Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


The Buddha’s House

July, 2008

Published in RES: Aesthetics and Anthropology, Vol. 53/54, Spring/Autumn, 2008.


The Buddha’s house is an enigma. Even though there is no clear, single image of the house, and Buddhist traditions do not describe it with any precision or unanimity, the shadow of the house exerts a tremendous influence on pragmatic, didactic and symbolic deliberations of the various tenets of Buddhism. If the Buddha’s house acquires a larger than life status, it is not because of the house itself, but because of the stature of the dweller of the house, the Buddha. The purpose of this essay is to draw the outline of that house.


Why should one be interested in the Buddha’s house other than the reason that the house belonged to a world-moving teacher? If Buddhism and its various practices are ascetical in nature, dwelling is a key locus in that tradition. If an architectural exegesis is sought in that ascetical culture, it must begin with the house of the Buddha.


The Buddha’s house appears in manifold ways within the Buddhist traditions, depending on the various schools that emerged since the First Council held immediately after the passing away of the Buddha, and the various accounts and concepts of the Buddha that developed soon after. Conversations in the traditions are not so much about the literal architecture of the house as much as employing the architectural structure for a deliberation on asceticism, on describing, explaining and encoding the dimensions of renunciation. This is the principal reason for an elementary structure as the Buddha’s house to emerge with a kind of paradigmatic value. Joseph Rykwert, in establishing the significance of Adam’s House, writes how the image of a clearly imaginary house becomes the locus of a compelling religious, sociological, and philosophical imagination. The aim of the production of such a paradigm is the reform of society that is envisioned in a kind of “purer” architecture which society somehow would follow as a model. It seems many cultures assign reified properties to a certain architectural image that will charge the lives of people, forming expectations broader than prosaic architecture.


The Buddha’s house becomes a significant site for reflecting on the scope and limits of renunciation, on its existential, ritual, and aporetic dimensions. After all, the Buddha – Gautama Śākyamuni – was an arch-ascetic whose life practice and teaching were about the critical relinquishment of “home,” and the various re-formations thereafter. Within Buddhist traditions, the house appears diversely, from practical considerations to didactic, metaphorical and symbolic treatments. There are descriptions, in both literary forms and visual representations, of the house that the Buddha dwelled in prosaic ways.  The house also appears in various fabulous narratives, as we shall see, where it acquires an extraordinary dimension in itself, from being a repository of something miraculous to signifying the invisible. However, in Buddhist ascetical thinking, the final encounter of renunciation takes place within the frame of the human body which is visualized, in many Buddhist narratives, as a dwelling, thus bringing an intimacy to two aspects of existence: building and body. The house is homologized with the ascetic’s body so that a metaphysical or mystical understanding of the supra-human figure is embodied in the architecture. All these ideas emerged from the facts around the life of the historical Buddha and the regards accorded to him then and after as the “perfected ascetic,” or as he was described, the mahāsāmanā (arch-ascetic), or mahāpurusa (superman).


The Architecture of the House

Jetavana is a special place in the life of the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhārta (543-483 BCE). The place was a garden retreat outside the city of Śrāvastī (still an extant city in present day Uttar Pradesh in northern India). In around the sixth century BCE, when the Buddha was roaming the Gangetic plain, going from one city to another with his ardent project of transforming oneself, he would station himself in a secluded area inside or just outside the city. The area could be a garden (āramā) as part of the estate of a wealthy person, an established retreat, or part of a forested site. During his visits to Śrāvastī, he stayed at Jetavana for a total of over twenty-five years. The site of Jetavana fares very significantly in Buddhist art and hagiography where it is depicted with what are known to be dwellings especially constructed for the Buddha.


We can assume that prior to the dwellings in the Jetavana, the Buddha had experienced various architectural spaces. When the Buddha was about twenty-nine years old and known as Siddhārta, a prince in the northern kingdom of Kapilavastu (in modern Nepal), he abandoned his palatial home and left in the dead of the night for his now celebrated quest and culmination under a tree in Gayā (present day Bodhgayā in Bihar). The story has been told and retold, one that primarily focuses on the Buddha’s teachings and exemplary life that combines self-abnegation, ascetical discipline and contemplation, and finally a self-transformative illumination about the course of life (a phenomenon that came to be characterized as “enlightenment”).


