Architecture of Virtuality: Liao Dynasty Pagodas and the Embodiment of Buddhist Vision

Visiting Scholar Talks

Oct 31, 2023 | 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Youn-mi Kim | Associate Professor, Asian Art History, Ewha Womans University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2023-24


Ryuichi Abe | Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions, Harvard University

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

This talk explores the pagodas of China’s Liao dynasty (907-1125), uncovering the intricate relationships between the materiality of Buddhist architecture and its entwined vision and virtuality. It’s essential to recognize that Buddhist materiality is deeply connected with its immateriality. This dual nature, inherent in Liao architecture, echoes the Buddhist perception of reality articulated in the renowned Heart Sutra phrase: “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” The Liao empire, established in the tenth century by the nomadic Khitans, dominated regions spanning current-day northern China, Mongolia, portions of Russia’s southern border, and Kazakhstan. Within this diverse empire, the dynamism of nomadism fused with the adaptability of Buddhist philosophy, birthing monumental architecture that emphasized Buddhist visuality and virtuality. Through a careful study of select pagodas, this talk sheds light on how Liao’s Buddhist architecture symbolized a virtual pilgrimage to India’s sacred sites, envisioned an ever-expanding Huayan 華嚴 cosmos, and transformed the pagoda’s vacant core into a representation of the Buddha’s truth body (zhenshen 真身).