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The Buddha’s Europe (or Should It Be Europe’s Buddha?)

How “Europe” was Transformed through the Study of Buddhist Architecture
Vimalin Rujivacharakul

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

identité, influence, architecture bouddhiste

Indice de palabras clave:

identitad, influencia, arquitectura budista

Index géographique :

Europe, Asie, Asie de l’Est, Japon

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Lydia Liu, “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 4, Summer 1999, p. 728– (...)

1In “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware,” Lydia Liu makes an observation that there is something a translated text can tell us that the original cannot.1 Her original argument relates to the Chinese translation of Robinson Crusoe that reveals a gap in understanding, leading her to inquire about the original text of Robinson Crusoe itself. The significance of this translingual examination goes beyond theories of translation. It implies the possibility of understanding the center through renditions at the edge, an ability to represent the subjectivity of a matter from the margins. It is through this practice that this essay re-thinks “Europe,” arguing that an interpretation of “Europe” outside of its familiar geography promises to yield a novel view about the formation of “Europe” as a subject in architectural history.

  • 2 Chūta Itō, “Hōryūji kenchiku ron” “法隆寺建築論” [Thesis of the Architecture of Hōryūji Temple], Kenchik (...)

2We begin in 1893, when Itō Chūta (1867–1954), a young doctoral graduate of architecture from the Imperial College of Tokyo, published an article, shortened from his recent graduate thesis, discussing the seventh-century Buddhist temple in Nara, Hōryū-ji.2 Among the most provocative points that Itō made was the resemblance between Hōryūji’s Middle Gate (Chūmon) and the classical architecture of Europe. Certain aesthetic elements had been transmitted between west and east, Europe and Asia, resulting in the transcontinental compatibility of architecture in two different sections of the world, he argued. To illustrate, he drew a side-by-side comparison of two building structures. The left side featured a section drawing of Hōryū-ji’s Middle Gate, and the right side a building from seemingly classical Europe. Because of their striking contrast in terms of their styles as well as the evolving lore of east-west affinity, Itō’s drawing immediately caught the attention of his readers in the 1890s. And it has continued to do so over the hundred years or more that have followed (fig.1).

Itō Chūta, “Hōryū-ji kenchiku ron”

Itō Chūta, “Hōryū-ji kenchiku ron”

Source: Kenchiku zasshi, vol. 7, November 1893, p. 327.

  • 3 Multiple accounts are available in Japanese language. For sources in English: Japanese architect a (...)
  • 4 See Vimalin Rujivacharakul, “The Rise of Chinese Architectural History,” Phd. Diss., Berkeley, CA, (...)

3The glitch in this account of east-west architectural affinity begins with the so-called European architecture that Itō depicted, which has long been repeatedly identified by many historians of Japanese architecture as a Greek temple. Several publications even specifically labeled it as the Parthenon, and a recent article also presented an additional anecdote of Itō’s visit to the Acropolis to pay homage to the actual architecture.3 But while Itō did indeed visit the Parthenon and made critical remarks about the architecture, the building he depicted in his 1893 article cannot be conveniently identified as a Greek temple, let alone the Parthenon. A Greek temple, to begin with, would never have a flight of steps on the front porch as shown on Itō’s drawing. Further, a Greek temple does not have sculptures on the roof ridge, which Itō too had carefully represented. Instead, those two elements are architectural features of Etruscan temple architecture. Cross-references in more recent scholarship also confirmed that the building Itō depicted was Etruscan.4

4On the surface, the incorrect identity of the temple might appear to be yet another historical error in translingual practice. In fairness, the argument of Greek predominance over late-nineteenth-century architectural writing in Japan is supported by a system of beliefs in the field. Historians of Itō’s generation are often represented as partial to east-west comparative studies, using Japan as the counterpart of Greece, each representing the ideals of eastern and western beauty respectively. That Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Kakuzō Okakura (1862–1913) had made similar comments about historical and spiritual affinities between classical Greek aesthetics and those of Buddhist art, and that Itō also cited Fenollosa at the beginning of his own article in 1863, unfortunately lend support to such a presupposition.

  • 5 For example, Alfred Foucher, L’art gréco-bouddhique du Gandhâra, Étude sur les origines de l’influ (...)

5Still, on a closer look, it is clearly necessary to go beyond critiquing the historical accuracy of existing interpretations. There is a much more crucial issue at hand. We should be curious—very curious—as to how Greek, Etruscan, and Buddhist architecture came to be mingled in a Japanese article that grew out of a doctoral thesis as the nineteenth century was coming to a close. After all, in terms of chronology, ideas about relations between Greek aesthetics and Buddhist art and architecture were not to spread widely until at least a decade later, when Alfred Foucher (1865–1952) and others would begin writing specifically on Greco-Buddhist aesthetics.5 Even the reputedly influential Josef Strzygowski’s (1862–1941) Orient oder Rom did not hit the market until 1901, eight years after Itō’s article.

