The legends and spirit of Buddhism thrive on high
Putuo Mountain, a small island southeast of Shanghai, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site that has been attracting worshippers for thousands of years.
It is known as the “Buddhist kingdom on the sea.”
The legend behind the site dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when a Japanese monk, Hui’e, studying Buddhism in China was attracted to a statute of the bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), the goddess of mercy, compassion, kindness and love, at the Fahua Temple on Wutai Mountain in inland Shanxi Province. He finally secured the abbot’s permission to transport the statue back to Japan to help popularize the religion there.
On the trip, his boat was wracked by storms, fog and countless iron lotus flowers on the surface of the sea near the Zhoushan Islands in Zhejiang Province. The stunned monk took it as a sign from Guanyin that she didn’t want to go to Japan. According to the legend, a giant iron bull appeared and carved a path through the sea by swallowing the lotus. The path led to a cave near an estuary on Putuo Mountain.
The monk managed to get the statue on shore, where a fisherman was so awed by her presence that he gave his house over to her. The house became a temple known as Bukenqu Guanyin Yuan, which literally translates as “Refusing to Go Guanyin Temple.”
Putuo Mountain is one of the “Four Great Buddhist Mountains of China.” Today, on this 13-square-kilometer island, more than 200 temples and nunneries exist. Buddhist believers travel from afar to seek the mercy of Guanyin, even dating back to olden times when the sea voyage could be treacherous.
The original Bukenqu Temple, rebuilt in 1980, retains its former look. It has three simple halls surrounded by a yellow wall. It stands as a monument to the idea that faith doesn’t need luxuriously decorated temples to honor the deities.
A written notice is found on nearly every temple on the island, suggesting that burning three plain incense sticks is sufficient to show respect or deliver a message. A pack of three sticks sells for 1 yuan (14.7 US cents).
Generally, it is all right for visitors to burn incense at every temple they visit, but they are advised to make a wish with only one Buddha.
Not far from the Refusing to Go Guanyin Temple is a partially submerged cave called Chaoyin, or “sound of the waves.” It is believed to be the site where the monk Hui’e landed and transported the statue ashore.
The cave is also the site where Guanyin is said to have appeared to a devout Indian monk who burnt his fingers to honor her. An advisory carved there in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) warns visitors against repeating his ritual.
Other legendary sites include Duangu Shengji, where Guanyin is supposed to have disguised herself to provide food to a hungry girl on a boat, and Er Gui Ting Fa Shi, a stone where two turtles are said to have listened to Guanyin’s explanation of Buddhism.
There are four big Buddhist temples on the island — Puji, Huiji, Fayu and Baotuo. The first three are open to public, but Baotuo Temple is reserved for private religious rituals.
Though most big Buddhist temples may look similar to those not familiar with the religion, Puji Temple is somewhat different. It has rarely opened its front gate since the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The story goes that the emperor, traveling incognito in plain clothes, was enchanted with the beautiful scenery of Putuo Mountain. Arriving at Puji Temple late in the evening, he knocked and asked the monk who came to the door to inform the abbot that a distinguished guest had arrived and the main gate should be opened for him to enter and stay overnight.
The abbot told the monk he was happy to provide accommodation but insisted that the visitor enter by the side gate because temple rules required the main entrance to be closed after dark. The young monk got the message mixed up and told the emperor that he should not stay the night.
The angry emperor, who had to journey to Hangzhou for a bed, ordered the main entrance of Puji Temple closed forever. The abbot later tried to rectify the misunderstanding, and the emperor finally relented and agreed that the main entrance could be opened, but only every 60 years or for auspicious occasions such as an emperor’s visit or the death of an abbot.
The trip to Putuo Mountain is no longer a life-threatening journey. Many of the Zhoushan Islands are now linked by bridges, which means the area can be reached by bus from Shanghai and Ningbo. The bus terminates at the Shenjiamen Bus Station, and from the Banshengdong Wharf on the Shenjiamen waterfront, it’s a 10-minute fast-ferry trip to Putuo Mountain, costing about 22 yuan.
