Buddhism and the Four Mountains

There are more than 200 mountains in China, which have associations with Buddhism. Among them are the famous Buddhism's Four Mountain Sanctuaries. They are the domains of Buddhism's four most venerated Bodhisattvas.

Mount Wutai of Shansi Province is the domain of Manjusri, or the Universial Great Wisdom Bodhisattva. Mount Emei of Sichuan Province is the domain of Samantabhadra, or Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence (Universal Worthy Great Conduct Bodhisattva). Mount Putuo of Zhejiang Province is the domain of Avalokitesvara or Guan Shr Yin Great Compassion Bodhisattva (Goddess of Mercy). Mount Jiuhua of Anhui Province is the domain of Ksitigarbha or Earth Treasury King Great Vow Bodhisattva (Guardian of the Earth).



In the world of Buddhism, the Buddha is the Enlightened One. A Bodhisattva only lacks the last aspect in the three meanings of Enlightenment:

  • Enlightenment for self
  • Enlightenment for others
  • Perfect enlightenment and accomplishment

Mount Wutai Mount Putuo
Mount Emei Mount Jiuhua

We mortal beings have not yet achieved any of such enlightenments. Those who have achieved the first is an Arhat. Those who have achieved the first two is a Bodhisattva. When all three have been attained, the being becomes a Buddha. So a Bodhisattva is in fact a Buddha-to-be. It is a Bodhisattva's task to help the Buddha deliver all mortal beings from the Sea of Misery to the Land of Ultimate Bliss by indoctrinating them with Buddhist philosophy.

To us, the mortal beings, the Buddha seems omnipotent and untouchable. On the other hand, the Bodhisattvas appear to be sincere, pragmatic and approachable. So, in the course of the spread of Buddhism in China, worships of the Bodhisattvas gradually emerged. Specifically, according to Buddhist legends, these four Bodhisattvas descended upon this mundane world with the task of delivering the multitude to another world. They established themselves in these mountains (their relative domains) to preach their doctrines, thus helping establish the position of the four mountains as the Buddhist sanctuaries in China.

These four Buddhist mountain sanctuaries are endowed with a venerated history of Buddhist cultural legacy, with treasures of Buddhist art and cultural relics. Here, one can always hear the Buddhist music and incantations and smell the burning incense. The noble images of the mountains soaring over the mortal world and into the blue sky act as symbols of the Buddhist belief in rebirth and introvert meditation. The clean and profound environment of the mountains is an expression of the Buddhist outlook of simple life, and the solitude of the mountain sanctuaries symbolises the Buddhist philosophy.


Mount Wutai



This mountain chain is located in the north-east Shansi Province, covering a circumference of more than 250 km. It is a massif with a southwest-northeast axis, separated from the Heng Shan (mountains) to the northwest by the valley of the Hu-to Ho (river), which curves around its southern flank to flow into the North China Plain in Hopeh Province.

Mount Wutai is a cluster of five flat-topped peaks (Wutai means Five Terraces, the Wanhai Peak (the Eastern Terrace), the Guayue Peak (the Western Terrace), the Jingxiu Peak (the Southern Terrace), the Yedou Peak (the Northern Terrace) and the Guayue Peak (the Central Terrace). The highest of the five is the Yedou Peak (the Northern Terrace) standing at 10033 ft (3058 m) above sea level with the top crest measures 26.7 square-metres in area.

Mount Wutai is often known as the roof of North China. Because of its high altitude, low temperature and snowfalls in summer, the Yedou Peak is known as the Mountain of Coolness. In side this ring of five peaks stands Taihui Town, which is the centre of a cluster of Buddhist monasteries and one of the Buddhist meccas for the Chinese Buddhists. In Wutai, the rising peaks and the plunging ravines look boundless, with the tall pines standing aloft among the mountain streams, the grass tapestry embroidered with blooming flowers, and in this backdrop of the nature, the maintain is intertwined with ancient chambers, halls, kiosks and pagodas.