6Some may argue that this idea of European identity in Japanese studies of Buddhist architectural aesthetics had developed in nineteenth-century Japan because of those such as Fenollosa and Okakura and their dissemination of the idea of a distant spiritual ancestry in classical Europe. Still this argument does not explain the sudden appearance of an Etruscan temple in Itō’s text. Etruscan architecture had no place in nineteenth-century Japanese architectural writing, or, frankly, even in much of the architectural history written in the late nineteenth century. There was limited information on Etruscan architecture at the time, with only old texts such as Vitruvius’ De Architectura and subsequent Renaissance interpretations of Tuscan styles available to the general readership. The fact that Itō decided to choose an Etruscan edifice as a comparable specimen for Hōryū-ji is simply puzzling.

7For researchers of intellectual history, the discovery of a fantastic piece of evidence that shows no connections to other ideas typically means pretty much a dead-end project. Luckily, Itō did leave some clues. In many of his writings, he often criticized foreign authors whose books he had to read during his college years. Having no further clues immediately available, I sat down and read all those books that Itō critiqued, specifically the very editions that Ito himself read or would have read before he published that article.

  • 6 James Fergusson, Parthenon: An Essay on the Mode of Lighting in Architecture, London: J Murray, 18 (...)

8After trial and error, the answer appeared in the book written by Scottish architectural historian James Fergusson (1808–1886), Parthenon: An Essay on the Mode by which Light was Introduced to Greek and Roman Temples (1883). Published three years before his death, it brought Fergusson back from his earlier, grand sweeping narrative of world architecture, to focus more on a specific locus of Europe and the roots of European architectural aesthetics. Fergusson argued that the method of design, by which sunlight permeated the temple’s interior through the decorated columned front porch, had actually originated with the design of columned cave-tombs in Egypt. Similar specimens, Fergusson wrote, had also appeared in Etruria, for Etruscan temples also consisted of columned front porches on raised platforms with steps. Yet those earlier examples had not yet truly embraced the beauty of light. It was only in the re-design of the Parthenon in the time of Pericles that a form of ancient cave-tomb design had finally fully evolved into an awe-inspiring, freestanding monument. 6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 25–27. The argument includes a sketch of Ajanta’s Chaitya Hall.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 25–26.

9On the surface, Fergusson’s interpretation of the Parthenon appears irrelevant to anything regarding Buddhist architecture. But a closer read suggests another story. As it turned out, Fergusson confessed in the same book, albeit half-heartedly, that there are also similar precedents in India.7 Many Chaitya halls of Buddhist sites at Ajanta represented similar lighting effects in the interiors. And, inasmuch as Fergusson tried his best to convince his audience that the Indian precedents were most likely derivative of Greek temples, the reluctant Fergusson also admitted that the initial logic of designs in Buddhist cave-temples in the east might have originated within Asia before traveling westward during the times of the Phrygians and Pelasgians, who predated the Greeks.8 Thus, behind the proclaimed true principle of architecture, what Fergusson told his readers, tongue-in-cheek, is that the Athenians’ architectural sublimity might have been under the influence of their eastern neighbors.

  • 9 See documents and maps of Fergusson’s travels in James Fergusson, Picturesque Illustrations of Anc (...)

10Obviously, the reliability of Fergusson’s argument is doubtful. But what I am keen in exploring is not just what he argued, but how he came to argue in that manner. Existing research on Fergusson’s intellectual development has shown that Fergusson’s eyes and mind were trained through his own experiences while living in India in his youth. Comparison between architecture in India and that in Europe was a constant theme in Fergusson’s writing, particularly during the 1860s and 1870s when Fergusson published his series of A History of Architecture in All Countries (1865) and History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876). That the lighting mode Fergusson observed in the Greek temple was influenced by his sensual experiences with Indian architecture is only to be expected from someone who made several lenghty tours in India documenting architectural monuments.9 The initiation of Fergusson into his career in architecture had left a permanent imprint on his mind.

11Taking from the Fergussonian context, Itō’s comparison of the seventh-century Buddhist temple with an Etruscan temple speaks volumes. Back in 1893, Itō’s introduced his subject by referencing possible Greek connections quoting arguments by Fenellosa among others. Yet, a few pages later, he selected Etruscan architecture as Hōryū-ji’s analogous comparison. In doing so, Itō immediately dated the ancestral roots of the design of Hōryū-ji to be comparable to, yet different from and slightly more antique than, Classical Greek architecture such as the Parthenon of Pericles. In the time of intensified nationalism of Meiji Japan, Itō’s proposal offered a new argument for Japan’s historical competitiveness, with the nation’s architectural roots on a par with those of Europe. From Fergusson to Itō, it is a full circle in the history of thought and of systems of thinking, from India to England and back to Etruria and ancient Greece before moving to Japan, a circumambulation of Europe and Asia.

