A Primer on Chinese Pagodas: The Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔

[Click here for the first post on pagodas]

Architecturally, East Asian pagodas are far more diverse than one might assume. Because of this diversity, Chinese art historians have developed several typologies to sort the varied pagoda structures. One categorization, based on architectural style, includes the following six types [depicted left to right below]:

  • Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda 覆缽式塔
  • Multistory Pavilion Style Pagoda 樓閣式塔
  • Tiered Eave Style Pagoda 簷式塔
  • Single Story Style Pagoda 單層式塔 [=亭閣式塔?]
  • Tibetan Style Pagoda 藏式塔
  • Vajra Throne Style Pagoda 金剛寶座式塔[1]
p5-04.jpg

Illustrations of the Six-fold typology of Chinese pagodas (from FGS Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts)

Of these, the first is the classical Indian stūpa, whose round body appears as if a begging bowl has been overturned. The next two have the iconic pagoda profile of a multistory tower accentuated by jutting eaves. The distinction is that the latter is not a true multistory structure because it cannot be ascended via an internal stairway. The fourth type consists of just a single story, while the fifth type is a later evolution of the Indic style, with a elevated and smaller circumference of the dome element. The last type, the Vajra Throne Style Pagoda, is a stylized version of the Mahābodhi Temple constructed on the site of Buddha’s enlightenment (i.e the Vajra seat or throne) in Bodh Gāya, India. This post will focus on this last type of pagoda which is arguably the most distinctive of the six types noted above, being comprised of five spires atop a square foundation.

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Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

The Mahābodhi Temple in India was likely constructed in the late sixth or early seventh century. This dating is suggested based on the reports of two Chinese pilgrims who visited the site. Faxian 法顯 (337-c. 422), who visited Bodh Gāya in the early fifth century, made no mention of the large structure, while Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664), who travelled in the middle of the seventh century, comments on the precise measurements of the temple he found which coincides with the temple that remains there today.[2] An early Chinese representation of the Mahābodhi Temple is found in the murals of the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang 敦煌 in western China.[3] Eventually, several Mahābodhi Temple-inspired buildings were constructed in China, mostly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).[4] The most important, completed in 1473, was built at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing.

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Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 at Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺 in Beijing

This last site is also called the Temple of the Five Pagodas 五塔寺 due to the appearance of the Mahābodhi Temple-inspired building which incorporates five pagodas into its architecture. The Chinese pagoda is named the Vajra Throne Pagoda 金剛寶座塔 after the traditional site where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gāya, called the vajrāsana (Vajra Throne). Construction of the pagoda at Zhenjue Temple began during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle (r.1402-24) when a Buddhist monk named *Paṇḍita [?] 班迪達 from the “Western Regions” donated five Buddhist statues which the emperor instructed were to be housed in a special structure. He ordered that a pagoda be built that matched the architectural plans of the building found at the site of the vajrāsana. A horizontal plaque above the main entrance still reads “Imperially Constructed Vajra Throne Pagoda” 敕建金剛寶座塔. The pagoda was renovated during the Qing Dynasty, but is believed to retain some of the original structural elements. The square base of the Vajra Throne Pagoda is approximately 19 meters by 16 meters, and is about 8 meters high. This functions as a pedestal for five pagoda structures, each for one of the donated statues, of which the tallest central pagoda adds another 10 meters to the total height. These individual pagodas are each of the square, multi-eaved type. In addition a round terrace is placed in the center front, covering the top of a stairway that grants access to the top of the structure.

The sides of the main structure are ornately decorated with Buddhist images and symbols. Most of the space is covered by five horizontal registers which depict various  buddhas.

 

 

* This post was written as an addendum to the lecture I gave on Sacred Buddhist Architecture at the 2018 Woodenfish.

Notes

[1] This is based on the Encyclopedia of Buddhist Arts published by Foguang Shan, found here. Other typologies may include the Road Spanning Style Pagoda 過街式塔, Sutra Pillar Style Pagoda 經幢式塔, and Flower Pagoda 華塔, among others. Some consider the Tibetan Style Pagoda a subtype of the Overturned Bowl Style Pagoda. Moreover, it seems the Pavillion Style Pagoda 亭閣式塔 is another name for the Single Story Style Pagoda, though I need to revisit this.

