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Finding Buddha in Putuo Shan

by Mitch Blatt   - Apr 2, 2015



The 20-meter tall Guanyin of the South Sea, located at the south of the island, reaches a full height of 33 meters including the base.


In the lobby of Ningbo Train Station, black market taxi drivers and cheap guesthouse operators are yelling at everyone who walks out the arrival gate. It is said of people from the coastal cities of Zhejiang that they have extraordinary entrepreneurial spirits. It sure looks like it. But it turns out that the old lady who drives me on an auto rickshaw to her guesthouse in the industrial district nearby the train station is from Hebei. 



Industrial district near Ningbo train station.


The rickshaw screeches to a stop inside a red tiled multi-function garage connected to a lobby, and, after looking at two rooms with broken doors and scoffed walls, I settle in a room for 80 RMB with an old China Construction Bank card in the key card power slot. The hotel name cards say their cheapest rooms cost 30-40 RMB. They haven't changed their cards in five years.


It feels good to plop down in a rundown hotel with no advance planning. It means I'm embarking on an immediate form of travel. Everything is out there in front of me, and I don't know what will happen next. But I know I won’t encounter any trouble on my way to Putuo Mountain (Pǔtuó Shān; 普陀山), the holy Buddhist island dedicated to Guanyin, because Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy who, it is said in Chinese Buddhism, hears the cries of the world and protects believers from any threat.


In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says, "If a person who upholds the name of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva enters a great fire, the fire will not burn him, all because of this Bodhisattva's awesome spiritual power."



A depiction of Guanyin from Song Dynasty China. (Wikipedia)


Guanyin (or Guanshiyin) is said in that sutra to be able to protect his or her followers from fire, stormy seas, bandits, authorities, and more. The sutra refers to Guanyin with the male pronoun, but today, Guanyin is depicted as a woman. The Lotus Sutra was mostly written between 100 BCE and 200 CE, according to historians, and it was popularized in China in the 600's by Zhiyi, who considered the Lotus Sutra as the most important sutra in Buddhism, making it the basis of the Tiantai school of Buddhism (within Mahayana Buddhism).



Eleven-faced Guanyin, depicted in male form, from Heian period of Japan, 12th century. (Wikipedia)


The female form of Guanyin became uniform in China around the 12th century. In the Lotus Sutra, it is said that Guanyin can take any human form, male or female, or the form of dragons. The Lotus Sutra is also the first sutra that allows for the idea of women achieving enlightenment. Guanyin is often associated with feminine values like compassion, and Guanyin is also said to provide good luck to expectant mothers.


But if Guanyin is a motherly figure, she could be said to be, to use a phrase that has unfortunately taken on lowly connotations, a mother grizzly bear. Or, if we want to avoid that cliche, we could say she is an elderly women carrying a boulder on her back. That is how she is portrayed by the Bai people of Dali...



Don’t mess with Yunnan women. They’re strong. (Wikipedia)


The image of Guanyin as a woman carrying a boulder is painted on the wall in one of the temples of Dali, Yunnan. According to the legend, a foreign army wanted to invade, but when they saw how strong even an old woman was, they didn't dare try to fight the local young men and boys.


The Lotus Sutra says, “If they must be saved by someone in the body of a Hearer, [Guanyin] will manifest in the body of a Hearer and speak Dharma for them."


“If they must be saved by someone in the body of a Brahma King, he will manifest in the body of a Brahma King and speak Dharma for them.”


But why didn't Guanyin just fight off the invading army? After all, the sutra also says Guanyin can take the form of a heavenly general. 



Guanyin statue from the Dali Kingdom, 12th century. (Wikipedia)



Guanyin is often referred to as "The Goddess of Mercy". She takes it upon herself to help others, even if those people do not deserve help, even if helping them would result in her suffering.


