Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts


Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts

By Xuming Bao August 9, 2021

It was late January, just a few weeks before Chinese New Year, when we headed to Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province. It was bitterly cold and traveling to Mount Putuo (普陀) for a two-day visit was not good timing. COVID-19 was—and still is—running rampant around the world. Any kind of travel required constant and painstaking vigilance, including full compliance with stringent prevention measures in China. Nevertheless, our destination  looked as beautiful as ever, a glimmering island in the great ocean, celebrated as the “Buddha-land in the sea.” (Haitian fogou 海天佛國)

Mount Putuo is very environmentally friendly. Except for public buses, no vehicles are allowed, so we had to leave our car at the wharf. Most residents simply cycle around for their daily errands, and even said bicycles are under a quota control. For visitors to move about, you can take a bus, cycle, or simply walk. Roads and pathways are well maintained, and there is a long road that connects all the temples on the island, big or small, affording a pleasant journey at one’s own pace.

It was warm and sunny with a gentle breeze by the time we reached the island in the early afternoon. As there were very few visitors, we could stroll around at our leisure, enjoying the sunlight’s embrace. “You are so lucky,” commented our trip’s docent. “It was so windy in the morning that the ferry service was about to be suspended. In a week, the entire mountain might be closed to prevent the chance of further infections, no matter how sporadic.” We were blessed with the good fortune of a joyful excursion.

Mount Putuo is classified by the Chinese government as an “AAAAA Grade Scenic Resort and Historic Site,” attracting about 10 million visitors each year under normal circumstances. Visitation, though down 40 per cent during the pandemic in 2020, has rebounded sharply; as of April, 2.8 million people had visited Mount Putuo, a fivefold increase. The effort to attract visitors is ongoing: the Putuo Mountain College of the Buddhist Academy of China was recently completed, and Guanyin Dharma Park opened last November.

Putuo is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit Potalaka, which is mentioned in several Buddhist scriptures, including the Gandavyuha Sutra (added as the final sutra in the Avatamsaka Sutra). Potalaka is described as the holy residence of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. According to Guang Xing, Mount Putuo was identified as the mythical Potalaka mountain by Buddhist monks and Chinese literati (Guang 2011: 1-22). It has been the pilgrimage site of Avalokiteshvara for about a millennium, honored as one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in Chinese Buddhism. We speak here of Guanyin, the feminine form of Avalokiteshvara popularized in Chinese Buddhism. We will return to Guanyin below. For now, we simply need to know that Mount Putuo’s status matches that of Mount Wutai (五台) for Manjushri, Mount Jiuhua (九華) for Kshitigarbha, and Mount Emei (峨眉) for Samantabhadra.

There seem to be three main demographics for visitors to Mount Putuo: sightseers, pilgrims, and students of Buddhism. The majority of sightseers are visitors who do not have much knowledge of Buddhism, nor much interest in its history, sutras, or temples. Nevertheless, everyone, regardless of background, recognizes this place as one expecting reverence and respect for the buddhas and bodhisattvas. When we worship and make our wishes before the famous 33-meter statue of Nanhai Guanyin, we are also introspecting, contemplating, and reflecting on the vicissitudes and travails of our lives.

The town nearby is neat and chic, full of activity and interesting souvenirs for tourists to commemorate their visit. Even in the winter, Mount Putuo is generously covered with greenery and vegetation, with a multitude of species including ancient camphor trees and the rare wild plants of Carpinus putoensis (普陀鵝耳櫟). They are one of the major treasures on Mount Putuo and monoecious. There are red and yellow variations coexisting, but they do not mature at the same time, so the pollination rate is extremely low. When the Sun is shining, the leaves of many trees turn golden in the backdrop of the Prussian blue sky, surrounded by the various temples. It is truly a picturesque sight.

