The Symbolism of Chinese Chan Temple Iconography and Architecture Understanding through Place Understanding through Metaphor
The legendary origin of Zen Buddhism is ascribed to a talk given by Shakyamuni Buddha at Vulture’s Peak in Ancient India. The Buddha reportedly said… “I have the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the sublime mind of nirvana, whose true sign is signlessness, the sublime dharma gate, which without words or phrases, is transmitted outside of the [standard] teachings, and which I bestow upon Mahakasyapa.” 吾有正法眼藏，涅槃妙心，實相無相，微妙法門，不立文字，教外別傳，付囑摩訶迦葉
The key phrase used by the Buddha is “signlessness.” This phrase is translated as follows into Chinese: 無相 This term is often incorrectly translated as “formless.” However, this leads to a serious misunderstanding of the Zen tradition. “Formlessness” denotes a lack of physicality and thus has metaphysical overtones. Signlessness is presented by the Buddha with a flower, something certainly not “formless.”
The idea of “signlessness” is an important foundational concept of Zen. It can be seen most graphically in Zen art. In the following slides I first show a traditional, non-Zen depiction of Buddha displaying a mudra. Then I show paintings by ancient Zen artists, where the Buddha is shown descending the mountain to teach after his enlightenment. In the Zen art the Buddha’s robe covers his hands. This is a traditional way of expressing the fact that in Zen the Buddha is not shown displaying a mudra (sign with the hands).
“Signless” representations of the Buddha by Zen artists. Note the covered hands. By Old Man Ke By Gukei (Jap.) By Liang Kai
Temples still exist at the places where early Zen ancestors lived and taught. This is “Empty Appearance” Temple where Bodhidharma may have taught and was buried. 2002年
One of the three steles reportedly composed by Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, commemorating Bodhidharma. Location-2nd Chan Ancestor’s burial temple. 梁武帝撰的石碑
Third Ancestor’s Temple 三祖寺又称乾元禅寺、山谷寺。位于安徽天柱山中。传为南朝宝志禅师所创建。后禅宗三祖僧璨游此. The Third Ancestor is an obscure figure whose identity and role in Zen is hotly debated by some scholars.
四祖寺位于湖北黄梅县城西北十五公里之破额山（西山）上. Fourth Ancestor’s Temple Still existing near ancient Huangmei, this temple played a pivotal role in the development and success of Bodhidharma’s Zen.
五祖山位于湖北黄梅县东北/Fifth Ancestor’s Temple at Huangmei. At this temple, Zen split into factions that became known as the “Northern” and “Southern” schools of Zen.
南华古寺, 寺中至今保有六祖之肉身像 Nanhua Temple, Dharma seat of the Sixth Ancestor. His “True Body” Hall.
Non-Zen Buddhist iconography is especially varied and ornate. Here are the Yungang Grottos, created during the Northern Wei Dynasty around 480 CE, They display traditional sutra stories and the life of the Buddha. 云冈石窟 传统佛教经文主题. 南壁窟门两侧雕维摩、文殊，东壁后下部的佛本生故事浮雕保存较完整.
These traditional depictions show stories from sutras, from the Jataka tales, and other old stories that came with Buddhism from South Asia.
