Eleven Legendary Buddhist Temples

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1. Taktsang: The Tiger's Nest

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The Tiger's Nest or Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan. © Albino Chua / Getty Images

Taktsang Palphug Monastery, also called Paro Taktsang or The Tiger's Nest, clings to a sheer cliff more than 10 thousand feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Bhutan. From this monastery there is about a 3,000 foot drop to the Paro Valley, below. The original temple complex was built in 1692, but the legends surrounding Taktsang are much older.

Taktsang marks the entrance of a cave where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Padmasambhava is credited with bringing Buddhist teachings to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. 

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2. Sri Dalada Maligawa: The Temple of the Tooth

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Elephants on display at the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka. © Andrea Thompson Photography / Getty Images

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was built in 1595 to hold the single most sacred object in all of Sri Lanka -- a tooth of the Buddha.  The tooth is said to have reached Sri Lanka in the 4th century, and in its complex history was moved several times and even stolen (but returned).

The tooth has not left the temple or been displayed to the public for a very long time. However, every summer it is celebrated in an elaborate festival, and a replica of the tooth is placed in a golden casket and carried through the streets of Kandy on the back of a large and elaborately decorated elephant, festooned with lights.

Read More: The Buddha's Tooth

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3. Angkor Wat: A Long-Hidden Treasure

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The famous temple of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat, Cambodia where the roots of the jungle trees intertwine with these ancient structures. © Stewart Atkins (visualSA) / Getty Images

When construction began in the 12th century Cambodia's Angkor Wat was intended to be a Hindu temple, but it was rededicated to Buddhism in the 13th century. At that time it was in the heart of the Khmer empire. But by the 15th century water shortages forced the Khmer to relocate, and the beautiful temple was abandoned except by a few Buddhist monks. In time much of the temple was reclaimed by the jungle.

It is renowned today for its exquisite beauty and for being the largest religious monument in the world. However, until the mid-19th century it was known only to Cambodians. The French were so astonished at the beauty and sophistication of the ruined temple that they refused to believe it had been built by the Khmer. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work to restore the temple is ongoing.

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4. Borobudur: A Massive Temple Lost and Found

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Sunrise at Borobudur, Indonesia. © Alexander Ipfelkofer / Getty Images

This massive temple was built on the Indonesian island of Java in the 9th century, and to this day it is considered the largest entirely Buddhist temple in the world (Angkor Wat is Hindu and Buddhist). Borobudur covers 203 acres and consists of six square and three circular platforms, topped by a dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and hundreds of Buddha statues. The meaning of the name "Borobudur" has been lost to time.

The entire temple almost was lost to time as well. It was abandoned in the 14th century and the magnificent temple was reclaimed by the jungle and forgotten. All that seemed to remain was a local legend of a mountain of a thousand statues. In 1814 the British governor of Java heard the story of the mountain and, intrigued, arranged for an expedition to find it.

Today Borobudur is a United Nation World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

 

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5. Shwedagon Pagoda: An Inspirer of Legend

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The Great Golden Stupa towers over the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. © Peter Adams / Getty Images

The great Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) is a kind of reliquary, or stupa, as well as a temple. It is believed to contain relics not only of the historical Buddha but also of three Buddhas who preceded him. The pagoda is 99 feet fall and plated with gold.

According to Burmese legend, the original pagoda was built 26 centuries ago by a king who had faith a new Buddha had been born.  During his reign two merchant brothers met the Buddha in India and told him about the pagoda built in his honor. The Buddha then pulled out eight of his own hairs to be housed in the pagoda. When the casket containing the hairs was opened in Burma, many miraculous things happened.

Historians believe the original pagoda actually was built some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. It has been rebuilt several times; the current structure was built after an earthquake brought down the previous one in 1768.

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6. Jokhang, the Holiest Temple of Tibet

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Monks debate at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. © Feng Li / Getty Images

According to legend, Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in the 7th century by a King of Tibet to please two of his wives, a princess of China and a princess of Nepal, who were Buddhists. Today historians tell us the princess of Nepal probably never existed. Even so, Jokhang remains a monument to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet.

The Chinese princess, Wenchen, brought with her a statue said to have been blessed by the Buddha. The statue, called the Jowo Shakyamuni or Jowo Rinpoche, is considered the most sacred object in Tibet and remains enshrined in Jokhang to this day.