Carpinus Putoensis Cheng. From baidu

The beautiful scenery, unique to Mount Putuo, is reminiscent of places I have visited in Japan. The connection between Mount Putuo and Japan can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618–907), when a Japanese Zen and Tendai monk-pilgrim named Egaku (Chinese: 慧鍔; Hui’E) wanted to bring a statue of Guanyin from Mount Wutai to Japan. However, his voyage back via Mount Putuo was hampered by storms and waves despite several attempts. One day, Egaku had a dream in which he realized that the statue of Guanyin did not want to leave. He decided to enshrine it and built a simple hut near the Tidal Sound Cave. Immediately, his ship sailed through and he was able to return to Japan. This is the story of Guanyin “bu ken qu” or “unwilling to go,” and is the source of many folktales surrounding the establishment of temples and monasteries on Mount Putuo. Exchanges between Mount Putuo and Japan continued over many centuries.

Guanyin is the real protagonist linking Japan and China, with Guanyin known as Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan. Belief in this personification of compassion and benevolence has a long history in China. First introduced from India in the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE–9 CE), Avalokiteshvara was adapted and amalgamated into Chinese culture, most famously through the female figuration and her unique 32 transformations (Guang 2011: 1-22). Beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Chinese transformed the bodhisattva into the Goddess of Mercy, depicted in the feminine. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Belief in Guanyin has flourished in China ever since, going beyond even religious boundaries in everyday life (Guang 2011: 1-22). She is not confined to monastic life, as it is said in the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra that any worldly being in danger will be delivered instantly on calling her name. Therefore, Guanyin has been worshipped and revered by all classes of people. As she is a compassionate divinity with countless virtues and merits, she is endowed with transcendental power. She excels in skilful means, allowing her to appear in whatever form needed by sentient beings. And that, in my opinion, is probably the reason behind the 32 forms in the Chinese tradition, including Guanyin Yangzhi (楊枝), or Willow Branch Guanyin. The Guanyin Yangzhi is only one example among many of her history-rich gender transitions.

Willow Branch Guanyin. From online source

We were able to visit a 2.5-meter-high, 2.2-meter-wide monument of Guanyin Yangzhi at a nunnery of the same name. The nunnery, situated at the foot of Putuo’s Western Xiangwang Peak, was built in 1608. The artistic style was pioneered by Yan Liben (閻立本), a famous figure painter in the Tang dynasty, while the stele’s engravings appeared during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Holding a tender willow branch in her right hand and a clear water vase in the left, Guanyin is luxuriously crowned with pearls and precious stones, dressed in sumptuously embroidered garments, and adorned with agate, amber, and pearls. She spreads dewdrops to all the world’s quarters to dispel suffering and pain.

Guanyin is replete with the marks of beauty, dignity, and calm. Except for her face, there are not many traditionally female features shown. Indeed, she appears tall and somehow mighty and masculine, standing on her bare feet. Her belly bulges out slightly, and she has large hands and feet. While beholding her, I could not help but think of the mural of Padmapani, another manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, at Ajanta Cave No.1, in India. Painted during the sixth century BCE, the bearer of the blue lotus is a male figure with a slender body. Both forms of Avalokiteshvara are crowned and bejewelled, have physically beautiful features, and appear composed and graceful.

Padmapani, Ajanta Cave 1. From

There are many temples on Mount Putuo, but the two most well known are Puji Temple (普濟寺) or the “front temple” (又稱前寺), and Huiji Temple (慧濟寺) on the peak of the mountain. They receive the most pilgrims, but Fayu Temple (法雨寺) is my personal favorite; when there is no pedestrian crowding, it has a gentle and soothing atmosphere. It is surrounded by towering ancient trees, suspending the visitor in time between past and present. From a distance, one can see that the gate to the monastery is unique, unlike those of other temples on Mount Putuo, which are painted in yellow ochre. Here it is light red in color: a soft, ambient hue that emphasizes an atmosphere of paradisical peace and bliss.

Upon entering and reaching the main hall of Nine Dragons, where a statue of Guanyin is enshrined, one feels a strong sense of sublime and resplendent majesty. Yuantong Hall of the Fayu Temple is renowned for its resplendent appearance and ingenious interior structure, with a large ball hanging from the ceiling of its dome surrounded by nine vertical rafters. Each rafter is carved with a dragon that rears its head in a scramble for the ball. This intricate layout is called the Bracket with Nine Coiling Dragons and is ascribed to Emperor Kangxi (康熙) (1654–1722), who used the materials of the former palace of the Ming dynasty in Nanjing to reconstruct an earlier monastery, Zhenhai Monastery, on Mount Putuo. 

