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Yuantong Temple, Kunming

CHINA | Monday, 21 October 2013 | Views [1825]

Yuantong Temple, Kunming

 The first temple on the Yuantong Temple site was founded during the Nanzhao Period, which was during the Tang Dynasty from about 738-902.  It has been reconstructed a number of times, the latest being just a few years ago. The Yuantong Temple Complex combines both Buddhist and Taoist artistic elements, as it was used as a Taoist place of worship for a brief period, and is now used by both religions.

The entrance is at the highest point of the complex which is situated in a U shaped setting, leading down from the entrance to the main temple, then up a bit for the one behind the central pavilion, and further up, but only by one set of stairs, the last temple.  This layout makes this complex unique in Chinese architecture. The central pavilion is surrounded by what used to be monks’ quarters and now seem to be used for all kinds of purposes, including offices. The entire complex is filled with brightly colored flowers, which are not only beautiful to see, but also to smell; the fragrance from the fresh flowers lends the temple complex a divinely inspired otherworldly sense.

 The first temple one visits upon entering through the beautifully colorful gate is the “Four Heavenly Guardians Hall” with its Smiling Buddha.  There are huge stone incense burners in front of the Hall coupled with iron stands on either side of the central axis of the temple hall for candles.  At the entrance one can take a package of three incense sticks and two small red candles for worship.  The faithful send their prayers and wishes to the Buddha through the offerings of fragrant smoke and fire. After finishing with the first set of prayers, most people continue on to the central octagonal pavilion that is in the middle of a fairly large square pool with fish and turtles. The gold – gilt  Kuan Yin that is the main figure in this building is representative of Avolokitesvara with the thousand arms. The statue only has about 20 – I didn’t actually count how many – but each hand holds a different tool/attribute of the bodhisattva.  Some of the articles, such as the disc, are reminiscent of earlier non-Buddhist influences, which was fascinating to see.  It was also interesting that this Kuan Yin is clearly masculine, which indicates that the original statue was probably constructed before the 10th C.

In the Main Hall behind the Central Kuan Yin pavilion are the three realities depicted as Buddhas, the Dharmakaya (the Truth Body which is beyond form), the Sambhagaya (the Bliss Body of limitless form, which bodhisattvas can take on to communicate the teachings), and the Nirmanakaya (the Reincarnated/Physical Body). The Sambhagaya Buddha is framed by two large pillars with huge blue and yellow dragons who look like they are about to engage in a fight with one another. According to one of the tourist websites, these dragons were carved during the Ming dynasty.  I can’t be certain of the date of their origin, but they are quite old.

Up a set of white stone stairs is the last temple along the central axis which is constructed from the same white stone as the staircase, but is carved with wonderful animal figures rather than those painted on wood as the others are. This building houses a golden statue of Sakyamuni Buddha.

 As one makes one’s way around the complex in a clockwise fashion, there is a small pond tucked in a corner with fish and turtles of varying sizes.  The fish, orange, black, and calico come up to the surface and sort of gasp for air right next to the turtles who simply float along or hang out on the edge by the cliff face. Near the pond are a few shrines, some simple with just candles, and others with drawings or porcelain figures of either the Treasure Buddha or Kuan Yin.  From there one walks back along the side of the central pool to find a side temple with various sized figures of Sakyamuni directly behind a pseudo Chinese rock garden about 12-14 ft high and maybe 20 ft across that is at the side of the pool.

 Back by the entrance gate, which is now the exit gate, is a beautifully blue and gold tiled relief of dragons forming the world directly above a white stone relief that forms a sloped sculpture in between the two sets of stairs towards the temple complex.

 The artistry of the sculptures, paintings and reliefs, as well as the horticultural designs make this a beautiful and fascinating island of serenity in the middle of the bustling city of Kunming.  And it doesn’t hurt that the site also has a legend.  It supposedly once housed a tooth of the Buddha.  I’m not sure how it came there or disappeared, but it was revered during the Tang and Ming Dynasties as a place of the Buddha’s relic and even today remains one of the most sacred sites in Yunnan.


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