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Shifting the Center – Part II

May 22, 2011

Read Part I.  And now the exciting conclusion…

The Buddha Hall (Fo dian)

During the Northern Wei dynasty, the limited worship space of the existing pagodas was augmented (functionally) by larger and more palatial Buddha halls with large gilt images of the Buddha.[1]  Fu and Steinhardt characterize a three stage Sinicization of Buddhist architecture:

“First was the construction of a building to house the relics of the Buddha (the pagoda).  Second was the addition of a Buddhist worship space separate from the pagoda.  This brought about the concept of the Chinese monastery, the origins of which are traceable to India.  Third was the replacement of the pagoda with the Buddha hall as the focus of worship.”[2]

By the Tang era the central Buddha hall had successfully supplanted the pagoda, perhaps as a result of the influence of palace architecture.[3]

Shifting the Pagoda

During the Tang dynasty, the pagoda was shifted off of the main axis of the monastery and often outside the precinct of the main courtyard.  Sometimes two pagodas were constructed, one to either side and in front of the large Buddha hall.[4]   An example of this is the two brick stupas of Fayuan si in Bejing, built on the same site after the two original eighth-century wooden pagodas were destroyed in fire.  Occasionally, the twin pagodas each had their own precinct on either side of the courtyard containing the Buddha hall.[5]  Originating in China, the most oft cited example of this is in Japan at Todaiji in Nara, constructed in the eighth century based on the Chinese paradigm.[6]

Figure 4: Todaiji at Nara in Japan demonstrates the twin pagoda layout. Each pagoda is in a separate courtyard flanking and in front of the main Buddha hall and its own courtyard. Image Source: Sickman and Soper, p. 238.

Gradually, a single pagoda became more common, relegated to one side behind the Buddha hall.  Eventually the pagoda disappeared from the monastic complex entirely.  Though they were still constructed and often maintained by monasteries (as well as private patrons), they became stand-alone structures.  The Chan and Pure Land schools may have contributed to this shift as they placed less importance on the veneration of relics.[7]

It is worth noting that the ‘foreign’ dynasties of the Liao (907-1125) and Jin (1115-1234) in the north continued to build monasteries with central pagodas.  Many of them survive today, rising alone from what was once the main axis of their complexes, either in front of or behind what had been the main hall.  A surviving example is the five-story wooden pagoda at Fogongsi at Yingxian, built in 1056 (Figure 3).  It once stood at the exact center of its complex.[8]  At Daguangjisi in Jinzhou, Liaoning, the still-standing central pagoda built in 1057 was between the now-lost Buddha hall in front and Dharma hall behind.[9]

The Buddha Hall

“Ever since the stupa has ceased to be the centre of devotion in the Buddhist monastery, the so-called Big hall has remained the central building,” according to Charleaux and Goossaert.  Names for this hall included the Buddha hall (fo dian), Big hall (da dian), Hall of the Great Hero[10] or Hall of the Great Strong Preservation (daxiongbao dian) referring to Shakyamuni Buddha, or True or Authorized hall (zheng-dian).[11]  Though not always tallest, it was generally the largest building in floor area, either five by three or four bays or seven by six bays with the long side facing south towards the first, second, or third courtyard (complexes could have up to ten) along the north-south axis. [12]   The Buddha hall was housed in the largest courtyard.[13]  Prior to the Tang, it was often two-story, but as pavilions gained popularity (discussed below), a one-story hall became the norm. [14]  Evidence of Sui and Tang layouts derives largely from paintings, particularly those found at Dunhuang.  An estimated 46,000 Buddhist structures were lost down during the Hui-cheng surpression of the 845.[15]

