Simulating Pure Land Space:

The Hyperreality of a Japanese Buddhist Paradise


Draft -- Not for Citation
Last Updated: 14 September 2002


Original Title:

Rhetorics of Religious Space: Some East Asian Perspectives


William E. Deal
Department of Religion
Case Western Reserve University
September 2002

Table of Contents


Theorizing Religious Space Through Lefebvre and Soja

Parallel Spaces: The Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) as Pure Land

Theorizing the Space of the Pure Land

Theorizing the Space of the Phoenix Hall

Conclusion: The Production of Simulated Space





The papers presented since 2000 in the “Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar” attest to the intellectual debt owed to Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja and their conceptions of the social production of space. Of the eleven Seminar papers available online as of August 2002, eight make explicit reference to Lefebvre and/or Soja. Despite the differing agendas and perspectives presented in the Seminar papers, they share a reliance on the spatial theories of Lefebvre and Soja as they negotiate issues of space in Southwest Asia and chart contours of a theory/theories of religious space more generally.

My initial interest in matters spatial and the role of religious space in my field of East Asian religions arose through discussions with my Case Western Reserve University colleague Jim Flanagan and readings of his recent work on biblical space. In “The Trialectics of Biblical Studies,” for instance, Flanagan asserts that “[s]pace is a fundamental subtext in all social understandings. And space is constructed through praxis and therefore based on experience” (Flanagan 2001). Following the spatial theory of Soja, he describes three dimensions of the human world: historicality, sociality, and spatiality. The implications of Flanagan’s observation are significant: “This means that historical-critical studies and social world studies have both been incomplete. The former constructed images of the past by relying solely on historicality; the latter by bringing historicality and sociality together” (Flanagan 2001). Flanagan thus articulates a need to bridge gaps in academic inquiries into past social worlds through critical spatial studies.

            Flanagan’s work and the scholarship of others in the Seminar group have helped to confirm theories of space as a vital aspect of academic studies of religion. The need to employ spatial studies in tandem with historical and social analyses of religious data has engendered the use of Soja’s notion of “trialectic.” This approach—adding spatiality to historicality and sociality—replaces the dialectical mode that characterizes most work in biblical studies (as Flanagan has noted), and, I would add, religious studies more generally. Thus, the Seminar has made a significant contribution to our understanding of religion.

Nevertheless, recent scholarship in religion reflects an overall poverty of critical studies of religious space in the academic study of religion. I have inventoried the following books, which include both single-author works and edited volumes: two volumes by William Paden, Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion (1992) and Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (1994); The Postmodern Bible (Ed. The Bible and Culture Collective, 1995); Daniel Pals’ Seven Theories of Religion (1996); Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Ed. Mark C. Taylor, 1998); James Thrower’s Religion: The Classical Theories (1999); Guide to the Study of Religion (Eds. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, 2000); Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives (Eds. Tim Jensen and Mikael Rothstein, 2000); and A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age (Eds. Kimberley C. Patton and Benjamin C. Ray, 2000). Of these volumes, only one, Critical Terms for Religious Studies, includes a primary article or sustained discussion regarding religious space, Sam Gill’s piece on “Territory.”

In his article, Gill addresses territory mainly through Jonathan Z. Smith’s critique of the modernist perspective on space advanced by Mircea Eliade in such volumes as Cosmos and History (1954) and The Sacred and the Profane (1959). Gill does not introduce Lefebvre or Soja into his discussion. However, Gill’s presentation of Smith does suggest some attitudes toward space that are similar to those of Soja and Lefebvre—though not derived from the same theoretical perspective. For example, Gill observes that “Smith’s criticism has shown that Eliade’s territorial categories, while promising nontheological and religiously neutral terms for the comparative study of religion, stem from an essentialist presumption that does little more than disguise their theological character” (Gill 1998: 304). Thus, for Eliade, territory—especially sacred space—is universal, eliciting the same human response whatever the location and historical/cultural context. Smith, however, sees “humans as constructing their worlds of meaning” (Gill 1998: 306). The production of religious spaces, then, is one significant way that worlds of meaning are crafted for Smith and Gill. Ultimately, Gill’s view of Smith is consonant with the broader perspectives held by Lefebvre and Soja without explicitly taking up a tripartite view of space central to their theories.

