Ep. 090: Shanghai's Temple of the Dragon Flower

A visit to Longhua Temple and its resplendant pagoda

From the tiny jewel of Chenxiang Ge--the "Incense Pavilion" near Shanghai's Yuyuan Garden and City God district--I took a single bus south to Longhua Temple, the largest ancient Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Come visit it with me in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES!

Please note: Although there is audio to accompany this episode (see "Get More" below), this is one that is best viewed as well, because Longhua Temple boasts a spectacular collection of statuary.

Shanghai's Longhua Pagoda, the only ancient pagoda in the city

Longhua Temple dates, according to legend, to the year 242 in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 CE). That legend says that Sun Quan (182-252), king of Wu (one of those three kingdoms, which occupied the area in which Shanghai is now situated) had gotten his hands on some of the relics of the Buddha, like those we discussed in Episode 084. He decreed the construction of thirteen pagodas to house these precious objects, and the pagoda standing in front of Longhua Temple was one of them.

Another story also attributes the pagoda to Sun Quan, but for a different reason: He built it, they say, to demonstrate filial piety toward his mother. Thus, it is called the Bao'en ("Repaying Kindness") Pagoda.

Never mind that the oldest known parts of the pagoda date from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) at the earliest. One likely story is that the temple and some pagoda really were there from early days but, as almost always happens, were completely destroyed. The temple as we know it was first built on or near the old site in the Song Dynasty. (I have been to places where temples rose whole and complete out of bare earth and claimed to be "restorations" of former institutions. This may be like that, but nevertheless smelling of antiquity.)


About That Name

The temple's name is composed of two characters. The first, long (龍), is indisputably "dragon." The second, hua (華), is at its base "flower"; the traditional character even resembles one. But by extension, hua can mean things like "magnificent" or "splendid"--think of English "flowery"--and even indicates China itself (a "magnificent" country), as seen in the common translation of Nanhua Temple in Guangdong as "South China Temple."

The main hall of Longhua Temple

I have chosen the more literal rendering, "Dragon Flower," to translate the temple's name, as the "Dragon Flower Tree" is associated with the Maitreya Buddha, just as the sacred fig tree is revered as the Bodhi Tree under which the current Buddha attained enlightenment. Unusually, this temple has two centrally-placed figures of Maitreya--one, the typical "Laughing Buddha," in the Mountain Gate, and the other in the more elegant "Bodhisattva" form in the Heavenly Kings' Hall, as we'll see in a minute.

But because of the varied meanings of hua, translating the name as "Temple of the Magnificent Dragon" would be just as apt--and plays into a local legend that a dragon once appeared here.


The Temple Today

Longhua Temple was once much, much larger; but on my way in, walking along "Longhua Old Street," I passed a reminder of a dark era in the district's past.

In the 1920s and 30s the lion's share of the temple's grounds--once occupied by gardens--were taken over by the Guomintang, famous in America as the party of Chaing Kai Shek, which fled to Taiwan when the Communists were victorious in 1949. A prison was built to intern Communists, and numerous executions were conducted there. It then became a Japanese-run civilian internment camp during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which overlapped with World War II. Today, in commemoration of those killed by the Guomintang, it is called Longhua Martyrs' Cemetery. The cemetery dwarfs the modern temple, and I walked by its south gate on my way in.

I'm told there's still a garden (though I did not see it, as it's behind the cemetery walls). The temple hosts an annual fair that dates back over three centuries (though it was interrupted by both the Cultural Revolution and the SARS epidemic), timed to coincide with the spring-time flowering of the ancient peach trees in the garden.

The pailou gate

Despite its Song-Dynasty layout (which indicates the more likely period of its actual founding), most of the temple's buildings were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The pagoda lies outside the south-facing Pailou Gate; then, in succession along the Central Axis, are the Heavenly Kings' Hall, the Buddha Hall, a hall dedicated to the Three Sages of the West, the Abbot's Room, and the Sutra library.

The pagoda stands in its own compound outside the front gate.