The earliest still standing Buddha hall is that of Nanchangsi, also the oldest still standing Tang timber structure (Figure 1), dated to at least 782.[16] The typical Buddha hall held the statues of at least three buddhas on grand lotus thrones.  In Chan monasteries, the patriarchs may also be represented here.  These were usually in the center to allow for circumambulation and other buddhas and bodhisattvas may be placed along the walls.  During the Tang, these icons could occupy up to two-thirds of the space, leaving little room for people.  Later, the floor space dedicated to statues declined and the area devoted to people increased.  I believe this is in keeping with the general spiritual and physical trend of slowly shifting to honor living people over historical and mythological figures.[17]

The Meditation Hall (Chan tang)

The Meditation or Monks’ hall was generally constructed in the same manner of other halls.  The first communal quarters for monks appeared in Chan monasteries of the Song dynasty (960-1279), “Their purpose, housing for resident monks, remained unchanged since earliest times, but during the Southern Song period they grew tremendously.”[18]

Chan Influence

Chan mythology holds that Pai-chang Huai-hai (Baizhang Huaihai, 749-814) wrote the first distinctly Chan monastic rules, separate from the Indian vinaya, and established the first distinctly Chan monastery, Pai-chang.  A text called the Ch’an-men kuei-shih (Regulations of the Ch’an School), appended to Pai-chang’s hagiography in the Ching-te ch’uan-teng lu (Ching-te era record of the transmission of the flame; compiled by Tao-yuan in 1004, Song dynasty), attests to how Pai-change “conceived the idea of establishing a Ch’an monastery separately.”  Thus independent Chan monasteries were supposedly founded with no Buddha hall and only a Dharma hall where the abbot, the living buddha, would lecture and engage in debate, and a Sangha hall (Meditation hall or Monks hall) where the monks who were not administrators or attendants of the abbot would meditate, eat, and sleep.[19]

T. Griffith Foulk, however, concludes that “The account of the founding of the first independent Ch’an monastery by Pai-chang likewise was a creation of Sung Ch’an mythology.”  Sources dated to the Tang dynasty make no mention of independent Chan monasteries, for one thing, so there was no distinctively Chan architecture for Song Chan monasteries to inherit.  Rather, “the Ch’an school [claimed] as its own invention certain successful features of monastic practice that were actually the common heritage of the Chinese Buddhist tradition,” Foulk asserts.[20]

Nevertheless, most sources agree that Chan did have a demonstrable influence on Buddhist architecture – just not as earlier as claimed.  This is typical of Chan historiography generated during the Song.  Charleux and Goossaert call Chan “The most momentous change that occurred” during the late Tang and early Song due to its emphasis on meditation and thus need for Meditation halls, which did not seem to have “played a major role” previously.  Although textual sources claim Chan monasteries dispensed with pagodas and Buddha halls altogether, “In reality, documented monasteries did have both a Buddha hall and a Dharma hall.”[21]  Charleux and Goossaert conclude:

The outward-looking economically and socially active monasteries of the high period (5th-9th century) have gradually turned into the closed, less monumental “Chan-model” institution.  The former was usually the locus of lay communities’ religious life, while the latter was more aloof, and very quiet when compared to village or urban temples.  The modern physical monastery is nonetheless the direct heir of the ancient one.[22]

During the Song “According to Anzhai suihi (Miscellaneous writings from peace studio, part two, section 14), monasteries of Chan Buddhism had seven halls.”  In this text and the Gozan jissatsu zu, Chan monasteries were described as arranged “along strict north-south and east-west lines” and largely adhering to this seven hall design.  Lingyingsi demonstrates the listed seven structures along the north-south axis: front gate (shanmen), Buddha hall, Vairocana hall, Dharma hall, front (public) Abbot’s quarters,  (private) Abbot’s quarters, and room for seated meditation moving from south to north.  Subsidiary buildings, such as storage and monk’s quarters flanked the main axis to form various courtyards.[23]  It is interesting to note that the Monks hall was not yet on the central axis in this description.