[2] Faxian arrived in Bodh Gāya in 409 and noted that a stūpa was found there, presumably an early structure built on the site. Xuanzang arrived in 637 and his descriptions and measurements match the building that remains today. See the comments in Cunningham 1892: 17-8.

[3] Found on the western wall of Cave 428.

[4] These include the pagodas of Biyun Temple 碧雲寺 in Beijing (completed in 1747), Xihuang Temple 西黃寺 in Beijing, Miaozhan Temple 妙湛寺 in Yunnan (built in 1458), Cideng Temple 慈燈寺 in Inner Mongolia (completed in 1732), and Zhenjue Temple discussed here. To this list can be added the Miaogao Pagoda 妙高塔 on Mt. Yuquan 玉泉山 in Beijing. It is worth noting that the famed Chinese architect Liang Sicheng, considered the Flower Pagoda to be a architectural precusor to the Vajra Throne Pagoda.

References
  • Abe, Stanley K. 2002. Ordinary Images. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Pres. [see esp. pp. 103-06, 123-66]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part I: The Longxingsi Sutra Case,” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-i-the-longxingsi-sutra-case/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part II: The Huayansi Sutra Cabinets” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-ii-the-huayansi-sutra-cabinets/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures, Models, Simulacra” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-models-simulacra/]
  • Fu, Xinian; Guo, Daiheng; Liu Xujie; Pan, Guxi; Qiao, Yun, Sun, Dazhang & Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2002. Chinese Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Kim, Youn-mi. 2017. “Virtual Pilgrimage and Virtual Geography: Power of Liao Miniature Pagodas (907–1125),” Religions, Vol. 8., pp. 1-29.
  • Le, Huu Phuoc. 2010. Buddhist Architecture. Lakeville, MN: Grafikol.
  • Ledderose, Lothar. 1980. “Chinese Prototypes of the Pagoda,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, pp. 238-45
  • Liang Ssu-ch’eng [Sicheng]. 1984. Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History, ed. Wilma Fairbank. Cambridge: MIT Press. [see esp. p. 124]
  • Lin, Wei-cheng. 2016. “Performing Center in a Vertical Rise: Multilevel Pagodas in China’s Medieval Period,” ARS Orientalis, Vol. 46, pp. 100-34.
  • Neelis, Jason. 2011. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden: Brill.
  • Seckel, Dietrich. 1980. “Stupa Elements Surviving in Eastern Asian Pagodas,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 1994. “Liao: An Architectural Tradition in the Making,” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 54, No. 1/2, pp. 5-39.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 1997. Liao Architecture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Pres.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2011. “The Sixth Century in East Asian Architecture,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 41, pp.  27-71.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2014. Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200-600. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amituofo: A Practical Guide to Pure Land Buddhism for Travelers, Students, and Dharma Bums

Every so often we stumble across a piece of art that lingers in our mind because it so gracefully solves an issue of visual representation, whether that be capturing an elusive emotion, an understated feeling, or in the case above, the sight of sound. The thirteenth century image of Kūya 空也 (903-972), an itinerant Japanese Buddhist priest, resolves this issue elegantly by portraying a string of six miniature buddhas emerging from his mouth. Kūya is shown in the act of devotional chanting, or more specifically, singing the praise of Amitābha Buddha [Fig. 1]. This buddha, different from our historical Buddha, resides in another world, in a paradise known throughout East Asia as the Pure Land (jingtu 淨土 in Chinese), where Amitābha awaits his devoted faithful to arrive through rebirth. One of the main spiritual mechanisms to ensure one’s rebirth in the paradise is the recitation of Amitābha’s name, precisely the act the Buddhist priest Kūya is performing.

