Featuring stone walls, green tiles and a towering statue of Brahma, Donglin Temple is the birthplace of the Pure Land sect of Chinese Buddhism.
Sitting adjacent to the Poyang Lake and on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, Lushan Mountain is over 30 kilometres (km) north of Jiujiang City, Jiangxi Province. In the Jinxiu Valley of Lushan Mountain, the thousand-yearold Donglin Temple faces the colourful Luohandu Forest Centre and Xianglu Peak, from which a waterfall roars down. Featuring stone walls, green tiles and a towering statue of Brahma, Donglin Temple is the birthplace of the Pure Land sect of Chinese Buddhism.
Many ancient luminaries visited the Donglin Temple and portrayed it at that time. For example, Xu Xiake (1587–1641), a geographer and traveller during the Ming Dynasty, described it, writing: “Donglin Temple faces Lushan Mountain in the south and adjoins Donglin Mountain in the north … The Huxi Stream flows by in front of the temple.”
Donglin Temple was founded by eminent monk Huiyuan (AD 334–416). The monk lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317–420), a period full of turmoil and disunity. At that time, the political situation in the north was turbulent, the authorities ruled with violence, and many rich children sought refuge in the south. Following this trend, Huiyuan, as a teenager, followed his uncle to go to a study tour to Xuchang and Luoyang. He read classics extensively, and was especially good at understanding Taoism.
The social unrest he experienced made Huiyuan dream of a reclusive life. He planned to go to stay with famous hermit Fan Xuanzi in the south, but failed because travel to the south was blocked. At that time, the eminent monk Dao'an (AD 312–385) had set up a temple and preached around the Hengshan Mountain. Huiyuan went there and became his disciple. There, Dao'an explained the Prajnaparamita-sutra to him. The sutra declares that “se” (the material world) and “mind” (the spiritual world) are formed by principal and subsidiary causes, that all unreal things can be included under “kong” (emptiness), and that only through the wisdom of Buddhist “prajna” (highest wisdom) can people grasp the truth of Buddhism and get rid of secularism. After hearing this, Huiyuan was enlightened.
In AD 365, Huiyuan followed Dao'an to Xiangyang (in today's Hubei Province) due to the war in the north. In AD 377, the former Qin troops captured Xiangyang. Dao'an sent his disciples to various places to preach Buddhism. Huiyuan and his senior fellow apprentice Huiyong were asked to practise Buddhism on Luofu Mountain in today's Guangdong Province.
On the way, Huiyong visited Lushan Mountain, where a local governor built Xilin Temple for him at the mountain's base in AD 367. In AD 381, Huiyuan arrived, ready to head for Luofu Mountain with his friend. Instead, Huiyong invited Huiyuan to live in the temple with him. Huiyuan then built an ashram nearby, since he found Lushan Mountain a leisurely place to “rest his heart.” Because Xilin Temple was small and the ashram was also simple, Huiyong asked the current governor of nearby Jiangzhou to build another temple for Huiyuan. It was built to the east of Xilin Temple, so it was called “Donglin Temple” (in Chinese, “dong” means “east”). Two Buddhist temples headed by two eminent monks complemented each other and then became renowned far and wide. Since then, Huiyuan preached and carried out his Buddhist activities with the Donglin Temple as the centre.
Huiyuan stayed on Lushan Mountain from his arrival in AD 381 until his death. During more than 30 years, he gathered his disciples in Donglin Temple, preached and interpreted Buddhism. He sent Yingyuan and other monks across the deserts and mountains to Tianzhu (today's India) for Buddhist scriptures. After returning to Lushan Mountain, they translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese under Huiyuan's guidance. They also exchanged sutras with the famous monk Kumarajiva in Chang'an. Huiyuan also compiled the preface of the Prajnaparamita-sutra and ten volumes of various works such as classics, inscription and notes, which were later compiled into the Collection of Lushan Mountain. Although he was away from the dynastic seat, Huiyuan was well-known, influential and became the leader of Pure Land Buddhism, a sect of the religion important both in the south and the rest of the country.
