The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 11: A Sacred Peak

Pilgrimage has long been regarded as a meritorious practice in Buddhism. As he was about to pass into nirvana, the Buddha is said to have recommended paying homage to the sites of his birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death. Pilgrimage centres developed at these and other places in India, places often associated with events from the life of the Buddha, as seen in the previous chapter. As Buddhism spread across Asia, the distance of the Buddha’s devotees from the famous sites in his life also increased; pilgrimage to them was undertaken only by the most stalwart travellers. Fortunately for others, places of pilgrimage also developed in more accessible locales.

But how could there be a sacred Buddhist site in a land that the Buddha never visited? Most often, the presence of the Buddha would be imported in the form of a relic, sometimes delivered to the monarch by a foreign monk, to be enshrined in a stupa (see Chapter 22). Sometimes stories were told of magical visitations of the Buddha to a land beyond India. And sometimes, a mountain mentioned in an Indian Buddhist text would be identified with a local peak.

Wutai Shan (‘Five-terraced Mountain’) is a cluster of five peaks situated in northern Shanxi Province in China. Buddhist pilgrimage sites often developed in places that were regarded as somehow sacred or extraordinary prior to the introduction of Buddhism to the region. In the case of Mount Wutai, it appears to have been regarded as an abode of medicinal herbs and Daoist immortals. With the steady growth of Buddhism under the northern Wei dynasty (424-532), Wutai came to be identified with the mythic Mount Clear-and-Cool (Qingliang shan), the earthly abode of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri, described in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Huayan jing). With the rise of the Huayan School (which regarded the Avatamsaka Sutra as the Buddha’s highest teaching) during the Tang Dynasty (618-774), Wutai gained fame as a pilgrimage destination, and a wide array of monasteries and sacred sites developed there, many of which can still be seen today. Also during the Tang, lore about the mountain began to be compiled in chronicles that would gain wide popularity.

The earliest extant chronicle of lore and miracle tales concerning the pilgrimage site of Mount Wutai was composed in 677 by the monk Huixang of Langu. It is entitled The Old Record of [Mount] Cool and Clear (Gu qingliang zhuan). Two selections from this text appear here. The first is the introduction, explaining how the mountain gained its fame, and noting that its importance surpasses that of other Chinese sites because Mount Wutai is mentioned in a work of Indian origin, the Avatamsaka Sutra. The second selection is a typical miracle story about the mountain and its mysterious inhabitants.

The Avatamaka Sutra states in the Chapter on the Stations of the Bodhisattva, ‘In the northeastern direction there is a place where bodhisattvas dwell known as Mount Clear and Cool (Qingliang). Over the ages past bodhisattvas have constantly inhabited its recesses. At present there is a bodhisattva dwelling there by the name of ManjusrL He has [a retinue of] some ten thousand bodhisattvas who are constantly engaged in preaching the dharma.’

Whenever I look over the famous mountains of this land, whether it be the lore of mounts Song and Tai as guardians of the four directions, or the immortals’ caverns of Peng [Lai] and Ying[zhou], I see that [their lore] derives entirely from vulgar sources and stops with [the borders of] this land of ours. Not one of them has ever appeared in the precious canon transmitted from the golden mouth [of the Buddha]. Only after [a mountain] has broadcast its transforming influence as the home to ten thousand sages, or its reputation has been spread through the five continents of India will it take on such a legacy [as Wutai]. [Wutai’s] beauty outshines that of the Numinous Peak [Grdhrakuta]; its [supernatural] benefits endure through the entire Fortunate Aeon. How could one expect to find mention of it in the commonplace records or in the hearsay of our contemporaries? And yet, on top of present-day [Wutai] there stands the Qingliang Monastery. At its foot lies the Qingliang district of Wutai prefecture. Surely this is as lucid a testimony as ‘ [divination by] tortoise and [reflection in a] mirror’.

The region as a whole is called the Mount of Five Terraces, for it comprises five distinct peaks, on the summits of which no forests grow. Since they resemble [mounds] of piled earth, they are called ‘terraces’. Li Daoyuan’s [Commentary] to the Water Classic states that, ‘There are five precipices that majestically loom over and encircle the tops of the myriad hills. Thus it is referred to as “the five peaks”.’ In the third year of the yongjia era [307-312 ce] of the Jin, over one hundred households from Suoren Prefecture in Yanmen Commandery fled to these mountains in order to escape [civil] turmoil. They noticed that the local inhabitants ran away from them and refused to return, preferring instead to live in the craggy wilds. Scholar officials who have visited the mountain occasionally report having distantly spied persons living there. But when they went to seek them out, no one knew where they were.

