Ep. 098: A Touch of Tibet in Old Chang'an

The first Tibetan-style temple I ever visited

I got home from the first leg of my "Chinese Pilgrimage" on August 26, 2009, and four days later I was standing in one of China's highest-rated tourist destinations, the Terracotta Army that is part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. In just four short days (not counting the days flying to and from) we would visit this AAAAA site as well as four temples from my list, the first of which we'll see in this episode of--


Xpectacular Xi'an

The modern city of Xi'an is actually one of the oldest cities in China, and--with Beijing, Nanjing, and Luoyang--Chang'an (its then-name) was one of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China." It was the capital that presided over the "Glorious Tang" Dynasty (618-907), as well as nearly a dozen others. You can circumambulate the central core of the city in a half-day (faster if you rent a bike!); it's surrounded by an "ancient" (but largely reconstructed) city wall. Marvel at the Bell Tower, where the two main streets cross, or the Drum Tower on West Street, where you can also wander through the Muslim Quarter, home of the first mosque built in China.

The Mountain Gate of Guangren Temple, with Tibetan stupas and prayer flags. You can just make out the deer-and-wheel on the roof.

For The Temple Guy, of course, the attraction is the temples--four listed ones inside or very near the walls, and four farther outside, as well as numerous small temples of less interest to tourists but of great interest to templers. See Episode 047 for a visit to some of these related to the life of Kukai, a Japanese monk who studied there during the Tang.

The region surrounding the city has long been a focus of imperial activity, with ancient temples, ruined palaces, and emperors' tombs. Among the last of these is the world-renowned burial place of the Qin emperor (after whose name we call China) with its guards-of-clay, the Terracotta Warriors.

Qin's Army

Ho-hum. Just another humungous terracotta army.

I first got wind of the warriors when some of them came to Los Angeles for a visit in the '80s. I even bought a poster of one of them in the museum shop, and framed and hung it in my house for years. But never did I ever expect that I would be taking a bus 25 miles outside the city of Xi'an to see these guys in situ.

And frankly, I still wouldn't have seen them if Lila hadn't come along on this trip--and insisted. I've since been in Beijing without seeing the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum, or the tourist-y section of the Great Wall; in Chengdu and not seen pandas; and in Shanghai without going up in the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. When I'm on the temple trail, I don't have time for tourism.

But by golly I saw those warriors and--meh.

Let me tell you that I seem to be alone in this evaluation. Folks are wowed by it--4.6 stars out of 5 in 2,903 Google reviews, a rating of "Excellent." I was bored. I have been to a dozen AAAAA attractions in China, and seen a couple more from my taxi window, and this was by far not the greatest of them. It's a World Heritage Site and all, but...

More interesting to me than the sight was the story. From time immemorial bits and pieces of terracotta figures and pieces of brick and tile had turned up in the area around the hill believed to house Emperor Qin's tomb. But in 1974, about a mile east of the site, a bunch of farmers were digging a well and came up with an intact terracotta head. They pulled out some ancient weapons and pieces of more broken warriors, gave them to some "cultural workers" in the local cultural relics protection department, and went on with their business, unaware of the significance of their find.

It wasn't until some journalist, who had come to visit local relatives and somehow witnessed the restoration work on the artifacts, that the central government was informed of the discovery, and excavation began nearly three months after the discovery. The thousands of men and horses in the necropolis are now known to comprise the largest pottery figurine group ever found.

When we visited in 2012, one of the old farmers was still on hand to greet visitors, having become something of an international celebrity.

Some factoids:

  1. These things were in fragments, and have been meticulously glued together (and sometimes had pieces filled in); it takes three experts about a half-year to completely restore one warrior.

  2. The originals were vividly painted.

  3. This was a humane innovation, substituting the clay soldiers for the old practice of "retainer sacrifice," as practiced in Egypt and elsewhere, where household retainers, guards, wives, concubines et al were killed to go with the king when he died. Nice.

Anyway, that was Day 1 of our serious touring.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan prayer wheels along the front of Guangren's main hall. (Note the Tibetan-style illustrations on the wood panels below.)

Let me say a word here about Tibetan Buddhism and its relation to the more common strain of Mahayana Buddhism found in China. I have never been to Tibet, but took one course in Tibetan Buddhism in my (never-completed) study for a PhD in Buddhism, and have visited several Tibetan-style temples in the ethnically Han (not Tibetan) area of China.

