April 10, 2009

Maya Nogami

Toji Temple

A pagoda is a tiered tower with projecting roofs. And since it is most often a Buddhist form of building, you can find pagodas at a number of Japan’s temples. There are various kinds, so you may find a three-story pagoda such as the one at Ichijo-ji Temple in Hyogo prefecture, a five-story pagoda like the one at Toji Temple in Kyoto, and even a thirteen-story pagoda at Tanzan Shrine in Nara (this Shinto shrine was a Buddhist temple when it was built),among many others.

The origin of the pagoda is the stupa in ancient India, which is a building to enshrine the cremated remains of Buddha: ashes and bone fragments known as busshari in Japanese. First, the busshari was divided and given to eight famous tribes, and each enshrined their portion of them in a stupa. However, stupa started to be built one after another in many places where Buddhism had spread, so the busshari became scarce. Then, people began to supply jewels, scrolls of doctrines or the ashes of hierarchs instead of busshari. Because of the presence of such sacred relics most people today are still usually not permitted to enter and climb up a pagoda. However, for short periods during the year, people can enter for special exhibitions, and at some pagodas one can find Tathagata figures. Since pagodas normally have very little usable indoor space, they are mainly intended to be monuments commemorating religious relics.

The stupa, unlike the pagodas which evolved from it, was not such a tall structure. However, after the stupa migrated with Buddhism from ancient India to China, the structure became taller and developed layers or tiers. The elaborate top spire of a pagoda tower, called the sorin in Japanese, is often modeled on the original stupa. When Buddhism was introduced from China to Japan, the layered pavilions and pagodas of China influenced the way the Japanese designed and built pagodas.

The reason why a large number of pagodas have five tiers is that each tier has a particular elemental meaning in Buddhism. The five meanings are earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. Similarly, the seven sections of the decorated sorin atop the pagoda each have a symbolic significance.Their names in Japanese appear below.

1. Hoju……Place to enshrine busshari
2. Ryusha……Symbolizes a courier used by high status people
3. Suien…… Originally, it meant fire. But people think that fire causes the pagoda to burn so they named it suien. Sui means water in Japanese.
4. Horin(or Kurin)……Nine rings. It explains five famous Tathagata.
Symbolizes the five famous jina deities and four famous bodhisattva
5. Tairen……Symbolizes the hour scythe and it is found in some sorin, such as at Toji Temple. However people have not found the reason why tairen was designed with sorin.
6. Ukebana……Symbolizes the lotus flower
7. Fusebachi……Symbolizes a grave
In any case, the picture above is just an example so other sorin have similar but not identical designs.

【 Yasaka no To】【Daihonnzann  Konkaikomyoji Temple】

It is popularly known as Kurodani.
l Which pagoda is the most _______ pagoda in Japan?
« The tallest pagoda ……Toji Temple in Kyoto (55m)
« The shortest pagoda ……Muroji Temple in Nara (16m)
« The oldest pagoda……Horyuji Temple in Nara (probably rebuilt 708-747). It is the oldest wooden tower in the whole world.
2 Brief info about some temples in Kyoto which have a five-story pagoda:
« Daigoji Temple…..It was built in 874 by a descendant of Kukai, founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect. Nowadays this temple is registered as a World Heritage Site.
« Hokanji Temple……People call this pagoda “Yasaka no to”. “Yasaka” is the name of the area and to means tower in Japanese. People have long believed that prince Shotoku Taishi built the temple after being instructed to do so by the bodhisattva Nyoirin in a dream. It is said bone fragments from the Buddha are enshrined in Yasaka no to. The website Asian Historical Architecture has fine images of the pagoda, including interiors.

« Ninnaji Temple……Also registered as a World Heritage Site. In 886, this temple was established by a command from Emperor Koko but he died before it was completed. His son, Emperor Uda, finished Ninnaji and retired to become head priest there. For centuries afterwards, head priests of Ninnaji came from the imperial line.

As you might imagine, with their considerable height and metal spires, pagodas are regularly struck by lightning. Some writers have suggested that this was part of their original spiritual mystique — the way they attract and tame great bolts of energy. They do so because the spire or sorin acts as a lightning rod, channeling the electricity back down into the earth. Pagodas are also extremely strong structures and can survive earthquakes that topple other tall buildings. Only fire seems able to destroy these towers. Chances are good that your great-grandchildren will be able to visit the same magnificent pagodas that you can see in Kyoto today. Come to Japan and enjoy them!

Shinnyodo Temple

*Sorin illustration is gratefully borrowed from

Leave A Comment...