Much more material in ch arch xeros along with ch trans of pagoda!

Asian Art and Architecture: Art & Design 382/582

Lecture 22



A Reality Check

A "Pagodas" Yes, with quotation marks, since the term is in fact a very problematic one. And this is a good example of the reason for the reality check to follow. The term "pagoda" is a Western misunderstanding of an Indian and Eastern reality. Typically, we don’t really start out with a blank slate even on an issue as foreign to us a Buddhist art in Asia. We begin with a set of established stereotypes that must be reformulated into reasonable generalizations.

B What we’ve grown up referring to in English as "pagodas" turns out to be the East Asian variety of the stupa! That is, the reliquary symbol of the Buddha’s nirvana.

C And what is the reality check? It is our chance to step back and rethink what we are doing on the broadest scale, in analyzing the other. How do we understand a culture different from our own? In this course we look at the art of Asia. We consider Buddhism. How do we understand such a distinct cultural form? What are the pitfalls? What are the benefits? And to do this we will discuss the recent events in Southern California, where a small group of people have produced religious activity that has shocked us all. Which brings us up against the issue of other’s religion. And complementarily, our own religions. Can we think respectfully about practices that are on their faces a violation of our own understandings of reality? Should we? How can we decide? If you thought accepting Vajrayana as legitimate religious expression was a challenge, how do you accommodate Heaven’s Gate?


Tang 618 - 907

Five Dynasties 907 - 960

Northern Song China 960 - 1126

Southern Song China 1127 - 1279


Plato’s C Songyuesi "Pagoda" Six Dynasties 520 - 530

199 Yungang Cave 7’s interior

Kanishka’s tower or stupa, Gandhara Kushan 2nd c

Shaolin tombs Loyang

223 "Pagoda" base Tang 8th c

Plato’s C Tz-u-en-ssu tower Tang Dynasty 652/704

White Horse Monastery Loyang


The term "pagoda," is a Portuguese imitation of something misunderstood in India, later adopted by the British. This is not what such towers are called in the Far East. The terms was apparently a corruption of either the north Indian term "bhagavata" (blessed), applied to many deities, or the Persian but kadah (idol house). The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans in the Indies, used it for any towered religious shrine, Brahmanical, Buddhist, or any other. The British took it into English from them. And pretty much as they took the natural harbor and island location of Mumbai from them, they took it with the Portuguese corruption of the local designation. Though they eventually abandoned the term in India, the British kept the term in East Asia, where they were less familiar with local traditions. As we will see, the Japanese term for such structures was a simple description of the number of stories they carried, a three storied tower, a five storied tower. Their function reveals them to be equivalents of the stupa! They are multi-storied representations of the universe built over relics. Their central masts and multiple stories representing the many levels of the heavens.

The Indian (Sanskrit) terms for these structures were caitya and stupa, (cetiya and thupa in Pali). The Chinese for these were: sutupo and chiti (W-G: su t’u po and chih t’i). The Chinese also used ta (tower). The Japanese is sotaba and shidai and to. All of these are found in various editions of the Diviavadana and the Bodhisatvabhumi sutra.

stupa (Sanskrit) thupa (Pali) sutupo (Mandarin) sotaba (Japanese)

caitya cetiya chiti shidai 

[tower] ta to


PLATO’S CAVE Songyuesi "Pagoda" Six Dynasties 520 - 530

Stone 130’

The Songyuesi tower is the earliest surviving free-standing reliquary tower in East Asia. It is 130 feet high and about 35 feet in diameter (110 feet in circumference). It is a twelve-sided stone tower of "fifteen" stories. All such towers have odd numbers of stories, between three and 17. Though the fact is, such structures are not made for inhabitance and most of them are not even enterable. So the counting of stories here is as with the Hindu temple, which is one of its model sources, a symbolic matter, not a functional one. Such structures are the tallest, and so the most imposing human made structures in the worlds they inhabit, and so major monuments establishing the importance of Buddhism.

The Songyuesi tower is an twelve-sided stone structure raised over a tall base. Its profiles taper inward, and its fifteen-"stories" are compressed as they rise. Thus they accentuate the perspective effect and the structure looks even taller than it is. We can’t see the original basement ornamentation, since it is now lost, but we can see the first story. At that level the structure represents a ring of twelve pavilions standing between octagonal pilasters. Those in the cardinal directions are shown as arched gateways and those in between as separate halls, much on the model of the Indian temple tower. The upper 14 stories are represented only by eaves extended over miniature walls. The whole is capped (today) by a dome and a finial of circular disks, resembling the symbolic umbrellas found on Tibetan stupas and traceable on a variety of structures leaving remains in Gandhara and even in the oldest records of the Mahabodhi temple.