But what remains rather elusive is how the Buddha lived and carried on his day to day routines, first, in his life of wandering in the wilderness after renouncing his princely home, and second, in his life of post-nirvanic traveling in more urban settings. It would be important to know how the great teacher and practitioner of renunciation dealt with the mundane but necessary aspects of dwelling after the moment of enlightenment.  The Buddha, in an ideological move, may have repudiated the normative house as the prime symbol of domestic and social ensnarement (samsāra), but he did require and acquire some sort of dwelling even in his life as a great teacher. We know only spottily about the actual residence of the Buddha (the Jetavana structures being a case), of the various huts or pavilion-like structures he might have used in the gardens of cities that he visited in his itinerant life. Images start appearing in Buddhist literature and iconography from around the 3rd-2nd century BCE, a few centuries after the Buddha’s own time.


The earliest dwelling of Siddhārta, in his life of wandering in the forest in the pre-enlightenment phase, may be regarded as an elemental shelter. Buddhist texts written few centuries after his death describe such an elemental condition variously as being under a tree, seating on a cushion of grass, or being in a cave. Such primitive conditions were part and parcel of the renunciatory life styles of various hermits and ascetics in India that go back to Vedic times. The ascetical movements of Buddhism and Jainism in the 6th century BCE considered those conditions in a more formalized and organized manner that also came to constitute or define the ideology of renunciation.


In any case, the tree fares prominently in early Buddhist universe. Next to the cave, the tree is the archetypal site of ascetic practice despite their marked phenomenological differences. It was actually the tree at Gayā that becomes the critical site and “structure” associated both in actuality and metaphorically (and soon metaphysically) with the climactic moment of nirvāna or “awakening.” It is not surprising that the tree becomes the prevalent sanctioned “dwelling” in Buddhist monastic literature, and soon a multivalent motif in the representation, explanation, and elaboration of the Buddha’s “abode.” Although the reified tree is a widespread and ancient phenomenon, it becomes an emblem par excellence within Buddhist symbolism and its ascetic practices.  The tree is simultaneously the site of enlightenment, and an emblem of Buddhist metaphysics (such as “Cosmic Tree” and the “Tree of Wisdom”). It is both an abode and a temple: The tree is both a symbol of the actual site of Buddha’s enlightenment, and therefore an actual spatial location, and of the more abstract notion of yogic enlightenment. This is best exemplified architecturally by the creation of the hypaethral temples, the bodhigharas. The bodhighara, coming a little later after the Buddha but certainly imbued with pre-Buddhist significance, is basically a sacred tree associated with the Buddha around which is constructed an elaborate structure for carrying out rituals.


The tree, as the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer remarks, is very much like a hut. The tree and the cave are not only naturalistic conditions of dwelling, as distinct from a constructed artifact, but are also archaic sources of a vast metaphysical and mythological imagination. In the ascetic realm, there is reciprocal significance between the tree, the cave, and the hut when approaching the architecture of the ascetic. Some of that significance comes from an earlier source such as the yaksa imagery that has substantially influenced the build-up of the image of the hermit under a tree. The yaksa is an archaic tree or water spirit, the veneration of which was present as a devotional cult in almost all villages, a practice that predates Buddhism in India but was apparently co-opted into the Buddhist world-view. In any case, the abode of the yaksa is an important feature: it is a tree, most often located in a forest. The yaksa and the tree are, however, virtually interchangeable; specific trees are abodes of the yaksa beings that often develop into a locus of venerable activities, creating a ritual ensemble of tree, altar, seat and enclosure that would come to be known as a cetiya or caitya. It is this ensemble that informs the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment to such an extent that the village girl Sujata mistakes the contemplative Siddhārta for a yaksa. There is a conflation here between the property of a dwelling (bhavanām, as the yaksa abode was known), and an honorific locus (caitya). In both Buddhist and Jaina narratives, the yaksa caityas are used as resorts, or halting places (temporary abodes) for itinerant monks.  Stories abound about the Buddha taking brief residence under a yaksa tree and resting on its altar slab or seat.


