The eastern range of the Himalayas extends to the edge of the Cheng-tu Basin in the remote Chinese Sichuan Province. At the southwestern corner of the basin stands the sacred mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site known variously as Emeishan , Mt. O-mei, Mt. Emei or Emei Mountain, located 7km southwest of Emeishan City and 37km from Leshan, 200km southwest of Chengdu. Its name translates as “Delicate Eyebrow Mountain”; it is known as “Great White Mountain” as well. Founded in A.D. 495 by an Indian Buddhist mystic, the sacred site consists of two peaks facing one another, poetically resembling a moth’s eyebrows, also pronounced O-mei. Towering to 10,000 feet, the peak of this great mountain is a holy place, the surroundings of which are renowned for magnificent vistas, hidden indigenous wonders, pervasive Buddhist ethnology, profuse variety of species and singular land formations. A serpentine trail leads up the granite mountainside to a large monastery near the peak. The 15-mile-long footpath is not for the timid or retiring. With each spring’s snowmelt, Emei Shan is transformed into a central destination for resolute Buddhists who can endure the vertiginous elevation and the tortuous climb.
People have lived on Emei Shan for the last 10,000 years. In the beginning it was a Taoist retreat, but by the 3rd century AD the area had fully developed into a revered Buddhist site. The first Chinese Buddhist sanctuary was constructed here in the 1st century AD. Most of the seventy-six Buddhist temples are stationed near the summit and date from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The monasteries establish an adaptable building style that harmonizes with the terrain. For example, the buildings in Leiyinsi are elevated on stilts while those of Baoguosi are erected on terraces with different floors and levels within the structures. Rigid conventions of sacred Buddhist construction were transformed or disregarded altogether here in an effort to maximize the pre-eminence of the inspiring vistas.
Another example of this remarkable architecture can be seen in the unconventional monastery building that shelters a substantial body of monks year round. It is made of stone that was mined on location. Its roof in particular is noteworthy in that it is constructed of massive, hand-carved timbers anchored in place by boulders weighing hundreds of pounds apiece. This is necessitated by the bizarre pattern of air currents created by the prevailing west wind at this site, which often blast the monastery with ravaging winds with speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. This stone structure has its disadvantages, however, in that it must be difficult to stay warm within its icy confines with the temperature falling below freezing nightly, no matter the season. It is a testament to the monks’ advance planning, careful stockpiling and asceticism that they have enough food and are able to survive the many months when the trail is closed during the winter.
Emei Shan has been an inspiration for poets since at least the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Eminent poets Li Po and Tu Fu ascended the 15-mile trail to visit the lamasery at the peak of Emei Shan, stopping at lodges along the way to imbibe and compose their poems. In one of Li Po’s verses, he wrote of a drinking contest with a ghost.
Biologist E. H. Wilson waxed eloquent in 1913 as he described the number of “truly magnificent” and massive banyan trees shielding the 70 or more old monasteries that circumscribed the path to Emei Shan’s peak. He measured the largest tree as 80 ft. (24m) tall, with a circumference of 48 ft. (14.6m) at 5 ft. (1.5m) above ground.
The patron saint of Emei is Bodhisattva Puxian, or Samantabhadra, the all gracious, who is still a popular deity in Tibet and is represented as green and riding on an elephant. He is charged with the special duty of protecting those who follow the law.
It is erroneously believed by many that there is only one central Shaolin temple in China, but this is incorrect. There have been five principal temples dispersed throughout central China, but they were not operative at the same times due to war and destruction of the shrines. Historically, the original temple would endure recurring assaults and times of hibernation as the governing Imperial and provincial commanders were apprehensive about the martial powers of the sometimes belligerent monks. Expatriate Shaolin masters would retire from the temple to teach privately or at other Buddhist or Taoist temples. Infrequently a new Shaolin Temple would be built, such as in Kwangtung and Fukien, or appropriated from a former temple, as is the case both at Wutang and here at Emei Shan. Although the monks usually were uninvolved in worldly concerns, still militant and activist monks like the renowned Hung Tze Kwan and White Eyebrow would be a constant wellspring of conflict for the Shaolin sect. The Shaolin have been fighting for centuries, from 621 A.D. in Tang-rule battle up their challenge of Western influence with the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th century. In the 1940s during WWII a new generation of martial artists fought with Japanese soldiers outside the temple complex.
The Emei Shan Temple was constructed around 1500 A.D. as a major natural history library and medical center for the Shaolin order. The temple was known for its healing medicine practices and imported healers, much like other temples used to import kung fu masters. Here the monks could practice the three principals of the Shaolin philosophy: Zen meditation (chan), martial arts (wu), and herbal medicine (yi).
According to some sources, the technique of inoculation is believed to have originated at this site prior to the 6th century, originally taught by Taoist alchemists who lived as cave hermits. The Correct Treatment of Smallpox, the first written record of vaccination, is attributed to a Buddhist nun serving at Emei Shan during the 11th century.
The Temple maintained close connections with the Crane Temple in Tibet. It is in all probability the very same temple that burnt in the symbols of two Cranes onto the forearms instead of having the traditional Dragon like the other three temples in the 18th Chamber principle.
Regrettably, the 20th century saw much destruction at this sacred site, first by the armies of vengeful warlord Shi Yousan in 1927, next of Shang Kai Shek, and finally of Mao Tze Tung. Successive waves of soldiers burned, ransacked and looted all the monasteries, then used this revered mountain-top temple as a target for artillery practice. The site was restored by the Communists in the mid-1970s, and today is a conservation service headquarters for the bamboo forests of Szechuan province and the National Park and Research Center for the panda preserve.
Leshan, one hour from the base of Emei Shan, is renowned for having world’s largest Buddha statue. The main attractions include the Baoguo Temple (at the base) , Fuhu Temple, and Leiyin Temple.