Dream led to China’s first Buddhist temple

Shanghai Daily
Zhang Ciyun
March 30, 2014


Photo: Wikipedia

白马寺 (báimǎ sì) White Horse Temple

Built in AD 68, Baimasi, or the White Horse Temple, was the first Buddhist temple in China and has long been deemed the “Cradle of Buddhism” in both this country and other regions in East Asia.

Located near Luoyang in central China’s Henan Province, the temple is also a complex of precious and well-preserved ancient Chinese architecture.

According to legends, the idea of building such a temple first came from a dream of Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).
In his dream, the emperor saw a saint with a golden complexion and a shining sun and moon behind his head, descending from heaven to the front of his throne and then circling around in his palace. The next day, the emperor discussed his dream with his advisers and they came to the conclusion that it prophesied the arrival of the Buddha from the west.

So, the emperor decided to send a delegation of envoys to India to learn about Buddhism. In AD 67, the Chinese envoys met two reverent Indian Buddhist monks, Kasyapa Pandita and Bharana Pandita, in an area in today’s Afghanistan.

The two monks were persuaded by the Chinese envoys to accompany them to China to propagate Buddhism.

They arrived in Luoyang, then the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty, with two white horses carrying Buddhist sutras, relics and statues. They were personally met by the Chinese emperor.

The next Year, Emperor Ming ordered the construction of a Buddhist temple a short distance outside the city wall of Luoyang and named it the White Horse Temple to honor the two Indian monks as well as the two white horses.

Covering an area of about 13 hectares, the temple was built along a south-north axis. It was divided into several compounds and courtyards to house numerous halls, pavilions and other buildings.

Like many ancient Chinese structures, the complex has also seen several cases of destruction and reconstruction in its nearly 2,000 years.

Though the location of the temple hasn’t changed in the past 2,000 years, most of the buildings we see in the White Horse Temple today were built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Rebuilt in 1546, the main gate to the temple, called shanmen, or mountain gate, is a stone archway with three doors. It is guarded by two stone horses, representing the white horses that carried the Buddhist scriptures and relics to China. Inside, there are two tombs of the two reverent Indian monks. Behind them are the five main halls standing along the central axis. They are the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Hall of Great Buddha, the Hall of Mahavira, the Hall of Greeting and the Hall of Vairocana.

Mixture of designs

The layout and architectural style of the temple is a mixture of Indian Buddhist and ancient Chinese designs.

When it was first constructed, there was a wood pagoda in the middle and all other structures were built around it. It was a typical Indian Buddhist Vihara design. But later, during reconstructions, the original architecture was combined with typical Chinese structures such as pavilions and courtyards. Also, wood building parts, such as columns, pillars and bracket sets, were widely applied.

During the Qing Dynasty, it became difficult to find large timbers to build long pillars or beams.

As a result, the builders invented duojiezhu (mortised pillar), baoxiangzhu (enwrapped pillar) and pillars or beams of special shapes by using a tenon-mortise mechanism to produce longer and thicker timbers out of small ones.

Builders in the Qing Dynasty also used a lot of brick walls in the temple to reinforce the structures and to help prevent fires.

In 1961, the temple was listed by the Chinese government as one of the key historical and cultural sites that is under State protection.
斗接柱 (dòu jiē zhù) Mortised Pillar

In ancient China, carpenters developed extremely sophisticated tenon-mortise mechanisms to meet various needs in building different types of structures.

For instance, when there’s no timber long enough to make a pillar suitable for a building, the carpenters would mortise two or more pieces of timber into a long pillar without using any nails or glue. They called them duojiezhu, or mortised pillar.

Then, they would cover the mortised pillar with mortar or paint to conceal the tenon-mortise work and make it look like one giant piece of timber.

Of course, the same technique was applied to creating a longer beam to support a large roof.

Similarly, the carpenters used the same idea but with different methods to build a thicker pillar out of several thin pillars. They called them baoxiangzhu (包镶柱), or enwrapped pillar, as several thinner pillars were used to enwrap a relatively thick pillar to create a new and thicker one.

The multipurpose tenon-mortise mechanisms also helped Chinese carpenters make pillars of different shapes and other essential building parts in ancient times.



One response to “Dream led to China’s first Buddhist temple

  1. AUM
    The story of construction of the White Horse Temple and its popularity in later years is an interesting story indeed. It should be gone through by those men and women who wish to know about Buddhism in China.
    May I suggest that pictures of the two monks from India may be given here to make the story more popular. Thanks.

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