Wu-t’ai Shan


Wu-t’ai Shan, literally “Five Terrace Mountain,” is also known as Ch’ing-liang Shan, which translates as “Mount Clear-and-Cool.” It is a short but towering mountainous range lying to the west of Bejing in remote northern Shansi province and extending for more than sixty miles in one direction over an area about 150 miles in circumference. Dominating a plateau filled with temples are five flat-topped peaks: Pei’t’ai (“Northern Terrace”) at 10,042 ft. ; Chung-Vai (“Central Terrace”) at 9,501 ft. ; Tung-Vai (“Eastern Terrace”) at 9,182 ft., and Hsi-t’ai (“Western Terrace”) at 9,123 ft. above sea level. Dedicated to Manjusri and unparalleled in the magnificence of its monasteries and temples, not only has this religious complex served as a Buddhist pilgrimage site for almost 2,000 years, it is also regarded as one of the Five Great Places of Pilgrimage by Tibetans and Mongolians, and is the seat of Mongol Lamaism as well.

Mount Wu-t’ai originally was a site with some local cults that was initially settled by Buddhists in the late fifth century, although evidence of the first temples’ existence was chronicled as early as the Yung-p’ing era of the Eastern Han (A.D. 58–75). The mountain had become a thriving religious center maintaining contacts with India, Central Asia, and Japan by the Sui-T’ang period (mid-6th century). Over 360 temples were built during the Sui and Tang dynasties, when Buddhism held imperial favor. At present, nothing but ruins of them exists. From that time until now it has been one of the penultimate natural sacred sites for Buddhists in China, drawing pilgrims from all over the Mahãyãna Buddhist world. Currently only thirty-nine temples on the plateau remain standing, and eight outside.

Tibetan Manjusri Thanka

Tibetan Manjusri Thanka

The divine champion of Wu-t’ai Shan is the bodhisattva Manjusri, which is the manifestation of Supreme Wisdom and Transcendent Science. He is the one bodhisattva in Buddhism with which Zen tries to most closely align itself because he is envisioned as representing Sudden Enlightenment. For this reason one will usually find an image of Manjusri in the zendo (meditation hall) rather than the Buddha, who will be enshrined in a separate Buddha hall. There are portraits of Manjusri in different colors (red, white, blue, green and yellow) on each of the “Five Terraces,” holding a sword in his right hand which he wields to instantly cut through ignorance to revel intuitive wisdom. His left hand holds a blue lotus, on the flower of which a set of sacred sutras is balanced. This represents his power over the forces of life and death and his guardianship of the Dharma Buddhist teachings. The skin of the bodhisattva is depicted in a saffron color, the under-garment is red, the robe is blue, and the shawl is green. He has long flowing whiskers and his hair is worn in a topknot. He is popularly portrayed as riding on a white lion with green mane (or in Tibet, golden yellow), a tail and tufts of hair at the knees; this vehicle symbolizes bravery and the roar of the Dharma. Manjusri is full of benevolence and associated with happiness and good fortune. He is also described as the ninth Buddha-ancestor of Shakyamuni, and therefore he is often placed on the left of Shakyamuni Buddha, while Visvabhadra, the guardian of law, is on the right. He is the Chief of the Bodhisattva, and so additionally is the chief disciple of the Buddha. At Wu-t’ai Shan a great white pagoda is said to contain a single hair of the saint, who is supposed to have appeared there in the form of an old man. It is the location where the future Buddha Manjushri is prophesied to materialize to reinvigorate Buddhism with the spiritual power of his wisdom.

A legend relates that Manjusri came from Wu-t’ai Shan to revere a miraculous lotus that appeared on the lake which then filled Nepal. With a blow of his sword he rent the mountainous obstacle, thereby siphoning water from the valley and in the process introducing civilization to the area. Perhaps hidden in this folklore is some tradition of the establishment of culture into Nepal but the Nepalese legends are mute on this subject and relatively modern since in their collected form they do not go back beyond the sixteenth century.

Due to its location on the northern edge of Shansi province, Wu-t’ai has always been a border territory. Although civilized and densely-settled China lies to the south and east of the mountain complex, to its north and west lie vast plains, deserts, swamps, and savage wilderness. It is therefore logical that Wu-t’ai came to be regarded as a spiritual stronghold and one of the fortifications of the realm, upon which centuries of generous provision from the Imperial court of T’ai-tsung and the other great emperors would be conferred in hopes of ensuring and magnifying the political power of the emperors and thus the very supremacy of the Chinese empire. Wu-t’ai owed its potency not only to the fact that it was a sacred place but also due to its location balanced on the extreme frontier of civilization. This enhanced the Wu-t’ai pilgrimage experience since those who made the trek to the sacred mountain transported themselves to the farthest extremity of their conventional existence. However, Wu-t’ai’s reputation as a remote spiritual bastion is somewhat ironic as it was also a global Buddhist focal point frequently visited by foreign devotees from Central, South, and Southeast Asia, not to mention Korea and Japan. Its role as a sacred junction provided a connection between China and other communities and civilizations, and maintained the mountain compound’s international significance even in times of animosity or antagonism.

Ancient records at Mount Wu-t’ai suggest that it was the locus for certain cave traditions that were essential to its cultic activities. Some of these caves have always been religious centers and are so even now, while others undefined in the early texts took on substantial relevance for spiritual seekers and inhabitants of the mountain region in more recent history. There are at least four types of caves at Mount Wu-t’ai, which include:

  1. Dwelling caves;
  2. Paradise caves of the mountain lords;
  3. Manifestation caves; and
  4. A cave of initiatory rebirth.


