Tracy Miller, associate professor of history of art and Asian studies, addressed “Geometry, Cosmology, and the Blossoming of Buddhist Space in Medieval China” in a lecture that was hosted by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University.
As the earliest full-size towering pagoda extant in China, the pagoda at Songyuesi 嵩岳寺 in Dengfeng, Henan province (ca. 523 CE) is one of the most important objects we have for understanding the creation of Buddhist sacred space in Asia. Yet the plan of this structure, incorporating both dodecagon and octagon, is mysterious in its complexity－doubly so because it may be the only surviving example of its kind.
By focusing on the geometry used in its creation, Miller describes one possibility for determining the interior and exterior dimensions of the Songyuesi Pagoda plan, effectively encoding the structure with the potential for replication and regeneration important in the Buddhist sūtras as well as Indic temple designs of the period. “I also show how the same technique could have been used to create cosmological diagrams prior to the influence of Buddhist theology on Chinese society,” said Miller. “Thus, similarities in the use of geometry to describe the structure of, and potentially control, the cosmos in South and East Asia may have facilitated the rapid spread of Buddhism across this vast region.”