Ep. 015: The Mummified Masters of Nine Flower Mountain

Gold-plated remains on Jiuhua Shan

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Out of the east, from the south Korean kingdom of Silla, came a prince named Kim Gyo-gak. This was during the "Glorious" Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Chinese Buddhism reached its peak.


The Korean Monk Dizang Pulls a Fast One

After returning to Silla, the prince was tonsured (i.e. became a monk) and returned to China, ending up at Jiuhua Shan, or "Nine Flower Mountain." Settling at Huacheng Temple, the oldest temple on the mountain, he became known by a Chinese transliteration of his name, Jin Qiaojue, but was better known by the monkly name Dizang. (This is the Chinese form of the Sanskrit Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva who vowed to save all beings from the six hells, and the "patron" of Jiuhua Shan.)

Huacheng Temple, the oldest on Jiuhua Shan

It was Dizang's practice to climb high up on the mountain side, to a terrace where he could meditate and chant sutras in peace. His diligence soon caught the attention of many devotees. Before long, he was introduced to Min Ranghe, the very wealthy owner of the entire mountain.

Min generously asked the monk how much land he would need for a temple, and Dizang replied that "just enough space for his robe" would be plenty. Pleased at the monk's moderation, Min agreed--at which the monk threw his robe into the air, whence it billowed out and spread to cover the whole mountain!

Newly-made statues of Dizang with his attendants, Layman Min Ranghe and his son the monk Daoming, at Guanyin Hall, below Tiantai Temple on Jiuhua Shan

Good-naturedly realizing he had been "had," Min gave Dizang the entire mountain, and even offered his son as a disciple (under the name Daoming). In its heyday, Jiuhua Shan was home to over 3,000 monks and nuns, living in more than 150 temples. Today's temples number fewer than half that.

Further tradition says that Min later became a monk himself--a disciple of his own son! But today, Chinese portrayals of Dizang Bodhisattva often show him accompanied by Daoming the monk and Min Ranghe as an old layman.


Dizang's Passing

After 75 years of faithful cultivation, the monk Dizang came to his end. His death (in 794, at age 99) was accompanied by portents: "the mountain roared, birds and monkeys cried, and the earth gave out fire and light."

Dizang's body was then placed in seated meditation in a large urn filled to the neck with charcoal, and his head enshrouded in lime. Three years later, the urn was opened, and the body was intact, without corruption. To the people, this proved that the Korean Master Kim Gyo-gak was indeed a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha.


This pagoda is said to hold the incorrupt remains of the Tang Dynasty monk Jin Qiaojie, called "Dizang"

The Flesh Body Hall

Upon entering the main hall of Roushen Dian, or the "Flesh Body Hall" on Jiuhua Shan, one sees numerous images associated with China's well-developed culture of death. At the back are the ox- and horse-headed figures, Niutou and Mamian, that take away the spirits of the dead. And along the sides are the Ten Judges of Hell.

But on a platform in the center of the room, one is surprised to see, not a statue, but a moderate-sized pagoda standing inside the hall. Across the front of its pedestal are seated bronze figures of Dizang Bodhisattva, with more inside the pagoda's niches.

And inside the pagoda, unseen by visitors, there is said to be an urn containing the incorrupt remains of Jin Qiaojue, the monk Dizang.

Ox-Head and Horse-Face escort deceased souls to the Underworld in traditional Chinese belief

How to Make a Mummy

The familiar process of mummification--desiccation in desert air, sometimes with the help of funerary preparations--would be impossible in the humid atmosphere of the Yangzi watershed.

Instead, the holiest of monks hedged their bets in some rather odd ways. The vegetarian diet is said to have helped. And when death was approaching, some Masters would purposely limit their intake of food and water.

And then there is the factor suggested by one "expert" cited in a Chinese newspaper. In general, he explained, obese monks who died in high temperature in summer were more likely to be corrupted than thinner monks who died in winter!

The charcoal and lime process was certainly responsible for some of the "miracles" of preservation. After some time in the urn--generally around three years--the condition of the corpse was checked. If it smelled bad, a hole was made in the bottom of the urn, the charcoal was lit, and TADA! Instant crematorium.

Uncorrupted remains are not properly referred to as "mummies," but as "whole body relics," as distinguished from a partial relic--a tooth, say, or a bone shard. In 1911, the British surgeon and Sinologist W. Perceval Yetts called them, more bluntly, "dried priests."

The faithful maintain that all of these processes--the diet, abstinence before death, the charcoal, and so forth--have nothing to do with the creation of the relics. The cause is, instead, the holiness of the Masters.


Other "Mummies"

But although it was the first relic, Dizang's is not the only mum... uh, "whole body relic"--on Jiuhua Shan. The official count is fourteen, though it seems seven have been destroyed over time. (My online research can only turn up seven extant, and says explicitly that the Red Guard destroyed several in the Cultural Revolution.)

Aside from the pagoda of Jin Qiaojue, I saw the relics of three of these other saints. I was near--very near--two of the remaining three, but didn't know they were there. The final one was on a very remote part of the mountain.

Let's start with the ones I did see.


"Flawless"

Master Wuxia, or "Flawless," has been enshrined at Baisui Gong since the 1620s

Not far from the north gate of the Jiuhua Shan Scenic Area--a AAAAA national park of 120 square kilometers (46 square miles) with a hefty 150 renminbi ($21US) entry fee--stands Baisui Gong, the "Palace of the 100-Year-Old," sometimes called less precisely the "Longevity Temple." Its name alludes to the long-lived monk Wuxia, whose solid dates seem to be 1513-1623, though tradition says he died at 126.

