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Heaven on the mountaintop



It's only 18 months since Yan Liancheng broke the news to her family in Chengdu. She had converted to Buddhism and would be leaving home to live on top of a mountain 50 km away. Her choice of religion did not shock her family, but her age. She was already 80 years old.

She chuckles as she recalls telling her family about her decision to live in the Buddhist temple known as Lingkai. "My children panicked," she says. "They thought they must have done something offensive to me and I was running away from home.

"Actually, it was completely the opposite. After so many years, I've finally found the key to true happiness - a balanced mind and the readiness to forgive. If you have these, you can be happy every day and have a long life.

"I've learnt this through my life experience, especially through my visits to this temple. During ups and downs I found peace here. I couldn't have found a better place to spend the rest of my life."

There is a Chinese saying: "What matters most for a mountain is not its height, but its heavenly inspiration". Yan says Lingkai's mountain is such an example.

From a distance, says Yan, it looks like a lotus surrounded by other mountains, like nine frolicking dragons. Hence its name is Fulian (Buddhist Lotus) Mountain or Jiulong (Nine Dragon) Mountain.

Now Yan's main duty is to guard the Buddha of Fortune and keep the temple hall clean. Monotonous as it sounds, Yan says she never feels bored or lonely since there are always visitors, with whom she can chat and share her experiences. These conversations have been quite meaningful - Yan has even become godmother to some frequent visitors.

During a recent festival, when hundreds of followers came to receive the temple's feast, the 82-year-old was found proudly reciting a long sutra among her goddaughters.

Someone had praised her for her good memory and good health. Yan laughed heartily. "This mountain is a godly place," she said.

The temple halls, most of which are over 100 years old, are maintained and functional but far from magnificent in appearance. The columns are peeling and the altars are made of plain wood.

The numerous dragon symbols, a main feature of the temple and a reminder of the heavenly spirit they believe inhabits the mountain, are well maintained and vividly colorful. The incense container in front of each of the temple halls may be rusty but it is never empty.

Each day dozens of devotees visit the temple, accessible only by a one-lane car drive from the foot of the mountain and only recently built by the temple. There are no buses to the top of the mountain and many people hire a taxi. Most, however, walk the 5 km up the mountain and donate the money they have saved to the temple.

Once inside, regular visitors know each of the 80 resident monks and can greet them warmly by name. They know who to go to when they need advice on greetings for a wedding or epigraphs for the deceased. In the event of a new arrival, each monk is a ready guide, even a new convert like Guangming from Chengdu.

Guangming is in her 30s. Following her around the temple, she proudly narrates its history and legends, as if it belonged to her family.

The two century-old Bodhi trees in front of the temple always bear beans in the shape of Buddha's head. There is also a sweet-scented osmanthus tree, which withered during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when the temple was almost abandoned, yet revived in 1985 when the temple reopened to the public. Locals believe one will have a long life if he samples the temple's speciality, wine made with flowers from the tree.

"There wouldn't have been such a temple had there not been the constant support of pious followers," says Shi Congxiu, the oldest monk in the temple. "Over its more than 1,000 years of history, the temple has been destroyed many times, but has always been rebuilt with donations from its followers."

Legend has it that during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a monk at Ciyun Temple on the opposite mountain found its heavenly spirit while meditating. He moved there and a few years later, with help and donations from a few followers, built the temple and named it Nianhua (flower-picking) Temple.

"People usually think the name of the temple refers to the legend of Shakyamuni holding up the flower to a smiling Mahakashyapa, considered the First Ancestor of Zen in India," Shi says.

"In fact, the hua (flower) in the name refers to mianhua (cotton). People usually refer to donations to temples as dengyouqian (literally, money for lantern and oil). Since cotton is used as wicks for oil lanterns, the monk has included 'cotton' in the name of the temple to pay tribute to the temple's followers."

From its beginning, the temple has been self-sufficient. All the monks, even the abbot Shi Miaoguo, have to work in the fields to produce food.

On celebrations like the Laba Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, when Sakyamuni realized his dream of full enlightenment, the temple throws a vegetarian feast for its followers with food produced from its own fields.

Donations go to the maintenance of the temple. In return, the monks also give Buddhist teachings, counseling and advice on any subject requested. As an expert in acupuncture and herbal medicine, the abbot is always happy to offer medical service to whoever asks for it.




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