We typically say that Buddhism comes in two flavors: the Mahayana or "Great Vehicle," typically found in East Asia; and the Theravada or "Way of the Elders" more common in South and Southeast Asia (see Episode 028 for the difference between these two). In this binary model, the kind of Buddhism found in Tibet--sometimes called "Vajrayana" or the "Diamond (or Thunderbolt) Vehicle"--is just a variation on the Mahayana.

Yes--and no. While there are strong similarities, some of the elements are radically different, and at their root the very belief in the use of secret gestures, jargon, and practices--called Mudra, Mantra, and Meditation--set it off as a distinct third division. Likewise, Tibetan Buddhism has a separate history, and thus you will find figures in Tibetan temples not usually found elsewhere.

An uber-scary Tibetan-style temple guardian, shot through a crack in the closed door of a hall containing several of them

In a nutshell, Mahayana Buddhism went west out of India and around the Himalayas and through Central Asia (the "Stans") via the "Silk Road" (actually a network of roads) into China, while what became Tibetan Buddhism crossed over the Himalayas directly (through Nepal) to Lhasa. It was only later, with the interaction of the two nations, that the two mingled to some extent. (Xi'an, by the way, has been thought of as the "end" of the Silk Road, though a lot of traffic passed right on through, some of it all the way to Japan!)

And so, like apes and men, it is not that one of these was derived from the other, but that the two sprang from the same root.

Now, there is a political aspect to this. China's claim is that "Tibet is now and always has been a part of China." My studies tell me that is not true. What is true is that, at least since the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279), China's destiny and Tibet's have been inextricably intertwined, because the Yuan emperors were Mongols, and if you look at it just right, Mongolia and Tibet are two aspects of one culture.

I'll leave it at that, but this is important background for understanding the temple we are about to visit.

Guangren Temple, the Temple for Spreading Benevolence

Because we were staying just west of North Street, and Guangren Temple is located smack dab inside the northwest corner of the city wall, we were able to walk from our hotel to the temple in just 15 minutes or so on our second morning in town, taking pictures along the way.

The first thing that tells us we've strayed outside of strictly-Chinese Buddhism is the striking row of eight white stupas along the front wall outside the temple's main gate, symbolizing the "eight great merits of Shakyamuni," with Tibetan-style prayer flags flying over them.

The buildings and the layout were more Chinese-y, but with exotic touches that seemed to be more of an afterthought, a sort of "Tibetan facelift" of painted panels on the walls and so on.

The Mountain Gate is just a gate, not a hall. A pair of deer face an eight-spoked wheel on the roof; the wheel represents the Buddha's first sermon, called the "Turning of the Wheel of Dharma" (the eight spokes allude to the "Noble Eightfold Path"). The deer remind us that that sermon took place in the "Deer Park" in the city of Sarnath. This is a common roof ornamentation in Tibetan-style temples. A 20-foot high "spirit wall" stands 33 feet wide just inside the gate--unusual, in that they are usually outside.


Left to right: The stele pavilion, screen wall, and the back of the Mountain Gate

Immediately behind that is a pretty little eight-sided stele pavilion housing a seventeen-foot tall (you guessed it!) stele written by Qing Emperor Kangxi, who issued the temple's founding edict in 1703. Guangren was built as a way station for high-level lamas traveling along the Silk Road between China's northwest and the capital in Beijing. It was fully restored in 1952, and was again upgraded and expanded in 2006.

The stele from Qing Emperor Kangxi. Note the Tibetan-style painting on the ceiling.

The Qing were Manchus, another ethnic group like the Yuan/Mongolians related to Tibetans. You may recall that in Episode 041, when we visited the Qing's summer resort in Chengde, we discussed the Qing tolerance of multiple ethnicities, and promotion of harmony between all groups.

The octagonal "free life ponds" supposedly look like the eyes of a dragon (represented by the temple's buildings) from above.

Viewed from above, the temple is said to resemble a stretched-out, sleeping dragon (in fact, Wolong, meaning "sleeping dragon," was the name of the temple we would visit that afternoon!). In a courtyard behind the stele pavilion, the two octagonal "free life ponds" (ostensibly for releasing captive animals) constitute the two "eyes" of the dragon. There's a drum tower on the left and a bell tower on the right of this courtyard.

The huge Thousand Armed Guanyin (right); on the left are the Heavenly Kings, two to a side, with a Maitreya in front of one pair and Weituo in front of the other.

Next comes a peculiarly laid-out Heavenly Kings Hall, the tallest hall in the temple. (In keeping with the "sleeping dragon" theme, the temple halls are higher in the front, starting here, and slope down to the rear, like a dragon's back; this is the opposite of most temples, where the buildings get higher as you go.) Typically, a Heavenly Kings Hall would have a Maitreya ("Laughing Buddha") in the center, with a statue of Weituo (a sort of general) standing back-to-back with him, and the Four Kings for which the hall is named standing in each corner.

