Buddhist temples are common in China, and can be boring sometimes. However, Nanputuo Temple is a must for tourists in Xiamen, a seaside city in East China's Fujian Province. Even if you are not interested in Buddhism, the surroundings of the temple guarantee you a refreshing experience.
Built on a mountain and facing the sea, the temple is in such a scenic area that it makes one envy the monks there. One may have a feeling here that Buddhism is not so far away from secular life.
The monks of Nanputuo are often seen on the nearby busy downtown streets, and there are always people who take a rest in the square before the entrance of the temple. The western and the eastern gates provide entrance to the square, and both are fitted with plaques reading "Famous Mountain on the Egret Island."
"Egret Island" is another name for Xiamen, which was an island occupied by egrets in ancient times. The "famous mountain" refers to Wulaofeng (Mountain of Five Old Men), with Nanputuo Temple situated at its foot.
Entrance from either of the two gates leads to a park area where you don't have to buy a ticket but can enjoy the surrounding bodhi trees, two white pagodas, a lotus pond and another pond full of fish. It is an ideal place for an after-dinner walk. For tourists who want to see the temple, all they have to pay is 3 yuan (36 US cents), which is cheaper than most of the other famous temples in China.
Nanputuo Temple was founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and was originally named Sizhou Temple and then renamed Puzhao Temple in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Now the Puzhao Hall in the temple still bears that name.
The temple was damaged twice during wars. In 1684, Shi Lang, a general of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rebuilt the temple and named it "Nanputuo" (meaning "south Putuo"), because it is situated to the south of Putuo Mountain, a sacred Buddhist mountain in Zhejiang Province.
Entering the temple, one first goes through the Hall of Heavenly Kings (Tian Wang Dian), where the statues of four ferocious Heavenly Kings are placed. In the center of the hall is a statue of Maitreya, a Bodhisattva as represented by a very stout monk with a broad smile, bare chest and exposed paunch.
Behind the Maitreya, there is Bodhisattva Weituo, who points his sword to the ground, indicating that this temple accommodates all touring monks.
The main buildings of Nanputuo Temple are constructed on a central axis. After the Hall of Heavenly Kings one goes through the Treasured Hall of Great Majesty (Da Xiong Bao Dian), the Hall of Great Mercy (Da Bei Dian) and the Buddhist Scriptures Garret (Cang Jing Ge).
In this sequence one is climbing up along the mountainside. At the center of the temple's main body lies the Treasured Hall of Great Majesty, consecrated to the Buddhas of three lifetimes and the three western saints. This hall is also the place for the monks to do their daily morning and evening chanting.
The morning chanting at 4:30 am might be too early for most people, but the evening chanting at 4:00 pm can be a good occasion for those who are interested to know more about Buddhist culture.
For thousands of years, chanting has been a key practice of Buddhist followers to purify their minds.
The Hall of Great Mercy is another main building in the temple, consecrated to Guanyin (Avalokitesvara). Standing on a stone platform 30 steps high, the octagonal building has a three-layer roof supported by brackets without nails or beams. The local people call this complex bracketing system "spider weaving cobweb." This hall is particularly prosperous because many Buddhist converts from South Fujian believe in Guanyin.
The Buddhist Scriptures Garret is located at the highest of the axis of main buildings. Its first floor serves as the "Worshipping Hall," and the second floor holds a large number of Buddhist scriptures.
On both sides of the axis are new buildings of recent years. To the left of the axis are the Buddhist Institute of South Fujian, Abbot's Building, Meditation Hall and the dormitory of the monks. To the right are the Buddhist Prayer Hall, Haihui Hall and Puzhao Hall.
The last two buildings are where the famous vegetarian food of Nanputuo Temple is served. Not only does the food offer a uniquely light and fresh taste, but the names of the dishes treat one to poetic associations, like "Half Moon in the River," "Silk Rain and Lonely Cloud" and "Pearl of the South Sea."
The buildings of Nanputuo are spread over a mountainside of complicated topography, and are different in forms to suit various functions. However, all the buildings are marked with multi-layered roofs decorated with yellow glazed tiles and carvings of animals, which are in accordance with traditional South Fujian architecture.
In addition, local granite is largely used in columns, beams, arcs, rails and pathways among other things. Together these buildings create a generally solemn and magnificent atmosphere.
The area above the Buddhist Scriptures Garret is made up of mainly commemorative places, which reflect the history of Nanputuo. For example, the Pagoda of Monk Zhuan Feng was built in memory of a monk who reformed the temple's original hereditary sectarian system of abbot selection in 1924. From that time on, Nanputuo adopted a democratic election system for the position.
The Tai Xu Pavilion reminds one of Master Tai Xu, who was abbot of Nanputuo from 1927 to 1932, during which time he rectified the discipline of the Buddhism Institute of South Fujian and took charge of the reconstruction of the Hall of Great Mercy.
In addition to all this, there is the story of Hong Yi (1880-1942), who is perhaps one of the most famous monks who used to live in Nanputuo.
Originally named Li Shutong, Hong Yi was once a versatile artist who made outstanding achievements in drama, music, poetry, painting and calligraphy. After he became a monk at the age of 39, he also contributed a number of important Buddhist works.
Now Nanputuo still keeps some of Hong Yi's manuscripts. Walking along the paths, one sees from time to time calligraphy carved on rocks, with phrases such as "Buddha" and "Immortal Buddhism."
When you reach the Tai Xu Pavilion, you face the sea on the one side and mountain on the other side. In the refreshing breeze coming through the trees, and in the cooling sound of bells from the temple, visitors realize it is a truly special place.
Buddhists say that Buddha is one who has attained enlightenment. In Nanputuo Temple, one might begin to understand what they mean.