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Raoul Birnbaum

Secret Halls of the Mountain Lords: The Caves of Wu-t'ai shan


In: Cahiers d'Extrme-Asie, Vol. 5, 1989. pp. 115-140.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :


Birnbaum Raoul. Secret Halls of the Mountain Lords: The Caves of Wu-t'ai shan. In: Cahiers d'Extrme-Asie, Vol. 5, 1989. pp.
115-140.
doi : 10.3406/asie.1989.945
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/asie_0766-1177_1989_num_5_1_945

Rsum
Le paysage religieux de la Chine ancienne tait ponctu de lieux- charnires entre le monde des esprits
et celui des humains, A l'poque mdivale, les montagnes taient de ces lieux-charnires par
excellence, et leur caractre sacr tait encore accentu par la croyance qu'elles abritaient en leurs
flancs des grottes magiques. La prdominance du bouddhisme influena la perception de la gographie
sacre: certaines montagnes devinrent fameuses comme sige de manifestations de Bodhisattvas , le
Wu-t'ai shan notamment, vnre comme haut-lieu de Wen-shu (Manjusr).
Les nombreuses grottes du Wu-t'ai shan peuvent tre classes en quatre types:
1. Grottes d'habitation. La tradition bouddhique de grottes aptes la pratique individuelle ou collective
rencontrait la tradition chinoise de l'habitat troglodytique.
2. Grottes paradisiaques. Certaines grottes, comme la Grotte de Diamant et la Grotte de Nrayna
taient vues comme des antichambres des domaines paradisiaques. Demeure du dieu de la montagne
(Shan-shen) aux temps les plus anciens, la Grotte de Diamant devint ensuite la rsidence de Wen-shu
et de son escorte de dix-mille Bodhisattvas. Les rcits d'expriences tranges en ce lieu et la
description de ses splendeurs secrtes suivent de prs l'vocation des mystres des grottes-cieux dans
les traditions taostes dcrites dans l'ouvrage pionnier de Max Kaltenmark.
3. Grottes apparitions. Les racines bouddhiques de semblables manifestations de divinits leurs
fidles remontent la tradition de la Grotte du Reflet du Buddha Nagarahra. Le dveloppement
assez tardif de cette croyance au Wu-t'ai shan est peut-tre d l'influence de la tradition du P'u-t'o
shan.
4. Grottes matrices. Le seul exemple en est la Grotte de la Mre des Buddhas. Cette grotte a trois
chambres, et l'accs la plus profonde se fait par une fente dans la paroi rocheuse. Le retour partir
de cette matrice par le canal d'accouchement est une forme de renaissance rituelle. Cette pratique du
Wu-t'ai shan est peut- tre unique en Chine, mais a des parallles, tudis par R.A. Stein, dans d'autres
cultures asiatiques.
La description de ces quatre types de grottes donne une ide de la diversit et de la complexit de ce
qu'est une montagne sacre en Chine. L'importance des grottes paradisiaques dans ce haut lieu
bouddhique tmoigne sans doute de l'endurance d'un fond commun aux religions chinoises par rapport
auquel la distinction entre bouddhisme et taosme apparat surtout comme nominale.

SECRET HALLS OF THE MOUNTAIN LORDS:


THE CAVES OF WU-T'AI SHAN*
Raoul Birnbaum
Le paysage religieux de la Chine ancienne tait ponctu de lieuxcharnires entre le monde des esprits et celui des humains, A l'poque
mdivale, les montagnes taient de ces lieux-charnires par excel
lence, et leur caractre sacr tait encore accentu par la croyance
qu'elles abritaient en leurs flancs des grottes magiques. La pr
dominance
du bouddhisme influena la perception de la gographie
sacre: certaines montagnes devinrent fameuses comme sige de
manifestations de Bodhisattvas, le Wu-t'ai shan S-pfl-U notamment,
vnre comme haut-lieu de Wen-shu ~$Cffl. (Manjusr).
Les nombreuses grottes du Wu-t'ai shan peuvent tre classes
en quatre types:
1. Grottes d'habitation. La tradition bouddhique de grottes
aptes la pratique individuelle ou collective rencontrait la tradition
chinoise de l'habitat troglodytique.
2. Grottes paradisiaques. Certaines grottes, comme la Grotte
de Diamant et la Grotte de Nrayana taient vues comme des ant
ichambres
des domaines paradisiaques. Demeure du dieu de la mon
tagne (Shan-shen \1\W) aux temps les plus anciens, la Grotte
de Diamant devint ensuite la rsidence de Wen-shu et de son
escorte de dix-mille Bodhisattvas. Les rcits d'expriences tranges
en ce lieu et la description de ses splendeurs secrtes suivent de prs
l'vocation des mystres des grottes-cieux dans les traditions taostes
dcrites dans l'ouvrage pionnier de Max Kaltenmark.
3. Grottes apparitions. Les racines bouddhiques de semblables
manifestations de divinits leurs fidles remontent la tradition
de la Grotte du Reflet du Buddha Nagarahra. Le dveloppement
assez tardif de cette croyance au Wu-t'ai shan est peut-tre d
l'influence de la tradition du P'u-t'o shan HPlJj.
4. Grottes matrices. Le seul exemple en est la Grotte de la Mre
des Buddhas. Cette grotte a trois chambres, et l'accs la plus
profonde se fait par une fente dans la paroi rocheuse. Le retour
partir de cette matrice par le canal d'accouchement est une forme
de renaissance rituelle. Cette pratique du Wu-t'ai shan est peuttre unique en Chine, mais a des parallles, tudis par R.A. Stein,
* Author's Note : I wish to thank Hubert Durt, John Lagerwey, and Anna Seidel for generous
and valuable editorial comments and suggestions, as well as great patience. This essay stems
from a long-term project on the Buddhist sacred geography of traditional China, with special
focus on the medieval traditions of Mount Wu-t'ai. The project has received funding from several
sources, and I acknowledge with gratitude assistance from: the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellowship Program at Harvard University, and
Cahiers d'Extrme-Asie 5 (1989-1990): 115-140

116

Raoul Birnbaum
dans d'autres cultures asiatiques.
La description de ces quatre types de grottes donne une ide de
la diversit et de la complexit de ce qu'est une montagne sacre en
Chine. L'importance des grottes paradisiaques dans ce haut lieu
bouddhique tmoigne sans doute de l'endurance d'un fond commun
aux religions chinoises par rapport auquel la distinction entre boud
dhisme et taosme apparat surtout comme nominale.

The landscape of China in premodern times was perceived by some as


sacred : a vast expanse of territory spotted with points of power, marked by
sites where spirit realms and earthly realms conjoined. By the medieval era,
mountains were preeminent in this vision of a numinous land, from the five
directional peaks of the state cult, to the seats of manifestation of the powerful
deities in the national pantheons, to the regional and local sites where figures
of lesser power were believed to dwell. Certain lakes and rivers also were known
as the homes of spirits. On a local level, even some great boulders and strange
trees were considered powerful or sacred, places where spirits of more ci
rcumscribed
significance nestled and appeared.
Sacred mountain traditions, in China and elsewhere, often have been linked
to beliefs in the existence of numinous grottos. It is said that treasures may
be found in such caverns, and transcendent beings may live deep within their
hidden recesses. In part, these beliefs may spring from the perception con
scious
or unconscious of geological fact : the interiors of mountains often are
filled with precious minerals, including at some sites great concentrations of
gems.1 In part, these beliefs may arise from the conclusion that the mysterious
brooding presence of the mountain massif hides extraordinary secrets that
could be revealed if only the journeyer were to gain entrance to the mount
ain's interior. The presence of holes and hollows on a mountain's face or
flanks may lead a wondering mind to tempting assumptions, particularly when
rare glinting minerals are found strewn about at such entrances, or when those
who enter are treated to glories of crystalline splendor and follow streams to
their origins in the heart of the mountain, sometimes never to return to com
panions
waiting outside.
Most of China's sacred mountains have caves that are considered numinous.
Caves form part of the "vocabulary" of phenomena that traditionally constitute
a sacred mountain complex in China, and examples of the text genre dedicated
to describing and legitimizing such sites shan-chih \U^, "mountain mono
graph" often include a special section on caves.2
the Tuck Fund for the Humanities at Princeton University.
1) This is discussed repeatedly in many basic reference works on gems. See, for example, the
numerous references in Gemological Institute of America, Colored Stones, 2 vols. (Los Angeles:
1975).
2) On basic elements seen at Taoist mountains, see Thomas Hahn, "The Standard Taoist
Mountain," Cahiers d'Extrme-Asie 4 (1988), pp. 145156. For an example of a shan-chih with a
section on caves, see Ch'uan-teng Wu-chin WlS^H, T'ien-t'ai shan fang-wai
(1601; 1894 repr.), 3.5b-6b.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

117

This essay focuses on cave traditions at the mountain complex known as


Wu-t'ai Shan jE^U-I, the famous Buddhist pilgrimage center in the presentday northern China province of Shansi ill. A significant theme in this essay
is the interrelation of Buddhist concepts and practices with native Chinese
traditions. We know from numerous studies of past decades on Taoist and
Chinese Buddhist literature, thought, meditation practices, and ritual that
relations between segments of the two traditions were dynamic and mutually
transformative. This can also be seen in the study of changing perceptions of
sacred geography in China. The transformation of the Chinese landscape
into a distinctly Buddhistic one was a significant factor in the integration of
Buddhism into Chinese culture, in the forging of a distinctly Chinese Buddhism.
In many instances, though, what we find is a reformulation in Buddhist terms
of elements fundamental to the Chinese matrix.
How was this transformation of the landscape achieved? First, through the
creation or imposition upon a familiar territory of a new "built environment."
Temples and monasteries were created, some with towering] pagodas. Shrines
were set up. Images were carved on rock faces and cliffsides, and entire
mountainsides were transformed into complexes of radiantly decorated im
ages, a vast pantheon peering out across the countryside. Stupas said to contain
the relics of Skyamuni were discovered or set up. Additional funerary monu
ments were created to house the cremated remains of well-known holy men
and women. All these monuments, these visible alterations, led to a new look
for old territory.
Second, previously established numinous sites were perceived in new ways.
Tales of Buddhist conquests of malevolent lake and river gods suggest in a
vivid manner a reordering of territorial control.3 More significant to our theme
here was the Buddhist occupation of sacred mountains, the centerpieces and
pivot points of the powerful landscape of medieval Chinese religions. Both
solitary practitioners and well-organized training communities shared in the
beneficent atmosphere of such sites. Most important, conforming to one of
the great themes of early Chinese religions, certain sacred mountains were
recognized as the sites of manifestation of Buddhist deities, and the Buddhist
pantheon became established in the Chinese firmament.
The most famous of these early mountain sites of manifestation was Mount
Wu-t'ai (Five Terrace Mountain), which also has been known as Ch'ing-liang
Shan ?r5UJj Mount Clear-and-Cool. Mount Wu-t'ai was a site with some
local cults that was first settled by Buddhists in the late fifth century. By the
mid-sixth century at least, it was recognized as the seat of manifestation of
Wen-shu p'u-sa '7$CW^Wl (Manjusr Bodhisattva) , and from that time until
the present it has been one of the most important natural sacred sites for Budd
hists in China, drawing pilgrims from all over the Mahyna Buddhist world.4
3) See Miyakawa Hisayuki, "Local Cults Around Mount Lu at the Time of Sun En's Rebell
ion," in Facets of Taoism, ed. Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel (New Haven: 1979), pp. 83-101.
4) For two recent studies of medieval Buddhist activities at this site, see: Raoul Birnbaum,