Fayu Temple. From the author

What strikes me most, however, is not Fayu Temple’s imperial heritage, but rather two great minds that made their mark here. Venerable Yinguang (印光) (1861–1940) was the 13th patriarch of the Pure Land tradition and the abbot of Fayu Temple for decades. Meanwhile, Ven. Hongyi (弘一) (1880–1942) wrote in traditional calligraphy Fayu Temple’s nameplate of “heavenly flowers and Dharma rain”—first devised by Emperor Kangxi. Li Shu Tong (李叔同) was Hongyi’s secular name. A wealthy and rakish young man, he was also an eclectic and learned scholar of high culture. He relinquished what he possessed and committed to living a monastic life. Fully devoted to promulgating Buddhism, he rose to become an eminent monk.

At some point, the two monastics met each other. It is said that Master Hongyi admired Master Yinguang and asked him to be his teacher. Humble and modest, Master Yinguang refused, but invited him to stay as long as he wanted. The two spent seven days together, studying, practicing, and meditating without a single word exchanged. They simply were, as minds think alike, without verbal obstructions, thoughts traveling and flowing effortlessly. How wonderful it is to exist together beyond words. But in the era of the Internet, we are bombarded with so many words and so much information that we lose our sense of their meaning, let alone their authenticity.

If we wish to be heard, we need to be sincere, candid, and heartfelt. “Guanyin” in Chinese means the Perceiver of Sounds, or “Guanshiyin,” the Perceiver of World’s Sounds. As chanted in the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra: “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, heavenly voice, the voice of the sea’s tide—magnificent, rich and harmonious surpassing all worldly sounds.” If we keep Guanyin in our hearts and call on her sincerely, she will always respond.

Mount Putuo: Wonders and Thoughts



#Avalokiteshvara#Buddhism#BuddhistPilgrimage#ChineseBuddhism#compassion#Fayu temple#Guanyin#GuanShiYin

Early Buddhist Sects

Early Buddhist Sects

Sautrantika: One of the early Indian schools of this tradition. Also known as the Sutra-Only School because it focused on just the discourses of the Buddha.

Vaibhasika: An influential early Indian school in north-west India also of this tradition. Its version of the Abhidharma, the Mahavibhasa (The Great Book of Alternatives), was the basis for Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kosa that is still studied in Tibetan monasteries and considered to be one of the five classic commentaries or treatises that should be mastered.

Theravada (Lineage of the Elders): This is the form of Buddhism that was transmitted very early to the South-east Asian counties of Sri Lanka (247 BCE) and Burma (272-236 BCE) and later to Thailand (1260), Laos (14th century), Cambodia, and southern Viet Nam. It was between 25 and 17 BCE that the Pali canon or scriptures were first recorded in Sri Lanka. In America it is also popularly known as vipassana or Insight Meditation. The most conservative branch of Buddhism, the Theravadans based their practice exclusively on the Tripitaka of the Pali Scriptures and are the only remaining school evolving out of this tradition. Their focus is the practice of mindfulness, which involves cultivating an awareness of one’s thoughts, actions, and body to become aware of what one does and one’s motivation. This is a prelude to a direct understanding of the transitory, conditioned nature of existence. Theravadans take refuge in the three jewels and follow the five precepts of no killing, no stealing, no inappropriate sex, no inappropriate speech, and no ingesting substances that befuddle consciousness. Monastics must be celibate and cannot claim to have supernormal powers. The goal of one following this path is to become an arhat. It has become a popular form of Buddhism in the United States. Some modern western leaders in this school have questioned if enlightenment is possible or even a useful goal, stressing more the integration of Buddhist concepts and theories with Western psychology and therapy.

When Shakyamuni Buddha lived on this planet over 2500 years ago, he transmitted dharma to the many disciples who followed him. After the Buddha’s Parinivana, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, Venerable Mahakasyapa, became the head of the sangha and presided over the First Great Council at Rajagrha that was held to codify the Buddha’s teachings. He was known for his accomplishments in the dharma.

