Sacred site for Buddhists, awesome site for tourists

The Shaolin Temple, which has long been seen as the origin of Chinese martial arts, is the cradle of three religions that helped shape Chinese culture for centuries.

A monk stands at the entrance to the Shaolin Temple.

In a warm spring day, I arrived in a small city called Dengfeng in central China’s Henan Province.

From the small, somewhat rundown old bus station, the city didn’t look much different from others of its kind in China. But Dengfeng, which lies between the provincial capital of Zhengzhou and the ancient capital of Luoyang, was once believed to be the center of the world.

As the cradle of the Central Plain civilization, Dengfeng and Songshan Mountain to its north have nurtured marvelous cultures and left their fair share of marks on history.

In 2010, UNESCO inscribed several sites in the area onto the World Heritage List, under the title “Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in ‘The Center of Heaven and Earth’.”

Among the most significant sites is the Shaolin Temple, one of the main destinations of my visit.

Buddhabhadra, a monk from India, built the temple in AD 495, and Dharma, the 28th generation of the Buddha’s disciple, established Zen Buddhism in the temple. Since then, Shaolin has become a legend in Chinese history. Many people know it primarily from kung fu novels.

The scenic area of Shaolin goes beyond the temple itself. The most time-saving route is to first go to Sanhuangzhai, part of Songshan Mountain near the temple, and then come back to the Pagoda Forest of Shaolin before visiting the temple.

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The unique landform of Sanhuangzhai, part of Songhan Mountain near the temple

At the gate of the mountainous scenic area, electric cars transport visitors to the cable car to Sanhuangzhai. Tourists need to be mindful not to confuse it with another cable car that goes up to the Erzu Convent.

The cable car didn’t take me to the end of the journey to Sanhuangzhai, though, but rather just the starting point. After alighting, I had to walk about an hour. I didn’t know what to expect until I walked through a long stone passageway that opened onto a breathtaking view.

There seemed to be huge ice cascade hanging from the top of the mountain, but it was actually a line of long, thin stones. I had never seen such a landscape before.

Sanhuangzhai has always been an auspicious venue for monks practicing Zen or martial arts. Perhaps it’s easier to reach enlightenment when one feels the majesty of Great Nature.

Whereas the Shaolin Temple has evolved into a tourist attraction, the Songshan Mountain Zen Institute in the area never opens to the public. It remains a cloistered place where monks practice the three essences of Shaolin culture: Zen, martial arts and traditional medicine.

After returning from the hike in Sanhuangzhai, I walked down the main road of the scenic area and reached the Pagoda Forest. This site is a cemetery for eminent monks. The oldest pagoda was built in AD 791.

The relics of the monks were buried in an underground crypt, and pagodas were built to commemorate them. The number of tiers of a pagoda was decided according to the meritorious achievement of a departed monk.

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The Pagoda Forest is a burial site for eminent monks.

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The Hall of Heavenly Kings in the temple

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The Thousand Buddha Hall in the temple

For centuries, every dynasty imprinted its own style of construction and decoration on the pagodas, making the site the largest and the most complete Buddhist pagoda complex in China. Of course, modern society has also left its mark. The most recent pagoda is full of modern elements, including a car relief carved on one side.

It is about a 300-meter walk from the Pagoda Forest to the temple itself. On the day I was there, huge crowds of tourists were buzzing about. Tours were being led by guides speaking English, Spanish or French. Indeed, the centuries-old legend of Shaolin has become a sought-after destination for tourists from all over the world.

The temple has been ravaged by wars and fire. Its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Some of the buildings, such as the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, were rebuilt in the 1990s, while the main hall was reconstructed in 1986.

All the buildings had bright, colorful paintings on the cornices. In the Thousand Buddha Hall, the very last hall in the temple, two frescoes painted in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) are well preserved and tell the history of the temple.

Booths manned by monks in the courtyard offer goods and services not frequently seen in other temples.

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An organic veggie and fruit booth managed by the monks

The organic vegetable and fruit booths were quite popular. The food comes from a farm tended by monks using the greenest methods of cultivating cherry tomatoes, pears, corn and gingko. Zen principles, too, are incorporated into farm work. The monks claim the fruits and vegetables they harvest taste better and are richer in nutrition.

Another booth caters to guests who want to become a lay Buddhist. Master Yanpo, who has been in the temple for 10 years, was in charge of the booth. He also helps with the annual Shui Lu rites held in the temple in early summer.

“It doesn’t require much to become a lay Buddhist,” Master Yanpo said. “You need to bring a mugshot and fill in a registration form. We provide a ceremony. And then, you can start your practice at home.”