118

Raoul Birnbaum

Records from very early times at Mount Wu-t'ai suggest that certain cave
traditions there were extremely important in cultic activities. Some of these
caves have remained sacred centers to the present, while others not mentioned
in the early textual traditions took on considerable importance for pilgrims
and residents of the mountain region in more recent centuries.
One might expect the theme of sacred mountain caves to be singularly
straightforward and monolithic. However, at Mount Wu-t'ai there are at
least four types of caves, each type distinctly differentiated by its perceived
functions. A brief survey of these cave types may lead to a deeper understand
ing
of the complex interweaving of themes and influences that has gone into
the creation of a Buddhist sacred geography in China. The four cave types
to be discussed in turn include : dwelling caves, paradise caves of the mount
ainlords, manifestation caves, and a cave of initiatory rebirth.
Dwelling Caves
Caves are the natural lairs of animals in the wild, providing refuge from
winds and rains. Humans from very ancient times have lived in caves, and
they have created some of the earliest "religious art" on the walls of these
dwellings.5 In Asia in modern times, there are several areas where humans
live in hollows within the earth's surface, sometimes at the very bottom level
of poverty (as in some sections of Ladakh6). In northern China, there are
regions where entire villages have been carved out of the loess hillsides, as
can still be seen in Shansi both north and south of the Wu-t'ai range. In con
trast to the Ladakhi example, these Chinese cave-dwellings may provide
considerable comfort, with plastered entrances and interiors, as well as numero
us
other such refinements. Sheltered deep in the earth, these homes are said
by residents to have the advantage of warmth in the winter and coolness in
the summer.7
Cave-dwellings also are long-standing in Buddhist traditions. For example,
the custom of creating rock-cut caverns within the sides of hills, cliffs, and
mountains was well-established in India and Central Asia, with principal
sites created in India most especially in the era between 50 B.C.E. and 700
Context,"
"The
Manifestation
Journal of theofAmerican
a Monastery:
Oriental Shen-ying's
Society 106.1 Experiences
(1986), pp. 1 on
19-137;
Mount
andWu-t'ai
RichardinSchnei
T'ang
der,
"Une moine indien au Wou-t'ai chan," Cahiers d' Extrme-Asie 3 (1987), pp. 27-39. Schnei
der
provides a useful basic bibliography in his note 1, p. 27.
5) In addition to such well-known Old World sites as Lascaux, one can also point to numerous
cave sites in the New World, such as the many rock caves in the mountains surrounding the
valley of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. There are spectacular examples of cave art at the cliffs
just south of the Oaxacan site of Yagul, as I saw in early January, 1990.
6) In 1978, while travelling by jeep in Kashmir and Ladakh, en route to the town of Kargil,
I passed through an area of extraordinary poverty, where men were plowing fields that ap
peared
to contain more stones and rubble than soil. These people lived in caves, in what ap
peared
to be very primitive conditions.
7) For photos of some loess cave communities in Shensi province, see Rolf A. Stein, Le monde

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

119

C.E. Often at these sites, there were both chapels for lay donors to visit and
monastic living quarters. These living quarters were fairly elaborate, with a
veranda, a central hall, and small cells opening up from this hall on three
sides, containing one or two stone beds each.8 Such monks' cells were also
seen at Central Asian sites such as Kizil.9
There also is a long-standing tradition in Chinese lore that certain arhats
Skyamuni's early disciples who have pledged to protect and maintain the
Teachings until the appearance of the next Buddha in the world dwell in
mountain caves. This can be seen graphically in early mural paintings (again
within caves) at Tun-huang, such as the early sixth-century paintings along
the ceiling edge of Cave 285. 10
Cave-shelters find their way into Buddhist scriptures. For example, in the
Gandavyilha section of the Avatamsaka-stra (the Hua-yen ching ift||, or Flower
Ornament Scripture, a text especially valued at Mt. Wu-t'ai in medieval times),
a night goddess named Vsant describes to the youth Sudhana the ways in
which she aids travellers in need :
... by producing caves in the mountains for shelter, by producing fruits
and roots for food, by producing streams for drinking water, by producing
shelter against cold and heat, by showing the right path, by the songs of
birds, by the luster of medicinal plants, by the glow of mountain spirits.
I become a refuge for those in mountain caves and crevices, those op
pressed
by various pains, dispelling the darkness, producing level ground
for them. And I resolve that just as I rescue these people in the mount
ains, so will I become a refuge for those fallen on the precipitous trails
of the mountain of mundane existence, who are in the grip of old age
and death.11
At Mount Wu-t'ai, there are several cave-shelters where ascetics have lived
in solitary practice. As one example, an eighth-century compendium of tales
en petit (Paris: 1987), pp. 129-130. It is important to note that these Chinese examples are
created burrows, rather than natural rock shelters.
8) For a useful overview, see Etienne Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism (Louvain: 1988),
pp. 501-515. When I visited Ajant before the monsoon rains in 1978 during the most oppres
sive
heat of the year, these cells were memorable for their striking coolness.
9) For a spectacular view of the Muzart River from a monk's cave in Kizil (providing an
intimation of the meditations perhaps experienced there), see H. Hartel, M. Yaldiz et al., Along
the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from West Berlin State Museums (New York: 1982), p. 20.
10) See Akiyama Terukazu and Matsubara Sabur, Arts of China II: Buddhist Cave Temples,
New Researches (Tokyo: 1969), pp. 48-49, plates 23-24. Perhaps this iconographie tradition may
have some bearing on the famous seventh-century portrait sculpture at the Potala in Lhasa of
the Buddhist king Songzen Gampo, who is depicted seated within a rocky grotto. For a recent
study of this sculpture, see Marylin Martin Rhie, "The Statue of Songzen Gampo in the Potala,
Lhasa," in Orientalia Iosephi Tucci Memoriae Dicata, ed. G. Gnoli and L. Lanciotti (Rome: 1988),
pp. 1200-1219. The tradition of arhats dwelling in samdhi in mountain caves, waiting for Maitreya, has been maintained to recent times in China, as can be seen in the comments of Hsu-

1 20

Raoul Birnbaum

of the extraordinary powers of the Flower Garland Scripture relates the story of
two Indian monks who in 676 lost their way on pilgrimage at Mount Wu-t'ai.
Wandering about, they discovered a solitary nun living in an isolated cave.
As a strict adherent of the Vinaya code, she could not shelter them overnight
in her dwelling, so she directed them to a monk living in a meditation retreat.12
They returned the next day to talk with her, and they found her chanting the
Flower Garland Scripture, a well-known practice at Mount Wu-t'ai (which in
medieval times was a stronghold of Hua-yen studies and practice). As she
chanted, light filled the whole valley, flowing out from her mouth. The Indian
monks concluded in wonder that she must be a manifestation of Manjusr
Bodhisattva.13
Paradise Caves of the Mountain Lords
We know that monks and nuns lived in caves at Mount Wu-t'ai in medieval
times. These individuals, strange and solitary, accomplished in spiritual pract
ices, sometimes were taken for spirits. In addition, there was a special cave
that was widely held to be the residence of powerful spirits. This site, the
Diamond Grotto (Chin-kang k'u 4P!!IIb), without doubt is the cave at Mount
Wu-t'ai that has been best known to travellers and pilgrims. Records of it
date back to the seventh century, and it remained an important pilgrimage
site until recent decades, when all the structures in the valley (including the
Prajfi Monastery, founded in the eighth century) were razed to create a
holiday hideaway for Lin Piao. When I visited this valley in 1986, there was
a heap of rubble in front of the Diamond Grotto site.
Because I use a series of passages from medieval texts on Wu-t'ai Shan as
the basis for the discussion below, there are times when themes overlap and
threads of continuity by necessity become a bit tangled. But it should become
clear that these tales of the Diamond Grotto contain numerous significant and
suggestive elements that indicate the close relations and interchange between
Buddhist and native Chinese religious traditions in medieval times.
The earliest references to the Diamond Grotto tie it to two significant themes
in native Chinese religions. First, the cavern is identified as the home of the
mountain lord {shan-shen lUijif), the spirit who reigns over the mountain. Such
spirits are located at all the powerfully numinous mountains within the sacred
geography of China, and references to their presence often predate Buddhist
(and, sometimes, organized Taoist) influence. The identification of this cave
yn JM about his experiences at Chi-tsu Shan IS/illU (in Yunnan), where the arhat Mahakasyapa is said to dwell in a sealed cave. See Ts'en Hseh-l ^IPS, d., Hs-yn /lo-shang nien-p'u
SKftft]^ (Taipei: repr. 1969), p. 21 (entry for fiftieth year).
11) Thomas Cleary, tr., The Flower Ornament Sutra, vol. 3 (Boston: 1987), p. 162. T. 279:10,
369c.
12) Ch'an-k'u iW&, possibly also a cave, though in later times the k'u is taken symbolically.
13) Hui-ying g5i and Hu Yao-cheng ~$\M&, Ta-fang-kuang fo hua-yen ching kan-ying chuan iz?J
, t. 2074: 51, 175b.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

