the Carpentry Way: Japanese Gate Typology (14)                                                          

Japanese Gate Typology (14)

Today marks the 600th post on the Carpentry Way!!

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:
  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon 
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon 
  9. Yaguramon 
  10. Rōmon
  11. Shōrōmon
  12. Taikomon
  13. Nijūmon

Sanmon (三門/山門)

The triple () gate () or the mountain () gate (). I believe the use of the kanji for mountain () in this compound is actually incorrect, however it is commonly seen. At best it is a pseudonym for '三門'.

The term sanmon, written as '三門' is actually an abbreviation for san-ge-datsu-mon (三解脱門). The word refers to the three spiritual gates one must pass through to reach enlightenment. Thus, a short and sweet translation of san-ge-datsu-mon would be 'enlightenment gate'. A sanmon is a special type of nijūmon (二重), as covered in the previous post. Sanmon associate to Buddhist temples.

And what might those three spiritual gates be? They all have their own special names:

  1. kūgedatsumon (空解脱門), usually abbreviated to kūmon ()
  2. musōgedatsumon (無相解脱門), usually abbreviated to musōmon (無相
  3. muganmon (無願門)
The term gedatsu (解脱) is the Japanese rendering of the Sanskrit term 'moksha', which means, to quote wikipedia, 

...the final extrication of the soul or consciousness (purusha) from samsara and the bringing to an end of all the suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and rebirth (reincarnation).

In terms of specific meanings associated to the three gates of enlightenment, wrapped up together in the san-ge-datsu-mon, we have kūmon () as the gate of emptinessmusōmon (無相) as the gate of formlessness, and muganmon (無願門) as the gate of inaction. As noted in an earlier post in this series, gates have a large symbolic as well as physical presence in Japanese culture. 

The sanmon gate has no doors, which itself makes it a marker of the boundary between the sacred and the profane, an opening which can never be closed. If someone passes through the gate, he can free himself from three passions ( Ton; "greed", Shin; "hatred", Chi; "foolishness").

The archetype of this gate form is found at a former Zen temple located in Tokyo - all that remains of the temple complex, named Zōjōji, is the gate. It's a massive structure, at 5x3 bays:

The temple that once occupied these grounds was one of the most important in Japanese history. Six of the fifteen Shoguns who ruled during the Tokugawa era are interred here. The temple was destroyed by US bombing in WWII. Nowadays, a golf practice course and hotel occupy a chunk of the land. Priorities appear to have shifted. The gate above is a reconstruction, and is made largely from concrete. We can probably leave off a closer look at the 'framing', eh?

Another imposing sanmon, at Zenkōji:

A glance up at the two eaves:

The sanmon at Chōshō-ji (長勝寺):

From the inside of the compound the two stair are clearly visible. The tightly packed bracket complexes make this gate clearly in the Zenshūyō style:

As you can see, a little repair work was going on when the picture was taken.

Another magnificent sanmon, this one at Tōfuku-ji (東福寺):

From the inside, you can see the ladder to the second story tucked in at the side of the gate:

The posts placed at the corners remind me of a picture from around 1840 of the great Tō-dai-ji in Nara, which had such a heavy tile roof (4000 tons or so), and such deep eaves, that the hips were drooping downward from the weight and need props put in for support. I think the above structure is suffering from a similar situation and that the struts at the corners are later than the original construction. In the case of Tōdai-ji, the roof tiles were re-designed to shed about 20% of their weight, so I wonder if they'll do the same thing when they rebuild this gate at some future point?

Speaking of Tōdai-ji, the great southern gate, 'Nandaimon' as it is called, is in fact a fantastically huge and tall sanmon:

The people under the gate give a good idea as to the scale of the structure. Nandaimon, like several other structures in the compound, is a Japanese National Treasure, and is built in a late 12th century Song Dynasty style.

This next sanmon has a similar enclosed curved skirt as we saw in a previous post in this thread when looking at bell tower gates, or shōrōmon:

The above gate is located at Sōfuku-ji (崇福寺) in Nagasaki, and the gate has been designated as a national treasure. It is not a bell tower. Built by a Chinese monk in 1629, the gate and other buildings in the compound are artifacts of Chinese Ming dynasty architecture.

While many sanmon are imposing, grand gates, the main thing to remember about them is simply that they are the main gate in a temple. Thus, a small temple may have a small sanmon, as in this example, Shōgyō-ji () located in Hokkaidō:

You may notice the above gate, while quite pretty, is not grand or imposing at all, and doesn't even look like a sanmon. You see, even if the gate doesn't have the normal attributes of a sanmon, which is a type of nijūmon and supposed to have two stories and two roofs, if it is the main gate of the temple then almost anything goes. 

Here's a bell-tower gate at Jōganji (浄願寺) in Hyōgo prefecture which is called a sanmon:

Here's a single story gate called a sanmon, at Hōryū-ji (法隆寺):

So, that's how it goes with classification schemes sometimes - it can be a bit confusing and some gates fit into multiple categories. Some seem to be clearly of a given type based on the structural configuration but get named something else based on where they are located within a temple precinct or how they are used or by whom they are used. We'll look at another case in the same vein with the next post. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. On to post 15