Mount Wutai – The Earthly Abode of Lord Manjushri
I am writing a series of articles on various holy sites such as the Great Buddha of Kamakura in Japan, the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandi, Sri Lanka, and several holy places in India such as Bodhgaya, Lumbini, Varanasi and Kushinagar. The objective of writing such articles is to provide information and inspire readers to visit these important religious sites which are well known places of pilgrimage.
A particular place can be considered holy when at least one of the following criteria is met:
- Someone had engaged in intensive meditation to generate higher insight and state of mind (e.g., love, compassion and bodhicitta) in the area and therefore infused positive energy into the place.
- Someone had a pure vision of a holy being (for example, a Buddha, a Mahasiddha, daka or dakini) and/or received teachings from the holy being(s) in the area. This would have imbued the place with the energy and blessings of the holy beings and/or teachings.
- A place where holy beings abide or where supernatural beings engaged in virtuous activities, which blessed the place with positive energies.
- The place was blessed or consecrated by a highly realised being who invited the enlightened beings to reside there.
When visiting places that have been blessed, visitors can feel a sense of peace, happiness, healing and well-being from the positive energies of that environment. It can also leave a spiritual imprint or open up an existing positive imprint in the minds of visitors or pilgrims, which can help spur them on their spiritual path.
During the process of writing this article, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the great masters who are recognised as Dorje Shugden’s previous incarnations, such as Sakya Pandita and Buton Rinchen Drub, also played important roles in the establishment of Mount Wutai as centre of Buddhist practice. Since Dorje Shugden is the emanation of Manjushri, it further strengthens my belief that Dorje Shugden is an enlightened being.
I hope you will find this instalment of the series on holy places enjoyable and informative. May it serve as an inspiration for you on your spiritual journey.
Mount Wutai is believed to be the earthly abode of Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom. Its connection to Manjushri is mentioned in a passage of the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Garland Sutra), which contains information about the abodes of various bodhisattvas including those relating to Manjushri. According to the Sutra, Manjushri resides on a “clear cold mountain” in Northeastern China, which would later be known as Mount Wutai. The Sutra conveys the story of an Indian monk from the 1st century who travelled to China and lived on Mount Wutai, where he had a vision of Manjushri. The Avatamsaka Sutra legitimises Mount Wutai as the dwelling place of Manjushri, and it is said that Manjushri is often sighted on Mount Wutai taking the form of ordinary pilgrims, monks or unusual five-coloured clouds in the area.
Manjushri is believed to have chosen Mount Wutai as his dwelling place to help those who sincerely wish to obtain higher spiritual attainments and eventually achieve enlightenment. Due to this reason, Mount Wutai is considered to be one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites for Buddhists around the world and has also developed as a tourist attraction. In 2009, Mount Wutai was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Mount Wutai is regarded as one of the four sacred mountains in China where enlightened beings are known to reside. These four sacred mountains are:
- Mount Wutai, located in Shanxi province and known as the earthly abode of Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom.
- E Mei Shan, also known as Mount E Mei, located in Sichuan province and known as the earthly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.
- Jiu Hua Shan, also known as Mount Jiu Hua, located in Anhui province and known as the earthly abode of the Bodhisattva Dizang or Ksitigarbha.
- Pu Tuo Shan, also known as Mount Pu Tuo, located in Zhejiang province and known as the earthly abode of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion . Chenrezig is also known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit or Kwan Yin in Chinese.
Mount Wutai is well-known for its five flat-topped peaks. Each peak is believed to be occupied by a different form of Manjushri. The highest peak is the Northern Terrace at 3,058 metres (10,033 feet) above sea level, and the Southern Terrace is the lowest peak, at 2,485 metres (8,153 feet) above sea level. The distance between the highest and the lowest peak is approximately 9.3 kilometres (12 miles).
There are over 53 monasteries and temples on Mount Wutai. Due to its remote location, many of these ancient temples and monasteries survived the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s. Therefore, even today, pilgrims can see existing wooden structures that were originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE)
Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, Mount Wutai was known as Zi Fu Shan or Purple Palace Mountain. It was originally known as a mountain sacred to the Taoist tradition and many Taoist saints are known to have lived there. It was during Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE) that the earliest Buddhist temples began to be constructed on the mountain. However, it was not until the 5th century, during the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 535 CE), that Mount Wutai was recognised as the earthly abode of Manjushri.
Mount Wutai, as the earthly abode of Manjushri, was further popularised in the 8th century by the imperial rulers of China who attempted to create a link between themselves and Manjushri in order to legitimise their power. During that time, one of the most politically powerful monks in Chinese history, Amoghavajra (705 – 774 CE), chose Mount Wutai as the site from which to pray for the protection and preservation of the nation, which included accompanying various Buddha statues in procession around the mountain. Furthermore, during the Tang Dynasty, it became the sacred site at which the Tang emperors received a spiritual mandate from Manjushri, as well as sacred messages from heaven, allowing the emperors to exercise their power on earth. As such, Mount Wutai become the focus of imperial attention, and the ritual act of procession was given precedent as a legitimate method through which Manchu rulers (and through association the Tibetan and Mongolian rulers) could communicate with Manjushri.
Amoghavajra (705 – 774 CE)
Amoghavajra was born in Samarkand, a city in modern day Uzbekistan, to an Indian father and a Sogdian mother. Following his father’s passing in 715, he moved to China where he was ordained by Vajrabodhi, an esoteric Buddhist teacher of the Tang Dynasty, four years later. He was a productive translator and is regarded as one of the Eight Patriarchs of the Doctrine in the Shingon lineage of Buddhism, now practised in Japan. As a trusted spiritual guide to the Tang emperors, he was granted permission to create the first Abhiseka-Bodhi-Mandala School at Daxing Shansi Temple, which is now known as the Chinese Esoteric School.