12 1

with Mount Wu-t'ai's mountain lord suggests that the mountain was r
ecognized
as numinous prior to the perception of the region as a sacred Budd
hist realm.14 Second, the Diamond Grotto is described as a secret entrance
to a paradise realm.
An anecdote preserved in the earliest monograph devoted to Mount Wut'ai, Hui-hsiang's Ku Ch 'ing-Hang chuan (ca. 679), provides an example:
Formerly, in the time of the Kao Ch'i kings (550-577),15 there was a
monk of Great Faith Monastery16 named Hsiang-yiin jji^lS ("Auspicious
Cloud"). His lay family name was Chou JfJ- His place of origin is not
known. He was several years old when he left household life. In his youth
he was the disciple of Shih Ling-hsiin ^UsSftJ, the Controller of Monks of
Ping Prefecture ?fffl.17 The Controller wished to discern Yun's past-life
predispositions, so he allowed Yiin to choose from among the scriptures
of the Great Vehicle Treasury. Yiin took the Nirvna[-stra]. Because they
recited it together, before a full year had passed he had completely memo
rized the entire text. He recited it once daily, considering it his regular
14) I term shan-shen "mountain lord" because these spirits almost invariably are described
as male. At Mount Wu-t'ai, the mountain lord traditions (as well as other elements of what
may well be the earliest layers of religious traditions at the mountain) are maintained by vi
l agers
(as seen in the iconography of village temple murals) and herders to the present day. This
point may be supported by one among many anecdotes. In July of 1 986, I was hiking on pi
lgrimage
from the Central Terrace to the Northern Terrace, together with a senior monk of the
Hsien-t'ung ssu HtM^F, a local jeep driver, and a schoolteacher from Datong. Returning from
the Northern Terrace, we were caught in a fog, which became a storm of freezing rain and
lightning. The fog was so dense that we lost sight of the track through the grasslands between
the two peaks, but a stone shelter appeared out of the mist, so we made for it. It was, in fact,
not a shelter but a shrine, built and maintained by herders in honor of the shan-shen, whose name
was inscribed on a freshly painted wooden tablet within.
1 5) The short-lived Northern Ch'i dynasty, founded by the Kao family.
16) Great Faith Monastery (Ta-fu ssu ^^^f) was located at the foot of Numinous Vulture
Peak; therefore, its full name was Great Faith Numinous Vulture Monastery. It was said to
have been founded by Emperor Hsiao-wen i$3C of the Yuan Wei %St (r. 471-499) [T. 2098:
51, 1094a-b]. Due to its central location, it has been one of the principal monastic centers at
Wu-t'ai Shan. Now known as the Hsien-t'ung ssu, it is the largest monastic establishment
remaining in the region, serving as headquarters for the Wu-t'ai Shan branch of the China
Buddhist Association, as well as housing within its many halls the local administrative govern
mentoffices.
17) Ling-hsn is accorded a very brief biography in the section on exegetes in the Tang kaoseng chucn JSitjftfil, T. 2060: 50, 484c. This account notes that he was especially known for his
study of the Ch'eng-shih lun $)Cira (* Tattvasiddhi-sSstra) , the Nirvna-stra, and the Vimalakrtistra. He also was honored for his calligraphy. He was Controller of Monks of Ping Prefecture,
the state-appointed monastic official responsible for Buddhist activities in the region, at the end
of the Wei. During the Ch'i period, he lived in Chin-yang HH, until his death at age 69. It is
difficult to state with confidence just when Hsiang-yn had his experiences on Mount WTu-t'ai;
based on this scanty information about his teacher, a late sixth century date would be reasonable.
Ping-chou :){ ']'[] was the prefecture directly south of Mount Wu-t'ai, including as its principal
city a site of the same name beside the Fen #} River. This city was at various times also known
as T'ai-yan J\W-- and as Chin-yang ItH. It was about fifteen miles south of the modern city of

122

Raoul Birnbaum
task.1
When Hsiang-yn heard of the numinous qualities of this mountain,
he went to live on it. Some time later, south of the [Great Faith] Mona
stery, he saw several tens or so of persons, all about a chang ~$Z tall.19
In their center there was a person who was extraordinarily imposing and
awesome. This person came directly to welcome him. Bowing his head,
he said, "Please, Master, travel on our route for seven days."
Yiin said, "I am not acquainted with you. Who are you, O patron?20
Where is your home?"
He replied, "Sir, I21 am the spirit-lord of this mountain. I live in the
Diamond Grotto." At this, he led Yiin north. After walking for several
li, they saw palace buildings and garden groves, all adorned with vermil
ion
and azure. Yiin then went in and recited scriptures. His voice flowed
clearly, and the echoes filled the palace halls.
When the scripture recitation was finished, the spirit took the jewel
on his chest and bestowed it in donation to Yiin. Yiin would not agree
to accept it. The spirit pressed him to receive it, but Yiin said, "I follow
the way of poverty (the monastic rule) and suffer in this trifling life. I
have not obtained longevity. For this reason I cultivate acts of the Way.
O patron, you must not bequeath the gem to me. I wish that you would
bestow upon me an herb of spirit-power."
The spirit said, "This also can be done." Then he selected an herb, in
the form of a single pellet about as large as a date, colored white like
boiled silk, and he bestowed it. Yiin accepted it, ate it, and gained ascen
sionto immortality. He returned to the scripture master's (Ling-hsiin's)
place, stated his thanks, and left.22

There are numerous points of interest embedded in this short passage. It


T'ai-yan.
18) Reading 2p chun for W. chun. Several translations of Mahyna versions of the Mahparinirvna-stra would have been available to Hsiang-yn, including those by Fa-hsien and Buddhabhadra (T. 376), Dharmaksema (T. 374), and an emended version of this latter text by
Hui-yen, Hui-kuan, and Hsieh Ling-yn (T. 375). These texts all are quite long (most especially
the latter two versions) ; that probably is a key point here, but I suspect that the title of this text
(rather than the contents) is intertwined with Hsiang-yn's desire for longevity, which is ex
pressed
at the end of this tale. The recitation of scriptures served as a basic spiritual practice,
akin to meditation, for many medieval Buddhists. For a useful overview, see Jan Yn-hua, "The
Power of Recitation: An Unstudied Aspect of Chinese Buddhism," Studi Storico-Religiosi (Rome)
1.2 (1977), pp. 289-299.
19) 1 chang 3tl = 10 ch'ih K; a ch'ih in T'ang times was roughly nine inches. Thus, they would
have stood around seven and a half feet tall.
20) T'an-yeh ffiM = Skt. dnapati; used in Buddhist contexts to refer to a benefactor or
wealthy patron.
21) Hui-hsiang commonly uses the word "ti-tzu" iffi- ("your disciple") in narratives when a
layperson speaks with a monk. This is a self-effacing term of respect, which I translate more
freely as "Sir, I ..." in order to avoid an impossibly stilted rendering inconsistent with the text.
22) T. 2098: 51, 1095a.

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123

asserts that a mountain cave is the dwelling place of a powerful spirit. This
theme has roots in native Chinese religions that go back at least to the Han,
as represented for example in a tale in which the mythic sage-ruler Y 0k
encounters the serpent-bodied human-headed Fu Hsi fH in the depths of
a mountain cave near Lung-men HH. In this encounter, Yii receives two
revelations in the form of "power objects": the Chart of the Eight Trigrams
and a jade ruler of twelve inches that marks the twelve hours with which to
measure Heaven and Earth.23
The deferential relationship of the mountain lord to the Buddhist monk is
striking, and it may have startled a non-Buddhist reader in medieval times.
The spirit's gift may in fact have been an attempt to bestow a token of rank
(perhaps indicating a transfer of authority over territory) rather than merely
an item of intrinsic value,24 thus strengthening the definition of this relation
ship.
The passage concludes with a striking portrayal of this accomplished
Buddhist monk's desire for the characteristically Taoist attainment (stemming
also from earlier fang-shih Jjzk traditions) of immortality by eating a potent
herb (and sacred mountains, of course, are the prime sites for collecting such
plants). Perhaps this desire was presaged in the tale by Hsiang-yixn's karmic
connection to the Nirvn-stra. The details of this passage suggest, as do many
texts that deal with the actual practice of religion, a blurring in medieval
times of some of the distinctive dividing lines between Taoism and Buddhism
that might be drawn in some "ideal" state.
The most significant point in this passage, perhaps, is the theme of paradise
realms entered through secret passageways, through a geological gap a
long-standing theme in Chinese traditions. In this particular tale, it is not
stated specifically that the monk has entered the palace complex through
the cave, but further tales (to be related below) make this clear. These experi
ences are not quite like Alice's entrance to Wonderland, nor a science-fiction
shift to another dimension of time and space, but they bear some relationship
to such conceptions. Perhaps the most famous early literary example is T'ao
Ch'ien's fjg (365-427) "Record of the Peach Flower Font," in which a
bucolic village of peace and plenty is discovered by a fisherman, later to be
lost forever when he goes home to tell his compatriots.25
Such peaceful hamlets, undisturbed by war, bureaucrats, or bad weather,
23) Anna Seidel discusses this tale (and uses the term "power object") in her "Imperial
Treasures and Taoist Sacraments : Taoist Roots in the Apocrypha," in Tantric and Taoist Studies
in Honour ofR.A. Stein, vol. 2, ed. Michel Strickmann (Brussels: 1983), p. 302. I rely on Seidel's
views regarding the antiquity of the tale, which is recorded in Wang Chia EE| (d.c. 324), Shih-i
chi JajllH {Han Wei tsung-shu d.), 2. 2b-3a. Max Kaltenmark has translated the tale in "Lingpao. Note sur un terme du taosme religieux," Mlanges publis par l'Institut des Hautes Etudes
Chinoises 2 (1960), p. 571, n.3.
24) This possibility was suggested to me by Anna Seidel.
25) For a study of Taoist canonical sources that inspired this work, see Stephen R. Bokenkamp, "The Peach Flower Font and the Grotto Passage," Journal of the American Oriental Society
106.1 (1986), pp. 65-77.

