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Tera, Dera, Ji, In -- Japanese spellings for the word TEMPLE
EXAMPLES: Hase-dera, Hry-ji, Byd-in

See Temple Naming Conventions Below

 Note: Temples are Buddhist, Shrines are Shint

Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Photo by Mr. Goto Osami
 Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Photo by Mr. Goto Osami

WHAT’S HERE. This site currently offers the following temple resources:

KOREAN INFLUENCE ON EARLY JAPANESE BUDDHISM. Japan first learned of Buddhism from Korea in the mid-sixth century when the king of Korea sent the Japanese court a small gilt bronze Buddha statue and other Buddhist items. Buddhism's introduction to Japan was accompanied thereafter by the arrival of countless artisans, priests, and scholars from Korea. Additionally, large numbers of Koreans fled to Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries to escape incessant warring among the three Korean kingdoms of Silla (J = Shiragi ), Baekje (J = Kudara ) and Koguryo / Goguryeo (J = Kkuri ). These immigrants brought numerous Buddhist images and texts, and played major roles as Buddhist academics, teachers, sculptors, artisans, and architects. Many of Japan's earliest temple structures, for example, were made by Korean craftsmen (jump here). Nonetheless, by the early 8th century, the Korean artistic influence began to wan and was eventually overshadowed by Japan's growing fascination with China and Chinese Tang-era culture.

Shint Versus Buddhist Architecture. If you see a work of sacred architecture from before the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that rises on a monumental scale, it is apt to be Buddhist. Shint architecture is more "down to earth," and rarely dominates its surroundings but rather fits in with its natural setting.

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Below Text Courtesy of Ed Jacobs
The key to appreciating temples is to know a little bit about Buddhism. If you don't know which Buddha the statues and paintings represent, the temple is not likely to be interesting to you. Japanese shrines have more things to do, such as having one's fortune told and reading the wishes, but Buddhist temples are more likely to appeal to the art lover.

Perhaps visiting a graveyard sounds a little macabre, and you may get some strange looks if you go around photographing gravestones (although it's perfectly acceptable), but Japanese graveyards are some of the most beautiful places in Japan. The gravestones in the older, more famous cemeteries, like Okunoin at Mt. Koya near Osaka can truly be considered works of art. When a Buddhist dies, he or she often takes on what is called a kaimy . The word kaimy comes from the characters kai (a commandment) and my (name) because it is a posthumous name taken by those who swear to obey five important Buddhist commandments: 

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not tell a lie
  3. Do not steal
  4. Do not consume intoxicants
  5. Do not commit obscene sexual acts

Apparently, the names on the gravestones can cost almost a thousand dollars per character ! Count the number of characters on the grave marker, and find out how rich (or devout) the person was.

Learning that Kannon, the Buddha of mercy has a thousand arms (often there are less on the actual statue) to represent his infinite mercy, or that the fearsome looking Fud My- carries a sword and appears terrifying to scare people into accepting the teachings of Buddha, will make your visit much more interesting.

Buddhist temples are extremely beautiful, and very interesting architecturally. There are three important characteristics of Japanese architecture that you should be aware of. First, when you visit a temple, notice how the buildings are integrated with their natural surroundings. For example, at the famous Hry-ji in Nara, the pine trees in and around the temple complex are almost as important as the buildings themselves.  Second is the simplicity of the structures. If you compare a Buddhist temple with a great cathedral in Europe, it will seem very small and simple, although no less beautiful. A third important difference is the building materials. Whereas European buildings tend to employ stone, temples are almost always made of wood. The beauty of the building materials is an important part of the design.  

Building on grounds of Chuson-ji Temple
 Building on grounds of Chuson-ji Temple

The absolute best way to experience and enjoy a Japanese temple is to spend the night in one!  Many temples contain shukubo (Temple Lodging), and provide a wonderful opportunity to stay in an incredibly atmospheric setting, eat delicious shojin ryori (vegetarian food for monks) and watch or even participate in esoteric religious rituals or meditation. There are famous shukubo all over Japan, but among the best are: Sanshin-Gosai-Den on Mt. Haguro in Yamagata, the Youth Hostel in Takayama, Gifu, and Kyoto.

