Mount Wutai book reviews

Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain

Wen-shing Chou

Princeton University Press 2018

Hardcover, 240 pp., 8 x 11.5, 88 color + 31 b/w illus.

ISBN 9780691178646

$65.00 USD

Mount Wutai Sumeru Review


China’s Holy Mountain: An Illustrated Journey into the Heart of Buddhism

Christoph Baumer

I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd. 2011

Hardcover, 384 pp., 9.33 x 11.38, full color throughout

ISBN 9781848857001

$42.00 USD

China's Holy Mountain Sumeru Review

Mount Wutai is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, along with Emei, Jiuhua and Putuo. It is situated in the northeast, in Shanxi Province, and it is the highest peak in China.

Wutai is home to more than 75 temples and monasteries, ranged over a central peak and four surrounding peaks. At one time, there were more than 130, but all but about 10 were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, many are being rebuilt again. The temples there date back as much as 1400 years, and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has been a centre of pilgrimage for more than 1000 years. There are even mural maps of the area on the walls of some of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, dating from the 10th century ce.

In an effort to explore more about the history, art and architecture of Wutai, I discovered two of the only books on the subject. Here are the results of my exploration.

Both books are large, highly informative, and full of colour pictures. However, they are entirely different in focus. A serious student of Wutai would need to consult both to get a full sense of the place and its significance.

Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain 

This book is more about visual representations of the significance of Wutai in paintings, maps and other materials, than it is about the place itself.

The primary focus of the book is on the 18th century relationships between Rölpé Dorje (the leading Gelugpa lama from Amdo), the Qianlong Emperor of China during the Manchu Qing Dynasty (for whom Rölpé Dorje served as Vajra Master), and the 6th Panchen Lama.

The secondary focus of the book is an explanation of how thangkas, maps, memorial books, plaques and other items were used to show those relationships through representations of landscape and architecture, colour and compositional choices, and portrayals of individuals, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and so on.

Wutai was the main (indeed, some would say the only) Chinese pilgrimage site for Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists as well as an important pilgrimage destination for Han Chinese Buddhists, and, as such, it was an extremely important locus for political stability between the three countries.

That stability relied on an understanding of Wutai as the bodhimandala of Manjusri, and of the depiction of the relationship between the key figures recursively bound together through lifetimes as Buddhist teacher (the Panchen Lama), student (the Qianlong emperor) and translator (Rölpé Dorje).

Much of the book is about a unique triad of albums created in the imperial workshop of the Qianlong emperor around 1770.

One album features paintings of the preincarnations of Rölpé Dorje, with each painting faced on the left by a commemorative poem in four languages: Tibetan, Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese. The poems are written in a format reserved for Buddhist texts, known as ciqing, in gold on a heavily lacquered black background.

One album features paintings of the preincarnations of the Qianlong emperor, also with quadrilingual commemorative verses. That lineage is based on a poem the Panchen Lama wrote for the emperor on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

One album features paintings of the preincarnations of the Panchen Lama, created in the same style, but with commemorative verses only in Tibetan. That lineage is based on a series of thangka paintings sent from the Panchen Lama’s monastery, Tashi Lhunpo, to the Qing court in 1770. 

Through the inclusion of relevant figures of teachers, meditation deities, protectors, and background elements such as architecture, landscape, and positioning, all three albums share a commonality linking the past lives of their protagonists in a bond for the present and future. Such objects of gift exchange formed a visual currency of authority throughout Tibet, Mongolia and China.

In short, Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain is a fount of important historical information about the relationship between Tibet and China in the 18th century, when the identities of the two countries were bound by the mediation of the Mongolian Qing dynasty.

Another theme in the book concerns a trilingual woodblock panoramic map of Mount Wutai, created in 1846 by a Mongolian lama named Lhundrub who was residing at Wutai’s Cifu (Benevolent Virtues) Temple. The map identifies 138 pilgrimage sites on the mountain’s five plateaus. It has been such an important document for pilgrims from Tibet and Mongolia that it has been reproduced countless times and is still in use more than 150 years later!

When I first found out about Wen-shing Chou’s book, it was this map that was of most interest to me. I wanted to find out more about those pilgrimage sites, their architecture and notable artworks.

There were indeed some very interesting stories, such as the one about Rölpé Dorje’s retreat at Pule Grove above the Diamond Grotto. He visited every year for about 20 years. Pule Grove was built for him by the Qianlong emperor and became the main pilgrimage site associated with Rölpé Dorje by his Gelugpa followers. Chou describes how the temple was destroyed in 1970, by Lin Biao, leader of the Chinese army during the Cultural Revolution, to make way for a vacation lodge. Today the site is part of an off-limits military compound, but pilgrims still sneak through the fences to pay their respects to the ruins.

