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The Phoenix Hall

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Architecture can be a valuable tool for the study of history. The buildings of a particular historical age can offer many clues about other aspects of life during that period, such as the relative prosperity of the economy, the prevailing social values and concerns, and the trends in popular culture, to name just a few.  By studying the history of architecture, then, the historian can develop another vantage point from which to view and interpret the past.

In Japan during the Heian period (794-1185), for instance, the introduction of new Buddhist teachings influenced the way in which buildings were designed and built. The Phoenix Hall, also known as the Byodoin or Hoodo, is an excellent example of how architecture can reflect the dominant, or at least the fashionable, ideas of a time. The Phoenix Hall is also important because it is one of the few surviving buildings dating from the Heian period, and is generally regarded as among the most graceful and refined examples of Japanese architecture.

The Phoenix Hall

The Heian period was one of the most significant in Japanese history. The term “heian” refers to the city of Heiankyo, modern Kyoto, where the Japanese relocated their capital in 794. Scholars generally divided the period into two broad demarcations: the Early Heian Period dating from 794 to 894 and the Late Heian Period, also known as the Fujiwara Period after the powerful Fujiwara family that dominated Japan from the late ninth to the twelfth centuries, dating from 894-1185.

The Heian Period was characterized by the introduction into Japan of a number of new Buddhist teachings. The first of these came about during the Early Heian period when two Buddhist priests, Saicho and Kukai, returned from China. Each established his own school of Buddhist thought that would in the end greatly alter Japanese cultural and religious life.

By the beginning of the eleventh century, however, another new interpretation of Buddhism had emerged, competing with the now established Tendai and Shingon sects.  It was this new way of thought that ultimately inspired one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Later Heian, or Fujiwara, Period: the construction of the Phoenix Hall as part of the temple complex known as the Byodoin. The Phoenix Hall stands as a built testimony to “Pure Land” Buddhism that was becoming popular in Japan during this time.

Pure Land Buddhism was closely aligned with the Tendai sect, founded earlier by the Buddhist priest Saicho.  This particular form of Buddhism which originated in China, was brought to prominence by the Buddhist monk Eshin. The philosophy of Pure Land was simple and attractive. There were no elaborate rituals. Instead, the teachings stressed a simple doctrine of salvation and rebirth.

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