All these means is that living under a tree came to be reified in a special way in Buddhist ascetic thought. The Vinayas, a compendium of rules put together for the monks, and supposedly passed down from the Buddha, announces: “In the matter of housing, the śramana’s life is based on dwelling at the foot of a tree. Thus you must endeavor to live all your life. Cells, houses, mansions, and huts are extras.” The Buddha on occasions encouraged living under trees and in caves, giving at the same time its efficacy for ascetic purpose. At around 400 C.E., the prolific commentator Buddhaghosa writes in the Visudhhimagga that there are thirteen ascetic practices known as dhutángas that are conducive to the pursuit of ascetic virtues. Of the thirteen practices, one is the “tree-root dweller’s practice.” This conforms to the Vinaya suggestion of “depending on the root of a tree as an abode,” in which the ascetic begins his renunciatory practice by declaring: “I refuse a roof.” The root of a tree is clearly a dwelling recommended by the Buddha because it is “valueless, easy to get, and blameless.” Buddhaghosa lists the following benefits for living at the root of a tree: (1) the perception of impermanence is aroused through seeing the continual alteration of young leaves, (2) avarice of abodes and love of (building) work are absent, (3) one dwells in the company of deities, and (4) lives in conformity with (the principles of) fewness of wishes.


There is also the post-enlightenment wandering of the Buddha when he would travel, always with a retinue of followers, from city to city, teaching and discoursing. On such journeys, he would generally reside in a forested site near a city, or a large garden such as at Jetavana. Sometimes the garden, often belonging to a wealthy patron sympathetic to the Buddha’s teachings, would be dedicated for the sole use of the Buddha, whence the site from being a pleasure-garden would become a retreat (ārāma) for hallowed, meditational purposes. The large site would also be a residence for the group of people accompanying the Buddha, including fellow elders and fresh initiates. There were not yet the regularized monastic establishments that happened soon afterwards and remain the evidence of Buddhist architecture today.


The huts at Jetavana are the most significant constructions made for the Buddha. The huts depicted in both the reliefs in Bhārhut and Sāncī (both from around the 3rd c. BCE) are shown as refined construction of thatch and possibly wattle and daub walls. The relief from Bhārhut shows two huts, one a square or circular hut, and another an oblong, vaulted one. An elaborate caitya doorway with wooden end-beams forms the entry for both. The caitya frames several arched motifs with decorative patterns, the latter could be some kind of lattice-work to let air and light in. The roof, adorned with pinnacles, is well-formed with an elegant curved shape in section that follows the contour of the caitya-arch. Such an architectural profile is recalled in full scale as either a gateway or compressed building volume at the front of the Lomas Rsi cave that was carved out by the Ājīvika ascetics not too far from Gayā, at about 260 BCE.


It is not clear yet whether the hut dedicated for the Buddha in the Jetavana relief is an actual representation of a structure the Buddha lived in, a simple adaptation from common dwellings of that time, or more possibly, a stylized convention for important buildings (the Bhārhut and Sāncī reliefs were produced about 200 years after the time of the Buddha). Early representations of residential architecture of that time, as in the art of Gandhāra and sites like Bhārhut, do show some with resemblances to the huts at Jetavana. What is significant is that the profile of the Jetavana huts depicted in the Bhārhut and Sāncī reliefs takes on a codified character making it possibly a mark of the Buddha. Among the few examples that may be cited, the most striking one is the image of a hut within a bodhighara-ensemble from a medallion from Mathurā. Another is a statue from a site in Gandhāra of what is known as a female donor with a votive object that seems to be a cross-section of a “triple-arched building” bearing close resemblance to the profile of Jetavana hut. A fragment of a statue from Gandhāra shows compressed scenes of Buddha at the fire-temple in Uruvilvā. A structure on the right, possibly the fire-temple, depicts the Buddha inside, and the same structure on the left with the “tri-lobed arch” opening shows an empty space.


In the period of Buddhist art, from perhaps the time of the Buddha to the second century BCE, the Buddha was not represented directly, and was conveyed in the so-called aniconic manner through visual marks of which the more established ones included foot-prints, the wheel of teaching, the bodhi-tree or the stūpa. In the repertoire of signs or marks of the aniconic Buddha, I would provisionally like to include the hut-motif, something that has to await a closer inspection later. The hut-motif is certainly not as wide spread as the established ones, yet there are many examples as above that have been overlooked by scholars studying aniconic representations.


In the case of the structures at Jetavana, the identifying “mark” of a hut being the Buddha’s dwelling is not only visual, but also olfactory. The structures there were called gandhakuti, or fragrant or perfumed hut, and that term gandhakuti came to refer to the abode of the Buddha in more than one ways. It is through the gandhakuti that the space of the Buddha’s habitation has been reified in early Buddhist circles.


