Ep. 065: Friday Photo Essay: The Bigfoot Grottoes

Two sites of Buddhist carvings outside of Chongqing, China

Note: These "Photo Essays" are LONG, yo! You may see a message at the end of the mail that asks you to click to see the whole thing; please do! No extra charge!

When people rank the best Buddhist grottoes in China, the sites around Dazu always just squeak in last on the list. Yet for my money, they're among the best. See if you agree in this Friday Photo Essay episode of


Sometimes--rarely--I had the time and moolah to reach beyond my list of 142 temples to see other significant sites. I skipped the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and others (though my wife did make me see Xi'an's Terracotta Warriors), but I did try to see nearby Buddhist sites whenever possible.

And so, after visiting two listed temples in downtown Chongqing (more familiar to many by its alternate Romanization, Chungking) and another one 125 miles or so north of the city, I traveled another 100 miles west out to Dazu (meaning "Big Foot") to visit what some list as one of the Four (or Five) Great Grottoes of China, along with Luoyang's Longmen and Datong's Yungang (both of which I've seen) and Dunhuang's Mogao (which, alas, I have not).

Wikipedia tells me that this World Heritage Site boasts "75 protected sites containing some 50,000 statues, with over 100,000 Chinese characters forming inscriptions and epigraphs." Most agree, though, as Wiki inelegantly adds, "The highlights of the rock grotto are found on Mount Baoding and Mount Beishan."

And those are the very two I visited over a couple of days in June of 2012.

Baodingshan, "Treasure Peak Mountain"

The Baodingshan site lies less than ten miles northeast of downtown Dazu; I traveled by local bus.

It's shaped like a horseshoe, with the name Dafowan--"Big Buddha Bay" ("bay" here meaning "a recess of land, partly surrounded by hills," like a small box canyon). The panels, standing between 3 and 15 meters high, run a little over a half-mile from end to end. The visitor walks a path around the base of these, getting touching-distance from most of the carvings. I spent a full day on the site, and took around 600 pictures!

There's a "Small Buddha Bay," too, but it was closed to visitors when I was there.

Though some of the images date back to the 7th century, and carving in the area began in earnest in the late 9th, it wasn't until the 70-year effort of one Zhao Zhifeng (born in 1159), a monk who founded Shengshou Temple (up next) to honor his teacher, Liu Benzen (founder of an Esoteric sect of Buddhism), that the Baoding panorama we see today began to take shape. This includes at least 30 different scenes (depending on how one counts) of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods (both Indian and Daoist), hell judges and sufferers, animals, and even ideas, such as the "Wheel of Rebirth" showing the six levels of being, all supported by the image of Death (the great regenerator).

Don't get me wrong: I absolutely loved this place. But as you'll see in the pictures, the carvings struck me as kind of cartoonish compared to the ones I saw the next day at Beishan.

Let's take a look.


This is one of the first things I saw on the path into the grottoes, and it's much more elegantly executed than some of the hundreds of carvings I saw later.
A Bodhisattva kneels in front of Buddhas in the "Cave of Full Enlightenment."
Part of the famed series of "Ox-Herding Pictures." These two happy guys will be taming that ox later (part of an extended allegory where the ox represents the mind).
Some of the Nine Dharma Guardians of the place
Three Sages of the Huayan (l to r Samantabhadra, Vairochana, and Manjushri). This triad is noted for the pagoda being held up in the foreground. I've read estimates of 500kg or more for that pagoda (seems unlikely!); the drapery "hanging" from the Bodhisattva's arm is said to be the secret of sustaining its weight for over a thousand years.
Here's Mara (or Death) holding the Wheel of Life, with six sections representing the six levels at which we might be reborn (depending on the karma we generate). It's a common motif in Tibetan art.
Either three scholars, or the same scholar at three ages, meditating in a bamboo grove. It may represent Liu Benzun, a major figure in the history (and sometimes the iconography) of the grottoes.
Photo of a photo of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin (under repair)
The Buddha entering Nirvana (dying), often called the "Sleeping Buddha," with various figures paying homage. It is noted that only his top half is shown, leaving the rest to the viewers' imaginations. (see Episode 063)
At the other end of the Buddha's life: Nine dragons bathe the new-born baby Buddha. (see Episode 029)
This is Mahamayuri, one of the Five Wisdom Kings sometimes called "The Peacock King," whom we met in Episode 061.
This is my favorite Buddha, the Great Sun Buddha (Vairochana) in his own cave carved into the cliff side
An illustration of the Parental Love Sutra.
The Buddha demonstrates filial piety.
This is really interesting. The main figure has a sleeping monkey in his lap, representing the "heart" (=mind). (There's also a Buddha emanating from his head, indicating the source of his "control.") Underneath him are six "tethered" animals representing the six senses, all under the mind's control. According to one reading they are, from top right, going clockwise: a dog (sight); a crow (hearing); a snake (smell); a fox? (taste); a fish (touch); and a horse (passion). Why these animals for these senses is beyond me.
A "Niche of the Netherworld" shows Kshitigarbha (surrounded by Buddhas and other Bodhisattvas) above the tortures of those whom he has vowed to save from hell. Here one of the more ghastly-looking demons, the "Knee-Chopping demon," is fixing to perform his duty. No joke, he's scary enough without the cleaver.
Liu Benzun, a lay Buddhist from Leshan (see Episode 061) and the Esoteric teacher of Zhao Zhifeng, who carved most of these figures.