Tang Dynasty 唐/宋 法堂 Dining/ Kitchen 库房 In contrast, Zen temples in China were not usually adorned with stories from sutras or Jataka tales. Monk’s Hall 僧堂 大雄宝殿 Seven Halls of the Monastery Bath Toilet 卫生间 浴堂 天王殿 “伽蓝七堂制” 山门殿 Mountain Gates “Three Gates” 三门
Tang Dynasty 唐/宋 Entering from the front, tirst, a visitor would encounter the “Three Gates.” 法堂 Dining/ Kitchen 库房 Monk’s Hall 僧堂 大雄宝殿 Seven Halls of the Monastery Bath Toilet 卫生间 天王殿 浴堂 “伽蓝七堂制” 山门殿 Mountain Gates “Three Gates” 三门
The word “three” sounds like the word for “mountain” in Chinese. Therefore, the “three gates” were also synonymous with the term “Mountain Gate.” The three gates of traditional temples were named for key concepts of Chinese Zen. They were as follows…
Mountain (Three) Gates 三门 Gate of Non-Action (Attaining the Way) 无作/无为门 Gate of Signlessness (the Nature of Mind) 无相门 Gate of Emptiness (The Nature of Things) 空门
The “Gate of Emptiness” is the first gate to pass. It signifies the understanding that things have no inherent nature and arise due to cause and effect. The “Gate of Signlessness” is the second gate. It signifies the signless nature of mind as taught by Buddha at Vulture Peak. The “Gate of Non-Action” is the third gate. It signifies the highest path of the home-leaver, Attaining the Way by someone who has left the polluted world. 3 无作/无为门 2 无相门 1 空门
After the gates, visitors may cross the “Liberate Life Pond” where monks release fish and turtles saved from the market.
法堂 大雄宝殿 天王殿 Visitors then enter the first “Heavenly Kings” hall.
好象三个大殿符合解深密经之“三性”. 乃印度唯识学派之重要主张，中国法相宗之根本教义。谓一切存在之本性与状态（性相） There is an correspondence between the three main Zen temple halls and the three aspects of the nature of mind as set forth in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra (Sutra on Unraveling the Mystery of Thought). “Three Natures,” (Sanskrit Trisvabhava) is expounded in part six of the Samdhinirmocana-sutra and in other Yogacara sutras/shastras Dharma Hall 法堂 Parinispanna 圆成实性 Buddha Hall 大雄宝殿 Paratantra 依他起性 Heavenly Kings Hall Parikalpita 遍计所执性
In the “Heavenly Kings” hall there are several deities who represent the first of the “three natures” of thought. The “Buddha Light” encyclopedia defines the Heavenly Kings Hall as follows…
Heavenly Kings Hall 天王殿 “The hall is lined by four heavenly kings which represent fundamental Buddhist practice, namely the elimination of calamity through prayer and sacrifice, as well as the practice of praying for good fortune . Benevolent deities who guard the Dharma, protect the country, and have solemnly vowed to fight against all manner of disasters.” 系以四天王为本尊之修法，乃禳除灾厄、祈求福德之修法。又作四天王合行、释迦四天王法、四天法。四天王为守护佛法之善神，又以其镇护国家、禳除贼难之誓愿深重，国难之际亦多修之。
The foregoing description corresponds to the Parikalpita nature of thought. It is the ordinary belief in “self” and “other” that pervades normal consciousness. The various gods in the hall may be seen to represent “other” to the believers that come to pray to them. This relationship can be described as “I’m here and there is a god there that can grant me my wishes.” Self and other is clearly demonstrated in the religious activities of this hall. Thus it corresponds to the “Parikalpita” nature of thought. Heavenly Kings Hall Parikalpita 遍计所执性
Maitreya (Budai) 弥勒菩萨 In the Heavenly Kings Hall we often find the smiling, corpulent figure Maitreiya, a statue modeled on the 10th century monk Budai (Cloth Bag), who was considered Maitreiya’s incarnation. Followers of this deity believe they’ll be reborn in Tushita Heaven, and he is thus honored in a way similar to Amithaba Buddha. 中国一般寺庙供奉之笑口常开胖弥勒像为五代时之契此和尚，因传说为弥勒化身，故后人塑像供奉之。而往生兜率天之信仰，自古与阿弥陀信仰同为佛教徒所重。
南方天王名“毗琉璃”（意为增长，能使他人善根增长），手中持剑，护南阎浮提（胜金）洲人民南方天王名“毗琉璃”（意为增长，能使他人善根增长），手中持剑，护南阎浮提（胜金）洲人民 Guardian of the South Responsible for the wind. His name means “Increaser” He increases people’s goodness.