My highly selective reading of recent volumes in religious studies also suggests that overall the intersection of religious studies and spatial theory has remained the critical enterprise of the Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar. While sacred space has been studied previously—most notably by Eliade—such considerations usually take a modernist perspective toward spatiality positing a universally existing, natural, and largely monolithic notion of the bifurcation of sacred and profane space. Theories of religious space that depart from Eliade’s dualistic conceptions remain nascent though exceptions, like the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, exist. More recently, it is the theories of Lefebvre and Soja—neither of whom is particularly interested in religious space—that have informed efforts to further examine religion and space. This situation engenders a significant question: To what extent, if any, should current spatial theories be modified with regard to religious studies? That is, is there a need for a more specific disciplinary theory of religious space—one informed by but ultimately different from spatial theory generally—much as we might ask about the particularities of, for instance, gendered space?

Given my own background—East Asian religions and particularly Japanese Buddhism—I will not comment on the applicability of spatial trialectics to biblical space. What I hope to add to the Seminar’s conversation about space is an appraisal of spatial theory regarding a Japanese Buddhist religious space. Primarily, I am interested in theoretical issues that illuminate the role of space in Japanese Buddhist contexts as well as, comparatively, spatial matters in Southwest Asia. I hope that extending Seminar strategies to Asian religiosity may also contribute to the emerging project of spatial theory in religious studies more generally.

This paper focuses on the Buddhist notion of the “Pure Land” and related religious spaces. The Pure Land is a Buddha-field, or Buddhist paradise, that usually refers to the cosmic realm of Amida Buddha. Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha or Amitāyus) is one of several Buddhas that occupy a central position in East Asian Mahayana Buddhist eschatology. Attaining a final birth in the Pure Land, also known as the Western Paradise after the cardinal direction in which it is located, is the religious goal of Pure Land Buddhists. According to Pure Land tradition, a devotee of Amida must recite Amida’s name singlemindedly and with a sincere heart in order to be born in his paradise upon death. In effect, the compassionate Amida eliminates the spiritually harmful effects of evil actions (karma: good and bad actions and their consequences) that might otherwise ensnare a human being within in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth—known as samsara or the samsaric cycle. Amida delivers the faithful out of samsara into the serene bliss of the Pure Land. The glories of the Pure Land are described in the Pure Land sūtras (scriptures) and represented in paintings and sculpture. During Japan’s late Heian period (ca. 900-1185 CE), models of the Pure Land or Pure Land-like spaces were constructed by Heian aristocrats who believed that such acts were, among other things, karmically meritorious. Three-dimensional architectural environments, presumably built to the scale of the “actual” Pure Land, found their place alongside more common pictorial and sculptural renderings of the Pure Land.

What might this study of the Pure Land and its physical representations add to the dialogue about religious space? Most Seminar papers have dealt with tangible or “real” space that is subject to design and other conceptualizations, and the human experience of that space. Through late Heian conceptions of the Pure Land, we confront space that does not exist—at least originally—in any conventional experienced human sense. The Pure Land stands apart from historical time and physical territory. Conceptualizations of this spiritual space originate in the Pure Land sūtras, even if some of the scriptural descriptions of the Western Paradise reflect the projection of human spaces. Thus, how are we to understand a non-material, spiritual space that is subsequently constructed? That is, how do we make sense of a space that is conceptualized and experienced by Heian Buddhists, and only later rendered tangible as inhabitable, three-dimensional architectural form?

Two examples of Pure Land spaces constructed by Heian aristocrats further illuminate this spatial paradox. The first example is that of Fujiwara no Michinaga, a devout if hedonistic Buddhist who was the de facto ruler of Japan in the early eleventh century. The temple he established in 1019, the Hōjōji (no longer extant), is described in a contemporaneous text, the Eiga monogatari, in a manner suggesting that visitors believed Michinaga’s temple to be an “accurate” rendering of how the Pure Land really appeared. In similar fashion, his son, Yorimichi, converted a summer villa into a temple called the Byōdōin that included an Amida Hall known as the Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) which is said to represent the Pure Land. This temple survives today and houses a celebrated gilded wood sculpture of Amida Buddha as its central image. Both the Hōjōji and the Byōdōin produced tangible representations of physical Pure Land space based on narratives and other discourses describing the appearance of the Pure Land and its inhabitants.