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are spread across the mythic landscape of China. The earliest date associated
with inhabitation at Mount Wu-t'ai, a notice in the Shui-ching chu 7JcS
dating to 309, describes such a site, where villagers moved en masse to escape
civil disturbances. These refugees can be seen from a distance, according to
the account, but no one is able to get to their village.26 A standard visionary
experience on the mountain, mentioned repeatedly in the early monographs,
travellers'
reports, and biographical notices, is the distant sight of luminous
beings and their golden temples, all of which disappear or become inaccess
ible
as one approaches.
But here we have the theme of a secret realm within a cave, a realm that
is the special home of a deity. The pioneering work of Max Kaltenmark on
caves and the Ling-pao traditions makes it clear that this theme was estab
lished in a very early layer of Taoist literature.27 The late third or early fourth
century Preface to the Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure {Ling-pao wu-fu
hs WtV.lffi1r, HY 388) contains a long passage describing a journey into a
cave paradise. There are key elements to this journey, many of which play a
role in the early Wu-t'ai Shan accounts.
The cave can be entered only by a person who has become suitably pure.
The cave passageways, occasionally crossed by streams of sweet-tasting water,
are lined with precious gems, and they open up eventually to a vast chamber
filled with light, in which towering palaces stand. Special trees are found in
this grotto. Deep within, extraordinary treasures are found, which have been
stored for safekeeping: most importantly, mystic scriptures.
The view that special mountain caverns open into glorious realms of the
transcendents became a basic element of Taoist cosmological views. These
"grotto-heavens" (tung-fien ffl^) were discussed at some length in the early
sixth century revelations of the Chen-kao MIS-28 Sets often and thirty-six grot
toes were established. Many of these and other sacred places were believed to
be interconnected by a system of mysterious underground passages.29 The
26) See Li T'ao-yan MMt (d. 526), Shui-ching chu (Wang Hsien-ch'ien S.%W. d., 1892),
11.31a-b. This passage is part of the standard medieval lore about Wu-t'ai Shan; for example,
it is quoted in Hui-hsiang's seventh-century monograph, T. 2098: 51, 1093a. There is a living
tradition at Mount Wu-t'ai that has some relation to this notice. At the end of the Ming, a
group of families moved to a remote valley below the Eastern Terrace to escape from warlords
and excessive taxation. This village still exists far from paved roads and normal access, with a
population of about fifty families. According to the village leader, when I was able to visit this
site by jeep in 1986, the people there tend to live to an old age 70s and 80s due to the pure
water and the abundance of wild medicinal herbs in the surrounding fields and valley walls,
which give the air a notable fragrance and according to this man also flavor and transform
the meat of the grazing animals.
27) See: "Ling-pao. Note sur un terme du taosme religieux," Mlanges publis par l'Institut
des Hautes Etudes Chinoises 2 (1960), pp. 559-588. "Quelques remarques sur le 'T'ai chang lingpao wou-fou siu'," Zjnbun 18 (1982), pp. 1-10. "Grottes et labyrinthes en Chine ancienne," in
Dictionnaire des mythologies, ed. Yves Bonnefoy (Paris: 1981), pp. 480a-481b.
28) As cited in detail by Rolf A. Stein, Le monde en petit (Paris: 1987), pp. 289-290, n. 119.
29) An extended list of some nine categories of sacred places, including one hundred ninetyseven sites, can be found in Tu Kuang-t'ing's tbjfcSS Tung-t'ien fu-ti yeh-tou ming-shan chi ^'^ffiJfe

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

1 25

grotto-heavens were in part offices of the celestial bureaucracy, in part selfcontained worlds with sun, moon, and stars, rivers, parks, and palaces. Among
their treasures, they contained the drugs of immortality, gems, talismans and
other "power objects," and secret texts. Often, unusual plants or trees grew
near the entrance. Transcendents could enter often through a featureless
cliff-face that opened in response to their presence while the impure and
unevolved could only wait outside.
When Buddhists took over the Mount Wu-t'ai territory as their own, they
transformed this native Chinese phenomenon into a Buddhist one: the Dia
mond
Grotto was recognized as the home of Wen-shu (who replaced the
mountain-lord), and those who were spiritually qualified could gain entrance
to the bodhisattva's spacious paradise on earth, with temples, gardens, and a
myriad of bodhisattva-assistants all listening intently to the sage's pure teach
ings.
In the mid-seventh century, several texts assert that Wen-shu lives in the
Diamond Grotto. For example, Hui-hsiang in his Ku Ch'ing-liang chuan states :
Northeast of the Monastery of the Prince's Self-immolation30 an i
ndeterminate
number of li, south of the Central and Northern Terraces,
west of the Eastern Terrace, there is the center of the three mountains. A
direct path is obstructed deep in the mountains. No one is able to reach
there. It is said that this is the site of the Diamond Grotto. The Diamond
Grotto is the place where all the worship offerings to the Buddhas of the
Three Ages31 in great measure are stored.
According to the Map of Jetavana, "Within Jetavana there is a sector
named Celestial Music. It is made of the seven precious substances."32
(summarized in Edouard Chavannes, "Le jet des dragons," Mmoires concernant l'Asie
orientale 3 [1919], p. 129).
30) The Monastery of the Prince's Self-immolation is four li north of the Great Faith Monast
ery,one of the principal sites of the Wu-t'ai Shan complex. It is located on a ridge in the
central valley area encircled by the five terraces, near the peak formerly known as Numinous
Vulture Peak, now known as P'u-sa Ting, Bodhisattva's Usnisa or Bodhisattva Peak. This mona
stery was built to commemorate the self-immolation of the third prince of the Northern Ch'i,
which occurred in the 550s early in the inception of the dynasty [T. 2098: 51, 1094c]. A mona
stery, now known as the Shou-ning ssu M^^F (Monastery of Longevity and Tranquility), still
stands at this old site; it was being renovated when I visited the mountain in 1986.
3 1 ) Buddhas of the past, present, and future.
32) Jetavana is the grove near Srvast donated to Skyamuni by the wealthy merchant
Anthapindada, who had a large monastery built there. This monastery was occupied from
Skyamuni's time until the twelfth century, falling into ruins at least once, in the seventh cen
tury (see Sukumar Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries [London: 1962], pp. 64-65). "Seven
precious substances" is a standard Buddhist set of rare metals and stones, usually identified as:
gold, silver, lapis lazuli, quartz crystal, agate, ruby, and carnelian.
The text referred to, Map of Jetavana (Ch'i-yiian t'u 1Kb HI), bears the full title in the Taish
Canon o Scripture of the Map of Jetavana Monastery in the Country ofSravasti in Central India (Chung
T'ien-chu Sha-wei kuo i-yan ssu t'u ching 4>^#fHKiI^BfflE, T. 1899: 45, 882b-896b). Comp
osed by Tao-hsan MSl in 667, it is a long description of the glories of Jetavana, a place of'

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The commentary states: "Further, according to the Record of Numinous
Traces,^ this music is made by the rksasa king of Lanka Mountain as a
worship offering to Ksyapa Buddha.34 After Ksyapa Buddha's extinc
tion,Manjusr will go into the Diamond Grotto of Mount Clear-andGool. When Skyamuni Buddha emerges in this world, he then will go
to Jetavana. In twelve years, Manjusr will return and will enter within
the Diamond Grotto of Mount Clear-and-Cool. Further there is a silver
k'ung-hou ("harp"),35 and there is a silver celestial who sits, plucking this
k'ung-hou, on a flower made of the seven precious things. And further
there is Ksyapa Buddha's great Treasury of Monastic Rules {Vinaya-pitaka)
written with silver on golden paper and his Treasury of Scriptures {Strapitaka) written with gold on silver paper. After the Buddha's extinction,
Manjusr again will go into the Diamond Grotto of Mount Clear-and-

expansive size divided into seemingly innumerable sectors and cloisters, in each of which special
teachings are given and special offerings are made to the buddhas. Numerous prophecies are
also made in this text.
Hui-hsiang here refers to a section of the vast Jetavana monastery, a forest grove named Three
Thousand Types of Celestial Music located within the Cloister of the Sages. In this grove,
music is a principal worship offering and means of teaching. It is a place where all things and
all the celestial musicians are made of the seven precious substances [884b] .
Regarding this text, in T'ang period works the title is usually cited as Map of Jetavana (cf. T.
2 1 22 : 53, 59 1 b ; T. 1892 [also by Tao-hsan] : 45, 8 1 2c ; etc.) . This work is not mentioned in any
of the surviving Chinese catalogs of scriptures and treatises, but it does appear in a Japanese
catalog dated to 1094, Eicho's jkS Tikident mokuroku JfefflS@^, where it is listed as Record
of the Map of Jetavana {Ch'i-yan t'u chi SMHB), by Tao-hsan (T. 2183: 55, 1156a).
It is difficult to know how widely this text circulated in the seventh century. It is mentioned
in another surviving work by Hui-hsiang, the Hung-ts'an fa-hua chuan TLWfM'M, in which he
describes an image at Jetavana, based on an account in the Map of Jetavana (T. 2067: 51, 12c).
I have discussed this celestial music in a somewhat different context in "Sound and Music
in the Experiences of T'ang Buddhist Visionaries," in Collected Essays on Chinese Buddhist Music,
ed. Yip Ming Mei (Hong Kong: forthcoming). On the Map of Jetavana, see also Antonino Forte,
Mingtang and Buddhist Utopias in the History of the Astronomical Clock, S.O.R. 59 and P.E.F.E.O.
145, Rome, Paris, 1988, pp. 41-52.
33) The Record of Numinous Traces (Ling-chi chi Mijfti) remains a mystery. In a preliminary
search of likely indices, I have not found a single mention of this work, with the exception of
two brief citations in the mid-eleventh century Extended Records of Mount Clear-and-Cool, both of
which deal specifically with early traditions at Mount Wu-t'ai [T. 2099: 51, 1106c, 1109a].
While it could simply be a generic category ("records of numinous traces"), its appearances in
this text and Yen-i's later monograph on Wu-t'ai Shan suggest that it is a book title. The Japa
nese translators of these two texts consider it a title, but they provide no annotation regarding
its identity (see Ono Katsutoshi 'JNSf 1M and Tsukamoto Zenry *#l^, Ko Seiryden f WM,
in Kokuyaku Issaiky ISP #J, vol. 49 [Tokyo: 1962], p. 20). Since the only known two works
citing this text are associated with Mt. Wu-t'ai, and since the text apparently includes specific
references to the mountain, I would suggest tentatively that the Record of Numinous Traces may
be a local work that records some of the sacred lore of the region.
34) Rksasas, one of the eight classes of beings, are fierce and demonic spirits said to have
been the original inhabitants of Lanka Mountain, located in the southeastern sector of the isle
of Sri Lanka. Ksyapa Buddha was one of the seven buddhas of the immediate past, directly
preceding Skyamuni.

