This week, we have presented Part I and Part II of Vincent Ross’s stories and photos from his exploration of the Buddhist wonders of China. Tonight, we conclude with his visits to The Hanging Monastery, Yungang Caves, Wooden Pagoda and the Nine Dragon Wall…and a brief look at how Buddhism arrived and China…and stayed.
In terms of visual impact and as an example of extraordinary ancient Chinese engineering and architecture, the Hanging Monastery, built into a cliff hundreds of metres above the floor of Jinlong Canyon, 75km south-east of Datong, takes some beating.
The monastery dates back more than 1400 years, with its compact rooms and pavilions hugging the contours of the cliff face, with various extensions linked by gravity-defying, narrow walkways, ladders and enclosed corridors supported by timber beams driven into the cliff side.
The temple seems delicately balanced in the face of the winds that can roar through the canyon, and equally delicately decorated with Buddhist motifs and ancient artwork, including aging timber panels painted with friezes of singing birds.
If the Longmen Grottoes are impressive, then these cave excavations are truly awesome. The Yungang Caves, 16km west of Datong, are cut into the cliffs of Wuzhou Shan near the pass to Inner Mongolia.
The caves house more than 50,000 Buddhist statues, recognised as some of the best existing examples of ancient Chinese sculpture.
Yungang was carved out of the limestone during the Northern Wei Dynasty (460AD-494AD) and continued through the Liao and Qing dynasties.
The story of how the caves came to be built could make for the basis of an epic Chinese opera. The Emperor Taiwu, whose statue sits in Cave 18, was a great supporter of Buddhism, but changed to Taoism. Taiwu blamed a regional revolt on the Buddhists and from 446AD – 452AD his soldiers murdered thousands of monks and destroy statues, temples and monasteries.
Unable to prevent his father’s actions, Taiwu’s son is said to have died of a broken heart and posthumously given the title of emperor.
Taiwu’s grandson, Emperor Wencheng, came to power and set about restoring Buddhism – including the excavation of the caves – in compensation for his grandfather’s atrocities against the faith.
The 67m high, nine-story wooden pagoda at Yingxian, 70km south of Datong, rivals the Hanging Monastery as an engineering feat and is recognised as one of the oldest multi-storey wooden buildings in the world.
Believed to have been built 900 years ago in around 1056, during the Liao Dynasty, only tenon and mortise joints and more than 50 different kinds of brackets hold the massive timber building together.
Regularly visited by architects and engineers from all over the world who come to marvel at its construction, the Wooden Pagoda has survived earthquakes, floods and lightning strikes.
Buddhists and academics alike look upon the structure as an impressive combination of science, art and religion. You can climb to the first floor and amidst the smell of ancient, dusty timbers, look out on Yingxian as the breeze stirs and tinkles the rusty wind chimes that were suspended from the eaves centuries ago.
Nine Dragon Wall
The 45m-long Nine Dragon Wall in central Datong was built in 1392 as part of the entry gate to the palace of a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) prince.
The palace burned down in the 15th century but the wall survived. Decorated with bass-relief, coloured glazed tiles depicting ceremonial fire-breathing dragons, the wall has survived the centuries virtually unscathed and the rich blue and turquoise tiles and the detail depicted is a fine example of ancient Chinese craftsmanship.
How Buddhism Came to China
Siddhārtha Gautama, the supreme Buddha, is believed to have been born in the north of India more than 2,500 years ago, some 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Stories of Gautama’s life, philosophies and teachings were passed down by word-of-mouth and eventually committed to writing about 400 years after his death.
Theravada Buddhism, referred to as the Path of the Elders, represents the Buddha’s original teachings. It is also referred to as Hinayana Buddhism, or the Lesser Vehicle, as opposed to Mahayana Buddhism, which is called the Greater Vehicle.
Although the most revered, Siddhartha Gautama is just one of many enlightened masters who over thousands of years have collectively formed the Buddhist tradition.
Mahayana Buddhism took root in northern India, Tibet, China and Japan and spread to other Asian countries, adapting to local culture and traditions.
In Tibet, many monasteries were established and Mahayana Buddhism took hold, with its people adopting the Dalai Lama as the spiritual head of the country. The current Dalai Lama still lives in exile in India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.
In China, influenced by the philosophies of Confucius and Taoism, what is known as Zen Buddhism evolved from the Mahayana tradition, founded by a master called Bodhidharma, who came to China from India. Zen Buddhism flourished in China for more than 1500 years and from there, spread to Japan.
Zen, which is looked upon as being the “quickest way to enlightenment”, is unique in Buddhism in the sense that its philosophies and teachings cannot effectively be learned from the written word. Zen focuses on experiential understanding or “the path”.
From 1949, Buddhism was officially but not effectively suppressed by the Chinese communist government for nearly 30 years, but since the death of leader, Chairman Mao Tse Tung, in 1976, it has undergone a dramatic resurgence.
Hanging Monastery – Shanxi Province – China © 2008 Vincent Ross
White Horse Temple – Luoyang – Henan Province – China 2008 © Vincent Ross
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