Ep. 056: Mount Potalaka, Realm of the South Sea Guanyin

The Compassionate Colossus and her neighbors

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The year was 2009, when I undertook the first leg of my pilgrimage to visit some of China's 142 Key Temples. After seeing two temples in pleasant Hangzhou on Day 1, I arrived the next afternoon on the mystical isle of Putuoshan. Come visit the realm of the South Sea Guanyin with me in this episode of


Ah, Putuo! With Anhui's Jiuhua, Shanxi's Wutai, and Sichuan's Emei, it's one of China's Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains, each dedicated to one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas. This one is dedicated to the most popular, Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion; this connection, and its stunning seaside location, have given rise to many marvelous legends. (The other mountains, by the way, are dedicated to Dizang/Kshitigarbha, Wenshu/Manjushri, and Puxian/Samantabhadra, respectively.)

Unlike the others, Putuo's identity links all the way back to India, where sutras speak of "Mount Potalaka"; the Chinese Putuo is a shortening of the transliteration of that name, Putuoluojia. Tibet's Potala Palace is another such transliteration, into Tibetan; the Japanese render it Fudaraku.

The Nanhai ("South Sea") Guanyin

It is the mythical dwelling place of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva (of whom the Dalai Lama is believed by some to be a manifestation; the Potala Palace was once his home). It is mentioned among other places in the Avatamsaka ("Flower Garland") Sutra, called in Chinese the Huayan, which tells of Avalokiteshvara's dwelling place on an island in the seas south of India.

My dwelling place for the next couple of nights was the Purple Bamboo Hotel (you'll see the hotel's name again in a moment). The pleasant hotel, where the staff called me "Mi'le-fo" (the Laughing Buddha), was easy walking distance from something which, though not one of the three temples I had come there to see, was far and away the most spectacular sight on the island: the 108-foot-tall Nanhai ("South Sea") Guanyin, built in the late 1990s and presumably named for the location of the "original" (though mythical) home of this Bodhisattva.

But before I got to this frankly somewhat gaudy spectacle, I had several other, older, more authentic places to visit. Plentiful signboards, with good maps and English translations, ensured that I wouldn't miss a thing--and would understand what I saw!

Purple Bamboo Forest... Temple

The colossal statue stands at the south end of a peninsula dangling off of the island's southeast corner. At the base of that peninsula, on an eastward spur off the path to the big Guanyin, stands lovely little Purple Bamboo Forest (Zizhu Lin)--which is, confusingly, the name of a temple. (And mostly the name of my hotel!)

The character usually used to describe a Buddhist temple is si (寺). It has the character for "earth" in its top half, and the one for "a small measure" (actually, a thumb!) below. Thus, it is a "measure of land," set aside for use by monks or nuns. (The same character was once used in the names of some government offices, and may still be used for mosques.)

But this temple uses lin (林), showing two trees next to each other to signify a "forest." This reaches far back into the history of Buddhism, when monks emulated the Buddha by going into the forest to meditate. This "Forest Tradition" is still very much alive in Thai Buddhism, but it's not so common in China (though, as Bill Porter and others have documented, there are still hermits living in China's mountains). I have also seen temple names translated "Jungle" instead of "Forest," perhaps a more accurate reflection of India's topography.

The jade-looking Guanyin at "Purple Bamboo Forest." Note the bamboo painting behind, and the adoring figures of Dragon Girl (l) and Shancai (r).

Anyway, though it is lovely, there's really not much that stands out about this temple. The Number One memory I have is of the delicate painting of a bamboo forest on the wall behind the well-decorated altar of the pretty jade statue of Guanyin holding a (real?) willow branch and a vase with the "dew of compassion" (or maybe just pure water for a thirsty world). Willow has healing properties--did you know it was the original source of aspirin?

All of the temples on the island are fittingly dedicated to Guanyin, and feature him--or her--on their altars. This one is attended by small jade-like figures of the two attendants, Long Nu ("Dragon Girl") and the monk Shancai. How they came to be there is quite a story.

Briefly told: As described in the Ming dynasty novel, The Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, Guanyin was practicing on Potalaka when a young monk named Shancai (Sanskrit Sudhana) came to her to study the Buddha's teachings. She tested him by various methods, along the way causing him to die and be resurrected, and then accepted him as her disciple.

Later still, the Dragon King's third son was out for a swim in the form of a carp, and was caught by a fisherman. Guanyin asked Shancai's help in freeing him, but the boy failed until Guanyin called out in her supernatural voice: "A life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it." (This is actually a quote from a story in the Buddha's life--see Episode 010.) In gratitude for Shancai's returning the Dragon Prince to the sea, the Dragon King sent the third son's daughter, Long Nu (Sanskrit Nagakanya) to give Guanyin the "Pearl of Light." So impressed was the girl that she stayed on as Guanyin's disciple, too.