Most analyses that employ a tripartite spatial theory—a spatial trialectic—assume some real physical space as a starting point for spatial considerations [provide example from a Seminar paper]. In the case of the Pure Land—and there are congruent examples in monotheistic traditions—there is no physical space that serves as a starting point for a Pure Land spatial conception. My goal, then, is to explore theoretical implications related to the “imagined” space of the Pure Land and its enactment in human space in the Heian period. Following the lead of other Seminar papers, I look first to Lefebvre and Soja to map out at least some of the territory to be traversed in this paper. I will then turn to issues of simulation and hyperreality through the work of Jean Baudrillard, who, like Soja, was influenced by Lefebvre’s writings. Finally, I briefly consider the effect of power dynamics on experiences of Pure Land space in late Heian Japan.


Theorizing Religious Space Through Lefebvre and Soja

Given the extensive engagement of the Constructs of Ancient Space Seminar with the writings of Lefebvre and Soja, there seems little need here to reiterate in detail the tripartite conceptualizations of space that characterize their writings. I think it is useful, however, to briefly relate my understanding of the Lefebvre/Soja spatial agendas and the conceptualizations that animate these theories.

            Lefebvre reads space primarily from a Marxist perspective, while Soja describes his spatial view as informed by a “radical postmodernism.” Implications (or ambiguities) of these labels aside, these spatial theorists share a desire to transcend a bipartite view of space as physical form and mental construct. Whether critiquing this bipartite view from a Marxist or radical postmodernist perspective, Lefebvre and Soja advocate a three-tiered analysis of space, one which adds a dimension that Lefebvre refers to as “lived space” and Soja terms “Thirdspace.”

Lefebvre articulates a trivalent analysis of space thus:


The fields we are concerned with are, first, the physical—nature, the Cosmos; secondly, the mental, including logical and formal abstractions; and, thirdly, the social. In other words, we are concerned with logico-epistemological space, the space of social practice, the space occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias (Lefebvre 1991: 11-12).


This tripartite view of space, or “trialectics of space” as Soja calls it, is understood not as three compartmentalized spaces—space separable into three—but is conceived as a synthesis of all three. All territory is comprised of all three aspects of space at once. Lefebvre, and Soja proceed, therefore, to chart the interconnections (or trialectics) between three types of space. The following table summarizes their views.


Lefebvre’s terms

Soja’s terms


Space 1

   perceived space

   spatial practice


   physical, material space

Space 2

   conceived space

   representations of space


   concepts/ideas about space

Space 3

   lived space

   spaces of representation


   space as experienced (physically, emotionally, intellectually, ideologically, etc.)


Using Soja’s terminology, a Firstspace perspective is “fixed mainly on the concrete materiality of spatial forms, on things that can be empirically mapped” (Soja 1997: 10), that is, tangible physical space. Secondspace is “conceived in ideas about space, in thoughtful re-presentations of human spatiality in mental or cognitive forms” (Soja 1997: 10). A Secondspace perspective conceptualizes and designs material space, or as Soja puts it, “interprets this reality through ‘imagined’ representations of spatiality” (Soja 1997: 6). Thirdspace represents the lived experience of space, “lived realities as practiced” (Soja 1997: [page number??]), “that draws upon the material and mental spaces [Firstspace and Secondspace] of the traditional dualism but extends well beyond them in scope, substance, and meaning” (Soja 1997: 11). For Soja, lived space (Thirdspace) is a combination of perceived space and conceived space, so his notion of critical spatiality is concerned with examining these three types together. Physical space (Firstspace) is also always conceptualized space—looking out over a natural landscape is still done through a conceptual lens—and is also always lived and experienced. One’s experience of space—lived space—is an experience of a conceptualized, physical space. In this way, Soja seeks to move beyond the binary logic of either/or into the trialectic logic of both/and.

            A simple example may help clarify these theoretical spatial distinctions. Consider the space you are occupying as you read this paper. The physical space—dimensions of a room, furniture, window placement, temperature, etc.—is perceived space, the space presented to you through your five senses, Firstspace. This same space as conceived space, Secondspace, would be a photograph or architectural drawing of the space, or your mental picture of what the space will look like after renovation. Thirdspace—a synthesis of these two—addresses how one may experience space. The room you occupy might produce any number of possible responses: a sense of tranquility or oppression; fond memories or unpleasant ones. The point here is that space is never neutral, or merely a physical location that can be represented conceptually through a photograph, painting, architectural drawing, or map, as if the representation was a one-to-one likeness of the physical space.

