The Main Courtyard

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on April 25, 2016.)

A censor stands among pines at Banruo Temple, Changchun, Jilin

Between the Drum and Bell Towers, between the Four Kings' Hall and the main Buddha hall, lies the Main Courtyard. If the Main Hall is the heart of the temple, the Main Courtyard is its lungs.

Usage varies from temple to temple. Some courtyards are taken up by "free life" ponds. Others have extensive garden beds--usually flowers or shrubbery, but at one temple I visited, vegetables! Ordinarily, though, the space is kept open for temple functions attracting large crowds.

Still, most have a handful of accoutrements in common. These usually include censers for burning incense; steles with the temple's history; in older temples, full-grown trees; and in a few, a pagoda or sacred well.

Perhaps the trees are the most impressive, when they are present: towering redwoods or scrubby pines in China's north; more tropical species in the south, including the ficus religiosa, the species of fig under which the seated Buddha attained enlightenment. It is thus also called the Bodhi tree.

Incense burners can be of surprising importance, far beyond their practical function. In some traditions, the ash of burned incense is taken home as "starter" ash for home altars. It may also be used in the founding of "daughter temples" in Chinese communities worldwide.

Finally, the steles--often on the back of a bixi or mythical dragon/turtle--may bear the history of the temple. They have often played a role in reestablishing temples that had been destroyed.

What do I like best about the courtyard? They're great places to relax, especially at those temples reached by dozens of steps!

Big trees and small pagodas at Kaiyuan Temple, Quanzhou, Fujian

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