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Shifting the Center, Part I

May 20, 2011

Note:  Sorry for the prolonged absence.  I was writing papers.  Like this one on ‘Early Buddhist Architecture in China and the Influence of Chan.’  Presented here are the first two parts of my final paper for REL 655 Perspectives on Chan, an introduction to Chinese architecture and resources and a description of the earliest type of purpose-build ‘Buddhist’ building in China, the pagoda. Join us tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, the evolution of the monastery and the shifting emphasis placed on the Buddha hall and Meditation hall under the influence of Chan rhetoric.  


This paper started with the question as to whether there was any such thing as a distinctive ‘Chan’ architecture.  Were Chan monasteries in China architecturally different from the monasteries of other Chinese Buddhist traditions?   If so, how were they distinct and when did this differentiation emerge?  Throughout the course of researching this paper, I am not only able to answer these questions, with caveats, but also to chart a basic shift in architectural emphasis correlating to a shift in Buddhist thought from the earliest ‘Buddhist’ architecture in China into the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Over the course of a thousand years, from when Buddhism entered China in the first century of the common era to the Song dynasty (960-1279), the spiritual and physical emphasis of Buddhist monasteries gradually shifted.  The emphasis originally placed on the historical Buddha gradually changed to an emphasis on the ‘metaphorical’[1] buddhas of the past, present, and future and finally moved to the ‘living’ buddhas, the buddhanature of all people, the monks and nuns and, specifically, the personage of the abbot as enlightened master.  This change in spiritual emphasis was reflected in a corresponding architectural change.  The earliest distinctively Buddhist architecture in China is the stupa or pagoda (ta), which shall henceforth be referred to only as a ‘pagoda’ regardless of appearance.  When purpose-built monastic compounds first appeared this pagoda was placed prominently at the center.  This central location was eventually taken over by the Buddha hall, which was also the largest (though not tallest), most ornate, and most important building in the compound.  By the Song Dynasty, however, the Meditation hall or Monks hall surpassed the Buddha hall, though only for a time, it seems.  Meanwhile the abbot’s quarters (sometimes considered to include the Dharma hall) were gradually moved onto the main axis, which contained all the important buildings, sometimes as part of a multi-story pavilion that came to rival the Buddha halls and Meditation halls in visual emphasis.

It is my thesis that this ‘shifting center’ was directly related to Chan rhetoric, though causation remains unclear.  Chan rhetoric, when compared to other and earlier forms of Chinese Buddhism, placed more emphasis on the inherent buddhanature and potential for enlightenment of all beings.  It likewise invested a corresponding greater authority in the living individual of the ‘enlightened’ Chan master, or monastery abbot.    In my personal opinion (and only that), the shift from pagoda to Buddha hall that preceded the rise of Chan may very well have contributed to an evolutionary chain that then resulted in the continued shift from Buddha hall to Meditation hall.  As Winston Churchill said in 1943, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”[2]

The analysis in support of this thesis has been deliberately limited in scope.  This paper will look almost entirely at the monastery layout.  Importance of structures is determined primarily by arrangement and size.  One could just as easily judge importance according to ornamentation, contents, or use.  However, in Chinese design (particularly when compared to other cultures) the position of a structure in relation to other structures is the most telling regarding the value placed on that structure.  This is clear from the sheer amount of care taken in the placement of buildings within overall organizational schemes.  Buildings are not scattered willy-nilly, nor crammed cheek to jowl, but arranged carefully on orthogonal axes according to the cardinal directions (with adjustments for terrain, as necessary), separated by carefully planned courtyards, and often connected by covered corridors.  Therefore, the greatest attention is paid to the plan of the entire monastery rather than how individual structures were built.

I have chosen this methodology based on two factors.  First, the body of literature on the subject supports it.  “[T]he symmetry and yet hierarchical lateralization dictates both the place of the buildings and the ranking of monks in any circumstance.”[3]  Those buildings on the central axis were also generally “the tallest, have the most complicated structures, and are the most important buildings in their monasteries.”[4]  Second, as a result of my prior education in architecture and city planning (three degrees in the subjects from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln) this appears self-evident simply upon glancing at the plans. 


