Mount Wutai (Wutai Shan)
Wutaishan (Mt. Wutai) is located in Shanxi Province of China. It's one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism, together with Mt. Emei in Sichuan Province, Mt. Jiuhua in Anhui Province and Mt. Putuo in Zhejiang Province. In 2009, Wutaishan is listed as a World Cultural Heritage site.
Wutai Shan's name means "five terraces," which accurately describes the five flat peaks of this sacred spot; north, east, south, west and central peak. In the quiet valleys between the peaks lay a smattering of ancient temples, twisting trails and awe inspiring views.
Once a remote outpost reached only by the most pious of pilgrims who traveled for months with wills steeled by devotion, Wutai Shan remains a hidden treasure for those seeking true contemplation.
The major sights at Wutaishan are rather spread out, forcing one to indulge in the gorgeous scenery that surrounds the five terraces. This also means that no one sight is overwhelmed with tour groups. Wutai Shan's temples are an eclectic mix of Han Buddhist and Tibetan and Mongolian Lamaist traditions, making the mountain one of the best places in China to view Buddhist architecture.
The shrines on Wutai Shan date back to the Eastern Han dynasty, the second Buddhist temple in China was built here at a time when Taoism dominated the area. A legend goes that a Buddhist monk beseeched the emperor to construct the Xiantong Temple on the mountain and suggested that a Taoist and Buddhist book be put into a fire to test which religion was true. The Taoist book was burned to ashes, but miraculously the Buddhist scroll remained undamaged. Later, Wutai Shan became a popular pilgrimage destination as more monasteries and temples were built in succeeding dynasties.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, when Buddhism held imperial favour, over 360 temples were built. The mountain also became an international destination point for Buddhists from other countries as they were drawn to the many temples as centres of learning. Lama Buddhists began to settle on the mountain during the Qing dynasty. Today there are 47 temples and monasteries and they continue to draw devotees and curious sightseers.
Most of the temples are located around Taihuai, a small temple inundated town nestling in the valleys 1,700m above sea level. The temples on Wutai Shan are dedicated to Wenshu Pusa (Manjusri), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Virtue. A visiting Indian monk had a vision of Wenshu in the 1st century AD and concluded Wutai Shan to be the mystical abode of Buddha's most important assistant. Numerous legends speak of how apparitions of Wenshu riding on the back of a blue lion have been sighted high above the monasteries.
Tours normally begin at Taihuai; a one day long trip south of town allows you to visit several stylistically different temples. All temples share a transcendental aura, so if you're looking to get away from the generic grey pillars of urban life, any temple will do.
108 carved granite steps (the same number of beads on a Buddhist rosary) lead to Dailuo Ding, the temple that houses statues of five different forms of Wenshu Pusa, each of whom supposedly live on a different peak. Legend has it that a young monk suggested statues representing the five incarnations of Wenshu be built here to save visiting emperors from a grueling trek. For those who want to visit the bodhisattvas but don't have the time to make a house call; this is the place to ask Wutai Shan's guardians for a blessing. To make things even easier, there's now a cable car from the foot of Wutai Shan to the temple. Piety with convenience; if only the early pilgrims had it this easy.
Xiantong Temple is the largest and oldest temple on the mountain and is also conveniently located in the heart of town. It houses the amazing Beamless Pavilion, which contains no beams and is supported through a complex set of interlocking pins. The impressive Bronze Pavilion is made from 50, 000 kg of bronze; it's a perfect replica of a wooden pavilion, the interior houses thousands of tiny Buddhas. Continuing on the bronze theme, the Youming Bell is the largest bronze bell in the region. The 2.5m high bell was built in 1620 and has a diameter of 1.6m. A Buddhist sutra of over 10,000 Chinese characters decorates the body of the bell.
Behind the Xiantong Temple is the largest Lama temple on the mountain, the Pusa Ding. Climb the 108 stairs to this temple and gaze out on the expansive views of Taihuai and the surrounding countryside. Tibetan and Mongolian Lamas stayed here during the Ming and Qing dynasties, believing that Wenshu Pusa once lived in the same place. The Wenshu Pavilion has an interesting feature: water is stored on the roof when it rains and on sunny days it drips down the roof.
The 50m high Tibetan styled White Pagoda, designed by a Nepali in 1301, has become a symbol of Wutai Shan. It stands on the grounds of Tayuan Temple, also in Taihuai. A market place forms around it with vendors selling incense, prayer beads, Buddhist booklets and bronze Buddhas.
Just 10 minutes away from Taiyuan Temple is Shuxiang Temple, which features a 6m tall statue of Wenshu riding a lion, with the temple itself last rebuilt in 1487. Take a short 10 minute walk southwest and the Puhua Temple will come into view, the buildings here feature intricate carvings. About 3km southwest is the South Mountain Temple where 18 Ming dynasty arhat statues reside. Follow a packed earth trail down the hill for about 5km and you'll arrive at the Dragon Fountain Temple, where 108 steps lead to an elaborate marble entrance with carvings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, dragons and flowers. In the main hall is an exquisitely carved Puji Dagoba with a laughing Buddha looking out from each cardinal direction. In the courtyard hundreds of small chimes tinkle in the wind.
Not far from the Tayuan Temple is the Luohou Temple. Its present structures date from 1492 with the temple featuring a unique circle altar where a lotus opens up to a Buddha carved inside. The statue was made from a tree where an emperor saw a divine light. When the tree died during the Qing dynasty, it was carved into this lotus; a mechanism underground allowing the lotus petals to be raised and lowered.
Wutaishan Memorable Experience
Walking on the cobbled paths in the town, serenaded by tinkling of bells from the temples under the starlight.
Wandering between temples and viewing in awe the snow-capped peaks.