Role of Sacred Mountains in the Evolution of Buddhism in China

Map of China's Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains 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-tai 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.
Chinese temple in mountainside, Fujian province, China © Xiangyang Zhang 2010 iStockphotoThese 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. Mt. Meili and Prayer Flags on Yunnan/Tibet border in China, © Alan Toby 2006 iStockphoto 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.
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."

Bust of Buddha's face, © Navin Khianey 2009, iStockphoto