27 May 2018.
I walk into the temple’s meditation room, kneel down on the small cherry-coloured prayer stool facing a group of golden bodhisattvas, and dissolve into tears. My emotional reaction to the setting is deep and spontaneous. Mind you, this is no ordinary temple. This is the magnificent Jīnding Temple, all glazed tiles, white marble balustrades, and gold paint, at the summit of Emei Shan.
Emei Shan, or Emei Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China.
A temple was built near the summit of the mountain by a farmer in the 1st century, indicating the arrival of Buddhism in the Eastern world via the Silk Road. It has been a place of pilgrimage and refuge ever since.
At one time there were as many as 150 Buddhist temples and monasteries scattered over its steep, craggy, forested sides. Today, housing over 300 monks and nuns, there are variously 30, or 76, or 100, depending on what you read. Either way it is still an important and revered place of pilgrimage for China’s 244 million Buddhists. Along with a few foreign tourists, and many Chinese tourists, they flock to the mountain year-round.
Emei Shan is over 3000 metres (over 10,000 ft) high and is associated with the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, emphasising Buddhist practice and meditation.
There are several ways of arriving at the summit of Emei Shan. Our method is comparatively easy. From the hotel we walk for twenty-minutes. Then we’re on a bus for two hours, which gets us to a large parking lot with restaurants and souvenir shops. From there we walk for another twenty-minutes. Then we stand in line for an hour waiting for a cable car. After a twenty-minute cable-car ride we still have another twenty-minute climb.
It would have been a shorter journey had we been able to stay at Baoguo Monastery at the base of the mountain the night before but due to unexpected bookings we had to stay at a hotel further away. But really this was neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. After being on a train for eighteen hours the night before we were glad of a hotel with private bathrooms.
We had the easy way up: a long bus ride, a short walk, a cable car ride and finally a bit of a climb up the stairs to the summit. It’s also possible to hike. It takes more than seven hours and you’re advised to stay the night in one of the basic hostels at the top of the mountain.
Or you can carry a load of bricks up. For a new temple.
I don’t know if the brick carriers are hiking from the bottom or not. Somehow I doubt it, but they sure aren’t riding the cable car. I don’t know where they pick up the bricks. What I do know is these men and women are carrying loads of seventy kilos or more step by painful step up the mountain. What I do know is that they come from poor villages and have two or three years work here at the mountain. What I don’t know for sure but suspect is true is that they are paid little, that they are sore and tired, exhausted by the end of each day, and that they miss their families. It seems a brutal way to make a living.
Each carries a T-shaped bar to allow them to rest the weight from time to time. Each moves slowly and with determination. Resignation and concentration are etched on their faces. I wonder at their stamina and resilience. I’m appalled at the hardship they endure.
When Don and I climbed Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador we noticed the donkeys. A new refuge was being built on the mountain and donkeys carried up all the building materials. I wondered why there were no donkeys in China and was told that nobody can afford them. More likely it’s simply cheaper to hire people. We all know the weaknesses of human nature and how greed frequently overwhelms compassion. Perhaps my tears in the recently built Jīnding Temple were for the people who hauled up all the materials for that building back in the early 2000’s.
The monks have a different way up the stairs, though they probably start by riding the cable car. While using their mala beads to keep count of their chanting, with every step they bow and touch their heads to the ground.
I watch for a while. There are crowds of sightseers, and many Buddhist pilgrims, but the monks are enfolded in a reverent world of their own, undisturbed by the melee around them. Step by sacred step they make their way to the top.
Eventually we too reach the summit. The insistent golden gloriousness of Samantabhadra overwhelms the scene, heralded by the parade of white elephants up the stairs on either side.
There is much to see but the multi-headed shining statue initially demands all my attention. I’ve seen very large golden things before, but never anything quite like this. It’s relatively new, and some say nothing more than a tourist grab, but I don’t care. It’s awesome! All ten heads, four elephants, and forty-eight metres (157ft) of it!
Below it is a huge urn and candle racks where devotees can make their prayers with incense and red candles. As with all religions it’s serious and sacred. Requests are made. Thanks are given. Some are blessed. Some are desperate. Who knows what each of them is going through in their lives. Something compels them make the pilgrimage to Emei Shan, something induces them to light incense and candles and to pray. It’s a solemn moment. The belief in the Mahayana Buddhist teachings, and in the power and teachings of Samantabhadra, hangs in the air along with the smoke arising from the incense and candles.
It is from here that I begin my final climb to the top. My first stop is the Jīnding Temple where I fall down onto the meditation stool and dissolve into tears. Somehow it feels like a relief. There’s something in the energy that reminds me that I’m safe, and that all is well. I sink into it. I would have loved to stay to meditate but I’m aware of having limited time. After about ten minutes I reluctantly continue exploring.
I get a closer look at the elephants supporting Samantabhadra.
I see several monks,
and then see a group of them leading a circumambulation of the great golden statue, the devotees clothed in brown robes following behind.
Some small distinctions: the monks in grey are trainees or novices, those in yellow are Chinese, those in red are from Myanmar or Tibet.
And then there are the views!
I’ve read that dawn is the special time to be at the top of the mountain to see the sun rise over the cloud sea that covers the valley below. I’m just as happy to actually see the valley disappearing into the misty mysterious distance.
Following one of the many paths behind the temple I see a small far-off pagoda. I walk part way towards it. I’m curious about its use and significance. I’m such a hopeless romantic; in my imagination it is the home of a hermit ascetic.
I want to go to it. I walk faster and faster because I know I’m pushed for time. I go as far as I can then, realising it is much further than I’d originally thought, I reluctantly turn back. I later find out it is the Wan Fo Ding Pagoda and that it is situated on the very highest point of Emei Shan known as the Ten Thousand Buddha Summit.
I hurry to join the others. This is one of the busiest days of my three-week Intrepid Travel tour through China. We head down the mountain back to the bus, have a huge banquet style lunch, followed by another long bus ride. At about three in the afternoon we begin the trek that takes us to an isolated monastery deep in the forest on the side of the mountain.
Next post: the trek and a night at the monastery.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.