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Saturday, December 2, 2017

The First Temple Under Heaven

I recently wrote about the Tianningsi pagoda, not a 10 minute walk eastbound from Beijing West station. A mere 10 minutes walk away, almost due north of Tianningsi is another temple that is also surely worthy of inspection.

The White Cloud Temple ( 白雲觀 – Bái Yún Gùan, or literally White Cloud Compound) is one of "The Three Great Ancestral Courts" of the Quanzhen School of Taoism, and was first established in 793 AD during the Tang dynasty.
Initially it was known as Tianchang Abbey (天長觀 – Abbey of Celestial Perpetuity) but after Beijing was captured by the Mongols in 1215, the abbey was taken over by the Quanzhen patriarch Qiu Chuji, and became the headquarters of the Quanzhen movement until the establishment of the Ming dynasty.
Qiu renamed the abbey Changchun Gong (長春宮 – Palace of Eternal Spring). This Qiu fellow, it turns out, was pretty well regarded and in October 1222, he gave an exposition of Taoism to Genghis Khan. Qiu's successor built a memorial shrine over Qiu's grave which became a temple in its own right called White Cloud Temple. Today it is a fully functioning temple and is the seat of the Chinese Taoist Association.
The temple is fronted by a magnificent peifang, or archway, and its buildings are laid out around three parallel axes in several courtyards.
Taoism is a religion home-grown in China. It goes back some 1,800 years, so it is nearly as old as Christianity. It originated from various practices which attempted to achieve immortality during the Qin (221-207 BC) and Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) dynasties.
Laozi, the Chinese philosopher, is the chief deity and is honoured as Taishanglaojun (or ‘Lord the Most High’). Taoists believe that Tao (the Way) – Laozi's school of thought – is all-embracing and includes everything, including the sky and the earth. They also believe they can attain longevity and become one with the Tao through special practices of meditation.
In order to become a Taoist priest, novices first had to spend three years living in a temple. Only after this could they be ordained. The ordination was extremely harsh. Each novice had to undergo 100 days of brutal training that sometimes resulted in death. Nowadays, this has been reduced to 53 days, and is not nearly as dangerous. If they got through this training period, they had exams on Taoist classics, poetry and precepts. Afterwards, successful novices were ordained as full Taoist priests.
The Centre of the Chinese Taoist Association, founded in 1958, is located next door to the temple.
The White Cloud Temple is not only the biggest Taoist temple in Beijing, but is also known for its annual Spring Festival ‘temple fair’ which usually starts from Chinese New Year's Day and lasts for 18 days – the longest temple fair in the city.
Around the walls you can see prettily carved stone reliefs, such as this one with a preponderance of lotus flowers. There are also three monkeys depicted in other relief sculptures around the temple. It is said that the monkey is the incarnation of a god; thus, visitors to it always touch the monkey for good luck. The monkeys can be found on the front gateway and the other two in the first courtyard.
Like most other Chinese temples, the White Cloud Temple is laid out on a north-south axis, a bit like a Buddhist temple, with the entrance at the south end. There are five main halls, which house the gods of Taoism, built upon the main axis beginning with the Main Gate, a pool, a bridge, Yuhuang Hall (玉皇殿), Laolü Hall (老律堂), Qiuzu Hall (丘祖殿) and finally the Sanqing Hall (三清殿). On either side of the main axis are two smaller axes, each containing halls dedicated to a variety of lesser deities. In the rear of the complex is a garden which hosts the abbey’s ordination platform.
The middle section includes the main buildings which contain over 50 halls, spanning an area of about 2 hectares. You enter the grounds through a gate in the outside wall which has three portals, delicately engraved with clouds, cranes, and flowers.
Yuhuang Hall (玉皇殿 – the Jade Emperor Hall) was first built in 1661, and was rebuilt in 1788. It is three bays long with a gabled roof, and is flanked by drum and bell towers. (The Jade Emperor is the master of all deities and presides over the heaven, the earth and the nether world, just in case you are not fully clued up on your deities!). He also controls all happiness and disasters. Paintings on the wall were drawn during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and are SO cute!