The two children are often found on either side of Guanyin, perhaps inspired by the Daoist/folk image of the Jade Maiden and Golden Youth usually seen flanking the Jade Emperor.

Unwilling-to-Go Guanyin Temple

Entry to "Unwilling-to-Go Guanyin Temple." The inset shows the statue in the hall--not the original, I'm sure.

Continuing down the path on this spur, we reach a temple with the peculiar name "Unwilling-to-Go Guanyin Temple" (Bukenqu Guanyin Si), another charming place--and this one has a charming story to boot.

In 863, a Japanese Buddhist monk named Hui-e (Japanese Egaku) had visited Mount Wutai (one of the four, remember?) and acquired a bronze (some sources say wooden) statue of Guanyin. He traveled by land as far as Ningbo, where he set sail for Japan--or tried to. When he set out, his ship ran aground (or, alternately, was driven to shore) and he ended up on what is now Putuo Shan, near a cave we'll visit in a moment.

At last he got the bright idea that maybe this Guanyin wanted to stay put, so he placed the statue in a straw hut next to the cave. A Mr. Zhang, who lived on a peak not far away, converted his house into a small temple and moved the statue there. This event--legendary though it may be--is said to be the genesis of the whole Guanyin industry (sorry) on Putuo Shan. In any case, within a hundred years there were reportedly over 300 temples on this island of a mere five square miles.

(Incidentally, I've found a dozen variations on this story. I kind of took the average.)

BUT that is not the temple named for the Bukenqu Guanyin that we visit today. That would be too easy. That original site--Mr. Zhang's former home--developed into the massive Puji Temple, one of the three I was to see on this trip, and the central temple on the island. Mr. Zhang's Bukenqu Guanyin Temple was renamed Baotuo Guanyin Temple in 1080. When the entire island was evacuated to the nearby mainland city of Ningbo in 1387 (and its temples destroyed) to thwart the depredations of Japanese pirates, the statue was moved for safe-keeping to a temple in that city (in fact today that place is Qita Temple, which I also visited on this trip). The statue may have come back to Baotuo when the temple was rebuilt in 1572 (after a nearly two-century hiatus in religious activities on the island), and the temple was renamed Puji in 1699 after a visit by that big-time Buddhist fan the Qing Emperor Kangxi. It has been rebuilt and expanded numerous times since; whether the original statue survives I have been unable to determine (but sincerely doubt).

Still with me? Okay, in 1980 a new temple was built near that same legendary cave to commemorate Hui-e and his reluctant statue, and was rebuilt in the Tang style in 2002. A Tang-style statue of a sitting Guanyin was placed there, and that is the temple and statue named Bukenqu we see today.

The corridor with the 33 Guanyin (Kannon) statues; one is shown in the inset.

Next to the temple is a corridor with 33 statues representing the 33 manifestations of Guanyin (eight for each cardinal direction, and one for the center). I shot them all (sadly, behind reflecting glass) as well as the explanatory signs (in Chinese). Gotta get those translated someday... Anyway, I was happy to learn that these were a gift from a Japanese Guanyin (Kannon) association, perhaps in memory of that Japanese guy with the Chinese name, the monk Hui-e.

Tidal Sound Cave

Just next to the Unwilling-to-Go Guanyin Temple is a 30-foot-deep cleft in the cliffside that extends 100 feet into it. This is the Tidal Sound Cave, cleverly named for the roar it makes when the ocean surges into it. It's where Hui-e is said to have abandoned his statue, and visitors have reported sightings of Guanyin there ever since.

The Tidal Sound Cave. Don't burn your fingers!

The cave, by the way, is in fact mentioned as the home of Guanyin in Chapter Eight of The Journey to the West:

She is the merciful ruler of Potalaka Mountain,

The Living Kuan-yin from the Cave of Tidal Sound.

Lovely image, isn't it? But a stele near the cave announces that we are prohibited from burning our fingers at the cave.


You see, in 847 an Indian monk came here and--to prove his sincerity--lit his fingers on fire as he invoked Guanyin, and she appeared. This seems to have started some kind of fad, with people burning fingers and other parts (limbs and whatnot) until finally in 1595 a local Ming governor had to put up the sign, which remains (with repairs after the Cultural Revolution) to this day.

Guanyin's Leap

Backtracking along the spur, we return to the main path and continue toward the colossus. Again we take a spur to the left (east) to a twofer. The tiny "Western Nunnery" (Xifang An) is again just a modest assemblage of halls--albeit with a nice set of statues and a fine pair of paintings depicting the Eighteen Arhats--but inside the temple's gates lurks another great story.