Primary sources of information about Buddhist architecture in China come in four forms.  First, there are the buildings themselves.  Sadly, very few remain from the earliest times.  Only four timber halls of the Tang dynasty (618-907) still exist.[5]  More stone structures (and caves), particularly stupas and pagodas, remain.[6]  In addition to buildings in China, architectural historians also look to existing buildings in Japan as authentic representations of Chinese building styles, particularly Todaiji of Nara, modeled on seventh and eighth-century Tang monasteries.[7]  Second, there is archeological evidence of buildings from earlier times, such as footings for columns, foundations, and the paved courtyards in which such buildings once stood.  Sadly, only a few Buddhist monasteries from the Tang period and earlier have been excavated.[8]  Third, there are textual sources, such as the Yingzao fashi[9] (Building Standards), which standardized building systems, parts, and times for workers to complete each in 1103.[10] One of the oldest text sources is “The Story of the Buddhist Temples of Louyang” by Yang Xianzhi.  Written during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), it chronicles the rise and fall of over forty temples in the capital city of Louyang.[11]  A source particularly relevant to Chan is the Anzhai suihi (Miscellaneous writings from peace studio, part two, section 14).  There are also ‘foreign’ works, mostly Korean and Japanese, such as the Gozan jissatsu zu (Charts of the Five Mountains and Ten Monasteries) composed by the Japanese monk Gikai between 1247 and 1256[12] containing plans of many of the prominent monasteries of thirteenth-century Song China.[13]  Fourth and finally, there are paintings and maps depicting various prominent monasteries.  Some of the oldest are actually cave paintings (and stele carvings), such as those found at the Mogao caves near Dunhuang.[14]

Naturally each of these sources has its drawbacks.  Actual buildings will have inevitably been repaired, renovated, and reconstructed, sometimes more or less faithfully.  Archaeological evidence is incomplete. Reconstructions based on archeology are usually restricted to plans and layouts.  For the purposes of this paper, that is not a hindrance, but it severely limits other aspects of historical research.  Textual sources have questionable reliability.  In the case of manuals, how rigorously were they followed?  In the case of descriptions of places, how accurate are they?  Paintings and maps likewise suffer from skepticism as to their accuracy on two counts. From an editorial standpoint ‘unimportant’ buildings may have been purposely excluded. From a depiction standpoint the accuracy of measurement, drafting, and representation methods can be questioned.

This paper relies entirely on secondary sources for two reasons.  First, due to the lack of time to verify the accuracy of primary sources, many of which the cited authors have already taken the time to investigate.  Second, due to lack of opportunity and ability.  Going to China was out of the question and I was limited to English language sources only, which are few in comparison to Chinese and Japanese works, both ancient and modern.  However, due to the quality of scholarship in recent decades and the broad range of agreement even among secondary sources, I believe it is fair to say the information presented here is accurate.

About Chinese Buddhist Architectural History

Figure 1: Layout of Kaiyuansi* in Suzhou, first built in 925, demonstrates the typical axial layout. Image Source: Zhongguo fo jiao xue shu lun dian, v. 75.

The typology and construction methods of Buddhist monasteries, and indeed almost all other building forms, in China during the period being discussed is amazingly stable.  From an architectural standpoint, there were few major innovations[15] during this time.  The standard hall-and-courtyard format of Buddhist monasteries was based on existing and already well developed palace architecture.  Change was a matter of degree rather than novelty.  Over time, pagodas and pavilions become taller and larger, details more complex, and techniques more sophisticated.  These advances should not be minimized as the results are often truly breathtaking.  In the western areas (such as Gansu and Qinghai provinces), architecture varied according to environment, but not in China proper.  In some cases, Mongol and Tibetan conquerors constructed foreign styles, but this was generally after the Song dynasty, did not interfere with ‘native’ building projects,[16] and will not be discussed here.  The changes sketched below are variations on a theme rather than architectural revolutions.