Beyond the gate is a single-span stone bridge named Wofeng Bridge (Wofeng means stopping the wind).
Walking across the bridge, Lingguan Hall is the next hall that you see. It houses Wang Lingguan, the guarding deity of Taoism. The wooden statue of the god was sculptured during the Ming Dynasty, and is about 1.2 meters high.
As this is a fully operational temple, you won’t be surprised to see loads of incense burners and the air is thick with pungent smells.
Naturally with so much incense being burned, the authorities are highly safety conscious especially where ‘firo’ is concerned, and you don’t have to look very far before you find a ‘firo extiguishor’ box.
Next up is Laolu Hall (老律堂means Hall of Commandments), which was originally named Qizhen Hall (Qizhen refers to seven people, as it’s the place where the seven disciples of the founder of the Quanzhen Sect of Taoism are worshipped).
The hall has the same design as the Yuhuang Hall (maybe they had a shortage of budding architects in those days) and was first built in 1456. The monks hold twice-daily prayers here and it is also where ordination certificates are issued. I’m led to believe that it is also the place where people gather to chant Taoist sutras. But I’m a bit rusty on my sutras, so I decide not to join in.
In the temple are some 30 Taoist priests, who wear blue-black robes and have long hair which is tied up and held in place with a headband.
It is said that Qiu Chuji comes back to the human world to meet fated persons, which is why there are always so many candles burning (yet another ‘firo extiguishor’ box).
In Laolu Hall there are also seven statues of Taoist saints, including one of Qiu. There’s also a drum dating from the Ming Dynasty with a dragon painted on the leather drumhead.
The Qiuzu Hall (丘祖殿) was originally built to enshrine Qiu, and was first built in 1228. Every year on the 19th day of the first lunar month a festival is held at the abbey in celebration of his birthday. It was believed that Qiu would return to earth as an immortal on this day.
At the centre of the hall is a huge wooden bowl made of the knotted root of a tree and which was given to the temple by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). After Qiu’s death, his ashes were buried under the bowl.
Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside the hall, so I couldn’t snap this relic…
But there are some nicely carved wooden reliefs on the side walls (oh… did my finger press the camera key? How clumsy of me!)
Only one of the halls in this temple complex has two floors.
In front of it is a gilded copper incense burner, which was cast in the Ming Dynasty and is delicately engraved with 43 dragons. These dragons are obviously a big hit with the visitors as they all are really shiny where they have been stroked by passers-by.
The West and East sections of the temple have even more halls where yet more gods – such as they who master the changing of the weather are worshiped. But it’s really cold today so I decide not to worship the weather god and instead cast my covetous eyes on some artificial peonies that would look splendid in my apartment. A snip at 30 kuai each? Well, maybe not this time…
Baiyunguan Temple is located at 6 Baiyunguan Jie, Xibianmenwai which is about 1,500 metres southeast of Muxidi subway station on Line 1

Sunday, November 5, 2017

iPhone Frustration Tempered By Autumnal Leaves

There are times when I despair of my iPhone. Yes, I know, it’s wonderful and incredible and everything you could possibly want from a phone; but apart from its appalling battery consumption, there are times when I also take issue with its Maps app.
Now don’t get me wrong. My life was transformed in Beijing when I discovered that simply by clicking on your destination it came up with all kinds of useful advice like which buses or trains to take, which way to walk, likely travelling times and so on. In fact it’s so good I have come to rely on it.
And that’s not so great when it gets things wrong, as it does every so often.
Take this week as an example. I decided I wanted to visit Cishou Temple, to see its pagoda – similar to the one I visited a week before at Tianning Temple.
Wikipedia assures me that “The Pagoda of Cishou Temple (Chinese: 慈寿寺塔; pinyin: Císhòu Sì Tǎ), originally known as Yong'anwanshou Pagoda (Chinese: 永安万寿塔; pinyin: Yǒng'ān Wànshòu Tǎ), is a 16th-century stone and brick Chinese pagoda located in the Buddhist Cishou Temple of Balizhuang, a suburb of Beijing, China.”
