Mount Emei

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Mount Emei

Mount Emei (峨眉山), located in Sichuan Province, is one of the four holy mountains of Chinese Buddhism. It is regarded as the domain of Samantabhadra, or Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence, depicted as riding upon an elephant.

Its highest peak is Golden Peak, also known as Wanfo (Ten Thousand Buddha) Peak, which rises 3,077 meters above sea level. A world of rocky eminences cocooned under a green blanket of trees, with a thicket of peaks emerging from the clouds and thrusting into the sky, Mount Emei is quite up to the saying, "No place under heaven is as beautiful as Mount Emei." Only by following a stone-paved path that begins at the foot of the mountain and winds its way around one peak after another for 120 li (60 km) can one climb to the summit of the mountain. The amazing topography and this unique mountain path found expression in a poem composed by a man of the Ming Dynasty:

"High is Mount Emei,

Which is like a sword thrusting into high heavens.

A mountain path stretches for one hundred and twenty li,

Only to disappear in an abyss of clouds and mists.

High above, birds nose their way along a course full of twists and turns,

Yet still find it hard to make the rounds of the mountains.

Each mountain is in a strange form,

But all of them bear a resemblance to a green lotus plant."

The unusual height and dimensions of the place result in a temperature difference of 15˚C between the foot of the mountain and its summit.

Stories differ as to when Mount Emei became the domain of Samantabhadra. One version dates this back to the Yongping reign (58-75) of the Eastern Han Dynasty, when an old man surnamed Pu, who was picking medicinal herbs on the mountain, happened to spy the auspicious signs of the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence. The Gazetteer of Mount Emei, citing Volume 45 of the Garland Sutra, has this to say, "In the southwest there is a place called the Mountain of Brightness, where many bodhisattvas have resided since ancient times. The current bodhisattva living there is someone by the name of 'Xiansheng,' who has 3,000 companions including his own family and some bodhisattvas. He often preaches there." However, to associate this quotation with the origin of Mount Emei is farfetched, and has been justifiably repudiated by Shi Yinguang in his amended version of Gazetteer of Mount Emei for the simple reason that Mount Emei is not situated to the southwest of Buddhagaya, where the Buddha preached his doctrines, and that Samantabhadra was never called "Xiansheng." Buddhism found its way to Mount Emei probably during the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties (265-420), but at that time the place was dominated by Taoism. Buddhism did not begin to thrive there until after the Tang and Song dynasties. It was during the Song Dynasty that Mount Emei was formally declared as the domain of Samantabhadra.

According to historical records, in 968 (6th year of the Jiande reign of Emperor Taizu, Song Dynasty), the imperial court, after receiving repeated reports from Jiazhou Prefecture (present-day Jiading, Sichuan Province) about the discovery of auspicious signs of Samantabhadra, dispatched Zhang Chongjin, a palace attendant, to investigate. In 980 (6th year of the Taipingxingguo reign, Song Dynasty), the imperial court cast a bronze statue of Samantabhadra mounted on an elephant, and built a hall to enshrine this colossal sculpture with a height of more than two zhang (approximately 7 meters), thereby establishing Mount Emei's history as the domain of Samantabhadra. Buddhism reached its zenith during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when more than 100 temples of various sizes were built there, but it went into decline during the Republican years, when many of those temples fell into disrepair. The damp weather took its toll as well. So many temples crumbled and became dilapidated, and not more than half of them still looked like temples. It was not until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 that some of the major temples were repaired and restored. The following is a brief introduction to some of the better known ones.

(1) Wannian Temple. A relatively old Buddhist establishment on Mount Emei, it was originally the Puxian (Samantabhadra) Temple that became the Baishui Temple during the Tang Dynasty and the Baishui Puxian Temple during the Song Dynasty, assuming the name of Shengshou Wannian Temple, or Temple of Ten-Thousand-Year Sacred Longevity, during the Wanli reign (1573-1620) of the Ming Dynasty. It used to be a colossal affair with seven courtyards, but it has had its fill of destructions. A major fire in 1946 reduced all the wooden structures to ashes, and only the brick halls built during the Ming Dynasty survived. The present temple, reconstructed in 1953, has two courtyards, with the main hall enshrined with statues of Vairocana, Sakyamuni, and Amitabha. What is special about this temple is the Ming-Dynasty legacy, a square brick hall 16 meters high and 15.7 meters in circumference that is the shrine for the Song-Dynasty bronze sculpture of Samantabhadra and his trademark elephant, which looks imposing at a height of 7.3 meters and has a weight of 62 tons. A total of 24 niches are scooped into the lower parts of the four walls of the hall, and each of them is enshrined with a cast-iron figurine of the Buddha. There are 307 tiny bronze Buddhist figurines that have been placed in horizontal niches dug into the upper parts of these walls. The front gate of the temple opens onto a forest whose rich piles of foliage obliterate the sun, and a limpid stream that flows with a rich whispering sound. When night falls on a summer day, the place is taken over by a contingent of frogs whose croaks are evocative of the notes of many zithers. Such frogs are native to Mount Emei.

(2) Baoguo Temple. When it was first built at the foot of Mount Emei during the Wanli reign (1573-1620) of the Ming Dynasty, it was known as “Huizong Chamber.” It assumed its present name during a major refurbishment during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) of the Qing Dynasty. The horizontal nameboard hanging above its front gate is inscribed in the handwriting of Emperor Kangxi. The temple contains four main buildings with anterooms – the Maitreya Hall, the Mahavira Hall, the Seven-Buddha Hall, and the Tripitaka Pavilion – which are laid out in a descending order following the contours of the terrain. Baoguo Temple is situated where people start climbing the mountain, and has quite a few fine artifacts on display. These include the cast-copper Huayan Pagoda, a masterpiece of foundry art that is a 14-layer, 7-metre-tall structure with 4,700-odd Buddhist likenesses and the unabridged text of the Garland Sutra engraved in its walls. There is also an invaluable 2.4-meter-high color-glazed porcelain sculpture of the Buddha dating back to 1415 (13th year of the Yongle reign, Ming Dynasty). The big bronze bell hanging in front of the temple weighs 12,500 kg.

