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What is a Buddhist Temple like? Visit some Chinese temples and find out

Elyn lived in China with her family for 30 years, soaking up the history and culture, having fun, and making many friends.


About Chinese Buddhist Temples

This page is for anyone who is curious to know what a Buddhist Temple is like. And also for people from other countries who have to visit a lot of temples during their time in Asia and want to understand them better. And for architects, builders, photographers, and people who appreciate beautiful structures.

Welcome to the tour of Buddhist Temples in China!

(all photos by Elyn MacInnis)

What Do You See First? - A Wall - and the rooftops of the temple buildings inside

Potala temple wall

Potala temple wall

Keeping thieves out and peace in

Temples are full of priceless treasures, carvings, paintings, and wooden buildings that could easily catch fire. So around all temple complexes there will be a very high wall, usually painted a goldenrod color, or possibly a maroon red, that is meant to keep people out. Having seen the beautiful statues and art inside, I completely understand why they have a tall wall.

The wall also keeps the noise and flurry of the outside world out, so that the people inside can have peace and quiet to do have services, meditate, and study. Inside the Temple complex, unless it is a holiday and there are hundreds of people there, the Temple is a real oasis of peace, often with many birds resting in the trees and people sitting and relaxing. In the Lama (Yong He Gong) Temple in Beijing there are local flocks of pigeons with special whistles attached to their legs that fly over the Temple grounds making a whistling sound.

The wall at the Potala Palace is white, and makes it look like it is floating in the clouds, don't you think?

The Potala Palace Temple has one of the biggest walls I could remember. I walked to the top to get into the Potala and it was exhausting, especially because there is so little oxygen in Lhasa, where the altitude is 3658 meters (12,000 feet).

My favorite camera for taking clear photos in dark places

If there is a wall, then there must be a gate. - A Big One, facing south. (Otherwise, how would you get in?)

Longhua Temple Shanghai

Longhua Temple Shanghai

The orientation of buildings matters in China

Temple gates face south because south is the best orientation for a building in China. In ancient days, south was the direction for the divine and the powerful. The Emperor always sat facing south, and the people around him usually faced north.

There may also be a big freestanding gate (called a pailou) just outside the main gate to the temple buildings. You can see a picture of that up in the introduction to the page.

What is the short bit of wall across the street from the main gate? - And why is it there?

Temples often have Feng Shui Walls

Protecting the gate - bridges, water, and a feng shui wall
In China people believe the gate of the temple needs protecting. From what? "Evil winds and ghosts." People here believe that ghosts cannot travel across w

Temples often have Feng Shui Walls Protecting the gate - bridges, water, and a feng shui wall In China people believe the gate of the temple needs protecting. From what? "Evil winds and ghosts." People here believe that ghosts cannot travel across w

Let's go through the gate and into the courtyard

Bell tower to the left and Drum tower to the right

Just inside the main gate you will find a big courtyard with two smaller buildings on each side. This is the bell tower, built to call the faithful to prayer, and the drum tower, which was used to announce an attack on the temple, for big announcements, and to mark the time. If they are open to the public, you will be able to climb up and maybe even ring the bell. You won't be able to beat the drum, however, since this is reserved for the monks use only.

In the first courtyard, you will also find an incense burner where people can burn incense, light candles, and pray. So there will be at least one incense burner in the courtyard. Because temples are made of wood and catch fire very easily, candles and incense are restricted to the courtyard areas outside of the temple buildings themselves.

And now, into the first building - Six statues - the Heavenly Kings, Buddha of the Future, and the Temple Guardian

Jade Buddha Temple Shanghai Buddha of the Future

Jade Buddha Temple Shanghai Buddha of the Future

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Who gives you your first greeting? Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future

No matter the size of the courtyard, whether there are bell and drum towers, and no matter how tall the outside wall is, one thing is quite certain: you will be greeted by the Buddha of the Future when you walk in the door. This Buddha is the one we think of as the "fat happy Buddha," the one who smiles and looks very joyous and kind.

The Four Heavenly Kings - North Southeast and West - They all represent something - can you guess?

Four Heavenly Kings - Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai

Four Heavenly Kings - Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai

Four good guys?

Buddhism came to China from India, and the Four Heavenly Kings have their roots in the Hindu tradition. They look intimidating. Sometimes they are portrayed stepping on strange creatures. Although they look fierce, they are just protecting the temple from evil. They are the "good guys," so to speak, at war with the evil in the world. But they are not meant to be taken literally, and although they look frightening, they are actually symbolizing protection of what is good and right..

What do they represent?

From left to right:

Holding a Lute - King of the East - Protecting the Nation - his lute represents all the good things of civilization which have to be kept in Harmony. The lute's strings should be neither tight nor loose, and this represents the way human affairs should be conducted - with moderation.

