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Qinglong Temple

Qinglong Temple 青龍寺 and Esoteric Buddhist Architecture of the Tang

In his poem "Qinglong Temple in Early Summer," Bai Juyi (772-846) describes the temple as a "scene filled with harmony," where "old monks stand idle and quiet with no parishioners passing by."1 This serene atmosphere was mainly due to the location of the temple. Positioned atop a high slope on the outskirts of the Tang capital of Chang'an, Qinglong Temple offered Bai a venue to observe the changing of the seasons while being near the imperial court. Of course, the setting of present-day Qinglong Temple is much different. Although still on a slight incline near the southeast corner of the old city wall, the temple no longer offers a view of the ancient capital, nor does the vicinity possess the natural environment so elegantly described in Bai's poem. Instead, the temple is surrounded by the expansive sprawl of modern Xian, and the summer smog hides any trances of the green mountains that Bai claimed were "only a brief walk away." However, modern Qinglong Temple, which literally means Azure Dragon Temple, has recently begun to make an effort to recreate the tranquil environment described by Bai and other Tang poets.

Currently, the grounds of Qinglong Temple are divided into three sections. The main entrance of the temple opens to a garden consisting of a small rock-lined pond set against a backdrop of plum and cherry trees. (photo of garden) Following the row of steles in the northeast corner of the garden, one enters the eastern section of the reconstructed temple. The development of this sector of the new Qinglong Temple began in 1982 with the erection of a monument and hall commemorating the 1178th anniversary of Kūkai's arrival in China. Kūkai (774 - 835), the founder of the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, arrived in Chang'an in 804 and studied at Qinglong Temple from 805 until his return to Japan the following year. The monument and the temple grounds were constructed with the cooperation and financial support of the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan and community organizations from the island of Shikoku, the location of Kūkai's birth.

The third section of Qinglong Temple, containing a replica of the temple's main hall, lies to the west of the garden with a separate entrance in the northwest corner facing the direction of the old capital. Construction of the main hall began in 1984 as a collaborative effort between the Shingon School and the city of Xian. The structure and dimensions of the hall were based on the work of Chinese archeologist Yang Hongxun. Yang's study of the temple's ruins, unearthed in subsequent excavations of the site from 1973 to 1980, provided a blueprint for reconstructing the Tang-era hall, which now stands directly north of its original location.2

Historically, Qinglong Temple, which endured for only a relatively brief period, had little impact on the development of Chinese Buddhism. The first temple built at its location, called Linggan, was constructed in 582 by the Sui Emperor. After being destroyed in 621, the temple was rebuilt under the name Guanyin Temple in 662, and, finally, given the name Qinglong in 711. Even during the height of its activity in the early ninth century, the temple only had a modest number of resident monks and never wielded much power in the Tang capital. It was not deemed one of the major monasteries in the Chang'an area and received little support from the court; thus, as a result, the main hall of the temple was destroyed in 845 during the religious persecutions enacted by Emperor Wuzong (reigned 840 - 846). The temple, however, did play an important role in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

Besides a few literary references, the majority of existent documents concerning the Qinglong Temple were written by Japanese monks. In his Record of Items from Abroad, Kūkai mentions that after traveling to several temples he finally meet a master willing to instruct him in the esoteric teachings of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra. Kūkai's master, Huiguo (746 - 806) of Qinglong Temple, was a student of the renowned translator and ritual master Amoghavajra (705 - 774), and Kūkai hoped that Huiguo could teach him the esoteric teachings he had been seeking. According to Kūkai, Huiguo accepted him as a disciple and transmitted the esoteric practices associated with the Tattvasaṃgraha, Siddham scripts and hymns, the two mandala, and other esoteric practices that became a part of the Shingon ritual system.

Kūkai also mentions the main hall of Qinglong Temple. After describing his first encounter with Huiguo, he notes, "We promptly placed incense and flowers on the consecration (abhiseka) platform, then we returned to the main hall with rituals implements. From the first of the month, I began studying the abhiseka platform and the great mandala."3 (photo of main hall) This passage suggests that the two mandala were used in the main hall at Qinglong Temple along with initiation rituals. Following up on the Yang's archeological study of the temple, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt argues that the ritual use of the main hall accounts for its square shape, which is untypical for Chinese Buddhist construction. This style of building, consisting of a rectangular inner hall and an outer corridor, was seldom used in China during or before the Tang Dynasty and is not found after the 845 destruction of Qinglong Temple. Furthermore, this inner/ outer style of Buddhist hall has not been found in India, nor was it mentioned in Amoghavajra's writings. However, this structure of building continued in Japan as found in the Shingon-in constructed on the grounds of the imperial palace in Heiankyō. Therefore, Steinhardt concludes that the unusual structure of the main hall at Qinglong Temple resulted from the necessity to expand the more typical rectangular hall of Chinese Buddhist temples to include an outside area for ritual preparation, a style that did not endure in China but was transmitted to Japan by Kūkai.4

Whether Qinglong Temple of the Tang era was a center for the development of Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia or the ruins of a failed attempt to introduce a new design of Buddhist hall, the newly reconstructed hall provides visitors the opportunity to examine a scale model of Tang Buddhist architecture. Furthermore, similar to the Qinglong Temple depicted in Bai's poem, the grounds of Qinglong Temple offer guests a welcoming scene of greenery, and with few parishioners passing through the temple, it is a great place to escape the traffic and construction of contemporary Xian.

Sources:

  1. Bai's poem can be found in the Quan Tang Shi Juan 432 (全唐诗卷432).
  2. Yang Hongxun, "Tang chang'an cheng qinglong si mizong diantang fuyuan yanjiu 唐长安城 青龙寺密宗殿堂復原研究 [Research on the reconstruction of the Esoteric Hall of Qinglong Temple from Tang Chang'an]," Kaogu xuebao no. 3 (1984): 383-401.
  3. Kūkai's Records of Items from Abroad (Goshōraimokuroku 御請来目録) is available in the Taishō dai shinshū zō kyō Volume 55, Number 2161.
  4. For more on the history and architecture of the main hall at Qinglong Temple, see Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, "The Mizong Hall of Qinglong Si: Space, ritual, and Classicism in Tang Architecture," Archives of Asian Art 44 (1991): 27-50.

Photos:

Huiguo and Kukai carving
Huiguo and Kukai carving
Kukai memorial
Kukai memorial
Main altar
Main altar
Matrix Mandala with enlarged print on wall
Matrix Mandala with enlarged print on wall
Qinglong Temple garden
Qinglong Temple garden
Statue of Kukai
Statue of Kukai
Temple name pillar
Temple name pillar
 

© 2014 The Woodenfish Project

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