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Fig. 1. Amitābha Buddha, China, 13th century [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The trust in Amitābha and his paradise, as well as the various regimens of practice surrounding rebirth there, constitute a style of Buddhism simply referred to as Pure Land Buddhism. For those unfamiliar with the actual practice of Buddhism in East Asia, one might be surprised to hear that Pure Land practices are among the most widespread and popular; far more Buddhists show devotion to Amitābha, for example, then sit in regular meditation (“Zen”) practice. The reasons for the general lack of understanding of East Asian Buddhist practices has its roots in the types of Buddhism with which the West has preferred to engage, namely South Asian Theravāda, (Japanese) Zen, and Tibetan forms being the most common. To these we may also add the recent surge in Thai and Burmese derived “mindfulness” meditation practices. Moreover, we may also point to the apparent overlap of Pure Land ideas with Christian ideas of Heaven as another reason Westerners seeking “alternative spiritual paths” have shown less interest in Pure Land practices (or even dismissing it as not “real” Buddhism). The beliefs and practices of Pure Land Buddhism have a long and rather interesting history that developed directly out of the earliest Buddhist traditions. Even a cursory understanding of this history will better situate anyone who visits a contemporary Buddhist monastery in East Asia or aspires to better understand Buddhist practice around the world.

If we take the current scholarly estimate of when the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, passed away at around the year 400 BCE, the belief in Amitābha developed a full four to five hundred years after his death. With the beginning of a new movement in Indian Buddhism, termed the Mahāyāna (“Greater Vehicle”), around the first century CE (the precise dating remains elusive to scholars), the pantheon of buddhas expanded to include figures that resided in different worlds. Amitābha was regarded as the buddha who resided in the West, presiding over an ideal world with other beings, called bodhisattvas, who would assist anyone who achieved rebirth there. Of course, if we were to take an insider perspective, the historicity of Amitābha is irrelevant, as he has long been presiding over his Pure Land, named Sukhāvatī [Fig. 2], and will continue to do indefinitely into the future, as one of his many attributes is that he has an infinite lifespan, thus forever granting  admittance into his paradise.

Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha Sculpture

Fig. 2. The earliest surviving depiction of Amitābha in Sukhāvati, China, late 6th century [Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery]

If we return to a historical lens, the popularity of such a salvific figure should not be taken as a fore-gone conclusion. While Amitābha undoubtedly developed within an Indic cultural sphere, there is little evidence that he was widely celebrated there. For example, scholars have only identified two Indian inscriptions prior to the seventh century bearing Amitābha’s name, and moreover, in the records of Chinese pilgrims who made their way to India in the same period, none make mention of worship to this figure. This is a radical departure from contemporary Chinese forms of Buddhism, where Pure Land practice had developed into a mainstream Buddhist activity by the seventh century. As history repeatedly tells us, fame is often fickle.

Devotion to Amitābha first entered into Chinese consciousness through translations of Indic Buddhist texts starting in the second century. Arguably, however, the most important touchstone of early Chinese Pure Land activity took place in 402. That year, the Chinese monk Huiyuan 慧遠 (334-416), along with over one hundred devoted followers, made a solemn vow to be reborn in Sukhāvati. Amid a ritual that employed burning incense and scattering flowers in front of a statue of Amitābha, this cohort made a covenant to help one another attain rebirth in the Pure Land, no matter how many lifetimes it would take for all to achieve such a goal. This lead to the foundation of the White Lotus Society 白蓮社, a group of monastics and laypeople all bound and aligned for this cause. For this reason, later East Asian Buddhists – at least ones interested in such historical affairs – would point to Huiyuan as the founder of the so-called Pure Land School. In reality, there would be no firm filiation between Huiyuan and later advocates of practices leading to rebirth in Sukhāvati, other than the widespread recognition, not apparently realized in India, that devotion to Amitābha Buddha was an available path to the release from worldly suffering.