We can apply this paradigm to an architectural structure such as Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France, where construction began in the mid-twelfth century. The physical components of the cathedral are Firstspace. Chartres Cathedral, however, was the product of a deliberate design—a conceived space/Secondspace—that was meant to convey particular concepts and associations: a sacred structure dedicated for Christian worship; the imposing center—religiously, politically, physically—of the city of Chartres; and the overcoming of “pagan” ritual—the cathedral was built on the site of a “pre-Christian virgin-goddess cult” (Stokstad 1999: 553).

The Thirdspace of medieval Chartres—the lived space of the cathedral—had different associations for various groups and individuals. High-ranking clerics, French nobility, the cathedral’s architects, townspeople taxed to pay for construction, pilgrims traveling to the cathedral to worship the Virgin, the artisans who carved sculptures on the façade and fashioned elaborate glass windows, illiterate peasants gazing at the stories told on the stained glass—all would have experienced Chartres as a discretely different lived space.

Figure 1: Chartres Cathedral, France.


Photo source:


© 1997; AISA, Archivo Iconográfico, Barcelona, España


Figure 2: The so-called “Beautiful Window,” stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary on her throne, Chartres Cathedral, France.


Photo and caption source:


© 1997; AISA, Archivo Iconográfico, Barcelona, España


Figure 3: Detail of sculpture in Chartres Cathedral. Figures from the Old Testament, centre portal of the west front, c. 1140–50.


Photo and caption source:


Madame Simone Roubier, Paris


Thirdspace raises the central issue of spatial practices. For example, how do people live in a space and what actions are possible and/or acceptable? How are perceptions of space informed by structures of power and authority? Soja, for instance, is interested in the use of space to resist oppression. In the case of Chartres, we might understand the refusal of townspeople to pay taxes for construction as a spatial practice of resistance. They resisted the space of the cathedral not only in concept but also through action. On the other hand, the imposing physical structure of the cathedral no doubt reinforced the “truth” of Christianity while also asserting the hegemonic authority of the Church in medieval France. Thus, many individuals acquiesced and willingly entered into the spatial practice of power exerted by Chartres Cathedral and all that it symbolized.


Parallel Spaces: The Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) as Pure Land

This section details a spatial analysis of Amida’s Pure Land and how this paradisiacal space may by interpreted through a spatial trialectic. Specifically, I am intrigued by the Pure Land as an imagined and conceived space later manifest in material form through the actions and experiences of Heian lay and monastic Buddhists. Why is it that Pure Land Secondspace and Thirdspace seem to precede the physical construction/natural topography of Firstspace? That is, how did Japanese Buddhists interpret narrative descriptions of the Pure Land and then formulate these into spatial representations—both in two-dimensional artistic renderings, such as paintings of the Pure Land and Pure Land mandalas, and in efforts to recreate the Pure Land in architectural spaces, such as temple building projects, including Michinaga’s Hōjōji and Yorimichi’s Byōdōin?

I propose that there is a difference between conceptualizing or designing a physical space, and conceptualizing or designing a physical space that does not (yet) exist although it has been verbally described. That is, it is one thing to imagine a geographic design laid over a material space, but quite another to imagine a geography where none physically exists. This tension between imagined and material geography has particular relevance in the context of the Pure Land, and is a matter of interest in light of spatial theory I explore further below.

            Paintings and other material representations of the Pure Land derive in part from narrative descriptions of the Pure Land taken from sūtras, such as the following details about the physical form of the Pure Land found in the Sūtra on Amida Buddha:

[2] The Buddha then said to the Elder Shariputra: “If you travel westward from here, passing a hundred thousand kotis of Buddha-lands, you come to the land called ‘Utmost Bliss’ [i.e., the Pure Land], where there is a Buddha named ‘Amida.’ He is living there now, teaching the Dharma [the Buddha’s law or teaching].


