Japanese Art – Buddhist Architecture

Generally speaking, the Chinese and Korean style of Buddhist architecture was eagerly copied in the early Buddhist ages, that is, about three centuries from the 7th to the 9th century.

The Horyu-ji monastery near Nara is one of the great monasteries built at the beginning of the 7th century, and represents the early Korean style of Buddhist architecture in Japan. The monastery comprises about thirty buildings. However, the Golden Hall (Kon-do), Five-storied stupa, Chumon gate and the galleries are the only buildings remaining from the beginning. These buildings are the oldest wooden architecture in Japan.

The Golden Hall and five-storied stupa stand in the square enclosure formed by galleries, broken in the center of the south side by the Chumon gate. The spacious and commanding excellence of the arrangement of these buildings on the virgin-white sanded ground is most inspiring.

The Golden Hall of the Tosho-dai-ji is the best example of the Buddhist architecture copied in Japan after the style of the Tang architecture of China. The stability of form and broad rhythmic beauty of all the constructive members are excellent, and may be compared with any beautiful architecture in the world.

At Uji near Kyoto stands the Ho-o-do or Phoenix Hall. This is the finest example of Japanese buildings erected in the Heian Period. In this hall is fully expressed, not only the creative genius of Japanese architects, but also the faith in the Buddha Amida which was very popular among the nobles of the Fujiwara families. It consists of a main hall, wing corridors, and a rear corridor ; and each has a synthetic beauty in the whole. The beautifully curved lines of the roofs, and the soft straight lines of the pillars supporting the roofs, are in perfect harmony and unity with the two phoenix of bronze on the gables of the main roof. It also harmonizes ideally with the surrounding landscape, which is a masterpiece of nature. The interior is decorated with mother-of-pearl, floral designs and Buddhist figures in rich colors. The walls and panels are painted with pictures illustrating the doctrine of Amida Buddhism.

In Kamakura, the former seat of the Shogunate government in the Kamakura Period (1186-1333), there remains an excellent example of the Kamakura architecture of the Zen Buddhism which was newly introduced from China and highly welcomed by the military people. It is the Shari-den hall built at the Engaku-ji monastery in 1282 to enshrine the Buddha’s tooth brought over from China. The hall is plain in color and bold in form, quite different from the delicate form and the colorful interior of the Ho-o-do building. The simplicity and spaciousness of this building represent the chivalrous mind of the military people who welcomed Zen Buddhism.

On the whole Japanese Buddhist architecture is different according to different sects of Buddhism in its decoration and the arrangement of buildings. Among others the building of the Zen sect is after the Chinese style, while that of the Jodo sect is quite Japanese, an example of which will be seen in the Chion-in, which was erected in the early Edo Period.