But what religious practices did this devotion to Amitābha consist? The main component as developed by Chinese Buddhists in the medieval period was quite simple. It involved focusing one’s mind on Amitābha, borrowing a similar mindfulness practice of continuously calling to mind the Buddha, called buddhānusmṛti (or in Chinese, nianfo 念佛). In practice, however, the Pure Land adaptation also involved verbally invoking the name of Amitābha in a six-character formula, Namo Amituofo 南無阿彌陀佛, meaning “Homage to Amitābha Buddha.” Looking back at the monk Kūya, we see six buddhas emerging from his mouth, one for each syllable of this devotional phrase. While later Buddhists would debate over the number of times this phrase needed to be recited, or the sincerity and faith with which it should be said, the principle was the same; by engaging in this practice one could be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. Many scholars argue the simplicity of this practice was one of the main factors belief in Amitābha spread so quickly throughout China and eventually throughout Korea, Japan, and Vietnam (and recent scholarship has included its prescence in Tibet as well).

Just because the practice may be seen as simple does not mean it was not taken seriously nor without utmost sincerity. The value of being reborn into Sukhāvati is countenanced in several of the scriptures extolling the virtues of Amitābha. More significantly, besides being a veritable paradise (for example, the temperature of bathing pools spontaneously changes according to each person’s desire), the Pure Land allows for the rapid attainment of enlightenment due to the direct teaching of Amitābha as well as numerous other mechanisms that expedite the process (my favorite has always been that birds do not chirp, but directly sing the Buddha’s teachings). Importantly, while rebirth in the Pure Land is the proximate goal for most practitioners, it is ultimately subsidiary to the final goal of enlightenment, of which Sukhāvati provides the most optimal environment.

DP211534.jpg

Fig. 3. Amitābha appearing to the faithful, Japan, 17th century [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Discussions evolved, which are still at the heart of Pure Land today, questioning the precise location of this paradise. Using a simplified typology of “there/then” and “here/now” we can examine the basic scope of this issue. For some, the Pure Land is a place that can only be attained in rebirth after bodily death, constituting the there/then model. This is perhaps the most evident in the belief that Amitābha will appear to the faithful on their deathbeds, of which serves as a particularly rich motif in Japanese Pure Land art [Fig. 3]. For others, by mindfully intoning Amitābha’s name one can “attune” to his enlightened state of mind, thus creating a Pure Land here and now from the perspective of the practitioner. This stance is also bolstered by a guided meditation practice where the Pure Land is slowly built up through a series of visualizations. Furthermore, based on ideas deriving from these views, the modern Chinese movement of Humanistic Buddhism 人間佛教 seeks to establish a Pure Land on earth through social engagement focused on helping the living, such as through disaster relief,  hospice care, or general charity work. The potential tension between these two models of there/then and here/now has rarely been a true point of contention, and many Pure Land practitioners will rather point to the complexity and depth of the tradition and its practices.

In time, important distinctions developed in the theoretical underpinnings of Pure Land practices in Japan and China, of which the Japanese monk Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1263) was highly influential, but the basic contours remained the same. Notably, however, the strict sectarianism of Japanese Buddhism that created a distinct Pure Land School never reflected the state of affairs in China where Pure Land practices remained a common vernacular for all strains of Buddhism, including the Chan (or Zen) lineages.

Ultimately, the telltale signs of Pure Land practice manifest themselves frequently in modern East Asian Buddhist temples. It is quite common, for example, in Chinese Buddhist temples for monastics and laypeople to greet, praise, or express gratitude to one another by saying Amituofo 阿彌陀佛, a shortened version of the devotional formula simply meaning “Amitābha Buddha.” This is likely a logical extension of a practice extending back over a thousand years when the Pure Land teacher, Yongming Yanshou 永明延壽 (904-975), advocated for reciting Amitābha’s name as often as possible. A more modern expression of this is found through the use of “chant boxes” which play Amitābha’s name on a continuous loop, reminding the faithful of the promise of the salvation found through the Pure Land. Moreover, depictions of Amitābha and his paradise are also very common, not only as statues on shrine altars, but also on devotional posters and other signage posted throughout the temple by devotees, setting the stage for the Pure Land to be realized in the present moment [Fig. 4].

These multisensory modes of interaction with the Pure Land are exemplified in the image of Kūya. Not only do we see images of Amitābha Buddha, but we are also reminded that by saying and hearing his name one engages in activities that have long been seen as a venerable and wildly popular form of Buddhism in East Asia. And as we can see in the detail of Kūya’s face, heart-felt devotion lingers as well.

