Ep. 053: The Stunning Pagodas of Zhengding

Four of China's 2,000 ancient pagodas...

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On a sweltering late-summer day in 2011, my pilgrimage took me to the memorial pagoda of one of Zen's greatest Masters: Linji (called "Rinzai" in Japan). But nearby were three more pagodas to see--which I did, and you will too, in this Episode of--


Ask most people who know something about Zen in Japan, and they'll tell you there are two schools: Rinzai and Soto. There is actually what some people consider a third, Obaku, which came late to the islands, in 1661; the other two arrived four or five centuries earlier. We'll take a close look at Obaku--which some say is just a variation of Rinzai--and its Chinese roots in a future episode.

All types of Zen, of course, have their roots in China, springing from Chan, one of the Eight Schools of Mahayana Buddhism. We met the First Patriarch of Chan, Bodhidharma, in Episode 038; and we met his fifth successor--the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng--in Episode 021; at length we will meet the four in between.

But after Huineng, the Chan school splintered, ultimately becoming what came to be called the Five Houses: Caodong (Japanese Soto); Fayen (Jp. Hogen); Yunmen (Jp. Ummon); Guiyang (Jp. Igyo); and Linji (Jp. Rinzai). You can learn about the welter of lineages and over 100 wild-eyed individuals on a chart that fits on a single 11 x 17 sheet of paper!

We won't be meeting all of them today; in fact, we only care about one, whose final resting place we'll visit in a tiny backwater near the capital of Hebei Province.

Master Linji

Modern bust of Linji near "ramparts" of Zhengding

Linji Yixuan (Jp. Rinzai Gigen) died in the year 866 CE. He was in the 11th generation of Chan Masters (Bodhidharma being the First), and his teacher was Huangbo Xiyun (Jp. Obaku Kiun), after whom the afore-mentioned Obaku school was named. (By the way, it would be a mistake to think there were only ten Masters before Linji. While there was only one Patriarch per generation from the First to the Sixth--and even Huineng's primacy as Sixth was challenged--in Zen's Chinese Heritage, Andy Ferguson includes fifteen other eleventh-generation Masters worthy of study in addition to Linji. Most Masters had more than one "heir," so the Masters multiplied exponentially over the generations.)

Despite his paramount importance, little is known of Linji's life, but much of his teachings, as well as his style of teaching. He it was who coined the shocking adage, "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha"--though this is less shocking when we read the rest of the passage: "If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go."

Anyway, as for his style, there seems to be a lot of hitting and insulting and shouting going on. Brother Ferguson shares stories of Linji's early days under Huangbo. Linji meets Huangbo and, asking a question three times, gets smacked three times. Huangbo then sends Linji to another master, Dayu.

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said, "Where have you come from?"

Linji said, "From Huangbo."

Dayu said, "What did Huangbo say?"

Linji said, "Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit. I don't know if I made some error or not."

Dayu said, "Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake--and here you are asking whether you've made some error or not!"

Upon hearing these words Linji was awakened. [Umm, really?]

Linji then said, "Actually, Huangbo's Dharma is not so great."

Dayu grabbed him and said, "Why you little bed-wetter! You just came and said you don't understand. But now you say there's not so much to Huangbo's teaching. What do you see? Speak! Speak!"

Linji then hit Dayu on his side three times.

Dayu let go of him, saying: "Your teacher is Huangbo. I've got nothing to do with it."

Linji then left Dayu and returned to Huangbo.

After several exchanges, Huangbo asked Linji how things went with Dayu. After he answered, Huangbo said:

"That old fellow Dayu talks too much! Next time I see him I'll give him a painful swat!"

Linji said, "Why wait until later, here's a swat right now!"

Linji then hit Huangbo.

Huangbo yelled, "This crazy fellow has come here and grabbed the tiger's whiskers!"

Linji shouted.

Huangbo then yelled to his attendant, "Take this crazy man to the practice hall!"

We don't have time to look deeply into this story--perhaps another day--but what I hope you'll see here is how nonsensical, how counter-intuitive Chan instruction is. I remember seeing this in a comedy: The Master asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"--and the student slaps his face!

That's Chan.

The Dark Pagoda at Linji Temple

Linji is the name of both a Master, and the temple he lived in, which was founded in 504. So the Master was named after the temple. But the town the temple was in was also named Linji, so both Master and temple were named after it!

When Linji died, his relics were split between a Pagoda constructed here, and another (now destroyed) over 150 miles away. I have also read that the Pagoda I visited was not built to hold his physical remains, but to hold his robe and bowl!

I visited this Pagoda and its near-neighbors in August of 2011; it is Number 9 on the list of 142 Key Temples in China (of which I've visited 132), and the 63rd I was to visit. I had stayed in Shijiazhuang the night before--this was on a week-long trip that took me from China's far northeast to this central area--and took an expensive taxi the 20 kilometers from the city center to Zhengding.

My first impression of the place? Hot. Hot and yucky. So hot and yucky that my camera lens kept fogging.

Nevertheless, I did some walking, but treated myself to a cab ride in the middle that I might have skipped on a more temperate day.