Heavenly Kings Hall/天王殿 Guardian of the West Social Harmony His name means “broad eyes” which are used to look widely and protect the people. He holds a “dragon” like creature. Protects the people of the Western Continent. 西方天王名“毗留博*”（意为广目，能以净眼观察护持人民），手中缠绕一龙，护西瞿耶尼（牛货）洲人民
Heavenly Kings Hall/天王殿 东西两旁供四大天王像，东方天王名“提多罗咤”（“提多罗咤”意为持国——即能护持国土，是帝释天的主乐神），手持琵琶，护东方“弗提婆”（胜）洲人民东方天王提多罗吒，能护持国土，手持琵琶以作标帜 Guardian of the East Holds pipa- stringed instrument. Pacifies evil and protects the country.
Heavenly Kings Hall/天王殿 God of the North His name means “hears much.” Has great virture and protects people’s wealth. Honored by Emperor Xuan Zong for help in battle. He holds umbrella and is responsible for rainfall. 北方天王名“毗沙门”（意为多闻，有大福德，护持人民财富），右手持伞，护北郁单越（胜处）洲人民
Wei Tuo/韦驮天 Each of the heavenly kings has eight generals, but Wei Tuo is said to be the overall commander of all the thirty two generals. His weapon is the Diamond Vaijra of Truth. Faces the Buddha in the Buddha Hall, receiving the command from Buddha to defend the Dharma. 韦驮天——传说唐道宣律师曾与天人会谈，说及南方天王部下有一位韦将军常周行东南西三洲（北洲无出家人），护助诸出家人。宋代以后，便在寺中塑了韦天像，又和佛经中所说韦托天相混，一般称为韦驮菩萨.
Wei Tuo May have evolved from a real general, he is said to be under the command of the Guardian of the South. General Wei patrols the West, East and Southern Continents. (The North did not have home-leavers)
Next, the Buddha Hall Corresponds to “Paratantra” Nature of Mind 大雄宝殿符合解深密经之依他起性 法堂 大雄宝殿 天王殿
The Paratantra nature of mind refers to the fundamental insight of Buddha upon his enlightenment, namely the “dependent co-origination” of self and other. Fundamentally, other arises with the belief in and arising of self, and visa-versa. The word “tantra” means “intertwining,” and thus Paratantra means “ultimate intertwining” between self and other. This fundamental truth was taught by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, and he takes the most honored position at the center in the Buddha Hall.
At the center of the hall is Shakyamuni Buddha. As we face him, on the left, is usually Amithaba Budda, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. On the right is the Medicine Buddha, who in ancient times was believed to be the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise.
大雄宝殿 Along the sides of the hall we find the 16 (or 18) great arhats, disciples of Buddha
At the rear of the hall we find the two great Bodhisattvas, Samantabhadra (on the elephant) and Manjushri (on the lion). 大雄宝殿
Two Paths of BodhidharmaBodhidharma said, • “The noble enter the Way by many paths, but essentially there are but two of which I speak. One is by principle and one is by practice.” 然則入道多途。要唯二種。謂理行…二隨緣行者. • 里 Principle/Wisdom • 行 Practice
Two paths to enter the Way 两条入道途 We find that the “two paths” to enter the Way (rear Dharma Hall) pass by Bodhisattva of “practice” (Samantabhadra) and of principle (Manjushri).
Two paths to enter the Way 两条入道途 These paths constitute what is called, “Going beyond Buddha” in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
Manjushri Bodhisattva Sits upon a lion. Symbolizes abrupt awakening and “Transcendent Wisdom” 文殊菩萨 表示佛智、佛慧之别德。所乘之狮子，象征其威猛
文殊菩萨 Another figure of Manjushri Bodhisattva
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva represents “Shining Practice” Samadhi. 普贤菩萨 文殊师利显智、理、证，普贤显定、行，共诠本尊如来定慧、行证之完备圆满.