I look up Cishou Temple on my iPhone and am told all I have to do is to take Line 6/10 to Cishousi station and it is a mere 25 metres away from the exit. What could be simpler?
Sure enough, when I leave the train, I am met with the relief mural on the wall of the ticket hall:
(Looking up web images has already let me know that the pagoda I am after is the one on the right in the light brown colour!)
Alas, when I actually leave the station itself, I discover that there are hoardings as far as the eye can see in both directions. There is certainly no way I can walk the 25 metres that my iPhone insists is all I need to do.
So I decide that as there is a road going northbound, a mere 50 metres away, I will try to circumvent the hoardings and find a rear entrance to the pagoda site. I walk, and I walk, and I walk, past a bus station... until eventually what do I see in the distance from whence I have come, but… a pagoda!
I am eventually to discover, when I finally do get to the pagoda, that the map has a mere nine minutes walking error from where it says I should go.
Anyway, eventually I find the park where the pagoda is actually situated. (I note that the powers that be have their priorities in order. The first signpost tells you where the nearest loo is; whereas the pagoda, that I had assumed is what everyone has come to see, is actually the last in the list.)
Welcome to Linglong Park.
Or is it?
According to this notice in the park itself, it is actually called Lengong Park…
But there again, it also has the pagoda listed as Lenggong Tower…
Although another notice, right beside it, has it written as Linglong (just as on the iMap).
Confused? Well, I’m an avid fan of notices put up in Chinese public parks. And on this occasion I am not to be disappointed.
Reading the small print, I see that I am restrained (restrained?) from “spitting, urinating defecating and littering casually”. I’m not sure if that means I should spit, urinate, defecate and litter carefully (it doesn’t say) but I don’t feel the inclination to do any of those, though I will certainly keep this instruction in mind the next time I come here.
Regardless of what Wikipedia has just told me (that the “pagoda [is] located in the Buddhist Cishou Temple of Balizhuang”) it quite clearly is not, as the map at the entrance to Linglong / Lengong / Lenggong Park makes quite clear.
But it’s such a beautiful day, with the autumnal leaves already turning, so who am I to be a pedant?
I make my way in the direction of the pagoda. Straight ahead of me on the far side of a pool, that is being used by kids to sail their model powerboats round and round in circles, stands the magnificent spectacle that I have come to see.
My iPhone reminds me that Balizhuang, where I am now standing means Eight Li Village (Li being a measurement of distance); and the former name of Yong'anwanshou Pagoda means Pagoda of Lasting Peace and Longevity. Its newer name of Cishou Pagoda means Pagoda of Benevolence and Longevity. But then, what’s in a name, as Shakespeare reminded us?
Cishou Temple was built in 1576 during the Ming Dynasty on the orders of the mother of Emperor Zhuyi. It was allegedly an imitation of the pagoda at Tianning Temple, though it was built on a larger scale. The temple buildings were destroyed during the Qing Dynasty, and the pagoda is all that remains. (Huh! So much for Wiki!)
There’s a model of what the original temple looked like, sat under a glass pyramid to protect it from the weather.
There’s even a map of the complex etched into a metal notice board beside the ‘pyramidised’ model.
Just like the one at Tianning, it is octagonal, solid, and over fifty metres tall with thirteen tiers of eaves.
(Did you know that pagodas traditionally have an odd number of levels, a notable exception being the eighteenth century pagoda ‘folly’ designed by Sir William Chambers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in southwest London.)
Just like at Tianning, the base is in the form of a Sumeru pedestal and is decorated with relief sculptures of Buddha, flying apsarases, vajra guardians, archways, lotus petals and the Eight Treasures. The most impressive ornamental sculptures on the upper part of the pedestal are musical instruments, and if you look carefully you can make out sheng, xiao, qin, se, yunban, gongs, drums and flutes – at least that’s what all the copy-and-paste web sites would have us believe.
Fake archways decorate the four sides facing north, south, east and west; the other four sides have false windows. Carved on the headpiece of the arches are cloud and dragon patterns. The windows are decorated with little statues of seated Buddhas and cloud patterns. Relief sculptures of bodhisattvas flank the windows.
