Byōdō-in Temple - 平等院 (built 1053)
Byōdō-in Temple is one of the few surviving examples of Heian era (794-1185) architecture left in Japan. The Phoenix Hall (鳳凰堂 hōō-dō), featured above, was constructed in 1053 by the Fujiwara regents. It is all that remains of an enormous Buddhist temple of the Pure Land sect that has all but vanished. Surviving Pure Land paintings from the 11th century often portray buildings like the one above, suggesting Byōdō-in is a literal representation of the Buddhist "Western Paradise".
Pure Land is a part of the Mayahana branch of Buddhism, which emphasizes that people should work for the enlightenment all sentient beings, not just themselves. Mahayanans place great emphasis on Boddhisatvas, enlightened beings of infinite compassion and boundless karma, who have vowed not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings are saved from samsara, the world of suffering. Having seen past the world of form, the boddhisatvas are nearly eternal and omnipresent. One of the more famous boddhisatvas is Amida. Faith in his mercy reached Japan around the middle of the seventh century from Korea, where Amida and Matreiya (the Buddha of the future) were worshipped simultaneously. Though Japan received the greatest cultural impetus from the Korean kingdom of Baekje, it seems that Silla, Baekje's sometimes-rival, sent an envoy that first introduced Amida worship to Japan around 639 AD. Faith in Amida centered on the belief that at the instant of death, Amida would descend to earth to carry the soul to the "Western Paradise", a Buddhist Heaven of (near) eternal bliss. Certain branches of the faith became so simplified that merely uttering praise to Amida became the sole prerequisite to birth in the Pure Land, a faith so simple that even the common people could readily adopt it.
The Phoenix Hall at Byōdō-in is a vision of the Western Paradise made into architectural reality. Sitting at the western edge of a kidney-shaped pond, its golden Amida statue within catches the first rays of the rising sun. Housing the statue is the only function of the entire structure. The wings and tower pavilions are purely ornamental, giving a buoyancy to the central structure appropriate to a place that represents the lofty Heavens.
All images copyright 2007 Timothy M. Ciccone
Fukuyama, Toshio Heian Temples: Byodo-in and Chuson-ji
John Weatherhill, Inc., 1976. New York