The Abbot’s Quarters (fangzhang)

Fu and Steinhardt maintain that the main innovation in Chan monasteries appears to be the gradual relocation of the abbot’s quarters to the main axis, “thereby revealing the elevation of the monks’ status at this time.”  In early monasteries, abbot’s quarters, like the scattered cells of the monks, were located at various places in the monastery.[24]  Charleux and Goossaert state that “The oldest known location of the abbot’s quarters was in the rearmost part of the central axis, behind the Buddha hall or Dharma hall.  They site Lingyinsi in Hangzhou and Tiantongsi near Ningbo as examples, however these monasteries both have multiple construction dates ranging from the fourth to the fourteenth century.  The dates of the abbot’s quarters are not specifically mentioned.  They also maintain that this changed by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which saw the abbot’s quarters moved once again to the side.[25]  Charleux and Goossaert earlier in the same work assert that  during the ninth century (Tang or Five dynasties period) “the Dharma hall lost its pre-eminence on the central axis” and was moved to one side closer to the abbot’s quarters.[26]

In some cases it was the Dharma hall (fa tang) or Lecture hall (jiangtang) where the abbot expounded on the Buddhist teaching that gained primacy over the Buddha hall.  This appears to have been limited to the Song dynasty.  Early Dharma halls were often located off the main axis and after the Song they were often returned there.  However, when the abbot’s quarters were moved to the main axis, so was the place where the abbot taught.  When on the central axis, the Dharma hall was generally located behind the Buddha hall, in front of the abbot’s quarters, and may be a two-story structure.  “The model Song monasteries also had very large Dharma halls, possibly as large as the Buddha hall, where the abbot engaged daily the whole community in debates, and conducted many of the communal rituals (Collcutt 1981: 194-197).”  At Fengguosi in Yixian built in 1019 the Dharma hall was large enough to hold a thousand monks.[27]

The Pavilion

As pagodas were on their way out, large two and three-story pavilions, called ge or lou, were beginning to be built, often to house giant bodhisattva statues, particularly of Guanyin.  The Japanese monk Ennin recorded a visit to Wu-t’ai Shan in 840, taking special note of the three-story pavilion there, describing it as “the largest pavilion on earth.”[28]  They were usually located at the rear of monastic compounds, where their height would not cause overt visual competition with the main single-story hall located in the center or near the front of the compound.[29]  During the Song dynasty the main hall was generally in front of the multi-story pavilion such as at Longxingsi in Hebei province.  Although the monastery was founded during the Sui-dynasty, the rear pavilion (part of a three pavilion group) was constructed during the Northern Song.  Occasionally pavilions were built to flank the courtyards of the Buddha hall or Monks hall, such as those at Shanhuan monastery in Shanxi built during the Liao-Jin era of northern China (907-1234).[30]

The Meditation Hall

Prior to the Song, monks lived in individual cells, where they also regularly meditated and studied.  The cells were arranged in rows grouped together in a single structure and these structures found at various places scattered throughout the monastery complex.  In the sixth century, Yung-ning-ssu at Loyang, mentioned before, was reputed to have “’priests’ dormitories with their towers comprised of more than 100 bays.’”[31]  However, Chan ideology called for a communal Meditation hall (chantang) or Monks hall (sengtang) as “its spiritual and material heart.”  Early Meditation halls may have been to one side of the central axis, perhaps facing into a main courtyard, but with the rise of Chan they were shifted to the main axis.[32]

This large open hall became a place of communal meditation, eating, studying, and sleeping for sometimes over one hundred resident monks.[33]  In “Chan oriented” monasteries the Meditation or Monk hall became most important, while in “Pure Land oriented” monasteries the Buddha recitation hall (nianfo tang) became more important than the Buddha hall.  In time, most monasteries contained both types of hall and often the activities of meditation and recitation were carried out in the same hall, regardless of the hall’s name.[34]  Despite its new importance, Meditation halls were more likely to be located towards the rear of the monastery complex to provide more privacy for the monks.  At some monasteries, itinerant monks and younger monks might have separate halls off the main axis.