Amoghavajra served three emperors during the Tang Dynasty: Emperor Xuanzong, Emperor Suzong and Emperor Taizong. He also began the construction of the magnificent Jin’ge Temple on Mount Wutai in order to promote Manjushri as the Buddha and protector of China, and the temple was completed in 767. He was a famous practitioner of Buddhist tantra, who would perform potent rituals to avert various disasters. He dedicated the remaining years of his life to translate and edit 120 volumes of tantric teachings to benefit sentient beings. After he passed away in 774, he was posthumously bestowed various honorary titles such as Thesaurus of Wisdom, Amogha Tripitaka, and Minister of State.
Tibetan rulers had shown great interest in Mount Wutai especially during the height of the country’s military expansion (7th – 8th centuries). During that period, Tibetan kings and Chinese emperors established cultural exchange for the first time. In fact, according to a Tibetan account of the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet and the building of Samye Monastery, called the Testament of Ba, Tibetan envoys returning from China made an extremely long detour in order to visit Mount Wutai in 755. The Testament of Ba was written by Ba Salnang, a member of King Trisong Detsen’s (742 – 796 CE) court, whose works have been cited by many historians over the years. In a Chinese history book titled Old Tang Dynasty History, it is mentioned that in 824, the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen requested a map of Mount Wutai from the Tang Court. Starting in the 830s, the earliest depictions of Mount Wutai were being painted in murals adorning the walls of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang County, when the area was ruled by the Tibetan empire. The simple murals contain information on topography, history and various narratives of miracles occurring on Mount Wutai.
A famous Tibetan scholar by the name of Buton Rinchen Drub (1290 – 1364 CE), in one of his works titled History of Buddhism, states that the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo (ca. 617 – 650 CE), built 108 temples on Mount Wutai. In addition to the imperial family of Tibet, several distinguished masters, such as the Indian scholar Vimalamitra who established the Dzogchen lineage in Tibet, also embarked on pilgrimage to the sacred mountain.
Tibet’s interest in Mount Wutai grew between the late-12th and early-13th centuries when Nyangrel Nyima Ozer (1136 – 1204 CE), wrote extensive accounts on the life of the tantric adept Padmasambhava, and the lives of the Tibetan kings of the 8th century. Nyangrel Nyima Ozer was considered the emanation of King Trisong Detsen’s mind, and was the first of the great Tertons, or hidden-treasure revealers of the Nyingma tradition. In his accounts, he included the story of Manjushri advising King Trisong Detsen to establish Buddhism as the official religion of Tibet, while on Mount Wutai. Therefore, Tibet as a religious state based on Buddhist principles is a direct result of Manjushri’s advice. Later on, King Trisong Detsen himself came to be regarded as an emanation of Manjushri, and is often depicted with Manjushri’s implements such as a sword and Dharma text.
Padampa Sangye was a South Indian monk who founded the Zhije school, also known as the Pacification of Suffering tradition. Padampa Sangye is believed to have travelled to Tibet on at least three occasions. In Tibet, he was more commonly referred to as ‘Black Acarya’ and ‘Little Black Indian’ due to his dark skin. Acarya means a great scholar who has mastered the teachings and can instruct others to achieve the same level of learning and realisation. Padampa Sangye is said to have stayed at Mount Wutai for eleven years (1086 – 1097 CE). His biography includes an account of his meeting with Manjushri on Mount Wutai, who came to him in the form of an old sage carrying a rattan stick. During the meeting, the old sage told him that China was a country full of epidemics and the only thing that could salvage the situation was a dharani of Ushnishavijaya (known as Namgyalma in Tibetan) that was located at the Vajrasana, or the sacred seat on which Buddha Shakyamuni achieved enlightenment, today this area is known as the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India. A dharani is a verse or short text that encapsulates the entire meaning and essence of a sutra or particular practice, while Ushnishavijaya is one of the three main long-life Buddhas. The old sage further instructed Padampa Sangye to go to a particular cave in which there was a hole that could instantly transport him back and forth between Mount Wutai and the Vajrasana. Padampa Sangye did as he was told and successfully rid China of the epidemics by obtaining the dharani. The story of Padampa Sangye’s meeting with Manjushri has become a popular legend surrounding Mount Wutai. Padampa Sangye used his time in China to teach and spread the principles of the Zhije School and the pacification of suffering teachings. Some pracitioners even claim that he stayed on Mount Wutai to teach and meditate until the day of his passing.
Tangut Empire of Western Xia
In 1036, the Tanguts of the Western Xia Dynasty invaded Dunhuang city and discovered the Mount Wutai murals painted by the Tibetans. Just like the previous Chinese and Tibetan rulers, the Tanguts desired to legitimise their governance and lavish imperial lifestyle by creating a direct connection between the Tangut emperors and Manjushri.
Therefore, the Tanguts made an effort to establish and enforce their own Buddhist ideology on Mount Wutai. The Tanguts were devoted to the Avatamsaka Sutra, which further reinforced the belief that Mount Wutai was Manjushri’s earthly abode. Due to the complexity of their political relations with the Chinese, the Tanguts built their own version of Wutai Shan in the Helan Mountains and called it the ‘Northern Wutai Shan’. It was situated to the west of their capital, Xi Ping Fu, in the 11th century. They even replicated two major temples from Mount Wutai, namely Qingliang Si and Foguang Si, while they built the Northern Wutai Shan. However, the Tanguts were not the only group that decided to build their own version of the mountain. The Khitans of the Liao Dynasty (907 – 1125 CE) and the Mongols have also since built their own versions within their own borders.
