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Our first stop of the day was the White Horse Temple, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in China. It was established in 68 AD in the Eastern Han capital of Luoyang, in Henan Province. Most of the current buildings were constructed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. The White Horse Temple is generally regarded as the cradle of Chinese Buddhism.

White Horse Temple - Luoyang

The temple's patron, Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty sent emissaries on a quest to find Buddhist scriptures after having a dream about Buddha. While in Afghanistan, they found two monks who agreed to return to China with their scriptures. They arrived in China riding two white horses, and the Emperor built a temple to house the scriptures. He named it the White Horse Temple in honor of the two horses that carried the scriptures to China.

In front of the main gate, there are two white horses carved out of stone, which seem to be a very popular photo spot for tourists. Despite the stone fence surrounding the horses, I saw a couple of people attempt to mount the horse and` pose for a picture. Only one of them succeeded.

Oldest Buddhist Temple in China - White Horse Temple

Inside the temple complex, which is aligned facing south, there are many halls and over 100 rooms. All of the main halls are on a central axis, with minor buildings flanking them on either side. There is an abundance of green space including a bamboo forest and many trees. It wasn't very crowded, and the overall feeling was very serene.

The main hall contains three large statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha. They are surround by the 18 Lohans (Arhats). There are also over 5,000 statues of Buddha in the main hall's wooden shrine. Just outside the original temple complex is an Indian stupa that was completed in 2008 as part of a cultural exchange between India and China. A stupa is a mound-like building that contains Buddhist relics, and is used as a place of worship.

Indian Stupa | White Horse Temple - Luoyang 

After leaving the temple complex, we walked through an area with dozens of vendors selling various souvenirs, especially incense. Some of these sticks of incense were several feet long and thicker than a baseball bat. Buddhists buy incense to burn in temples as an aid to prayer or as a sacrifice to a deity. I guess these giant incense sticks are for people that either need a lot of help or want to make a really big sacrifice.

Incense store near the White Horse Temple

Next we took a one hour ride on the expressway to the city of Dengfeng, home of the Shaolin Monastery. Although it is usually called the Shaolin Temple, since it was originally built to house monks studying the teachings of the Indian Buddhist master Batuo, it is technically a monastery. The White Horse Temple also houses monks, so it could also be called a monastery. However, it was originally built to house religious scriptures and artifacts, and not as a residence for monks. Either way, it doesn't really matter, and both terms are perfectly acceptable. In fact, the Chinese language uses the same word for both.

When we arrived in Dengfeng, we immediately went to lunch. We had beef with celery and onions, sweet and sour pork, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, mixed vegetables, beef noodle soup, and rice. Once again, everything was excellent. The sweet and sour pork was a bit different than what is usually served in the US. It didn't have any vegetables in it, and it wasn't as saucy. To be honest, I'm not sure it really was sweet and sour pork, but that's what it tasted like. I also really enjoyed the scrambled eggs with tomatoes. This is a very common dish in China, yet oddly enough, it is rarely found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S..

Restaurant in Dengfeng

At the back of the restaurant there was a small store selling Shaolin souvenirs. I bought a package of post cards and a VCD (video compact disc) about Shaolin gongfu (kung-fu). I also managed to find a t-shirt that I could actually wear. I wear an XL in the US, but in China, I always have a very hard time finding any t-shirts that will fit me. Anything smaller than a XXXL isn't likely to fit, and sometimes even an XXXL is a bit snug. The night before, I bought a white "Shaolin Temple" t-shirt at the hotel in XXXL. It was a bit snug, but it was the biggest they had. The restaurant's gift shop had the same shirt except in black. Since it was only 35 yuan ($5), I decided to go ahead and buy it. The t-shirt at the hotel cost twice as much.

Shaolin Temple - Shanmen (Mountain Gate)

After lunch, we drove to the Shaolin Monastery. Our driver dropped us off, and our guide led us through a small "village" that was really a shopping and visitors center. Although there were several buses parked in the parking lot, it was far less crowded than I thought it would be. After passing through the tourist village, we arrived at the gate where they collected our tickets that had been provided by our guide. Still, we were a long way from the actual monastery, and we had to walk down several stairs to catch an electric car that would drive us to the monastery.

On the right was the Tagou Martial Arts School. This is the only martial arts school that was allowed to remain on the grounds of the Shaolin Monastery after all the others were moved to the nearby town of Dengfeng, along with almost all of the shops selling souvenirs. The current Abbot removed these schools and shops, some of which were built illegally, to help restore the original appearance of the monastery.

Tagou is sometimes called the official Shaolin training center, and it is the largest and most famous martial arts school in China. They currently have over 22,000 students including many foreigners. Tagou also provides students for the demonstrations that take place in the performance hall throughout the day. There are two other schools in Dengfeng that are directly affiliated with Shaolin, and together they have 27,000 students. In all, there are over 100 martial arts schools in Dengfeng, including a college that offers a vocational degree in martial arts.

