China's spiritual embrace

By GRAHAM SIMMONS, The Star (Malaysia), February 7, 2009

Religion was once brutally suppressed in China. Now, however, its values are being embraced

Beijing, China -- During China’s infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), anything smacking of religion was brutally suppressed. But despite ongoing repression of Buddhism in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, things in the Chinese heartland are now much more open and relaxed.

<< One of the tallest Buddha figures of the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi.

In Henan and Shanxi provinces Buddhism — even Tibetan Buddhism — is practised freely, and with the vacuum in values accompanying the rise of the free market, Buddhism is taking the place of the Communist-era ethics almost by default.

I was privileged recently to explore some of the major Buddhist heritage sites of central China, beginning (appropriately enough) at China’s very first Buddhist monastery — the Baima (White Horse) Temple in Luoyang, in Henan province. This temple has an illustrious history that is the stuff of legends — indeed of legends that stretch credulity to its very limits.

The story goes that Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a dream in which he saw a golden man flying around his palace. Advisor Fu Yi said that it could be the Buddha, coming to help in running the country. The following day, the King sent two ministers to Afghanistan, from where they returned with a stack of Buddhist scriptures — and the temple, completed in 68 AD, was named after the two white horses that carried the scriptures back from Afghanistan.

There’s little doubt that Buddhism is alive and well at the White Horse Temple. Monks file past in a solemn procession, on their way to make devotions at an altar in the temple grounds. Worshippers in their finest business attire offer incense at a shrine in the inner sanctum. Families relax in shady pavilions in the immaculately maintained temple gardens.

But I’m still wondering what effect this visit has had on me. Have I become calmer, wiser or more compassionate? The moment I leave the temple grounds, a million and one sensory bombardments rocket me into a different space altogether. My own spiritual state, alternating between heaven and hell sometimes within mere milliseconds, can’t hope to match the equanimity and devotion of these monks and lay worshippers.

However, another chance comes at the Unesco Longmen Grottoes, about 13km on the other side of Luoyang. Stretching over a kilometre along a cliff-face overlooking the Yishui River, these caves stun all the senses at once, with myriad Buddha figures bearing expressions ranging from mild amusement to a broad grin. In total, there are over 2,300 plus caves and niches and over 100,000 Buddha statues at the site.

According to believers, the Buddha represents everyone’s real nature. These happily smiling statues represent how you should feel all the time. But with a giant hangover splitting my head apart on this particular morning, the goal of enlightenment somehow seems a L-O-N-G way off

A statue of bodhisattva Kuan Yin stands in front of the Sakyamuni wooden pagoda in Yingxian >>

However, another Buddhist site — the famous Shaolin Temple, home of Chan or Zen Buddhism and of kung fu — comes as a surprise, with its combination of serenity and dynamic action.

If you’re wondering how Buddhism and martial arts can go hand-in-hand, the Kung Fu monks of Shaolin explain that “the desire for superhuman strength and the pursuit of superhuman wisdom have always been the target pursued by Buddhist believers . . . by practising kung fu, you will feel the grand wisdom of Buddhism, understand the truth of Buddhist wisdom, and experience the real nature of humans and the universe.”

In the classic Training Methods of the 72 Arts of Shaolin, author Jin Jing Zhong (who wrote around 1934 with the blessing of the then Abbot of Shaolin) describes how monks of Shaolin Monastery mastered such feats as crushing huge stones with their elbows, running up three-metre high walls, kicking down big trees and sending an attacking tiger flying with a single palm blow.

“When you gain some success in training,” he said, “swords and spears cannot wound you, no disease can penetrate your body, and you will honourably extricate yourself from any difficulties.”

Clearly, I wasn’t going to master such feats in just one day — hey, it could take a week or so! But the sheer ebullience of the monastery surrounds, where kids practise kung fu movements in big group sessions after school, gives the whole place an amazingly vibrant energy. The same can be said about the nearby town of Dengfeng, home to over 60 accredited kung fu training schools.

But I didn’t see any Shaolin nuns practising. There are a number of nunneries surrounding the Shaolin Temple; the main one of these, the Founder Nunnery, features superb wall paintings in its East and West Pavilions. Ultimately, they say, a kung fu fighter combines both yang (outward) and yin (internal) energies, like a bird flying with two wings.

<< A procession of monks at White Horse Temple, China’s first Buddhist monastery.