According to the Buddhavatamsaka-mahavaipulya Sutra, "To the northeast there is the Mountain Coolness, where Bodhisattvas often takes up residence. The current occupant of this abode is a Bodhisattva by the name of Manjusri, who lives there with 10,000 family members." Following the legend, Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is often seen sitting at the left side of Sakyamuni, wearing his hair in five coils on his head to symbolise wisdom, holding a sword in his hand as a symbol of sharp-mindedness and riding a lion that means ferociousness. He is usually considered the foremost of the four major Bodhisattvas. It is said that after the Buddha achieved nirvana, Manjusri moved to live in the Zhenrong Monastery Temple (or the Manjusri Temple)on Mount Wutai

Of all the Four Buddhist Mountain sanctuaries, Mount Wutai was the earliest to be opened up with the largest number of temples and the most respected of all bodhimandalas in China. The first temple in Mount Wutai, the Lingjiu Temple (known as Xiantong Temple nowadays) was built during the 58-76 AD reign of Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). More temples were built since then and at the zenith during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the mountain was covered by 100 temples inhabited by 10,000 monks. After the Yuan Dynasty (1368-1644) Tibetan Lamaism found its way into Mount Wutai, turning it into a sanctuary where orthodox Buddhism mingled with the Gelug Sect of Lamaism.

Nowadays, more than 40 temples remain intact, such as the Nanchan, Foguang, Xiantong, Tayuan, Pusading, Luohou, Yuanzhao, Shuxiang, Bishan, Dailuo, Nanshan, Jinge and Shenhai temples. All these structures figure prominently in the history of Chinese and world architecture. The main hall of the Nanchan Temple and the East Hall of the Foguang Temple are fine examples of Tang wood structures. The main hall of the Yanqing Temple and the Manjusri Hall of the Yanshan Temple are examples from the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The Mahavira Hall of the Yanshan Temple is from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Manjusri Hall of the Nanshan Temple and the Great Buddha Hall of the YuanZhao Temple are from the Ming Dynasty. Pusading, Luohou and Dailuoding temples are from the Qing Dynasty, and the Zunsheng Temple and Shifang Hall are from the Republican years (1911-1949). Such religious establishments, built in different ages, range from the simplistic to the magnificent, from imposing-looking structures to elaborately ornamented carvings and certainly constitute a vertical historical record of ancient Chinese wood architecture.


Apart from the wood structures, the brick-and-masonry structures also variegate in forms, ranging from soaring pagodas, majestic halls to screen walls, archways and finely crafted balustrades and stairways. The four walls of the Beamless Hall (Hall of Infinite Longevity of the Xiantong Temple are all fashioned out of gray brick and its roof built by piling up square pieces of timber (a rare example of architecture in China without a single beam, pillar and portico (Beamless). The stone archway of the Longquan Temple is a precious combination of finely crafted stone carvings with ingenuously designed and solidly constructed masonry. The stone bridges of the Longquan and Tailu Temples contain well-conceived structures and state-of-the-art stone carvings. The screen walls of the Puhua and Sunsheng Temples are marked for their sedate forms and flowing chisel work.

There are also magnificient pagodas, such as the double-layered hexagonal Zushi (Guru) Pagoda fromm the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) in the Fogguang Temple. The pagoda dedicated to Monks Jietuo and Zhiyuan is from the Song Dynasty. The Venuvanavihara pagoda and the pagoda dedicated to Monk Jinggong are from the Song and Jin Dynasties. The pagoda in honour of Imperial Tutor Zhenjue and the Ten Thousand Buddhas Grottoes are from the Yuan Dynasty. The Great White Pagoda and the stupa for the hair of Manjusri in Tayuan Temple are from the Ming Dynasty. The Octagonal Pagoda of the Lingfeng Temple and the Brick Pagoda of the Luohou Temple are from the Qing Dynasty. The Pagoda dedicated to Master Puji of the Longquan Temple is from the Republican years.

Besides architecture, Mount Wutai is also full of painted sculptures, murals and carvings. For instance, the fifty Tang-dynasty painted sculptures in the Nanchan and Foguang temples are famous for the well-proportioned configurations, plump facial forms and fluent lines and are considered as the only consummate examples of temple sculptures outside Dunhuang Grottoes. The sculptures of the 500 arhats in the Manjusri Chamber of the Shuxiang Temple is a good example of clay sculpture. The 17.7 metre tall statue of Avalokitesvara with a thousand hands in the Guanyin Pavilion of the Jinge Temple is the tallest of all statues at Mount Wutai. It is originally casted in bronze and wrapped up in a layer of clay before being plated with gold during Qing Dynasty. The murals on the walls of the Eastern Hall of the Foguang Temple cover 12 sqaure metres and are from the Tang Dynasty. Those in Yanshan Temple are from the Jin Dynasty. In Nanshan Temple, there is the best collection of stone carvings, with a total of 1160 pieces.