Buddhist Trails of China Enchant and Enlighten

In the Henan and Shanxi provinces, visitors get the chance to take in some of the world’s finest cultural heritage sites.

By: By Graham Simmons

Asia: Great Escapes

Asia: Great Escapes (2009.09.14) CoverClick here to download the complete PDF of the September 2009 Great Escapes to Asia supplement.

While most travelers head to China’s major cities, there is much to see and do elsewhere throughout the vast country, providing unique experiences that are hard to emulate anywhere else. In the Henan and Shanxi provinces, Buddhism is practiced freely, and visitors get the chance to immerse themselves in Buddhist culture, while taking in some of the world’s finest cultural heritage sites along the way.

Henan Province


The Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang are an UNESCO World Heritage Site. // © Graham Simmons

Your client’s journey may begin at China’s very first Buddhist monastery, the Baima (White Horse) Temple in Luoyang, in the Henan province. This temple has an illustrious history that is the stuff of legends, including the story of a pair of white horses that carried the first Buddhist scriptures from India to China. On the other side of Luoyang, about eight miles away, your clients will discover the Longmen Grottoes, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The grottoes stretch a little more than half a mile along a cliff-face overlooking the Yishui River, and its more than 2,300 staggering caves and niches and more than 100,000 stunning Buddha statues are an amazing sight. The Buddha figures themselves bear expressions that range from mild amusement to a broad grin.

Another nearby Buddhist site, the famous Shaolin Temple, home of Chan or Zen Buddhism and of Kung Fu, is yet another destination guaranteed to delight your clients.

Wondering how Buddhism and martial arts can go hand-in-hand, I asked the Kung Fu monks of Shaolin for an explanation. They said that, “the desire for superhuman strength and the pursuit of superhuman wisdom have always been the target pursued by Buddhist believers ... by practicing Kung Fu, you will feel the grand wisdom of Buddhism; you will understand the truth of Buddhist wisdom and experience the real nature of humanity and the universe.”

The monks of Shaolin also told me, “When you gain some success in training, swords and spears cannot wound you, no disease can penetrate your body and you will honorably extricate yourself from any difficulties.”

The sheer ebullience of the monastery can overwhelm the senses. This is where kids practice Kung Fu movements in big group sessions after school, giving the whole place an amazing energy. The same can be said about the nearby town of Dengfeng, home to more than 50 accredited Kung Fu training schools. And at night, both monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple come together in the riveting “Zen Shaolin Music Ceremony,” a sound-and-light spectacle that takes place in one of the world’s largest performance spaces — a natural amphitheater at the foot of Mount Sung.

Shanxi Province
Just north of the Henan province, the arid landscapes of the Shanxi province are home to some of China’s finest temples. From the provincial capital, Taiyuan, the road winds northeast through increasingly barren landscapes, twisting and turning upon itself like a drunken snake. Finally, when I reached the south peak of Mount Wutai, I was treated to a panoramic view of China’s greatest temple complex.

Mount Wutai, which gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status this June, is said to be home to the Bodhisattva Manjushri, a spiritual entity of wisdom in Buddhist culture, and is often considered the greatest of China’s “Four Sacred Mountains” (the others being Mount Emei in Sichuan province, Mount Putuo in Zhejiang province and Mount Jiuhua in Anhui province). Stretching in a broad arc around the village of Taihuai, there once were more than 200 temples. Now, some 108 temples still remain, of which approximately 50 are open to visitors. Clients should allow at least a few days to explore this area, and it is best to avoid weekends, when visitors from Beijing descend upon the site in droves. Admission to the temple area is around $15 per person.

A good start to an exploration of Mount Wutai is at Bodhisattva Summit’s Pusading Temple, the highest point on the hill overlooking Taihuai village. Pusading was established by Tibetan Buddhists at the behest of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhuang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and himself a former monk. He was eager to get the Tibetan and Mongolian minorities of the Chinese Empire on the same side.

Located down a steep staircase from Pusading, where devotees make prostrations during their ascent, the huge expanses of Xiantong Temple are both mightily impressive and quietly moving. This huge temple of more than 400 halls, pavilions and monks’ quarters is the oldest and largest at Mount Wutai — ranking slightly below Beijing’s Temple of Heaven in size.

Later, at Mount Wutai’s Tibetan Tayuan Temple, home to the Great White Pagoda built by King Ashoka of India, I ran into a yellow-hatted lama who seemed to embody all the best Buddhist qualities, with a friendly manner and a smile as big as the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The route north from Mount Wutai, up almost two miles of high north peak, makes for a road trip that is not without its bumps along the way. In the town of Yingxian, the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogang Temple (the “Wooden Pagoda” in short) has been compared with the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower. I’m not sure that the Parisians would agree, but there is no doubting the Wooden Pagoda’s alluring mystique.

The final stop on this trip — the Yungang Grottoes in the far northern city of Datong, the ancient capital of Shanxi — is also one of the most spectacular. Like the Longmen Caves, the Yungang Grottoes were built at the behest of a ruler, Emperor Wencheng of the northern Wei Dynasty. Some 53 caves stretch for over half a mile along the cliff-face, with the sculptures blending Indian and Chinese carving styles. The ceilings and walls of the caves, particularly those of the fifth, are a riot of color.