As Buddhism thrived during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), so did the Donglin Temple. At that time, Donglin Temple was renamed the “Taiping Xingguo Temple.” It was magnificent in scale. According to historical materials, there were more than 310 halls and 3,000 disciples in the temple in AD 722, and the complex covered an area of more than 200,000 square metres. Moreover, Donglin Temple was one of the Buddhist temples south of the Yangtze River collecting the largest number of scriptures and cultural relics. In AD 809, the inspector of Jiangxi Province donated money to build its Hall of Sutras, with its delicate decorations and magnificent appearance. This helped the Donglin Temple earn the respect of eminent monks as well as the favour of famous people and dignitaries. They flocked to the temple to worship, to inscribe poems or to praise it with writing, all of which further expanded its reputation and made it one of the eight major Buddhist temples in China.
Jianzhen, an eminent monk in the Tang Dynasty, has long been known for his eastward journey to Japan. But it is less known that his successful sixth eastern journey to Japan could be credited to his experiences at Donglin Temple. In AD 742, when Jianzhen was preaching in Daming Temple in Yangzhou, two Japanese went there to ask Jianzhen to preach the religion in Japan. Jianzhen considered Japan a land of destiny and asked his disciples who wanted to go. Nobody answered. Jianzhen said, “It is to make religious rites, so I will go at all costs.” Although Jianzhen made the journey to Japan five times and failed due to wind and waves, he never lost confidence. After the fifth attempt failed, Jianzhen returned and passed by Jiangzhou. Due to his admiration for the Donglin Temple, he went to the temple for a short rest, read Buddhist scriptures, discussed Buddhist theories, and visited the Ganlu Altar and other scenic sites there. This tour inspired him to travel to Japan for the sixth time.
In the summer of AD 753, Jianzhen made the sixth eastward journey to Japan, with the accompaniment of Zhi'en, a monk from the Donglin Temple. This successful visit was of great significance in Chinese Buddhist history. During his second year in Japan, Jianzhen built a temple east of Nara, where he introduced the Donglin Temple's Pure Land Sect scriptures and meaning to Japan. It was thus that the Pure Land Sect was brought to Japan and has now become an influential Buddhist sect there. The Japanese Buddhist Pure Land Sect regards the Donglin Temple as the “ancestral temple.” This was a greatly significant event in the history of Sino-japanese Buddhist cultural exchanges, and worthy of being remembered and eulogised.
During the Song Dynasty (AD 960– 1279), the Donglin Temple reached its peak, as one of the “three famous temples” at that time. According to the History of Lushan Mountain by historian Zhou Luanshu (1933– 2007), there were hundreds of temples of different sizes on and around the Lushan Mountains because of the extensive temple construction during the Eastern Jin (AD 317– 420) and Southern Dynasty (AD 420–589). At that time, the “three famous temples” referred to Xilin, Donglin and Dalin temples.
On the vermilion gable of the Donglin Temple, there are four seal script Chinese characters reading “xiang yi lu feng” (“incense on the Lushan Mountain”). A stone carving of “Jinjian Donglin Si” (“Donglin Temple built during the Jin Dynasty”) is hung vertically on the main gate. Inside the gate, a stone walkway extends from north to south. On the east side of the walkway is a tall and straight fir tree. It is said that this fir was planted by Huiyuan, proved by its nearby stele called the “Record of the Lohan Tree during Six Dynasties.” Inside the Hufa Hall, the gold-gilded statue of big-belly Maitreya Buddha sits cross-legged.
After the late Qing Dynasty (1644– 1911), the Donglin Temple gradually declined. In the 1950's only two or three of the temples inside survived. On July 7, 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) inspected Donglin Temple and ordered its restoration to protect the cultural relics. This was an important turning point. In 1961, the eminent monk Guogong Shangren was invited to rebuild the temple. He spared no effort in the reconstruction and by 1965, the new Donglin Temple began to take shape. The main buildings in the Donglin Temple are spread out with the Main Shrine Hall as the central axis. The Main Shrine Hall features a gable and hip roof with double flying eaves in Song Dynasty style and glazed green tiles, looking simple but dignified. In front of the Main Shrine Hall is a high iron censer. The three Buddha statues in the hall look solemn. On the east and west sides of the Main Shrine Hall are two halls of the arhats, housing 500 statues of arhats created with high craftsmanship, vivid artistic style, varied and lifelike postures. The Main Shrine Hall is divided into the Hall of Heavenly Kings in the front, and the Hall of Jade Buddha (Sutra Repository), the Hall of the Patriarch (Sanxiao
Hall) and Hall of Eighteen Buddhists (Shadow Hall) in the rear.