Holding a Sword - King of the South - He uses his sword of wisdom to control evil and improve peoples' lives.

Holding a Snake (or little dragon) - King of the West - One with Broad Perception watches over the world with a thousand eyes. His goal is to raise people's awareness of what is wise and what is not.

Holding a Parasol/Umbrella - King of the North - He gives protection, and uses his umbrella to protect people from delusions and things that distract them. He is sometimes shown holding a pet mongoose, which kills evil snakes. In some places he is called the "god of wealth," but in this case wealth is the wisdom of the scriptures. Sometimes he is shown holding a pagoda, which is a structure that contains scriptures or precious treasures.

Facing out into the temple complex... - Who will you find watching the activity in the temple?

Guanyin Goddess of Mercy and Compassion Jade Buddha Temple Shanghai

Guanyin Goddess of Mercy and Compassion Jade Buddha Temple Shanghai

If the temple is a big one, the usual Guardian of the temple named Weituo will gaze out the back of the first building, watching over the temple. If the temple is small and there isn't much room, Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion will be at the back door. It is easy to tell the difference. The temple guardian looks like one! Guan Yin will often be there covered in capes, gifts of thanks from the women who came there to pray for children and whose prayers were heard. Often there will be 6 or 7 capes at the same time. After a while the older ones are removed and the new ones put up.

Lama Temple layout

Lama Temple layout

Chinese Buddhist Temple Layout

Building, courtyard, building courtyard, building, courtyard....

Perhaps you can get the idea from this photo that most temples in China have a building and then a courtyard type of layout. If the temple is very small or the space limited or oddly shaped, then it will be slightly different. Having independent buildings can help if there is a fire. Sometimes you will find huge pots filled with water outside the buildings - an ancient "fire extinguisher."

The buildings down the middle of the complex are usually used for ceremonies and have statues of Buddhas. The rooms down the side are often classrooms, offices, small shops, or small shrines.

The first building you have visited already. Now we go deeper into the complex

One of the ways to pray is with Incense

incense burners Ciqikou, Chong Qing

incense burners Ciqikou, Chong Qing

The custom is three sticks at a time

When Chinese people pray, they like to light incense. The standard number is three sticks, but sometimes people just burn the whole bundle.

Or you can pray with candles

They also light candles, which are usually red, but sometimes are in the shape of a beautiful pink lotus flower. There will be places to light incense in each courtyard between the temple buildings. Incense and fires don't mix with old wooden buildings. The smoke can get very thick, but if you are out in the courtyard and not inside, it is usually not a problem.

The incense in the Chong Qing area is very interesting. You can get some extremely thick and tall sitcks, with prayers imprinted on the outside.

Books on Temples in China

Incense urns come in two basic shapes - square for prayers by the people, and round for official ceremonies

Incense urns come in two basic shapes - square for prayers by the people, and round for official ceremonies

Incense urns come in two basic shapes - square for prayers by the people, and round for official ceremonies

Which Buddha is in the Temple's Main Hall? - Probably three of them...

Three Buddhas - Chongming Island Shanghai

Three Buddhas - Chongming Island Shanghai

There is a custom to have a trinity of three statues of Buddha in the main hall of the temple. They come in different sets. Some are old, but many of them will have been made in the last 30 years or so. It is almost impossible to get a photo of all three, because they are right in front of the door, and you can't get far enough away to fit all three in the picture. I managed to get a photo in one smaller temple, and here it is.

What are the sets of Buddhas in the main hall?

Your are likely to find Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future, who are related to Time. Or you may find Buddhas that are not related to time, but instead are related to location and direction, the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, in the center. On his left and right will probably be the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise - also called the Medicine Buddha, venerated for his ability to heal and cure, and the Buddha of the Western Paradise, Amitabha Buddha. who is the one in charge of what is called the Pure Land, or heaven, where believers who pray devoutly to him will be reborn.

How can you tell them apart?

At first I couldn't tell the Buddhas apart, because they often looked the same to me. But once I learned that knowing which is which often depends on their hand gestures. The historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, will have one hand touching the earth. The Medicine Buddha may have a (medicine) bowl in his lap, and is often on the right side, and will sometimes has two attendants - The Bodhisattva of the Moon and the Bodhisattva of the Sun. The Buddha of the Eastern Paradise will most often be portrayed with his hands in his lap but with thumbs touching.

Who is the Buddha under the bell? - Dizang Buddha

Dizang Pusa at the Jade Buddha Temple

Dizang Pusa at the Jade Buddha Temple

What does the Dizang buddha do? He is the one who has sworn never to leave hell until all are freed. You will find a Dizang Pusa under a bell in every temple in China. When someone passes away, people will pray for their loved one by this bell.

