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The legends and spirit of Buddhism thrive on high: Shanghai

Putuo Mountain is a sacred site of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin).

Putuo Mountain is a sacred site of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin).

Putuo Mountain, a small island southeast of Shanghai, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site that has been attracting worshippers for thousands of years.

It is known as the “Buddhist kingdom on the sea.”

The legend behind the site dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when a Japanese monk, Hui’e, studying Buddhism in China was attracted to a statute of the bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), the goddess of mercy, compassion, kindness and love, at the Fahua Temple on Wutai Mountain in inland Shanxi Province. He finally secured the abbot’s permission to transport the statue back to Japan to help popularize the religion there.

On the trip, his boat was wracked by storms, fog and countless iron lotus flowers on the surface of the sea near the Zhoushan Islands in Zhejiang Province. The stunned monk took it as a sign from Guanyin that she didn’t want to go to Japan. According to the legend, a giant iron bull appeared and carved a path through the sea by swallowing the lotus. The path led to a cave near an estuary on Putuo Mountain.

The monk managed to get the statue on shore, where a fisherman was so awed by her presence that he gave his house over to her. The house became a temple known as Bukenqu Guanyin Yuan, which literally translates as “Refusing to Go Guanyin Temple.”

Putuo Mountain is one of the “Four Great Buddhist Mountains of China.” Today, on this 13-square-kilometer island, more than 200 temples and nunneries exist. Buddhist believers travel from afar to seek the mercy of Guanyin, even dating back to olden times when the sea voyage could be treacherous.

The original Bukenqu Temple, rebuilt in 1980, retains its former look. It has three simple halls surrounded by a yellow wall. It stands as a monument to the idea that faith doesn’t need luxuriously decorated temples to honor the deities.

A written notice is found on nearly every temple on the island, suggesting that burning three plain incense sticks is sufficient to show respect or deliver a message. A pack of three sticks sells for 1 yuan (14.7 US cents).

Generally, it is all right for visitors to burn incense at every temple they visit, but they are advised to make a wish with only one Buddha.

Not far from the Refusing to Go Guanyin Temple is a partially submerged cave called Chaoyin, or “sound of the waves.” It is believed to be the site where the monk Hui’e landed and transported the statue ashore.

The cave is also the site where Guanyin is said to have appeared to a devout Indian monk who burnt his fingers to honor her. An advisory carved there in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) warns visitors against repeating his ritual.

Other legendary sites include Duangu Shengji, where Guanyin is supposed to have disguised herself to provide food to a hungry girl on a boat, and Er Gui Ting Fa Shi, a stone where two turtles are said to have listened to Guanyin’s explanation of Buddhism.

There are four big Buddhist temples on the island — Puji, Huiji, Fayu and Baotuo. The first three are open to public, but Baotuo Temple is reserved for private religious rituals.

Though most big Buddhist temples may look similar to those not familiar with the religion, Puji Temple is somewhat different. It has rarely opened its front gate since the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The story goes that the emperor, traveling incognito in plain clothes, was enchanted with the beautiful scenery of Putuo Mountain. Arriving at Puji Temple late in the evening, he knocked and asked the monk who came to the door to inform the abbot that a distinguished guest had arrived and the main gate should be opened for him to enter and stay overnight.

The abbot told the monk he was happy to provide accommodation but insisted that the visitor enter by the side gate because temple rules required the main entrance to be closed after dark. The young monk got the message mixed up and told the emperor that he should not stay the night.

The angry emperor, who had to journey to Hangzhou for a bed, ordered the main entrance of Puji Temple closed forever. The abbot later tried to rectify the misunderstanding, and the emperor finally relented and agreed that the main entrance could be opened, but only every 60 years or for auspicious occasions such as an emperor’s visit or the death of an abbot.

The trip to Putuo Mountain is no longer a life-threatening journey. Many of the Zhoushan Islands are now linked by bridges, which means the area can be reached by bus from Shanghai and Ningbo. The bus terminates at the Shenjiamen Bus Station, and from the Banshengdong Wharf on the Shenjiamen waterfront, it’s a 10-minute fast-ferry trip to Putuo Mountain, costing about 22 yuan.

To protect the environment of the island, no private vehicles are allowed on shore. Shuttle buses carry visitors from one site to another. A cable car trip to the top of mountain costs 35 yuan.

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