In the Legend of Miao-shan, the manifestation of Guanyin was said to have sacrificed her eyes and legs in order to save her father, the evil king of the country. Her father had tried to arrange a marriage for Guanyin even after she expressed her desire to become a nun. The king tried to force her to give in by denying her food and drink and then sending her to a monastery only under the conditions that she had to do the most arduous work, but her spirit never dampened. Finally, the king sent his troops to burn the monastery and kill the nuns. Guanyin was saved when a spirit carried her away to a mountain. (This summary is based on the version published in "The Legend of Miao-shan" by Glenn Dubridge. In another version of the story, Miao-shan's prayers put the fire out.) A few years later, due to karma, the king became sick and needed the arms and eyes of someone free of anger in order to save him. Guanyin gouged out her own eyes and cut off her arms and gave them to a monk who made them into medicine. After her father was saved, he met the holy one and discovered it was his daughter and tearfully apologized. 


This story, while it presents Guanyin as inconceivably "compassionate", is troubling, though, when compared with other Guanyin stories. In the first place, the act of allowing someone to murder or to attempt to murder a bunch of innocent nuns and then saving his life isn't compassionate when you consider all the lives that were lost or threatened, and Guanyin's act interfered with his karmic punishment.


If a band of robbers attacks you along the road, threatening you with a knife, do you submit, giving up your possessions, get killed, or kill them?...


When people face life and death challenges at the hands of other humans, Guanyin often tries to respond by defeating the laws of physics. Professor Yu Chun-fang of Rutgers University, in an article published in the Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, summarizes a number of miracle stories about Guanyin. In these stories, executioners' blades break, shackles are removed, or knives continue to miss multiple times.


Similarly, in the Dali Bai ethnicity's interpretation of Guanyin, she scared the barbarians off without fighting them. But that's not the only story of Guanyin believed by the Bai people.


There is also a tale recounted by Lijian Zhang in a 2008 paper on the Bai ethnic festival San Yue Jie (三月节) published in the journal Asian Social Science that says Guanyin took the form of a warrior in order to fight off Luosha, a demonic beast that was eating the flesh of the Dali people. In that case, Guanyin used violence to defend innocent people from violence.


The book "The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography" by John Kieschnick says that someone chanted Guanyin's name and that "an enormous diety appears and crushes the demon troops." The Luosha Pavilion at the foot of the Lianhua Peak of the Cangshan Mountains memorializes Guanyin for the bodhisattvah's heroic actions.


At the top of the peak of the "Western Paradise" mountain of Putuo Shan, there is a sign instructing visitors not to take pictures of the naval establishment in the sea. Ningbo serves as the base of the East Sea Fleet, and there's a naval base with ships docked at the Dinghai Port on Zhoushan Island across from Putuo Shan.



Ships dock at Putuo Shan.


When the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, backed by the United States, fought in the 1950’s in a series of skirmishes, the East Sea Fleet (Dōnghǎi Jiànduì; 东海舰队) was influential in taking a few islands then controlled by Taiwan. The PRC took the Yijiangshan Islands, off the coast of Taishan (台山), 200 km or so south of Zhoushan, in 1955.


The islands of Zhejiang are among the most scenic in China. There's a Chinese saying that goes, "For mountain and lake views, it's West Lake [in Hangzhou]; for mountain and sea views, it's Putuo." 


The first major temple built on Putuo Shan was what is now Puji Temple (Pǔjì Sì; 普济寺), built in 916 CE (rebuilt since then). According to legend, a Japanese Buddhist was taking a statue of Guanyin home from China in 916 when, facing stormy seas nearby Putuo, he prayed and was told by Guanyin that she would save him provided he left her statue on the island.



Visitors toss coins into incense vessels at Puji Temple. 


The Hangzhou Bay extends out of the Qiantang River (Qiántáng Jiāng; 钱塘江), which runs through Hangzhou, and separates Shanghai and Ningbo. 1,390 islands, 3,306 reefs, and at least two national scenic areas and two provincial scenic areas unfold across the mouth of Hangzhou Bay to form the Zhoushan Archipelago. 


Near the south of the archipelago, Zhoushan Island is about 2 hours from downtown Ningbo, connected by highway, while the Shengsi Islands (Shèngsì Qúndǎo; 嵊泗群岛), 394 of them, are off the southeast of Shanghai, to the north of the archipelago. The largest of the islands is Shengsi Island, which is 21.2 sq km (8.2 sq mi). It has sand beaches, rocky coasts, steep cliffs, and other interesting land forms.


