Pilgrims climbing Mount Hua Shan, China
(Fine Art Print Available)
With accurate historical records of events that occurred over three thousand years ago, China has some of the
oldest recorded history of any country on earth. It is from the legendary era however, long before historical records were
compiled, that we find the first mention of sacred mountains in China. Why were certain mountains believed to be sacred? Perhaps
the most primitive reason was the belief that mountains, especially the tallest ones, were pillars separating heaven from
earth. According to one ancient Chinese cosmology, the realm of heaven covered the realm of earth and from this belief arose
the idea that heaven could fall down if not supported. The mountains were believed to perform this function. In the myth of
the 'Reparation of Heaven', the Goddess Nu Wa, having repaired the broken sky, killed a huge turtle and erected its four feet
as supporting pillars in the four quarters. These four pillars allowed the world to again enjoy a peaceful and harmonious
life, and later came to be regarded as the earliest sacred mountains.
Another reason for the sanctification of particular mountains are the legends and myths of both shamanism and
early Taoism. These legends speak of sages and mystics, often called 'immortals', who lived deep in the mountain wilderness,
existed on diets of rare herbs and exotic elixers, and lived to be 400 to 800 years old. The mountain areas where these sages
dwelled came to be regarded as sacred places, as access points to the heavenly realm, and also as the abodes of magical spirits
and powerful deities (in the Chinese context a sacred mountain can mean a single peak, a cluster of hills, or a whole mountain
The Shu-ching, a classic of traditional history compiled around the fifth century B.C., mentions how the ruler
Shun (2255-2206BC) went every five years on a pilgrimage to the four mountains that defined the limits of his realm. Offering
a sacrifice on the summit of each mountain, he began a tradition that has lasted to the present age (it is interesting to
note that the Chinese phrase for pilgrimage - ch' ao-shan chin-hsiang - means 'paying one's respect to a mountain').
While only one of these mountains, Tai Shan (originally called Tai Tsung), was referred to by name in the Shu-ching, from
other sources we learn that the following five mountains were highly venerated by the Taoists in ancient times:
Tai Shan, Taoist
mountain of the east, Shandong province, 1545 meters.
Heng Shan Bei, Taoist
mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 2017 meters.
Hua Shan, Taoist
mountain of the west, Shanxi province, 1997 meters.
Heng Shan Nan, Taoist
mountain of the south, Hunan province, 1290 meters.
Song Shan, Taoist
mountain of the center, Henan province, 1494 meters.
These mountains were not, however, the only or even the most important of the Taoist sacred peaks. Writing in
Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China (listed in the bibliography under Naquin), John Lagerwey comments: "A note on what
is meant by "Taoist mountain" is perhaps in order here. It is traditional to regard the Five Peaks (wu-yueh) as Taoist, in
contrast with the "four most famous (Buddhist) mountains" (ssu-ta ming shan). While both history and cosmology can be called
on to justify this identification of the Five Peaks with Taoism, these mountains already constituted a distinct group in the
Former Han dynasty before Taoism had taken on an organized ecclesiastical form, and it is only from the late sixth century
on that Taoists made a concerted effort to claim these mountains as theirs. The Taoists were never entirely successful in
pressing this claim, and of the five only Hua Shan and T'ai Shan, albeit in a very different manner, play a significant and
ongoing role in Taoist religious history. Perhaps even more to the point, even these two mountains are nowhere near as important
to Taoist history as are such mountains as Mao Shan and Lung-hu Shan, centers, respectively, of Shang-ch'ing and Cheng-i Taoism.
Together with Ko-tsao Shan (in Kiangsi), the ordination center of Ling-pao Taoism, these mountains constituted the "tripod"
on which officially recognized forms of Taoism rested from the early twelfth century on."
In the 1st century A.D. merchants returning from India via the Silk Route began the introduction of Buddhism
into China. Over the next few centuries adventurous Chinese pilgrims traveled to India to visit the sacred places of the Buddha's
life. The most famous such pilgrim was Hsuan-tsang (596-664), the Tripitaka Master, who spent sixteen years in India. These
pilgrims returned with translations of Buddhist texts and, equally important, an affinity for the Buddhist tradition of monastic
life. Like Taoist hermits, the Buddhists monks favored quiet mountains and deep forests for their meditative practices. Small
hermitages and later great monastic complexes sprung up at many peaks (some previously held sacred by the Taoists) and over
the centuries the Buddhists began to regard four peaks as having primary sanctity:
Pu Tuo Shan, Buddhist mountain of the east, Zhejiang province, 284 meters. Sacred to Bodhisatva Kuan-Yin.