Another of the many nuggets buried in the footnotes relates to Khenpo Jikpün, who founded Larung Gar (Larung Nangten Lobling), the enormously successful Buddhist academy, near Serta township in Kardzé Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. Chou notes, “The academy underwent drastic expansion after Khenpo Jikpün met the 10th Panchen Lama in 1987 en route to Mount Wutai and the Panchen Lama officially recognized it as a Buddhist academy. By the year 2000, the number of resident monks, nuns, and lay practitioners reached nearly ten thousand. Even though Larung Gar was centered on religious teaching and practice and was explicitly apolitical, its enormous size led to the 2001 crackdown after Khenpo Jikpün refused to reduce its size. Beginning in the summer of 2016, the government engaged in another mass eviction of monks and nuns and demolition of housing at the site.”

I knew the fate of Larung Gar, and heartbreaking videos of its destruction have been available on YouTube, but little of its origin has been explained in the West. Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain, goes a long way towards rectifying that lacuna.

In terms of aspects of the book that I wish had been better, my first criticism would have to be the design. In spite of the book’s large format, the pictures are mostly too small to make out much detail and the paper does not hold the level of crispness I would have expected for a book of this calibre. The publisher’s choice of a single column for the main text is tiring to the eyes, and both issues could have been avoided with a bit more forethought.

Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain is essential reading for any serious scholar in the field, pilgrim, or aficionado of Buddhist art.

China’s Holy Mountain: An Illustrated Journey into the Heart of Buddhism

If you were about to embark on a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai, China’s Holy Mountain would be the book to read before you go, in order to plan your itinerary. The heart of the book is a description of more than 85 pilgrimage destinations on and around the Five Peaks, coupled with stunning colour photographs of the sites and their shrines. The author, Christoph Baumer, is a seasoned explorer of Central Asia, Tibet, and China, and has written several well-received books in the fields of history, religion, archaeology, and travel.

Each temple is described in a page or two, noting its setting, highlights, and some historical background. Based on the Cifu map, their locations and geographic specifications are clearly explained.

Sadly, much of the historical background includes the phrase “completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.” The work of rebuilding has gone on under the watchful eye of the government and in most cases, the temples and monasteries are now staffed by only a handful of residents. Nevertheless, those residents (who in some cases are themselves survivors of the Cultural Revolution) have done a remarkable job of bringing Mount Wutai back to its former splendour. May their work continue.

Baumer’s excellent photography reveals the statues inside the temples (mostly modern reproductions) in their traditional iconographic settings, with a great deal of shrine detail. As such, it makes an excellent counterpoint to Chou’s book, which does not have any pictures of that kind.

Architectural features, both interior and exterior, are also Baumer’s subjects, and while his analysis of their implications is brief, the photos reveal much to a trained eye. His photos of the actual places that inspired the painted details of the thangkas and murals described in Chou’s book places the latter in a much more comprehensible context. Furthermore, I am sure that were one to make a pilgrimage, each site would offer more in-depth local explainers.

The design, layout and printing of the book are excellent and really enhance the reading experience (although be warned, this is a big, heavy book; you won’t be packing it in your rucksack). As a planning tool, even beyond the book’s aesthetic pleasures, it is invaluable. Mount Wutai is definitely a trip where knowing your route and stops in advance is essential. China’s Holy Mountain is the key to that knowledge. For those who cannot go, the photos will provide hours upon hours of contemplation.

On the downside, China’s Holy Mountain is really written for the non-Buddhist traveller, which is why I suppose they chose a very generic photo for the cover rather than one showing anything of Mount Wutai itself. The cover does not do justice to the book and this is definitely one of those times where you should not judge a book by its cover!

The first 150 pages or so are a history of Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism that has clearly been vetted by Chinese authorities. For some readers, it will be fascinating; for me, it was a sometimes cringe-worthy exposure to “alternate facts.” For example, the Panchen Lama barely rates a mention in the book, and does not even appear in the index. The entire issue of the nation of Tibet, and Mount Wutai’s connection to Tibetan Buddhism, are outside the scope of the book. I also stumbled over a variety of misrepresentations of Dharma teachings (for example referring to tantric female deities as shakti, which is a Hindu perspective). That was a striking contrast in relation to the other book reviewed here! My criticisms are more substantial than quibbles, but in no way do they offset the tremendous positive value of the book.

In conclusion

There are some scholarly articles in journals about Mount Wutai, although little exists for general readers. Two that caught my attention are Gray Tuttle’s Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing: The Chinese-language Register (!jiats=/06/tuttle/) and Isabelle Charleux’s Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty (!jiats=/06/charleux/b1/).

I can only hope that other authors will undertake to reveal the treasures of this marvellous bodhimandala to practitioners and pilgrims. The two books reviewed here are a fascinating introduction, and the topic deserves much greater exploration!




Older Post Newer Post