TEMPLE NAMING CONVENTIONS (TERA / DERA 寺, JI 寺, IN 院)
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 寺. 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 院 (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 BYŌ-IN, a beauty salon is called a BI-YŌ-IN, an old-folks-home is called a YŌ-RŌ-IN, and the Japanese House of Representatives is called the SHŪ-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 Tōdai-ji, Hōryū-ji, and Kenchō-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 Byōdō-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 Onjō-ji near Lake Biwa is also called Mi-i-dera. Perhaps the "dera" form is the nickname form. In similar fashion, Jyō-ei-ji Temple in Kamakura is also called "Bota-mochi-dera," while Tōkei-ji in Kita-Kamakura is also called "Kakekomi-dera." As a sidelight, Tōkei-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 Shintō faith and was anti-Buddhist. But Prince Shōtoku 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 Shōtoku (574 - 622 AD), meanwhile, is attributed with the construction of the famous Hōryū-ji Temple in Nara (outside link), Shitennō-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 Shōtoku name his temples JI? That is unclear to me.
Then, in the 8th century AD, Emperor Shōmu established the great temple of Tōdai-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 Kenchō-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.
Indeed, 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, Jōdo (Amida faith, Jizō worship), and Zen Buddhism. The three most popular deities from this period -- Amida Nyorai (heaven), Jizō Bosatsu (hell), and Kannon Bosatsu (earthly life) -- still form the modern-day bedrock of Buddhism for the commoner in Japan.
13th and 14th Century
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, Kenchō-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.
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 Kenchō-ji temple. In Kyoto, the Byōdō-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 寺 (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 寺 (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