Ananda, the Buddha’s younger cousin and known as “the assistant who heard much,” became the second patriarch in this lineage after Mahakasyapa passed away. As a condition for becoming the Buddha’s attendant, a position he held for 24 years, Ananda requested no preferential treatment and that the Buddha repeat for him any teachings he might miss. He was gifted with total recall and at the First Great Council repeated all of the Buddha’s teachings from memory. His recitation became the basis for the Sutras in the Tripitaka. When Guru Padmasambhava reincarnated eight years after Shakyamuni Buddha left this world, it was Venerable Ananda who transmitted the special dharma that Shakyamuni instructed him to transmit.

The sangha divided into many sects based on different interpretations and emphasis. The main split was between what became known as the Sravakayana (or Path of the Arhats) and Mahayana (or Path of the Bodhisattvas) Vehicles. Of the eighteen or so lessor vehicle sects, only the Theravada School has survived. This is the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Today there are over 100 million Theravada Buddhist worldwide with a growing number of temples and groups forming in the West as the people of Southeast Asia migrate to the West.

Many Westerners have also gone to Southeast Asia to study and have brought their own form of usually lay practice to the West, often referred to as Insight Meditation or vipassana. Theravada monasteries have developed in the U.S. that train western monastics, notably the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Meditation Center (Sri Lanka) in High View, West Virginia, and Abhayagiri (Fearless Mountain) Monastery (Thai) also in the forest monk tradition in Redwood Valley, California.


History of Buddhism

History of Buddhism

Over 2500 years ago  Shakyamuni Buddha taught for 45 years in the Ganges River basin of north-east India to many types of followers—from beggars to kings, to monastics and lay men and women. It is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 different Dharmas to help beings free themselves of the suffering of worldly existence caused by the 84,000 different afflictions. A council of 500 arhats was convened immediately after the parinivana of the Buddha by the Venerable Mahakasyapa. During this meeting Venerable Upali recited the monastic rules that became known as the Vinaya while Venerable Ananda recited the Sutras. For 400 years the teachings were only transmitted orally.

Photo by Roshan Dhimal on

The Jetavanaramaya Stupa built in the third century as part of the Jetavana Monastery in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. At 400 feet, it was one of the tallest structures in the ancient world, with only two (the Great Pyramids of Giza) being higher.

In 326 BCE, several hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha divided into two schools: the Mahasanghika or majority who wanted changes and the Sthaviravada who were opposed to any changes. A hundred years later the Sthaviravada further divided into the Sarvastivada and the Vibhajyavada. The Sarvastivada migrated into northern India in the Kashmir region while the Vibhajyavada flourished in the Ganges River valley under the great Buddhist King Ashoka. In 247 BCE King Ashoka (272-231 BCE) sent his son, the monk Mahinda, and his daughter Sanghamitta, a nun, to Sri Lanka to establish Buddhism there.

By the first century CE there were 18-20 different schools, each with its own version of the Buddha’s teachings. Two written versions remain, at least in part: that produced in Sri Lanka in the ancient language of Pali by the Tamrashatiyas and known as the Southern Transmission and a Sanskrit version from the Sarvastivadas known as the Northern Transmission. These became known as the Tripitaka or three Baskets of the Vinaya or code of rules for monks and nuns, the Sutras or collections of instructional discourses of the Buddha and his closest disciples, and the commentaries that included the Abhidharma, which consists of the extracted and systematized philosophy implicit in the teachings. The Southern Transmission remains as the Pali canon and is followed by the Theravada in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand,and other south-east Asian countries. Although only fragments remain of the Northern Transmission in its original Sanskrit, it was translated into Tibetan and Chinese and many of these translations remain. The Tibetan transmission was also translated into Mongolian while the Chinese transmission became the basis for the Korean and Japanese scriptures.

The Buddha started the Mahayana teachings and predicted that great adepts would emerge to revitalize the tradition and explain the teachings that were not yet understandable to the majority of followers. Mahayana Buddhism arose during the 1st or 2nd century BCE from the Mahasanghika. It replaced the concept of the arhat with that of the bodhisattva as the highest ideal of Buddhism. The main difference being that the bodhisattva seeks enlightenment in order to help others, while the arhat is primarily concerned with his own salvation. The mahayana also grew out of the growing lay movements since most of the focus on early Buddhism had been on the monastic communities, although the great mahayana teachers were  also monks.

