The Mystery of the 11-Tier Pagoda

The mysterious pagoda
The mysterious pagoda

The pagoda in the forest woods of the garden has a mysterious presence. Photo: Doug Rike.

In the woods above the waterfall stands an eleven-tiered pagoda, representing ancient seminaries in the mountains of Japan.

Oddly, despite its stature, the pagoda's presence is so subtle visitors often walk by without noticing it.  And those who do notice, often comment on the air of dignity and mystery the tower exudes.

"What is the story behind this pagoda?"  guide Dewey Webster asked himself for years.  When curiosity finally got to him, he decided to give it a very close inspection.

"The history of Buddhist stupas and pagodas is long and complex," notes Webster in the study he complied on the tower.  In a word, "they commemorate the Buddha".  A pagoda is often said to hold a sacred object connected to him.

At the base of the garden's eleven-tiered pagoda, Webster noticed four character inscriptions.  Webster embarked on a search for scholarly help to decode the characters, called Bonji in Japanese.  Eventually,  University of Washington Ph.D. student Mark Bourne came along, and joined Webster one Sunday morning on a covert mission to take some rubbings of these sacred Sanskrit characters.

Yet another doctoral student at the University of Washington, Lin Qian, conducted the interpretation.  Qian confirmed that each of the Bonji were associated with a Buddha, a cardinal direction.  He also shared that the finial at the top represented the fifth, central Buddha.So at last, the answer was revealed: the tower was there to symbolize the mantra, vaṃ trāḥ hrīḥ hūṃ aḥ, which refers to the five realms of consciousness in Buddhism.

Center, undefiled consciousness. East, storehouse consciousness. South, mind consciousness. West, thought consciousness. North, sense consciousness: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.

Despite this wonderful revelation that explained the pagoda's somewhat elusive presence, in the end, the Webster-Bourne team's research turned up more questions than answers.

Why is the pagoda situated at a 45 degree angle, thus pointing Southwest, Southeast, Northwest and Northeast instead?

Why is the pagoda a highly unusual eleven-tier tower, as opposed to a thirteen-tier tower that is vastly more common and what appears to have been specified by the garden's original designer, Juki Iida?

Some mysteries beg to remain so.  And the eleven-tiered pagoda remains a quietly enigmatic presence in our garden.

Rumi Tsuchihashi is the Stewardship and Events Coordinator at Seattle Japanese Garden, and the blog editor.