[3] “Shariputra, why is that land called ‘Utmost Bliss’? The beings in that land suffer no pain but only enjoy pleasures of various kinds. For this reason, that land is called ‘Utmost Bliss.’ Again, Shariputra, in that Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven rows of balustrades, seven rows of decorative nets, and seven rows of trees. They are all made of four kinds of jewels and extend over the whole land, encompassing everything. For this reason, that land is called ‘Utmost Bliss.’ Again, Shariputra, in the Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven-jewelled ponds, filled with water of the eight excellent qualities. The beds of the ponds are covered solely with gold sand, and from the four sides of each pond rise stairs of gold, silver, beryl and crystal. Above these stand pavilions adorned with gold, silver, beryl, crystal, sapphire, rosy pearls, and carnelian. In the ponds are lotuses as large as chariot-wheels—the blue ones radiating a blue light, the yellow a yellow light, the red a red light and the white ones a white light. They are marvelous and beautiful, fragrant and pure. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.


“Again, Shariputra, in that Buddha-land heavenly music is played continually. The ground is made of gold. Six times during the day and night mandarava flowers rain down from the sky. Every day, in the serenity of the early morning, the people of that land fill the hem of their robes with exquisite flowers and go to make offerings to a hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas dwelling in the worlds of other quarters. Then they return for their morning meal. After the meal they enjoy a stroll. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.


“Again, Shariputra, in that land there are always many kinds of rare and beautiful birds of various colors, such as swans, peacocks, parrots, sharis, kalavinkas and jivamjivakas. Six times during the day and night birds sing with melodious and delicate sounds, which proclaim such teachings as the five roots of goodness, the five powers, the seven practices leading to Enlightenment, and the Eightfold Noble Path. On hearing them, the people of that land become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. But, Shariputra, you should not assume that these birds are born as retribution of their evil karma. The reason is that none of the three evil realms exists in that Buddha-land. Shariputra, even the names of the three evil realms do not exist there; how much less the realms themselves? These birds are manifested by Amida Buddha so that their singing can proclaim and spread the Dharma.


“In that Buddha-land, Shariputra, when soft breezes waft through the rows of jewelled trees and jewelled nets, they produce subtle, wonderful sounds. It is as if a hundred thousand musical instruments were playing together. Everyone who hears the sounds spontaneously becomes mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. Shariputra, that Buddha-land is filled with such splendid adornments” (adapted from Inagaki 1995: 353-355).


Primarily, the beauty and religious purity of the Western Paradise are emphasized in two- and three-dimensional representations of the Pure Land in Heian period Japan. It might be tempting to view these Heian renderings of the Pure Land as supplements to a narrative, a view that privileges the significance and primacy of narrative over visual/spatial representations. In the case of Heian Buddhism, narrative descriptions of the Pure Land precede its visual/physical representations, but few people would have had the ability or inclination to tackle the Chinese translations (from originally Sanskrit and Central Asian texts) of Pure Land sūtras that were available to Heian Buddhists. Thus, these two- and three-dimensional Pure Land representations served a purpose of teaching about the Pure Land and Amida’s salvific powers, among other functions.

            Many Heian representations of the Pure Land have survived, but I want to focus here on one: the Byōdōin temple of Fujiwara no Yorimichi (990-1074) that still stands today in Uji, Japan. This temple, particularly its Amida Hall, commonly referred to as the Phoenix Hall, was meant to invoke the idea of the Pure Land embodied in the present, material world.




Views of the Phoenix Hall.





Image of Amida Buddha in the Phoenix Hall.            Image of Amida Buddha in the Phoenix Hall.            Interior walls of the Phoenix Hall.


                                                                        Taima mandala


            The Byōdōin temple, originally part of an imperial villa in the possession of the powerful Fujiwara aristocratic family, was converted into a temple by Fujiwara no Yorimichi in the mid-eleventh century. The centerpiece of the temple was—and is—the Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) that houses a nine-foot-high seated image of Amida Buddha. Overall, a temple visitor experiences (or is meant to experience) the impressive splendor of the Pure Land in stark contrast to the sullied, samsaric human realm. Sumptuous paintings, the gleaming gilt wood form of Amida glimpsed in the darkness of the central hall, the canopy above the image covered in gold leaf and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the shimmering reflection of the Phoenix Hall in the small lake skirting the temple, small golden statues of bodhisattvas descending on clouds arrayed behind the main image, throngs of graceful, sculpted apsaras (heavenly musicians)—this lavish display confirms the opulent beauty of the Pure Land.