As a result, people consider this mountain to be an abode of immortals. A scripture of the immortals itself says, ‘Mount Wutai is known as the Purple Ministry. There are always purple pneuma on it, and immortals dwell in their midst.’

The Jingyi ji records, ‘In Yanmen there is Mount Wutai. The shape of the mountain comprises five soaring peaks. One of its terraces is always obscured and not readily visible. But when the skies clear and the clouds part, there are times when it stands out [clearly].’ The Guodi zhi says, ‘the tiered slopes of the mountain are verdant and steeply rising, convoluted and mazelike. Its numinous peaks and spiritual valleys are not places where the shallow and vulgar can purchase a foothold. Those who stay there are all masters of dhyana [meditation] or persons bent on pondering the mysteries [of existence]. When the sound of the dharma-thunder rumbles and the fragrant mists billow in from the four quarters, the enlightened and compassionate heart naturally withdraws into the abstruse. Those who experience such confirmations upon setting foot on this mountain, go there never to return.’

Those who have gathered up reports [on Mount Wutai] say that Manjusri is a great being who is endowed with a body of [formless] dharma. When he first realized perfect enlightenment he was known as Lord Dragon Seed, or Treasury of Happiness. He is also called Tathagata Who is Seen by All. Through the power of expedient means he now manifests himself as a bodhisattva [on Mount Wutai], where he promotes the existence of the assembly of saints and draws the benighted to salvation. Those who are spurred by his presence gallop headlong to the other shore. But should one try to scrutinize his inner enlightenment, one will find it utterly beyond the reach of acquired knowledge; and when it comes to discussing his traces, name and number can never comprehend their extent. But because the deluded have slumbered for so long and are unable to awaken on their own, Manjusri is moved to submit to the call of compassion. Seeing that, in this Saha world, this place of [Mount] Clear and Cool has constantly been occupied by beings who have chosen to preserve the dharma of the ancient buddhas, Manjusri has manifested his traces, reached out to people’s spiritual capacities, and come to attend to the needs of us sentient beings.

Sometimes people ask: ‘If the great sage [ManjusrI] responds to and instructs beings according to the principle of perfect equality, it is fitting that [his activities] should extend to a million different lands. Why does he restrict himself to this one location?’

A Miracle Tale

There was a devoted layman from Daizhou – his name has been lost – who sometime in his twenties decided to climb Mount Wutai in order to worship [Manjusri]. He happened upon a lone monk, who subsequently led him towards the eastern side of the east peak. There they came upon a lone dwelling, the construction of which resembled the compound of an ordinary household. However, inside there were over one hundred monks in residence. The man who brought him there asked, ‘Are you capable of remaining here to cultivate the way with us?’ To which he replied, ‘I am.’

The layman stayed at the house for over half a year. The monks there mainly lived on medicinal herbs and cakes, which they sometimes supplemented with fruits and vegetables. They lived a pure and frugal existence, much as spiritual beings live. They were sparing in speech.

To the south of the well from which they drew their water, the layman once spotted a plot containing a leafy plant with a single stalk, the leaves of which were as large as those of the lotus plant. When he went to investigate, he found it to be easily reached. He went there daily to pick greens, stripping off as much as half the plant in a single trip. When he returned the next day, he would find the leaves to be completely grown back. At first he considered this to be very strange, but as time went on he ceased to pay particular attention to it. Gathering herbs with the monks like this, the days and months seemed to pass without notice.

Finally the day came when he asked to return home. The monks let him go without the slightest objection. He got back home [safely], but after spending just a few nights there, he came running back to Wutai. The mountain slopes and valley were exactly as they were before, but there was no sign whatsoever [of the monks and their compound]. He searched about and made enquiries, but learned that the region had always been serene and uninhabited. The man suspects that [the monks] were saints [of Wutai], and he has been heartsick about it ever since. When I met him he was already more than seventy years old.

Translated by Daniel Stevenson. The first selection is from Gu Qingliang Zhuan, T 2098, vol. 51, pp. 1092c27-1093b11; the miracle tale is from Gu Qingliang Zhuan, T 2098, vol. 51, pp. 1098b10-21.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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