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127

Gool."36
This rather condensed statement is extracted from a long passage in the
Map ofjetavana [886b-c], which I would like to summarize at somewhat greater
length. The Map of Jetavana describes a cloister within the Celestial Music
sector, named Cloister to which Heretics Come to "Leave Home" {ch'u-chia
/i^, become monks). A celestial plays a silver k'ung-hou there whenever a
heretic seeks entrance. Through the force of this music and the light rays
emitted from the silver celestial's body, the heretic loses all his doubts and
experiences a spiritual awakening. The music, first made by the rksasa king
of Lanka Mountain in honor of Ksyapa Buddha, is described as "clear and
cool"
{ch'ing-liang ^'$C, the alternate name for Mt. Wu-t'ai). The text goes
on to state that Manjusr will go into Clear-and-Cool Mountain after Ksyapa
Buddha's parinirvna. He will return when Skyamuni Buddha comes to
Jetavana, and again twelve years after Skyamuni's parinirvna he will
go back into the Diamond Grotto of Mount Clear-and-Cool.
The text makes several other references to Manjusri's relationship with the
Diamond Grotto at Mount Clear-and-Cool [884b, 889c]. The longest of these
passages discusses some offering music created in the time of Vipasyin Buddha
by a certain rsi Mallik within Incense Mountain. At the time of this buddha's
passing, Manjusr went to Mt. Clear-and-Cool. Then, after Skyamuni died,
the music of its own accord flew away into the Diamond Grotto of Mt. Clearand-Cool [884b].
In addition to the passages cited above, the Map of Jetavana makes several
other references to Diamond Grottoes. Both Samantabhadra and the spiritlord of Mt. Sumeru entered into Diamond Grottoes (at unspecified locales)
several years after the passing away of certain buddhas of the past [889c,
886a] . Further, in a discussion of the scriptures of past buddhas and where
they are kept, it is revealed that of these various types of teachings the texts
on yin-yang are stored in the Diamond Grotto of Mt. Sumeru [889a].
There are several very significant points of interest here, including: 1.
legitimation through appeal to antiquity; 2. transfer of numinous power; 3.
texts and "power objects" stored in caves.
In a familiar rhetorical move seen repeatedly throughout Chinese history,
an attempt at legitimation is made through an appeal to precedents in anti
quity. In this case, the history of the Diamond Grotto is traced back to the
early buddhas of the Auspicious Aeon (the Bhadra-kalpa, our present age),
thus establishing that the cave and, perhaps more significantly, the mount
aincomplex has long been a sacred center for Buddhist activity. The pre
cedence
of the shan-shen or other native Chinese traditions falls away in the
face of this argument. Tao-hsiian (596-667), the sober Vinaya master and
exuberant visionary author of texts such as the Map of Jetavana, composed
additional works that use this same approach. For example, his Kan-t'ung lu
35) A k'ung-hou HH is an unfretted stringed instrument (most commonly twenty-three silk
strings), usually held upright when plucked and strummed.
36) T. 2098: 51, 1094c-1095a.

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fiMM. traces the mythic history of Wu-t'ai Shan into the distant past, associat
ing
the site (most especially a peak named Ling-chiu MU, "Numinous Vul
ture") with the Chou King Mu's MS3E worship of Manjusr and, later, Han
Ming-ti's Ht^l'rjJ further support.37
The concept of transfer of numinous power is very important in the develop
ment
of Wu-t'ai Shan as a sacred Buddhist site. This is based on the view
that there are certain numinous places established in the Buddhist world,
most especially in India, that have distinctive physiognomic features. These
features may be seen at other sites, which are regarded as additional versions
of the original landmark. Thus the Numinous Vulture Peak, where Skyamuni
is said to have preached the Lotus and other Mahyna scriptures, also exists
in the central valley of the Wu-t'ai Shan complex (it is the peak now known
as P'u-sa ting HHtH, Bodhisattva Peak or Bodhisattva's Usnisa) . The Diamond
Grotto is revealed as one of several such secret caves having the same name,
the "central" cave apparently existing on the axial mountain Sumeru. In this
process, there is both a borrowing of prestige and a refiguring of power through
physical mimicry.
There are very intriguing references to the Diamond Grotto as a storehouse
for treasures: most especially music, musical instruments,38 and sacred texts.
In an international Buddhist context, immediate comparison may be made
to Tibetan terma traditions.39 For an early Chinese Buddhist tradition, one
can turn to the Kuan-ting ching HlJitSS (the so-called Abhiseka-stra, or Consecrat
ion
Sutra), much of which appears to have been composed in China; In this
scripture, there are prophecies of the discovery of this text written in golden
graphs on sandalwood tablets in a stone cave.40 The most specific reference,
37) T. 2107: 52, 437a-b. This approach also is fundamental to the structure of many early
Chinese Buddhist apologetic works that seek to defend against charges that Buddhism is a
recently imported barbarian way of life and thought. Appealing to the physical evidence of
"Asokan stupas" and to a very particular version of mythic history, authors such as Tsung Ping
S^jlR (375-443) assert that Buddhism was established in China long before the birth of Confucius.
I discuss this (with extensive bibliographic references) in "Relics and Sacred Geography: The
Asokan Stupas," in my forthcoming volume on Wu-t'ai Shan.
38) An anecdote related in the eleventh-century Kuang Ch'ing-liang chuan adds a massive
bronze bell to the list. The tale relates an encounter in the year 184 of a monk Hui-ch'eng ~Mff.
and a person who identifies himself as the mountain lord. The mountain lord informs Hui-ch'eng
that the bell, formerly kept in Bronze Bell Monastery (Mf&^), has been taken into the Diamond
Grotto. The mountain lord asserts the celestial origins of the bell it was made by the king of
Tusita Heaven while Hui-ch'eng asserts its great antiquity it was made in the era of Krakucchanda Buddha [T. 2099: 51, 1108b].
39) See Tulku Thondup Rinpoche (ed. Harold Talbott), Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Ex
planation
of the Terma Traditions of the Nyingma School of Buddhism (London: 1986), esp. pp. 57-170.
40) T. 1 33 1 : 31, 497c, 498a. Michel Strickmann has prepared a study of this work, analyzing
it in the context of religion in fifth-century Chiang-nan; see his The Consecration Sutra, A Buddhist
Book of Spells (Kyoto: unpublished manuscript dated 1977). A condensed and updated version,
bearing the same title, has appeared recently in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed. Robert Buswell,
Jr. (Honolulu: 1990), pp. 75-118.

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129

though, must be the Ling-pao Taoist traditions (especially the previously


mentioned Ling-pao wu-fu hsu).
The view that this cavern is Wen-shu's dwelling was firmly established by
the time of the second major monograph about the mountain, the Kuang Ch'ingliang chuan Stfpf^jCiif, composed by Yen-i % in the 1070s. Here is a typical
passage from that text about the site:
The Diamond Grotto. This is Manjusr's great dwelling. This grotto
is below the two feet of the Eastern and Northern [Terraces]. There is a
stone gate between the north and south ridges within Tower Observat
ory
Valley. At that place sages of the past (hsien-sheng 3fcS) exit and
enter. Few persons are aware of this.
A Master Fo-hui f$^ of Fan-chih District once entered this grotto.
He walked for about 30 li, when he came to an intersecting river. Once
he had crossed this peaceful stream, there were no longer any ordinary
trees. He saw only jeweled trees. As far as he could gaze in the four direc
tions, he saw towers of gold and stiipas of ch'iung jf, luminously dazzling
the eyes.41 When Master Fo-hui emerged from the grotto, he spoke of
this to others.42
While the Buddhist authors of the early monographs on Wu-t'ai Shan rarely
comment on "non-Buddhist" religious activity there,43 it is significant that
certain elements indicate strong Taoist influence. For example, Tower Observat
ory
Valley most probably takes its name (Lou-kuan ftU) from the frontier
pass in the Chung-nan Mountains 0^U4 where Lao-tzu is said to have dic
tated
the Tao-te chingM It no doubt is relevant that this is the name of the
valley that serves as the setting of the feature in the mountain complex most
readily identified by its characteristics with Taoist traditions.
The most famous early incident at the Diamond Grotto involved a Kashmir
i
monk named Buddhapli. Buddhapli traveled to China specifically to
meet Manjusr at Mount Wu-t'ai, arriving in 676. According to the tale, when
Buddhapli came within sight of the Wu-t'ai Mountains, he prostrated hims
elfin worship and prayed for a vision of Manjusr. An old man appeared and
questioned him. Did he bring with him a certain Buddhosnlsa-dhran-stra,
which could eliminate the bad karma of sentient beings in the land of Han?
Buddhapli, it turned out, had brought neither this text nor any other.
41) Edward Schafer proposes "carbuncle" as an equivalent for this archaic red-hued gemstone; cf. The Vermilion Bird (Berkeley: 1967), pp. 158-159.
42) T. 2099: 51, 1106c.
43) They do pause to note its demise, as in Hui-hsiang's brief reference to a Wu-t'ai Shrine
(Wu-t'ai tz'u Xi-Jpl), which burned down at the end of the Sui and was not rebuilt. This shrine
was only two hundred paces northeast of the chief monastery at the center of the Wu-t'ai comp
lex, the Great Faith Monastery (Ta-fu ssu ^c^^F, present Hsien-t'ung ssu). See T. 2098: 51,
1094c.
44) I am indebted to Anna Seidel for calling this to my attention.