In the mid-13th century, during the time of the Yuan Dynasty, Mount Wutai became the centre of political life in China. The Yuan Dynasty was founded by Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294 CE), the grandson of Genghis Khan and he was the emperor of the Mongolian Empire. Even though the Mongolians had ruled territory in China for some time, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially announced their rule in the tradition Chinese style, thereby founding the Yuan Dynasty. The marked growth of Tibetan Buddhism during this period was due to his policies, which favoured Tibetan Buddhism over traditions. Some people even believed Kublai Khan was himself an emanation of Manjushri, sent to spread the Dharma.
However, the claim that Kublai Khan was an emanation of Manjushri was not a belief held by all. Urgyanpa Rinchen Pel (1229 – 1309 CE), a contemporary of the emperor was known to have had strong reservations about its credibility. In his biography written by his student, Sonam Ozer, Urgyanpa was said to have argued that if Kublai Khan was truly an emanation of Manjushri, the emperor’s glorious power should have come from meditative concentration on Manjushri, not through tyranny. In Urgyanpa’s opinion, the fact that Kublai Khan oppressed and intimidated people to expand his territory meant that he was not a legitimate emanation of Manjushri. Conversely, another contemporary from the Yuan Dynasty, Monlam Dorje (1284 – 1346 CE), thought otherwise. In the biography written by his son, Tselpa, he claimed that Kublai Khan was a true emanation of Manjushri. This claim succeeded in enhancing Mount Wutai’s reputation in the eyes of subsequent emperors, as a place for gaining and maintaining political power.
During Kublai Khan’s reign, many prominent Tibetan lamas visited the Mongolian court and Mount Wutai, which further increased its sanctity. One of the most prominent Tibetan Lamas who visited Mount Wutai was Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182 – 1251 CE), who was recognised as an emanation of Manjushri. As a matter of fact, Sakya Pandita’s nephew, Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen (1235 – 1280 CE), dedicated his life to composing texts on Manjushri and the mountain. He composed an important 100 verse poem about the mountain called ‘The Garland of Jewels: Praise to Manjushri at Five-Peak Mountain’ in 1257. Due to his devotion to Manjushri and the mountain, Kublai Khan made him the Imperial Chaplain, a post considered to be the highest spiritual authority in the empire. This tradition continued with subsequent Yuan emperors appointing Tibetan Buddhist monks to the highest religious positions in the imperial government.
Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen’s student, Ga Aknyen Dampa Kunga Drak (1230 – 1303 CE), who was a skilled tantric practitioner in Kublai Khan’s court, also lived on Mount Wutai for almost ten years. Kublai Khan appointed him the abbot of the Temple of Longevity and Tranquillity. Such a prestigious position elevated the monastery’s reputation as the first significant Tibetan Buddhist monastery ever built on the mountain. It is important to note that Ga Aknyen Dampa Kunga Drak was given this prestigious post because he used his tantric powers to help the Mongolian army win many battles. One such battle led to the fall of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 CE) and marked the beginning of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 CE). It was Kublai Khan who commenced the construction of the Great White Stupa that later became an iconic landmark associated with Mount Wutai. The Great White Stupa was built in 1301 by Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen’s protégé, Anige, a Nepalese artist who was the head of the Mongolian imperial workshop. Twenty-two years earlier, Anige had also built a similar stupa in Beijing in 1279 to commemorate the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty.
Chinese Ming Dynasty
Following the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Han Chinese regained power in China and established the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE). Tibetan Buddhism experienced minimal support from the imperial elite during the period of the Ming Dynasty, however a handful of Chinese Ming emperors and monarchs were known to be adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. Even though they experienced resistance from their Confucian advisers, sovereigns such as Emperor Yongle (1403 – 1424 CE) and Emperor Zhengde (1505 – 1521 CE) supported Tibetan Buddhism to the best of their ability, and this was especially apparent on Mount Wutai. Emperor Yongle renovated and expanded the Clear Understanding Monastery in 1406, and even invited the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shekpa (1384 – 1415 CE) to visit his court. The Karmapa’s image was later made and installed at Xiantong Si, one of the temples on Mount Wutai. The emperor also made a donation on behalf of the 5th Karmapa, which was used to renovate the Great White Stupa in 1407. Later, Lama Tsongkhapa’s distinguished disciple Shakya Yeshe also stayed at the Xiantong Si and Yuanzhao Si temples for four years. During his stay, he built five or six more temples and worked to introduce the Gelug tradition in the area.
The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism made more of an impact during the Ming Dynasty when Emperor Xuande (1426 – 1435 CE) appointed the abbot of Yuanzhao Si temple as the manager of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist affairs on the mountain. This appointment was significant because it implied that Yuanzhao Si was acknowledged as the first Gelugpa temple in China. Another prominent Tibetan figure who came to meditate on the mountain was Chakzampa Tangtong Gyelpo (1361 – 1485 CE). In addition to his meditation, he gave oral transmissions of the Litany of the Names of Manjushri, otherwise known as the Manjushrinamasamgiti in Sanskrit. When he was meditating on Mount Wutai, he experienced visions of Manjushri who instructed him to build geomantic focal points to suppress the four elements. His pure visions of Manjushri made him even more renowned from that point onwards.
The Qing Dynasty
After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Manchus seized power in China and established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Manchus were nomadic people from the north eastern plains who also believed that their monarchs were manifestations of Manjushri. During the Qing Dynasty, Mount Wutai received more attention from the court and enjoyed more autonomous power as compared to during the previous dynasties.