One does not have to be a believer to stay at most shukubo and it is usually cheaper than what you would pay at a ryokan (Japanese Inn).  Prices can range anywhere from 3000 yen (for a youth hostel) to 12,000 yen per night (during holiday periods) for a room and meals with the average stay costing around 7000 yen.

For more information about Shukubo click here (opens new browser window). Although there are far too many temples to list them all, here are a few of the best ones: the temple on Mt. Haguro in Yamagata, Horyu-ji and Kofuku-ji in Nara, and Ginkaku-ji (or Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto.  

end story by Ed Jacobs      

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Adapted from the notes of Yasushi Motoyama

In general, a Buddhist temple in Japan is called "JI" or "TERA" or "IN." But, owing to grammatical considerations, a Buddhist temple in a mountain retreat is called a "YAMA-DERA" -- it is not called YAMA-TERA. Yama is the Japanese word for mountain, and Terayama is the name of a Japanese family, but a Buddhist temple is never called a "TERAYAMA." The general rule is that TERA, when used as a suffix, is pronounced DERA. The Chinese (and Japanese) character for TERA / DERA is . This character can also be pronounced JI. Both readings mean temple.

At a deeper level, we find that the word TERA / DERA is closely associated with Buddhist temples wherein are Buddhist images, and also wherein priests (or nuns) live and study Buddhism, and such temples invariably also provide Buddhist services to the people.

In contrast, the Chinese character (IN), another word for Buddhist temple, most often refers to a large building enclosed by a fence. The term IN is used in many ways. Hospitals are called BY-IN, a beauty salon is called a BI-Y-IN, an old-folks-home is called a Y-R-IN, and the Japanese House of Representatives is called the SH-GI-IN. Thus, we discover that the term IN is used for many types of institutions with no religious connections. But when associated with a Buddhist institution, the term IN is often used in one distinctive way. Within the precincts of many great temples are smaller temple complexes. These smaller temples often have names that end in "IN."

In Japan, the names of most Buddhist temples end with the term JI. Prominent examples include Tdai-ji, Hry-ji, and Kench-ji. Less prominent, yet still easily found, are temples with names that end in TERA / DERA, or with names that end with IN. Famous examples include Hase-dera, Asuka-dera, and Byd-in. Are TERA / DERA temples more actively involved in practicing and propogating Buddhism than JI and IN temples? That seems to be the case, but I am not entirely sure if this is correct.

To add more confusion to this mixture, many temples have more than one name. The temple Onj-ji near Lake Biwa is also called Mi-i-dera. Perhaps the "dera" form is the nickname form. In similar fashion, Jy-ei-ji Temple in Kamakura is also called "Bota-mochi-dera," while Tkei-ji in Kita-Kamakura is also called "Kakekomi-dera." As a sidelight, Tkei-ji is popularly known as the "Divorce Temple," for during the Kamakura period women could seek shelter and sanctuary here from their husbands. The term "Kakekomi" is used to denote a last-minute rush, as when people dash to get on a departing train at the last second. So the nickname Kakekomi-dera is appropriate, for it connotes women dashing to get away from their husbands.

All of these complexities arose with the emergence and spread of Buddhism in Japan. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, around 538 AD, tradition asserts that it was a Korean mission visiting Japan to pay homage to the Japanese ruler. This mission presented the Japanese ruler with a small Buddhist image and some scriptures. After Buddhism's introduction, a civil war emerged between those favoring the new Buddhist faith and those against it. At the time, two powerful families took up the battle. The Soga family was a newly emerging family, and it favored Buddhism. The Mononobe family was an established, conservative family. It supported the native Shint faith and was anti-Buddhist. But Prince Shtoku Taishi of the ruling elite sided with the Soga family, and the Mononobe family was ultimately defeated.