Having now crossed off this pagoda from my list of things to see, it’s time to head towards the ‘flowers zone’; but we are already late in the year and there’s precious little in the way of flowers to be seen.
But it doesn’t matter as now the autumnal colours are truly magnificent. So I stroll around the no-flowers-left zone’.
In the northern reaches of the park is a small lake, beautifully reflecting the turning trees in its still water.
And rounding another corner is a clear view of the top of the TV tower, which can’t be more than a couple of kilometres away.
Apart from the public loos that the signboards keep trying to entice me with, there’s only one thing left to see, and that’s Locomotive Square.
When I get there, there’s an old steam train parked on a set of old rails going nowhere. Trying to use my Google image translator in the strong sunlight proves to be a match for my little iPhone, but from what I can make out, this train is a Liberation Class loco.
Once home I search the web and discover the following: The China Railways JF1 (解放1, Jiěfàng, "liberation") class steam locomotive was a class of 2-8-2 steam locomotives for freight trains operated by the China Railway. They were originally built in the United States, Japan and Manchukuo between 1918 and 1945 for the South Manchuria Railway.
This one was built in 1937. The JF1 class became the mainstay for freight operations, lasting in mainline service until 1996, whilst some in industrial service actually remained operational into this century. The JF1 remained in production until 1960, with a total of 455 being built post-war. At least nine have been preserved, including five in Beijing.
Why this JF1 ended up here is anyone’s guess; but I suppose it had to go somewhere, and here is as good a place as any, I reckon.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Why is this temple so little known?

It has to be one of Beijing’s best kept secrets. Mention Tianning Temple (天宁寺) to many people, and they haven’t a clue what you are talking about, let alone know where it is. It’s actually a Buddhist temple complex located near Guang'anmen in Xicheng District.

Its importance lies in the fact that it’s one of the most (if not the most) ancient above-ground buildings preserved in Beijing. Another reason for visiting it is its 12th-century octagonal pagoda, which was built over two decades from around 1100 to 1120, during the reign of Emperor Tianzuo of the Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125), shortly before it was conquered by the Jin dynasty.
The predecessor of Tianning Temple was Guanglin Temple, which had been built during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534 AD). Originally constructed in wood, the pagoda was destroyed by a wartime conflagration at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) and was subsequently repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. It had a number of names such as Hongye Tianning Temple, Tianwang Temple and Dawan’anchan Temple, until it got its present name in 1435.
Those in the know – such as historian and celebrated Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (1901 – 1972)— have lauded the pagoda of Tianning Temple as a ‘pristine architectural design of antiquity’. Gosh!
It’s a pretty attractive temple as temples go; and it’s still very much a working temple with monks and nuns all over the place, with visitors coming to pray at many of the shrines.
Whether these drying vegetables were for selling to hungry visitors, or were destined for the monks’ cooking pot later that day, I’m not sure. But it certainly makes good use of superfluous old clothes hangars.
In the courtyard in front of the Great Hero Hall is a nicely embossed bell (nothing particularly outstanding when you compare it with some of the bells in Dazhong Temple, but don’t let that detract from it).
The Great Hero Hall is where believers come to make their offerings to Amitabha Buddha.
The statue is 5.8m high and is made from Golden Silk nanmu (楠木) which, according to Wiki is a type of wood that was frequently used for boat building, architectural woodworking and wood art in China. The trees that produce nanmu wood are evergreens that have a long straight trunk which grows to 35 metres in height and one metre in diameter. The wood is very knotty and doesn’t react to humidity and temperature much so it tends not to get warped or cracked because of changes in climate.
A plaque outside the hall tells us that “the lotus throne is 1.1m high and the stone throne is also 1.1m. So the total height is 13 metres.” Errr… hang on… 5.8 + 1.1 + 1.1 makes 8 according to my maths. Maybe I’m missing something!
We are also told that Amitabha Buddha represents boundless light and infinite life. Therefore it is also known as Amitayus Buddha, he being the sovereign teacher of the Western Pure Land Sukhavati.
