Ep. 092: The Yuanming Lecture Hall

A very untempular temple in Shanghai

When is a temple not a temple? When it's an office building in the parking lot of a hotel! You'll see what I mean when we visit the Yuanming Lecture Hall in this episode of--


From lovely Longhua Temple, I took a bus back to People's Square, and then a train along Shanghai Metro Line 2 past "my" stop (where my hotel was located) to Jiangsu Road Station, just a 15-minute walk from my last destination for the day: the Yuanming Jiangtang, or "Complete Understanding" Lecture Hall.

The Yuanming Lecture Hall's street frontage

About that name: Yuan is typically "circle" and related words (circular, round, spherical, etc.). It can also indicate the fullness of the moon, or Chinese currency's shape. In the English sense of "rounding out," it can mean "to make consistent and whole." That's the sense we'll choose here. Ming (which was also the name of a dynasty) can mean "bright" or "clear," but often also means "to understand" (among many other things). So in the context of a center for studying Buddhism, let's say the name means "to round out the understanding." (A Chinese website glosses it "understanding in ten directions"--a distinction without a difference, methinks.) But we'll stick with the Chinese word Yuanming which, as usual, is more succinct.

A Temple That Is Not a Temple

I had seen a number of "temples" in Hong Kong (and one in Shenzhen) that were nothing more or less than apartment flats that had been filled with statues on draped tables. No soaring ceilings or mammoth figures; no tree-strewn courtyards, or ponds, or springs; nothing but re-purposed living space.

Statues in a Shenzhen apartment "temple"

And you know what? They worked. Imagine a location with the kitchen and restroom already completed, and enough space for the modest numbers that would be attracted to such an unspectacular facility.

The Yuanming Lecture Hall is surrounded by the Rendezvous Merry Hotel Shanghai.

The next step up, then, would be a place like Yuanming Lecture Hall.

Founded in 1934 by Master Yuanying, former abbot of Ningbo's Tiantong Temple (see Episode 082, where we encountered the Master's burial pagoda), it was meant to be a center for the advanced study of Buddhism for monks in the region. It continues this mission; in 2000, it initiated cooperative effort with Longhua Temple (see Episode 090) to launch the Hualin Buddhist College on the site.

Today, the property embraces one office-cum-entry-hall in a three-story building on the corner of Yan'an West Road and Zhenning Road; a two-story building separated from the street by a small courtyard, with a Guanyin Hall inside; and a five-story office building adjacent to the one on the corner. A slightly-larger courtyard opens up between the three buildings. Behind and surrounding the whole thing is the whimsically-named Rendezvous Merry Hotel Shanghai. (As the sign says: "Only one Shanghai in the world / Only one Rendezvous Merry Hotel in Shanghai"!)

A smaller courtyard, between the street wall and the two-story building, opens into a Guanyin Hall.

So, apartment, office, ballroom, or shipping container: a temple is just a place with some statues or other images, and "dharma activities" (whether ritual or study).

Okay, fair enough. But how, you may ask, did such a non-descript place make it onto the list of 142 Key Temples in the Han Area of China? Did I mention that Master Yuanying was also co-founder and first President of the China Buddhist Association? Not to say that its inclusion on the list was politically motivated or anything...

A Dharma Activity

Devotees gather in the larger, central courtyard for a dharma activity.

It was very late in the day when I arrived at the "temple"--so late, in fact, that it was closed. To my delight, however, there was a dharma activity (think "worship service") going on, and the crowd of devotees happily let me in.

The temple has quite a lively "dharma activity" schedule. Aside from the usual 1st- and 15th-day ceremonies--that is, on the new moon and full moon--there is also a special celebration on the 12th lunar day to commemorate Master Yuanying's birth.

But in fact, the ceremony I joined was on none of those days. Rather, it was, by coincidence, the eve of the seventh day of the seventh month, a very popular festival in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese culture, parallel to our Valentine's Day. Called Qixi ("Seven Eve") Festival or "Double Seventh," it celebrates the annual meeting of the ill-fated lovers, the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, a story dating back to the Han dynasty.

Briefly told, the weaver girl Zhinü (the star Vega) and the cowherd Niulang (the star Altair) were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (the Milky Way) because their love was forbidden. (She was actually a princess, so it was a class thing.) Once a year, on this day, a flock of magpies forms a bridge to reunite them for one night. Because of their "true identities," it's also called the Star Festival.

In any case, the number of people at the temple attested to the continuing popularity of this ancient story. They were incredibly friendly, offering me chanting books (which I couldn't read), asking where I was from (in English!), and generally making me feel at home. Although the buildings were mostly closed, and the statues weren't much, the people made the visit time well spent.

Lila and I went back a few years later, at (western) New Years 2012, and I was able to see inside the corner building, which was closed on my first visit. I never did see upstairs in any of the buildings--a shame, that, as we shall see.

The Temple Today

Let's pretend that we are walking in the "front door," on the corner, and not entering by the side gate, as I did on both of my visits.

The Weituo in the entry hall, with Mi’le Fo behind him, facing the front door

Just inside the door is a statue of Mi'le Fo, with Weituo behind him (see Episode 003). Basically just a room, with bookshelves and whatnot, it substitutes for the "Heavenly Kings' Hall" in other temples.

Moving through, we pass a set of statues of the Three Sages of the West, and turn right into a courtyard. On our left, the five-story office building is attached to the building we were just in; on our right is a two-story detached building. The elevated portion of Yan'an West Road can be seen beyond it; the Rendezvous Merry Hotel Shanghai we mentioned earlier is behind the building on the left.

A niche with Guanyin and attendants

The five-story building has a small niche containing a statue of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) with attendants; but most of the ground floor is occupied by the "main hall," a low-ceilinged room with a jade Buddha statue.

The two-story building between the street and the main hall has a statue of Mi’le Fo facing the inner courtyard (across from the main hall), and a larger hall dedicated to Guanyin facing the smaller courtyard that runs along the street wall. I have no idea what's upstairs.

The "main hall"

In fact, sadly, I have never managed to get off the ground at this place. The upstairs must contain dormitories, the dining hall, and so on, but I also heard there are some statuary halls: one dedicated to Master Yuanying, and another containing a "500 Arhat's Mountain" with moving figures. Intriguing! There is also said to be a sutra library upstairs (natch).


The walk from Yuanming Lecture Hall to Jing'an Temple Station near my hotel was about the same distance as the walk back to Jiangsu Road Station, so I strolled toward my hotel for dinner and a look at Jing'an Temple's gates before turning in for the night.

And that is indeed 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 Kyoto's ethereally beautiful Kami Daigo-ji, just a ten-mile hike over the mountain from last week's Mimuroto-ji (though of course that's not how I got there!)