Ep. 002: Let's Visit a Chinese Buddhist Temple

Most Chinese Buddhist temples follow a particular pattern. Find out what to expect when visiting over 90% of them.

Some of you know temples like the back of your head (that's right, ain't it?) But others have never had the pleasure of visiting one. Well, today we're going to fix that by taking a brisk walk through a Chinese Buddhist temple in Episode 002 of


Some Background before We Start

I got my name--"The Temple Guy"--because I've visited literally hundreds of temples in Japan and China.

Feldman and Clooney

What we'll see today is a "typical" Chinese Buddhist temple. But just as--though we're all built from the same pattern, there are vast differences in the outcome (just compare, say, I dunno, Marty Feldman and George Clooney)--so temples usually (but not always) follow a basic pattern, albeit with lots of variations. Discovering those variations will be part of the fun as we go along in the coming days, weeks, and--dare I hope?--years!

Let me say here that Japanese temples have most of the same pieces, but put them together in far different ways than the Chinese do. That could be a topic for another time.

So today we'll discuss an average temple, sort of like those illustrations in an anatomy textbook like which nobody looks. (What a sentence!)

Click here to see a larger image

The Three Parts

Just like Caesar's "all Gaul," all (well, most) temples can be divided into three parts.

There's the Central Axis, with (usually) three to five buildings (though some temples have up to nine, and some have only one). These are almost always some kind of "worship" halls, filled with statues and incense. LOTS of incense.

Around the Central Axis is a compound made up of two Side Axes, which sometimes house worship halls, but often have more practical rooms, like offices, dormitories, and dining halls.

Then, bigger temples often will have areas outside the Compound, sometimes with a garden or pagoda, and sometimes with still more worship halls that didn't fit in the Compound.

Notice, by the way, that whenever possible, temples' main gates face south, subject to the strictures of terrain.

So, let's take a stroll through a "typical" temple's Central Axis, then take a look at some of the spaces that might be found around or outside of the Compound. Incidentally, the Chinese names of figures are given in italics following the (usually) Sanskrit forms.

The Central Axis

Screen wall across the highway, Tianning Temple, Changzhou, Jiangsu

Approaching the temple, well before we get inside, we see a free-standing wall out in front of the gate, standing in a sort of plaza. In some temples, it's so far out in front of the gate that a six-lane road runs between them! This is a screen wall. It's there to keep out ghosts. (...)

Just behind it is the gate to the Compound. Called the Mountain Gate (recalling the days when most temples were located on mountains), it has bays on either side containing two figures, the Generals Ha and Heng. (We're lucky to see them, as not all temples have them.) Here they are slightly larger-than-life, though in some temples they are prodigious. Ha's mouth is wide open; Heng's is closed tight. Lots of symbolism here, to be explored in the future. I'll just say now that they symbolize pairs of opposites, and we must navigate between them to reach the Buddha.

Next is the Hall of the Heavenly Kings. There is a giant figure of a King in each corner, representing the four directions, and each is holding a symbolic object: a lute, an umbrella, a sword, and a snake. The jolly Laughing Buddha (Mi'le Fo) sits in the center of the hall, back-to- back with another fierce general, Weituo, leaning on a three-edged sword.

Main Courtyard, Langya Temple, Chuzhou, Anhui

Behind this hall is a large courtyard, sometimes used for ceremonies. It has a Drum Tower on the left and a Bell Tower on the right, each containing a statue of a Bodhisattva (Avalokiteshvara [Guanyin], the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in the Drum Tower; and Kshitigarbha [Dizang], who cares for the dead, in the Bell Tower). Trees, steles, and small pagodas occupy the courtyard, and on the far side is the Main Hall, named "Precious Hall of the Great Hero" for the statue of the historic Buddha Shakyamuni (Shijiamouni) inside. (At other temples, this hall may house another figure, and thus have another name.)

Inside, the Buddha is on the center of the altar, with smaller figures of attendants, Ananda (Enan)and Kashyapa (Jiaye), on either side. In this particular temple, the Buddha is flanked by two more Buddhas: Amitabha (Amituo Fo), Buddha of the Western Pure Land, on the left; and the "Medicine Buddha" (Yaoshi Fo), Buddha of the Eastern Pure Land, on the right. In other temples, there may be Bodhisattvas on either side of the Buddha--or nothing at all.

There are nine figures on each side of the hall, totaling eighteen on both sides. These are the Eighteen Arhats (Shiba Luohan), a special study of mine. We'll be seeing them again. And again.

Sea Island Guanyin, Huacheng Temple, Jiuhuashan, Anhui

In the front corners of the hall are Qielan and Weituo (again), guardian figures; and in the back corners are the Bodhisattvas Samantabhadra (Puxian, representing disciplined practice) and Manjushri (Wenshu, representing Insight). Also, behind the altar, is a stunning panoply of figures called a "Sea Island Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin)."

Behind this hall, across another, small courtyard, is a two-story building. The ground floor has an open floor plan, with a white jade Buddha on the back wall. This is the Dharma Hall, for lectures; in smaller temples it may also be used for meditation. Upstairs is the temple's library and Sutra Repository.

Around the Compound

Here are some of the rooms you'll find in the Side Axes around the Central Axis:

  • A Guest Office

  • The Abbot's office and reception room

  • Monks' dormitories (or nuns', but seldom both in the same temple)

  • The kitchen and dining hall

  • A Chan (Zen) Hall for meditation

  • Another hall with the "Three Sages of the West," the Buddha Amitabha (Amitofuo) flanked by the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and Mahasthamaprapta (Dashizi, a Bodhisattva representing wisdom)

  • A Huayan Hall lined with mirrors, to portray the interpenetration of all things

  • A hall dedicated to the temple's patriarchs

  • Halls containing some of the figures mentioned above, if they're not already in the Main Hall

  • A gift shop

  • A restaurant

Outside of the Compound

Some of the 500 Arhats, Qiongzhu Temple, Kunming, Yunnan

Our temple has two very special halls on the east side of the Compound (remember, temple gates usually face south). One contains the so-called "Sleeping Buddha" (Wo Fo, actually the Buddha at the moment of his death), and the other is a hall with 500 Arhats (Wubai Luohan--an amazing thing!).

Finally, on the west side outside of the Compound, there is a Garden, representing the "Western Pure Land" of the Amitabha Buddha (Amituo Fo). This one has a pond for releasing captive animals; a "pagoda forest" with the remains of deceased abbots and other important monks; and a large pagoda, often said to hold a relic of the Buddha.

Well, that ends our tour. I know it went fast, but we'll revisit this "typical" temple--and real temples like it--many, many times to fill in all the details.

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Hear the story of Maitreya Bodhisattva (Mi'le Fo), the fat guy known as "The Laughing Buddha," and his protector, General Weituo.