Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain

View from Central Terrace, Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. Photograph by author, 2005.

“The attributes of a great place like this
are difficult for someone like myself to relate.”

—Translation modified from Illich, Marina. “Selections from the Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje), 1717–1786.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 2006.

“‘At the formation of the world, this earth is situated on top of a golden wheel. On the golden wheel are sharp spikes, one of which bore a small golden wheel. This wheel is located half way up the northern terrace. It is where Mañjuśrī’s Palace of the Seven Jewels is located. Groves of fruit trees fill the entire compound, surrounded by ten thousand bodhisattvas. On top of the northern terrace is a pond. Its name is the golden well. The great sage Mañjuśrī and all sagely entourage appear from it. It is interconnected with the Diamond Grotto. The domain of the Great Sage is no ordinary realm.’”

“‘世界初成. 此大地踞金輪之上. 又於金輪上. 撮骨狼牙. 生一小金輪.其輪.至北臺半腹.文殊菩薩七寶宮殿之所在焉.園林果樹.咸悉充滿. 一萬菩薩之所圍遶. 北臺上面. 有一水池. 名曰金井. 大聖文殊. 與諸聖眾. 於中出沒. 與金剛窟正相通矣. 大聖所都. 非凡境界.’”

Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經 (The Buddhist Canon, comp. Taishō era, 1912–1926). Edited by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 and Watanabe Kaigyoku 渡邊海旭. Tokyo: Taishō issaikyo kankokai, 1924–1932. 2099: 51, 1119a2–15.

The domain of the Great Sage, or Mount Wutai—also known as the Clear and Cool Mountains, the Pure and Cool Mountains, the Clear and Cold Mountains, or the Five-Peaked Mountain—has been a preeminent site of international pilgrimage for over a millennium. Home to more than one hundred temples, the entire range is considered a Buddhist paradise on earth, and has received visitors ranging from emperors to monastic and lay devotees.

Wen-shing Chou’s Mount Wutai explores the history of this sacred Buddhist mountain through Qing dynasty-era objects of art, architecture, worship, and translation. Chou explains how Qing Buddhist rulers and clerics from Inner Asia, including Manchus, Tibetans, and Mongols, reimagined the mountain as their own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Mañjughọsa Emperor, 18th century. Thangka. Ink and colors on silk. 113.5 × 64 cm. The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Purchased by anonymous donor and with Museum funds, F2000.4.

“‘I see the Clear and Cool Mountains illuminated by the radiance of lapis lazuli, foothills of the mountain ornamented by various jeweled trees whose radiance brightly illuminates the entire place without the slightest difference between day and night, and that land of the Venerable One is not a place within my domain.’”

“’Ngas bltas na ri bo dwangs bsil ’di baiḍūrya’i mdangs su gsal zhing / ri bo rnams kyi zhol du rin bo che’i ljon shing sna tshogs kyis sbras pa ’od ’tsher bas nyin mtshan kyad med du lhan ne lhang nger snang ste / rje btsun gyi yul ni kho bo’i spyod yul min no shes smras te mi nang bar gyur to /.’”

—Lcang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje, Lo chen Ngag dbang bskal bzang, Gro tshang Mkhan sprul, and Lcang lung Ārya Paṇḍita Ngag dbang blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan. Zhing mchog ri bo dwangs bsil gyi gnas bshad dad pa’i padmo rgyas byed ngo mtshar nyi ma’i snang ba (Guide to the Clear and Cool Mountains: A Vision of Marvelous Sun Rays That Causes Lotuses of Devotion to Blossom). Beijing: Zung gru ze’i par khang, 1831. Typeset edition, Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe sgrun khang, 1993. 29b, lines 1 and 2.

Map of Mount Wutai in Laozang Danba, New Gazetteer of Clear and Cool Mountains, 1701. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“‘Have you not heard that the same phenomenon will be perceived differently by three people? Just as the eyes of their karmic retribution are different, what they see will also be different. If the Clear and Cool Mountains that you see are in the color of emerald green, with terraces and hills filled with variegated jeweled trees with illuminating radiance that eliminates the slightest difference between day and night, this dwelling place of the bodhisattva is not within my reach.’”

“‘師豈不聞一法無異, 三人殊見者乎? 蓋隨其各具業報之眼有殊, 而所見亦異. 若某所見清涼山, 碧琉璃色, 諸臺麓間, 皆雜寶林, 光明煥發, 日夜無閒. 而菩薩住處, 非我所及也.’”

—Qingliang shan zhi 清凉山志 (Gazetteer of the Clear and Cool Mountains). Compiled by Zhencheng 鎮澄 (1546–1617). Originally published 1596; revised in 1660 by Lama Awang Laozang 阿王老 藏 (1601–1687); reprinted in Gugong bowuyuan, Qingliang shan zhi, Qingliang shan xin zhi, Qinding Qingliang shan zhi. Updated compilation by Yinguang 印光 (1862–1940) in 1933; reprinted in Du Jiexiang 杜潔祥, ed., Zhongguo fosi shizhi huikan 中國佛寺史志彙刊. Taipei: Mingwen shuju, 1980–1985. Juan 7, 8a.

Bodhisattva’s Peak, Mount Wutai. From Sekino and Daijō, Shina bunka shiseki, vol. 1, pl. 92.

“What mountain anywhere is not sacred?
Why go to the Five-Peaked Mountain with a walking stick?
Even if a lion with the golden mane manifests in the clouds,
It is nothing special when seen with pure eye.”

“Nyin cig ri bo rtse lngar chas tsam na / hwa shang zhig gis tshigs su bcad pa smras pa / sa phyogs gang gi ri kun chos kyi ri / ci’i phyir ri bo rtse lngar ’khar bas ’gro / smrin gseb mngon pa’i seng ge gser ral can / ngag pa’i mig gis bltas na dge mtshan min / zhes so // chan shis de la ’jus nas dag pa’i mig ces pa ci yin zhes dril pas cang mi zer ro / de nas chan shis khur po bsnams te bzhud do /.

—Lcang skya, Zhing mchog, 42b, lines 1 and 3.

Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic View of Mount Wutai, ca. 1846. Honolulu Museum of Art. Accession no. 3202.1.

“This little map of Mount Wutai cannot possibly exhaust every detail of the mountain. The benefactors from all four directions who make a pilgrimage to the sacred realm of the Clear and Cool, see this map of the mountain, listen to and recount the spiritual efficacy and wondrous dharma of the bodhisattva, will in this life be free from all calamities and diseases, and enjoy boundless blessings, happiness, and longevity. After this life, they will be reborn in a blessed land…. Should a person make the vow to print this image, they will accumulate immeasurable merit.”

“此五台一小山圖, 未能盡其詳細, 四方善士凡朝清涼聖境, 及見此山圖, 聞講菩薩靈驗妙法者, 今生能消一切災難疾病, 享福享壽, 福祿綿長, 命終之後, 生於有福之地…. 如有大發願心, 印此山圖者, 則功德無量矣.”

—Inscription of Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic Picture of the Sacred Realm of the Mountain of Five Terraces, 1846, bottom-right corner.