The Altar in the Main Hall

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on May 2, 2016.)

Left to right: Amitofo with a lotus; Shakyamuni flanked by Ananda and Kashyapa;
and the Medicine Buddha with a pagoda, at tiny Youmin Temple, Nanchang, Jiangxi

A temple's main hall may have various names. In most temples, the figure seated at the center of the altar will be the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, so the hall is called the "Precious Hall of the Great Hero" (Daxiong Baodian). This is sometimes translated "Mahavira Hall" ("Mahavira" is Sanskrit for "Great Man" or "Hero"), but this can be confused with the proper name of one of the great leaders of the Jains, who lived in India around the same time as the Buddha.

Typically, then, the historic Buddha sits in the center of the altar, often flanked by smaller-scale figures of his disciples Ananda and Kashyapa. The Buddha may be holding an object interpreted as a jewel or sutra container; be touching the earth; or be folding his hands in a meditative gesture.

In many temples, there will be a Buddha on either side of him.

If the three Buddhas are identical, these are probably the Buddhas of the Three Times. The two on either side would be Dipankara (Chinese Randengfo), representing the past, and Maitreya (Mi'lefo, who is often seen as a fat, jolly monk in the first hall), the Buddha of the Future.

More often, the two Buddhas on either side will be Amitabha (Amitofo), Buddha of the Western Pure Land, who holds a lotus symbolizing spiritual potential; and the Medicine Buddha (Yaoshifo, in Sanskrit Bhaishajyaguru), who holds a pagoda and has the power of physical healing, as his name suggests.

In still other temples, the figures on either side of the Buddha are the Bodhisattvas Samantabhadra (Puxian), sometimes seated on a tame elephant representing his victory over the mind; and Manjushri (Wenshu), possibly seated on a lion, whose roar represents the wisdom of the Buddha going out into the world.

We'll look at the other features inside the main hall next time.

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