Ep. 009: The Grottoes at the Dragon Gate

A stroll through the Longmen Grotto complex in Henan, China

In early November of 2011 I was still whanging away at my list of 142 Chinese Buddhist temples designated by the central government (back in 1983) as being of special significance, and worthy of development (and promotion). I had a couple of weeks off from my teaching job and planned a five-day trip to Henan Province, where I intended to see Baima (White Horse) Temple, said to be the first Buddhist temple ever founded in China; and the world-famous--and trademarked--Shaolin Temple, known to many older Americans as the home of David Carradine's Kung Fu. As luck would have it, my wife Lila (who worked at the same school as I), had the same days off, and was able to tag along. (Our students had gone off for their yearly military training, where--if they wanted to fire live rounds--they had to pay for the bullets.)

The Longmen Grottoes and the Yi River

In that same area was the Longmen Grottoes, the first of China's famous carved grottoes that I was to visit. I saw another of the Top Three--Yungang, which figures in this story--and also Dazu, Number Four or Five on many lists, but I never made it to the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, the "granddaddy of them all." That's mostly because the place lies outside of the traditionally Han area of China, which was the focus of my list. (But I have a former student who is now an abbot of a temple in that province, so I may make it yet!)

Anyway, Longmen is Chinese for "Dragon Gate," and describes a spectacular natural setting made up of cliffs on either side of the Yi River. It's considered the largest complex of grottoes in China: one source says there are 1,021 numbered caves, which doesn't count "those caves that are too far gone in dilapidation, empty, too small, or contain nothing valuable." (Zheng Lixin's Guide to Chinese Buddhism, p. 137)

In Chinese culture, rivers represent dragons, so the Yi is the supposed "dragon" which passes through the "gate." Originating in mountains between the basins of the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers (the world's third and sixth longest, respectively), at a mere 230 miles the Yi is really only a small gecko. But its waters ultimately join the mighty Yellow, a dragon indeed, which runs down to a gulf of the Yellow Sea.

Local carving activity began in the area sometime during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). In 493, China's imperial capital was moved from Datong to Luoyang, and in the year 500, Emperor Xuanwu decided to enlarge the nearby existing site and create a display outside of the new capital to rival the Yungang Grottoes outside of the old. Work sputtered on and off through several dynasties, but--as is typical--nothing came close to the efforts of the "Glorious Tang" (618-907).

That's my girl: A cold November day, and she's still smiling

We visited this UNESCO-listed, top-rated, Quintuple-A tourist site on a cold November day. The previous day we had gone to Baima, and the day after we went to Shaolin. Sadly, both of these fine temples paled in comparison to the sights of Longmen--which wasn't even on my list!

One arrives at the north end of the western complex--the more extravagant one--and walks upriver (the Yi flows northward here) about a half-mile, ooo-ing and aaah-ing all the way. Let's examine some of the sights along the western bank, before crossing the Manshui Bridge (meaning "Submersible," an inauspicious name for a bridge, if you ask me) to the other side.

Starting Up the Western Side

I wouldn't dream of trying to convey the grandeur of this place, so I'll limit myself to descriptions of just a dozen or so of the things we saw.

Honeycombs and catacombs

First, we passed several unnamed and somewhat non-descript openings, with a small pagoda carved in front of them. I could imagine scrambling up a cliff-side before the days of preservation awareness and restrictive railings to peer inside those intriguing holes.

A Buddha in a Binyang Cave

The three Binyang Caves hold much-touted images of Buddhas. One of them, with an almost cartoonish face, sits surrounded by Bodhisattvas, with his right hand raised in the "no fear" gesture, and his left lowered in "boon-giving." Some of the original color can still be seen on the wall behind; all of the caves seem once to have been garishly painted. Incidentally, two bas reliefs with imperial processions were looted from the Binyang caves, and now reside in American museums.

