Ep. 082: Tiantong Temple, Chinese Fount of Japanese Soto Zen

In the mountains outside of Ningbo

Two temples in (or near) the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, in one day? Yes, please! We'll cover the first one in this episode of


The ancient city of Ningbo exhibits evidence of a major culture, the Hemudu, dating back to 5500 to 3300 BCE. The city lies on the south side of Hangzhou Bay, across from that more-famous upstart, Shanghai. Today, Ningbo's port is the fourth-busiest in the world (Shanghai is Number One). Ningbo's character as a port city plays a significant role in all three of the temples I visited there. The city was also one of the eastern termini of the Silk Road.

Getting to Tiantong Mountain

The morning after I returned from Putuoshan, the people I was staying with hired a car and driver and took me to two temples. The one we visited in the afternoon was fairly easy to reach, lying as it did on a main highway. We'll visit that one next week.

But the first one was a proper mountain temple situated six or eight miles off the highway, and over 20 miles outside of the city. It would have been tough to reach by public transportation (though there is a rural bus, heaven knows how I would have figured out where to get on it!).

The "Little White (?) Pagoda" rises above a bamboo forest.

There, in the wild mountains, we found Tiantong Si, the "Temple of the Heavenly Child." It was founded in the year 300, though most of what we see today was built in the Ming Dynasty or later. A fire had destroyed most of its buildings in 1587, and it was rebuilt around a half-century later. It was closed (and looted) during the Cultural Revolution, but repair and replacement began in 1979. By 1983 there was enough there to justify its place on the Key Temple List I was pursuing.

The "Free Life Pond" and screen wall in front of the temple

Today, Tiantong is a huge complex, with dozens of ocher-colored plaster and red-painted wood buildings marching up the mountainside. (Wikipedia claims "There are 700 halls and rooms in total." I doubt that!). It is also a major destination for pilgrims, especially those from Japan. That's because around 1225, a Japanese monk named Dogen Zenji arrived here (remember the importance of the port at Ningbo?), and ended up studying with the great monk Rujing of the Caodong sect of Chan (Zen). Two and a half years later, Dogen returned to Japan and founded the Soto Zen sect, which today claims millions of followers in Japan and throughout the world.

Rujing, Dogen, and Caodong

The monk Rujing (1163-1228) was a local boy (born near Ningbo) who, after wandering quite a bit, and heading temples elsewhere, finally settled back at Tiantong Mountain. His "full name" is Tiantong Rujing (the Japanese call him Tendo Nyojo); "Tiantong" in his name indicates that this temple was his main teaching seat. A 23rd-generation descendant of the Chan (Zen) founder Bodhidharma, and the 16th Patriarch of the Caodong Sect, his greatest claim to modern fame is that he taught Dogen.

The figure for "Buddha" on concrete used to seal an ancient tree next to the pond

Andy Ferguson, in his magisterial Zen's Chinese Heritage, writes that Rujing was "among the most poetically expressive of all the Zen ancients," and translates such gems as, "Gouge out Bodhidhrama's eyeball and use it like a mudball to hit people!" This perhaps suggests that "people" should learn to see things as Bodhidharma, the First Chan Patriarch, did. (See Episode 038 for more on him.)

Another bon mot: "The clouds mindlessly drift past the mountain cliffs. Four years ago, or just yesterday, is today. In due course, water returns to its source. Four years hence, or just today, is yesterday." (Strangely, this one reminds me of a Steven Wright gibe that went something like, "The other day... no, that was four years ago...")


The Buddha Hall

Rujing's brand of Chan/Zen, Caodong, was possibly named for two of its progenitors: Dongshan Liangjie (807-869) and one of his dharma heirs Caoshan Benji (840-901). (Others think the "Cao" came from Caoxi Brook, where Huineng had his seat.)

Although most Zen looks the same to outsiders, Soto (the Japanese pronunciation of Caodong) and Rinzai (the Japanese pronunciation of Linji) do differ, but only in some fine points. Both use sitting meditation (zazen) and learning riddles (koans), but Soto emphasizes the former, and Rinzai, the latter. Likewise, Rinzai is perceived of as a bit more rigorous than Soto.

A "jade" Buddha in its own hall

Now, when Eihei Dogen (also called Dogen Zenji or "Dogen the Zen Guy," 1200-1253) returned to Japan and introduced Soto (where Rinzai was already happening), it grew to become the largest of the traditional sects of Zen. Dogen founded Eihei-ji in 1244; today, this and Soji-ji (see Episode 071) are the two main headquarters of Soto Zen.

Visiting Tiantong Temple

The wall to a compound near the top of the temple

Getting out of Mr. Fan's (the driver's) car, we faced a prodigious pond next to what appears to be one of the largest screen walls I've seen before or since. It is slightly curved (or more like bent, with two small angles), I suspect to keep it from falling over. Behind it was the usual Heavenly Kings Hall (built in 1936, to replace the 1635 version, destroyed by fire in 1932), followed up the hill by the typical layout: a Buddha Hall (the temple's oldest building, dating to 1635), then a Dharma Hall and Sutra Repository (1932). There are lots of little structures (though not 700!) around this axis.

This corridor has stone engravings of the Sixteen Arhats.

One of these includes a glass-encased "jade" Buddha. Steep stairs climb the hillside, passing a lovely little courtyard with a "Blue Dragon Spring" and a pavilion where you can "come aside and rest." At the top, a corridor contains replicas of the famous Shengyin Temple portraits of the Sixteen Arhats (see Episodes 057 and 058); I cannot ascertain if these are some of the stone tablets engraved at the behest of the Qianlong Emperor in 1764, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Stairs always look scarier going down…
Mountainside temples often have evocative roofage.

As we approached the temple by road, and from several vantage points on the grounds, we saw a tall pagoda on the hillside to the temple's southeast, rising up above a lush bamboo forest. This is the "Little White Pagoda"--tomb of the eminent monk Yuanying (1878-1953), first master of the still-powerful Buddhist Association of China--which was rebuilt in 1983.

Somewhere in this graveyard lie the remains of Master Rujing.

There are actually two tayuan, or "pagoda compounds," located on other parts of the mountainside. One of these evocative cemeteries has pagodas which mark the remains of abbots going back to the founder, Yixing. Another pagoda marks the remains of Rujing himself. We had a hard time finding the compound, and ended up having our driver take us up to it in the car. It was not far from the pagoda we had been seeing! It was--unfortunately--locked, but we peeked through the gate, unable to determine which pagoda covered whom.

The road leads ever upward… (I love bamboo forests!)

There is apparently a much older temple, "Gu (Old) Tiantong," farther up the mountainside, an original site of the temple. Had I known, I might have tried to find it! The area is reportedly dotted with the remains of old pagodas.


Our next stop was lunch in a country diner, before we pushed on to our next temple.

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

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Finally moving away from the environs of Osaka, we enter ancient Nara to visit Minamihokke-ji (also called Tsubosaka-dera), and its unique marble carvings from India.