Following the visit to Datong, the PacRim group boarded a bus for the long and winding trip to one of the most interesting and important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China, Wutai Shan. The name means `Five Mountain Terraces’ referring to the five sacred peaks there. Taken together, these peaks count as one of the four sacred (to Buddhists) mountains in China. The mountains have been revered as sacred since pre-Buddhist times, but after Buddhism took hold in China, the importance of the mountains grew dramatically. It is believed that the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri (Wenshu in Chinese) is a resident of sorts here. Proof that Manjusri comes to earth here is found in the countless accounts of supernatural phenomena. Pilgrims for centuries (including up to the present day) claim to have seen glowing lights in the night sky that often multiply and move about. Other accounts involve the scent of sweet incense without any breeze or proximity to temple. Still others have heard bells around the mountains. Enin, a Japanese monk, is famous for having been three times to Wutai Shan and had personally experienced the phenomena. His is one of the most complete records of ancient pilgrimage as well as of the strange and mysterious mountains of Wutai Shan. His diary spread word of the wondrous occurrences of the area, inspiring others, including the PacRim group, to follow him to Wutai Shan.
For these reasons, the hillsides and valley of Wutai Shan are dotted with temples. Most temples in Wutai are devoted to Manjusri. Although there are enough temples in Wutai to spend the remaining seven months of PacRim exploring, only a few of the most significant temples were visited. All of the temples visited displayed the classical Chinese temple construction. This means that the temples are arranged along the cardinal axes and have gates facing in each direction. Once inside one of the primary gates (generally along the North-South axis, but sometimes along the East-West axis), a visitor will pass through another gate where the temple guardians are housed. The first guardian seen is usually the smiling Buddha behind whom stands the warrior Wei Tou (`way toh`). Along both sides stand the four directional guardians. Once past the temple guardians a visitor would then pass through the inner courtyard. In China, these courtyards frequently had a pair of trees (representing male and female) planted before the main hall. In front of the main hall stands an incense burner that believers use to light and offer incense. The main hall houses the Buddha or Bodhisattva to which the temple is designated and in two smaller halls on either side of the main hall are often found other representations of the deity.
Perhaps one of the oldest Buddhist temples in China and the oldest temple in Wutai Shan is the Xiantong Temple. Constructed originally in 68 A.D., Xiantong temple still houses about 300 monks that make this temple arguably the most important temple in Wutai Shan. While this temple is very old, the physical structures of the temple have been periodically updated. The last major renovation of the temple, like most in the area, was completed in the Qing Dynasty, about 300 years ago. These renovations and subsequent additions continuously update the appearance of the temples.
Within the temple grounds is also the Golchang temple with five stupas that was originally built in 1606. What is unique about this particular temple is its striking appearance. The temple and its surrounding stupas are all gilded in gold. Golchang temple is quite small, just one room, but it has a jade floor as well as being gilded completely in gold both inside and out. It is in breathtaking contrast to the rough beauty of the surrounding mountains. It is also inside this temple that the photographic image of the cloud in the semblance of Manjusri is held.
Just a little bit southward from Xiantong Temple is Tayuan temple that is home to the Great White Stupa. Built 400 years ago in the Tang Dynasty, the stupa and the accompanying temple are the symbol of Wutai Shan. The Great White Stupa is aptly named for it is a little over 160 ft high and, of course, white. Tayuan's stupa can be seen from almost any point in the Wutai valley. The stupa is surrounded by 200 prayer wheels that pilgrims spin clockwise as they circum-ambulate (walk in a clockwise direction) the stupa three times. Here the influence of Tibetan Buddhism can be felt and seen in the architecture as well as the pilgrims that attend it. Several pilgrims in what Professor Benard said was traditional Tibetan dress began the series of prostrations (up to 1,000 in a single day) before the stupa.
The group was able to have a free day to explore at will the many temples of Wutai Shan. A small group that included Professor Benard arranged with some local taxi drivers to go to the Northern Peak. At a little over 10,000ft and snow covered, the Northern Peak also has one of the highest temples in all of China. The temple at the peak was constructed almost entirely of white marble, so that it looked like snow on the top of the mountain from the valley below as we began the ascent. Once off of the main public road, a private road wound its way up to the very tip-top of the mountain. The road and temple had been built in the past three years and offered the sort of stark and long-ranging view that only mountain peaks can.
Of the many other temples in Wutai Shan, one other stand out is Luohou, which requires faithful to climb 1,000 stairs to reach the temple itself. True pilgrims are supposed to kowtow every three steps. The stairs proved a tough climb but with the reward of a great view and the satisfaction of having completed the climb. Unfortunately, after three full days of staying in Wutai Shan, no one in the group reported having seen mysterious lights, smelling incense, or hearing bells.
(Pictures coming soon)
(Article by Rachel J.)