Buddhist art makes its mark

The Longmen Grottoes are inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity.”

 

The Nation/ANN - Only about 80 kilometres apart, the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes reflect the contributions. The Religion has made to this part of central China

AFTER A DAY spent in the heady company of Lord Bao and the generals of the Yang Family, it’s only fitting that the next stop on my trip to central China should be the Centre of Heaven and Earth.

Otherwise known as Dengfeng and the best part of two hours by road from Kaifeng, the city is located between Mount Shaoshi and Mount Taishi – the two peaks of Mount Songshan, the most sacred mountain in China. One of the country’s most renowned spiritual centres, it is home to various religious institutions and temples including the Taoist Zhongyue Temple, the Buddhist Shaolin Temple, as well as the Confucian Songyang Academy. With its well-preserved culture and stunning architecture, Dengfeng boasts 11 historic monuments at eight sites, all of them inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list.

Schools offering training in kung-fu line the road into Dengfeng, six of them are part of the Zhengzhou Shaolin Tagou Education group. Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts School, Mount-Song Shaolin Martial Arts Vocational College, Shaolin Vocational Middle School, Shaolin High School, Jinta Automobile Driving School, and the Tagou Youth Sports and Martial Arts Club all enjoy high enrolment, suggesting that the martial arts discipline continues to grow in popularity.

“Kung fu wasn’t created for fighting but as an exercise for monks who suffered pain and fatigue after meditating for a long time. Da Mo, or Bodhidharma, introduced these ways of stretching the body by observing the behaviour of several animals including the monkey and tiger.

“These days Chinese parents want their sons to learn discipline, strength and self-sufficiency and send them to study kung-fu. Once they have graduated, the students serve as teachers, soldiers or even performers. They study here from the age of five, learning lessons in the morning and practising kung fu in the afternoon. Before we saw only boys but girls are now being sent here too. And there are quite a few foreigners coming to learn kung fu,” our Thai-speaking Chinese guide explains. 

“The Shaolin Temple became famous during the Tang Dynasty, and Shaolin monks famously fought for Li Shimin against the warlord Wang Shichong. At that time, kung fun was a human weapon.”

We join the groups of Chinese tourists queuing to enter Shaolin Monastery. At the entrance gate we have just enough time to take photographs with the statue of Da Mo, abbot of the Shaolin Temple the guide buys our tickets. We decide to walk to the temple buildings though golf carts are provided for those who prefer to ride. 

Carved stones inscribed with the names of martial arts groups from all over the world who have made donations for the upkeep of the temple and grounds line the pathway leading to Devaraja or Heavenly Kings Hall, which was razed during the war of 1928 and rebuilt in 1981 based on its original structure. Its gates are guarded by two vajras, General Heng and General Ha. Behind the gate are the four Devarajas, or heavenly kings, namely Huguo, Zhengzhang, Guangmu, and Duowen, along with gingko trees that the monks use to practise finger punching.

“The Shaolin Temple has good feng shui. Looking down from the mountaintop, the temple looks like a lotus because it is surrounded by many lower peaks. Legend has it that Da Mo initially refused to teach the monk Huike even though he knelt in the snow outside Da Mo’s cave all night. In the morning Da Mo came out and said if the snow became red, he would accept him. Huike cut off his left arm and let his blood stain the snow. After Da Mo accepted him as a student, and changed his name from Shenguang to Huike meaning ‘Wisdom and Capacity’. To pay respect for the sacrifice of Huike, disciples and monks of the Shaolin Temple greet each other using only their right hand,” explains the guide.

A huge caldron stands inside the temple area and the guide tells us that it was created in 1576 during the Ming Dynasty. Weighing 650kg and 1.68 metres in diameter, it was used by monks to cook food.

We also get to see the 48 footprints in the floor of a training hall, said to have been made by years of kung- fu practice. The walls meanwhile are covered in murals showing 500 Shaolin monks perfecting their martial arts skills.

We then walk to the Pagoda Forest, once the burial ground for eminent monks and home to 250 tombstones and brick stupas from several dynasties. 

Before leaving we watch the 30-minute kung-fu show at the martial arts gym which, despite being highly professional, has an almost Disney-like feel to it.

Outside the complex we pile back into the coach for the hour-long trip to Luoyang, one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and a stop on the ancient Silk Road. It is best known for the Longmen Grottoes, which Unesco describe as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity” in the World Heritage site literature. A much-loved tourist attraction, we join thousands of Chinese tourists walking through the entrance under Longmen Bridge over the Yi River. The alternative name “Dragon’s Gate Grottoes” derives from the resemblance of the two hills that check the flow of the Yi River to the typical Chinese gate towers that once marked the entrance to Luoyang from the south.

Carved deep into the limestone cliff lining the road that has the river on one side and the Longmen Mountain on the other are 2,345 caverns sheltering as many as 100,000 statues of Buddha and his disciples. Steps have been especially built for visitors to access the higher caves and any vertigo is quickly forgotten as we gaze in awe at these works of art, the smallest of which measures just two centimetres. The largest, the Grand Vairocana Buddha statue is 17.2 metres tall and is believed to have been modelled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, the only reigning female in Chinese history.

By Kitchana Lersakvanitchaku