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Role of Sacred Mountains in the Evolution of Buddhism in China

It has been suggested that Wu-t’ai Shan was the first mountain in China to be associated with a Buddha or Bodhisattva as in ancient times it was most frequented by pilgrims, and that the establishment of sacred Buddhist mountains signifies an important step in the development of a distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism. As well as Wu-t’ai shan, three other mountains became sacred to Buddhists in China: Emei in the west, sacred to Samantabhadra; Chiu-hua in the south; and P’u-t’o, a mountain island off the Chekiang coast in the east, sacred to Kuan-yin (Avalokite’svara). The four famous sacred ‘hills’ or monasteries in China Buddhism with their respective Bodhimandas are:


P’u-t’o P’u-t’o, for Kwan Yin or Avalokite’svara, element water;
Wu-t'ai Wu-t’ai, for Wen-shu or Manjusri, element wind;
Emei Emei or O-mei, for P’uhsien or Samantabhadra, element fire; and
Chiu-hua Chiu-hua or Jiuhua, for Tizang or Ksitigarbha, element earth.


These four mountains formed a pilgrimage circuit and their symbolism expanded as time went on. For example, they became emblematic of the four cardinal points, the four fundamental elements, the four heavenly kings, the four treasures, and so on.

There exists an interrelation of Buddhist concepts and practices with native Chinese traditions. Relations between segments of the two traditions were dynamic and mutually transformative as has been revealed in numerous studies of past decades on Taoist and Chinese Buddhist literature, thought, meditation practices, and ritual. This relationship is also demonstrated in the study of changing perceptions of sacred geography in China. The metamorphosis of the Chinese terrain into a precisely Buddhistic one was a powerful influence in the integration of Buddhism into Chinese culture and in the forging of a distinctly Chinese Buddhism. However, in many cases, what we find is an alteration in Buddhist terms of elements central to their original Chinese source.

The metamorphosis of the landscape was first accomplished through the conception or presumption of a new “built environment” overlaid upon a well-known region. Impressive religious complexes were built, shrines constructed, and radiant effigies carved into the mountainsides. Stupas and obsequy shrines were established to receive the cremated remains of renowned ecclesiastics. All these monuments were tangible transformations that led to a new presence in an old domain.

In addition, even previously established sacred sites were distinguished in new ways. Legends of malevolent lake and river gods bested by Buddhist deities sharply symbolize a rearrangement of territorial control. The Buddhists established residence on the sacred mountains which were the nucleuses and hubs of the dominant environment of antediluvian Chinese religions. Specific holy mountains were recognized as the seats of manifestation of strictly Buddhist deities, and thereby the Buddhist pantheon became ensconced in the Chinese empyrean. These mountains evolved into centers for spiritual contemplation and disciplines, as well as locations to which resolute devotees would trek in search of visions.Buddhist pilgrims adopted the aboriginal Chinese practice of scaling the summit of sacred mountains, as the emperors did to perform sacrifices on the peak of T’ai Shan, the most important mountain in China, demonstrating the success of their dynasties.

P’u-T’o Shan

P’u-t’o Shan, literally “Mount Potalaka,” was identified with Avalokite’svara’s mountain of Potalaka, which is often located in the south of India. The Chinese “Mount Potalaka” is a mountainous island of approximately 48 square miles situated over 62 miles east of the coast of Zhejiang province, covered with monasteries, cave temples, and shrines, and is one of the most important Buddhistic centers in China. Since this is a place where many visitors have sought and received visions of Kwan Yin, its patron Bodhisattva, over the millennia it has become the foremost site for Kwan Yin worship in China. The island harbors several Buddhist monasteries and landscape features connected with Buddhist mythology, all of which have undergone periods of prominence, disintegration, and restoration.

P’u-t’o Shan was a place of pilgrimage as early as the Sung dynasty (960–1279), and is believed to have been first established in 916. Its early sect was associated with Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, an image of whom was brought there from T’ien-t’ai Shan, a center of Buddhism on the adjacent mainland. In the 11th century a temple to the goddess was restored and considerably augmented; it became a major temple of Ch’an (Japanese Zen) Buddhism in 1131. The religious complex developed strong bonds with the major centers of Zen Buddhism in Japan due to considerable maritime interactions with that country. Evidence of these compelling links is demonstrated by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan’s employment of monks from P’u-t’o Shan as emissaries in his effort to conquer Japan in the late 13th century.

The area was extensively desecrated by the invasions of Japanese marauders during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and the temples deteriorated into a state of decay. However, in 1580 the monastic complex was renovated and it was granted Imperial protection during under the Ch’ing dynasty (1644–1911).

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.

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. 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 expurgation 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 origin. However, the main hall of the Hua-kuang Ssu (circa 857) is recognized as being the oldest surviving wooden building in China.

Chiu-hua Shan

Chiu-hua Shan, translated as “Nine Floriate Mountain” or “Nine Flower Mountain”, is a Taoist and early Buddhist site situated in one of the most naturally beautiful parts of the Yangtze Valley, southwest of Qingyang in present-day Anhui province. The monastery was extensively destroyed during the Tai-ping rebellion (1861-1865) with a few of the main buildings rebuilt around or after 1867.

This flourishing pilgrimage site near Huang Shan is believed to be the sanctuary of savior-bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (Sanskrit) or Ti-tsang (also known as Jizo Bosatsu in Japan) near Huang Shan. One of the group of eight Dharani-Bodhisattvas with hints of a feminine origin, he is now the guardian of the Earth-store, Earth-treasury, or Earthwomb, and his many representations assimilate Taoist, Buddhist, and Shinto aspects. Though associated with hell’s overlord Yama and with the dead, his role is that of savior, holding a place between the gods and men on the one hand and the hells on the other for liberating all in adversity. He labors to alleviate the affliction and shorten the sentence of those imprisoned in hell as well as to respond to the invocations of the living for health, good luck, progeny, and to supplications of all kinds. He is depicted with a resplendent jewel in his left hand and an alarum staff with its six rings in his right.

Some academics postulate that Jizo’s representation as a priest originated with a 7th-century Korean monk named Gin Chau Jue who was recognized as an incarnation of Jizo, came to China in 653 and lived at Chiu-hua Shan for 75 years. The monk saint lived to be 99 years old and died on the sacred mountain in 728. According to tradition, his material remains did not decay but became naturally mummified, and at a later date his body was gilded over and worshiped as both an object of veneration and a manifestation of Jizo in the Jouzen Pao-tien (Mummified Precious Hall) of the Pai Su Kung temple located here.

Poet Li Po was particularly enamored of Chiu-hua Shan, and extolled the beauties of the area in several of his most celebrated poems.


The study of sacred geography in China deals with cardinal concerns; it corresponds with the understanding of the ground upon which many of the dramas of spiritual life have unfolded. In ruminating upon such fundamental material, one becomes acutely cognizant of the framework within which the self-encompassing conventions of Buddhism and Taoism function. Some perspectives of the mountains, caves and practices therein may be seen as “purely Buddhistic,” while others appear to emanate from native Chinese customs, subtly camouflaged in Buddhist trappings. It has been fashionable to examine the “sinicization” of Buddhism in China, and the manner in which Buddhist perceptions and practices have been modified to fit into a Chinese environment. However, study of the traditions and background of such sacred sites advance the theory that it may be productive to consider this subject from a different viewpoint, perhaps that of a common matrix of Chinese religions that is deeply ingrained in culture yet is constantly revised, resurfacing in many guises. It could be that both the concept of God and that of the true essence of man actually reside “in spirit and life” within “… the imagination that liveth forever.”