12The greatest irony lies in the fact that an investigation of a nineteenth-century Japanese drawing ends up leading us to re-examine Fergusson’s representation of one of the crown jewels of European architecture. There have been many researchers, including Nicholas Pevsner, who read and critically assessed Fergusson’s Parthenon book. But it was only when we read it in conjunction with Itō’s “Hōryū-ji kenchiku rōn” that we can see the argument implied by Fergusson regarding Euro-Asian connections. This glimpse into Fergusson’s argument thus also subsequently exposes his reluctant admission of aesthetic influences from Asia on Europe. Yet the cross-referential investigation shows us the other side of Fergusson’s experiences in colonial India. After all the imperialist tropes and colonial mis-evaluation of Asian architecture, the years he spent studying architecture in India appeared to usher in his rereading of the Parthenon.

13Edward Said argued that Europe’s identity was formed through a dialectical negotiation with the constructed other. Yet the above case study identifies that such a negotiation is fluid. As the entanglement of ideas places “Europe,” “Greece,” “Etruria,” “Japan,” “Buddhism,” and “Asia” on one same level, it is clear that “Europe” can never be identified as an isolated, permanent self. Its identity is forever tied to its dialectical other, or more precisely, its others. Moreover, we can now also raise the question whether it is still valid to continue identifying Europe as the centralized self and Asia the other. The answer might as well be the opposite.

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1 Lydia Liu, “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 4, Summer 1999, p. 728–757.

2 Chūta Itō, “Hōryūji kenchiku ron” “法隆寺建築論” [Thesis of the Architecture of Hōryūji Temple], Kenchiku zasshi vol. 7, November 1893, p. 317–350.

3 Multiple accounts are available in Japanese language. For sources in English: Japanese architect and historian Muramatsu Shin published an account explaining how Itō was tempted by the comparative design between Hōryūji and the Parthenon that Itō drew this comparative picture, and subsequently carried out a transcontinental trip to visit the actual site in Greece in 1904. Muramatsu Shin, “‘Savagery’ and ‘Civilization’ Ito Chuta: An Architectural Historian in Asia,” in Selçuk Esenbel, Miyuki Aoki Girardelli and Erdal Küçükyalçin (eds.), The Crescent and the Sun: Three Japanese in Istanbul: Yamada Torajirō, Itō Chūta, Ōtani Kōzui, Istanbul: Arastirmalari Enstitüsü, 2010, p. 147–158, esp. 156. For earlier interpretations of Hōryūji, see for example, Stefan Tanaka, “Discoveries of Hōryūji” in Kai-wing Chow, Keven Doak and Poshek Fu (eds.), Constructing Nationhood in Modern East Asia, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001, esp. 136–137; As for an analysis of Itō’s educational background, see Jonathan Reynolds, “Teaching Architectural History in Japan: Building a Context for Contemporary Practice,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 61 no. 4, December 2002, p. 530–536.

4 See Vimalin Rujivacharakul, “The Rise of Chinese Architectural History,” Phd. Diss., Berkeley, CA, University of California, 2006, p. 175–176. See also Miyuki Aoki Girardelli, Meiji no Kenchikuka Itō Chūta Teikoku o yuku, [Meiji architect Itō Chūta: going through the Ottoman Empire], Tokyo: Weijji, 2015, p. 50–51.

5 For example, Alfred Foucher, L’art gréco-bouddhique du Gandhâra, Étude sur les origines de l’influence classique dans l’art bouddhique de l’Inde et de l’Extrême Orient, Paris: Imprimerie nationale: 1905, 1918, 1922, 1951, 2 vol.

6 James Fergusson, Parthenon: An Essay on the Mode of Lighting in Architecture, London: J Murray, 1883.

7 Ibid., p. 25–27. The argument includes a sketch of Ajanta’s Chaitya Hall.

8 Ibid., p. 25–26.

9 See documents and maps of Fergusson’s travels in James Fergusson, Picturesque Illustrations of Ancient Architecture in Hindostan, London: Hogarth and Barclay, 1848.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Itō Chūta, “Hōryū-ji kenchiku ron”
Crédits Source: Kenchiku zasshi, vol. 7, November 1893, p. 327.
Fichier image/jpeg, 69k
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Vimalin Rujivacharakul, « The Buddha’s Europe (or Should It Be Europe’s Buddha?) »ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2017, consulté le 22 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Vimalin Rujivacharakul

Associate Professor, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA

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