Gandhakuti, the House of Fragrance

The gandhakuti was always considered a very special “place of the Buddha,” a structure prepared for him either during or after his life. While the building of the gandhakuti at Jetavana seems to be most known, it was not unique to that site alone. It was part of the importance accorded to the accommodation of the Buddha whenever he arrived at some city with his retinue.


Fragrant architecture was particularly highlighted in early Buddhist tradition. In Jetavana itself, there were structures other than the gandhakuti that were also described as being fragrant buildings: kosambakuti, also meaning a fragrant hut, was one of them, and candanamālā, the sandalwood pavilion, is one of the several dwellings that were created for the Buddha in a number of cities. Kārerimandalamālā or musk-rose pavilion, puspamandapa or the flower pavilion, and mālā-vihāra or the garland pavilion are mentioned in various literatures.


The strongest reason for calling the house of the Buddha a fragrant or perfumed one is the offering of perfumes and flowers during his time. The gandhakuti was then not only the private dwelling place of the Buddha but also “the repository of floral offerings which gave its sweet perfume and its Pali name.” The fifth century CE text Dhammapada Attakathā, in one instance, describes the gandhakuti as having pillars, three great windows, gem-set roofing tiles, a golden bowl on the roof, and pinnacles of coral. Coomaraswamy thinks that the golden bowl is located inside the roof and is some kind of device for sprinkling perfume on the Buddha seated within, and it is this that gave the name gandhakuti. The Dhammapada, an important text compiled as the Buddha’s sayings, assembled after his death, mention the nature of flower and fragrance, and the sage being like a bee. The tropical climatic setting is certainly a factor here. The role of smell as signifier came about because of the greater abundance of plants with fragrant flowers and the more porous relationship of the house with the outside.


When the hut becomes a site for devotional offerings by laypeople, the gandhakuti assumes more the status of, what John Strong calls, a “cultic abode” than a pragmatic house of the ascetic. A cultic characterization implies that the house was oriented more for the devotional activity of the broader community of monks and laypeople, in which the association of flowers with the hut came to be an honorific trope for the Buddha. Flowers were often treated in a much more architectural way in connection to spaces for the Buddha. In this sense, two types of gandhakutis are identifiable. The main type is the constructed hut that was very likely functionally lived in by the Buddha. The second type is a flowery pavilion that is not a space of inhabitation but a “new space” that either shelters the Buddha ceremonially or invokes his presence during absent conditions.


It is highly likely that these flowery pavilions were erected as temporary structures wherever the Buddha went for visits, and were used to frame the platform from where he spoke and taught, and also most likely, meditated. In any case, both types – the functional hut and the flowery pavilion – shared the fragrant aspect of the Buddha’s presence, and both came to be reified as such.


The flowers in the fragrant hut were given as simple offerings, but were also used to create a bower or pavilion of flowers around the Buddha, delineating a space around him. That would be the most literal architectural sense of a floral pavilion. The image of the flowery pavilion is depicted in a number of sculptures that show the Buddha under a form of arboreal, floral, or garland-decked canopy. This is also corroborated in certain texts. There is a striking imagery in the Dhammapada Atthakathā where a gardener after meeting the Buddha offers him flowers. The gardener first threw a handful of flowers over the Buddha that remained suspended over his head like a canopy. The next handful that was thrown created a curtain on the Buddha’s right side, eventually creating a curtain wall all around him. The flowery pavilion accompanies the Buddha as a sort of mobile gandhakuti wherever he moves until he reaches the actual fragrant hut, and once he goes inside the hut, the flowers suddenly fall off all around him.


Even if this is a fabulous story, it describes the creation of an architectural space through floral means. John S. Strong describes these as “creating a new space” around the Buddha, a space that also may be seen as coterminous with the body of the arch-ascetic. It is because of this correspondence between the body and the space delineated around it that reverential followers could visualize a scenario of a mobile floral canopy as the Buddha moved around.


Once that correspondence – between body and pavilion – emerges, it is natural to come up with moments when a flowery space is created to represent or commemorate a missing Buddha, who may either be in a distant place when alive, or after his passing may no longer be bodily available. The effect in either case was to “make a space in which the absent Buddha can be present here and now.”