            Images of the Pure Land are painted on interior walls of the Phoenix Hall, as are raigō paintings, depictions of Amida’s descent to the human world to welcome the newly deceased into the Western Paradise. “Witnessing the Sunset,” one of the Sixteen Contemplations—a meditation technique for visualizing the glory and splendor of the Pure Land—once adorned another of the interior walls (the original has been removed due to preservation concerns). All of these scenes are designed to manifest the Western Paradise amid the mundane space of the samsaric world.

The Phoenix Hall and other structures in the Byōdōin temple complex (few of which have survived) are models of buildings described in the Pure Land sūtras and depicted in painted and embroidered mandalas, such as the famous Taima Mandala. The Phoenix Hall is surrounded by a pond known as the Ajiike (“Pond [in the Shape of] the Sanskrit letter ‘A’”). This pond is likely modeled after the Pure Land Treasure Pond [cite sutra reference]. Observing the image of Amida from the other side of the pond across from the Phoenix Hall, especially in the evening, enhances the sculpture’s ethereal beauty and also suggests that the image is floating within the multi-level temple building. The Phoenix Hall is also flanked by gardens in a configuration later identified as the Pure Land-style garden (jōdo shiki teien). That the Phoenix Hall itself appears as a stylized phoenix—a mythological bird reborn from its own funeral pyre—alighting on the pond reinforces the allure of rebirth in the Pure Land for Heian Buddhists.


Theorizing the Space of the Pure Land

Given the layout and contents of the Pure Land/Phoenix Hall as envisioned at Byōdōin, how does this space fit into Lefebvre and Soja’s theoretical framework? Does the trialectic of Firstspace, Secondspace, and Thirdspace aptly describe the spatial conceptions associated with the Pure Land in texts and, subsequently, the Phoenix Hall?

Firstspace of the Pure Land. The Pure Land—prior to any three-dimensional representations—has no Firstspace. The Pure Land does not initially function as a material, physical space. It cannot be traveled to, cannot be found on a terrestrial map (though later it comes to be mapped in mandalas, or Buddhist diagrams of the cosmos); it is neither built nor unbuilt. Rather, the Pure Land refers to a space that originally exists only as rhetorical space—in this case, a discourse situated in Buddhist sūtras. The Pure Land has its canonical, authoritative verbal description in these  Pure Land texts. Thus, the Pure Land exists rhetorically, but not materially; it exists conceptually, but not physically. It is not tangible space confirmed by the five senses (in Buddhism, “thought” is considered a sixth sense, but I will not deal with the possible implications of this here).

Secondspace of the Pure Land. Conceptualizations of the Pure Land constitute its “design.” This design, or conceived space, is not rendered—originally—as a map or drawing, but as narrative description of a religious space. This narrative describes a wondrous land without pain, suffering, impurity, and evil; a utopian world presided over by Amida Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas; a realm of golden earth adorned with jewels and raining flowers, and where heavenly music plays continuously; a place inhabited by beautiful birds of many varieties; a space gendered male. This Pure Land cosmic design produces, in part, a discourse of longing. The Pure Land was the religious goal of significant numbers of Japanese Buddhists in the late Heian period who expressed an intense longing for birth in the Pure Land after death—a place devoid of desire that, paradoxically, was fervently desired.

Thirdspace of the Pure Land. It might seem that there can be no Thirdspace for an imagined world, a Firstspace-less world. How, it might be asked, can we experience a space that does not exist? I am convinced that the Pure Land is experienced, lived space—even prior to its material construction—because rituals are performed with the Pure Land in mind, and Pure Land space is represented in two-and three-dimensions through painting and sculpture. Further, there are numerous accounts of monks and nuns facing the west, toward the Pure Land or Western Paradise, when they are dying. They wish to face Amida as he descends to welcome them into paradise. These monastics situate their bodies physically facing the west, thereby rendering the Pure Land a lived space occupying a particular directional orientation [cite examples, specific texts].