We took a short ride through the grounds and saw hundreds of students practicing in large fields on the left. We stopped at the performace hall and watched a short but impressive demonstration of Shaolin Gongfu. After that, we went to visit the Shaolin Monastery itself.

The Shaolin Monastery isn't very big. It consists of several halls on a central axis, much like the White Horse Temple, only smaller. The main entrance to the monastery is the Mountain Gate. This is probably the most widely recognized building in the monastery. It is also one of the few buildings that visitors are allowed to enter. In general, visitors are not allowed inside many of the buildings in the monastery (except the toilets), although open doors do allow them to peek inside.

Just inside the entrance there is a stele forest with stone tablets commemorating important events or visits from VIPs. On opposite sides are the drum and bell towers. These are used to tell time and call the monks to prayer, with bells in the morning and drums at night.

Drum Tower at the Shaolin Monastery

The second hall is the Hall of Heavenly Kings containing their statues. The third hall is the main hall of the monastery called the Mahavira Hall, or the Hall of Buddha Trinity. These are the same three Buddhas found in the main hall of the White Horse Temple. This is where most of the Buddhist activity within the monastery takes place. Behind the Hall of Buddha Trinity is the Scripture hall that is used to store Buddhist scriptures. It also contains the unfortunately named White Jade Lying Buddha. This is the official English name used by the Shaolin Monastery, but I think it would be better to translate this as the White Jade Reclining Buddha. The official name makes this Buddha sound like a liar.

In the past, much of the martial arts training at the Shaolin Monastery took place in the Thousand-Bodhisattva Hall. This hall is located at the back of the monastery and it is the largest of all the halls. Over the years, the footwork of the warrior monks training in this hall has left deep footprints in the floor. Because of its historical importance, this hall is no longer used for regular martial arts training.

For more information about the history of the Shaolin Monastery, click here.

Pagoda Forest - Shaolin Monastery

After leaving the monastery, we took another ride on an electric car to the Pagoda Forest. Whenever a very important monk or abbot dies, a pagoda is built in their honor to store their ashes. The most recent addition to the forest was a pagoda built in honor of Grandmaster Shi Suxi, who entered the monastery in 1936 and lived there almost his entire life until he died in 2006. To reflect the many changes that occurred during his lifetime, the carvings on his pagoda include a car, airplane, and a video camera.

Pagoda Shi Suxi - Shaolin Monastery Pagoda Forest

Next we went to dinner at the same restaurant where we ate lunch. When we arrived students from the nearby school were practicing Sanda, or Chinese-style kickboxing. In addition to punching and kicking, Sanda also includes throws similar to those found in Judo. Our guide said it would be a few minutes before our food was ready, so we watched them practice for a while. Despite being quite young, they were quite good, but I guess that is to be expected when one lives at a martial arts school full time.

Sanda students at a school near the Shaolin Monastery

For dinner we had beef and potatoes, chicken with vegetables, some sort of breaded meat on a stick, steamed buns, rice, and french fries. Yeah, french fries. I tasted them to make sure they weren't some exotic Chinese food that just looked like french fries, but they were french fries. Now there is a Sichuan (Szechuan) dish that is basically very spicy french fries, but these weren't spicy at all. So either they were serving us Sichuan-style fried potato slices without any Sichuan spices, or they just served us French fries. Most likely they were trying to come up with food that Americans would like, and they came up with french fries. Everything else was very good. The french fries were good too, but they were just french fries.

Although it wasn't included on our itinerary, we decided to attend the Zen Music Shaolin Grand Ceremony. This is an outstanding show featuring music, dancing, and martial arts. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character for chan, as in Chan Buddhism. Shaolin is considered by many to be the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. I'm not sure why this performance chose to use the Japanese pronunciation, but I'm guessing it is because Zen is much more familiar to English speakers than Chan.

Zen Music Shaolin Grand Ceremony - Dengfeng

This show has the largest set of any show I've ever seen, and has a backdrop that includes two actual mountains, including one that is 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) high. At one point, a fake moon even rises above one of these huge peaks. The stage itself is huge and has a large temple in the middle. Yet despite this, the production is designed so that everything can be easily seen. In all, there are 600 performers, and Abbot Shi Yongxin of the Shaolin Monastery serves as a cultural advisor for the production. The music was composed by Tan Dun, who won an Academy Award for the musical score from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Anyone visiting Dengfeng should see this show. Tickets start at about $35, but they are really worth it.

 

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Comments

Jerry
# Jerry
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:48 AM
You are very lucky to get to go to these places. Thank you for sharing the experience and for your photos. I hope to one day be able to afford to travel there.
Eric Moss
# Eric Moss
Thursday, February 14, 2013 12:45 PM
Yes Jerry, I am very lucky. The Shaolin Monastery is somewhere I have wanted to visit since I was a child.

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