The House of Absence

The house of fragrance is also the house of absence. I have already mentioned how fragrance becomes a cue for invoking absent bodies such that a powerful meaning is assigned to smell over visual signals. There is an interesting passage in an Avadāna text where the protagonist Purna suggests to a group of merchants that they build a sweet-smelling pavilion to invoke the Buddha, when apparently the Buddha is far away and the merchants have never seen him. As Purna recommends: “…use this [sandalwood] to build a circular pavilion (mandalamālā) for the Teacher and then you shall see him.” Purna actually donates towards the building of an elaborate structure made out of sandalwood called the candanamālā (the sandalwood pavilion) with the intention of inviting the Buddha there. After the pavilion was completed, the avadāna narrates:


“Purna climbed onto the roof of [the pavilion], that place of refuge, and stood facing the Jeta[vana] grove [where the Buddha was staying at that time in Śrāvastī]. He knelt down, strewed flowers, waved incense… Then, through the spiritual power of the Buddhas and the divine power of the gods, the flowers fashioned themselves into an airborne pavilion and were transported to the Jeta Grove…”


In elaborating the idea of “new” space, John S. Strong gives examples of floral offerings, such as those of later and present times in front of the statue of the Buddha in Buddhist image halls, and of the established practice of “sweeping the gandhakuti:”


“What this effects ritually is the construction in the image hall itself of a floral perfumed chamber in which the presence of the Buddha can be realized here and now, even though he is in Nirvāna. The Buddha, of course, is to a certain extent “present” already in his image. Presumably the gift of the devotee and the spirit in which it is arranged create a new psycho-physical environment which brings that presence out even more.”


Such symbolic gandhakutis of later times in the form of floral offerings and flowery structures created a “new” space in order to invoke an absent figure. One could describe these symbolic gandhakuti as mimetic, surrogate or associative spaces, that is, they evoke in one form or another the original, living space of the Buddha’s dwelling. So from a place prepared as an abode for the living Buddha, the gandhakuti in its various later forms came to be “a special place in which the Buddha’s presence could be recaptured” for and by the devotees. From a special dwelling place, the significance of the gandhakuti quickly ramified symbolically especially after the passing away of the Buddha. The most important representational aspect of the gandhakuti is the identification of the architectural structure with its dweller, whereby the flowery “new space” becomes coterminous with the figure of the Buddha.


In further ramification of the gandhakuti, it is spoken of as a glorious house or as a large and elaborate temple, sometimes with an extra-ordinary quality. This is understandable in the context of devotional tradition where the gandhakuti is seen as the residence of a supra-human being. The Purnavadāna, mentioned earlier, describes the scene of the Buddha’s inhabiting the gandhakuti in the following fabulous terms:


“Meanwhile, [in Jetavana outside Śrāvastī], the Lord washed his feet, entered his personal cell, sat on the specially appointed seat, assumed an upright posture, and established himself in full mindfulness. As soon as the Lord, with fixed determination of mind, set foot in his perfumed chamber (gandhakut,i), the earth shook in six different ways: the great earth stirred, quivered and quaked; it shook, trembled and shuddered… The nadir rose up, the zenith sank down.  The zenith rose up, the nadir sank down… Then, from his body the Lord radiated an effulgent stream of golden light…”


The Buddha’s house becomes the basis for morphological configurations of later structures and campuses when Buddhism becomes an organized religion. Originally, in the Buddha’s lifetime, the residential gandhakuti was understandably located in the middle of a retreat surrounded by huts of other elders and monks and various monastic facilities. This is perhaps the proto-monastic configuration for the later elaborate monasteries built after the death of the Buddha where the central position in the campus was taken up by a temple-stūpa bearing the designation of a gandhakuti. It is highly possible, as Coomaraswamy observes, that after the death of the Buddha, the residential gandhakuti became the first shrine or temple. Gregory Schopen, in analyzing epigraphic evidence for certain 10th century monasteries, notes that the idea of gandhakuti was continued by designating and maintaining a space as a gandhakuti where the Buddha was thought to have been “a current resident and an abiding presence.” Some of these practices were facilitated by the already established idea of the homology of the Buddha and the gandhakuti described above. In brief, the essence of the gandhakuti was quickly magnified and expanded in both literature and architecture to characterize Buddhist temples, a morphological development that proceeded from the dwelling to a shrine.


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