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The old man sent him back to India, promising that he would meet Manjusr
if he returned with the scripture. Buddhapli returned to China with the text,
arriving in Ch'ang-an in 683. The text was translated, after some vicissitudes,
in two versions. He took the Sanskrit volume with him to Wu-t'ai Shan and,
according to legends, was ushered into the Diamond Grotto by Manjusri,
never again to emerge.45
This incident was well known at the mountain when the Japanese pilgrim
Ennin Ut visited in the mid-ninth century. His diary entry for the twentythird day, fifth lunar month of the year 840 notes that "just as Pli entered,
the gate to the grotto closed of itself, and from then till now it has not opened."46
He also provides a summary of much of the lore found in the Map of Jetavana,
and he includes a brief description of the site :
The grotto wall is hard and fine-grained, banded with a yellow tinge.
At the face of the grotto door, there is a high tower. An imposing gate
is below the tower. No one can see it. Atop the tower at the grotto door,
there is a hexagonal revolving case for scriptures.47
The famed late eighth century Pure Land master Fa-chao }BS, who founded
the Bamboo Grove Monastery (Chu-lin ssu i^rft^) at Mt. Wu-t'ai, is said to
have had several notable experiences at the Diamond Grotto. Carrying out
devotions in front of the site and repeatedly calling out the names of the thirtyfive buddhas of confession, Fa-chao saw this space transformed into a jeweled
palace, and Manjusri, Samantabhadra, and their retinue of ten thousand
bodhisattvas appeared. Buddhapli was in this assembly.
That night, following the appearance of auspicious signs (radiant lights
halfway up the Eastern Terrace), he returned to the Diamond Grotto and again
engaged in devotions, such as reciting the names of the thirty-five buddhas
and special recitations invoking Amitbha Buddha. An Indian monk, identify
ing
himself as Buddhapli, appeared before him and led him into the Diamond
Grotto. They reached a massive temple complex within the grotto, where
Buddhapli met with both Manjusri and Samantabhadra, receiving teachings
and prophecies from them. Eventually, Fa-chao was again led by Buddhapli,
this time out of the cave, to resume his spiritual work with renewed certainty
and invigoration.48
45) T. 2099: 51, lllla-b. See also the preface to the translation of this text, T. 967: 19, 349bc. The Diamond Grotto and this incident are mentioned in praise-poems of Wu-t'ai Shan found
among the Tun-huang mss., such as P. 4647 (Bibliothque Nationale) and S. 5573 (British
Museum) .
46) Ennin, Nitt guh junrei gyki Ait^&ifilfTK in Dai Mhon Bukky zensho 0*1$^*
(Tokyo: 1972), vol. 72, p. 114b.
47) DNBZ, vol. 72, p. 1 14b. Apparently, the Diamond Grotto was a standard site for pilgrims
to visit during their stay at Wu-t'ai Shan. For another Japanese pilgrim's account (of the late
eleventh century), see Jjin 1$M, San Tendai Godaisan ki #3Cpf2Lc}!llsE, in DNBZ, vol. 72, p.
268c.
48) This tale is sharply condensed from the long account in T. 2099 : 51, 1114a-1115a.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

13 1

In contrast to the tales of Buddhapli (who entered the Diamond Grotto


and remained there as Manjusr's acolyte) and of Fa-chao (who was escorted
in, received teachings, and was escorted out), one notable visionary was less
fortunate. In the mid-eighth century, the monk Wu-cho $|f was told by an
old man to enter the Diamond Grotto, but he declined. The old man went
in and did not reappear. Then Wu-cho saw a group of persons enter the grotto
who were wearing clothes of red and purple. He found out that they were
assistants to the ten thousand bodhisattvas ; when their terms of office (lasting
for many years) reach completion, they return to the grotto, where Manjusr
lectures on the Flower Ornament Scripture. His doubts and fears allayed, Wu-cho
then tried to go into the Diamond Grotto, but the opening narrowed and he
was not able to get in.49
These three tales continue the tradition of the Diamond Grotto as the home
of deities, as a place that encompasses within it a complex of palace or temple
buildings, as a place where one may receive revelations, and as a place to
which only the most pure may gain entrance. While the narratives are cast
in Buddhistic form, they could easily be associated with the experiences of
notable Taoists of medieval times : there are indications in such tales of a com
mon matrix within which the organized religions, separated by self-definition,
operated.
Looking further at similarities, just as various sacred sites across the Chinese
landscape are said to be connected by secret passageways or energy flows, so
too are key sites on Mt. Wu-t'ai linked. For example, a text attributed to the
Northern Sung official Chang Shang-ying ~kM^z holds that the Diamond
Grotto connects to the Western Land (of Amitbha).50
An eleventh-century account of the seventh-century monk Tao-hsiian's
strange experiences at the mountain discusses more localized connections :
According to the Numinous Records of the Flower Ornament, the Vinaya
Master often went to the summit of the Central Terrace. Once he saw
a youth there whose form and bearing were extraordinary. The Vinaya
Master asked his origin. The youth replied: "Sir, I am a celestial. Sakra
sent me to make a tour of these sacred precincts."
The Vinaya Master further asked, "I, Tao-hsiian, once examined the
chapter on "Dwelling Places of the Bodhisattvas" of the Flower Ornament
Scripture. [It states that] Manjusr dwells on Mount Clear-and-Cool. I
personally have gone to the mountain, yet never have I seen him. Why
is that?"
49) Wu-cho's visionary experiences are recounted at some length in T. 2099 : 5 1 , 1 1 1 lb-1 1 12c.
50) T. 2100: 51, 1133a. While this work is entitled Hsu Ch'ing-liang chuan WB.^, suggesting
that it is the third in the series of monographs on the sacred lore of the mountain, in fact the
title is misleading. This work instead is a personal travel diary and vision record that has been
attributed to Chang Shang-ying. According to the text, Chang Shang-ying went to Mount
Wu-t'ai in response to a powerful dream he had of the Diamond Grotto. When he arrived nine
months later, the Grotto site was just as he had seen it (T. 2100: 51, 1 126b).

132

Raoul Birnbaum
The youth said, "Master, why should that lead to doubt? When the
world was first completed, this great earth sat upon a golden wheel. And
atop this golden wheel were gathered bones and the teeth of wolves. Out
of this arose a small golden wheel, and this wheel went midway up the
Northern Terrace. The site of Manjusr Bodhisattva's seven-jewelled
palace is there. There are gardens, groves, and orchards. It is entirely
complete. It is the place where ten thousand bodhisattvas surround him.
On the upper face of the Northern Terrace, there is a pool of water named
Golden Well. The Great Sage Manjusr and the assembly of sages appear
and disappear in the pool's center. It truly is connected to the Diamond
Grotto. You, Master, can know that the metropolis of the Great Sage is
not an ordinary realm."51

The Diamond Grotto is linked to several other important underground


waterways. According to the eleventh-century Kuang Ch'ing-liang chuan :
Atop the summit of the Northern Terrace, there is the Dragon Well.
Below there are the Dragon Palace and the White Water Pool; which
are linked to each other. The Diamond Grotto also is connected to
them. . ,52
This sense of secret connection continues in present-day learned lore about
the mountain. One of the senior monk-officials told me in 1986 that he believes
that what holds together the Wu-t'ai complex, what unifies the five main
peaks and several subsidiary ones, is a single water system, such that all the
pools and streams in the sacred region are interconnected.
While I have focused here on the Diamond Grotto, there is another cave
site at Wu-t'ai Shan that also is believed to be Manjusr's dwelling, Nrayna
Grotto (Na-lo-yen k'u SBH^H).53 The name of this site appears in the massive
Flower Ornament Scripture, in the chapter entitled "Dwelling Places of the Bod
hisattvas"
(cited in the tale about Tao-hsiian above). This chapter provides
a rather spare sacred geography for Buddhist practice by listing twenty sites,
primarily mountains and caves, that have long been dwelling places of suc
cessions
of bodhisattvas. The list includes both Ch'ing-liang Shan (the dwelling
place of Manjusr) located in the northeast and Nrayna Grotto (with no
51) T. 2099: 51, 1 119a. While Tao-hsan was famous for his conversations with spirits, I have
not found this particular incident mentioned in any of his writings nor in any biographical
works on him.
52) T. 2099: 51, 1105c.
53) Of the 191 sites and events specifically labeled on a tenth-century mural of Wu-t'ai Shan
in Cave 61 of Tun-huang, the only two caves identified by inscription are the Diamond Grotto
and Nrayna Grotto. (Because some inscriptions are very difficult to decipher on existing
photos, I have relied on transcriptions from Paul Pelliot's notebooks. See Grottes de Touen-houang.
Carnet de notes de Paul Pelliot, vol. 4 [Paris: 1984], pp. 8-11. The relevant inscriptions are numb
ered 120 and 190.)

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

1 33

particular bodhisattva specified) located in China (jgji.).54


Ennin visited the Nrayna Grotto on the day before his visit to the Diamond
Grotto. He reports the following:
Eastward from the Eastern Terrace straight down half a li at a steep
cliff, there is the Nrayna Grotto. Long ago Nrayna Buddha practiced
the Way at this grotto, and then he later went to the West. Inside the
grotto, it is moist, with dripping water. The entrance is six ch'ih wide.
It is completely dark inside the grotto. It would be fit for a dragon's
hiding place.55
The twelfth-century supplement to the Kuang Ch'ing-liang chuan provides
further details:
Nrayna Cave. It is on the eastern side of the Eastern Terrace. The
grotto entrance faces east. It is about two ch'ang deep. It is winding and
narrow, like a dipper (tou -4-)> though much larger. When pilgrims go to
this place, since they are unable to advance (beyond the entrance area),
they often feel inside with their hands, or they hold a candle to illumine
it. There is a single hole that points northwest and slightly upwards, but
it is so deep that it cannot be fathomed. At times there is a cold wind
gently blowing at the face. It is said that this grotto and the Diamond
Grotto both are the dwellings of the Great Sage.56
Like the Diamond Grotto, this cave has a tale of non-return associated with
it. On the twenty-eighth day of the fifth lunar month of 1126, in the presence
of over a hundred monks and officials, a certain monk, whose name is lost,
was urged to enter the cave: "He went in with rapid steps. When he reached
the narrow and constricted place, he picked up his robes, bent over hunch
backed, and entered without hindrance, as if walking through an empty hall."
His colleagues set up a clamor, calling out to him, but there was neither sound
nor trace of him, merely the hint of incense in the air. Only a bamboo rainhat
and several pieces of steamed bread were left behind.57
To conclude this brief discussion of the Diamond Grotto, let us turn to a
further note on the maintenance of pre-Buddhist religious themes at the cave.
Traditionally one of the key signifiers of a sacred site in China has been the
54) T. 278 : 9, 590a ; T. 279 : 1 0, 241 c. Etienne Lamotte has shown that the reference to Ch'ingliang Shan was a Chinese interpolation; perhaps the same is true for Nrayna Grotto. See
Lamotte, "Manjusri," T'oung-pao 48 (1960), pp. 74-84. Whether an interpolation or not, the
scriptural validation of local tradition was extremely important in legitimizing a vast scope of
religious activities, ranging from visionary experiences to the establishment of a secure economic
basis for cultic activities at the mountain.
55) DNBZ, vol. 72, p. 114b.
56) T. 2099: 51,1 126b. Great Sage (Ta-sheng 3M) is a standard epithet at Wu-t'ai Shan for
Man iusri.

