About Wutai Shan
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Wutai Shan literally means “ Five Terrace Mountains ,” referring to the five summits (north, east, south, west, and central) which surround the alpine-like valley where the main town of Taihuai is located. The tallest of these peaks is the North Terrace, which at 3058 m in elevation is the tallest mountain in north China, hence its nickname, the “Roof of North China.”
Wutai Shan has long been a destination for pilgrims and worshippers. The first monasteries were built in this tranquil location in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE) by Buddhist scholars traveling from India at the time when Buddhism was just taking root in China . They brought with them their sacred texts and found this remote mountain valley a peaceful and contemplative place to study and meditate. Wutai Shan was dedicated to the Manjusri Buddha (also known as the Wenshu Bodhisattva), the God of Wisdom, who is said to have once resided at Wutai Shan . Manjusri is a particularly important figure to Tibetan Buddhists, and the mountain became an important destination for Buddhist pilgrims, as it still is today as evidenced by the large number of visitors who come from all over the country and from overseas.
The number of temples reached a peak during the Tang Dynasty, when over 200 monasteries populated Taihuai Town and the surrounding areas. With the persecution of Buddhism during the 9th century, most of the temples here were destroyed. Wutai Shan then enjoyed a renaissance during the Ming Dynasty following frequent visits by the Emperor Kangxi. Today about 50 temples still survive, many of them located in the monastic town of Taihuai and on the neighboring hillsides. Fortunately, many of these temples survived the violence of the Cultural Revolution, due in large part, no doubt, to their difficult-to-access location. The result is that the temples of Wutai Shan feature many different architectural designs and contain many noteworthy sculptures, frescoes, and carvings. Many of these temples feature statues of Manjusri, who is generally depicted riding a lion and carrying a sword which he uses to cut through ignorance and illusion.
Because of its high elevation and remote mountain location, Wutai Shan often features bright blue skies and clean air. The monasteries are covered in snow in the winter, and even in the summer the climate is cool and pleasant. The areas around Taihuai Town are popular with hikers, and each of the five peaks is accessible by tourists.
Today approximately 50 temples remain in the Wutai Shan area. The most accessible are those clustered around Taihuai Town . Another group is located in the hills and areas near Taihuai. Each of these temples is within hiking distance of Taihuai, and local taxis offer tours to various combinations of outlying temples. Yet another group of temples is located even farther afield—10 km – 60 km away—and can be reached by minibus, taxi or rental car. Some of these more remote temples include some of the oldest buildings in China .
Xiantong Temple is the oldest and largest temple at Wutai Shan . Located at the center of Taihuai, this popular temple was originally built in the Eastern Han Dynasty, nearly 2000 years ago. This extreme complex is spread out over 8 hectares and contains over 400 rooms, most of which date to the Ming or Qing Dynasties. This temple is built as a series of courtyards, and the 22,000 pound bell in front of the gate can be heard for miles. Buddhist scriptures are carved into the surface of the bell. Of particular interest is the Bronze Hall, a shiny pavilion-style structure made entirely from bronze. Some 50,000 kg of the metal are said to have been used in constructing this unusual building, which contains 10,000 small bronze Buddha statues, a large bronze sculpture of Manjusri riding a lion, and elegant engraved bronze windows. In front of the Bronze Hall are two 13-storey octagonal pagodas—also made of bronze and dating from the Ming Dynasty. Xuantong Temple contains an impressive collection of historical relics, including the Dragon-Tiger stone tablets at the front gate, which were carved in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), paintings from the Yuan Dynasty, and many valuable Buddhist scriptures, stone carvings, and tablets. A rare thousand-arm statue of Manjusri is particularly noteworthy, with each of the many arms holding an alms bowl with a small statue of Sakyamuni Buddha within. This golden statue is also unusual in that it has five heads, one atop the other.
Tayuan Temple is best known for the 75-meter-tall white stupa which symbolizes Wutai Shan . This Tibetan-style stupa, with a large square base and bottle-shaped top, is known as the Dabai Pagoda, or “White Pagoda.” Also located in the center of Taihuai, this was originally the temple yard of the Xiantong Temple , located just to the north, before becoming an independent temple during the Ming Dynasty. (“Tayuan” means “pagoda courtyard.”) One of the highlights of this temple is a library containing an ancient revolving bookcase. Still in use today, this beautiful wooden bookcase with many a shelf and compartment holds numerous sutras, several of them quite rare. Also in the temple is a pagoda which is said to contain some of Manjusri’s hair. In 1948 Chairman Mao and Chou En-lai stayed at this temple while marching towards Hebei , with the result that a Chairman Mao Memorial Hall has been constructed just outside of the gates of this temple.
Pusa Ding, which literally means “Bodhisattva Summit,” is the main lamasery at Wutai Shan , making it the focal pint for Tibetan Buddhists in the area. Pusa Ding was originally built during the Northern Wei Dynasty as a temple devoted to Chinese Buddhism, but in 1660 it was converted to a lamasery. Accordingly, numerous generations of Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas have stayed at this temple. Pusa Ding is noted for its magnificent hilltop location, with a stone staircase of 108 steps leading up to the main gate, which is noted for its rare four-column, seven-roof design. Some claim it even has a slight resemblance to the Potala Palace in Tibet . This lamasery received great imperial support during the Qing Dynasty, with the Kangxi Emperor having made five pilgrimages here and the Qianlong Emperor six. This imperial support resulted in this lamasery being allowed to use yellow glazed tiles on the roofs and in the presence of a large number of boards and steles inscribed by Qing emperors. Overall, this temple has a more Lamaist flavor than most of the other temples at Wutai Shan . It is also probably the best place to gain a good hilltop view over Taihuai Town and the various temples located there.
This temple is located about 60 km south of Taihuai but is well worth the visit as the main building of this structure, the Great Buddha Hall, was built in 782, making it the oldest wooden structure in China. This building is one of a very small number of Tang Dynasty buildings still standing in China , and the simple but elegant design is representative of Tang Dynasty art in general. Still standing strong after 1200 years, this solid structure contains17 painted sculptures which also date from the Tang Dynasty and which are considered some of the finest examples of Tang Dynasty sculpture. Altogether this temple consists of two courtyards and six halls.
Foguang Temple , located 40 km west of Taihuai, contains Wutai Shan ’s other Tang Dynasty structure, which was built in 857. The lively Buddhist paintings on the walls inside date from the Tang and Song Dynasties. Foguang Temple was built on the slopes of Foguang Mountain , and each courtyard of the temple is higher than the one in front. It was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty—the same time that the Yungang Grottoes were being carved—and was severely damaged when Emperor Wu of the Tang Dynasty tried to exterminate Buddhism. The destroyed buildings were rebuilt in the Tang, Jin (1137), Song and later dynasties.
Wutai Shan is located in northeastern Shanxi , near the border with Hebei . It is about half way between Taiyuan and Datong , the two largest cities in the province. These two cities are the site of the two nearest airports, and Wutai Shan can be reached by bus from each of these cities in 4-5 hours. The occasional train also stops at Shahe Town (although the station there is labeled as Wutai Shan Station), about a one hour taxi or minibus ride from Wutai Shan . There are dozens of hotels and guesthouses located at Taihuai Town .
First To Review: Heather P.
Nov 2, 2009
Wutai Shan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and contains about 50 temples, with the oldest being nearly 2000 years old. One can witness hundreds of pilgrims, monks, and nuns studying and meditating much the way they have been in this alpine-like valley for centuries. It is well worth seeing before it becomes too commercialized.
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