Wu Tai Shan, Buddhist mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 3061 meters. Sacred to Bodhisatva Manjushri.
Emei Shan, Buddhist mountain of the west, Sichuan province, 3099 meters. Sacred to Bodhisatva Samantabhadra.
Jiu Hua Shan, Buddhist mountain of the south, Anhui province, 1341 meters. Sacred to Bodhisatva Kshitigarbha.
Tai Shan is not merely the mountain home of the Gods such as Mt. Olympus or Mt. Sinai; it is considered a
deity itself and has been venerated by the Chinese as their most sacred peak since at least the third millennium B.C. The
emperors of ancient China regarded Tai Shan as the actual son of the Emperor of Heaven, from whom they received their own
authority to rule the people. The mountain functioned as a God who looked after the affairs of humans and who also acted as
a communication channel for humans to speak to God. Seventy-two legendary emperors are said to have come to Tai Shan, but
the first known evidence dates from a rock carving left on the mountain in 219B.C. by Emperor Shih-huang who is remembered
for having begun construction of the Great Wall. Historical record tells of the sometimes enormous retinues that would accompany
an emperor on his pilgrimage to Tai Shan, lines of people might stretch from the bottom to the top of the mountain, a distance
of over six miles. Besides royalty, artists and poets have also favored the holy peak. The walls lining the path up the mountain
are covered with poems and tributes carved in stone, proclaiming the importance and beauty of the surroundings. Confucius
and the poet Dufu both wrote poems expressing their respect, and legend tell that those who climb the mountain will live until
they are one hundred years old.
Over 7000 steps lead to the summit, and the slopes are dotted with numerous temples, inns, small restuarants
and shops for the millions of annual pilgrims.Two important temples are situated at the top of the peak; the Temple of the
Jade Emperor, the heavenly ruler of this world; and the Bixia, the Temple of the Princess of the Azure Clouds, the daughter
of the Jade Emperor. The temple of the Princess is perhaps the preeminent place of pilgrimage for Chinese women. Thousands
make the long climb each day, and occasionally one will still see very old women with the tiny, bound feet of pre-communist
times. Mothers whose daughters have been unable to conceive come to pray for grandchildren, and two attendant goddesses standing
next to the Princess are miricle working images, one for curing eye ailments, the other for children' diseases.
The five peaks of Hua Shan are thought to resemble a five petalled flower hence its common name, the 'Flowery
Mountain.' Originally it was called Xiyue - meaning 'Western mountain' - because it was the westernmost of the five Taoist
peaks. A tortuous 15 kilometer stepped path leads to the Green Dragon Ridge (Bilong ji) where other trails lead to the major
peaks. Of the five peaks, the southernmost (2,100 meters) is the highest, closely followed by those in the east and west.
Formerly the five mountains were dotted with temples but now few remain. Today Hua Shan is a popular hiking destination for
Chinese youth on vacation but the mountain routes are still trekked by devoted pilgrims and wandering monks. In order to reach
certain temples and the caves of the sages great courage is needed. Pilgrims must scale cliffs with only a linked chain for
support and to fall is certain death. These routes have been given the humorous, but quite accurate names such as 'Thousand
Feet Precipice' and 'Ear Touching Cliff'.
Putuo Shan, the lowest of China's sacred mountains, is located on a small island of only twelve square kilometers,
five kilometers east of Zhoushan island in Zhejiang province. The peak of Putuo Shan, meaning 'beautiful white flower,' is
291 meters above sea level and is reached by a stone staircase with 1060 steps. A holy place before the arrival of Buddhism,
the island is full of mystic caves, tranquil valleys, overhanging cliffs and golden beaches.