 

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Fig. 4. “The Pure Land is Supreme Bliss” – Monastic ‘graffiti’ at Zhaoming Temple, Fuding, China, 2018 (during the Woodenfish Program).

*This is a draft of a post designed to provide travelers and students a practical history of Pure Land Buddhism, primarily it is intended for participants of the Woodenfish Program, but I hope it is useful to anyone who stumbles across it! Amituofo!

A Primer on Chinese Pagodas: The Four Pagodas of Zhengding 正定四塔

[Click here for the second post on pagodas]

The city of Zhengding 正定, in modern Hebei Province 河北省, was once the medieval home to several large Buddhist monastic compounds. Besides Longxing Temple 隆興寺, one of the longest surviving monasteries along the north-south axis in China[1], scarcely much of the ancient architecture remains of the other temples. Four multi-story pagodas at four different sites still survive, however, all within a few square miles of one another. Modern tourism posters for Zhengding show these iconic towers all aligned piercing the sky in digitally reworked photographs. While the “Four Pagodas of Zhengding” 正定四塔 are a boon for tourism, these four Buddhist structures also provide a good spectrum of pagoda styles, sizes, and construction materials. Using these pagodas as exemplars, I will briefly explore the evolution of the pagoda structure in China, arguably the best-known and most iconic architectural form in East Asia.

The pagoda (C. ta 塔) was a Chinese adaptation of an Indic architectural form known as the stūpa. Importantly, before the introduction of Buddhism into China in the first century, native Chinese architecture did not emphasize verticality. There were a few multistory structures, such as pavilions (ge 閣) and watchtowers (lou 樓), but the widespread use of timber frame structures built upon a post-and-lintel system made “horizontal sprawl” the dominant spatial feature.[2] It appears that the motivation to build higher was inspired by tall Gandhara-style stūpas, and although it is unknown how Chinese builders initially conceived of the foreign structure, they likely conferred with sketches and possibly small votive stūpa models in addition to verbal accounts from travelers.[3]

Given the technical and material challenges that laid before them, Chinese architects designed pagodas as hybrids, drawing from their knowledge of building multistory timber towers and using these structures to house relics, the main purpose of the Indian Buddhist stūpa. One of the most characteristic features of the East Asian pagoda is its profile, with its protruding series of  tiered eaves called miyan 密簷. In addition, its finial spire (S. yaṣṭi), often also functioning as a central pillar, decorated with umbrella shaped discs (S. chattra) is a noteworthy holdover from Indian models. It is worth noting that early Chinese pagodas were made of wood and consequently no early structures survive due to deterioration, fire, and temple destruction over the centuries.[4] Of the approximately 2000 surviving pagodas in China, the oldest is the masonry structure found at Songyue Temple 嵩岳寺, constructed in 523 during the Northern Wei 北魏. [5]

Sumeru Pagoda 須彌塔

The oldest surviving pagoda in Zhengding is found at Kaiyuan Temple 開元寺, which was razed almost entirely to the ground during the cultural revolution. The original monastery was constructed in 540, but only the pagoda and Bell Tower 鐘樓 remain. The pagoda is known as the Sumeru Pagoda 須彌塔, named after the cosmic mountain at the center of the Buddhist cosmos. The pagoda is a nine-story brick structure rising to a height of about 40 meters.[6] Built in 636, the structure has a square shape, mirroring the construction of Han watchtowers and older timber pagodas.[7] Even though it was renovated in 898, the Sumeru Pagoda still maintains distinctive Tang era (618-907) characteristics, with stepped registers, triangular eaves, and unadorned brick walls, creating an elegant, yet imposing architectural form. This Tang style of brick pagoda is also found in the ancient capital city of Chang’an 長安 (modern Xi’an 西安), where we find both the Great Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 and Small Wild Goose Pagoda 小雁塔.