The most interesting structural detail is the series of radiating arches over the niches in each of the circling pavilions. Radiating arches are more or less unknown in South Asia, and so apparent evidence, here, of the design’s passage through Central Asia. Though it is also interesting to note that the actual passageways, in contrast to these relief decorations in front of them, are linteled forms not arches, of the Indian (and for that matter Chinese) standard. The eaves are built out over corbels.


Where did such a structure come from? The foregoing discussion makes clear enough that it seems to have some South Asian formal as well as symbolic antecedents. This one is essentially the South Asian temple tower built over relics. Others seem to derive more directly from the more familiar Chinese gateway tower. In either case the structure is centrally symmetrical, multi-storied, capped by a many storied finial, and constructed over relics. Does the form owe more to India than to China? Different examples seem to draw freely on either source and to mix them with impunity. The most characteristic Chinese examples seem to ignore the South Asian sources altogether for the indigenous wooden tower model. What counts formally is being a multi-storied tower. What counts in terms of content is having a relic at its base.


199 Yungang Cave 7’s interior reveals a relief depiction close enough the wooden tower model already present in the later 5th century. Cave 11 at Yungang, seen in the syllabus handout, shows such a tower relief housing Buddha images at each level, as indeed some fully realized relic towers do.

Also on the handout I have illustrated a three story tower depicted in relief on a Buddhist relief from Mathura in the Kushan era and the Mahabodhi temple as it can be seen already in a terra-cotta relief from the first century and its tower as finished today.


Kanishka’s tower or the Kanishka stupa, of the 2nd century, located in Peshawar (Gandhara), has left us only its stone foundations. These are 100 meters on a side. The descriptions left by Chinese pilgrims and say its lower, stone portion extended to 50 meters over which was another 100 meters of wooden tower and 10 of gold-leafed iron finial. The total being around 500 feet. It was 13 stories. This was undoubtedly the prestigious model for much later built in Central and East Asia. Though it is difficult to imagine exactly how it appeared, and the equivalent to a 50 storied modern skyscraper envisioned in these dimensions seems out of the question.

But then there are reports of a 600 foot wooden tower in the Northern Wei period, around , in the notoriously accurate Chinese records.

Shaolin tombs

There are a set of 220 monks’ tombs going back to the Tang period in three cases. Each is a dhatu-garbha (Sanskrit) or dagoba (Pali), a relic mound in the form of a stupa, containing the ashes of a prestigious monk. These are made in stone. This is traditionally believed to be the monastery founded by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk considered the bringer of Chan Buddhism to China.




223 "Pagoda" base Tang 8th c

stone, 27 1/4"

One of the things we forget when we look at many fragments is exactly what it is we are looking at. In this case we get the identification, "Pagoda" base, and what we see is a fairly chaotic mix of imagery, until we look closely. Perhaps, until we look analytically, by reading through the design. Because of its damaged state, with more broken off on the upper right and the lower left it has lost the symmetry that would be clearer if the image was whole. So we can begin in the center with its opening, a rectangle surrounded by an arch. This is a doorway surrounded by balanced pairs of guardians and dragons. It is the lower story of a multi-storied tower on a miniature scale.

What this image has to remind us is that most of the Buddhist remains in our museums are on display as esthetic models. They are portrayed as "works of art," which is to say processes. They are seen as sculpture or painting. And this is their bourgeois significance. But their Buddhist significance was that they were representations of content, not form. This is not stone sculpture, but the base of a miniature relic shrine.


Plato’s Cave Tz-u-en-ssu tower Tang Dynasty 652/704

(the Great Gander tower) of 652 (refurbished in 704). It shows one great square, monumental-scaled story upon another, seven in all. As in he Songyuesi tower, it tapers and compresses as it rises. At the peak of this one two is a miniature dome and an oversailing set of parasols.


The White Horse Monastery outside of Loyang is the site of the first official Buddhist temple in China. It was set up with the sanction of the Han Emperor in an established caravansary. A series of structures arranged symmetrically along a north south axis within a surrounding wall. Its, certainly later reconstructed remains contain at the entrance a pair of hemispherical mounds: cylindrical stone base courses filled in and mounded over by earth. They are the relic mounds of the monks who brought the first translated text to China, the Sutra of 47 parts in the reign of Han Ming Di (58-75 CE). These were Dharmaraksha and Kashyapa Matanga.

Han Ming Di is the one who dreamed of a "golden man" flying into the palace and got a dream interpretation that led him to send ministers to bring Buddhist monks and establish the dharma within the Chinese world, in the 12th year of his reign, 70 CE.








Korean examples come in two types

A) There is the full-scale wooden standard such as we see later in Japan

B) There is a miniature stone tower


Japan seems to have taken the full scale wooden model only. Though there are variations on it such as the single story Tohato.





