One of the words that gets bandied about a lot these days, to my chagrin, is Zen. People talk about ‘zen gardens’ (no such thing), zen toaster ovens and toilet roll holders, and often it is remarked that some stripped down and bare, even austere environment is ‘zen’. People talk about ‘Zen architecture’ – but what is it really? The answer may surprise you, for true Japanese ‘Zen architecture’, a specialized style of temple construction and termed Zen-shūyō (禅宗様), is anything but pared down and stark.
Zen style was brought into Japan via a number of routes, and is not limited to architectural characteristics one can observe at extant Zen Sect buildings, but is in fact quite diverse and more widely spread. As with other imported architectural tastes, soon enough the Japanese set to work selecting, assimilating, and adapting what they liked, discarding the rest, and thus a distinctive style ultimately emerged in Japan.
What does the character ‘Zen’ , ‘禅‘, actually mean? It stems from an earlier character which looks a bit similar: ‘禪‘ The radical on the left side of the character, ‘示‘, stems from a pictograph of an altar with a square/rectangular surface. Thus it connotes altar, the gods, the supernatural, and also the sense of show, indicate, display, express, given that things are often displayed upon an altar. The piece on the right side of the character ‘禪‘, namely ‘單‘, comes also from a pictograph:
This picture represents a flat rattan weapon used to trap and beat small game. Somehow this character came over time to have the meanings of simple and single (perhaps because the weapon was simple in form and was a single tool that did more than one function – this is however a supposition on my part). Thus, the character ‘Zen’, ‘禪‘ (the modern simplification of which is ‘禅‘), means simple religion, more or less a reference to the directness and simplicity of meditation as a vehicle into higher spiritual levels. The Sanskrit word for this form of religious practice is dhyana, a word meaning concentration, meditation, and meditative stability. When this form of Buddhist practice spread from India to China, it was termed chánnà, ‘禅那‘ in Mandarin, which eventually became shortened to just ‘chán‘. The word chán, borrowed by the Japanese and transformed as a result of their different phonetic language base, becomes ‘Zen’.
So, what characterizes Zen-Style architecture in Japan? First of all, the roofs are of the more sophisticated hidden rafter-decorative rafter system. This system was no doubt a Japanese development, since no such roof structural system was ever employed in China. Probably the first temples in the Zen-shūyō manner had the simpler single roof, but this didn’t last long and no examples of single roof Zen style buildings remain today in Japan. Most characteristic of the Zen-shūyō roof is that is has a strong amount of curvature at the eave corners – with the way many in the west are using the word ‘Zen’ these days, one might have expected Zen style buildings to have subdued, mild roof lines, ‘hints’ of curvature, and so forth, but such is not the case. In the Zen style building roof, typically the roof surface is steeply inclined, and supporting bracket complexes become smaller in scale but more numerous. Further, many of the structural elements are exposed on the interior of the building, creating a real sense of dynamism. In short, this style is a richly ornamented one.
I titled this post ‘Peace: Enjoy the Zen’ because I wanted to talk about a particular Zen style pagoda called Anraku-ji (安楽寺). The character for ‘temple’ is 寺, while ‘Anraku’, ‘安楽‘ is the combination of characters meaning tranquil ‘安‘ and enjoy ‘楽‘, which taken together mean ease, comfort. Anraku-ji is located in Nagano Prefecture, near Ueda City. So, please get comfortable, and have a look-see at this fine example of a Zen-Style Pagoda.
First of all, this pagoda is absolutely unique because it is octagonal:
The temple grounds of Anraku-ji were consecrated in 1288. The pagoda itself is a somewhat rare entity in a Zen sect compound, and this one happens to be the only building remaining in this compound today. Though it looks 4-storied, this is deceptive – the lower most roof is simply a mokoshi, or wrap-around perimeter roof. The purpose of this roof relates to the interior space and it’s high interior to the paneled ceiling – this makes for longer columns, and thus the mokoshi gives a massing down low and precludes a visual effect of instability. A partial cross-section view of the elevation makes it clear that this pagoda has but three floors:
A look at the first floor reveals some classic Zen-shūyō design details:
– the fan-raftering (rare in Japanese style, or ‘Wa-yō’ Architecture)
– the use of an upper penetrating tie beam with the nose, or end of the beam highly molded
– the top of the pillar being rounded (termed chi-maki)
– the vertically-set wavy grill bars, ‘u-ne-gumi‘ (畝組), also called yumi-ranma (弓欄間)
– small scale of the bracket complexes in relation to the diameter of the pillars
In ‘Wa-yō’ Architecture the bracket complexes pile up, and each set carried its own continuous tie beam, and the brackets themselves do not extend out much to the sides. In Zen-shūyō architecture, the bracket complexes pile up one atop another without using continuous tie beams, the bracket arms are extended sidewards to a greater extent. Also, unlike ‘Wa-yō’, the bracket complexes can be found not only on top of the columns, but are also placed in the bays between them. In some cases, these inter-columnar bracket complexes give the feeling of being very tightly packed – take a look at the third story space between roofs and you’ll see what I mean:
Here’s a look at the first floor, showing the front door:
The small fence in the foreground should not be confused with an actual railing on the veranda, which this pagoda does not have. The doors are of the sangarado type, meaning they are paneled doors of the ‘Chinese’ style, and feature pole hinges attached to protruding wall sockets top and bottom. The walls are wood paneled.
One of the most interesting aspects of this pagoda to this writer, however, relates to the design principle upon which it is founded. Readers who have been coming a while to this blog may recall a series of posts I did in February 2009, especially one called “Are We Golden? V“, in which I introduced the vesica piscis as a design tool. This pagoda was designed upon a close relation to the ‘fish bladder’ as well:
I find this astonishing and can’t help but wonder if this design principle was imported from China (via the Silk road?) or whether it is of independent invention on the part of the master carpenter, or?? Anyway, it goes to show that much can be accomplished with a deep knowledge and exploration of but a few basics.
Here’s one last photo to show the beautiful and powerful sweep of the eave to each hip:
Zen Style is indeed powerful, dynamic, and richly decorative, not at all what most connote with the word Zen in the modern west. I hope you enjoyed this look at an intriguing pagoda, the only 8-sided one that remains in Japan. There was apparently a 9-story octagonal pagoda built in the 11th century in Japan, but it burnt down soon after completion, in 1058. Too bad – that would have been something to see!
In contrast to the calm restraint and harmony of ‘Wa-yō’ Architecture, the Zen Style is exotic and exuberant. One might wonder why the Japanese, often conservative otherwise, would preserve such a style over time and not mold it into something more like their usual ‘Wa-yō’ taste? As Mary Neighbour Parent pointed out, the flamboyancy of the architecture itself surely was a counterbalancing influence to the Zen sects themselves and the austerity of the sect practices in general – an antipode if you like that created harmony between opposites. Unlike the low ceiling of the ‘Wa-yō’ spaces, these Zen structures had soaring vibrant space, with tall ceilings (the ceilings themselves flat and smooth in contrast to the variegation of the exposed raftering and bracketry). Finally, the morés of Zen suited the Warrior class in Japan, and thus support (patronage) for the architectural scheme was there at high levels of the society. I’ll be showing other Zen-shūyō buildings in later posts, so I hope to give the reader more examples of this style to give a clear picture as to its depth and richness.