Temples Of Japan

Setting of a Typical Japanese Buddhist Temple

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Since the Nara Period, a typical Buddhist Temple setting and the artifacts and constituents of it pretty much stayed the same.  The architecture of these settings have may have changed over the different eras of Japanese History due to the changing tastes and expertise of the builders of the temples.

A Buddhist temple in Japanese is usually called as "Ji", "Tera", "In" or "Do".  That is why you will come across names such as Tenryu-ji (Tenryu Temple), Kurama-dera (Kurama Temple), Byodo-in (Byodo Temple) or Shinnyo-do (Sennyu Temple).  

You will typically see the following buildings and artifacts in a typical Buddhist Temple precincts.

1) The Gates:  A Buddhist Temple may contain one or more gates (or entrances) to the temple precincts.  Just like Torii for a Shrine, the Gate is one of the most important aspects of a Temple.  Usually there is a Main Gate and many inner and side Gates.  The Gates are called by various names in Japanese, such as San Mon, Kara Mon, Nio Mon, Naka Mon Etc.  Some of the temple gates in Japan are the most impressive works of construction in terms of enormity and grandeur.  In addition to the Gate itself, there are usually two Nio Ten (Guardian Deva Kings) present at either side of the temple.  One of the Guardian King has his mouth open and the other is with Mouth closed.  You can see the dissimilarities in the architecture of these Gates and Nio Ten statues based on the period of Japanese history they were built.

2) Hondo: Hondo is usually the "Main Worship Hall".  This is where the main worshiped deity of that temple is present.  Usually in front of the Hondo there is a offering box, a incense burner and a bell that you can strike while offering prayers, a candle burner.  Most of the time, visitors are neither allowed inside the Hondo nor allowed to see the worshiped deity.  Most of the Deities are allowed to be shown certain times during the year.  When you are allowed inside, it is customary that you remove your shoes as a sign of respect.  Hondo buildings are built elaborately with some of the best architecture of any ancient construction in Japan.

A Temple Main Gate
Temple Hondo

3) Sub Temples:  There are usually one or more Sub Temples or Halls inside the Temple precincts, in addition to the Hondo.  They are usually referred to with a "do" suffix just like Hondo.  For example, you will probably see Daishi-do (Great Monk's Hall) or Daikoku-do (Daikoku God's Hall) etc.  Some times these sub temples house other Buddhas in addition to the Principle Buddha of Worship.

4) Pagoda: In Japanese these are called "To".  There are different types of Pagodas that are present in temples.  Some of them as elaborate as the one in Toji Temple, with five stories and usually fairly tall.  Some of them are called Tahoto, usually single storied and not as tall.  Some temples have something called a Sorinto or a Stupa to act as a Pagoda.  These Pagodas are used to store the Sutras or sometimes have Buddhas or Bodhisattvas present in them and are used as a place of Worship.
5) Temple Bell or Bell Fry:  Temple bells are present in all the Temples.  In some temples, you are allowed to ring the bells.  But usually these bells are rung by the priests only certain times during the year.

Bell Fry and Pagoda at Mimurotiji Temple

6) Purification Station (Chozuya):  A wash basin type purification station is present, usually very close to the temple Main Gate.  The purification process is very similar to the one at a Shrine.

7) Sutra Hall:  The Sutra Halls are very interesting aspect of Temples.  In addition to a typical Pagoda housing the Sutras, a separate Hall may be present where Sutras are kept are used as a Sutra copying place.  These halls are usually hexagonal in structure.  Sometimes there is a revolving hexagonal box, where Sutras are kept.  It is believed that if you rotate this hexagonal box three times, it is equal to you have read all the Sutras inside the box itself.

Purification Station
Revolving Sutra Box

8) Temple Garden:  Most temples have beautiful gardens associated with them.  I have noticed that this garden concept is usually limited to the Kansai Region temples but other Temples, specially the ones in Kamakura have these Gardens too.  Some of the temples have beautiful and elaborate Gardens.  The Garden architecture of a Temple usually reflects the sect it belongs to and the era of the Japanese History in which it is built in.  Please visit my section on Temple Gardens for more interesting information about Temple Gardens.

9) Mausoleum and a Graveyard:  Usually at the back of the Temple there is a Mausoleum and a Graveyard, where the followers of a Temple, Sect or people belonging to that locality are buried.  Some temples have the founder of the temple/sect, ruling class members or various high priest's Mausoleums also in the back and are usually called "Okunoin" in Japanese.  Visitors to the temple also go to the back of the temple and pay respects to their departed ancestors.

After being introduced to Buddhism in the sixth century AD and until the present day the Japanese Buddhism had gone through many changes; many sects were created, many wars were fought and many generations of followers were created. 

One of the interesting aspect of this whole process is the history of Syncretism of the indigenous religion of Japan - The Shintoism and the foreign religion of Japan - The Buddhism.  In my concluding thoughts I want discuss about this aspect of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japanese History.


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