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June 27, 2011

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Home » Feature » Travel

Pilgrimage to a holy mountain

FOR years I've longed for a trip to Putuo Mountain, not that "take-a-snapshot-and-go" kind of visit, but an exploration undertaken with reverence.

One of China's four sacred mountains (along with Wutai Mountain in Shanxi Province, Emei Mountain in Sichuan Province and Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui Province), Mt Putuo rises on an island in the East China Sea and has been a pilgrimage site for 1,000 years.

The mountain overlooking vast seas is a spiritual haven for people seeking inner peace and purification.

Maybe it was through the kindly guidance of Buddha that I somehow found the opportunity to break away from work and step onto this island, taking unhurried steps and keeping a sincere heart. The island and mountain are just a quick, 15-minute boat ride from Putuoshan Dock in Zhejiang Province.

There are many tourists and pilgrims and it's especially crowded on the first and 15th days of the lunar calendar when pilgrims pay their respects. Fortunately it's possible to find quiet spots, and less-traveled paths that provide spiritual moments.

The island and mountain seem to be in the middle of the ocean, cut off from the world. The setting is secluded, covered with lush greenery and purple bamboo forests and dotted with temples with white walls and golden roofs. The smoke of burning incense fills the air all year round. There are many caves and unusual rock formations.

The history of mystical Putuo is veiled in mystery. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it is said that Japanese monk went to China to study Buddhism and after his studies he planned to return to Japan, taking with him a statue of the goddess Guanyin (a revered Bodhisattva in many parts of East Asia).

But as the boat was about to set sail across the East China Sea, it encountered ferocious storms and couldn't get past the port. The monk then realized that the Bodhisattva did not want to go to Japan, so he left it on the island and built a temple to worship it. The Bodhisattva was named Bukenqu, meaning in Chinese "Don't Want to Leave."

After hundreds of years of expansion and construction, the first Putuo Temple has become three grand temples, 88 Buddha halls, and 128 mao pengs (thatched sheds where monks meditate). There are almost 1,000 monks on the island.

A main road winds around the island and leads to the top of the mountain. Along the way are shrines and halls, some small and tucked away in thick forests, easy to be missed, and some grand, commanding majestic views of the sea.

I chose to take a casual walk to the mountain top instead of taking the shuttle bus. Walking wasn't easy; there was a strong wind from the sea and the sun was scorching. But I didn't want to miss any scenery and I wanted to show my respect to the Buddha atop the mountain.

There is a fork in the main walkway and a small path goes south, leading to the South Gate. It's a place that few people visit because it's tough going on a bumpy path sometimes obstructed by bushes and branches.

But it was all worth it. After a hard trek on the narrow road, the grandeur of the South Gate suddenly opened in front of my eyes.

Crouching at the southern end of Putuo Mountain, the gate overlooks the boundless sea and bizarre rock formations. The gate itself is actually formed by two huge rocks near what was the site of a well called the Dragon's Eye.

According to the Taoism, the South Gate is the entrance for mortals to the heavenly world. The west is the realm of Buddhism; the east is the place where immortals live, while the north leads to the past.

South is a direction for yang ("hot" energy) and it absorbs the most sunshine. The immortal world is all yang. The human world is a balance of yang and yin ("cold" energy), while the spirit or ghost world is only yin. Mortals seeking immortality must dispel all the yin before they can step across the threshold of the South Gate.

I believe in gods and think ghosts exist, and I also have faith in karma. Standing alone by the South Gate, I was overwhelmed by a sense of supreme peace. I saw rocks and the sea, nothing else. Absolute seclusion makes it a perfect place for Zen meditation accompanied only by the sound of the billowing sea.

After returning to the main walkway where the path forked to the south, I felt as though I was returning from a baptism.

Further into the mountain I entered the famous purple bamboo forest sacred to Bukenqu Guanyin.

The lush bamboos blocked the sky, and only faint sunshine filtered through. Outside the forest were noisy tour groups, but inside it was tranquil. Everyone who entered the forest walked slowly and lowered their voice.

A small path led to a yellow temple with a tile roof, the place that enshrined Bukenqu Buddha. I don't know whether the Buddha is traveling around to save mortals, or hiding in a quiet place to meditate.

No one sees the true face of Buddha, though everyone wants to. Is it the all-powerful and merciful Sister Guanyin of ancient novels, or the solemn and awe-inspiring god sitting high in the temple? No one knows.

The yellow color on Putuo Mountain is different from the regal and imposing yellow seen in the palaces in northern China. In Putuo, the yellow is influenced by green trees and crystal-blue skies. The color warmed and calmed me.

I stepped into the temple and encountered two serene monks in long yellow robes. I bowed to them in greeting and they returned with a Zen gesture.

It's my habit to worship the Buddha whenever I visit a temple. I devoutly put my palms together and pray for my family, my friends and those I love. More importantly, I always drop to my hands and knees in front of the Buddha to show my reverence.

When I left the temple, it was close to sunset. A sign said the next scenic spot was the huge, 33-meter-high golden Guanyin Statue on the mountain top.

As the most famous sight, it attracts the most Buddhists who kneel for a long time at the Buddha's feet as white pigeons stroll around, totally unafraid of crowds.

For a moment I thought that if there were an afterlife, I would like to be one of those pigeons, living a carefree live and nurtured by people's good will.

Because there were too many tourists, I chose a quiet path to descent the mountain and at the midpoint found a small hidden temple, Xifang Temple that sat on a cliff high above the rolling sea.

Seeing that I was holding a Buddhist sutra, the abbot stepped forward to chat with me. He gave me a book of Buddhist guidance when I was about to leave.

As I walked out the gate, an old monk carrying a wooden stool on his back walked by slowly, the last sunset glow behind him. That was the most touching moment on the mountain.

How to get there:

? A boat leaves Shanghai's Wusong Port (251 Huacheng Rd, Baoshan District) at 7:30pm daily and arrives at Putuo Mountain at 7:30am the next day.

? Take a bus (8am) from Shanghai Nanpu Bridge Long-distance Tour Bus Station (1588 Waima Rd, Yangpu District) to Luchao Port where a speed boat leaves at 9:30am and arrives at Putuo Mountain at 12:30pm.


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