Inspired by the successful alliance between Kublai Khan and his spiritual adviser, Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen, during the Yuan Dynasty, the Manchus decided to adopt this proven model in their imperial court. The Manchu emperors declared themselves as the worthy successors of Kublai Khan in spiritual terms, which meant that they were also the emanations of Manjushri. In short, they declared themselves to be the reincarnations of Kublai Khan, once again, blurring the line between the monarchy and Tibetan Buddhism. It was important for the Manchus to draw on similarities with the Mongols by using Tibetan Buddhism because this spiritual ‘lineage’ was seen as a powerful symbol of political legitimacy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Manchus, like the Mongols, were a minority in China, a fact that could have easily made them feel like outsiders. Therefore, embracing Tibetan Buddhism was seen as a strategic move to assure people that they were a part of the community, not mere invaders.
They went as far as changing the name of their ethnic group from Jurchen to ‘Manju’ in 1635 to validate their close connection to Manjushri. In addition, Emperor Kangxi (1662 – 1723 CE) referred to himself as an emanation of Manjushri in the Introduction to the official Mongolian translation of the Tibetan Buddhist canon:
“Then Manjushri, the savior of all living forms, [with the] intellect of all the Buddhas, was transformed into human form, and ascended the Fearless Lion Throne of gold; and this was none other than the sublime Emperor Kangxi-Manjushri who assisted and brought joy to the entire vast world…”
Emperor Kangxi embarked on Buddhist pilgrimage to Mount Wutai at least five times to show his extraordinary devotion to and close relationship with Manjushri, the state’s spiritual protector. During the Qing Dynasty, the monasteries and temples on Mount Wutai were given the freedom to look after their own affairs while the Tibetan and Mongolian clergy enjoyed privileged positions within the imperial court. The emperor also sent 40 Mongolian lamas to Mount Wutai in 1655, and converted 10 Chinese Buddhist monasteries into Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist institutions between 1683 and 1705, with his full financial support. The Qing emperor also granted the prestigious position of ‘Head of all Religious and Temporal Affairs’ for both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist institutions on Mount Wutai, to a Mongolian practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, the Jasagh Lama from Pusa Ding Monastery.
Contrary to the Ming Dynasty that did not support the locally printed guides to various sites on the mountain, the Qing Dynasty authorities heavily supported their publication in the Chinese language. One may suggest that this deliberate action was taken with the aim of spreading the message that Emperor Kangxi was an emanation of Manjushri.
The emperor also appointed the highest and most influential lama of Inner Asia and China in the 18th century, Changkya Hutuktu Rolpai Dorje (1717 – 1786 CE) who served as the emperor’s personal chaplain, and played an important role in spreading the Tibetan Buddhist influence on the mountain. At the time, Changkya Rolpai Dorje was as powerful as the Dalai Lama as he was in charge of all Gelug affairs in Eastern Tibet. Changkya Rolpai Dorje also advised the emperor on political matters, in fact he is regarded as the adviser during the formation of the Sino-Tibetan system of the Qing Dynasty.
From a young age, Changkya Rolpai Dorje was educated in Buddhist scripture; and the Chinese, Mongolian, Manchu, and Tibetan languages, alongside the imperial princes which included Emperor Kangxi’s grandson, the future Emperor Qianlong. The tight bond between Changkya Rolpai Dorje and the future emperor was cultivated from a young age, and this relationship allowed him to play an important role in the court. Amongst his many roles, Changkya Rolpai Dorje was an adviser and was thus able to guide the emperor during the creation of a policy towards Tibet and Mongolia that highlighted the heritage of Kublai Khan, with a special emphasis on the connection with Manjushri.
Changkya Rolpai Dorje focused his attention on the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist identity of Mount Wutai, and personally supervised the administration of six temples. He also wrote a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage guide named ‘Pilgrimage Guide to the Pure Realm of Clear and Cool Mountain’ that was translated into Mongolian, and actively promoted pilgrimages to Mount Wutai amongst Mongolians and Tibetans. He spent 36 consecutive summers at the Taming the Ocean Monastery, engaging in meditative retreats, from 1750 until his death in 1786.
The similarities between Changkya Rolpai Dorje’s patron-priest relationship with Emperor Qianlong, and Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen’s relationship with Kublai Khan were striking, especially after Changkya Rolpai Dorje initiated Emperor Qianlong into the Buddhist rites of the universal emperor or chakravartin in 1745. Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen had done the same for Kublai Khan. Changkya Rolpai Dorje also translated Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen’s biography into Mongolian in 1753. Changkya Rolpai Dorje and Emperor Qianlong were believed to be Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen’s and Kublai Khan’s reincarnations, therefore they acted and behaved with each other in exactly the same manner as they had done so in their previous lives. Changkya Rolpai Dorje passed away on Mount Wutai in 1786, and was buried at Taming the Ocean Monastery.
In the early 1840s, the Qing empire was hit by an economic crisis, mainly because they maintained a low tax rate while the population grew at an unprecedented speed. The economic crisis left the Mount Wutai administration with insufficient funds. This forced the monks to travel outside China, to Mongolia and as far as Buryatia, in order to raise funds. This approach proved to be successful. The monks returned with Mongol-donated livestock, gold and silver. The Mongols’ help during this difficult time created a strong bond between the monks on Mount Wutai and the Mongolian people. When Mount Wutai monks received news of the arrival of princely Mongolian caravans they would personally meet them at the border and took care of the bureaucrats on their journey to Mount Wutai.