(3) Fuhu Temple. Nestling at the foot of Mount Emei and one km from the Baoguo Temple, the Fuhu Temple, meaning “Temple to Subdue Tigers,” was first built during the Tang Dynasty, and renamed the Shenlong Chamber during the Song Dynasty. At the time the place was terrorized by man-killing tigers, and the monks of the temple erected a victory-honoring dhvaju (a pillar with a silk stream fluttering atop it) to subdue them. (Another version asserts that the name “Fuhu” stems from the mountain’s tiger-like form.) This temple also had its fill of ups and downs throughout its history, and its last major repairs took place in 1651 (8th year of the Shunzhi reign, Qing Dynasty). The temple is one of the largest Buddhist centers of Mount Emei, with its 13 halls and chambers tucked away in the shade of a forest. What is special about the Fuhu Temple is that although all its buildings are under an overhead canopy of trees, withered leaves seldom settle on its rooftops. This prompted Emperor Kangxi to name it a “Dust-Free Garden,” and he inscribed this on a horizontal board for the temple. During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), the temple became the school buildings of Sichuan University. In recent years, it has gradually been restored to its former scale and glory, with Buddhist statues being re-erected in its various halls.

(4) Qingyin Pavilion. Situated at the foot of the Niuxin Mountain, Qingyin Pavilion used to be the Niuxin Temple during the Tang Dynasty. This is where two rivers converge, the Bailong River in the east and the Heilong River in the west. In its vicinity there is the Niuxin Rock, several meters in height, and two bridges, one on the Bailong River and the other on the Heilong River, that are known as the “twin flying bridges.” Water tumbles down the two rivers from a height and plunges into the depth of a ravine, and in the process produces a peculiarly ringing sound. Hence the designation, “Twin Bridge Reverberating with a Ringing Sound.” This is one of the ten major scenic sights on Mount Emei. About one km west of the Qingyin Pavilion is the place known as “Strip of Sky” – two vertical cliffs standing facing each other, squeezing the blue sky into a narrow strip.

(5) Hongchunping (Toon Tree) Terrace. This is also the name of the temple on this terrace, with Chinese toon trees growing in front of it. The predecessor of this temple was the Thousand-Buddha Temple built during the Ming Dynasty. It was rebuilt in 1790 (55th year of the Qianlong reign, Qing Dynasty), and its main hall is graced with a couplet in Emperor Qianlong’s own handwriting. The treasure of the temple, however, is a lotus flower lantern two meters in height and one meter in diameter. Wrought towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, the lantern is carved with seven dragons and several hundred Buddhist statues in admirable craftsmanship.

(6) Xianfeng Temple, also known as Cave of Nine Old Men. Legend has it that this was where during a visit to Mount Emei the Yellow Emperor came across an old man and asked him how many companions were with him. The old man answered that he had nine. Such is the origin of the name of the Cave of Nine Old Men, which is known more popularly as Celestial Mansion of Nine Old Men. The cave is situated a few hundred meters to the right of the temple. When the temple itself was erected during the Wanli reign (1573-1620) of the Ming Dynasty, it had four halls whose roofs were paved with cast-iron tiles. The Ming court bestowed it with a collection of the Tripitaka. The buildings as they stand today were mostly repaired or rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty. The temple is frequented by monkeys who come to beg for food. Visitors to this place make it a point to bring some food with them. Otherwise, a disappointed monkey may grab one’s bag, hang it high in the tree, and stalk away, leaving the visitor exasperated.

(7) Xixiang (Elephant Bathing) Pool. This is a small affair known as the Chuxi Convent when it was first built in 1368, the year the Ming dynasty was founded. In 1699 (38th year of the Kangxi reign, Qing Dynasty) it was expanded and became a temple. The tiny pool in front of the temple was said to be where Bodhisattva Samantabhadra bathed his elephant. The main hall, which is enshrined with the statues of three bodhisattvas – Guanyin, Ksitigarbha, and Mahasthamaprapt, stands atop a peak that is surrounded by firs. In the quiet of a moonlit night, the place gives rise to a feeling that one is alone in the boundless firmament. The place also teems with delightful monkeys.

(8) Golden Peak, which is the summit of Mount Emei at an altitude of 3,077 metres above sea level. Because of its sheer height, the temple halls were often hit in the past by lightening and burned down. New halls were built there a few years ago to accommodate those who come to marvel at the Buddha’s auspicious halo and the holy fire. It is said that when a person stands at the top of the Golden Peak and looks down over the cliff side, the reflected sunshine often conjures up a huge multihued halo with the silhouette of the person in the middle of it. This is evocative of the light behind a Buddhist statue, but the phenomenon does not happen on a daily basis. The “holy fire” stems from Mount Emei’s rich phosphorus ores. Looking down from atop the Golden Peak on the night of a fine day, one can see numerous lights that look like electric lamps on the mountain. This phenomenon, popularly known as “ten thousand bright lamps paying homage to Mount Emei,” is actually a congregate of flickering lights that appear only at night. The backside of the Golden Peak is a perpendicular cliff that rises high above a bottomless ravine where many desperate people have come to commit suicide. The Golden Peak also allows visitors to extend their vision to see the snow-clad mountains many miles away, and to be astonished to see how vast a globe one inhabits.