1 34

Raoul Birnbaum

presence of striking anomalies of nature, most especially the presence of


wild medicinal herbs and unusual plant forms. At a Buddhist site, these
standard phenomena may be framed in Buddhist terms. According to Yen-i's
eleventh-century monograph, two extraordinary trees were found in the Tower
Observatory Valley near the Diamond Grotto :
. . . Just west there is the Twelvefold Interdependent Co-Origination Tree,
close by the Feng-Perching Tree beside the Diamond Grotto. It has a
single trunk twisting out into twelve branches. It is over a hundred ch'ih
tall. Formerly there was an old sage who practiced the contemplation of
Twelvefold Interdependent Co-Origination under this tree. The tree
took its form and name from this.58
Manifestation Caves
There are two caves at Mount Wu-t'ai in which deities are believed to
reveal themselves. They do not dwell in these caves, but they are said to ap
pear out of the darkness from time to time in response to devotees.
The most mysterious of these caves (and the one best known to devotees)
is the Cave of Kuan-yin (Kuan-yin Tung HMfilnl) . It is one of two small natural
rock caves located high up on a steep hill just north of the Southern Mountain,
Nan-shan ^Jlil (northeast of the Southern Terrace, Nan-t'ai ^fct"). A large
complex of buildings is perched on the hillside along the steep path to the
cave. Within this shallow cave, there are a few images of Kuan-yin, but mostly
darkness.59
It is said that the bodhisattva sometimes can be seen there, emerging from
the folds and clefts of the rock. In 1984, according to locals, there was a dramati
c
manifestation of the bodhisattva above the hillside high above the cave
that was seen by numerous villagers. Official reaction was swift: all persons
were ordered to leave the vicinity, and the path to the cave was chained shut.
Local officials asked a committee of senior monks to investigate, but by the
time they arrived at the scene, whatever had manifested itself had disap
peared.60
The other cave of manifestation is dedicated to Shan-ts'ai ^M (Skt. Sudhana), the pilgrim hero of the Gandavyha, who since T'ang times has been
portrayed in Wu-t'ai Shan iconography as a chief attendant of Manjusr.
This rock cave also is rather shallow, and its atmosphere is not impressive.
It is located in the valley below T'ai-lo Peak j^$il, about a forty-five minute
village.
57) T. 2099: 51, 1126b-c.
58) T. 2099: 51, 1124c.
59) When I visited this site, I found that the monastery at the foot of the hill was a residence
for Tibetans, while the cave itself connected by a path leading from the monastery was cared
for by a pious Chinese layman.
GO) I was told of this in 1986 by one of the senior monks summoned to the scene.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

135

It is not clear when these cave traditions were established, but it is certain
that there is no mention of these sites in the early layers of literature about the
mountain, that is, such works as the monographs, travel records, and poetry
dating from the seventh to eleventh centuries. The Kuan-yin Tung is mentioned
in the 1701 edition of the mountain monograph. In this brief notice, the cave's
location is established, and the author notes that a sweet-tasting spring trickles
from it.61 I have not been able to find references to the Shan-ts'ai Tung in
any premodern literature on Wu-t'ai Shan; regrettably, it was not possible
to examine any stele inscriptions at this particular site.62
There are two possible sources of Buddhist influence for these manifestation
caves. The first a Central Asian site is probably the locus dassicus for this
type of phenomenon in the Buddhist world, while the second the pilgrimage
site dedicated to Kuan-yin, P'u-t'o Shan ^plil may be the direct source of
inspiration.
According to tales, some of which were incorporated into scriptures, at the
Cave of the Buddha's Reflection in old Nagarahra (present-day Hadda, in
Afghanistan), Skyamuni conquered a group of demonic spirits and then
impressed his own image into the wall of the cave. Later, pilgrims went to
this cave and peered into the darkrcess. Those of sufficient purity and spiritual
development could see the image, with light streaming forth from it. This was
understood as an experience in which the image came alive with the spiritforce of Skyamuni's dharma-kaya, his body of principle. This cave-image was
a specific device left by the Buddha to remedy the chief problem of the replica
age (hsiang-fa ^^), the absence of authoritative truth; successful contemplat
ion
of the image led to direct rapport with Skyamuni himself, who then
could answer questions posed about matters of spiritual import.
The Reflection Cave and its image were well known in China from early
medieval times, due to the travel reports first of Fa-hsien fM. and later of
Hsuan-tsang ;^, as well as the extended account in the Scripture on the Samdhi Sea Achieved Through Contemplation of the Buddha (T. 643), brought to China
and translated by the meditation master Buddhabhadra. In the early fifth
century, Buddhabhadra lived for a while at Hui-yuan's Hjg: famous retreat
center on Mount Lu M.\U, where an artificial cave with a replica-image was
created.63
The practice at Wu-t'ai Shan, most notably at the Kuan-yin Tung, of
61) Lao-tsang Tan-pa ^^flE, Ch'ing-liang shan hsin-chih WiTtf-l^MM (1701 imperial edition),
2.3a.
62) Even Yin-kuang's IpP^ 1933 revision of the Ch'ing-liang shan-chih has no mention of the
site. A paragraph is devoted to the cave and its associated two building complexes in a recent
work on the temples of Wu-t'ai Shan. The authors state that the two cloisters were first built
in the Ch'ien-lung lH (1736-1796) and Chia-ch'ing |ffi eras (1796-1821), respectively. The
cave receives passing mention in their comments. See Yang Y-t'an Wb~M- et al., Wu-t'ai shan
ssu-tien ta-kuan ~fi.i$\L\^J&WL (Taiyuan: 1985), p. 92.
63) I have discussed these traditions in "Buddhist Meditation Teachings and the Birth of
'Pure' Landscape Painting in China," Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions 9
(Fall, 1981), pp. 42-58.

136

Raoul Birnbaum

peering into the darkness with the hope of seeing the radiant form of the deity
seems to be linked to the Reflection Gave practices. A more direct source of
inspiration for the relatively recent recognition of these two sacred sites at
Wu-t'ai Shan may be the existence of related phenomena at P'u-t'o Shan,
the hilly island off the coast of Ningpo in southern China.
There appear to be numerous ties between these two major pilgrimage
sites, both of which are seats of manifestation of bodhisattvas and both of which
(together with O-mei Shan li^fllil and Ghiu-hua Shan %^\1X) number among
the "four great mountains" of Chinese Buddhism. While I will not provide
in this essay a detailed discussion of relations between the two sites, a few
points may be useful.64
Cultic activities centered on Kuan-yin seem to have begun at P'u-t'o Shan
in the mid-ninth century, when two foreigners had experiences at a site on
the island known as Ch'ao-yin Tung ^^il^ (Sound of the Tides Cave). The
first, an Indian monk, burned off his fingers in ascetic devotion. In turn, he
had a vision in which the Dharma was preached to him and he received a
precious stone. More significant in P'u-t'o Shan lore, the second foreigner,
a Japanese monk, was returning to his homeland from Mt. Wu-t'ai with a
sculpture of Kuan-yin when he was blown off course and finally found refuge
at the island cave.65
The island became an important pilgrimage site in the Sung, but it suffered
a severe decline in the late fourteenth century when Emperor T'ai-tsu i^M.
ordered the island vacated as part of a strategy to combat pirates in the South
China Sea. More than three hundred monasteries were destroyed. It took
over a hundred years before a rebuilding campaign was attempted. A monk
from Wu-t'ai Shan named Chen-sung J|!2r was a key figure in these efforts.66
A significant factor underlying the initial inspiration to establish a cultic
center at P'u-t'o Shan may well have been the example of Wu-t'ai Shan. Once
established, influence probably flowed in both directions, since some monks
and wealthy lay believers made pilgrimages to both sites (and others as well).
The influence of the P'u-t'o Shan center may be seen in the iconography of
64) It may also be worth pointing out that some of the earliest notables said to have lived on
this island are associated with "Taoist" alchemical and medical traditions, such as Mei Fu fiftj
(first century B.C.E.) and Ko Hung M$ (fourth century C.E.) (see Wang Heng-yen EE$-"i$-,
P'u-t'o-lo-chia hsin-chih tff&ftlifS (1924; Taipei:1975), 9.1a-2a). The Ling-yu Tung ffiHf,
the Numinous Protection Cave, said by local tradition to have been Mei Fu's home, is now
within the complex of a nunnery named after Mei Fu (see Sun Yung-hseh ff^c#, cd., P'u-t'o
Shan [Peking: 1986], p. 52). The current association of Mei Fu with this cave is not mentioned
in either Sheng Hsi-ming $&WM, P'u-t'o-lo-chia Shan chuan WtWMM$ (T. 2101, composed in
1361) or the P'u-t'o-lo-chia hsin-chih.
65) These incidents are recounted in T. 2101 : 51, 1 136c.
66) On Chen-sung, see P'u-t'o-lo-chia hsin-chih, 6.7b. I have been much aided in gaining an
overview of the history of P'u-t'o Shan by the research of Chn-fang Y, most especially her
"Miracles, Pilgrimage Sites, and the Cult of Kuan-yin," an unpublished paper presented at
the Conference on Pilgrims and Sacred Sites, Bodega Bay, California, January, 1989. Material
on Ming developments at the island is summarized from Y, p. 50.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