Changkya Hutuktu Rolpai Dorje (1717-1786)
Changkya Hutuktu Rolpai Dorje was born on the 10th day of the fourth month in 1717 near Lanzhou in Gansu. When he was a little boy, the first Jamyang Zhepa recognised him as the incarnation of the previous Changkya Hutuktu of Gonlung Monastery in Amdo, which was one of the four great Gelug monasteries in Northern Tibet. Changkya Rolpai Dorje met Emperor Yongzheng (1722 – 1735 CE) during the battle between Qing forces and rebels in Amdo. The emperor ordered the seven year old Changkya Rolpai Dorje to be brought to his court. He was groomed to become a bridge between the Qing rulers and the Buddhists of Amdo, Tibet and Mongolia. Changkya Rolpai Dorje was responsible for translating Gelugpa texts into Chinese and Mongolian to spread the teachings. During his time as a student at the court, he became a good friend of Prince Hungli, who would later become Emperor Qianlong (1735 – 1796 CE). In 1744, Emperor Qianlong transformed the Yonghegong Palace in Beijing to serve both as a Gelugpa monastery and as an Imperial Palace. The transformed palace became the residence of Changkya Hutuktu Rolpai Dorje and other prominent religious figures from Amdo and Mongolia.
At the request of Emperor Qianlong, Changkya Rolpai Dorje gave him private instructions on how to take refuge in the Three Jewels and on Tibetan grammar. In 1745, he gave the emperor tantric teachings and conferred empowerment of his yidam, Chakrasamvara. In a remark that became famous, Emperor Qianlong said to Changkya Rolpai Dorje: “Now you are not only my lama, you are my vajra master.” Changkya Rolpai Dorje also played a significant role in presenting Emperor Qianlong as an emanation of Manjushri. In pictorial representations, Emperor Qianlong is seen as the spiritual heir of Kublai Khan. Such images highlight the similarities between Emperor Qianlong and Manjushri, as the emperor is depicted holding the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and the flaming wisdom sword of Manjushri. Changkya Rolpai Dorje’s written works consist of seven large volumes containing almost 200 texts. In addition, he supervised and translated the Kangyur into Manchu (108 volumes), and the entire Tangyur (224 volumes) into Mongolian to spread Tibetan Buddhism.
The 6th Dalai Lama’s Exile on Mount Wutai
The 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706 CE) was a controversial figure as he preferred archery and women as opposed to his religious duties. This preference almost cost him his life as it was planned that he would die in custody, en route to the imperial capital, because Emperor Kangxi considered him to be an illegitimate lama. Legend has it that the 6th Dalai Lama was saved by Manjushri, and lived in meditative exile in a cave on Mount Wutai, accompanied by his female attendant until the day he died. The cave where he lived is called the Avalokitesvara Cave and is now a popular pilgrimage destination.
Peaks Of Mount Wutai
Mount Wutai is a pilgrimage site for international visitors from different backgrounds. It is an interesting place of religious tolerance and understanding because it has been influenced by various Buddhist schools and cultures including China, Mongolia and Tibet.
Today, many pilgrims visit Mount Wutai annually to accumulate merit for themselves and their deceased relatives. They also do so to pray for the fulfilment of their more secular wishes such as wealth and good fortune, purification of sins, and recovery from illness. Even to this day, some Chinese and Mongolian pilgrims still make prostrations throughout the entire length of their journey to the mountain, a journey that could take several years.
There are several buildings, dating from the earliest periods of Mount Wutai’s history as a holy site, that have survived the test of time. For example, the main hall of the Foguang Temple, built in 857, is one of the oldest wooden structures in China. Another ancient structure on Mount Wutai is the main hall of the Nanchan Temple, which was originally built around 782 and was renovated in 1974-75.
Location & the Five Peaks Mountain
Mount Wutai is situated in the north-eastern part of Shanxi Province, approximately 230 kilometres away from Taiyuan, the province’s capital city. It covers an area of 2,837 square kilometres and its five main peaks are located in the east, south, west, north, and in the middle, creating a harmonious and beautiful view. As such, pilgrims can enjoy breathtaking views from the peaks at various different angles. The peaks of mountain are known as: Wanghai Peak in the east, Guayue Peak in the west, Jinxiu Peak in the south, Yedou Peak in the north, and Cuiyan Peak in the centre.
Wanghai Peak In The East
Wanghai Peak is located 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) east of Taihuai Town in Wutai County. It overlooks the sea and is 2,795 metres above sea level. While standing on the peak, visitors can enjoy the beautiful view of thousands of golden rays during sunrise and a sea of floating clouds. On this peak, Four-armed Manjushri or Manjughosa Tiksna, is believed to reside. The Wanghai Temple is located here and houses a Manjughosa Tiksna image.
Guayue Peak In The West
Guayue Peak, also known as Hanging Moon Peak, is located 13 kilometres west of Taihuai Town and is 2,773 metres above sea level. The best time to climb Guayue Peak is on a full moon night, when visitors can enjoy the peaceful view of moonlight above dense pine trees. Vadisimha Manjushri, who is depicted seated on a lion, is believed to reside on this peak. The Falei Temple is located on this peak and houses the Vadisimha Manjushri image.
Jinxiu Peak In The South
Jinxiu Peak, also known as Splendour Peak, is located 12 kilometres south of Taihuai Town and is 2,485 metres above sea level. From the summit of Jinxiu Peak, visitors can enjoy the beautiful view of colourful, sweet-scented flowers all over the peak. The best time to visit this peak is from early-May until late-August when most of the flowers will be in bloom, releasing their fragrance. The white form of Manjushri called Jvanasattva is believed to reside on this peak. The Puji Temple is located here and houses a Jvanasattva statue.
