Geometry, Cosmology, and the Blossoming of Buddhist Space in Medieval China

Tracy Miller – Associate Professor of East Asian Art and Architecture, Vanderbilt University

Thursday, October 6, 2016 – 4:30pm to 5:30pm

Room 351, Loria CenterSee map

190 York Street

New Haven, CT 06511

As the earliest full-size towering pagoda extant in China, the pagoda at Songyuesi 嵩岳寺 in Dengfeng, Henan (ca. 523 CE) is one of the most important objects we have for understanding the creation of Buddhist sacred space in Asia. Yet the plan of this structure, incorporating both dodecagon and octagon, is mysterious in its complexity-doubly so because it may be the only surviving example of its kind. By focusing on the geometry used in its creation, in this paper describe one possibility for determining the interior and exterior dimensions of the Songyuesi Pagoda plan, effectively encoding the structure with the potential for replication and regeneration important in the Buddhist sūtras as well as Indic temple designs of the period. I also show how the same technique could have been used to create cosmological diagrams prior to the influence of Buddhist theology on Chinese society. Thus, similarities in the use of geometry to describe the structure of, and potentially control, the cosmos in South and East Asia the may have facilitated the rapid spread of Buddhism across this vast region.


Tracy Miller received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, and specializes in the construction of sacred spaces across Asia. Her publications include The Divine Nature of Power: Chinese Ritual Architecture at the Sacred Site of Jinci (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007), as well as articles and book chapters on ritual complexes associated with Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.