Dwelling caves

Dwelling caves are long-established in Buddhist ideology. Certain arhats (Sãkyamuni’s early disciples who have pledged to protect and maintain the Teachings until the appearance of the next Buddha in the world) traditionally have dwelt in mountain caves, and Buddhist holy books hold many examples of cave residents. A number of cave habitats where hermits have lived alone in meditation are present at Mount Wu-t’ai. Since the seventh century the special cave best known to pilgrims and wayfarers and believed to be the abode of powerful spirits is the Diamond Grotto (Chin-kang k’u). An important pilgrimage site until recent decades, it has fallen into disuse since the late 1950s and early 1960s when all the structures in the valley were leveled to create a vacation retreat for Lin Piao. Today there is only a pile of debris in front of the Diamond Grotto site.

Since ancient times the cavern has been identified as the habitat of the mountain spirit that governs over the precipice (shan-shen). All eminently metaphysical mountains in the divine landscape of China contain such spirits which antedate Buddhist and, even in some cases, Taoist influence. However, this prior history doesn’t prevent the Buddhists from an attempt at legitimization made through an appeal to precedents in an even more antediluvian antiquity. In this case, the history of the Diamond Grotto is traced back to the early Buddhas of the Auspicious Aeon, thus establishing that the cave — and in fact, the entire mountain complex — has long been a sacred center for Buddhist activity. The precedence of the shan-shen or other native Chinese tradition loses ground in the face of this assertion.


Paradise caves of the mountain lords

The Diamond Grotto is described as a concealed portal to a paradise realm of the transcendents — “grotto-heavens” (tung-t’ien) — an enduring motif in Chinese folklore. The Chinese believe that one must become sufficiently refined and spiritually pure to access these special caves where phenomenal treasures exist, protectively hidden. Mystic scriptures are cached in such secure locations, as well as the drugs of immortality, jewels, amulets and other “power objects.” There are provocative references to the Diamond Grotto in particular as a storehouse for treasures; most especially music, musical instruments (such as a bronze bell), and sacred texts. This heritage is very similar to Tibetan terma traditions. Frequently incredible plants and trees flourish near the portal. Supernatural beings could enter, often through a nondescript rock escarpment that separates in acknowledgment of their presence, while the base and unevolved could only remain without. When Buddhists appropriated Mount Wu-t’ai’s domain as their own, they transmuted this aboriginal Chinese phenomenon into a Buddhist one by identifying the Diamond Grotto as the home of Wen-shu (who superseded the mountain-lord), and those who were piously accomplished could win access to the bodhisattva’s heavenly kingdom on earth.


Manifestation caves

Divine beings are believed to reveal themselves in two caves at Mount Wu-t’ai, appearing out of the darkness from time to time in response to devotees but not actually residing there. Foremost to disciples is the Cave of Kuan-yin (Kuan-yin Tung). It is one of two small natural rock caves located high up on a steep hill just north of the Southern Mountain, Nan-shan. The other cave of manifestation is dedicated to Shan-ts’ai (Skt. Sudhana), the pilgrim hero of the Gandayüha,who has been portrayed as a chief companion of Manjusri since T’ang times. This rock cave is rather inconsequential and its surroundings are unimportant.

It is worth noting that there are similar revelatory caves at P’u-t’o Shan, and other evidence of historically significant affiliations exists between this locality and that of Wu-t’ai Shan. These two territories are the sole locales in China with caves devoted to the worship of Shan-ts’ai, a principal attendant in the depictions and myths of both Kuan Yin and Manjusri.


Cave of initiatory rebirth

The location formally recognized as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas (Ch’ien-fo Tung) but also more generally recognized as the Cave of the Mother of Buddhas (Fo-mu Tung) has the following legend associated with it. In the mid-sixteenth century late one night a priest noticed the activity of “spirit lights”around the entrance of a hitherto undiscovered lofty cave located on a towering cliff on the Southern Terrace’s northeast side.

Line of buddha statues in cave temple, © 2011 Arturbo, iStockphoto

Line of Buddha statues in cave temple
He accompanied them inside the cave and was astonished to behold row after row of jade Buddha effigies arranged like petals ringing the center of the alcove. While deeply exploring the cave, his presence triggered repeated undulations of overwhelming sound. He became terror-stricken and disoriented in the dark and, unnerved, began intoning the name of Kwan-yin, and promising to create a holy icon (sheng-hsiang). Without warning, a solitary lamp appeared in front of him. He succeeded in discovering the way out by following this beacon, and subsequently in honor of his vow made an idol at the cave.

In terms of its ceremonial use, this particular “womb cave” is unique in China but nevertheless relates to a noteworthy archetype pertaining to all Asian people. In the process of entering and exiting such caves through a passage, one experiences regeneration and a purgation of imperfections in addition to a perception of metamorphosis and revivification. This pattern is found in a broad swath of Asian societies such as Japan, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Tibet and India.


The four different kinds of caves on Mount Wu-t’ai have critical singularities that stem from both their material formations and from how they are experienced and understood. Distinct traditions are connected with these individual classifications. The diverse range of cave sites at Mount Wu-t’ai is a fascinating microcosm of the intricate and foliated character of some of the main holy mountains in the Chinese cosmos.

In terms of its architecture, few of the existing structures at Mount Wu-t’ai are of ancient orgin. However, the main hall of the Hua-kuang Ssu (circa 857) is recognized as being the oldest surviving wooden building in China.