So, the Pagoda was first built in 867, just a year after Linji died. The Emperor at the time dubbed the Pagoda Chengling, meaning something like "clear spirit," at the same time giving Linji the posthumous name Huizhao, perhaps "Bestowing Illumination."

Not surprisingly, the original Pagoda is gone; what is surprising is that even the replacement we see today is ancient in its own right, having been built in 1185. It's octagonal in shape, like most of those we'll see today, and its nine stories are 108 feet tall, the shortest by far in Zhengding, but likewise the most important by far. Size isn't everything, as I keep saying.

Detail of the Pagoda. Note the faux-wooden brackets under the eaves, the faux-wooden carvings and lattices, and the lotus petals at the bottom.

Its dark brick construction has earned it a nickname, the "Dark Pagoda" (sounds creepy, huh?). Clever brickwork imitates woodwork--not uncommon--so that the Pagoda seems to sport wooden brackets, carved wooden decorative panels, and lattice-covered windows. At the top of its "Sumeru base"--a reference to a mythical mountain, which you'll hear more about in a moment--are large petals, so the Pagoda looks like an enormous pistil sprouting out of a lotus.

Each time I visited a Key Temple, it was my practice to say a self-made ritual of Buddhist prayers. At this one it only seemed appropriate to also sit in meditation; circumambulate the pagoda; and sit again, in homage to Linji and the Chan tradition.

Inside the Patriarchs' Hall at Linji Temple

Unlike the temples which once surrounded the other three pagodas, Linji Temple has been almost completely restored--perhaps a reflection of its connection to Japanese Zen and the money that Buddhistical tourism can bring in. The most interesting hall to me was the Patriarchs Hall, where Linji sits in the middle of the altar--but the 20th-century Master Xuyun, one of my all-time favorites, was also represented, by a black-and-white photo.

The Flowery Pagoda

Just across the cornfield…

Stepping out of Linji Temple's front gate, we look 2/10ths of a mile across a cornfield to Guanghua Temple, home of the Hua or "Flowery" Pagoda--an odd name, I think, and you'll see why in a minute.

Though a "mere" four stories, the Hua Pagoda at 131 feet is about 23 feet taller than the one at Linji Temple. It was built sometime between 785 and 804, during the Tang Dynasty, and rebuilt in the Jin (1115-1234). The great Qing emperor and Buddhist patron Qianlong visited here, they say, and sat around writing poetry. Like the Linji Pagoda, its bricks have been carved to emulate wood construction. But the carving doesn't stop there!

Guanghua's "Flowery" Pagoda

The temple has several unique features:

First, it is neither one shape nor the other. It starts out as an octagon at its base, but the fourth level--approximately the top third--is more like a spire, looking for all the world like a rocket getting ready to launch (at least until we get closer). Some say it looks like a lotus bud, giving rise to the hua or "flower" name.

Its very octagonality is somewhat hidden by its second unusual feature: at its four "corners" are four buildings sometimes described as "square" but looking to me more like eccentric hexagons (from the ground, anyway). The second floor, though, is clearly an octagon. Each of the four corner buildings is somewhat whimsically topped by a giant stone egg. I read that these finials were missing for years, and recently replaced.

Finally, the sort of "flowery" part of the Hua Pagoda is actually made up of carvings; a sign onsite says they represent "giants, sea animals, lions, elephants, Buddhas and Bodhisattva etc." and says they are "orderly sculpted along the eight sides and corners, which make the space a magnificent palace of sculpture arts."

Yeah, what they said.

I'd call it "The Animal Pagoda"

The effect is so striking that I'm at a loss for why they would name it the "Flowery Pagoda," and not "the Zoo Pagoda" or "Animalia" or something.

Apparently there are some Tang Dynasty statues inside the Pagoda as well, but I had no access to these. If they were as misshapen as the "Laughing Buddha" in front of the Pagoda's rose garden, though, I didn't miss much.

The Ancient Ramparts of Zhengding

The new ancient South Gate of Zhengding

Mere steps--less than a thousand feet--from Guanghua Temple's gate is another gate, a reconstruction of the ancient south city gate of Zhengding, a town that was once what Shijiazhuang is now: the capital of the area. (In fact, Shijiazhuang with its 11 million people was a market town and suburb of flourishing Zhengding until the 20th century!) But long before, Zhengding was for 120 years or so the capital of the tiny Xianyu Kingdom, which transitioned into being the state of Zhongshan, some three or four centuries BCE. Some historians think it was founded by northern nomadic tribesmen, but it has what Wikipedia calls "a muddled history," an eloquent way to say, "We don't know."

What we do know (sorta) is that the original earthen walls went up around the town in 352 CE to create a "military castle" (per the sign). In 578 the walls were sheathed in stone, but a 762 flood brought them down. The city was expanded, and the new wall was built "using the stones to build a gate, and rebuilding the ramparts with earth." In 1449, during the Ming, another mile was added to the perimeter, the walls were built higher (to 30 feet!), and a moat was added. In 1576 the whole thing was rebuilt in brick.