Shengshou ("Long Life") Temple

On the way out of Baodingshan I made a quick stop at Shengshou Temple, founded in 1179 by the afore-mentioned monk Zhao Zhifeng in honor of his afore-mentioned teacher Liu Benzen. The buildings we see today supposedly date back to 1684--but they were being rebuilt when I visited. The temple was (is?) the ritual center for the "Little Buddha Bay" (Xiaofowan), said to house some 2,000 carved statues, which as I mentioned I was unable to visit. But I was exhausted, and might not have been able to enjoy it anyway.

Here are some pictures.


The front gate of Shengshou Temple. No hint here of how torn up it is inside.
Approaching the majestic first hall of Shengshou Temple. The construction gets worse and worse.
I was so glad to see this. The famed 1000-armed Guanyin (actually with 1007 hands) was closed for repairs in the Grotto area. So it was cool to see this reproduction in the Hall of Great Compassion in the temple.
The construction was killing me. These statues are part of the front of the oldest hall at Shengshou Temple, the Vimalakirti Hall. I could only imagine what these statues would have looked like when the walls were there. As for Vimalakirti, he was a layman and contemporary of Shakyamuni Buddha, a model devotee who was the main character of a sutra which bears his name. (It's interesting that there should be a hall dedicated to a layman, as there is some question whether Zhao Zhifeng, "father" of both the temple and most of the carvings, was a duly ordained monk, or something of a smooth-talking charlatan.)
On my way out, I saw some kids playing hide and seek--with camouflage! I almost got them to stand still long enough for a group photo (the little girl's still in motion!).

Beishan, the "North Mountain"

The next morning I was up and out to Beishan, just a mile or so north of town--so close I took a taxi! The which, by happy accident, dropped me at the wrong part of the complex. Instead of entering and seeing the grottoes immediately, I ended up climbing to a pagoda and seeing a funky little "Three Buddha Hall" there, with a single old monk sleeping inside.

After the somewhat cartoonish figures at Baodingshan, I found the elegance of Beishan (once I found it!) refreshing. The statues here have a delicate reality that rivals the best I've seen anywhere in China. Large groupings predominate: Shakyamuni, the founding Buddha, surrounded by Bodhisattvas, disciples, and angel-like apsaras; thirteen separate manifestations of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, all in one niche; and walls and walls of mini-Buddhas, Arhats, and others. There is almost nothing whimsical in this site; the tone is primarily reverent.

Some of Beishan's carvings are Dazu's oldest, having been begun in 892 by Wei Junjing, a military governor sent to the area to quell a rebellion. The more elaborate and extensive carvings in a 500-meter-long overhang are later, 12th-century, additions.

And now, the photos.


Because of a misunderstanding with a cab driver, I ended up climbing the "wrong" mountain to this pagoda, instead of heading straight for Beishan Grottoes. It's OK, though; I'm glad I saw it, and I had plenty of time to do everything I wanted. I just hope the driver's ancestors survive all the curses I hurled at them when I discovered I had climbed over 300 steps in the wrong direction!
Near the pagoda is this "temple": two dilapidated halls with so-so statues. At least they had my favorite Buddha.
"My" Buddha in the rundown hall--see the light coming through the roof?
In this second hall, the two side rooms are occupied by the guard: one room had a TV, the other a fridge. I'd totally live there--if there's a road up the other side of the mountain!


At last, the Grottoes! Here's a long view of just part of them. As there are so many, and identifying is hard, in the rest of the pictures I will only label those I'm sure of.
Vaishravana Devaraja, one of the Four Heavenly Kings (the one usually holding an umbrella). He stands guard at one end of the Grottoes.)
A row of Buddhas along one side of what must once have been a defile in the rock. It now seems cave-like with the man-made roof added.
An exquisite image of Guanyin
A close-up of the previous Guanyin
Shakyamuni with Guanyin and Dashizhi (two Bodhisattvas) as well as dharma protectors
A Guanyin (Bodhisattva of Compassion) noted for her grace, and because she's holding beads.
Thirteen images of Guanyin (one in the center, the other 12 standing around)
Guanyin again? (Pretty sure this time!)
Called a "prayer wheel," but more likely an imitation of a sutra case. These are kind of the same thing, as such a case can turn, and doing so even once is like praying all the sutras in it.
Conservators were painstakingly examining and cataloging every one of the "thousand" Buddhas on the walls of the "Peacock King's" cave (see again Episode 061).
Some of the 500 Arhats in the (you guessed it) 500 Arhats Cave. There's a pagoda in the center holding the remains of a monk from the "Western lands" (central or south Asia).
An unlabeled Buddha triad
Another unlabeled Buddha triad
No label on this Buddha triad either, but if I had to pick a favorite for the day, this might be it. The detail is amazingly rich.


Well, that's about that. If you think this is a lot of pictures, you should see the hundreds I didn't show you. Maybe I should start making online albums on Flickr or Smugmug or something!

Anyway, 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: Not far from the buried churches of Bacolor which we visited in Episode 031 is the lovely Betis Church of Saint James the Apostle, called "the Sistine Chapel" of the Philippines. Come with me!