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Sumeru Pagoda, typical Tang pagoda

Also known as the Brick Pagoda 磚塔, this structure is hallow, with no central pillar or staircase to ascend. On the outside there are two pot-bellied guardians (noted as lishi 力士 on site) at the base of each wall, designed to look as if they are bearing the weight of the building on their shoulders. Above the doorway is a horizontal inscribed tablet 匾額saying “Sumeru stands tall” 須彌峭立, highlighting the verticality of the structure and linking it with the height of Mt. Sumeru. In 2007 a secret above-ground “heavenly chamber” 天宮 was found during renovation, containing 4000 items dating from the Warring States (475-221 BCE) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

 

 

Chengling Pagoda 澄靈塔

A second pagoda is found at Linji Temple 臨濟寺, home to the renowned Chan master Linji 臨濟 (d. 866). Unlike the other compounds in Zhengding, this temple has been fully restored, in no doubt due to the fame of Linji in Japan as founder of one of the two major Zen schools. Of the other notable buildings (all constructed after 1986), there is a Dharma Milk Hall 法乳堂, housing images of Linji, Bodhidharma, and Huineng (there was a photograph of Xuyun 虛雲 also placed on the altar), as well as a Meditation Hall 禪堂, the mythic location where Linji inspired his students to enlightenment through his innovative shock techniques.[8]

 

 

According to tradition, a pagoda was first built in 867 to house the robes and bowl of Linji, along with half of his relics that remained after cremation (the other half was interred in a now destroyed pagoda erected in Daming 大名). The emperor named it Chengling (“pure spirit”) Pagoda 澄靈塔, along with conferring the posthumous name of Huizhao 惠照 to Linji. The current pagoda, however, was constructed in 1185, and bears the distinctive hallmarks of a later style of construction. It is a nine-story brick structure of around 30 meters in height. Most notably, however, it is octagonal, following a design that became popular in the tenth century under the influence of the Liao 遼 (907-1125). A semi-nomadic people from the north with no native architectural expertise, the Liao rulers employed Chinese craftsmen to build the eight-sided pagodas all over northern China, with the style eventually spilling over into the south.[9]

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Chengling Pagoda, housing Linji’s bowl and robe

The Chengling Pagoda is also known as the Dark Colored Pagoda 青塔 due to the dark grey bricks used for construction. As was common at the time, the masonry mimicked timber pagodas, complete with facsimile lintels and posts, complex bracketing systems (dougong 斗拱), tiled eaves, and latticework windows. The first story is also made to appear as if springing forth from a lotus flower, with petals circling its circumference, and comprises a part of what architectural historians call a Sumeru Throne 須彌座. All of these details give the pagoda a delicate and ornate feeling as it spires into the air. A very similar architectural plan was used to construct the memorial pagoda for Zhaozhou 趙州 (778-897, J. Jōshu), another famed Chan practitioner, in 1330.

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Bricks mimicking the look of timber structures

Lingxiao Pagoda 凌霄塔

The third pagoda is found in the remains of Tianning Temple 天寧寺. The original pagoda was built in the late eighth century, but it was replaced in 1045 during the Song (960-1279). It is a nine-story structure rising to around 42 meters high. Interestingly, its construction is composite, being made of bricks up to the fourth story and wood for the remaining five stories, making it one out of two surviving pagodas built in this fashion, with the other being the Wanshou Timber Pagoda 萬壽木塔 in Gansu Province 甘肅省. Starting from the fourth story, a central pillar (xinzhu 心柱) is used to support the upper structure. The use of a central pillar was once an important feature of older pagodas, but its use started to subside throughout the Song. Originally called the Huiguang Pagoda 慧光塔 (“Wisdom Light Pagoda”), it is now referred to as the Lingxiao Pagoda 凌霄塔 (“Reaching the Firmament Pagoda”), although locally it is called the Timber Pagoda 木塔, due to the ample use of wood for construction.

 

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Lingxiao Pagoda, a hybrid of bricks and timber

As the building ascends, the height and circumference of each story decreases, adding to the sense of verticality as the top story appears to vanish into the heavens. The pagoda was frequently renovated over the centuries and significant damage occurred during a 1966 earthquake. In 1982 an underground chamber 地宮 was discovered, revealing some inscriptions firmly dating the original pagoda to the Tang (618-907).