An example of this type of hall is well documented in Jinshan at Zhenjiang.[35]  This hall was 30 by eighteen meters and contained a central image of Bodhidharma on a dais around which 100 monks circumambulated daily.  Along the walls were wooden platforms for sitting and behind them, separated by curtains, platforms for sleeping.  Shelves and baskets above contained the monks’ scanty personal belongings.  The monks lived in this hall, meditating, walking, listening to talks, eating three meals, taking two naps, and sleeping five hours a night each day.[36]

Some of the grandest Monks halls were the Thousand-Monk Pavilion at Mount Jing Monastery in Lin’an built in 1040 and the Great Monk Hall at Tiantong near Ningbo completed in 1134.  These are the largest examples to survive the natural disasters of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).[37]       

The Late Song Dynasty and After

It was during the Southern Song dynasty (1126-1279) that the monastery, particularly the large Chan institutions which had by then come to dominate the Chinese Buddhist religious landscape, “found its final form.”  The most elite of these were the state-sponsored “Five Mountains and Ten Monasteries,” fourteen of which were located near the capital city.  All were still “listed among the model monasteries of the early 20th century.”[38]

The Chinese tendency to synthesize has resulted in a standardized organization and building style for Buddhist monasteries featuring aspects of almost all the traditions, including Chan, Pure Land, Tiantai, and others.  This process started as early as the tenth century and was more or less complete by the sixteenth.  “In modern times, monasteries can definitely not be [architecturally] classified by a particular school any more.”[39]  All major monasteries adopted the Meditation or Monks hall, some as early as the eleventh century.  Therefore, Charleux and Goossaert conclude “The ‘Chan monastery’ is actually not a separate model, but a stage in the global evolution of the Chinese monastery.”[40]

There is one known attempt of a monk, Zhuhong (1535-1615), founding a monastery that “reverted” to the Chan “ideal plan without a Buddha hall.”  Only a Dharma hall and Meditation hall were located on the central axis of the monastery he founded.  However, this did not catch on.[41]

Following the Song, the trend for communal living continued, but shifted away from a single main Monks hall.  Instead, contemporary monasteries housed monks in several smaller halls according to their task.  Monks carrying out meditation or recitation, those studying sutras, and those managing the monastery often lived in different halls during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.[42]  During the Ming, halls also began to be differentiated by function, such as meditating, eating, or living/sleeping.[43]


Sickman and Soper make two basic observations regarding the demotion of the pagoda in favor of the Buddha hall.  First, “the change marked a long step forward toward the nationalization of Buddhism in China.  By it an always partially alien feature was replaced by a familiar one, a throne hall in Buddhist guise.”  Secondly, while the construction of twin pagodas was a sign of the wealth of the Sui and Tang dynasties, it also “marked the triumph of the Chinese ideal of order over religious needs.”  The pagoda, originally a reliquary with a specific religious function, had become an aesthetic element in an overall organizational scheme.  However, perhaps due to its extreme cost, it was even further demoted and eventually done away with entirely.[44]

My thesis posits that the gradual ‘shifting of the center’ was directly related to Chan rhetoric, in a reciprocal cause and effect relationship.  The rhetoric of Chan Buddhism placed a greater emphasis on the inherent buddhanature and potential for enlightenment of all beings and invested a corresponding greater authority in the living personage of the ‘enlightened’ Chan master.  Over the course of Buddhist history in China the spiritual emphasis shifted from the historical Buddha to various mythological buddhas and bodhisattvas with the purported ability to affect events in the here and now.  In other words, the religion gained a sort of immediacy from this change.  That immediacy was further enhanced through the Chan emphasis on the teachings of buddhanature and their insistence on a line of direct transmission of the Dharma from one living enlightened master to the next.  The Buddha was neither a long-dead figure of the past nor some quasi-deific being, but both a real person (the master) and immanent within all people.  I do not believe it is too much of a stretch to say that the architecture reflected this change in thinking.

