The Light of Buddha: Symbolism of the oldest stone and bronze lanterns of Nara

picture of taima-ji  - Japan Mara Stone lantern in garden - JPG

Taima-ji mara stone lantern Photo: Crystal Graphics

tōrō (灯籠 or 灯篭, 灯楼 light basket, light tower) is a traditional lantern made of stone, wood, or metal, said to be of Chinese origin.

Stone lanterns were first introduced to Japan from China via Korea sometime during the 6th century arriving together with new Buddhist ideas. They functioned as votive offerings and the light held in the lamp symbolized the light of the teachings of the Buddha that helped overcome the darkness of ignorance (see Mark Brazil’s Japanese Gardens: Stone Lanterns).

The oldest extant bronze and stone lanterns are, however, said to be found in Nara.

Taima-ji (alternatively, Taima-dera  in Katsuragi, Nara) has a stone lantern built during the Nara period, while an example from the following Heian period may be found in the Kasuga-taisha.

Stone lantern at Kasuga-taisha Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri: Wikipedia

Stone lanterns are rare now in  China despite having originated there, and in Korea they are not as common as in Japan.

Although stone lanterns are today associated with Japanese gardens, in Japan, the tōrō were originally used only in Buddhist temples, where they lined and illuminated paths. Lit lanterns functioned as votive offerings to Buddha, but during the Heian period (794-1185), lanterns began to be used also in Shinto shrines and private homes.

They began to be used decoratively in Japanese gardens during the Azuchi-Momoyama period(1568–1600) stone lanterns, by tea masters, who popularized them as features in their gardens.

The two most common types of dai-dōrō are the bronze lantern and the stone lantern, which are essentially lanterns resting on a pedestal. The former the tsuri-dōrō (釣灯籠・掻灯・吊り灯籠 ) hang from the eaves of the roof of a building, while the latter, the dai-dōrō (台灯籠) usually line the approach to temples, shrines and in later times, affluent homes. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period(1568–1600) stone lanterns were popularized by tea masters, who used them as a decoration in their gardens

Anatomy of a stone lantern

Dai-dōrō represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. The bottom-most piece, touching the ground, represents chi, the earth; the next section represents sui, or water; ka or fire, is represented by the section encasing the lantern’s light or flame, while  (air) and  (void or spirit) are represented by the last two sections, top-most and pointing towards the sky. The segments express the idea that after death our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental form


Source readings and references:

Brazil, Mark Japanese Gardens: Stone Lanterns

Stone lanterns (University of Alberta)

Wikipedia article Toro


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