Putuo Shan and its temples are sacred to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, a goddess of compassion. Legends
tell that Avalokitesvara attained supreme enlightenment upon the island and that Sudhana, another Bodhisattva, came to Putuo
Shan to pay homage to Avalokitesvara. Mount Putuo first became a Buddhist Sanctuary during the Tang Dynasty. Legends tell
of an Indian Monk, arriving late in the 9th century, who had received instruction and a seven-hued precious stone
from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. In 916, the Japanese monk Huie was stranded at Mount Putuo while bringing a statue of
Avalokitesvara from Mount Wutai to Japan. He prayed to the Goddess for help and his call was answered. In gratitude he built
at temple upon Mount Putuo to enshrine the statue of the Goddess he had been carrying. This is the so-called Bukenqu (Reluctant
to Go) temple in Mount Putuo. Hsuan Tsang, the celebrated monk of the Tang Dynasty is also known to have visited Putuo Shan
on his pilgrimage to India.
Avalokitesvara (also known as Kuan Yin or Guanyin) was originally a male Bodhisattva in India and Tibet, who
changed gender after reaching China. Since the Yuan Dynasty, the image has gradually been converted into that of a young woman,
and in Putou Shan she is sometimes depicted holding a vase in her hand, pouring out holy water to ease the suffering of people.
This Bodhisattva, in either of its gender forms, is a deity of mercy and gentleness, and its association with Putuo Shan,
according to the author's general theory, indicates that the energetic character of this sacred place is conducive to the
development of compassion in the human heart.
The three major temples on Putuo Shan, Puji, Fayu and Huiji, are among the most impressive and elaborate of
temples in China. First built in 1080, during the reign of the Northern Song Dynasty, the Puji Temple covers a space of 14,000
square meters and has nine halls, twelve pavilions, and sixteen chambers. Chinese legend has it that Avalokitesvara was born
on February 19th of the lunar calendar, achieved enlightenment on June 19th, and achieved nirvana on September
19th. On these dates, pilgrims from all over the country congregate at Mount Putuo to pay homage to the Goddess. A festival
of Kuan Yin on or around April 3 also draws many thousands of pilgrims. A folklore tradition on the holy island says, "Every
nook and corner of the mountain contains a temple, and a monk appears whenever someone has lost his way."
Because of its isolated location deep in the high mountains of north China, Wu Tai Shan was mostly untouched
by the destructive machinery of the Communist Revolution. Perhaps nowhere else in all of China can one view so clearly the
traditional ways and the superb temple architecture of old China. The center of Chinese Buddhism for two thousand years, Wu
Tai Shan was originally a Taoist sacred mountain known as Tzu-fu Shan, meaning 'Purple Palace Mount,' and was believed to
be the abode of various Taoist immortals. Wu Tai Shan actually encompasses a number of different mountains, but long ago Buddhists
chose five particular flat-topped peaks as the perimeter of the sacred area, hence the name which means 'Five Terrace Mountain'.
The highest peak, at 10,033 feet, is called Northern Terrace and the lowest, at 8153 feet, is called Southern Terrace; between
these two peaks stretch twelve miles of mountains.
The first temples on Wu Tai Shan were built during the reign of Emperor Ming Di, 58-75 AD and textual sources
describe an estimated 200 temples erected during the Northern Ch'i dynasy of 550-577 AD, but subsequently destroyed. Today,
fifty-eight temples built after the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 684-705) still stand as well as the oldest wooden temple in all of
China, the Nan Chan Si temple built in 782 AD. There are forty-eight temples of Chinese Buddhism and ten Tibetan Lamasaries.
Taihuai town, in the center of the Wu Tai mountains, is surrounded by the five peaks. Most of the temples are located near
the town. The peaks of Wu Tai and all the surrounding temples are sacred to Manjushri, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom
and Virtue. Scholars trace the beginning of the Manjushri association with Wu Tai Shan to the visit of an Indian monk who
visited in the 1st century AD and reported a vision of the Bodhisattva. Manjushri (called Wenshu Pusa in Chinese)
is believed to reside in the vicinity of Wu Tai Shan and numerous legends speak of apparitions of the Bodhisattva riding a
blue lion in the high mountains above the monasteries.
Wu Tai Shan is widely known not only to the people of China but also to Buddhists in Japan, India, Sri Lanks,
Burma, Tibet and Nepal. Wu Tai's Buddhism is indissolubly tied up with that of Japan and had a great influence on that country.
Seeking after the Buddhist truth, such famous monks as Ennin and Ryoosen in the Tang Dynasty, and Choonen and Seisan in the
Song Dynasty made long pilgrimages to Wu Tai Shan. The Tantric master Amoghavajra also came to meditate here.
Statue of Bodhisattva Manjushri, Wu Tan Shan, China
(Fine Art Print Available)