In fact, breaks in the architectural history of China were generally brought about by actual revolutions, wars, rebellions, and frequent natural disasters.  Much Buddhist architecture was lost, sometimes due to general catastrophe and at other times due to directed persecution.  Of the later, perhaps the most relevant to this discussion is the Buddhist suppression of the Hui-ch’ang era carried out from 841-846 at the end of the Tang.  Many Buddhist monasteries were destroyed outright.  This event is “often cited as a blow from which Buddhism never fully recovered,” even though Buddhism flourished and grew to unprecedented popularity in the centuries that followed.[17]  While the religion recovered, thousands of structures were lost forever.  The second act of deliberate destruction that hinders research in this area is the confiscation and, too often, demolition of monasteries under the communist regime of the twentieth-century (not to mention the destructive invasions and wars which preceded the Cultural Revolution).  The Chinese constitution of 1978 is more friendly towards religion and many monasteries have been returned, restored, and rebuilt in recent years.  However, the Buddhist institution in China remains a fraction of what it was even a century before.[18]

Building Construction

As stated above, buildings were of a typical Chinese style.  What typifies this style of building is most completely and succinctly summarized by Charleux and Goossaert in their chapter on China for the book The Buddhist Monastery: A Cross-Cultural Survey.  I quote the relevant paragraph below with the note that building types shall not be discussed further as they generally conform to this description, with the exception of pagodas, which are their own category.  Even the more distinctive cruciform Meditation and Arhat halls were built using similar methods as described below.

With the exception of a few specific buildings (the Meditation hall, the Five hundred arhat hall, the stupa), most elements conform to the conventional style common to all Chinese religious buildings.  The traditional wooden pavilion (dian) has an oblong plan with a peristyle or an enclosed porch on the front or rear.  Its structure with non-bearing walls allowing free openings could easily be enlarged.  The overhanging eaves serve to moderate bright light as well as heavy rains.  Doors and windows are concentrated on the façade.  The most elaborated halls could be decorated with carved wood, stuccoes, ornamental bracketing, paintings, and covered with glazed tiles (since the Song dynasty).  The Library, Bell and Drum towers, abbot’s quarters and shrines built to shelter monumental images could be two story pavilions (louge).  The different styles of dian and louge are characterized by the structural features of framing, the complex bracketing, the profile of the roof, the columns height, and the proportions.[19]

Figure 2: Main Hall of Nanchansi on Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, built 782, Tang Dynasty. 11.62 meters wide and 9.67 meters deep. This is the oldest extant (known) timber frame structure in China. Image Source: Chinese Academy of Architecture. Ancient Chinese Architecture, 1982.

The Pagoda (Ta)

Figure 3: Wooden pavilion at Fongong si in Yingxian built in 1056. Image Source: University of Nebraska – Lincoln Digital Media Collections.

The pagoda or stupa (both called ta) is arguably the most ‘foreign’ element of Buddhist architecture in China.  However, the Chinese pagoda bears little resemblance to its Indian and central Asian predecessors, often being constructed using indigenous Chinese techniques based on Han watchtowers (206 BCE to 220 CE) and multi-story pavilions of the Taoist immortals.  The oldest Chinese pagodas are rock-cut stupas found in the Yungang caves.  Pagodas can be constructed from almost any material.  Often wooden pagodas that burned down, if replaced, were rebuilt in brick or stone. [20]  Despite the nature of their construction, scholars tend to agree, of all religious architecture “Only the pagoda was unmistakably Buddhist.”[21]

The pagoda developed into a multi-story structure serving as a reliquary, monument, worship hall for statues, watchtower, and occasionally library.  Small pagodas can be sheltered within caves or halls, while larger ones are free-standing structures often from seven to fifteen stories tall.  Pagodas are often built in groups, or, if large, stand within monastery complexes or alone.  Solitary pagodas of today may be the only remnant of an earlier complex that has since decayed.  Textual sources tell us the wooden pagodas of the fifth to seventh century could be as tall as one-hundred meters, but no Chinese examples survive.  There are two seventh century pagodas of a similar style still standing in Japan.  During the seventh century octagonal plans came into use and were especially popular after the tenth century.  In the Song period and after, hexagonal plans, such as the pagoda at Tianning si in Beijing, became popular.[22]

