Ep. 100: The Temple of the Sleeping Dragon

Wolong Temple in Xi'an

In the splendor that is Xi'an, Wolong Temple barely registers on most itineraries. Yet, it's called "the oldest temple in Shaanxi Province"! And being inside the city walls, it's quite convenient. Let's take a look in this landmark 100th episode of--


The street-side courtyard of Wolong Temple is protected by a rickety fence grill.

Wolong Temple, the name of which means "sleeping dragon," lies on an alley near the south wall, not far from the massive South Gate of the city of Xi'an and very close to the much smaller Nanshao Gate on Wenyi/Baishulin Road. We walked 20 minutes or so from Guangren Temple (see Episode 098) to West Street, took a bus to the Bell Tower and another to the South Gate, and walked another 15 minutes or so to Wolong. As we walked we passed the gate to the Stele Forest or Beilin Museum, which Lila would visit a few days later (while I paid a second visit to Wolong). As is my custom, I will treat the two visits to the Sleeping Dragon as one.


As near as I can figure, the temple claims to have been founded in the reign of Emperor Ling of the Han Dynasty (168-189), who according to Wikipedia "was not interested in state affairs and preferred to indulge in women and a decadent lifestyle." The corruption arising from his mismanagement resulted in the peasant-led Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184, the opening event in the Ming Dynasty novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

This founding date is very near when Buddhism's early history in China arises out of the mists of legend. There is some indication that it was originally located elsewhere, and moved here when the area enclosed by the city walls was reduced in size sometime after the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-979).

It was named Fuying (Accepting Fortune?) in the Sui Dynasty (581-618). In the Tang (essentially 618-907) it became Guanyin Temple, named for a notable drawing by Wu Daozi, a famous master of the time, of Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) that was housed there. It acquired its current name from Emperor Taizong of the Song (976-997)--perhaps when it was moved? "Wolong" was the nickname of a master named Weiguo, then-abbot of the temple, who apparently slept a lot!

[An aside: Auto-translation can be full of surprises. Instead of saying something like "Weiguo spent the day getting a high amount of sleep" (终日高卧, "all day long high sleep"), Google gave me, "Weiguo stayed high all day long"! Sleeping Dragon indeed!]

Wolong Temple was once one of the leading monasteries of the city, reaching its peak in the Qing Dynasty, only to be largely destroyed in the Republican Period. Rebuilt on a more modest scale beginning in 1931, it's now a relatively sleepy place (compared to other attractions inside the walls); on both of the summer days I visited, I never had to fight crowds.

The Temple Today

For centuries the temple had three courtyards side-by-side. After "Liberation" in 1949, the west courtyard became a "Funeral Management Office" (per a Chinese webpage) and the east was turned into a playground for a primary school. Today only the middle courtyard remains.

Mi'le-fo is in the Mountain Gate, not the Heavenly Kings Hall. We can tell the difference because he's flanked by…

The first thing we see as we approach Wolong Temple from the street is a simple grill fence in front of an open courtyard, with the Mountain Gate standing at the back. As with a Heavenly Kings Hall, a jolly Mi'le-fo sits in the center of the hall, with a Weituo (guardian general) behind him (see Episode 003 regarding these two). But instead of the Four Kings, this hall has statues of the two great guardians Heng and Ha (see Episode 027 about them).

…the generals Heng and Ha rather than the Four Kings. Note the similarity in style between these and the zhutian ("gods") below. They also match the Four Kings (not shown), and are all shiny and new.


Past the Mountain Gate is a second courtyard, with a hall dedicated to Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) on the left, and one for Dizang (Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva) on the right. Ordinarily, these two would be housed in a Drum and Bell Tower, respectively, in this location, but no instruments were in sight. These are just halls. The two towers, in fact, are a little further along , on either side of the next hall.

Unusually, Qielan (known as Guan Yu in history, and Guan Di in Daoism) presides among the Four Heavenly Kings, instead of the usual Mi'le-Fo, whom we saw in the previous hall.

At the rear of this courtyard is the Four Heavenly Kings Hall (flanked by the two towers), but, unusually, Qielan (who is also the historical figure Guan Yu) was placed in the center, and another statue of Weituo behind him. That makes six guardian figures in the one hall! Along either side of the courtyard are the traditional etchings of the Sixteen Arhats (eight on a side), who, as we shall see, are missing from the main hall.

Etchings of the Sixteen Arhats line the second courtyard, eight to a side.


The Daxiong Baodian stands at the back of a leafy courtyard.

The third courtyard was tree-filled and has a Patriarch's Hall on the left, and offices on the right. At the rear is the Daxiong Baodian, the "Precious Hall of the Great Hero" dedicated to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha.

Finishing touches are being added to the brand-new zhutian.

On our late August/early September 2009 visit, an amazing set of the 24 zhutian ("gods") were being painted in place. (History in the making!) Many of these figures are from Indian tradition, including the gods Brahma and Indra. It was interesting to watch the artists at work. The modern look of the statues matches that of Heng and Ha in the first hall, as well as the Four Kings in the second.

The five figures on the main altar are not yet painted; the ones in front serve as substitutes until they're ready to take over.

Five primed-but-not-painted figures sat on the main altar, from left to right: a small standing figure of the Buddha's attendant Ananda; Puxian (Samantabhadra) on an elephant; the Shakyamuni Buddha; Wenshu (Manjushri) on a lion; and a small standing figure of Kashyapa, the Buddha's other attendant. A "jade" Buddha sat in front of all, with bronze figures of the two Bodhisattvas on either side, probably serving as substitutes until the larger figures were painted and their "eyes opened" (they were dedicated). (All of these figures are discussed in Episode 002.)


Multiple Dizangs rescue the dead from hell.

In the fourth-and-last courtyard (also filled with trees), an unnamed hall on the left holds figures of more Dizangs, who vowed to save all beings from "hell," with memorial tablets for deceased loved ones on the walls.

The Guanyin in the Great Compassion Hall and panels depicting her benevolent actions

A "Great Compassion" Hall in the very center of the courtyard has a statue of a Thousand-Armed Guanyin, and beautiful painted panels on the walls telling stories of how she has rescued people. And a hall for Yaoshi Fo, the "Medicine Buddha" holding his usual pagoda, stands on the right of the courtyard. Many helpers gathered together!

The wooden fish and flat gong are usually used to call the monks to meals, but there doesn't seem to be a dining hall nearby.

Two more large, unmarked halls stand on either side of the courtyard, in line with the two just mentioned. Having not seen any residence or dining halls, I wondered if that's what these were. (Though there was a wooden fish and flat gong, signs of a dining hall, in a shelter up near the office, there didn't seem to be dining facilities near there; and there may indeed have been some buildings on either side of the main compound, vestiges of the former east or west compounds, especially near the rear of the temple.)

The jade Buddha statue in the Dharma Hall

At the back of this courtyard is a dharma hall, housing a fine jade statue of an Earth-Touching Buddha with bronze statues of his attendants Ananda and Kashyapa.


And that's about that! The temple was obviously in the midst of dramatically upgrading its statuary in some fairly-new looking buildings. I wouldn't mind seeing what it looks like now! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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