His name means "without flaw," and his practice is said to have been rigorous: strictly vegetarian, dining on uncooked wild plants; drinking only spring water; and meditating diligently. Over a 20-year period, he is said to have written out 81 volumes of the Huayan (Avatamsaka) Sutra--using his own blood (drawn from the tongue) mixed with gold powder.

After writing his death verse, he passed away, and his body was placed in the "pot" (as the sources keep calling it). Three years later, uncorrupt, and so forth and so on--and then, they gilded his body.

It didn't take long for people to start cashing in on this "miracle." His disciple, Huiguang, renamed the temple Wannian or "Ten-Thousand Year" Temple; Baisui Gong is kind of a nickname. (The temple had formerly been named Zhaixing, or "Star-picking," a reference to its location on the heights above a valley floor.) In 1630, the Ming Emperor Chongzhen declared the mummy a "Manifest Body of the Buddha." The same disciple, Huiguang, immediately set about creating an altar and--wonder!--gathering new monks.

The "whole body relic" survived a late-19th-century fire, and the depredations of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, when the body was hidden underground.

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The temple is easily reached, starting with a cable-car ride from the valley floor, followed by a pleasant, level amble along the escarpment past several interesting sites, and ending with a few stairs up to the compound. The figure sits in its own hall, where multitudes were paying obeisance on the early summer Saturday when I visited.

Wuxia's mummy is second in age only to that of the Korean monk Dizang: nearly 390 years old at the time of my visit. The mountain seems to have recognized the potential of this legacy, as all of the other mummies I know anything about were created in my lifetime--and after the opening up of China and its accompanying Buddhist revival. The "Key Temples" list was promulgated in 1983; aside from the two already mentioned, the four monks and one nun whose mummies remain died in 1985, 1991, 1992, 1995, and 2002.

As Huiguang discovered nearly four centuries ago, mummies make marvelous marketing.


"Luminous" and "Wise City"

Mingjing ("Luminous") resides at Zhantan-lin

My remaining two encounters with "whole body relics" can be recounted briefly

One of the largest temples I visited--large not in area, but in the scale of its shiny new buildings--was Zhantan-lin ("Sandalwood Forest"). In the slightly-older main hall--hemmed in by a new hotel when I was there in 2012, and I suspect scheduled for demolition--sat the monk Mingjing ("Luminous"), who died in 1992.

Mingjing's hometown was in the same province as Jiuhua Shan. His mother died when he was three and, influenced by his Buddhist grandfather, he never ate meat. He was noted for dramatic works of kindness, such as sharing his farm's irrigation water with others during times of drought.

He often sat in meditation, sometimes three days at a time, to the consternation of others, and in 1984--around age 56--he gave away all his goods and was ordained at Tiantai Temple on Jiuhua Shan. They called him the "Standing Monk" for his ability to remain upright for several days at a stretch. It is said--with some hyperbole, I suspect--that he once stood for three years, then sat cross-legged for three years, and finally lay flat for three years. (I could probably do that last one.) He always went barefoot, no matter the weather, and wore tattered clothes. His eccentric behavior earned him another nickname: "Silly Monk."

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This close-up image of Huicheng ("Wise City") gives a sense of what a gold-covered mummified face looks like

The other "relic" I saw was unlabeled, and it took me a l-o-o-ng time to find him for this article. What I say here is based on only one source, auto-translated from Chinese, so please don't cite it in any dissertations!

Ganlu ("Sweet Dew") Temple is the first temple encountered when driving up to the northern gate from the Visitors' Center at the foot of the mountain. In the last hall, next to the Buddhist Academy, sits this unnamed monk (at least, not named on any signs I could spy). He is, I discovered, Huicheng ("Wise City"), who died in 2002. Although I don't know when he was born, the source I found calls him Huicheng Lao Heshang--"Old Monk Huicheng."

The story says that Huicheng was not a monk of Ganlu Temple, but in 2005--three years after his death--several of his disciples dreamed that he was telling them to take him to Ganlu. When they woke, they opened the urn in which they had placed him and--voila!--he had become a "true body." They notified the temple, which welcomed him (or course!) and so there he sits.


The Three I Didn’t See

It's not uncommon for me to start kicking myself after doing some research.

As it turns out, the mummy of a monk named Ciming (1904-1991) resides at Dizang Temple, immediately next to my small hotel; and the only known mummy of a nun--Renyi (1911-1995)--is in a nunnery I walked past several times during my stay. With so much to see, on all of my pilgrimages, I tended to stick to temples on my list--nine on Jiuhua, seen in three days, and I still managed to catch a couple of extras. But you can't see 'em all!

The final missed mummy was that of Daxing (1894-1985), and is located at Shuangxi Temple in the Jiuziyan Scenic Area, far outside of the mountain's main visitors' area. I don't regret that one quite so much.


A Final Word

The three mummies I saw--the monks Flawless, Luminous, and Wise City--left me... cold. The smoothing over of their features with gold may have had something to do with it--the effect was somewhat creepy--but for me, it goes beyond that.

I do not venerate statues, though I often pay obeisance to the principles they stand for: compassion, wisdom, diligence, etc. Much less, then, do I "worship" a gold-encased corpse, however holy a life its occupant may have led.

Moreover, I couldn't escape the feeling that those two of the three I saw who died in the past few decades were shamelessly crafty attempts at separating pious people from their money. Maybe I'm cynical, but it just didn't sit right.

And on that sour note... may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: The most pressing problem perceived by the Buddha was one we all know well: Suffering. Let's take a look at Buddhism's basic moral code--the Five Precepts--to see how they deal with that universal problem.