Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, author of Into the Heart of Life , Reflections of a Mountain Lake, and Cave in the Snow, and who is profiled in the recently released Dakini Power, just returned from a pilgrimage in China, following the footsteps of Xuanzang and visiting the Four Sacred Mountains and four Buddhist rock grottoes. Here she shares some of her experiences of the pilgrimage and observations about Buddhism in China and of nuns in particular.
Shambhala Publications: What made you decide to go to China on this pilgrimage?
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: My seventieth birthday was in June this year, so my friend May Ling from Singapore suggested we could celebrate by undertaking a pilgrimage in China to the Four Sacred Mountains. She knew I had wanted to visit Wu Tai Shan, the mountain dedicated to Mañjushri, since reading many years ago John Blofeld’s moving account of his stay there during the 1940s in his autobiography The Wheel of Life.
SP: Can you say a few things about Xuanzang for our readers who may not be so familiar with him and tell a little about how Xuanzang inspired you?
JTP: Long ago I had read Xuanzang’s meticulous account of his travels to India, and I also read the novel Monkey, which is a famous Chinese fantasy based on his life. Xuanzang [Hsuan Tsang] was born in 600 CE and became a monk at the age of thirteen following the death of his parents. He was obviously dedicated and highly intelligent, so he studied under many masters. However he felt that the sutra translations of his time were somewhat inaccurate, and he knew that there were many more sutras still to be found in India. Despite the emperor’s prohibition, Xuanzang escaped from China, following the Silk Road, and traveled across the Gobi Desert coming finally to Afghanistan and into India. The journey took several years with many adventures along the way. In India he at last found his master in the monk scholar Silabhadra at the Nalanda Monastic University where Xuanzang then studied for five years. He later traveled around India making accurate and precise calculations, and he left descriptions of the Buddhist sites that he found, which were mostly in decline, even during his time.
After fourteen years away, Xuanzang finally returned to China laden with many sutras and relics. He spent the rest of his life organizing a translation school and teaching the Dharma while trying to distance himself from court politics. Buddhism in China was greatly influenced and enhanced by his translations, especially those of important sutras in the Chittamatra (or Yogachara) tradition.
In the nineteenth century, the great archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham used the travel chronicles of Xuanzang to rediscover the sacred sites of Buddhism in India such as the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Sanchi, which had been forgotten and neglected for almost a thousand years.
Anyway, we started at Xuanzang’s birthplace near Xian and tracked his progress along the Silk Road to Dunhuang and then to Chengdu, where he received his bhikshu ordination. All along the way we found pagodas and monasteries dedicated to his memory. In the evenings, we also watched a long Chinese documentary on his life, which was fascinating as it mentioned many of the places we had just visited.
SP: Which mountains did you go to?
JTP: We started with Wu Tai Shan, which is sacred to Mañjushri and traditionally has a strong Mongolian and Tibetan influence. Then we visited Emei Shan, which is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Jiu Hua Shan dedicated to Ksitigarbha, and Putuo Shan near Shanghai, which is sacred to Avalokiteshvara or Guan Yin.
All these mountains are carefully maintained with spectacular landscapes and very few buildings apart from temples and small shops selling Buddhist artifacts. The scenery was far more beautiful, vast, and spacious than we could have imagined, and very inspiring. Of course almost all the original temples had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but now they have been rebuilt in the traditional manner with great aesthetic sensibility. Often it was hard to believe that these temples were only restored recently. The monks and nuns we met along the way were usually very friendly and welcoming.
SP: Which cave sites did you visit?
JTP: The first were the Yungong Grottoes not far from Datong which date back to the fifth century. They have spectacular Buddhist statues and murals. Some years ago the caves were black with the dust from nearby coal mines but now everything has been cleaned and skilfully renovated with long approach avenues of trees and bushes.
Throughout the centuries the fortunes of Buddhism in China have waxed and waned—one dynasty being the patrons of the Dharma and the next dynasty becoming the persecutors—so it is amazing how much Buddhist art still remains untouched and whole.
Near Luoyang we visited the Longmen Caves, which again date from the Han dynasty when the capital was moved from Datong to Luoyang. There were some lovely rock carvings, although many have been defaced or beheaded through the centuries due to purges, eager collectors, and the Cultural Revolution. The centerpiece is a large Buddha statue (Vairochana?) flanked by bodhisattvas and protectors. At night this central tableau has special lighting effects so that the stone figures become colored and the broken parts such as hands are magically restored!
We were to visit the Maiji Grottoes but a sudden rainstorm caused huge landslides and the approach was cut off.