What happens at a temple?

funeral chanting at Jade Buddha Temple

funeral chanting at Jade Buddha Temple

Some temples are more touristic than others. The famous ones will get many sightseers and visitors from around the country. There are charming temples in neighborhoods where they have a lot of community activities, hold funerals, and celebrate the holidays. People get together to study the scriptures, and gather to remember their loved ones on the anniversary of their passing. Some temples have special groups to go out to do various volunteer jobs in the community, and they also have classes in Buddhism.

buddhist temple doors

buddhist temple doors

A little on temple etiquette

If you have never been to a Chinese temple, it will help to know a little temple etiquette, because it is not exactly like church etiquette in the US.

If there are three doors into the buildings in the temple complex, go through one of the side doors, even if others are going through the middle door. The middle door should be reserved for the higher level monks and for the abbot and visiting important guests.

Only take photos if the temple permits it. If you aren't clear, you could take photos, but don't use a flash and be discreet. If you have a cell phone, turn it off.

Most tourists don't understand, especially in places where it is hot, but it is better to wear shirts with some sort of sleeved shirt rather than tops that expose a lot of skin.

Remove your hat. Modesty is always appreciated.

Don't let your children climb on the statues, even if others are doing it.

If you point, it is customary to use your whole hand, rather than a finger.

What if I am at the Temple at lunch time?

You may be in luck - many temples have a vegetarian canteen

I have been in a number of temples (not all) where you can get really good vegetarian meals for lunch. The Western Garden Temple in Suzhou is absolutely charming, and if you are there at lunch time you can go into their dining hall and order, for very little money, a big bowl of steaming vegetarian noodles and some other dishes, that they serve there for the Buddhist visitors who would like to have a vegetarian meal. It is like a proper small restaurant.

In other temples you can join with the monks and/or nuns where they have their meals, but these are more formal, and usually you don't talk during the meals. Just follow what everyone else is doing, and you will be fine. No need to talk anyway!

If you are really really lucky, there will be a restaurant where they serve amazing vegetarian dishes that replicate meat but aren't, usually made out of dofu. You can have vegetarian "roast duck," "salmon steak," or even "filet mignon." I loved the presentation, and the flavor was fascinating. My favorite was the salmon, which was almost buttery. Do give it a try if there is one in the area.

In case you are in Beijing, you can try visiting the wonderful vegetarian restaurants called Pure Lotus, one in the Lido Hotel near the airport, and another not too far away near Chang Hong Qiao. Run by a monk from Wutai Mountain, this is a very authentic vegetarian restaurant. Do check it out.

Luohan Red Conch Temple Beijing

Luohan Red Conch Temple Beijing

These are some high points

There is more, but perhaps you will get the chance to visit a temple

There are Buddhist Temples all over the world, and they have many different types and styles according to the area and country where they are located..

Temples in South East Asia are quite different from ones in Northern areas, like around Beijing. If you visit a temple in your own country, you may find similarities to the ones here in China. No matter where you visit, you will find some things will be the same as the temples you have seen here. Have fun!

Did you enjoy your tour? - Any thoughts or comments?

Oe Kaori from Yokohama Japan on October 22, 2020:

We have similar temples in Japan

Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on August 03, 2014:

@RhondaAlbom: Oh thank you! Yes - it was fun. And thank you for featuring it on FB! :-)

Rhonda Albom from New Zealand on August 02, 2014:

Wonderful tour, perfect for those not as lucky as us, who actually got to visit a Buddhist temple with you in China. I featured this at my new FB page today :)

RinchenChodron on November 04, 2013:

Interesting information on Chinese temples - by the way the Potola is actually a Tibetan temple and always will be.

Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on August 30, 2013:

@JennAshton: I am so glad you enjoyed it.

JennAshton on August 18, 2013:

What a BEAUTIFUL post!!! I am going to spend some time in here;-)

JennAshton on August 18, 2013:

What a BEAUTIFUL post!!! I am going to spend some time in here;-)

Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on June 14, 2013:

@Greathaul2013: Glad it was useful! I live in China too - so somehow we are neighbors!

Greathaul2013 on June 13, 2013:

Thanks for organizing all of this information. I've been to two Buddhist temples now (living in China), but haven't really understand what I was observing - just enjoying the beauty. Great insight here, and nice pics!

Elyn MacInnis (author) from Shanghai, China on June 10, 2013:

@sybil watson: So glad it was helpful!

sybil watson on June 09, 2013:

This lens is just fascinating! Living in Hawaii, I've been to quite a few Buddhist temples, but I'm never sure what the etiquette is - now I understand so many of the details.