The first things you will notice about a typical Buddhist temple are the gates on the outside of the grounds. These usually have paintings of guardians and/or fierce statues on the edges of the gates. These guardians are the guardians of wisdom, of Holy Scripture (holy teachings), of correct thinking (this is one of the parts of the eightfold path) and of fundamental directions (this means the choices etc that you make in life). Symbolically the guardians are intended to provoke some self-searching and self confrontation.Once inside the gates you will find yourself inside a courtyard. A temple is made up of a few different buildings. Firstly there is the temple itself.
This is a very ornate building where the Buddhists will meditate, pray and worship. Secondly is the building that the monks live in. There is also in some Temples a “meeting” building where the monks will welcome visitors. These buildings are usually named after a bodhisattva or some other strong influencing spirit in the Buddhist religion.
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Leading up to the temple, there are usually steps. These steps will be surrounded by incense sticks. I visited a Buddhist temple in Wimbledon, London, and these incense sticks were five foot high. After climbing the stairs there were several shoe racks, where we took off our shoes before entering the main room of the temple.
Immediately as you walk into the temple, your attention will be drawn to the statues of the Buddha on the temple altar. These will be surrounded by candles and lotus flowers. The main statue of the Buddha will usually be the Buddha sitting in the lotus position. This is called the lotus position because, when sitting in this position the body resembles the shape of an open lotus flower. The lotus flower is on the altar as it is thought that the Buddha meditated while sitting in a lotus flower and also that when he reached enlightenment Lotus flowers bloomed underneath his feet.
Also the fully expanded lotus flower looks like a wheel, a symbol of the soul. It represents the ten directions – four cardinal (N, S, E & W), four intermediate (NE, NW, SE & SW), plus the zeni and nadir. This is a universal device for pinning the centre, where all things appear in perfect simultaneity, freed from chronology – where past, present and future are united in a single moment. The painting of a lotus, therefore, becomes a reminder of the ultimate simultaneity.The walls of the temple will be elaborately decorated with images from the Buddha’s life and in some temples the walls will also picture events from recent times. In the temple that I visited the walls had images of nuclear war heads, old prime ministers, technology and the plans to commemorate the events of September 11th were being made. The ceiling of the temple pictured the Buddha in the different meditation positions.
As I turned to leave the temple, I noticed two dragons “guarding” the exit. We were told that these were a “warning” as to the dangers of what would happen to you in your next life if you did not follow the noble eight fold path in the daily undertakings of your life.