Both monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple come together at night-time, in the riveting Zen Shaolin Music Ceremony sound-and-light spectacle. The performance takes place in a natural amphitheatre at the foot of Mt Sung. The performance space (the world’s largest) covers a huge three square kilometres, the highest action taking place over 1,400m above the audience’s heads. The 500-strong cast combine martial arts with Zen Buddhism, Tibetan music, exuberant dancing and portrayals of scenes from ancient China — and it’s worth the price of an air ticket to China for this show alone.

Some of the music for the show was composed by Tan Dun, whose soundtrack for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won him an Academy Award.

After the Shaolin Spectacular, I was sure that any further site-sights would be a definite anti-climax. I was wrong.

Home to Buddhist temples

Just north of Henan province, the arid landscapes of Shanxi province are also home to some of China’s finest Buddhist temples, including those on what is said to be China’s most sacred mountain. The trip starts at the provincial capital Taiyuan in central Shanxi, from where it’s a half-hour drive to Jinci, one of China’s most intriguing temples.

Jinci Temple, at the foot of Mt Xuanweng, is unique in that it combines Confucianist, Taoist and Buddhist worship all within the one structure.

Central to the complex is Shengmu Hall, containing the gently smiling image of Shengmu, known as The Saint Mother. It’s little wonder that she has become the object of veneration, but it takes more than a little investigation to find out just who she is or was.

A pavilion on the 2.58m high Yedou Peak, the highest mountain in northern China  >>

Finally, I discover that the temple was built by her son Tang Shuyu and that her name was Yi Jiang, the wife of King Wu of Zhou, who ruled for just nine years (1023-1032 AD) during the Tiansheng period of the Northern Song dynasty.

However, Shanxi’s most spectacular Buddhist sites lie in the north of the province. From Taiyuan, a spectacularly tortuous road winds north-east through increasingly barren landscapes, twisting and turning upon itself like a drunken snake.

Coal mines, thankfully, spread widely apart, spew their fumes into the air. Farmers still wear Mao-style caps and jackets, a far cry from the more-Western-than-the-west attire of their city cousins. Finally we reach the South Peak of Wutai Shan (Mt Wutai), from where a panoramic view of China’s greatest temple complex opens up in a far-off valley.

Mt Wutai, said to be home to the Bodhisattva Manjushri, is ranked the greatest of China’s “Four Sacred Mountains” (the others being Mt Emei in Sichuan province, Putuo in Zhejiang and Jiuhua in Anhui province). Stretching in a broad arc around the village of Taihuai, there used to be over 200 temples, the first dating from around 630 AD. Now, some 108 still remain, of which 47 are open to visitors.

Mao Zedong, Chou En-Lai and other revolutionary leaders made a brief stay in Wutai Shan’s Tayuan Temple way back in April 1948. Some 20 years later, during the Cultural Revolution, villagers of Taihuai intervened and almost miraculously prevented the destruction of the temples. The relatively light damage was easily repaired.

But sadly, many of the very same villagers who protected the temples during the Cultural Revolution are now being moved out to a new settlement some 20km away, to make room for tourism development. Some say you can’t stop progress. But it’s to be hoped that with tourism development at Wutai Shan tour group leaders will at least have an adequate understanding of Buddhist iconography.

Currently, many tour guides lack the knowledge to comment adequately on the myriad Buddha and Bodhisattva figures that grace the temple shrines. This is not due to ignorance, but due to the fact that most of them grew up at a time when all religions and belief systems other than Communism were rigorously put down.

Fittingly enough, my temple stroll — on a day with sub-zero temperatures and a dog-biting wind — starts at Bodhisattva Summit (Pusading Temple), at the highest point on the hill overlooking Taihuai village.

Pusading was established by Tibetan Buddhists at the behest of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhuang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and himself a former monk. He was keen to get the Tibetan and Mongolian minorities of the Chinese Empire onside.

Pusading (meaning the abode of Manjusri) stuns all the senses at once. The brilliantly coloured figures of the Medicine Buddha, of the figures of Tara and Guru Padmasambhava and of the five wrathful deities including Mahakala and Yamantaka in Vajra Hall make such a powerful impression that the rest of the day passes in a kaleidoscope of swirling colours and sounds.

Down a steep staircase from Pusading, where on devotees make prostrations during their ascent, the huge expanses of Xiantong Temple are both mightily impressive and quietly moving in their impact. This huge temple of over 400 halls, pavilions and monks’ quarters is the oldest and largest at Wutai Shan — and indeed the biggest in China after Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.

In Avalokitesvara Hall, Avalokitesvara the Buddha of Compassion is flanked by figures of Manjusri (the Buddha of Wisdom) and Samantabhadra (the Buddha of Action) — but being compassionate, wise and active all at the same time seems a pretty tall order for a mere mortal like myself.