 Read More: How Buddhism Came to Tibet

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7. Sensoji and the Mysterious Golden Statue

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Historic Asakusa Senso-ji, Tokyo, at dusk. © Future Light / Getty Images

 

Long ago, about 628 CE, two brothers fishing in the Sumida River netted a tiny golden statue of Kanzeon, or Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy. Some versions of this story say the brothers repeatedly put the statue back into the river, only to net it again.

Sensoji was built in honor of the bodhisattva, and the tiny golden statue is said to be enshrined there, although the statue the public may view is acknowledged to be a replica. The original temple was completed in 645, which makes it Tokyo's oldest temple.

In 1945, during World War II, bombs dropped from American B-29s destroyed much of Tokyo, including Sensoji. The present structure was built after the war with donations from the Japanese people. On the temple grounds there is a tree growing from the remains of a tree hit by a bomb. The tree is cherished as a symbol of the undying spirit of Sensoji.

Read More: Historic Buddhist Temples of Japan

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8. Nalanda: A Lost Center of Learning

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The ruins of Nalanda. © De Agostini / G. Nimatallah

Eight centuries after its tragic destruction, Nalanda remains the most famous learning center in Buddhist history. Located in the present-day Bihar state of India, in Nalanda's heyday the quality of its teachers attracted students from all over the Buddhist world.

It's not clear when the first monastery was built at Nalanda, but one appears to have been there by the 3rd century CE. By the 5th century it had become a magnet for Buddhist scholars and had grown into something like a modern-day university. Students there not only studied Buddhism but also medicine, astrology, mathematics, logic and languages. Nalanda remained a dominant learning center until 1193, when it was destroyed by a nomadic army of Muslim Turks of central Asia. It is said that Nalanda's vast library, full of irreplaceable manuscripts, smoldered for six months. Its destruction also marked the end of Buddhism in India until modern times. 

Today the excavated ruins may be visited by tourists. But the memory of Nalanda still attracts attention. Presently some scholars are raising money to rebuild a new Nalanda near the ruins of the old one. 

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9. Shaolin, Home of Zen and Kung Fu

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A monk practices kung fu at Shaolin Temple. © China Photos / Getty Images

Yes, China's Shaolin Temple is a real Buddhist temple, not a fiction created by martial arts movies. The monks there have practiced martial arts for many centuries, and they developed a unique style called Shaolin kung fu. Zen Buddhism was born there, established by Bodhidharma, who had come to China from India early in the 6th century. It doesn't get more legendary than Shaolin. 

History says Shaolin was first established in 496, a few years before Bodhidharma arrived. The buildings of the monastery complex have been rebuilt many times, most recently after they were gutted during the Cultural Revolution

 Read More: Warrior Monks of Shaolin; Zen and Martial Arts

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10. Mahabodhi: Where the Buddha Realized Enlightenment

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The Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment. © 117 Imagery / Getty Images

Mahabodhi Temple marks the place where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and realized enlightenment, more than 25 centuries ago. "Mahabodhi" means "great awakening." Next to the temple is a tree said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. The tree and temple are located in Bodhgaya, in the Bihar state of India.

The original Mahabodhi Temple was built by the Emperor Ashoka about 260 BCE. In spite of its significance in the Buddha's life, the site was largely abandoned after the 14th century, but in spite of neglect it remains one of the oldest brick structures in India. It was restored in the 19th century and is protected today as a UN World Heritage Site. 

Buddhist legend says that Mahabodhi sits on the naval of the world; when the world is destroyed at the end of the age it will be the last place to disappear, and when a new world takes the place of this one, this same spot will be the first place to reappear. 

Read More: Mahabodhi Temple

Read More: The Story of the Buddha's Enlightenment

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11. Jetavana, or Jeta Grove: The First Buddhist Monastery?

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The Anandabodhi Tree at Jetavana is said to have been grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The ruins of Jetavana are what is left of what may have been the first Buddhist monastery. Here the historical Buddha gave many of the sermons recorded in the Sutta-pitaka

Jetavana, or Jeta Grove, is where the disciple Anathapindika purchased land more than 25 centuries ago and built a place for the Buddha and his followers to live during the rainy season. The rest of the year the Buddha and his disciples traveled from village to village, teaching (see "The First Buddhist Monks").

The site today is a historical park, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders Nepal. The tree in the photograph is the Anandabodhi Tree, believed to have been grown from a sapling of the tree that sheltered the Buddha when he realized enlightenment

Read More: Anathapindika, the Great Benefactor