Heavenward Steps

By Gies, Jacques | UNESCO Courier, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Heavenward Steps


Gies, Jacques, UNESCO Courier


Heavenward steps

For most people, the architecture of Buddhism in the Far East is synonymous with its most typical feature, the pagoda, a lofty tiered structure with a projecting curved roof at each level. In popular imagery pagodas appear as ubiquitous features of the town and country landscape, but they are most typically shown in remote mountain sites which seem particularly appropriate to the silent inner quest, the meditation and renunciation which are characteristic of Buddhist practice.

In China, Korea and Japan the pagoda dominates a cluster of buildings which stand inside an enclosure whose wide gates give it the appearance of a walled city. This complex of buildings consists of temples and a monastery, for Buddhist temples are usually shared by monks who live there permanently and members of the lay community, in contrast to the Christian West where there is a distinction between cathedrals and churches which are built in the midst of the community and monasteries which are secluded from it.

The temple-monastery complex is the product of a long period of development. In early Buddhism, the religious ideal was pursued exclusively by communities of monks. And although it was in India, the cradle of Buddhism, that monks and laymen first began to share the hospitality of sacred monastic precincts, the temple-monastery would find its most complete expression in the most distant corners of the Buddhist world, especially in the imperial foundations of the Tang dynasty in China during the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

The first Buddhist monument was the burial mound housing the relics of the spiritual master, Gautama Buddha (the "Enlightened One") who lived in the fifth century BC in northern India. A cosmic symbol, this tumulus or stupa was a hemispherical mound surmounted by a mast and surrounded by a circular balustrade with a gateway at each of the four cardinal points. Crowning the central axis were a number of discs corresponding to the celestial domains of other worlds. Later stupas were conical or shaped like a four-sided pyramid. Later still tower-like stupas were built in China, and from them the pagoda eventually developed.

The first Buddhist communities had neither meditation halls nor fixed abode. The monks lived as wandering preachers who renounced worldly possessions and begged for their food like the Master and the traditional holy men of India.

The first Buddhist places of communal devotion date from the second and first centuries BC when monks in western India began to convert caves for this purpose, probably because it was their practice to use caves as places for meditation when travel was impossible during the rainy season.

This type of semi-natural "architecture" was so influential that cave-sanctuaries continued to be used in the Buddhist world as well as free-standing temples, especially in central Asia and China. In some cases, as at Dunhuang in China's Gansu province, a wooden facade was placed in front of the entrance to the caves or the rock was carved in imitation of a wooden construction.

In Buddhist religious architecture there were thus two types of building, the meditation hall, which was a development of the monk's cell, and the stupa or reliquary monument. At first these two types were distinct, but when the temples at Karli and Bhaja in western India were built some three or four centuries after the death of the Buddha, they merged into a single edifice.

Influences on sacred architecture

Buddhism is rooted in history through the person of its founder and this is the core of its doctrine. The life and work of the sage Gautama were at first the sole object of devotion and the way shown by him was the spiritual path to be trodden. It is fitting therefore that the first Buddhist monument should have been the stupa, a burial mound and shrine. Better than any other symbol, it represents his passage through history. …

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