Yedou Peak In The North
Yedou Peak, also known as the Peak of Flourishing Leaves, is the highest point of Mount Wutai at 3,058 metres above sea level. It is located 5 kilometres north of Taihuai Town. The peak overlooks a natural pool of over 300 square metres as well as wonderful and endless greenery. Vimala Manjushri is believed to reside on this peak. The Ling Ying Temple is located here and houses a Vimala Manjushri image.
Cuiyan Peak In The Centre
The view from this peak is spectacular. Green moss covers the surface of rocks, that resemble moving dragons when light is reflected on them. Hence, the rocks were given the name ‘dragon writhing rocks’, while the plateau is also known as Peak of Green rocks. It sits at 2,894 metres above sea level. Manjushri Natha, a form of Manjushri depicted wielding a sword, is believed to reside on this peak. The Yanjiao Temple is located here and houses a Manjushri Natha image.
The Major Sites
There are over 53 temples and monasteries on Mount Wutai. These places of worship include the famous Great White Stupa, Nanshan Temple, Xiantong Temple, Pusading Temple and Foguang Temple.
Inner Mount Wutai
On Inner Mount Wutai, there many temples including: Xiantong Temple, Shuxiang Temple, Shouning Temple, Bishan Temple, Puhua Temple, Dailuo Ding, Qixian Temple, Shifang Tang, Shuxiang Temple, Guangzong Temple, Youguo Temple, Guanyin Dong, Longhua Temple, Luomuhou Temple, Jinge Temple, Zhanshan Temple, Wanfo Ge, Guanhai Temple, Zhulin Temple, Jifu Temple, Gufo Temple, and many others.
Outer Mount Wutai
On Outer Mount Wutai, there are even more temples including: Yanqing Temple, Nanchan Temple, Mimi Temple, Yanshan Temple, Zunsheng Temple, Guangji Temple, and many others.
The Great White Stupa
The 50-metre tall Great White Stupa is the most iconic landmark on Mount Wutai, built during the Yuan Dynasty with the help of a Nepalese artisan. Initially, the Stupa was a part of Xiantong Si Monastery, however it became an independent temple site 150 years later as a result of an edict issued by Emperor Zhudi in 1407 during the Ming Dynasty. Much later, in 1579, the temple site was restored and expanded by imperial decree. The latest renovation of the structure was undertaken in 1952 with the Central Government’s financial support. The Great White Stupa is situated at the centre of Taihuai-Zhen, surrounded by many temple structures.
The vase-like stupa was based on the structure of a Tibetan stupa, instead of the conservative Chinese pagoda structure. The main body is made of brick slabs, while its octagonal base is made of stone, and the conical spire is made of seasoned bronze. The stupa has a coating of lime on the outside that gives it its white colour. The walls are adorned with delicate decorations and many fine copper embellishments. The parasol and top are made of gilt copper, and support 252 small bells.
The Great White Stupa is also known as the Shakyamuni Relic Pagoda. Sometimes, it is also called the Great Compassion Life Lengthening Pagoda.
The Nanshan Temple is a large complex on Mount Wutai that was built during the Yuan Dynasty. It comprises of seven terraces and is divided into three parts. The upper terrace is called the You Guo Temple; the middle terrace is called the Shande Hall; and the lower terrace is called the Jile Temple. The Nanshan Temple is by far the most beautiful monastery in the area. There are no signboards in English at this temple and the monastery prohibits lay people from staying there. This policy has resulted in the temple having an atmosphere of a strict monastic life.
The Xiantong Temple is by far the largest and oldest among the famous temples on the mountain. The temple was built during Emperor Yongping’s reign during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE) before undergoing major expansion during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534 CE) under Emperor Xiaowen. The expansion included twelve courtyards with a garden in the front, therefore it is also referred to as the Garden Temple.
The temple comprises of 400 rooms of various sizes that display the architectural styles of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Inside the temple, there are three pure copper halls built during the Ming Dynasty and are engraved with fine Buddhist figurines. There are also two 13-storey bronze towers built during the Ming Dynasty at the side of the temple. They are also covered with Buddhist figurines, decorative motifs and various inscriptions. The temple’s Wuliang Hall houses an image of the Buddha Amitabha, as well as the Huayan Sutra Pagoda on its grounds.
The temple’s Copper Hall has a double-eave hipped gable roof. The size of the hall is proportionally harmonious with the skilfully cast statues. Ten thousand small, golden statues of Chinese deities are also enshrined in the hall. There are also two copper pagodas built during the Ming Dynasty.
Pusa Ding Monastery
Pusa Ding is a small monastery located on the central peak of Mount Wutai. According to the Expanded Record of the Clear and Cool Mountains (1057 – 1063 CE), the first temple in the complex, the Wenshuyuan Temple was built during Emperor Xiaowen’s reign (r. 471 – 499 CE) during the Northern Wei Dynasty (385 – 534 CE) as a result of the frequent auspicious signs of Manjushri appearing in the area. Later, Emperor Ruizong (662 – 716 CE) gave instructions to build a sculpted image of Manjushri, but this proved challenging to build. The sculptor, Ansheng, failed to carve the image of Manjushri without a crack. He was only successful after asking for guidance from Manjushri himself. During the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, the monastery was renamed Pusa Ding or the Bodhisattva Peak (also known as Manjushri Peak).
