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05/07/2013

Puguang Chan Temple in Zhangjiajie

It gets a little mention in the local brochures and leaflets, but they never clearly state that it is actually in the very city centre of Zhangjiajie (top destination for top China tours), just that it is in the east of the county. A bit like describing St Paul’s Cathedral as being “south of Milton Keynes”. Curious. Perhaps even more sublime is that it is almost opposite Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It was first built in 1413, by the local miltary governor, Yong Jian, then rebuilt in 1743 by Shi Chengyun during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongzheng. It grew to become a subtantial monastery of the Linji sect, and in the first half of the 20th Century became one of the most important political centres of Buddhism in southern China.

The temple has a series of doors beyond the current front entrance that are varied in style and are particularly attractive, with many expressive stone carvings. Beyond these, and offset is the Mountain Gate, with just two ferocious guardians, Hem and Ham, welcoming – and warning – visitors. There is a second Mountain Gate, unusually, where the more customary four heavenly kings and guardians reside, and further back the main Buddha Hall with very nice dragons climbing the two main front columns. Most of this part of the temple dates from the 18th Century and, again, unusually, the temple has a wonderful worn look, the paint faded and mellow. It all oozes charm and spirituality. In side buildings, monks and nuns go about their business; there is a strong feeling of kindness and gentleness here. Note the Buddhist tales carved on the doors, including summaries of some of the great exploratory journeys of early Chinese Buddhists including, naturally, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, passing Xinjiang (must-see destination for Silk Road tour).

Behind this is the Arhats Hall, with the 18 wise men particularly bright and fresh. There are a further 24 deities on the upper level. It’s an unusual arrangement. The real star of the temple, architecturally and spiritually is the Hall of Guanyin at the back of the temple. When it was built, in the Ming Dynasty, there was little timber available and as a result, any old timber had to be brought into service. Many of the beams are crooked, yet still well positioned and well finished, so the building has a slightly rustic feel. Immediately in front are the two pools where, in the past, fish and turtles would swim. Now, a quaint stone turtle is the only occupant, with various figures onits back riding to nirvana. Guanyin Hall is constantly accompanied by devoted monks and some lay worshippers who will give a very warm and friendly welcome to anyone. I got the feeling that if the devil turned up he would be warmly welcomed and goven respect: these are good people here. My China travel guidelead me there.

To the right of the Guanyin Hall, is the Jade Emperor Tower, the talest building in the compound, but it is not open to the public as it is in a poor state and roped off. Nearby is the Hall of Three Purities. It is the oldest building, dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty. Puguang Temple actually has toom for three religions – Buddhism, Taoism (of the Zhengyi sect) and Confucianism, although it feels actively Buddhist. The Taoist aspect can be seen mainly through symbols and sayings rather than by active worship, and the Taoist priests also take part in Buddhist rituals.

Back at the front of the temple, the Shrine of Flourishing Culture has wonderful pictures and carvings of scholars studying for their examinations – in days gone by, state and religion were as close as they are noe, but for very different reasons! The front of this shrine is a masterpiece, and is best admired from the front garden area.

You should consider the temple for your China vacation deals.

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