Down on the rocky shore behind the compound, there's a huge squarish block of stone that doesn't seem to belong there. On top, we're told, is a giant footprint. It looks like once we were able to climb up and take a look, but the steps-and-ladder that were once there have been removed (and Google's Satellite View doesn't have high enough resolution to show it!).

Guanyin leapt from the rock (on the left) to the island--about three miles--and back!

Around three miles off in the distance, we notice an island with a suggestive shape, as though a giant person were floating on his or her back out in the water. Some say it's Guanyin taking a swim break. But there's a better story, that includes that rock.

Guanyin is said to have made her home on Putuo, but some say that, when she really wanted to concentrate, she would leap on over to Luojia Shan, the island that looks like someone floating. When she was finished, she'd leap back, each time using the block of stone with the footprint on top--her footprint, of course--as a launching-and-landing pad. The name of the site? "Guanyin's Leap."

(I suspect the story may have its roots in the idea that, to escape the over-300 temples on the small main island, some more solitary types may have boated--not leapt--over to the even smaller island for a little peace and quiet.)

One more interesting point: Put together the main island's name, Putuo, with that of the smaller island, Luojia, and you get Putuoluojia, the full Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit name of Avalokiteshvara's island, Potalaka.

Guanyin of the South Seas

On the path to the Compassionate Colossus

At last, we return to the main path and follow it to its spectacular ending: The Nanhai ("South Sea") Guanyin.

When I saw it, the statue was just over a decade old. It is touted as being 33 meters tall--there's Guanyin's number again, 33. But of course, they cheated. From the bottom of her soles to the top of her crown, she's "only" 18 meters tall. The lotus underneath her adds two meters to her height, and this sits on a base of 13 meters. For us Americans, that's about 59 feet of statue, 6.5 feet of lotus, and 42.5 feet of base. Add it up and you'll get 108 feet.

One of two acalas guarding the Nanhai Guanyin

Wow! Thirty-three meters, when converted to feet, inadvertently yield another sacred number, 108. We don't have time to go into all the blessed details, but let me drop a few factoids on ya:

  • Buddhist "rosaries," like the one I wore for years in China, have 108 beads;

  • some sutras have divisions of 108 sections;

  • there are believed to be 108 distractions from the spiritual life;

and so on. Why? It's a factor in the "sacred measure" of 432,000 (108 x 40 x 100), and its factors are 2 squared x 3 cubed. There's so much more to say...

Note the distance from the pailou (about center) to the statue; that's all courtyard…

Anyway, back to the statue. The entire compound is about 60,000 square feet, most of which is open space. The figure stands behind an immense pailou ceremonial gate. On the next level, two fiercesome kings with raised swords and flames around their heads guard the way, and the Four Heavenly Kings are ranged around the plaza.

At the top level stands the Compassionate Colossus, facing south. On her left hand rests an eight-spoked Dharma Wheel (falun), representing rolling down the eight-fold path. Her right hand is raised in the "Fear Not" gesture (abhayamudra). As usual, a figure of the Amitabha Buddha rests in her tiara, and she is sumptuously draped. Down to the lotus she is gold-and-copper plated; the pedestal is marble (or a facsimile).

The relief across the back features Guanyin at the center.

Across the back of the compound is a huge, single panel of in relief, depicting the Bodhisattva along with scores of other figures large and small. The west side of the court bears 15 or 16 relief panels depicting the journey of the monk Xuanzang to "the west" (India) to retrieve scriptures; the east side (just as fittingly) has a similar display depicting Jianzhen (whom we've met before) going east to teach in Japan.

The reliefs in the corridor on the west side of the courtyard tell about Xuanzang's (sometimes legendary) journey to the west.


And here I will leave you. I still had a full day ahead of me: a cable car up to a temple on the island's peak, a pleasant ramble down a forest path to yet another temple; and a return to my Purple Bamboo room to rest up for another full day on the morrow.

But for now, I'll say: May you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


  1. It's no secret that Long Nu and Shancai seen flanking Guanyin are imitations of the Jade Maiden and Golden Youth on either side of the Jade Emperor. Does this detract at all from their--appropriateness? Worthiness of respect? Authenticity

  2. Can you think of anything worth a person's setting himself on fire for?

  3. Notice something? The story of the Indian monk burning his fingers (847) happened before the story of the monk "starting" the Guanyin tradition on Putuo Shan (863). Is this a problem? Are legends and history supposed to be consistent?

  4. Do you know anything about the significance of the number 108 that you'd like to share?

  • Subscribers: Although I have enabled comments for this post here on Substack, there's still a "Secret Group" on Facebook where your questions and comments can get more personal attention. If you're not already a member, let me know and we'll figure out how to loop you in! (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Oh, and Non-subscribers? Join the club!


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In the next episode: Come meet 18 of my best friends, the Arhats who dwell in dozens of the Buddha Halls I've visited.