The monastery complex includes the Dawenshu-dian, the first temple to house a copy of the Yongle edition of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon or Kangyur, which was completed around 1410. At present, Dawenshu-Dian is referred to as Pusa Ding or Zhenrong Yuan. Furthermore, there are two temples that house copies of the Kangyur, the Luohou Si Bentang and the Pule Yuan Bentang.
During the Qing Emperor Shunzhi’s reign (1644 – 1661 CE), Pusa Ding was extensively renovated with the aim of turning it into an official residence for prominent Tibetan Buddhist monks. It also served as an official imperial establishment. Pusa Ding was both Emperor Kangxi’s and Emperor Qianlong’s favourite place when visiting Mount Wutai.
Foguang Temple is located five kilometres from Doucun, Wutai County, in Shanxi Province. It was built during the Tang Dynasty in 857. The temple consists primarily of two halls, namely the Great Eastern Hall built in 857 and Manjushri Hall built in 1137. In addition the second oldest existing pagoda in China, the Zushi Pagoda is housed on its grounds, and dates back to the 6th century. Located south of the Great Eastern Hall, it is presumed to contain the tomb of the temple’s founder. The pagoda is white in colour, hexagonal in shape, and is decorated with lotus petals.
Originally built during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the temple took 35 years to complete, from 785 to 820. Unfortunately, in 845, Emperor Wuzong had the whole temple destroyed by fire as part of his campaign to ban Buddhism in the country. Only the Zushi Pagoda survived his destructive campaign. In 857, the temple was rebuilt with the financial support of a woman named Ning Gongyu. The reconstruction itself was supervised by a monk named Yuancheng. Much of the rebuilding effort was focused on the Great Eastern Hall. In the 10th century, an image of the Foguang Temple resurfaced on the painting in cave 61 of the Mogao Caves, Duhuang City. The existence of the Foguang image in the cave served to emphasise its importance as a holy site for Buddhist pilgrims to visit.
Later in 1137, during the Jin Dynasty, the Manjushri Hall and another hall dedicated to Samantabhadra were constructed on the temple’s north and south sides respectively. Unfortunately, the Samantabhadra Hall was burnt down during the time of the Qing Dynasty. The Manjushri Hall is roughly the same size as the Eastern Hall and is located on an 83 centimetres high platform with three front doors and one central back door, and it features a single-eave hipped gable roof. All four walls are filled with murals of arhats painted in 1429 during the time of the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Eastern Hall is located on the far eastern side of the temple, on top of a large stone platform. The simplicity of its structure is striking. It is supported by inner and outer sets of columns. Special emphasis was given to the complexity of the roof, and as such the hall has a lattice ceiling that covers much of the roof frame from view.
The hall has 36 sculptures and murals on each wall dating from the Tang Dynasty and later periods. In the middle of the hall, there are three large statues of Buddha Shakyamuni, Amitabha and Maitreya, all seated on lotus seats. Each Buddha is guarded by four assistants at their sides and two bodhisattvas in front of them. There are also statues of Manjushri riding on a lion and Samantabhadra on an elephant next to the platform. The artistic temple also contains a large mural that portrays the Buddha’s past lives.
The Nanchan Temple is located near Doucun Town on Mount Wutai. The temple was built in 782 during the Tang Dynasty. Nanchan is regarded as an important architectural site that contains an original set of artistically important Tang sculptures. Its Great Buddha Hall is China’s oldest preserved timber building, and it survived the purge initiated by Emperor Wuzong in 845 due to its isolated location. The hall’s interior has seventeen sculptures with a small stone pagoda.
The Great Buddha Hall is a humble looking building. The roof is supported by twelve pillars embedded directly into a brick foundation. The absence of intricate features on its roof suggests that the hall was a structure of low status.
The Nanchan Temple houses original images carved during the time of the Tang Dynasty. The temple contains 17 statues that are lined up in the form of an inverted ‘U’. At the center of the hall, there is a large image of Buddha Shakyamuni sitting on a throne surrounded by sculpted images of a lion and a demigod. A large statue of Samantabhadra riding on an elephant is placed on the far left of the hall, while a large statue of Manjushri riding on a lion is placed on the far right. There are also images of two of Buddha Shakyamuni’s disciples (Ananda and Mahakashyapa), two statues of heavenly kings and four statues of attendants. In addition, the hall has a small five-tiered stone pagoda with Buddha images carved on each tier.
Visiting Mount Wutai
Mount Wutai International Tourist Month
When: can be any month between June and September
During this month, pilgrims can witness ordained monks and nuns teach practitioners about the essence of Buddhism and perform rituals in accordance with their various traditions.
When: June 6 – 15
Tiaobuza is a traditional festival celebrated in the Gelugpa Tradition. The largest celebration of the event occurs at Pusa Ding, a major Gelug monastery on Mount Wu Tai. During the festival, monks wear masks and perform rituals dances to pacify demons, so they do not obstruct spiritual practice. On the following day, monks play musical instruments and carry a Maitreya statue in a procession around the mountain.
Buddhist Cultural Festival
When: 21 August – 21 September
During the festival month, visitors can enjoy various cultural activities and folk art shows, held on Mount Wutai.
Weather and Clothing
The best time to visit Mount Wutai is from May to September as Wutai Shan has an early Winter from October until April of the following year. The high altitude and cold climate of Mount Wutai make the winter temperature challenging for some people. During winter time, the average temperature ranges from 0°C-10°C in the daytime. Regardless of when you visit Mount Wutai, it is advisable to bring warm clothes, coats, jackets, an umbrella and sunscreen.