A remnant of the Ming wall with its (hollow?) interior boarded up

What was left before the recent restoration was about five miles of Ming wall. Google Satellite View seems to indicate that the entire southern portion has now been rebuilt, complete with moat.

Along the inside wall, near the south gate, busts of eight prominent Zhengdingians had been placed when I was there, but the only one that excited me was our old buddy Linji.

From the gate, Yanzhao Street runs north, lined with (newly-planted?) willows, and shops that have been done up in a "Ye Olde Cathay" style. Our next destination requires a right turn on Zhongshan Street. Confession: Though it was only a mile or so from the gate to the next pagoda, I took a taxi. Truly hellish weather.

The Wooden Pagoda (only sorta)

The Lingxiao ("Rising to Heaven") Pagoda is more commonly called "The Wooden Pagoda" because--well--it's partially made of wood, not just brick-looking faux wood. It's located on the grounds of the no-longer-extant Tianning ("Heavenly Peace"--ironic) Temple. There are post bases for some old building (now set in a platform of pavers), and the Pagoda, and that's pretty much it for pre-modern artifacts, though a giant, garish modern pailou (ceremonial gate) stands out front.

Through the pailou

The Pagoda was first built between 762 and 779, but rebuilt in 1045. It's nine stories (lower four brick, upper five wood) and 134 feet high. The wooden portion is supported by a central pillar with eight crossbeams connected to the eight corners. (Yes, this one is octagonal, too.) Each story is a little smaller than the previous, creating a kind of "forced perspective" that makes it look even taller than it is.

Okay, that's all well and good. But the best part of this Pagoda for me was Carey.

"Who?" you may ask?

Carey and family

As I walked from the gate to the Pagoda, my way was blocked by a family of three: Mom in a simple blue smock, Dad in a military-style uniform, and a little girl with short twin ponytails and a yellow headband, and wearing a pink-and-white dress with a bow on the front. At Mom's urging, the little miss stepped up and with only the slightest hint of shyness said: "My name is Carey. I am six years old." And then... launched into "You Are My Sunshine"!

I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. And enormously pleased.

How could an old pile of bricks and wood captivate me after that?

The Brick Pagoda

The Sumeru ("Brick") Pagoda at Kaiyuan Temple; the oddly modern-yet-ancient-Greek looking white structure to the left stands on the foundations of the old Sanmen ("Three Gate").

Back to Yanzhao Street and a left turn to our final pagoda of the four. The Pagoda at the former Kaiyuan Temple looks more like my idea of a Chinese pagoda than any of the others, perhaps because it shares its style with the Great Goose Pagoda and other classics from Tang-Period Chang'an (modern Xi'an). So plain is it that there are no fancy nicknames, like "Dark" or "Flowery" or even "Wooden"--it's just "The Brick Pagoda." (I have also seen it called "The Summer Pagoda," without explanation.)

Its proper name, though, is quite exalted. Like the temple in Chengde (see Episode 041), it is named Xumi or "Sumeru" for the mythical mountain at the center of the world in Indian cosmology. The Pagoda--and all pagodas--like the mountain is an axis mundi, a world axis around which everything revolves.

Location of four of the "8 vivid giants" holding up the pagoda, and one of them in the inset

Unlike Zhengding's other pagodas, this one is simply square. At 157 feet, it's the tallest of the four. While it appears to have nine levels on the outside, defined by fake “eaves,” inside it's virtually hollow, and no staircase reaches the top. At its base, there are two small figures on either side of each corner, making what a sign calls "8 vivid giants." These strong men appear to be holding the Pagoda on their shoulders; temple materials call them lishi, which in Japanese is pronounced rikishi, meaning "sumo wrestler"!

The Pagoda and the bell tower are all that the red Guard left standing in 1966

The Pagoda--built in 636 (thus also Zhengding's oldest)--and a bell tower (built in 540 and renovated in 898) are all that's left of the original Kaiyuan Temple. The reason why is sad to tell: Kaiyuan Temple was almost completely destroyed by Chairman Mao's Red Guards in 1966, an early casualty of the Cultural Revolution. An odd, modernistic assemblage of marble-looking columns and crossbeams has been erected on the platform of the old Sanmen ("Three Gate"), a jarring contrast to the ancient structures.


And that was that. I taxied back to my hotel in Shijiazhuang to fetch my bags, and took a train to Beijing where... but that's a story for another day.

Incidentally, I was back in Zhengding a year later to see the one thing I regretted missing that day: Longxing Temple (also called Dafo, or "Big Buddha"), one of the best gatherings of orphaned statues (rescued from defunct temples) that I have ever seen. It was also #132 for me, the last official temple I would visit in all of my Chinese pilgrimage. Don't worry, we'll get to it!

Until then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


I have enabled comments for this post. Please feel free to respond!

  1. What purpose is served by pagodas and other extravagant religious structures?

  2. Why does schism--the splitting of a denomination or sect or school into another denomination or sect or school--happen so often?

  3. Is there any significance in a pagoda having eight sides, instead of six or--more simply--four?

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In the next episode: As promised, let's delve into the story of "The Death of Atsumori," from Japan's ancient Tale of the Heike.