Along the sides are the Drum and Bell Towers on either side, slightly in front of the Heavenly Kings' Hall; a Hall of 500 Arhats and a Guanyin Hall on the left; and mainly utility rooms (Guest Office, dining hall, etc.) on the right.


Zooming In

I encountered one of Longhua's highlights before I even entered the gates. The Longhua Pagoda stands in a plaza in front of the gate, in its own small walled compound. It is the only ancient pagoda remaining in the city; while the foundations may be older, and there have been extensive repairs, the core of the current structure dates to 977. It has seven stories, and is over 132 feet tall. The exterior is octagonal, with railed balconies on every level and tinkling bells on each corner, but the interior (I'm told) is square, and is encircled by a wooden staircase which gets narrower as one ascends. Much of what we see today is a 1950s reconstruction, which also renovated much of the temple complex.

Inside the temple I was delighted to discover that there were no restrictions on photography of the statues--and what statues they are! Three collections particularly caught my eye.

A room full of 500 Arhats below the historic Buddha under a tree

The first was in the 500 Arhats Hall. We have seen a number of these in our travels together, but usually they involve life-sized statues lining the aisles of a huge building. Here, however, foot-high figures of (you guessed it!) the 500 disciples are seated on tiers around a central figure of the historic Buddha under a tree in one modest-sized room.

One of the pair of Thousand-armed Guanyins in the Guanyin Hall

The second fantastic feature was a rather peculiar Guanyin Hall. It had, not one, but two figures of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion--back to back! What's more, on the back wall there was a third life-sized Guanyin, this one in the elegant "Royal Ease" posture we learned about in Episode 088.

Numerous incarnations of Guanyin rest in clouds along the sides of the Guanyin Hall

As if this weren't enough, the side walls were sculpted into stylized clouds occupied by small figures of incarnations of Guanyin (perhaps 18 of them, one of her sacred numbers?), with other figures interspersed.

Vairochana Buddha with Samantabhadra on the left and Manjushri on the right (the elephant and lion are barely visible)

Finally, there was the main hall itself. Though labeled Daxiong Baodian ("Precious Hall of the Great Hero," a title usually reserved for the historic Buddha) its main occupant is Vairochana (my favorite Buddha), with figures of Puxian (Samantabhadra) and Wenshu (Manjushri) on either side--not in their usual riding-an-elephant-and-lion portrayals, but seated in Royal Ease.

A standing "god" and a seated arhat (who looks a lot like Colin Farrell to me)

But what made this hall really spectacular were the figures in glass cases around the sides. Starting at front-left, there are ten standing figures, not quite life-sized, of the Zhutian or "Various Gods"--half of the set. Next there are eight seated arhats before we reach the hall's rear door; then eight more arhats and ten more Zhutian before we reach the front right of the hall. That's twenty various gods, the Ershi Zhutian (二十诸天), and sixteen arhats, as we met them in Episodes 057 and 058.

The Haidao Guanyin behind the main altar (looking out the back door)

These figures are stunning enough. Now throw in the Haidao or "Sea Island" Guanyin with its panoply of figures behind the main altar, and one could spend hours in contemplation of the images in this hall.

A couple more interesting notes about this temple:

  • A Mountain Gate usually features the "two kings" Heng and Ha (see Episode 027); this one has a Laughing Buddha, normally found in the Heavenly Kings' Hall (remember, Longhua's features the more elegant Bodhisattva form of Maitreya) and, instead of a Weituo behind, there's an alabaster (maybe jade?) standing Amitoufo, holding a lotus in one hand and performing the "boon-bestowing" gesture with the other; and

  • Where we would normally find a figure of Guanyin in the Drum Tower, we've seen that here she has her own separate hall, so in her place is a very Daoist-looking figure of Qielan, who is also the Lord Guanyu of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and known to be a temple guardian.

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After lingering a bit longer around the pagoda, I found a bus and a train back to the neighborhood of my hotel--but my day wasn't finished yet!

And that, my beloveds, 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: We'll visit the elegant Kyoto suburb of Uji, and learn about a most peculiar old man at Mimuroto-ji.