The area outside Hangzhou Bay constitutes some of the most crowded fishing waters in China. In peak season, up to 100,000 fishers are operating off of the Shengsi Islands, and Gouqi Island (Gǒuqǐ Dǎo; 枸杞岛) maintains traditional fishing villages. 


On Putuo Shan, seafood is abundant in most restaurants. The owner of the guesthouse I checked into took me to his restaurant and gave me a nice meal of fish and seaweed soup. Putuo Shan has a local beer - Putuoshan Beer - but as you can see by the InBev name on the side, it's just bland beer that has been rebranded. 


Many Buddhists practice vegetarianism. There are some stories about Guanyin saving fish. She is sometimes depicted - especially in Fujian - as holding a basket of fish, but she is most likely taking that fish to the ocean, not to your table.


The next day, I was at the 100 Steps Beach (Bǎibù Shātān; 百步沙滩) to watch the sunrise. On a large rock slab on the beach, there were already a lot of people gathered. A lot of Buddhists, including a few monks, were out there watching. One of the monks took some laypeople along with him.



Sunrise from the coast of Putuo Shan.


Even at just after 5 am, there were a lot of people in special attire walking in the dark together. Shops were open selling steamed buns.



The 100 Steps Beach viewed from the Chaoyang Pavilion.


Putuo Shan has some really amazing cliffs, rock faces, and rocky beaches on its coast. I spent a good part of the morning climbing down off the trail and getting as close to the water as I could. From that vantage point, I could see the Guanyin Refuses To Leave Temple (Búkěnqù Guānyīn Yuàn; 不肯去观音院) and the Purple Bamboo Temple (Zǐzhúlín Chányuàn; 紫竹林禅院) sitting on the edge of the island.


I can see why Guanyin forced the Japanese explorer to leave her here. I wouldn't leave either if I didn't have to, but the sun was rising higher in the sky. The day would draw to noon, and I would need to be on a boat back to Zhoushan, on a bus to Ningbo, and then on a train to Nanjing and back to my dukkha. 


"Dukkha" is a Buddhist term that roughly means the suffering and anxiety we mortals face in life due to our desires - and our lack of realizing our desires, or the roadblocks we face in the process. The Four Noble Truths assert, among other things, that we can only give up dukkha by embarking on the Eightfold Path.


If only I didn't have to work on Monday, I could be on Putuo Shan longer and enjoy the stars and the trees. Although, it might be expensive to stay here, and why do I care about seeing the stars and the trees, anyway? Isn't the pursuit of such beauty the very thing that is making me wistful at the thought of leaving?



Fayu Monastery (Fǎyǔ Sì; 法雨寺), at the base of Foding Mountain (Fódǐng Shān; 佛顶山), is one of the most colorful temples on Putuo Shan.


Before I got on the train at 8 pm that night, I had dinner with a friend in Ningbo whom I hadn't seen since college. We reminisced back on our college days, joking about how crappy most of the Chinese restaurants in Bloomington were, remembering when we went to the Chinese Halloween party, and she wanted to go to an American party the next day, only to be shocked and disappointed... 


When the time came to pay the check, before I got in the cab to the train station and departed, she promised to come to Nanjing when she had a chance.


Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, the ninth incarnation of the Traleg tulku line, said "The Buddha was saying that dissatisfaction is part of life, even if we are seeking happiness and even if we manage to find temporary happiness. The very fact that it is temporary means that sooner or later the happiness is going to pass."


But it also means that there will be new happiness to be found in the future. Bye, bye, Putuo Shan. Hello, Harbin?





About Writer

016.jpgMitchell grew up in Cleveland, OH and graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in journalism. He has written about music, sports, travel and culture. Since he began studying Chinese, he has become obsessed with Chinese culture and travel, and has visited over 13 provinces and plans to visit many more. In 2013, he moved to Dali, Yunnan, and launched the travel guide When he's not writing, he enjoys singing karaoke, doing "ganbei's" with friends and strangers, attending punk concerts, and getting lost in the alleyways of ancient cities.



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