To protect the environment of the island, no private vehicles are allowed on shore. Shuttle buses carry visitors from one site to another. A cable car trip to the top of mountain costs 35 yuan.
If you go:
How to get there: Direct ferry services to the island are available from Shanghai and Ningbo. There are two boats departing from Shanghai. One leaves in the evening for an overnight trip while the other leaves early in the morning. The ferries that run from Wusong Dock in Shanghai to the island cost 109-499 yuan a trip.
1. Once on the island, package tickets to sites on Putuo Mountain cost 160 yuan from February to November, and 140 yuan for December and January. The price may rise to 200 yuan during special times such as national holidays.
2. Some temples charge an extra 5-6 yuan for a ticket to burn incense.
3. The island hosts a number of high-end hotels, averaging 1,000 yuan per night. There are also cozy inns run by local residents out of their homes, usually costing no more than 200 yuan a night. Innkeepers sometimes invite guests to a courtyard dinner against the backdrop of the setting sun.
4. Puj , Fayu and Huiji Temples provide vegetarian meals for devout Buddhist followers, while numerous street restaurants featuring fresh seafood are often crowded with visitors at dinnertime.
The grandiose quartet of sacred Buddhist mounts
In addition to Putuo Mountain southeast of Shanghai, there are three other spiritual sites in China that comprise what is known as the “Four Great Buddhist Mountains.”
The mountain in Shanxi Province perhaps tops the list of the “great four” because of its long history of religious development. It is believed to be the place of enlightenment for Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
Wutai translates as “five plateaus,” and the mountain is duly comprised of five peaks, all of them broad and flat. The mountain covers about 3,000 square kilometers, with the highest summit at 3,061 meters.
Though Wutai Mountain was originally a Taoist site, Buddhism came to the area in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). Conflicts rose between Taoists and Buddhists. A truce of sorts was reached by an ancient ritual of burning religious texts to see which survived the flames. All the Taoist classics were destroyed in the fire, it is said, while those of Buddhism remained intact.
At its height, Wutai Mountain was home to more than 300 Buddhist temples, which were gradually merged into 39 temples on the mountain and eight in outlying areas. The most well-known are Xiantong Temple, Tayuan Temple, Wenshu Temple, Shuxiang Temple and Longhu Temple.
Wutai Mountain was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
The mountain in Sichuan Province is believed to be the place of enlightenment for Samantabhadram, the bodhisattva of meditation.
Emei, with its top peak rising 3,079 meters, is a popular tourist destination and pilgrimage site. The first temple there was completed in the first century as Buddhism entered China along the Old Silk Road. The religion thrived from the 6th century, and Sichuan Province was once the center of the Zen school of Chinese Buddhism.
An 8-meter-high statue of Samantabhadra was built in the famous beamless Wannian Temple in the 9th century and is still worshipped today.
There were once more than 1,000 Buddhist temples on Emei Mountain, leaving a rich legacy of relics and architecture. Today, some 30 temples remain, including Baoguo Temple, Fuhu Temple and Huazang Temple.
Emei Mountain was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
The mountain in Anhui Province honors Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva who is considered a protector of children and a guardian of souls in hell.
The mountain covers some 120 square kilometers and includes nine scenic peaks. The setting is lush, with waterfalls, pine and bamboo forests, deep caves and picturesque rocks. It is said that Ksitigarbha once lived in a cave there.
Legend has it that the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai traveled to Jiuhua and wrote: “Sailing down the Jiujiang River, I saw the Jiuhua peaks in the distance, looking like a heavenly river hanging in heaven. The sacred mountain generates nine glories.”
During the golden periods of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, there were as many as 360 temples and up to 5,000 monks and nuns living there. Today, about 80 temples remain, including Huacheng, Guoqing and Dabeilou temples.