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  • Dennis Lishka

Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery of the Sōtō sect, in Fukui Prefecture. Eiheiji’s significance derives largely from the place in the history of Japanese Buddhism of its founder, Dōgen (1199–1253), and to his interpretation of Sōtō Zen monastic practice. After 1217 Dōgen joined the dominant Tendai school of Buddhism, but he grew disillusioned with Japanese Buddhism as a feasible human soteriology, although he was much attracted to the practice of Zen meditation. In 1223 he left for China, then under the rule of the Song dynasty (ad 960–1279), to practise Chinese Chan (Jap. Zen) Buddhism under the master Rujing (1163–1228) at Mt Tiantong. After his return in 1227 he advocated Sōtō Zen but was continuously harassed by Tendai-sect monks until he cleared donated land in 1243 in Echizen (western Japan) for the first Sōtō Zen monastery, Eiheiji (Monastery of Eternal Peace). At Eiheiji, Dōgen faithfully reproduced Chinese Chan Buddhism in two important ways: experientially, with daily meditation integrated into such basic activities as eating, walking, working, begging and washing, whereby enlightenment might be attained by the practitioner and by others; and architecturally, the buildings in the temple compound, each unique in structure and function, being tightly integrated into a working site for daily Zen discipline and arranged to fit into the topography of the forested hillside.

Eiheiji is an exact reproduction of a Southern Song-period (1127–1279) Chan Buddhist monastery, specifically that on Mt Tiantong. It is a classic Zen monastic compound, with seven structures aligned along an axis that runs uphill, south–north; it has an area of about 3.31 ha. At the southern end of the central axis, behind the Bell Tower, is the Mountain Gate (Sanmon), to the east and west of which are the bathhouse and the latrine, respectively. In the centre is the Buddha Hall (Butsuden), with the kitchen (kuin) and monks’ quarters (sōdo) to east and west respectively. The northernmost building is the Dharma Hall. All major structures are connected by extensive roofed but open-sided corridors (kairō) to facilitate movement between buildings during daily practice. The third abbot, Gikai (1219–1309), completed the basic layout, although most structures have had to be rebuilt several times because of damage by fires from warfare and natural disasters.

The Imperial Messenger Gate is situated south-west of the Mountain Gate. This was where the emperor’s emissary would be received. It was originally in the ‘opposed-pillar’ format of the Chinese Tang period (ad 618–907) but was rebuilt in 1840 in Tenpō-era (1830–44) style. The Mountain Gate is the main gate to the compound and the oldest extant structure at Eiheiji (rebuilt in 1749). It has two storeys, the ground floor measuring 16.6×9 m, with five bays and three doors. On the ground floor are statues of the Four Guardian Kings (Skt Lokapala); on the second floor are groupings of statues of 16 arhats (enlightened beings) and 500 arhats. Between the Mountain Gate and the Buddha Hall on the north–south central axis is the Central Sparrow Gate, the most famous example of a Sōtō Zen monastery structure. Though not distinctive in design, it is the presence and location of the gate within the temple compound that is one of the defining architectural characteristics of Eiheiji. The Buddha Hall is a famed Meiji-period (1868–1912) structure, rebuilt in 1902, with a hip-and-gable pantile roof. It contains statues of the Buddhas Shaka (Skt Shakyamuni), Miroku (Skt Maitreya) and Yakushi (Bhaishajyaguru) on an altar representing Mt Sumeru (shumidan; the cosmic mountain and abode of the gods) and a portrait of the emperor (Eiheiji served as an ‘imperial prayer temple’). The floor space of the Buddha Hall is 298 sq. m. The Ichimonji (Straight-line Corridor) is open-sided and runs east–west connecting parallel corridors that run north–south between the Buddha Hall and the Dharma Hall. The Dharma Hall (860.6 sq. m) was used for lectures and exchanges between master and disciples. It was rebuilt in 1843 during the Tenpō era in the style of a guest hall.

The kitchen was remodelled in 1837 and more extensively in 1930. It has a floor area of 397.2 sq. m. The monks’ quarters constitute the central site for meditation, meals and sleeping. They were rebuilt in 1901 and have a floor area of 602.4 sq. m. To the west is the Reading Hall, a Buddhist scripture study rebuilt in 1951, and the Kounkaku, which was built to honour the second Sōtō-school abbot, Koun Ejō (1198–1280), and rebuilt in 1881. The ground area is 209 sq. m. Directly behind the Kounkaku is the Founder’s Hall, built to honour Dōgen and early abbots and patrons. It was destroyed by fire in 1879 and rebuilt in 1881. The abbot’s quarters (hōjō; to the north of the kitchen), built in 1852, consist of inner quarters for the abbot’s personal use and outer quarters for rituals. The Daikōmyōzō (Brilliant Treasury), immediately to the south-west of the abbot’s quarters, is a large building (828 sq. m) that was used as the Sōtō school’s parishioner interview hall. It was rebuilt in 1930. The Myōkōdai (Platform of Mysterious Light) that lies directly west of the abbot’s quarters served as a reception site for special guests. It was rebuilt in 1844.


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