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Religion Library: Zen

Symbolism

Written by: Julia Hardy

A very different form of Zen symbolism is revealed in the architecture of Zen temples in Japan. Their structure is based on Chinese temple architecture, which was, in turn, based on a combination of Indian Buddhist architecture and Chinese architectural precedents.

The entrance to a Zen temple is called the Mountain Gate. This gate symbolizes crossing the boundary from worldly desires and conceptual thinking into emptiness. Next along the central axis is the Buddha Hall, which is designed for the worship of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Before entering the Buddha Hall, one is to eliminate bodily impurities and wash; there are two small buildings for these purposes just beyond the entrance gate. Silence is expected in the Buddha Hall, as well as in the latrine and washroom.

Behind the Buddha Hall is the Monk's Hall, where meditation takes place. On the opposite side of the Buddha Hall is the kitchen. The Monk's Hall and kitchen symbolize the nourishment of mind and body. Finally, there is the Dharma Hall, where the monks assemble to hear lectures and sermons. Typically, there are many other buildings in the monastic complex, so this architectural structure is sometimes difficult to recognize.

An analogy is sometimes made between this structure and parts of the human body, or sometimes specifically the Buddha's body: the entrance gate represents the groin area, the Buddha Hall the heart, and the Dharma Hall the head. The bathhouse symbolizes the right leg, and the latrine, the left leg. The right arm is the kitchen, and the left arm the Monk's Hall. To enter the temple complex is therefore to enter the body of the Buddha, or to become the Buddha.

The robes of Zen and Chan monks are still another form of Zen symbol. Like all robes of Buddhist monks of different sects, they have a distinct and recognizable style, with variations in color and design in different countries. Although it is not unique to Zen, Zen is also associated with the "purple robe," that is, a robe of that color that was given as a reward to respected heads of monasteries. The expression "received the purple robe" is sometimes used to signify that an individual was appointed head of a Zen monastery.

The first purple robes were awarded by Empress Wu of China, who gave them to a group of monks, including her lover. Later the custom was brought to Japan. When the abbot of a monastery received a purple robe, it brought increased prestige and more donations to that monastery. There were scandals in both countries; for example, there were periods in both China and Japan where purple robes and certificates of investiture as abbots were sold to wealthy citizens. Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, is said to have refused the offer of a purple robe several times, eventually accepting but never wearing it because he was adamant about staying clear of political connections.


Study Questions:
1.     What is an enso? What does it symbolize?
2.     Why are rock gardens popular within Zen? How did they come to be associated with it?
3.     Describe the structure of a Zen temple. What rituals are associated within each part?
4.     What is the significance of a purple robe?

 

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