There is a perennial spring called “Spring of Wisdom” behind the Hall of Jade Buddha. A legend goes that Yin Zhongkan, a famous general of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, visited Master Huiyuan in Donglin Temple; when they walked at the foot of the Lushan Mountain, they found a site with green pines and cypresses and a flowing spring, then stayed there to talk about the Book of Changes. Because of General Yin's wisdom and silver tongue, Master Huiyuan compared him with the spring, thus giving the spring its name. Even today, many tourists who visit Donglin Temple like to drink a spoonful of “Spring of Wisdom” water, expressing their wishes to pursue wisdom.
Shenyun Hall is the main hall of Donglin Temple. This tall hall has the statues of Sakyamuni, Manjushri, Samantabhadra and other bodhisattvas enshrined. On the left and right sides of the Shenyun Hall are the Hall of Eighteen Buddhists and Sanxiao Hall. The Hall of Eighteen Buddhists is to commemorate the eighteen Buddhists who built the Bailian Society (the White Lotus Society, a Buddhist sect) together with Huiyuan. On the east and west walls inside the hall are inlaid with the stone statues of “eighteen sages.” According to the historical materials, in AD 402, Master Huiyuan invited 123 people to build a monastery in front of the Amitabha Buddha statue and made a vow to establish the Bailian Society. Many distinguished people recorded the event in their works after visiting the Donglin Temple, including Lu You (1125–1210, a poet during the Song Dynasty), Wang Siren (1575–1646, a litterateur during the Ming Dynasty) and Huang Zongzai (1366–1444, an official during the Qing Dynasty).
Throughout the ages, Donglin Temple has attracted the visits of many poets and scholars. The well-known and upright poet Tao Yuanming (AD 352 or 365–427) was one of them. Tao, from the Eastern Jin Dynasty, lived in seclusion for 22 years after he resigned from his position. During his period of seclusion near Lushan Mountain, he kept very close contact with Huiyuan and other sages in the Bailian Society. Although he did not join the society, those sages were still proud of him, for they all admired Tao Yuanming's lofty pursuit of simplicity. After the death of Tao Yuanming, his relationship with the Donglin Temple became a legendary story.
A statue of Huiyuan is worshipped in the Sanxiao Hall, above which is hung a horizontal plaque saying “Lian Kai Chu Zong” (“original of the Lianzong Sect”). The hall is named after the famous legend of “three sages smiling aside the Huxi Stream.” In this story, there was a stream in front of the Donglin Temple called the Huxi Stream. It flew from south to west with a stone arch bridge over it. Huiyuan was devoted to cultivating himself according to Buddhist doctrines without letting his footprints cross the Huxi Stream. One day, it is said that he discussed Buddhism and Confucianism with Tao Yuanming and Taoist priest Lu Xiujing. They talked so happily that he strode across the Huxi Stream when he saw the visitors outside. Suddenly, the tiger god on the mountain behind the temple roared and interrupted the three people. They then laughed and said goodbye to each other. This legend is called the “huxi sanxiao” (“three people laughed near Huxi Stream”). Painter Shi Ke of the Song Dynasty painted a picture depicting this. Poet Su Shi (1037–1101) and litterateur Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) also created works to describe it. It is a romantic, fantastical story because the three people in it were not even born in same dynasty so they never met. However, it reflects the idea that ancient Chinese intellectuals shared their different religious thoughts, fusing the ideal of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Donglin Temple has been famous for more than a thousand years. Pan Lei (1646– 1708, a scholar during the Qing Dynasty), said in his book A Trip to Lushan Mountain: “Lushan Mountain is the most noted besides the Five Mountains. Donglin Temple is the oldest on the mountain. Lushan Mountain was little known before the Eastern Jin Dynasty. Since the Bailian Society was created, Lushan Mountain has been visited by many celebrities, sages and eminent monks, thus becoming well-known. Donglin Temple has served as the origin of many temples.” Today, this thousand-year temple still looks radiant in its solemnity and inspires respect.