Ep. 086: Ningbo's Temple of Seven Pagodas

The only Key Temple inside Ningbo proper

Having seen the far-flung temples outside of Ningbo first--my usual technique--it was time to hit the center of town, where I found the new-but-lovely Qita Temple. Come along with me in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES!

The day after our visit to temples on the outskirts of the Zhejiang port town of Ningbo, I was once again on my own (just like I like it!) and took a "point-to-point" (highway) bus from Beilun, where I was staying, into Ningbo proper. It would nevertheless be over two years until I saw Laowaitan, the bar and restaurant area popular with Ningbo's expats, the city's answer to Shanghai's district famous as "the Bund."

A shocking sight on a Chinese street--Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Cathedral

I got off the bus fairly close to the temple I was headed for, and had an early lunch at a vegetarian restaurant with the delightful name "Jujube Tree" (Zaozi Shu), located a mile and a half west of the temple, and on the same street. Walking east from the restaurant, I passed the city's bizarrely out-of-place Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, a Gothic Catholic church with gold Chinese characters on the front proclaiming Tianzhu Tang: Catholic hall. This lies just south of the city's Tianyi Square, an odd conglomeration of "22 different buildings with a European style" (Wikipedia) covering 49 acres; Wiki says it "provides tourists and citizens with a fashionable and pleasant paradise for relaxing and shopping." So there.

I crossed the Lingqiao Bridge over the Fenghua River and reached the temple ten minutes later.

Some of the seven pagodas on the sidewalk; each is engraved with a Buddha figure (see inset)

You can tell when you're approaching Qita (Seven Pagoda) Temple by the--you guessed it--seven pagodas strung out along the sidewalk. Though each one represents one of the Seven Ancient Buddhas (see Episode 063), like the temple itself they are brand-spanking new.


A Little History

The pailou gate in front of the temple

Old documents indicate that the temple was founded in 858 CE (during the Tang Dynasty) as Dongjin Zen Compound. I try very hard to locate and share with you a "founding legend" for each temple I write about. I can find none, in Chinese or English, for Qita Temple. This may be because (it seems) this temple was founded as the "downtown branch" of Tiantong Temple (see Episode 082). The temple has gone through many name changes and reconstructions since. Some time early in the Qing Dynasty (which began in 1644), seven pagodas were placed out front. The ones we see today could be considered an homage to those originals.

The gray-brick Heavenly Kings' Hall

The whole place was destroyed in 1861 during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), a quasi-messianic movement; their leader, in a nod toward humility, proclaimed himself merely the brother of Jesus Christ, not the Lord himself. The "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom" was a notorious scourge of temples throughout their area of influence, which encompassed a significant part of China south of the Yangzi River. Qita Temple was rebuilt in 1895 by the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. At this time, the name of the temple was changed to reflect the seven small pagodas outside the temple's front wall (though some sources say the name was changed earlier, when the pagodas were first placed there).

The Yuantong Hall with the Drum Tower on the left

The temple suffered again in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when those halls that weren't outright destroyed were turned over for factory use. It was rebuilt again in 1983. Today it's considered to be one of the major Buddhist temples in eastern Zhejiang Province, and many current abbots of temples in the region, large and small, have studied there.

The Guanyin statue in the Yuantong Hall

As I mentioned in Episode 056, about a temple on Putuoshan, a statue of Guanyin was removed from that island by a nobleman named Tang He during a general evacuation in 1387--when all of the island's temples were destroyed in an effort "to thwart the depredations of Japanese pirates" (a desperate move, that)--and said statue was placed in what is now Qita Temple for safe-keeping. (It may or may not have made its way back onto the island subsequently.) Qita thus became locally known as "Little Putuo," and a long association with the island has resulted. For example, in place of a Buddha Hall at Qita there is a Yuantong or Compassion Hall, not unlike the main temples on Putuoshan. Although Tang He's statue is long gone, this hall is still graced by a beautiful old statue of Guanyin.

Puxian Bodhisattva and Wenshu Bodhisattva on a silly-looking elephant and lion sit in the rear corners of the Yuantong Hall.

The Temple Today

The entire temple, although new, is decidedly one of the most beautiful I have seen. The walls are made of gray brick, with lavish amounts of lacquered but unstained woodwork. The roofs are of black tile, and there are still some old trees surrounding these modern structures to lend an air of authenticity.

Dashizi (Mahasthamaprapta), Amitabha, and Guanyin (l to r) in the San Sheng ("Three Saints") Hall. A cabinet containing a Thousand-Armed Guanyin can be seen behind.

Along the main axis we find, after the seven pagodas out front:

  • a huge pailou gate;

  • the Heavenly Kings Hall just behind it, and thus visible from the street;

  • the Yuantong Hall, with its Guanyin in the center, 500 Arhat plaques on either side, and statues of Puxian and Wenshu Bodhisattvas in the back corners;

  • the Sansheng Hall, dedicated to the "Three Saints" of the Western Pure Land: Amitabha flanked by Dashizi and Guanyin Bodhisattvas;

  • and the Dharma Hall and Sutra Repository, one building for preaching and document storage. The abbot's reception room is also in this building.

An Ancestral Hall, Jade Buddha Pavilion, Huayan Pavilion, and various utility buildings lie along the side axes.

Carved wooden Guanyin (l) and Dizang (r) in the Drum and Bell Towers, respectively

On either side of the courtyard in front of the Yuantong Hall stand the not-uncommon Drum Tower (on the left) with its usual Guanyin, and the Bell Tower (on the right) with a statue of Dizang, the Bodhisattva who has vowed to save all beings from the Six Hells. Though a common arrangement, these are some of the most exquisite statues--in natural wood finishes--of these popular Bodhisattvas that I have ever seen.

After paying them due homage, I headed back to Beilun. I intended to take a bus like the one I had come in on, but this being late in the day on a Sunday afternoon, the line for tickets stretched literally out the gate and down the street, so rather than wait an interminable time to board an overcrowded bus, I sprang for a pricey ($10 or $11) taxi back to where I was staying.

A pretty little courtyard with some big bonsai

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And that, you know, is that. 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: Join me for a trip to Hase-dera, southern counterpart to the home of the Great Kannon of Kamakura that we visited in Episode 048.