Ep. 072: Hangzhou's "Temple of the Soul's Retreat"

Lingyin Temple, near the famous West Lake

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I had been on many a pilgrimage in Japan, but I endured for five years before I discovered a way to tread the pilgrim's path in China. Come along on my first "official" Chinese temple outing in this episode of--


When I first moved to China in 2004, I was disappointed to learn that, unlike Japan, the Buddhists there did not have a tradition of setting up and traveling pilgrimage routes. Other than the "Four Great Buddhist Mountains," there was no designated list of "must-sees." In Japan I had completed many such courses, and was hankerin' to do more in the wellspring of Japanese Buddhism.

Hitting the Temple Trail--Officially

Gateway to the Lingyin Scenic Area

Imagine my delight, then, when in the summer of 2009, I was reading Sun Shuyun's Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud. There I discovered that in 1983, the Chinese government had created a list of 142 "key temples," meaning ones that were to be re-opened, re-developed, and promoted for tourism after the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which saw some temples closed, others converted to secular uses (such as factories), and not a few razed to the ground.

I set out almost immediately to start seeing them all. (I am currently stalled at 132!) My first excursion, in August of that year, was to Hangzhou, Putuoshan, and Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, as well as nearby Shanghai, basing at the home of friends living in Beilun, a suburb of Ningbo. On that trip I was able to see 13 temples on the list, all in a matter of just a week and a half. I also got to see quite a few "extras" on Putuoshan, some of which I wrote about in Episode 056.

After spending a night with my friends, I hopped an early-morning highway bus for the 2-1/2 hour ride to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang.

It was also the capital of all of China from 1127 to 1279, when it was called Lin'an. Venetian traveler Marco Polo, (allegedly) visiting a little later, called it "the most beautiful and magnificent [city] in the world." (Some scholars doubt he ever visited there!) And a bit later still, in the 14th century, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (who traveled nearly five times farther than Polo) called it simply "the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth."

Not as comparatively large today, but still remarkably beautiful, the city has all the conveniences you'd expect of a provincial capital. Off the highway bus and onto a local one, I skirted the famous West Lake to my destination, Lingyin Temple (called "Temple of the Soul's Retreat") located southwest of the lake.

Feilai Feng, "The Peak that Flew from Afar"

The Laughing Buddha (with some of the 18 Arhats) in the Feilai Feng grottoes

After entering the gate, I enjoyed exploring some of the 345 carved figures in the grottoes across a small brook flowing past the temple's gate. This is the Feilai Feng (or "The Peak that Flew from Afar"), named by founding monk Huili nearly 1700 years ago, who thought it looked as though a small mountain--the famed Vulture Peak, where the Buddha preached near Huili's home in India--had flown all the way to China!

Pagoda of monk Huili at the "Peak that Flew from Afar"

It's a huge pile of limestone that really does look as though it had plopped down out of the sky, but the story may symbolize that the Buddha dharma had spread all the way from the subcontinent to eastern China. Huili settled just across the brook from the cliff; his hermitage would someday become the massive Lingyin Temple. Huili's memorial pagoda stands next to the peak, which has become a wonderland of carved Buddhist figures. A legend accounts for these: they say that, when the Flying Peak "landed," it wiped out several villages. To prevent it from flying off and doing any more damage, the people carved statues of blessed figures on its sides to tie it down.

Lingyin Temple

Clock ticking (I had one more temple to see that day), I crossed the brook and entered the first official temple of my pilgrimage. Inside I was treated to cool gardens, magnificent halls, and some of the finest statues I had yet seen in China.

The Da Xiong Bao Dian or Buddha Hall

Most of the temple conforms to what I have come to realize is the standard modern layout of a Chinese temple, as described in Episode 002. First, the "Central Axis" with the "Heavenly Kings Hall," the "Precious Hall of the Great Hero" (Buddha Hall), and a few others: a hall dedicated to the Medicine Buddha, a sutra library, and a hall housing the "Three Sages of the Huayan."

Some of the 20 gods in the Buddha Hall

The Buddha Hall also housed something new to me, though I was to see it--or them--many more times in the future: the twenty "gods" (zhutian) lining either side of the hall, in the place usually occupied by the Eighteen Arhats in other temples. There was also a "Sea Island Guanyin," with over 150 statues, back-to-back with the main altar.

The Three Sages of the Huayan in their own hall

Again, typically, the sides of the compound featured a drum tower with a figure of Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, and across from that the bell tower holding Kshitigarbha (Dizang), the Bodhisattva who made the Great Vow to save all beings from the six hells. There were a few other halls and utility quarters (such as a dining hall) as well.

But having visited around 200 Buddhist temples in mainland China since then, I have learned to look for what is unusual--beyond the halls and statues described above. At Lingyin Temple there were two such features--three if you count the grottoes across the stream.

Almost Unique

Some of the 500 Arhats; the pavilion holds bronze images of the Four Great Bodhisattvas (see Episode 046) facing the four directions

The first--which was quite obvious on the plot map inside the gate--was a large hall in the shape of a giant swastika! This symbol, as used in Buddhism, is quite misunderstood because of its dark history in modern Europe. And no, it does no good to say the Nazi symbol was "backwards" or "on its corner like a diamond"; such iterations are also found in Buddhist usage. In fact, the so-called "left-facing swastika," not uncommon in Buddhism and Indian religions, even has its own Sanskrit name: sauvastika.

At any rate, this surprisingly-shaped edifice turned out to be a Hall of 500 Arhats, a feature discussed recently in Episode 068. I have seen many 500 Arhat Halls since--some arranged in the shape of the Chinese character for a field, tian (田) (hinting at the "cultivation" of devotees), and others with the Arhats arranged randomly along meandering paths in a large rectangular hall. But as far as I can recall, this is the only one I have ever seen shaped like a swastika!

Jigong got kicked out of this temple--and now has his own hall!

The second unusual feature at Lingyin Temple is the hall dedicated to a rule-breaking scalawag named Daoji, sometimes known as Jigong. Ordained here, he was ultimately kicked out for his un-monk-like behavior.

Beyond Lingyin Temple are more hills and temples, including Yongfu Temple, and the traditional Fayun Village. I started up the mountain to see more, but unfortunately my time was limited, as I had one more temple to see on this day trip to Hangzhou, a city definitely worth a few days' stay.


And that was that. Lingyin wasn't the first big temple I visited in China--by the time I got there, I had already lived in one for a whole year--but it was the first I could "tick off" of my Official List, having taken notes and photos, and more especially, done the Pilgrim's Duty: lighting incense, kowtowing to the main figure, and chanting.

And you never forget your first!

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: Let's start a sequential journey through Japan's 188 "key temples," starting with Wakayama's Seiganto-ji, Temple #1 on the Saigoku Pilgrimage.