temple, and the objects it contains are the most precious.

The stupas

Buddhist tradition tells how Gautama Buddha before his death had asked his disciples to bury his remains at eight different sites, to commemorate the eight major events of his life, and to erect a large mound above them representing the nature of bodhi, in order to awaken the potential, present in every human being, to achieve Buddhist enlightenment.

Later these mounds were embellished with the construction of so-called stupas, a Sanskrit word meaning tuft of hair, which represent an evolution of the mound and resemble the top of the Buddha's head, often depicted with a tuft of hair symbolizing the attainment of enlightenment.

In early times the stupas were of small proportions and were placed inside the chaitya, but they later became actual buildings reaching even colossal dimensions.

The establishment of Buddhism and the splendor of the early temples

After the conversion of the ruler Ashoka in the third century B.C.E., Buddhism became the state religion of the Maurya Empire (325-185 B.C.E.), which dominated the immense area between Persia in the west and present-day Assam in the east, from Afghanistan in the north to Mysore in the south.

This was the heyday of both that empire and of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent. The capital was today's Patna, located in the state of Bihar in the vicinity of Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha attained nirvana.

Ashoka had majestic temples erected according to the evolved architecture of the time in all provinces of the empire, and promoted the adoption of Buddhism in neighboring states as well, as in the case of Sri Lanka, which would become the home of Theravada Buddhism after the decline of this religion in India.

Ashoka is said to have had 84,000 stupas built, and according to some sources the etymology of the word Bihar comes from the Sanskrit vihara (विहार) and indicates the large number of temples that were located there.

The spread of Buddhist temples around the world.

Depending on the geographical area in which it spread, Buddhism gave rise to buildings for worship that differed from each other.

In India

In India, the history of Buddhism and its temples coincides with that of the origins of Buddhism itself, which from the third century CE saw its fortunes alternate with those of the Hindu religion.

Despite the fact that the latter had counted Buddha among the reincarnations of his God Vishnu, Buddhists continued to profess their beliefs and tend their temples.

After the fifth century CE, as the Brahmin caste established itself politically and administratively, Buddhism began a slow but irreversible decline that reinforced Hinduism.

So it was that when the country was conquered by the Muslims in the late 12th century, Hinduism managed to stay alive, while Buddhism was wiped out by the invaders, who destroyed most of its temples and decimated its monks.

After such havoc, Buddhism in India ceased to exist as an organized entity for a long time, if one makes an exception for the communities settled in the high parts of the Himalayas who managed to keep their beliefs alive and pass them on to the present day.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, some influential Buddhist leaders, including the Sinhalese Anagarika Dharmapala and the Bengali Kripasaran Mahasthavir, reawakened Indian interest in Buddhism by establishing new associations and having new temples built,

In the 1950s the great Indian politician B. R. Ambedkar founded the movement called Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha, the Buddhist Society of India, also known as neo-Buddhism.

Opposed to the division of Indian society into castes, he promoted the emancipation of the pariahs, those belonging to the lowest class, and made countless proselytes, so much so that in 1956, on the day of his conversion to Buddhism alone, some 380,000 pariahs converted with him.

Mass conversion ceremonies for Ambedkar's followers are still organized, although the movement lost much of its strength and split into several streams after the leader's death.

This and other active associations make Buddhism the sixth largest religion in the country by number of practitioners, most of them in Maharashtra.

In Tibet, Bhutan, the Himalayan areas of India and Nepal.

In Tibet, Bhutan, the Himalayan areas of India and Nepal the Buddhist temple is called gompa. Toward the end of the 8th century, Buddhism became the state religion in Tibet, and, thanks mainly to the monk Guru Rinpoche, took on a different connotation from those that had formed in India and China, so that it took on the name Tibetan Buddhism.

The then-powerful state's area of influence also extended into the mountainous areas of the southern and eastern slopes of the Himalayas, where the territories of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh are now located.

The first monasteries were built in the style established in India, but later took on a conformation of their own.

Internal compositions vary from region to region, however, following a single pattern that includes the following elements:

one or two perimeter walls with an entrance gate
an inner courtyard in which are located prayer holders and a series of prayer wheels; both on the walls and in the courtyard and around the monastery, characteristic Tibetan prayer flags are unfurled the main temple where they are located:
the entrance door, which is located between the four guardian kings of the world called Lokapalas, painted (two on each side) on the outer walls
a vestibule
the assembly hall, where the monks recite or chant their mantras, frescoed on all the walls with the exception of the one in which the sacred texts are stored
one or more chapels adjacent to the assembly hall bearing large gilded statues depicting Buddha
the upper floor accessed by steep stairs, where the monks' quarters and other chapels for tantric meditation are located
on the roof of the temple is hoisted the victory flag and the wheel of life, on either side of which are statues of two antelopes, symbolizing Buddha, who gave the first discourse after attaining Enlightenment in the sole presence of the two animalsone or more reliquaries, called chörten, in which the ashes of famous saints or lamas are kept.
Chörten, the Tibetan version of the stupa, are not found in all gompas, and are sometimes erected in areas far from them.