Buddhism’s Arrival In China

When Buddhism came to China around the first century, the main activities were translation, systematization, and study.  Large monasteries and temple complexes as had existed in India were not needed.  Monks and scribes worked out of government offices or residences under the patronage of the imperial court and nobility.  It was not until the late fourth and early fifth-century (under monks such Dao An of the Eastern Jin dynasty) that a truly Chinese sangha was established and the verbal exposition of the Dharma gained popularity.  Permanent Buddhist monasteries were established during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties following the general end of widespread translation and the Sinification of the Buddhist sutras.[23]

These were periods of “nearly constant warfare.”  It was during this period of “uncertainty,” “anxiety,” and “vulnerability that Buddhism and the eternal salvation it preached moved full speed into all parts of China.”[24] During the Western Jin period (265-317) there were 180 monasteries in Louyang and Chang’an.  More were built in the Eastern Jin period (317-420) that followed.[25] During the sixth century, Buddhism faced persecution in the north but was preserved in the south by Emperor Wudi of Liang.  As a result thousands of temples were built in the south, and later in the north during times of relative peace.[26]

A distinctly Chinese Buddhism rose during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) periods, including the Chan sect ostensibly founded by Bodhidharma (died no later than 554).  “As the Chan sect was the product of the successful transformation of foreign Buddhism by Chinese traditional thinking and its native culture, it proved to be the most vital of all Buddhist sects and so that in the thousand years that followed, it became a synonym of Chinese Buddhism.”[27]  In reality, the Tang Chan sect was founded more or less retroactively by scholar monks in the Song dynasty (960-1279) in order to bolster their claims to legitimacy and authority.  Historically, the Song and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties are characterized as periods of decline,[28] a characterization belied by the sheer number of monks, nuns, monasteries, and temples active in these centuries.

Indian & Chinese Influences

“The development and spread of Buddhism changed the look of Chinese architecture most dramatically during this period [265-581]. … Given the strong palatial and funerary traditions in China, many of the architectural innovations made in the name of Buddhism, such as the pagoda and the idea of a monastery, carried over to these and other areas of Chinese architecture. … By the late fifth and sixth centuries, Buddhist architecture had become Chinese architecture.”[29]

The greatest impact of Buddhism on Chinese architecture was the establishment of monasteries at all and the introduction of the stupa or pagoda.  The pagoda was a true innovation, both in purpose and style, and earlier versions have a distinctly Indian look to them.  However, from the start they were also very strongly Chinese and over time only became more so.[30]  During the Period of the Six Dynasties (265-581 AD) “…many of the most lavishly equipped monasteries began as great mansions, and required little change; but certainly the most spectacular public works were Buddhist from the start.”[31]  Moreover, these new pagodas were sited within monastic complexes (when they were not isolated) according to Chinese tradition.  “[W]ith the exception of rock-cut shrines and stupas, Buddhism did not bring any alien architectural technique in China.”[32]

As mentioned, early Buddhists used donated buildings, usually mansions or old government offices. They had no architecture of their own as such.[33] Moreover, Buddhist architecture was not distinct from Taoist or Confucian architecture since all three religions benefited from the tradition of building donation.  Even when each developed purpose-built structures, their architectural styles emerged along similar lines.[34] These later purpose-build monasteries continued the style of courtyards and corridors with main halls on a central axis. [35]  Monasteries, whatever their location and composition, were oriented south whenever terrain permitted, “the orientation of ancient Chinese architecture.”[36]

The Central Pagoda & Courtyard

The central pagoda with a main courtyard began during the Han dynasty and continued up to the eleventh century.[37]  This scheme is reputed to have begun with the very first established Buddhist monastery. “In 68 CE, Mingdi established the Baimasi (White Horse Monastery) in his capital [of the Eastern Han dynasty] Louyang.  It has been said that its plan was based on an Indian Buddhist monastery, but there is no documentary evidence to prove this claim.” [38]  None of the original structures survive. The current buildings of Baimasi reflect its reconstruction in 1713 during the Qing Dynasty, with the main Buddha hall and several others besides along the main north-south axis.[39]

Building of ‘Buddhist’ structures became widespread beginning in the fourth century.  Within a few centuries there were over 30,000 Buddhist temples and monasteries.