Theorizing the Space of the Phoenix Hall

Soja asserts that Thirdspace is a synergy of Firstspace and Secondspace, a combination of perceived and conceived spaces. The Thirdspace of the Pure Land should include—to follow Soja’s logic—both material and conceptual space. Yet the Thirdspace of the Pure Land would seem to be reduced to only the experience of a conceptualized Pure Land. Ultimately, it is desire for the Pure Land that is experienced, not a material space. Thus, Soja’s tripartite spatial model remains incomplete in the Pure Land model until the conceptualized, lived/desired space of the Pure Land is manifest in physical form in such guises as temple complexes representing this Buddhist paradise.

The following table may help to clarify the distinctions I am trying to draw between the Pure Land and the Phoenix Hall as a representation of the Pure Land.





Pure Land

none (non-material)

conceptualized through narrative descriptions of the topography and design of the Pure Land

experienced as an object of desire and as a visualized space toward which rituals are performed

Phoenix Hall

former aristocratic villa buildings and grounds

conceptualized based on the topography and design of the Pure Land, and on two- and three-dimensional representations of the Pure Land

experienced as the manifestation of the Pure Land in the human realm; experienced as aristocratic space


            The non-material (First)space of the Pure Land becomes material in the conversion of the Fujiwara aristocratic villa into a likeness of the Pure Land. The Firstspace of the Phoenix Hall is both the manifest Firstspace of the Pure Land at the same time that it retains its aristocratic lineage. I will not deal here with this latter aspect of Phoenix Hall spatiality; rather, I am concerned with the construction of the Phoenix Hall as Firstspace of the Pure Land and how this space might be understood given its apparent violation of the spatial ordering suggested by Soja.

One possible interpretive strategy, following Jean Baudrillard, is to consider the Phoenix Hall a “simulation” of the Pure Land rather than its “representation.” According to Baudrillard, representation refers to something real—in this case, a physical, material space. The Phoenix Hall, however, references not something material, but rather something immaterial, spiritual. From a Baudrillardian perspective, the Phoenix Hall would seem to be better understood as a simulation: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of a real without origins or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1983: 2). Although Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal arises from his attempts to describe the postmodern world, his work also presents some intriguing possibilities for understanding the production of a simulated Firstspace out of Secondspace and Thirdspace.

            The interpretation of Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality found in John Storey’s An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture is useful here:

In the realm of the hyperreal, the distinction between simulation and the ‘real’ continually implodes; the ‘real’ and the imaginary continually collapse into each other. The result is that reality and simulation are experienced as without difference—operating along a roller coaster continuum. In fact, simulations can often be experienced as more real than the real itself… (Storey 1993: 163).


For Heian Buddhists, there was no more palpable expression—no more verifiably “real” experience—of the Pure Land than the Firstspace created by the Phoenix Hall [add references to Heian descriptions of the Phoenix Hall experienced as the Pure Land]. On the basis of a notion of hyperreality, the Phoenix Hall fits into the context of Soja’s tripartite space in the following way:

Firstspace of the Phoenix Hall. The material space of the Phoenix Hall was a converted aristocratic villa with additional new construction that was made to appear like the conceived space of the Pure Land. Because the Pure Land is itself not a material space, the physical space of the Phoenix Hall is both Firstspace and simulation of the Pure Land.

Secondspace of the Phoenix Hall. Conceptualizations of the Pure Land taken from sūtras, mandalas, and other Buddhist sources—as well as architectural styles appropriated from Heian period secular aristocratic and temple buildings—are central design elements of the Phoenix Hall and constitute its Secondspace.

Thirdspace of the Phoenix Hall. The lived experience of Japanese Buddhist monastics and laypersons of the Phoenix Hall as Pure Land.


Conclusion: The Production of Simulated Space

The simulated Pure Land made material in the Phoenix Hall appears to mimic the conceived space of the Pure Land. Conversely, however, we can conceive that the Phoenix Hall/Pure Land creates the reality of the Pure Land. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Phoenix Hall was not simply an opulent expression of religious fervor; it also created the model of a “real” Pure Land which in fact had no independent or original material reality. “Simulation,” as Baudrillard argues, “threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and imaginary’ (Baudrillard 1983: 5). The simulation of the Pure Land at the Phoenix Hall concretized the Pure Land’s reality; it did not represent an otherwise real material space. To return to Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality, the physical presence of the Phoenix Hall blurred the distinction between reality and simulation of the Pure Land. This blurring allowed the Phoenix Hall to be experienced as Pure Land Firstspace. This perceptual shift is underscored by aristocratic Heian Buddhist accounts of experiencing the Phoenix Hall as the Pure Land itself.

