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Lingyan Monastery: The Development of an Ancient Monastery in Contemporary China

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Lingyan Monastery (靈巖寺) is situated in the Changqing District of Jinan City, in China’s Shandong Province, northwest of Mount Tai. Founded in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) by Senglang (僧朗), it was one of the four most-renowned monasteries in China, alongside Guoqing Monastery (國清寺) in Zhejiang, Qixia Monastery (棲霞寺) in Nanjing, and Yuquan Monastery (玉泉寺) in Hubei.

Lingyan Monastery; the Pratyeka Pagoda was completed in 1057. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery
Lingyan Monastery; the Pratyeka Pagoda was completed in 1057. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery

The name Lingyan means “divine rocks,” which comes from a legend in which Senglang was teaching the Dharma to an audience of thousands of people, and even the mountain’s rocks responded by nodding. At its height, Lingyan monastery boasted more than 50 halls accommodating over 500 sangha members, and even until 1749, under the Qianlong reign, it comprised 36 halls. Throughout its history, many eminent monks have been associated with Lingyan Monastery, including Xuanzang (玄奘, 602–64), who translated sutras there, and Zibo Zhenke (紫柏真可, 1543–1603), who once served as abbot. 

Today, while still being restored to its full monastic functions after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Lingyan Monastery also holds other important roles. Preserving architecture and art from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and 420 inscribed steles dating from the Tang dynasty, it is on the list of Major Historical and Cultural Sites Protected at the National Level. Moreover, owing to its geographical proximity, Lingyan Monastery is included in the Mount Tai scenic zone, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. As such, it comes under the management of the local Cultural Relics Bureau and Tourist Office as well as the sangha residing in the monastery.

The Hall of One Thousand Buddhas preserves polychrome clay sculptures of 40 <i>luohans</i>. Shown here are Śāriputra and SenglangI dated to 1066. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery
The Hall of One Thousand Buddhas preserves polychrome clay sculptures of 40 luohans.
Shown here are Śāriputra and SenglangI dated to 1066. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery

It is not unusual in China for an ancient monastery to have different identities, with different organizational bodies set up to ensure its protection and preservation. However, while the antiquity and beautiful setting of a monastery is often highlighted in modern times, its original religious significance can be overshadowed. I visited Lingyan Monastery for the first time in October, while traveling from Beijing to Shanghai. In fact, most of my childhood was spent in the city of Jinan. My family, of course, took me climbing on Mount Tai, but at the time Lingyan Monastery was just a name in the back of my mind. Some of my childhood friends who are Jinan locals have visited the monastery, but only as a tourist destination.

There are many factors behind this phenomenon. There have always been rises and falls over the course of the development of Buddhism in China. However, regardless of the long history, the influence of Buddhism in Shandong has been relatively limited compared with the neighboring provinces of Hebei, Henan, Jiangsu, and Shanxi. Before founding Lingyan Monastery, Senglang established the first monastery in Shandong—Langgong Monastery—in 351. It was later renamed Shentong (神通, “Extraordinary knowledge”) by the Wen Emperor of the Sui dynasty in 583, after having an experience of ganying (sympathetic resonance with the Buddha). Today, only a handful of ancient Buddhist monasteries still operate in Shandong. In 1996, the discovery of the Qingzhou Buddhist statues amazed the world. Subsequent discourse has been focused on the unique style and exceptional craftsmanship of the art, however little research has been conducted into the history of Buddhism in Shandong.

Relic stupas of eminent monks dating to between the Northern Wei and Qing dynasties. Photo by the author
Relic stupas of eminent monks dating to between the Northern Wei and Qing dynasties. Photo by the author

In fact, Shandong is probably better known for Confucianism and Daoism than Buddhism: both Confucius and Mencius, key Confucian thinkers, were born in the area of present-day Shandong, which was also a birthplace of Daoism. For 3,000 years, Mount Tai has long been worshipped as a sacred site and the focus of an imperial cult. The Great Emperor of the Eastern Mountains is said to reside over Mount Tai, ruling all mountains between Heaven and Earth. The faith of the female deity Bixia Yuanjun (碧霞元君, the Supreme Sovereign of Azure Clouds) is also dominant on Mount Tai.

It is obvious that the cultural context of Buddhism in Shandong is very dynamic, and it is also challenging for developing a Buddhist community and spreading the Buddhist teachings. Today, there are about 300 Buddhist monastics in Shandong, and many Shandong natives choose to leave for monasteries outside the province. The current abbot, Venerable Hong’en (弘恩), now in his 40s, was the first to be tonsured at Lingyan Monastery since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He told me that there are around a dozen monks at Lingyan today. However, Lingyan is not affiliated with any school of Buddhism, even though it used to belong to the Chan tradition, and it is also recorded that Saichō, the founder of the Japanese Tendai tradition, came to Lingyan to study esoteric Buddhism.

Ven. Hong’en. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery
Ven. Hong’en. Image courtesy of Lingyan Monastery

Nowadays, Lingyan Monastery aims to provide a monastic environment for sangha members to live and practice in the way they choose, Ven. Hong’en explained, although like other monasteries in China, the monks there perform regular morning and evening rituals. A one-hour period of self-study in the morning and evening are added to their daily schedule, during which monastics and laity are required to read Buddhist sutras or commentaries. The study area is in the small dining hall. Without official permission, they have been unable to expand the monastery’s living quarters. In order to improve the education and facilities at Lingyan, Ven. Hong’en founded the Buddhist Association of Changqing District, and has been actively working with the local government and uniting the local Buddhist community.

Ven. Hong’en first encountered Buddhism when he started working after graduating from college. In less than 20 days, he decided to join the monastic order because Buddhism finally provided the answers to the questions that he had been asking: “Who am I?” and “What do I live for?” Having visited many countries in the West, Ven. Hong’en is more convinced that Buddhist wisdom, especially compassion, is the most effective path for social stability and world peace. Given the monastery’s limited resources, he has been focusing on giving lectures as the main means of promoting Buddhism. Lay volunteers at Lingyan Monastery record the lectures and share them online for wider distribution. While improving the monastery in various aspects, Ven. Hong’en emphasizes that the mission of the monastery and the sangha members is to safeguard the Buddhist traditions.

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