The Yulin Caves are near Dunhuang and date from the Tang and Song up to the Qing dynasties. They are similar to the more famous Mogao Caves but the style is even more refined and the color pigments better preserved. One cave had a mural of Green Tara.
The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang are of course world renowned, especially as a hidden room full of ancient and rare Buddhist texts and scrolls had been discovered and cartloads of manuscripts were sent to the British Museum by Sir Aurel Stein in 1900. The statues and murals dating from the Tang dynasty onward are of course exquisite, and we were fortunate to have the English-speaking guide to ourselves and so could spend several hours wandering through the various caves.
On the way to Chongqing we also visited the carved rock caves of Baoting and Beishan, the former especially impressive with beautiful and well-preserved statues from the Tang dynasty. We especially appreciated the realistic depictions of the hell realms…
SP: What were your impressions about the state of Buddhism in China?
JTP: Judging by the numbers of pilgrim groups in all these sacred sites, it would seem that Buddhism is becoming very popular. The temples were filled with people bowing, offering incense, and praying (we were often the only ones taking photos like proper tourists!) and we saw rituals in progress with many lay people participating alongside the monks. Some temples also organize weekly or monthly Dharma talks and meditation courses for the laity. At each monastery we asked how many monks or nuns were staying there, and often we were told there were sixty or 100 monastics. In Wu Tai Shan we visited a nunnery with eight hundred nuns studying Vinaya and the sutras. In Jiu Hua Shan we were told that there are still many hermits in the hills who never come down and have been practicing there for many years.
Several abbots informed us that nowadays the government is kindly disposed toward the Dharma and very helpful in renovating the Buddhist sites. In addition nowadays many people from Mainland China are visiting India on pilgrimage and to receive teachings from various Lamas.
SP: How did people react to you, a Western nun?
JTP: We noticed that in all these sacred mountains we never saw another Westerner, and so people were very surprized—but delighted—to see a Western nun. In fact they sometimes thought I must be some strange sort of Chinese since Westerners would never be Buddhist! All along our route we met with amazing generosity and kindness from complete strangers who were so happy to see a foreign nun. Of course sometimes we met people who had read The Cave in the Snow in Chinese translation so they were even more overjoyed to see us.
SP: What were your observations about the state of Buddhist women in the parts of China you visited, both laywomen and nuns?
JTP: We were able to visit several nunneries, and they seemed to be flourishing with many dedicated young and older nuns. Some of the older nuns we met had survived through the difficult years by growing their hair and outwardly reentering society while secretly maintaining as much of their Dharma practice as they could. When the political situation opened up again they simply shaved their heads, put on their robes, and slowly began to gather students and funding to rebuild their nunneries. One abbess with eight hundred nuns and a large magnificent nunnery said that she started out with blazing aspirations and $36!
The laywomen we met seemed very devout and most generous (an Asian characteristic). They were cheerful and friendly while sometimes serving in the temples as caretakers or cooks. The more educated middle-class followers often had master’s degrees, including some Tibetan lamas who visit China. In fact several nunneries said that they followed the Mahayana system and also practiced Vajrayana.
SP: Any other experiences from the trip you can share?
JTP: All along we were impressed by the genuinely holy ambiance of these mountain temples despite the commercial aspect. It reminded me of Assisi, Italy, which still has an indefinable atmosphere amidst all the shops and tourist junk.
A vignette that stands out in my mind is that of a mountain nunnery that we visited where the rotund abbess is also a Vice President of the Chinese Buddhist Association. She was sitting in the front entrance of their magnificent shrine room chopping cabbage for pickles which she gave us for our journey. Meanwhile in the background the nuns were reciting texts while their abbess chopped and chanted along with them.
We visited the site where Sakya Pandita died in 1251. There is a large white pagoda and 108 stupas, which are all modern. But behind is the original large brick stupa, in disrepair, where Sakya Pandita’s relics still remain. The caretaker staff said that in ten years they had never had a Westerner visit there—what to say a nun! They were so impressed that they escorted us back into the town of Wuwei to a very nice hotel where they booked us a suite and insisted on paying for it. The kindness of strangers was amazing!
Since Buddhism does seem to be on the rise again in China and there are so many inspiring sacred places to be visited there, more Western Buddhists could also think of making pilgrimages to these sites. Perhaps group tours could be arranged, since a Chinese-speaking guide is important (almost nobody speaks English). It would be an unforgettable experience. For the Chinese Buddhists likewise it would be a great joy for them to see Westerners who are also devoted to the Dharma. Perhaps it is time that mainland China joined the international Buddhist network, and this could be facilitated by an interest in that country from the side of Western Buddhists.
You can read further details of Jetsunma’s travels on her Facebook page.