What was created in Heian Japan at the Phoenix Hall was, to use a contemporary term, a virtual world. There was no real Firstspace, so Firstspace was manufactured. Pure Land simulation masqueraded as an actualization of the Pure Land, a religious goal accessible to everyone regardless of social class (itinerant monks had begun preaching this starting at least a century earlier). Yet, in a society as hierarchical as Heian Japan, the simulated space of the Pure Land was never equally accessible across class boundaries and hence the Phoenix Hall/Pure Land afforded power only to those aristocrats with access to this space. The actual situation was that the space of Amida’s paradise was experienced as exclusive to aristocrats, appropriated for something other than egalitarian purposes.

            Thus, there were important political and ideological implications to the creation of a Pure Land Firstspace. In the late Heian period, high-ranking aristocrats were in control of fabricating simulations of the Pure Land. No other class had the financial means and religious connections to be able to support such a venture. This hyperreal Pure Land then became the site for, inter alia, demonstrations of wealth, displays of religious and secular power, and the reinforcement of social hierarchies. For instance, Heian aristocrats no doubt experienced the Phoenix Hall differently from the laborers who built it and then were restricted in their access to this space once construction was completed. Flanagan makes a similar point about the distinction between Firstspace and its Thirdspace experience in his discussion of a Sinai Bedouin and an Israeli guide: “The two men lived in the same physical Firstspace zone, but their Thirdspaces differed substantially” (Flanagan 2001).

            The Pure Land/Phoenix Hall masked the hierarchy of relations characterizing Heian period society and reinforced social stratification. The ostensibly egalitarian Pure Land was rendered hierarchical through its material realization as the Phoenix Hall, a space restricted on the basis of social ranking. Yorimichi effectively appropriated the Secondspace and Thirdspace of the Pure Land by crafting the Phoenix Hall as Pure Land Firstspace. This manifested Firstspace then served as the ground for spatial practices involving religious rituals and other actions that not only reinforced the perception of the Phoenix Hall as Pure Land Firstspace but engendered and perpetuated the inequities of power relations between aristocrats and others.

I stated in the Introduction to this paper that I hoped to raise questions about the relevance (or not) of contemporary spatial theories to religious studies generally. It seems to me that the issue of spatiality is a critical piece missing from most analyses of religious data. This is an area of inquiry rich with possibility currently in the early stages of scholarly exploration. I have tried to sketch out here a view of a Japanese religious space in context, one that takes seriously three theoretical claims concerning space discussed by Kevin Hetherington, a sociologist, in his The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering. In this volume, Hetherington reviews recent literature on spatiality and locates these studies within a model of space as socially produced. He extracts three contextualizing positions in this literature:

1.      “space and place are not treated as sets of relations outside of society but implicated in the production of those social relations and are themselves, in turn, socially produced.”

2.      “space and place are seen to be situated within relations of power and in some cases within relations of power-knowledge”

3.      “spatial relations and places associated with those spatial relations are seen to be multiple and contested. A place does not mean the same thing for one group of social agents as it does for another” (Hetherington 1997: 20)

It seems to me that these three claims have to be considered in any analysis of religious space if we are to move beyond an Eliadean view of religious space as merely “sacred.” I could argue, for instance, that the Phoenix Hall qua Pure Land is a sacred space in Eliadean terms (and with all the ramifications of such a claim), but to do so would miss the opportunity for analyzing space-in-context as Hetherington suggests. It is this same concern for space-in-context that inspires Soja to view critical spatiality through a radical postmodernism. As noted above, the example of Pure Land space and its power implications in Heian Japan offers evidence of the multiplicity of spatial contexts and experiences, and the need for trialectic and other approaches to religious space.

            Finally, tripartite theories of space lead us in fruitful directions for spatial analysis, but, as I have proposed in this paper, not all religious space falls neatly into this threefold schema. Soja and others have extracted their theories primarily from the discipline of geography. The study of religious space—with its combinations and continuums of real and imagined spaces—seems, at least in some instances, to require other theoretical frames through which to view religious data. To that end, I have attempted to offer one area of religious spatial inquiry—an absent Firstspace/a present simulated space—for further theorization.




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