Instead, here, a huge, beautiful thousand-armed Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) with a Buddha springing out of her ornate crown and a third eye, stands in the center; she's "the largest statue of the Thousand-Hand Guanyin in Shaanxi." (Wow!) The four kings are ranged against the back wall, two on each side of the door. A small Maitreya sits in front of the two on the left, and a Weituo in front of the two on the right. I have never seen such a layout before or since. A typical Tibetan "Wheel of Life" mandala image hangs outside, on the back wall of this hall.


The "Ten Thousand Year Oil Lamp" is just a huge vat full of oil.

The next courtyard behind the Heavenly Kings Hall is shaded by trees. A very small pavilion in the center, called the "10,000 Year Oil Lamp Pavilion," contains a cauldron-sized oil lamp. On the left stands a "Longevity Hall," a common name for a hall housing Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, among several other statues; across the way is a hall dedicated to the "Dharma Protectors," very scary, nearly demonic-looking, Tibetan figures.

The Green Tara on the main altar of the Central Hall

The temple's "Central Hall" has forty prayer wheels mounted around it. Turning one of these is like completing the recitation of the mantra written on the drum, Om Mani Pad Mi Hum: "Hail, the Jewel in the Lotus!" The hall is dedicated to the "Green Tara," with Wenshu (Manjushri) and Puxian (Samantabhadra) on the left and right. This is said to be the only temple in China in which the Green Tara takes center place, making this her "headquarters." In Vajrayana, she's a female Buddha (hence her place on the main altar here); in Mahayana she's a Bodhisattva, like an incarnation of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara). All are decidedly Tibetan in appearance.


A very Tibetan-looking God of Wealth

The next courtyard has, on the left, a hall dedicated to Guan Gong (called in Buddhism Qielan), another temple protector who is widely venerated by business people for prosperity; and on the right, a suitably extravagant hall for Cai Shen, the Chinese God of Wealth. (Tibet, I read, has five such gods; in this one courtyard we seem to have two!)

Master Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug-pa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, surrounded by 10,000 small statues of the Buddha

At the rear of this courtyard is the Thousand Buddhas Hall, the third main hall of the temple. In the center we find the Tibetan Master Tsongkhapa with two of his disciples, surrounded, as advertised, by a thousand small Buddha statues. Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was one of Tibet's foremost religious philosophers, and founder of the Gelug-pa or Yellow Hat sect of lamas (the Dalai Lama's sect). No "Lama" temple in China is complete without an image of him somewhere.


A small, pleasant courtyard behind this one is anchored by what was at the time the last hall of the temple, a sutra repository. They say that in the old days, the Panchen Lama used to stay in rooms to the right of this courtyard, and the Dalai Lama opposite, when traveling from Lhasa to Beijing. A banner on a wall next to the courtyard--as well as the temple diagram--indicated that there would soon be one more hall behind this one, a "Precious Hall of the Great Hero" against the back wall. I imagine it's finished by now!

The statue of the 12-year-old Buddha on the left, and Princess Wenchang, who took the statue's original to Tibet (they say) on the right

For the time, though, the Buddha was represented in the sutra repository by a most unusual figure: a life-sized statue of the 12-year-old Shakyamuni. There are said to be only two such in the world, the other being in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa--which was brought there by the lady we will meet next. This one, I guess, is a replica of that one. The merit of seeing this statue, they say, is the same as seeing Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Lucky me!

Next to this figure is one of the niece of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, Princess Wencheng, who in 640 married a Tibetan king named Songtsen Gampo, founder of the Tibetan Empire. It was she who brought the statue of the 12-year-old Buddha to Tibet. Tradition says that she and the king's other wife, from Nepal, introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan region. Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, they say, was built to house the 12-year-old Buddha statue and another brought by the Nepali wife. (Though history does seem to indicate that Buddhism was introduced to Tibet about this time, it seems to have come directly from India, via Sanskrit documents.)

Also honored in this temple is Wang Zhaojun, known as one of the "Four Great Beauties" of China. She was sent along the Silk Road to marry the chief of the Xiongnu (perhaps what we call "Huns") in China's far west.


Easily lost among the splendors of Xi'an's more spectacular sights, this cozy temple was an unexpected and pleasurable find.

And that's about 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: Let's visit another "Three-Well Temple," this one on the shores of Lake Biwa and at the foot of Mount Hiei in Shiga Prefecture, Japan.