15,000 tiny Buddhas on the side walls

Passing the Moya Three-Buddha Niche with its seven Tang-dynasty figures, we come to the Wanfo (Ten-Thousand Buddha) Cave. That's false advertising, as there are actually about 15,000 small Buddhas within. Aside from a few larger figures across the back, the fifteen-thou are mostly two-inch-high mini-Buddhas along the cave's two side walls and surrounding the doorway. There's also a lotus flower on the ceiling, but it's nothing compared to the one at the next stop.

The lotus on the ceiling of the Lotus Cave

After passing more honeycombed hillside--in some cases with fairly large figures--we reach the aptly-named Lotus-Flower Cave, the ceiling of which--well, you can guess. The blossom is in high relief and looks to me to be at least a meter across. A badly-damaged statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha stands at the back of the cave. Aside from the lotus, virtually nothing in the cave appears to have passed the centuries unscathed.

The Piece de Resistance

A wide view of the Fengxian Temple

The next stop is the most spectacular of them all, the one seen on the brochures, post cards, and pamphlets about Longmen. Called Fengxian ("Worshiping of Ancestors") Temple--it was once an enclosed hall--it bears an inscription stating it was carved in 676.

That Vairochana looks mighty like an Empress

The main figure, of Vairochana or the Great Sun Buddha (my personal Buddha), is the tallest in the Longmen complex, over 56 feet, with ears six-and-a-half feet high! Surrounded by pairs of disciples, Bodhisattvas, heavenly kings, and guardians, this Buddha's face is said to be modeled on that of the temple's patron, the Empress Wu Zetian (reigned 665-690). (This was discussed in a previous Newsletter as well.) Nothing short of stupendous!

Farther Along

The blood-red paint on the background is really evocative

Next up is the oldest cave at Longmen, dated to 478. Guyang ("Old Sun") Cave is also the largest cave, and contains 600 pieces of carved calligraphy.

Medical prescriptions and fierce guardians--an odd pairing

The Yaofang ("Medical Prescription") Cave is noteworthy for the two guardians standing outside, very much like the Heng and Ha figures found in the gates of Chinese Buddhist temples, or the Ni-O ("Two Kings") in Japanese temple gates. Also, as the name implies, the cave's entrance features 140 inscriptions with prescriptions for a number of medical problems, from the common cold to insanity.

Bridge on the River Yi

When crossing the Manshui Bridge, one can look downriver and get a perfect view of the "Dragon Gate," with the Longmen ("Dragon Gate") Bridge now spanning it. We would walk across that bridge at the end of our tour.

Down the Eastern Side

An awfully unusual "Thousand-Armed Guanyin"

The eastern bank isn't nearly as interesting or diverse as the western one, though it does offer some amazing views back across to the other side. Up a side canyon is the lovely "Thousand Buddha Gulley," and there's a Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, with 1,000 very impressionistic hands, with an eye in each one. Otherwise, there is little which, to my unpracticed eye, distinguishes the east over the west (although the passage of time has left some figures looking like wraiths emerging from the rock).

Like a wraith emerging from the rock

A reading replica; note the figures around the walls' lower portions

The "Reading Sutras Temple" is a notable exception. The bottom of the walls is lined with 29 life-sized reliefs of arhats (enlightened disciples of the Buddha), and the central figure--apparently a replica replacing the original, which was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution--is a Buddha seated on a pedestal, hands held in the posture of holding a book!

The shiny new ancient Xiangshan Temple

As a change of pace, there's an actual temple along the eastern side, Xiangshan (Incense Mountain) Temple, but--though it's said to be one of the earliest of the area's ten temples--it all looked shiny and new to us, having been "expanded" in 2002, just nine years before our visit.


Wanting to visit the temple where the General Guan Yu's head was buried (a story for another time), we broke off our tour just before reaching the garden and tomb of one of China's greatest poets, Bai Juyi, who died at an earlier iteration of Xiangshan Temple in 846. So we re-crossed the river via the Longmen Bridge and boarded a bus toward Luoyang.


Well friends, that's going to do it for this episode. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: You think YOU'VE got family drama? You ain't seen nuthin' til you've seen the Buddha's cousin, Devadatta. He was a real monster! Come back and find out more!