Then at the Tibetan Tayuan Temple, home to the Great White Pagoda built by King Ashoka of India, I run into a yellow-hatted lama who seems to embody all these attributes at once, with a friendly manner and a grin as big as an aircraft-carrier deck.

The road north from Wutai Shan, via the giddying 3,000m high North Peak, comes as a finale that would take some beating. But there is more to come. A brief stop at Xuankong Temple — the “Hanging Temple” built into the side of Mt Hengshan — permanently cures my vertigo. The wooden gangway is like the crazily twisted floor in an amusement park. The frescoes seem vibrant and alive, even after 1,400 years. What avant-garde genius could have designed such a structure, so difficult and seemingly impossible to build?

China’s Eiffel Tower

Another wooden structure is equally dazzling. Built at around the same time as Jinci Temple, the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogang Temple in the town of Yingxian (the “Wooden Pagoda” in short) has been compared with the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower. I’m not sure that Eiffel would agree, but there’s no doubting the Wooden Pagoda’s mystique.

Indeed, it could have been designed by Salvador Dali, as it has five storeys on the outside and nine storeys on the inside! The Chinese claim that Sakyamuni Pagoda is the world’s tallest wooden structure; while some give this honour to the Gliwice Radio Tower in Poland, in truth, there seems to be no real comparison.

Climbing the rickety steps to a viewing platform inside the Pagoda, I marvel at the intricately crafted woodwork, with beams held together by mortis-and-tenon joints and not a single nail-head in sight. Seen from the platform is a large square, where the Head Priest of Fogang Temple is addressing a large crowd. The other side of the viewing platform opens onto Liao Dynasty Street, a surprisingly convincing reconstruction of a thousand-year old cityscape.

Indeed, the whole of Yingxian town has recently been spruced up and supposedly made to look as it did when the Sakyamuni Pagoda was built, and it’s a buzz to just stroll the streets, check out the antique shops and buy piping hot cones of popcorn from street vendors (the regional specialty is corn, an American-derived crop that thrives in this harsh climate).

The final stop on this trip is also one of the most spectacular — The Yungang Grottoes in the far northern city of Datong, the ancient capital of Shanxi.

Like the Longmen Caves, the Yungang Grottoes were built at the behest of a ruler — Emperor Wencheng of the northern Wei Dynasty. Construction started around 465 AD and took more than 60 years; but by that time the capital had been moved to Luoyang, and the Longmen Caves became the new centre for Buddhist cave art.

But the scale and scope of the Yungang artwork surpasses even that of the Longmen caves. Some 45 caves stretch for over a kilometre along the cliff-face, with the sculptures blending Indian and Chinese carving styles. The ceilings and walls of the caves, particularly those of Cave Five, are a riot of colour.

And what lessons come out of this journey of Buddhist heritage immersion? Maybe the biggest lesson is that everything — even cave art — is impermanent and subject to change. This might sound a little pessimistic; but in the current economic climate, the good news is that bad times don’t last.

Getting there

LUOYANG, HENAN: The White Horse Temple and Longmen Grottoes are best visited in Spring or Autumn.

Luoyang Grand Hotel (, Nanchang Road Nan Duan, Luoyang 471003, Henan, tel +86-379-6436 3888) offers excellent rates if booked over the Internet.

When visiting Luoyang, a must-do is the famous 26-course “Water Banquet” at the 100-year-old Zhen Bu Tong Restaurant (359, Old City Area, tel +86 379 6395 5787).

SHAOLIN TEMPLE, HENAN: Buses depart regularly from Luoyang’s rail station for Song Shan mountain, site of the Shaolin Temple. Shaolin Temple Vegetarian Restaurant (inside the Temple) offers good coffee and creative food prepared and served by Shaolin monks).

WUTAI SHAN, SHANXI: Allow at least a couple of days to properly take in the sites — and it’s best to avoid weekends.

Admission to the temple area is RMB90 (about RM48). The Yunfeng Hotel (Yanbaiyu, Taihuai village, tel +896 350 654 8131) is good value, with rooms from RMB188 (RM100).

DATONG, SHANXI: The Hanging Temple is open 6am-7pm (8am- 5pm in winter). The Yungang Caves are 16km west of Datong, and open 8am-5:30pm (8:30am-5pm in winter). Datong Hotel (37, Yingbin Xi Lu, tel +86-352-586 8666, see is recommended.