A Brief Introduction to Chinese Buddhist Temples

A classic Chinese Buddhist temple is typically a building complex consisted of several courtyards as shown in the illustration below.

Entrance

The front gate of Jin'an Buddhist Temple

The front gate of Jin’an Temple (静安寺) – a Buddhist temple located in Shanghai CBD and initially built in the 3rd century, more than a thousand years before Shanghai became a city.

The first is the entrance building, known as Mountain Gate (山门), with a square in front and three gates that represent the doors to freedom from three constraints.

The three constraints are generated by our obsessions with a temporary self-identity, with a fixed perspective and with the illusive world manifested from our own thought.

Bell Tower & Drum Tower

Bell and drum structures

Behind the entrance, there are two terrace structures, with the one on the left to accommodate a bell and the one on the right to house a drum.

In the dawn, the monks on duty strike the bell then the drum; and in the twilight, the order is reversed.

Hall of Celestial Guardians

In the next courtyard is the Hall of Celestial Kings (天王殿), which is a place paying tribute to some powerful and distinguished figures in the universe, including the current king of six Desire Heavens immediately above the terestial world. These celestial VIPs have a close affiliation to Buddhist enlightenment programs run on earth in the human domain.

Hall of Buddha & Bodhisattvas

The building in the next courtyard is the centrepiece of the temple: The Great Treasure Hall (大雄宝殿).

The hall can have up to ten columns in its width to make 9 sections of space, and six columns deep to make 5 spatial sections, as 9 and 5 are the most prestigious numbers in the universe according to Daoist concept, which is the theoretical foundation of traditional Chinese science and technology, including city planning, building design and construction engineering.

The statues in this hall are the most prominent Buddhist characters – Sakyamuni is normally sitting cross legged on a tolus in the middle. Beside him, one is his teacher and another is his successor Maitreya who is scheduled to be incarnated into this world as next Buddha.

At least four Bodhisattvas, who are said to be most relevant to human world on earth, are also presented in the hall, namely Guanyn (Avalokitesvara) for compassion, Wenshu (Manjusri) for wisdom, Puxian (Samantabhadra) for cultivation endeavour, and Dizang (Kṣitigarbha) for universal salvation.

There are four Buddhist mountains in China devoting to the four Bodhisattvas: Island Putuo (普陀山) near Shanghai for Guanyin, Mt Wutai (五台山) in Shanxi for Wenshu, Mt Emei (峨眉山) in Sichuan for Puxian and Mt Jiuhua (九华山) in Anhui for Dizang. Allegedly, these mountains are frequented by the associated bodhisattvas from time to time.

However, one thing is certain, you will never know they are bodhisattvas when you encounter them, even if they are not directly transformed into human appearance by qi but born by a woman, as it is how things work in the universe that is not a dark forest but operates according to certain rules and orders. Therefore anybody who claims to be the reincarnation or earthly embodiment of such figures is no other but a fraud con artist.

House of Arhats

Arhats are said to be the ones who have attained nirvana, which means they have freed from their obsession with illusions. However, they are yet to be the master of their world as they insist to break away from all impressions and keep disengaged with any manifestation.
The Houses of Arhats (罗汉堂) are normally located at the sideways of the courtyard in a big temple and often the places where you can view the best ancient Chinese sculptures.

Sutra Room

A Sutra Room (经堂) in Chinese Buddhist temple is a place where fulltime cultivators (monks) and part time followers study sutra and discuss their cultivation endeavours.

Daoism, Confuciusm and Han-tradition Buddhism are the three foundations of Chinese civilisation.Confuciusm is a social science focusing on the relationships between individuals, between individual and his family, his community and the entire humanity, Daoism is a natural science exploring the causes, the driving forces, the structures, the rules and the full picture of the universe, while genuine Buddhism is the art of mind and consciousness, helping us go beyond the universe to arrive in the True Reality then return to craft the world as author.

Like Confuciusm and Daoism, Chinese Buddhism (Han Buddhism) is not based on blind faith and requires no obsolete submission. Quite the contrary, it urges you to investigate who you are, where you came from and how you are going to end up beyond this life.

You can’t find these answers through endless prostrations in front of a temple, mindless kowtows before a statue and countless turning of a praying wheel. You’ll need to study Buddhist classics, join group discussions, contemplate through medication and practice in real life situations.

Lecture Room

Lecture Hall (法堂) is where veteran cultivators (senior monks) explain their understanding of the Buddhist classics, offer instruction on meditation techniques and share their personal experience and progress in cultivation.

The paths, methods and techniques to achieving nirvana and beyond are clearly explained in details in the time-honoured Buddhist classics, namely Perfect Enlightenment (https://goo.gl/vmSSDZ), Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice and Surangama Sutra.

Library

Library in a Chinese Buddhist temple is a place where fulltime and partime cultivators can gain access to original Buddhist classics.

Life-reseasing Pond

Most Chinese Buddhist temple has a garden featuring a pond for people to set free fish, turtles and other freshwater creatures that they purchased from market, practicing the cultivators compassion for life and determination to let go of their possessions.

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