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Ascending into the heavens

Hua Pagoda 華塔

The final pagoda is located on the grounds of the old Guanghui Temple 廣惠寺, originally constructed during the Tang. There are stories of the famed emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-96) visiting the temple to compose poetry, but noting now remains outside of the odd-looking pagoda, called the Hua Pagoda 華塔 (“Flower Pagoda”). The unconventional pagoda is four stories with a height of about 35 meters.[10] The first floor has a series of four small pavilions at each corner of the building each topped with an egg-shaped finial, giving the pagoda an overall octagonal shape (This is more easily detected by closely examining the second story). The top of the pagoda displays a richly decorated conical spire, approximating the shape of a lotus bud, thus providing the name for this structure. Flower pagodas are actually a class of pagoda that started appearing in the Northern Song (960-1127), and of the 15 remaining specimens, the one in Zhengding is considered among the most ornate and grandiose.[11] Its base is made of brick in a style that attempts to copy timber structures, as we saw with the Chengling Pagoda, which is possibly part of later renovation attempts.

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Flower Pagoda, an uncommon pagoda style

Replacing the tiered eaves, the conical spire, constituting approximately one-third of its total height, is what makes this pagoda so curious. It is adorned with an array of pot-bellied guardians, heavenly kings, elephants, lions, bodhisattvas, and buddhas. Moreover, the interior of the pagoda houses Buddhist statues that date from the Tang. Because of this, the Flower Pagoda was classified in the first round of Major Historical and Cultural Sites Protected at the National Level 全国重点文物保护单位 in 1961.

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Detail of the masonry work

Overall, the Four Pagodas of Zhengding offer interesting insight into the development of the pagoda architectural form during the late medieval period. Even though brick soon became the construction material of choice, timber was used to top-off the Lingxiao Pagoda or it was mimicked through careful craftsmanship, as with the Chengling Pagoda and Hua Pagoda. Furthermore, while native four-sided timber structures influenced the shape of earlier pagodas, as with the Sumeru Pagoda, the use of octagonal forms became more widespread with the use of brick structures in the Song and Liao.

* This post was written as a personal addendum to the lecture I gave on Sacred Buddhist Architecture at the 2018 Woodenfish, and as a means to make sense of all that I saw on my unexpected trip to Zhengding. Thanks for the adventure, Guttorm!

Notes

[1] Fu et. al. 2002: p. 166-7. While Longxing Temple does not have a pagoda, the central focus of the monastery is its large Dabei Pavilion 大悲閣  placed on the main axis behind the main shrine hall at the rear of the compound. Constructed in 971, it houses a bronze Thousand Arm Guanyin statue, about 24 meters in height. Ibid. There is evidence suggesting that one of the 112 wooden pagodas built by Emperor Wen of the Sui 隋文帝 (r. 581-604) commemorating the miraculous discovery of Buddhist relics was constructed at Longxing Temple. Furthermore, the depiction of Zhenzhou 鎮州 (modern Zhengding) on the Map of Mt. Wutai 五台山圖 and its environs found in Cave 61  of Dunhuang 敦煌 (constructed c. 950CE) shows a three-story pagoda, which some understand to be the one ordered built by imperial edict, see here. For clear depictions of the relevant portions of the map of Mt. Wutai, see here.

[2] Lin 2016: 101, 104.

[3] Drawing stūpas appears to have been a common devotional practice for Buddhists travelling to China, as is evidence by numerous examples of stūpa graffiti on rock walls. See Neelis 2001: esp. 281 & 283 for images.

[4] The oldest dated timber and brick pagoda in China is the octagonal Śākya Pagoda built in 1056, Le 2010: 185. Older wooden pagodas exist in Japan, including the famous Gojū-no-tō 五重塔 at Hōryū-ji 法隆寺.

[5] Le 2010: 187-8.

[6] The signage at the site lists its height at 42.5 meters, but I’ve seen heights between 39.5 and 47 meters listed elsewhere.