The gradual replacement of the pagoda with the Buddha hall as the center of worship is extremely well documented, as is the change from scattered monks cells to a central Monks hall.  The shift from pagoda to Buddha hall preceding the rise of Chan was part of an evolutionary chain that resulted in the continued shift from Buddha hall to Meditation hall.  However, the Meditation or Monks hall, while important, never truly ‘outranked’ the Buddha hall in the obvious and permanent way the Buddha hall usurped the pagoda.  Rather, a balance was eventually obtained in which Buddha hall, Meditation hall, Dharma hall, and the many other structures dedicated to various bodhisattvas and deities were all able to coexist within the monastery compound.  A more in-depth study of the primary sources and a careful cataloging of the layouts of Chinese monasteries according to age and sect, an endeavor which does not appear to have been yet undertaken (in the English language for certain), is required to conclusively prove this thesis.


Charleux, Isabelle and Goossaert, Vincent.  “The Physical Buddhist Monastery in China,” The Buddhist Monastery: A Cross-Cultural Survey, Pierre Pichard and François Lagirarde, eds.  Paris: École fançaise d’Extrême-Orient, 2003.

Chinese Academy of Architecture, Qiao Yun and Sun Dazhang project editors, Chan Chiu Ming edition editor, translated by Wong Chi Kui and Chun Wah Nan.  Ancient Chinese Architecture.  Jointly published by Bejing: China Building Industry Press and Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1982.

Churchill, Winston.  “Speech to the House of Commons” (October 28, 1943). Never Give In!: The best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches. Hyperion, 2003.

Foulk, T. Griffith.  “Myth, Ritual, and Monastic Practice in Sung Ch’an Buddhism.”  Religion and Society in T’ang and Sung China, Patricia Buckley Ebrey and Peter N. Gregory, eds.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Fu, Xinian and Steinhardt, Nancy, et al.  Chinese Architecture.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.  Originally published Bejing: New World Press.

Ran, Wei. Buddhist Buildings: Ancient Chinese Architecture.  New York: Springer-Verlag Wien, 2000, translation by Pan Jingyi.  Previously published by China Architecture & Building Press.

Sickman, Lawrence and Soper, Alexander.  The Art and Architecture of China.  Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1956.

Image Source Only:

Zhongguo fo jiao xue shu lun dian / [jian xiu, Xingyundashi ; zong bian ji, Fo guang shan wen jiao ji jin hui]. 中國佛教學術論典 / [監修, 星雲大師 ; 總編輯, 佛光山文教基金會]. Call Number: BQ118 .Z46 2001 v. 75

A Note About Chinese: I have not studied the Chinese language.  Any place or person names listed are written as shown in their source texts.  I am aware that Chinese can be rendered differently using the Roman alphabet, however, I am in no position to judge which rendition is ‘correct’ or always identify when two different spellings are, in fact, the same place or person.  I have tried to standardize as much as possible, but errors may still exist within the text.

[1] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 80
[2] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 85
[3] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 113
[4] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[5] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 118
[6] Sickman & Soper, p. 238
[7] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[8] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 320, 342
[9] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 166
[10] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 325-326
[11] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 169
[12] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 325-326
[13] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 113
[14] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 325-326
[15] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 113-114
[16] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 114
[17] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 326
[18] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 170
[19] Foulk, p. 150, 156-157
[20] Foulk, p. 150
[21] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[22] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 340
[23] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 168-169
[24] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 168-169
[25] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 337
[26] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[27] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 332
[28] Sickman & Soper, p. 238-239
[29] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 318
[30] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 166-167
[31] Sickman & Soper, p. 229
[32] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 328
[33] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 319
[34] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 328
[35] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 342
[36] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 329-330
[37] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 171-172
[38] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 310
[39] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 311
[40] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 319
[41] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 319
[42] Charleux & Goossaert, p. 328
[43] Fu & Steinhardt, p. 172
[44] Sickman & Soper, p. 238
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