Visitors who wish to tour Mount Wutai in China should make sure their passports are valid for at least 6 months. Foreigners should have their passports with them at all times because police officers carry out identification checks from time to time, especially if there are special events going on. Those who are going to Tibet are strongly advised to join a travel group. Individual applicants also need to show their existing Chinese visas.
China requires all nationals to have visas to enter China, with the exception of:
- Selected nationals (i.e., from Australia, Britain, Canada, the United States and other European Union countries) can visit the Pearl River Delta for up to six days as part of an organised tour group from Hong Kong or Macau.
- Nationals from Australia, Canada, Austria, Denmark, France, Finland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.A., can visit Hainan Province as part of an organised tour group and stay up to 15 days (or 21 days for German nationals only).
- When applying for a visa, a detailed itinerary and information on the places, hotel bookings, dates of arrival and departure should be included.
- Official invitation from a legal company or institution in China is required when applying for a business visa.
- Within 24 hours upon arrival, visitors should report to the Chinese Public Security Bureau.
Please contact your local Chinese Embassy for further information if necessary.
How to Get There
Entrance fee: RMB 218 (adult) RMB 134 (child)
Opening hours: 6.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.
Best time to visit: May to September
Visitors can take flights from Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guilin, Nanjing, Shenyang, Xi An and other main cities to Taiyuan. The airport in Taiyuan is called Taiyuan Wuxu International Airport. Various means of public transport (e.g., airport shuttle, public buses no. 201 and 901, coach, and helicopter) to and from the airport are available.
The Mount Wutai train station is located at Shahe Town, Fanzhi County. The trains can take you to Beijing, Taiyuan, Datong and other cities.
During the peak season, there are long-distance buses from Beijing Liu Liqiao Bus Station, Shijiazhuang Bus Station, and Datong Bus Station to Mount Wutai.
If you take a car from Beijing, drive on the Jingshi Express. Then, take the exit at Baoding and drive pass Shunping, Tangxian, and Fuping. Eventually, you will reach Mount Wutai Road.
To travel from Taiyuan to Mount Wutai, take the Yuantai Express and exit at Jinzhou. Then, drive through Dingxiang, Wutai County, Rucun Village, Qingshui River, and the south entrance of Mount Wutai to get to Taihuai County.
Getting to the Peaks and Monasteries
The journey to the Five Peaks starts at the foot of Dailuo Peak, Taihuai village at 7:00 a.m. by minibus. The fee is approximately RMB 70 to go to one peak or you can take a five-peak package for the price of RMB 350 . The trip to all five peaks will take about 8.5 hours. The minibus will make a 30-minute stop at each peak.
Get ready to spend the majority of the time on bumpy roads when riding on the minibus. Once you arrive at the North Peak, the air becomes much thinner, and it is colder and more windy.
If you decide to visit only one peak, you can consider the South Peak as it is well-known for its beautiful greenery and mild weather. Another good option is to go to the Central Peak or the West Peak to see the beautiful flowers. Other than the minibus, you can also make a deal with a taxi driver to drive you around.
Food for visitors may not be available on the peaks. Therefore, it might be a good idea to prepare your own snacks. Many of the toilets on the peaks are squat toilets.
Although visiting monasteries on Mount Wutai is generally free, some of the larger monasteries might charge a small entrance fee of about RMB 10.
Pusa Peak is situated to the north of Xiantong Temple and Taiyuan Temple. These two famous temples are located to the west of Qingshui River. The best way to get there is to ask for directions from the green bus drivers. Most likely, they will point to the free brown minibuses that will take you right up to the peak.
You can take a cable car to go up and down the peak for RMB 30. If you prefer to have the experience of travelling like they used to in ancient times, there are some horses that you can rent. The ticket office for the ride on the minibuses is located at the foot of Dailuo Peak.
To go to the Nanshan Temple, take the green bus and exit at Nanshan Temple Bridge. From there, you will spend approximately 20 minutes walking to the temple.
The green bus can take you to the Zhenhai Temple if you head south from Taihuai Village. Zhenhai Temple is also the last stop for the green bus. If you wish to go to the Mingyue Well, the Baiyun Temple or the Fomu Cave, you can take the smaller brown minibus from the Zhenhai Temple.
The Baiyun Temple has been recently renovated to become a Buddhist nunnery. It comprises impressive buildings and statues compared to those at the Mingyue Well and the Fomu Cave. The Baiyun Temple is also the last stop for the free minibuses. A lot of visitors who visit the Baiyun Temple also go to the Fomu Cave.
From the Baiyun Temple, there are no free minibuses that go to the Fomu Cave. You have the option of riding in a taxi which will take you to the steps of the Fomu Cave or you can walk there which will take less than one hour. It will take about one hour to climb the steps to the Fomu Cave. Visitors will have to wait in line to enter the cave, and the queue can last between two hours during weekdays and seven to eight hours during weekends. Fomu Cave is famous for its power of granting good rebirth. Visitors are encouraged to perform animal liberation and are given opportunities to release birds and animals such as sparrows, squirrels, etc.
There are several accommodation options you can consider when visiting Mount Wutai. The following are several options for visitors:
Wutai Mountain Marriott Hotel
No.300 Daganhe Village 1st Alley
Jin’gangku Town, Wutai Mountain
Wutai County 035514, China
Average price: US$96/night
Phone: +86 350 331 8888
Taihuai Town, Xinzhou
Shanxi 035500, China
Average price: US$60/night
Phone: +86 350 654 2906
Wutai Mountain Yunlong International Hotel
Next to the Wutai Mountain Bus Station, Wutai Mountain
Shanxi 035500, China
Average price: US$49/night
Phone: +86 350 654 3166
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Sources of information:
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