OK. I’m sure I feel better for knowing that.
“If you seek wisdom, prolonged life and blessedness, then please pay homage to Amitayus Buddha,” the instructions continue.
Now, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that no one likes a ‘smart ass’; and who wants to be ancient, anyway? So I see a problem ahead of me. Blessedness might be all very nice, but how do you pay only a third of the necessary homage to Amitayus?
I head on towards the pagoda. At 57.8 metres high, and with 13 stories, it is made of brick and stone, yet imitates the design of wooden-constructed pagodas from the era by featuring ornamental dougongs, or bracket supports.
It rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of the pagoda taking on the shape of a sumeru pedestal, decorated with carved arch patterns. (A sumeru was the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology.)
The pagoda also features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid without stairs inside or out as is often found in other pagodas. It is said that its design inspired that of later pagodas, such as the similar Ming Dynasty era pagoda of Cishou Temple near the western end of Line 6, that was built in 1576 (the temple, that is… not the subway station!).
Three layers of huge lotus petals, carved on the pedestal, support the first storey of the pagoda. On four sides of the first storey, facing the four principal compass directions, there are relief sculptures of heavenly guardians and arched gates. The pedestal is divided into six shrines by short columns, and features carved lion heads, lotus, warriors (vajrapanibalin) flexing their bulging muscles, bodhisattvas, and so on. The eaves diminish in size as they progress upward.
The pagoda itself rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of it taking on the shape of a sumeru (the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology) pedestal. The pagoda features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid with no hollow inside or staircase as some pagodas feature.
Tianning Temple acted as the depository for treasured Buddhist artefacts on the instructions of Emperor Wendi of the short-lived (581 – 618) Sui dynasty. (The Sui unified the North and South and reinstalled the rule of ethnic Han Chinese in the entirety of China proper. It also spread and encouraged Buddhism throughout the empire.)
Wendi built a pagoda in each of his 30 states to store the relics, which were deposited inside the pagodas in 602 AD.
And that explains why modern day believers walk around the pagoda, according to the instructions carved in stone: “Circumambulating the pagoda clockwise, we wish all living creatures would never go against the heavenly principle and therefore be equipped with great wisdom. We wish that karmic obstacles be annihilated, bliss and wisdom be ameliorated, health be maintained and dreams be realised.
I feel somewhat out of place standing taking photos as believers circumambulate, but as most of them then take out their iPhones after getting back to their starting point and then snap away in front of the pagoda, I don’t feel so bad!
As mentioned above, the structure and ornamentation have remained basically the same since it was built; but in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake caused the original pearl-shaped steeple of the pagoda to collapse. It has since been restored, and the temple grounds surrounding it have also been renovated and rebuilt. The entire temple grounds were closed for many months during the restoration, and work continues even now that the temple complex is once again open to the public.
Getting up real close to the base, you get a detailed worm’s eye view of the saints on display. I hesitate when I call them saints, but as two brass plaques nearby explain, they are certainly described as such.
In fact there are two little halls dedicated to six of them – the Three Saints of both the East and the West. In the hall dedicated to the Saints of the East, you get to meet Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, Bodhisattva Sunlight and Bodhisattva Moonlight. “If you seek favoured fortune or hope to reduce evil karma, then please pay homage to Bhaishajyaguru Buddha”, we are told.
The three Saints of the West refer to Amitabha Buddha (he was the guy we met earlier in the Great Hero Hall), Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Amitabha, you’ll remember, represents infinite life; Avalokiteshvara represents mercy and Mahasthamaprapta represents wisdom.
So now I know.
I head on out of the complex the way I had come. It’s been a very pleasant half hour.
And a word to the wise, if you turn left immediately on leaving the main gate, there is a lovely little flower market that will take you all of three minutes to walk around.
To reach Tianning Temple, take subway Line 2 to Changchunjie exit D1, then walk westbound about a kilometre to Tianningsiqiao. Cross over onto the west side of the second ring road; then walk south and take the second turn to the right. You will see the pagoda sticking out above the residential blocks from some way off.