[7] Historians can examine wooden pagoda structures in the murals at Dunhuang, such as Cave 61 noted above, and in relief carvings at Yungang Grottoes 雲岡石窟, such as in Cave 39.

[8] It is well known the legend of Linji was developed well after he died, most notably contained in the Record of Linji 臨濟錄, compiled in 1120. See, inter alia., here.

[9] For more on Liao architecture, see Steinhardt 1994 and Kim 2017.

[10] The plaque on site lists its height at 33.35 meters, but other sources claim its height to be over 40 meters.

[11] For more about Flower Pagodas, see here.

References
  • Abe, Stanley K. 2002. Ordinary Images. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Pres. [see esp. pp. 103-06, 123-66]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part I: The Longxingsi Sutra Case,” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-i-the-longxingsi-sutra-case/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures as Sacred Repositories, Part II: The Huayansi Sutra Cabinets” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-as-sacred-repositories-part-ii-the-huayansi-sutra-cabinets/]
  • Di Luo. 2017. “A Grain of Sand: Miniatures, Models, Simulacra” [https://chinesearchitecture.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/a-grain-of-sand-miniatures-models-simulacra/]
  • Fu, Xinian; Guo, Daiheng; Liu Xujie; Pan, Guxi; Qiao, Yun, Sun, Dazhang & Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2002. Chinese Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Kim, Youn-mi. 2017. “Virtual Pilgrimage and Virtual Geography: Power of Liao Miniature Pagodas (907–1125),” Religions, Vol. 8., pp. 1-29.
  • Le, Huu Phuoc. 2010. Buddhist Architecture. Lakeville, MN: Grafikol.
  • Ledderose, Lothar. 1980. “Chinese Prototypes of the Pagoda,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, pp. 238-45
  • Liang Ssu-ch’eng [Sicheng]. 1984. Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History, ed. Wilma Fairbank. Cambridge: MIT Press. [see esp. p. 124]
  • Lin, Wei-cheng. 2016. “Performing Center in a Vertical Rise: Multilevel Pagodas in China’s Medieval Period,” ARS Orientalis, Vol. 46, pp. 100-34.
  • Neelis, Jason. 2011. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden: Brill.
  • Seckel, Dietrich. 1980. “Stupa Elements Surviving in Eastern Asian Pagodas,” in The Stupa, Its Religious, Historical, and Architectural Significance, ed. Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-ave Lallement. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 1994. “Liao: An Architectural Tradition in the Making,” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 54, No. 1/2, pp. 5-39.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 1997. Liao Architecture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Pres.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2011. “The Sixth Century in East Asian Architecture,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 41, pp.  27-71.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy S. 2014. Chinese Architecture in an Age of Turmoil, 200-600. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

 

Writing Process

Last week, Prof. James Benn came to UCSB to discuss his new work on the relationship between Chinese Buddhism and tea. While here, he also offered a “masterclass” on writing and research practices for graduate students, which turned out to be exceptional.

While graduate students often take research and methodology courses (there are also several of archives of classes like this online), this class was particularly insightful because we discussed an all-too-often overlooked aspect of writing: paying close attention to workflow and the tools we use in the writing/research process.

My typical writing workflow proceeds as follows: Pile open books on desk, floor, or any other open space, open pertinent pdf files on my laptop and start typing on MS Word. I use a laptop computer with external monitor, and typically place my pdfs and online resources on the external monitor while I type on my laptop screen. (At this point I cannot imagine working with only one screen…)

I use MS Word, but Prof. Benn highly recommended using Scrivener, a tool developed to foster more open-ended process-friendly writing. As I see it, this helps a writer move away from linear thinking which can cripple the generative writing process. Combined with Evernote, specialized note taking software, I am starting to rethink how I approach my process of writing. Currently, I save everything in numerous MS Word files, but these programs seem to streamline the entire process. At the very least I may not need to have dozens of Word file windows open at the same time; all of the information can be sorted by tabs in Scrivener or Evernote. I hope to experiment with these programs and see if it motivates me to write more frequently…