During that period, the stupa was the first building encountered upon entering the central courtyard after the storied gates, lined up on the central axis with the main devotional building (the Buddha hall) behind, and, closing off the courtyard at the rear, the Dharma hall (fatang, a place for teaching and debating).  The abbot’s quarters were located close to the Dharma hall.[40]

This arrangement was the “stock solution” of the Six dynasties period (220-589).  Along the central north-south axis were one or more courtyards accessed via a main gatehouse at the south opening onto the grand pagoda, behind which was a Buddha hall and possibly other halls as well as flanking subsidiary structures and dwellings.[41]

This type of layout is evident in an the Yung-ning-ssu monastery built by imperial order beginning in 516 at Loyang.  Sickman and Soper quote a description of the temple which gives the height of the central four-sided pagoda at nine-hundred feet topped by a one-hundred foot spire.  This is probably fictitious.  Slightly later texts indicate the pagoda was likely between three and four-hundred feet high, but still an impressive structure.  “’North of the pagoda was the Buddha hall, formed like the Hall of State.’”  The hall contained an eighteen-foot high golden Buddha in the center and ten additional life-sized golden figures.  The courtyard containing the central pagoda and Buddha hall was accessed via a three-storied gatehouse to the south which “rose 200 feet, and was formed like the outer gateway to the Imperial palace.”[42]

Another good example of this early layout is the Tang-era Qinglong Monastery at Chang’an which has recently been excavated.  This monastery was made up of three courtyards arranged east-west (an unusual layout compared to the more common north-south) with the main, perhaps earliest, courtyard on the west side containing a central pagoda with a fifteen square-meter foundation in front of a main hall that was 52 by 20.5 meters, or thirteen by five bays, in size.  The pagoda and hall are on the central line of their courtyard.  Other examples include the Sui dynasty (581-618) pagodas at Yongningsi and Dachandingsi in Louyang.[43]


[1] ‘Metaphorical’ here does not mean fictional, only that the buddhas and bodhisattvas in question are more deified personages and may or may not include the ‘historical’ Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
[2] Churchill, p. 358
[3] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 341
[4] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 170
[5] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 114
[6] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 315
[7] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[8] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 112
[9] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 136
[10] Ran, Preface
[11] Ran, p. 126
[12] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 168-169
[13] Foulk, p. 166-167
[14] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 113
* Name of the site is author’s best guess based on a list of monasteries with corresponding Chinese characters in Charleux & Goossaert, p. 341-342, and the characters in the caption.[15] Such as a shift in primary building materials, technologies, functions, or typologies, i.e. from timber frame to metal frame buildings or from coliseums to cathedrals.
[16] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 320
[17] Foulk, p. 149
[18] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 305, 314
[19] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 323
[20] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 334
[21] Sickman & Soper, p. 229
[22] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 334-335
[23] Ran, p. 117-118
[24] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 79
[25] Ran, p. 118
[26] Ran, p. 118
[27] Ran, p. 118-120
[28] Ran, p. 120
[29] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 62
[30] Ran, p. 126
[31] Sickman & Soper, p. 228
[32] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 315
[33] Ran, p. 125
[34] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 316
[35] Ran, p. 126
[36] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 314
[37] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 166
[38] Fu & Steinhardt, ed., p. 44
[39] Ran, p. 125
[40] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 315-317
[41] Sickman & Soper, p. 231
[42] Sickman & Soper, p. 229
[43] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 112

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