The Soga family built the famous temple called "Asuka-dera." Prince Shtoku (574 - 622 AD), meanwhile, is attributed with the construction of the famous Hry-ji Temple in Nara (outside link), Shitenn-ji in Osaka, as well as many other temples throughout Japan. Mahayana Buddhism was the form of Buddhism most favored by the court and the powerful families. But why did the Soga family name their temple DERA, and Prince Shtoku name his temples JI? That is unclear to me.

Then, in the 8th century AD, Emperor Shmu established the great temple of Tdai-ji in Nara, and build a giant statue of the Buddha (daibutsu) there. He ordered local governments to build temples around the country, and these temples were referred to as "Koku-Bun-ji" temples (national temples).

Later, about 822 AD, when Emperor Kammu transferred the capital from Nara to Kyoto, he established another great temple (in the eastern quarter of Kyoto) called Enraku-ji. Many priests studied Buddhism here, and many nobles and powerful families supported and donated lands and money to this temple. This temple gained much power, and in later days the Japanese court struggled hard to contain and control the power of Enraku-ji. The same type of difficulty faced the Bakufu (military government) during the Kamakura Period. In Kamakura, the great temples of Kench-ji and Engaku-ji, which were constructed in the Kamakura period, later became major power centers, and the governments of the day struggled hard to overcome and minimize their influence. 

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Kencho-ji Temple in Kamakura
13th and 14th Century
Japanese Architecture

Kencho-ji Temple in Kamakura
Founded in 1251, this temple was the chief monastery for the five great Zen monasteries that thrived during the Kamakura era (1185-1333). It became the center of Zen Buddhism thanks to strong state patronage, and was home to the first landscape garden laid out in the Zen style. In its heyday, Kenchoji was a vast enclosure containing some fifty vassal buildings scattered here and there in the nearby hills and valleys. The great wooden posts of the main gate are still a wonder to behold, as are the wooden joists of the ceiling. As its former importance would suggest, Kench-ji houses many rare and curious relics from bygone days, but they are displayed only once each year in August. As with most Japanese religious architecture, there is a strong preference for natural materials (e.g., wood rather than stone), and the interaction of both interior and exterior space.

spacerIndeed, during the Kamakura period, a great cry from the common people was heard, and many priests turned to the needs of the commoner, forsaking their monasteries in favor of bringing salvation to the simple folk. At Engaku-ji in Kamakura, many priests left the temple, disagreeing with the temple’s policies. They turned instead to the salvation of the common people, and worked wholeheartedly to serve them. Both the government and the great temples intervened, attempting to stop their propagation of Buddhist faith to common folk. But this attempt failed, and Buddhism for the common folk was born during the Kamakura Period, and it spread quickly throughout Japan in the coming centuries, especially within the newly formed sects of Nichiren, Jdo (Amida faith, Jiz worship), and Zen Buddhism. The three most popular deities from this period -- Amida Nyorai (heaven), Jiz Bosatsu (hell), and Kannon Bosatsu (earthly life) -- still form the modern-day bedrock of Buddhism for the commoner in Japan.

In summation, most of the great temples from bygone days were established by and for the Emperor, or by and for powerful families, not for the people. It is unclear if TERA / DERA are used by powerful families, and JI and IN are reserved for the Japanese court. But it seems clear that IN is often used to denote smaller temple complexes within larger Buddhist estates. In Kamakura, Meigetsu-in was originally part of Kench-ji temple. In Kyoto, the Byd-in temple was originally managed by the Enraku-ji Temple.

The origin of the Japanese word TERA, it is said, stems from the Korean word CHORU, but this has never been clearly proven. In ancient China, the term (TERA / DERA) was an office for government ministers. Some legends say that, long ago, two Buddhist priests visited China, and the Chinese emperor build them a (TERA / DERA) as their guest home. Just like these wandering priests, the Historical Buddha never settled into one place -- he wandered from place to place, preaching and teaching. This might be the origin of the term TERA (temple), a "temporary" lodging for those who believe and teach the Buddhist philosophy.

NOTE: In modern Japan, there are Buddhist head temples with sub-temples under their management (i.e., denomination temples). The head temple is called "Hon-Zan" or "So-Hon-Zan." 


Adapted from the notes of Yasushi Motoyama   


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