The Buddha himself was keenly aware of the limitations of words in respect to expressing spiritual reality. There is a famous story of how the Buddha held up a flower before the assembly of monks and smiled, saying nothing. The monks were confused by this. Only the Venerable Mahakasyapa responded, indicating that he understood that the truth is beyond words and doctrine.

The earliest and best-known mahayana scripture is the Prajnaparamita Sutra compiled by the master of the Madhyamaka or “Middle Way” school, the great Mahasiddha Nagarjuna, at the beginning of the Current Era from earlier works and various doctrines expressed by the Buddha while He taught in His nirmanakaya form. The well-known Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra represent the essence of these teachings.

Much of the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism was transmitted by Vajrasattva and other Holy Beings in their sambhogakaya embodiments, although Shakyamuni Buddha started the teachings late in His life and predicted the later teachings. By the time of Nagarjuna there were adepts whose realization was high enough that they were able to communicate directly with these sambhogakaya beings. The basic esoteric teachings Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted directly to His son, Rahula. It is a very, very quick way to achieve realization. If, and only if, you have the opportunity to follow a true Vajra Master can you realize Buddhahood in a single lifetime using this method. It is a highly concentrated form of Buddhism. It gives you many supernormal powers. Only highly qualified people can receive this. Actually, for most beings, it is easier to realize Buddhahood in this life than in heaven. In the higher realms, you may not even have a body, but only consciousness. Life here is very difficult with much pain and suffering. This provides the motivation and the raw material for transmutation and realization. Many humans do have the good fortune to be able to pursue spiritual development, something that is not possible in the lower realms as hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals–or in unfortunate human births.

Photo by Tenzing Kalsang on

Vajrayana Buddhism was well established by the seventh century of the Current Era (CE). Its methods evolved from the tradition of the spiritual sadhus, yogis who wandered around India who were adepts in tantric practices designed to provide realization, but, as previously noted, the teachings themselves originated with Shakyamuni Buddha. The source of all these teachings comes from Dorje Chang Buddha who manifested as Dipankara Buddha and taught them to Shakyamuni Buddha in another realm. It reached its peak in Tibet where it also assimilated the indigenous shamanic Bon religion, incorporating the local deities as protectors of the dharma. Vajrayana Buddhism is based on the secret teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha which were only transmitted to very high adepts and higher beings who, in turn, transmitted them to certain highly evolved humans when the conditions were right for them to be received. There were even certain humans like Tilopa, Sukasiddhi, and Niguma who reached a level of realization that they could learn the dharma directly from Dorje Chang Buddha. The aim of this form of Buddhism is to transform one’s body, speech and mind into those of a fully enlightened Buddha by special yogic means, including a variety of ritual and secret methods. In tantra, everything is vested with cosmic energy. For example, sounds or mantras can produce powerful spiritual effects and, as modern science is just beginning to discover, physical effects as well. Likewise, movements like prostrations have a ritual significance as well as a physical and spiritual impact.

Tantra requires the initiation or empowerment of a qualified teacher or master who provides specialized teachings, rituals, and practices to enable the disciple to root out or eliminate the dark side of his/her psyche and thus become like the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Supernormal powers that are viewed as the natural outcome of realization are used by qualified teachers. However, ordinary disciples are not allowed to discuss or display their supernormal powers. Only very highly evolved Bodhisattvas and Buddhas dare to display such powers and then only to help living beings. A person seeking initiation must demonstrate an understanding of emptiness, exhibit high moral conduct, and have developed an altruistic desire to help all beings. It is believed that any empowerment will have limited impact without a proper foundation of preliminary practices or Prayogas. These practices may have been performed in previous lives as well as the current one. It recognizes that supernormal powers cannot be given to one who has not eliminated the negative aspects of the self.

Even today, the Highest Tantric teachings and practices are only transmitted orally and are held in great secrecy between the teacher and the disciple. Because of the power of these teachings, it is recognized that the student must be thoroughly prepared to receive them. A true master will usually test a disciple for six to twelve years or longer before transmitting the higher teachings.