137

Kuan-yin images dating to the late Ch'ing and Republican periods found in
Wu-t'ai Shan temples, for the great part of these images are clearly Nan-hai
Kuan-yin ^MWLH) Kuan-yin of the Southern Seas, a principal form associated
with P'u-t'o Shan.
Among the seventeen caves listed in the P'u-t'o Shan gazetteer, there are
manifestation caves, where Kuan-yin may sometimes appear before devotees
in quest of a vision.67 Notably, P'u-t'o Shan and Wu-t'ai Shan are the only
two sites in China, as far as I know, where there are caves dedicated to Shants'ai. Shan-ts'ai is linked to both sites because he established a significant
relationship with both Kuan-yin and Wen-shu in the Gandavyha.68 He ap
pears
as a common element a principal attendant in the iconographies of
the two bodhisattvas. The dedication of a cave site to Shan-ts'ai at Wu-t'ai
Shan, apparently at a rather late date in the history of activities there, may
very well be based on the model of P'u-t'o Shan's special features.
Cave of Initiatory Rebirth
In the late 1560s a monk came upon a cave high up on a cliff on the north
eastside of the Southern Terrace. It was late at night, and he saw "spirit
lamps," thousands of dots of light, going in and out of the cave. Following
them inside, he saw ranks of jade buddha-images ranged in the center of the
chamber. He entered further into the cave, and then he heard wave upon
wave of sound. Lost in the dark, he was gripped by panic. Chanting the name
of Kuan-yin and vowing to make a sacred image (sheng-hsiang -Hfl), he sud
denly saw a single lamp in front of him. Following the light, he managed to
find the way out. Afterward, he made an image at the cave.69
Named after the many images of the tale, this site is formally known as the
Cave of a Thousand Buddhas (Ch'ien-fo Tung i^M), a name that resonates
with the number of buddhas who will appear in the present Auspicious Aeon
(Bhadra-kalpa). It is best known to pilgrims, though, as the Cave of the
Mother of Buddhas (Fo-mu Tung $|J^J?|pI). To the best of my knowledge,
there is no other cave quite like this one in China, in terms of its ritual use.
This "womb cave" does, however, fit into a significant pan- Asian pattern,
which recently has been explored by Rolf A. Stein. Stein points out that one
goes in and out of such caves through a tunnel, and this passage often is closely
67) P'u-t'o-lo-chia hsin-chih, 2.13a-18a.
68) As has been mentioned previously, the Flower Ornament was popular at Mt. Wu-t'ai from
very early times, in part because it identifies this site as Manjusri's dwelling place. Some of these
traditions have been maintained to modern times, as can be seen by the late Ch'ing or Republ
icanperiod murals at the Nan-shan ssu ^UJ^f illustrating Shan-ts'ai's spiritual quest. At least
one senior monk whom I met in 1986 at the mountain had sections of this long scripture in his
personal collection of books. The Flower Ornament is important for the P'u-t'o Shan site, since
(in the Gandavyha section) it also describes Kuan-yin's home at Mount Potalaka (P'u-to-lochia) and thus serves a similar legitimating function (see T. 279:10, 366c-367b; or Thomas
Cleary, tr., The Flower Ornament Scripture, vol. 3 [Boston: 1987], pp. 151-156).
69) Ch'ing-liang shan hsin-chih, 2.2a.

1 38

Raoul Birnbaum

related to the purification of sins, as well as being connected to concepts of


rebirth. In addition to discussing the Wu-t'ai Shan cave, he provides examples
from a wide range of Asian cultures (Tibet and its extended culture area,
India, Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Japan).70
What little is known of the practices at this cave is drawn primarily from
travel records and recollections. Therefore, I would like to provide here in a
somewhat informal manner a record of my own brief journey to this cave.
I was very kindly taken to this site by a senior monk of the Wu-t'ai region,
after much discussion and consideration. We left early in the morning, an
hour or so before the faintest glimmer of sunlight had appeared, taking a
public bus from T'ai-huai village south several miles, past the White Cloud
Monastery (Pai-yn ssu fS^)- From there, we walked, first in a green and
placid valley on a level unpaved road beside a stream for about a half hour,
then up an increasingly steep trail for perhaps forty-five minutes, up the sides
of the valley onto the lower flanks of the Southern Terrace. There is a small
village a bit below the cave, and some youths came out to the trail, hoping
to sell some medicinal herbs they had gathered.
Upon reaching the cave, we first were ushered into a hermitage perched
on the slope, where an old but vigorous Chinese monk-attendant lives. Seated
on his k'ang fji and thus warmed in the cold morning air, we drank tea and
ate bowls of freshly made millet noodles in vinegar broth, flavored with dried
mushrooms and pickled vegetables that had been gathered and prepared by
the monk. This man, of hearty appearance, bore a telltale sign of the ascetic
monk of old, for one of his fingers was missing, sacrificed in a ritual act to
generate merit for the benefit of others. In recounting some tales of his life,
he stated that he had lived at the cave now for over fifty years. Formerly four
monks had been cloistered there to assist pilgrims; now he often lived alone,
sometimes assisted by a younger monk.
At the cave itself, there were a number of workmen rebuilding both the
trail and a few small stone temple structures. They had been working steadily
70) See his Grottes-matrices et lieux saints de la desse en Asie orientale (Paris: 1988), especially pp.
2-10. (I am preparing a review of this work, to appear in Cahiers d'Extrme- Asie 6.) I am indebted
to Professor Stein and Kuo Li-ying for calling this site to my attention before my trip to Shansi
in 1986.
The earliest Western language references to this cave (noted in Stein's monograph) are drawn
from Tibetan and Mongolian sources, and Stein discusses the site at some length in this context.
Local persons familiar with the site confirm that it is particularly favored by Mongolians and
Tibetans (and in fact a Mongolian family had entered the cave shortly before my small group) ;
it is said that Mongolians, famous for their fervent piety, invariably cry when they enter the
inner chamber. It must be noted, though, that in recent decades it is a Chinese monk who has
lived at the site and assisted pilgrims.
Adding to the lore, a learned Tibetan historian, Nima Dorje, has told me that the Wu-t'ai
Shan cave has a "relative" in Inner Mongolia. This cave (associated with Padma Sambhava,
like many others in the Tibetan cultural area), is known as the "daughter" cave. According to
this tradition, it is inappropriate to enter the mother cave if one previously has entered the
daughter cave.

The Caves of Wu-t'ai Shan

1 39

for six months on the project and hoped to complete their tasks within a few
more months. Directly outside the cave entrance, an outer temple structure
was being built of wood.
Within the cave, there are three distinct chambers. The outer chamber is
high-ceilinged. An altar table is set back about two-thirds into the chamber,
with rather crudely fashioned buddha images set upon the table. Behind the
altar, a smaller chamber opens up, with a low ceiling and walls that are some
what more closed in. Looking up to the right, one can see a strange, deep redorange stone formation (perhaps an iron-bearing stone) that looks much like
a baby emerging from a womb. Going forward, one reaches the entrance to
the inner chamber : a narrow cleft in the rock wall, a slanting horizontal crevice.
Here, pilgrims are asked to remove all excess clothing and items such as belts,
wristwatches, and other protruding paraphernalia. Instruction is given: the
method of entrance is to raise the right arm while clasping the left arm to the
left thigh. As you wriggle into this narrow cleft, the monk-attendant shoves
you from behind, until finally you emerge in the small inner chamber.71
The inner chamber is small and round, with a low ceiling and a very rough
rocky floor. There is a small altar set up with an image of Amitbha, and a
candle lit before the image serves as the source of light within. While convent
ionaltriple prostrations are made before the outer altar, the uneven nature
of the floor in the inner chamber does not permit full prostration. Inside the
chamber, the pilgrim is shown certain natural rock formations: a rib-cage
and spine, polished over the centuries by the touch of wondering hands, and
a reddish-brown stone protruding from the wall, shaped much like a human
heart. Pilgrims are informed that they are within the womb of the Mother
of Buddhas. The feeling within this sanctum is one of vast potential and po
tency;
when one speaks there, it is with quiet care.72
After a while, there is nothing left to do but exit, and then you discover
that the rocky cleft tapers inward, so that the opening on the side of the inner
chamber is far more narrow than the opening from the side of the middle
chamber. Successful transit of this passage requires a determinedly relaxed
state of mind and body; tension results in a "stuck pig" situation. (Note here
a variation on the theme of privileged entrance into certain sacred caves such
as the Diamond Grotto: only the pure, it is said, can exit easily from this cave.)
71) Stein's informants (p. 9) suggest that pilgrims enter the final chamber naked. I find this
difficult to accept, for practical as well as cultural reasons the rocky entrance is quite rough
and it would probably tear the skin of an adult passing through it.
72) The inner chamber of the Cave of the Mother of Buddhas is thought of by some pilgrims
as the tathgata-garbha, in both symbolic and actual terms. This calls to mind the first quatrain
of one of the poems of attainment written by that extraordinary mountain man of the T'ang,
Han-shan g|i|:
In my house there is a cave,
And in the cave is nothing at all
Pure and wonderfully empty,
Resplendent with a light like the sun.
(Cf. Burton Watson, tr., Cold Mountain [New York: 1970], p. 107).

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Good-natured pushing and pulling assists those seeking an exit from the inner
chamber, and upon successful emergence from this womb and birth canal,
the monk-attendant tells you that you have been reborn.
Leaving the site in mid-morning, we met with several groups of pilgrims on
the trail. Most striking was an elderly monk from Hong Kong who clearly
was fatally ill, and who was being carried up the mountain on the back of a
strong young attendant. This cave is a somewhat secret site that has an enor
mous importance for serious pilgrims.
In the valley below, as we descended toward the road, massive standing
boulders glinted in the rays of the morning sun, golden sparkles of iron pyrite
adding to the numinous quality of the site.73
Conclusions
In this brief essay, I have pointed out four distinct types of caves on Mount
Wu-t'ai. Their significant differences rest not merely in their physical forms,
but in the ways that they are perceived. Different practices are associated with
these separate types. The variety of cave types at this one site provides a sense
of the complex and multi-layered nature of some of the key sacred sites of the
Chinese landscape.
The study of these caves (and, more generally, sacred geography in China)
deals with fundamental issues ; it deals with perceptions of the ground upon
which many of the dramas of religious life have been enacted. In dealing with
such basic material, one becomes sharply aware of the matrix within which
the self-defined traditions of Buddhism and Taoism operate. Some aspects
of the caves and practices at Mount Wu-t'ai may be seen as "purely Budd
histic,"
while others appear to stem from native Chinese traditions, lightly
cloaked in Buddhist garb. It has been conventional to discuss the "sinicization" of Buddhism in China, the ways in which Buddhist concepts and pract
ices have been altered to fit in a Chinese setting, but study of the traditions
and context of such sites as the Diamond Grotto suggests that it may also be
fruitful to think from another perspective of a common matrix of Chinese
religions that is embedded deep in culture yet is continually reformulated,
emerging in many guises.

73) Some scholars working in comparative religions, commenting on the meaning of caves
in prehistoric religions (and in more modern times as well), liken the cave to a womb, project
ing
various analyses outward from this basic assumption. We can see at least in China that
in historical times some caves have been consciously understood as womb-like. Other caves
most certainly have nothing to do with wombs, if we trust the writings of persons associated with
these caves, who have visited them and engaged in religious practices associated with them.
This kind of data should serve as a cautionary warning to those who seek to impose their own
assumptions upon the views of humans long dead and gone from their crude shelters, who have
left no writings and can no longer speak out of the vortex of time to defend the integrity of their
lived experience. On rebirth caves, see also Seidel, p. 249 in this volume.