Journey to China, Part 7

In China a traditional spiritual pilgrimage also includes journeys to sacred sites and for Buddhists, it is customary to travel to one or more of the 5 sacred mountains each year. This tradition has been going on for thousands of years. In fact though pilgrimage to the sacred mountains was first recorded during The Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BC), it is widely acknowledged that the practice was in effect long before that.
Starting around the 1st century A.D. Chinese merchants returning from India via the Silk Route began to introduce Buddhism into China. The growing connection to Buddha and hence to his birthplace caused, over the next few centuries, many adventurous Chinese pilgrims to travel to India to visit the sacred places of the Buddha’s life. Hsuan-tsang (596-664), the Tripitaka Master, was perhaps the most famous of such pilgrims. His pilgrimage to India lasted sixteen years.

It was because of these dedicated and devout pilgrims that translations of Buddhist texts and an affinity for the Buddhist tradition of monastic life began to infiltrate the Chinese (then) mostly Taoist way of life. Buddhism had -on the surface- many similarities to Taoism. Just like Taoist hermits – the Buddhists monks favored quiet mountains and deep forests for their meditative practices. Because of this, many small hermitages and then later, great monastic complexes sprang up at many peaks and over the centuries the Buddhists began to regard certain mountains as sacred believing them to be the dwelling place of a Bodhisattva. These particular Bodhisattvas are believed to be spiritual beings that have dedicated themselves to the service of assisting all sentient creatures in the transcendence of worldly suffering and the attainment of enlightenment.

The Buddhist mountains and the Taoist peaks became the primary pilgrimage destinations of both China’s masses and also the ruling elite. Over many centuries the monastic centers developed into great centers of scholarship, art and philosophy, with hundreds of temples and thousands of monks and nuns. This extraordinary way of life continued unbroken until the Communist Revolution of 1949. During the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in the 1950’s and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960’s, both Buddhism and Taoism were almost completely suppressed and more than 90% of China’s temples and great cultural artifacts were destroyed. Since the 1980’s the Communist apparatus has taken a more benign view of religious culture and both Buddhism and Taoism are reviving.

The 5 sacred mountains are:

  1. Pu Tuo Shan, Buddhist mountain of the east, Zhejiang province, 284 meters. Sacred to Kuan-Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
  2. Wu Tai Shan, Buddhist mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 3061 meters. Sacred to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
  3. Emei Shan, Buddhist mountain of the west, Sichuan province, 3099 meters. Sacred to Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Benevolent Action.
  4. Jiu Hua Shan, Buddhist mountain of the south, Anhui province, 1341 meters. Sacred to Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Salvation.
  5. The Central Mountain-Songshan Mountain, northwest of Dengfeng County and reputed as the Central Sacred Mountain among China’s five sacred mountains, Mt. Songshan Stretches more than 60 km across from east to west. It consists of two mountains-Taishi and Shaoshi and is sacred to the Boddhisattva Vajrapani who holds the attribute of equanimity.

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