In Nepal the dominant religion is Hinduism, and gompas are found mainly in mountainous areas, while in hilly or lowland areas Buddhist temples are like those found in the Ganges valley.

In China

In China, Buddhism spread from the first century A.D. onward, and the first temples, which are called yes (寺), were built according to Indian style and architecture. The basic scheme, with the vihara flanked by the reliquary called a pagoda and the monks' quarters, has undergone several modifications over the centuries.

With the rise of Buddhism as the state religion, it was common for the buildings of Chinese emperors and notables to be converted into temples, and they donated them to monastic congregations for both religious and prestige matters, and this was a tradition that was handed down over the centuries.

Thus it was that the architectural style, even that of temples built from scratch, took on classical Chinese outlines, the size increased significantly and the internal composition underwent changes, among them the division of the temple grounds into several inner courtyards.

Two codifications took on fundamental importance in this regard: the first was the Standard Design for Buddhist Temple Construction, drafted during the early years of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), which elevated the vihara, often donated by the emperor, to the status of the main building, a role that until then in China had been the preserve of the pagoda by virtue of the sacred relics it contained.

The second was that compiled during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), after the establishment of Chán Buddhism, which formed the basis of Zen doctrine.

According to that codification, called the "Structure of the Seven Parts," Buddhist temples were to consist of seven elements: the vihara, a building dedicated to the Dharma, a hall representing paradise on earth, called "the Pure Western Land," monks' quarters, a storehouse, toilets and an imposing entrance gate that serves as a dividing line between the sacred and the profane.

Note the exclusion of the pagoda, marking the triumph of the Chinese palace-based system over that imported in the first century from Indian sacred architecture, which centered on the pagoda.

After the Communists seized power in 1949, religions in the country were considered enemies and opposed by the new political system. The infighting that occurred in the following years led leader Mao Tse-tung to proclaim the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in which a large proportion of Buddhist temples were destroyed or converted to other activities.

With the relative normalization of relations that has taken place in recent years, Buddhism is once again accepted, and testimony to this is the reconstruction of the Tianning pagoda in Changzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, the inauguration of which took place in 2007 in the presence of more than 100 Buddhist association leaders from around the world.

The 15-story pagoda executed in wood measures 154 meters and has become the tallest in existence. This reconstruction confirms the importance that pagodas have regained within temples.

In Japan

A similar pattern to that in China is found in Japan, where the names the temples take (寺 Tera?, or even Ji) are represented with the same ideogram used in China, which is credited with the introduction of Buddhism to the country. They were initially built according to the same Chinese architectural patterns, later constructions saw the adoption of their own Nipponese styles.

The main elements that make up the Japanese temple are as follows:

the main worship building, which corresponds to the Vihara, and is called Kondō, Hondō, Butsuden or Butsudō.
a reading building called the Kodō
the reliquary, which is similar in shape to the Chinese one and is also called a pagoda here (塔 Tō?)
the entrance gate (門 Mon?) or sammon.
the sermon hall (hattō)
the meditation hall (zendō)
an open pavilion housing the bell called shōrō
Buildings dedicated to Amitabha Buddha, the temple founder, the emperor, Kōbō Daishi, the most revered of Buddhist monks, and others can also be found.

Public access to the sacred buildings is allowed only on the rare days dedicated to special holidays. However, it is possible to stay overnight inside many temples equipped with special facilities called Shukubo.

One striking feature is what is called lent scenery (借景 shakkei?), according to which the gardens of many temples are designed in harmony with the scenery around them.

The Syncretism (神仏習合 shinbutsu shūgō?) operated with the pre-existing Shintoism involved the acquisition of elements proper to that religion within Buddhist temples.

It also resulted in the construction of temples with attached Shinto shrines (神宮寺 jingūji?), which were partially dismantled after an 1868 law prohibited the juxtaposition of the two religions. To this day, however, Japanese Buddhist temples retain some of the characteristics of Shinto temples and vice versa.

In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, where it is called a wat, the temple consists of two sections, the first is the sacred section and includes the following buildings:

the main one, the Phra Ubosot, which is the hall of ordination and major rites and houses the most sacred statues and images
the vihan, the Thai translation of the Pali vihara, which in these countries takes on the role of a secondary shrine
the reliquary, which corresponds to the stupa and here takes the name chedi
some halls, open pavilions where one can rest and meditate
a bell tower.
Also found in the major temples is the "Mondop," a building used as a place to preserve sacred texts in which certain rituals are also performed.

The second section is reserved for monks' living quarters and often also a building used as a school.

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