Transmission or Influence models:

A) Direct Adoption + Evolution: this is the common expectation. One community’s image is taken over more or less whole by another community. An example would be the Andhra style Buddha image as taken up in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. What is not noticed often enough is that this model is always to an important extent an adaptation, since even the closest-seeming adoptions are always distinguishable from their models.

B) Abstract Adaptation + Evolution: this is as often the fact as Adoption. Here the new image seems clearly independent. An example would be the East Asian relic tower. What is seen is a strikingly original local form. What is not noticed enough in this case what an important degree of adoption is actually available in this case.

A Scale: The fact we need to recognize is that these aren’t different types of transfer but the extreme poles of the adaptation model. There is no pure adoption, though there may occasionally be direct physical transfers such as seen in the traveling of a small bronze or in the Korean craftworker construction of the first generation of Buddhist images in Japan. The Orientalists’ diffusion model is an adoption model. We now know that this explains very little and the best explanations are adaptation models.





Reality Check


This lecture in 1997 comes the week following the mass self-inflicted deaths of 39 members of a group calling themselves Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, California. There was great argument in the press and among the population of the US as to whether they committed suicide or not and how such a cult could lead to such a terrible outcome.

This should be of interest to us for several reasons. The main ones are the primary questions of the course: how do we choose to look at unfamiliar religious expressions and what do they have to tell us about our own.

First, how do we look at such strange religious expressions? In general our society tends to call them "cults," and to treat them as essentially irrational or insane. The point is they are unfamiliar. This is done on two bases, neither of which is rational!

There is in fact no rational difference between a cult and a religion that will allow you to tell them apart by their ideology. The difference is connotative, not denotative. A cult is a religious group that is being degraded by accusation of being illegitimate by way of deviance from an assumed normal, along with a suggestion that it is a minority–not a main stream–expression. The Romans called Christianity a cult until it became their dominant religion.

The fact is all religious groups feel all others are irrational (wrong). That is why they don’t belong to them. And in private they say so. But in public, for the good of the civil society we reasonably don’t make any point of this. I was raised a Jew with genuine respect for other faiths, but I don’t think the Pope is a peculiar source of truth any more than most Protestants do. And I suppose that Pius the XII [?] was a partial collaborator with fascism during the 30’s and 40’s. And by this measure I don’t see what Jesus did in allowing himself to be crucified was much different than a ritual suicide.

Though I must stop, because so many I know, like my students and friends, and like the powerful in this society think he was god dyeing for our sins. God dyeing is an irrational thought from a Jewish point of view! But I don’t lack respect for them or this event. Why? Because those who believe it are my friends and those with power over me, and it is much more effective to admit another truth: I really don’t know. I can’t prove it isn’t so. But, with the Heavens Gate people, I don’t know them, and they have no power, so I can dismiss them as an irrational cult.

Second, what does this tell us about our own expression? This is a more difficult point. Why? Because the only thing it can do is make us rethink what we believe and whatever we decide it reminds us of the fundamental fact of our most fundamental beliefs: that they are beliefs. Though we like to think of them as rational thought, they are ultimately based on leaps of faith, which–however well we may have learned to rationalize them for others and ourselves–are not essentially rational choices or even for most of us choices at all. Most of us believe a version of what our parents believed, or a closely connected version of that belief that we have shifted to. That is we believe what we have inherited. Few actually go out searching for a belief system. Only the very dissatisfied do this.

This doesn’t mean that I think what you believe is wrong, necessarily. But it means I think that each of us comes by our decision of what we believe largely through non-rational means and that we then rationalize it.

To return to the fantastic elements of the Buddhism we have been speaking of in this course, what can we make of 11 headed Avalokitesvaras or Vajrayana spells? They are quite foreign to most of us.

My contention is that to understand both these quite distant forms and ourselves, we must admit that most of our fellow classmates believe things as fantastic about Christian or Islamic heavens, angels, and devils. Do you see god as a man with a face, eyes and masculine anatomy? Is heaven a place you are going to? doesn’t your vision of that reality owe a lot to the time period in which your holy book was written?

These questions are important and deep ones we will not attempt to answer in this course. Such answers are beyond our purview. But it is within our purview to bring them up as questions that should lead us to be more respectful of views we don’t agree with but which are useful to explain the cultures of others with whom we need to share this planet and interact with respectfully.



And what about cults? Or, how do we treat small groups with deviant ideas who we are distrustful of? Sunlight. When you find yourself entertaining deviant or unpopular ideas, you don’t have to run in fear. Or point in anger. What you need to do, what we all need to do is what we do here. Look carefully with an open mind and question with others publicly. Supporting a foolish cult is no more dangerous that supporting a bad political policy. And it can be just as dangerous. Its just more likely you’ll be peer pressured into supporting the invasion of a foreign nation of non-white people than in following a convincing minister from Southern California. The answer is public discussion rather than isolated dialogue among those committed to chosen belief beforehand.