For the more devout, becoming a monk is much more complicated. Applicants need to prove that they are healthy, have no criminal records, produce written consent from parents and show divorce papers if they were once married.

“Here, every monk needs to practice all the three essences of Zen, martial arts and traditional medicine,” Master Yanpo explained.

He said the temple recruits warrior monk trainees under 25 years old. After they finish the training, they can choose to become warrior monks or leave.

The master told me there are nuns in the temple as well, but they live and practice at the Chuzu Convent, a smaller shrine about 2 kilometers away.

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The entrance to the Chuzu Convent

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The main hall of the Chuzu Convent has a history of at least 1,000 years.

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The residence attached to the Chuzu Convent, where nuns live and pray in a tranquil setting

My interest was piqued. I didn’t know nuns were attached to the Shaolin Temple. So I decided to take a detour and hike to the convent. It turned out to be the best decision I made during the trip.

On the way to the convent, I saw a group of boys, aged about 10, dashing along the route to the convent. While I walked cautiously on the slightly slippery, muddy route, they ran along like racehorses. The boys were wearing T-shirts with the logo of Shaolin Temple on the back. I reckoned that were probably the junior warrior monk trainees Master Yanpo mentioned.

Tourist numbers thinned as I walked deeper into the mountain. Although I was not far from the main road, the environment changed entirely. Along both sides of the passageway, thick forests reached to the sky. The cawing of crows and the calls of wildlife I didn’t recognize could be heard from time to time.

After a 20-minute walk, I finally reached the gate of the convent. If the Shaolin Temple is a grand palace, the convent looks quite common by comparison. But it turned out to be a gem.

The convent is believed to have been built to commemorate Dharma’s wall-facing practice. Legend has it that Dharma faced the wall and meditated for nine years in a cave nearby. When he left, a fresco of his image appeared on the wall.

Although the date of its construction is unknown, the convent contains a stone stele with the calligraphy carving of Huang Tingjian (1045-1105). That tells us the convent was already a busy place during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The most significant icon of the hall is its 16 columns, on which refined embossments are carved.

A nun sat in a corner of the main hall, chanting scriptures and moving her fingers over prayer beads. I wondered if she preferred the tranquil environment here or the busy temple further down. Were I her, I think I would draw deep contentment from this small, ancient yard shielded from the disturbances of the outside world.

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Students at the Tagou Martial Arts School, an institution founded by the temple, do training exercises.

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After I walked back to the main road, I bumped into the energetic group of young boys again. This time, they were training under the instruction of a warrior monk. They were required to do a series of actions, such as jumping while holding their calves tight.

The movements were not easy, even for them, but the children were persistent in trying to get it right.

I looked at them and saw the past fusing with the future.

  • If you go:

It takes about one and a half hours to fly from Shanghai to Zhengzhou or Luoyang, or 5-6 hours by high-speed train.

There are long-distance buses to Dengfeng from Zhengzhou or Luoyang.

Public transport is not well developed in Dengfeng, so it’s better to use cabbies to get to scenic areas around the town. Some drivers prefer to negotiate a price instead of using a meter.

The admission fee for the Shaolin Temple Scenic Area is 100 yuan (US$15.80). It gives you entry to the Sanhuangzhai area, but the cable car to Sanhuangzhai costs an additional 100 yuan for a round trip.

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The archway leading to the Zhongyue Temple

Also worth a look while in the vicinity

Dengfeng must enjoy favorable feng shui because three ancient religions of China — Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism — took root there.

The Zhongyue Temple represents Taoism, and the Songyang Academy is Confucian. Both were entered on the World Heritage List in 2010.

The Zhongyue Temple was originally built some 2,000 years ago, while the academy is about 1,500 years old. The original buildings were destroyed by either fire or other disasters. The current structures are reconstructions in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In the temple, four iron man statues were cast around 1,000 years ago. They have survived all the ravages of time and still stand in the yard to protect a shrine. These are the largest and best-preserved ancient iron man statues in China.

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Four iron man statues still stand in the yard of the Zhongyue Temple.

Apart from the two religious complexes, the Gaocheng Astronomical Observatory is worth a visit. The oldest astronomical observatory in China has been in use for more than 3,000 years.

The current structure was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Astronomer Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) managed to cipher out the 24 solar terms there.

  • If you go:

Taxis are the fastest way to reach all the sites. The observatory is relatively far away, about a half-hour ride from downtown Dengfeng. The admission fee for the Zhongyue Temple is 80 yuan. The Songyang Academy costs 30 yuan to enter. The observatory is free of charge.

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The Gaocheng Astronomical Observator, he oldest of its kind in China, has been in use for more than 3,000 years.

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