Until this morning, I have given the subject of pagodas only a passing nod of attention. But for reasons hidden inside my brain and outside my sphere of consciousness, I felt compelled to explore why I suddenly said to myself this morning, “I want to live in a pagoda.” Despite the fact that pagodas typically are not occupied as living quarters, I inexplicably had a yearning to  live in one. How, I wondered, could I wish to live in a structure about which I had, at best, only a superficial knowledge? I will continue to wonder why; I still do not understand the appeal of pagoda living, though it remains as a magnetic attraction somewhere inside of me.

Perhaps I had in mind a tall pagoda that affords a sweeping view, like the Pagoda of Fogong Temple, a Chinese pagoda built completely of wood in 1056 (the oldest such wooden pagoda structure in China). Standing almost 221 feet tall, the edifice has been called an “ultimate death shrine to the Buddha of the age.” The meaning of that description eludes me, though something about it is deeply appealing. Before I go on, I should say that a pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves; pagodas are common to China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Typically, they were built to have a religious function, most commonly Buddhist but sometimes Taoist.

I recall, years ago, visiting the Fort Worth Japanese Gardens. I know there is a small pagoda there, as well as a tsukimi (moon-viewing) deck. The place is quiet and beautiful, a lovely oasis of tranquility with Zen gardens, waterfalls, and walking paths. It is, in my mind, a monument to contemplation; a place where stress is soothed away with the sounds and sights of serenity. Maybe that’s what appeals to me this morning. Maybe I want to live in a pagoda because I envision a pagoda as a calm oasis, a refuge from raging emotions and madness, both my own and those of others around me.

A refuge. An oasis. A place to to which I might retreat from the insanity of the world in which I find myself. But serenity cannot be found in a place; a building is just a building. Chaos can slide in through the doors and windows left ajar. A sense of peace and tranquility does not arise simply from being in a location; that state of mental calm requires intensive hard work to achieve. Stepping inside the entrance to a pagoda will not magically transform stress into relaxation. Yet, I think the characteristics of a place can and do contribute to achieving a sense of serenity. When an edifice is constructed with the purpose of engendering peace and calmness, there’s something about the building that contributes to emotional smoothing. Calm, unchained to drama or mental contortions or emotional reactions to perceived slights. And on and on.

As I consider my odd statement this morning, “I want to live in a pagoda,” I think I understand what prompted the desire. Though the architecture of a pagoda is intriguing (which is new, in that I distinctly remember disliking the appearance of pagodas in years gone by), it’s the intent of the architecture I’m after. It’s the sense of appreciation and gratitude and deep, almost cellular, quietude and serenity I envision in the architecture.

We make our own happiness and we make our own sadness and we create our own cocoons of worry or resentment or safety. Places simply house environments where our emotions attempt to take root. I think the structure of pagodas (and chapels and sanctuaries and temples and shrines and so forth) simply call attention to the purpose of the building, thereby increasing the likelihood that the building will serve its calming purpose. But that’s just my mind talking; I have no reliable knowledge on the matter, which is true of most of my opinions. I simply decide what to think and I think it into my own reality.

Smooth stones also can contribute to a sense of peace. So can symbols of all kinds.  ☮ and  ∞ and others. The trick is to transform symbols and places and structures into reality. That is, indeed, a trick. Maybe the first step in achieving it is to want to live in a pagoda.

Under this tree, where light and shade
Speckle the grass like a Thrush’s breast,
Here, in this green and quiet place,
I give myself to peace and rest.

~W.H. Davis~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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