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Spaces for Silence

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

Spaces for Silence


The main ceremonial gateway of a typical Zen temple is called the sanmon, meaning mountain gate in reference to celestial Mount Meru.
Purely symbolic the structure plays an important role in temple functions. Most gateways feature an enclosed upper story housing Buddhist sculpture. This example at Tofuku-ji temple dates from 1425 and was designated a National Treasure in 1952. The outermost posts propping up the soaring caves are recently added reinforecements.


Primary buildings of a major Zen temple usually align symmetrically along a north-south axis intended to reflect the cosmic order. Seen here from left to right at Myoshin-ji's monastery are the sanmon (mountain gate), Butsuden (Budda hall), and hatto (Dharma hall) exhibiting a harmony of scale and proportion. The unpainted wood, densely multiplied eave brackets, radially arranged roof rafters, and arched windows are typical features of Zen architecture.


Zen temple roofs like these—the Myoshin-ji Bhudda hall on the left, Dharma hall on the right, and Main hall, in the background—are wonderfully expressive of shelter, grandeur, generosity, and discipline.
Geometrically proportioned with extensive use of parabolic curves, they also attest to the intellectual rigor of their builders.

Myoshin-ji's famous yokushitsu (bathhouse) is essentially utilitarian with dignifying features such as the arched entry gable (kara hafu), intricately carved kaerumata (frog-leg support) centered over the doorway, and arched windows. This kind of window, called kato-mado, shows the Indian roots of Japanese Zen Buddhism and suggests both a purifying flame and a lotus flower.

The immense kitchen building, or kuri, of Myoshin-ji has elements in common with both a large Japanese farmhouse and a barracks. Sized to provide meals for hundreds of monks and guests at one time, its beautifully curved and detailed roof nevertheless marks it as a religious structure. The small gabled entry at the right houses a small altar.

1 Myoshinji-cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel. 075-461-5226

There are thousands of Zen Buddhist temples in Japan today, and hundreds in Kyoto alone. Some, such as Ryoanji with its famous rock garden, are well-known icons on the heavily trod tourist track. But lately I've come to appreciate a few less-familiar Zen temples, in the process gaining further insight into the nature of Zen study as it has been handed down through the centuries.

To the Westerner, Zen suggests simplicity, restraint, and mystical insight. The student of Japanese culture is probably aware that Zen thinking has influenced almost every aspect of Japanese aesthetics from flower arranging to painting, the code of the samurai, the tea ceremony, and on and on. Zen is referred to so often that it can seem to be both a cliche and an enigma. I can't begin to tell you what the essence of Zen is. But I can tell you what I like most about its architecture: it is designed for silence.

The kind of temple I have come to prefer is a living, working monastery like Myoshin-ji in northwestern Kyoto. Established in 1337, it has its share of historical structures, and almost all are in full use. Its layout is close to the Zen monastery idea imported from China in the 12th century: Several large structures—a gate, a Budda hall, a Dharma hall, and a main residence—form a somewhat monumental north-south central axis befitting the size of the operation and the number of residents at its peak. Arrayed on the eastern and western flanks were more than 160 sub-temples of which 43 remain, each self-contained but an essential part of the whole. If the entire complex were likened to a university, the sub-temples would be its colleges, each with a special flavor to its training regimen, its own living and dining facilities, its own gardens and altars.

And what of the silence I mentioned? That was brought home to me recently when I was shown Myoshin-ji's famous bathhouse, known as the Akechi-buro after the feudal warrior Akechi Mitsuhide to whom it is dedicated. Inside a building the size of a modest single-family house is a closet-sized wooden structure complete with a miniature roof. It is a steam sauna, which for centuries comprised the temple's only bathing facilities. On their appointed day, I was told, the monks—as well as some lucky neighbors—would arrive at the bathhouse, disrobe in silence in the small changing room, and crawl into the steam sauna a few at a time.

There was almost no glass in Japan when this bath was built in 1656, so once the wooden shutters were closed to keep the steam inside, the interior would be pitch black. The monks would sit sweating silently in utter blackness for 10, 15, or 20 minutes as their bodies relaxed and they purified themselves, their pores opening and the minds, hopefully, approaching nothingness. After this period of extreme inward focus, they would dress and, still maintaining silence, exit into the outer world.

The life of the Zen monk strikes us as ascetic, proscriptive, and regulated. But it is a life of moderation. Their food is good and well prepared: their buildings are sensually generous open, and beautifully detailed, and above all, everywhere the elements of the natural world and the built environment are allowed to speak. Hence I find logical the call for human silence. Zen monks are expected to spend most of their day in silence: in the refectory, in the Zendo where they sit in meditation, and during most daily tasks. Because of this, the power of the spoken word is amplified for being so tightly rationed. When words are spoken—during the daily one-on-one mondo question-and-answer sessions and during the chanting of sutras—each utterance is considered, savored, weighed, and allowed to resonate against both the wordless surroundings and the silence within one's heart.

There is some irony here, some essence of the overall enigma, that an establishment like Myoshin-ji could accommodate hundreds of occupants, prepare their meals, clothe them, and cleanse them—all while allowing each to remain silently immersed in his own intense-ly individual inner dialogue.

So enjoy the celebratory aspects of the large halls, their carvings and joinery, the huge paintings that adorn the ceilings of some, the drums, gongs, and chanting that goes on there, because Buddhists of all denominations feel there is much to celebrate. And enjoy the endless variation and profusion of Zen gardens, here dry and still, there lush and vibrant, because, well, nature has a lot to say. But to get a glimpse of how Zen Buddhist architecture contributes to the practice of a Zen life itself, try to see how it accommodates the everyday. In the bath for instance.

text by Azby Brown

Artist, architect, and writer Azby Brown was born in 1956. After graduating from Yale College, he earned a Masters degree from the University of Tokyo. Currently he is director of the Future Design Institute in Tokyo and associate professor in the Department of Architectural Design at Kanazawa Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, Small Spaces, and The Japanese Dream House, all published by Kodansha International. Brown also exhibits widely in Japan and abroad.

photography by Osamu Murai

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