Saturday, 3 January 2015


Prayer flags at Pemayangtse, Sikkim
Western culture is all about making things permanent. We create monuments. We carve in stone, in Carrara marble. We build in brick and stone. Medieval masons built cathedrals that would last till Judgment Day. 

Buddhism on the other hand is about impermanence. All things change, perpetually. There is no 'I', there is no God, there is no-thing. Accepting that truth, the Buddhist can go through life unworried and serene. I'm hungry: it will pass. I'm ill: it will pass. I'm angry: it will pass.

Architecture, therefore, means a different thing in a Buddhist culture, and the religion expresses itself in ways that enshrine impermanence.

Prayer flags are left to decay; they tear and shred in the Himalayan winds, the fabric rots and crumbles.

Mud brick returns to earth. The stone buildings of Ladakh often seem as if they are returning to the mountain, or never left it; walls that sag, stones that fall from the dry-stone wall on to the path.

In Japan, the culture celebrates impermanence; viewing the cherry blossom, which is so beautiful because it lasts such a short time; the cult of wabi-sabi, the authenticity which comes with age and use - urushi lacquer that has worn thin, that shows the layers underneath, that develops depth as it ages and is handled.

There are temples of immemorial age, and which, even so, are barely two decades old, because they are rebuilt every twenty years, on the same design. What is new and what is old, in a world of impermanence, flows together and is confused.

(It's intriguing that the values of impermanence - the spontaneous, the limited-validity, the pop-up - are now being re-evaluated in architecture and town planning. We've had too many statement buildings, too many blocks of granite, glass and chrome. In reaction to this, the small-scale, the economic, the limited duration, have come to seem more attractive. But the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism aren't there: this is more about Schumacher's 'small is beautiful', about self-help, grass-roots, anti-corporatism.)

So travelling in Buddhist cultures, I've found it's not just the forms of religion and its architecture that differ - stupas instead of steeples, butter lamps instead of candles. The whole intention of the architecture is different - the whole intention of the culture is different. You can look at a wheel and see a means of going somewhere very fast; or you can look at a wheel, and see a prayer made captive.