There is an ancient Chinese proverb, “Putuo in the south, and Hongluo in the north.” It describes the significance of Beijing’s Hongluosi (紅螺寺) or Hongluo Temple in the country’s history. The acclaimed Chinese monk Yinguang (印光) (1862–1940), in the reign of Emperor Guangxu (光绪) (1875–1908), travelled to Hongluosi to study Pure Land practice before founding the Pure Land Temple in Putuo (Green China). This is only one instance of how even emperors have appreciated the importance of Hongluosi, which has only accrued over time.
Hongluosi’s historical background
The over 1,800-year-old Hongluo Temple is based in the neighborhood of Huairou (怀柔区城). This area is widely recognized as the spiritual epicenter of northern China and the cradle of the Buddhist faith. During the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420), an eminent monk named Fo Tucheng (佛图澄), who found himself impressed by the spiritual ambience and surroundings, built a temple called “Daming Temple” (大明寺) in 338. The temple’s name was eventually changed to better reflect prevailing local myths about the Hongluo Fairy (Chang Cheng). We will explore more about this connection below.
Various dynasties have maintained close ties to Hongluosi throughout history. For instance, Emperor Taizong Li Shimin (唐太宗李世民) (598-649) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) funded an expansion of the temple in order to foster national unity and harmony. Emperor Shizong (金世宗) (1123-89) of the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) named Hongluosi as the royal family’s ancestral temple. He appointed Chan Master Fojue (佛觉禅师), the Buddhist master revered by his mother, as the abbot of Hongluosi. Master Fojue preached Buddhism at Hongluosi for many years, attracting large crowds and promoting the piety of the imperial family. As with Shizong (金世宗), the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) also accorded Hongluosi the role of the khan’s clan temple. During the time of Kublai Khan’s grandfather, Genghis Khan, a “proclamation stele” (榜示碑) reads: “Hongluo Mountain’s Daming Temple is a traditional place of worship for longevity,” and “no one should disturb or cause trouble to the temple.” (Chang Cheng)
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Emperor Yingzong Zhu Qizhen (英宗朱祁镇) (1427–64) visited the temple to offer incense and saw the Buddha’s crown emitting light, which he believed was an auspicious omen of protection and blessings. Therefore, he named the temple “Huguo Zifu Chan Temple (护国资福禅寺)” which is still inscribed on the mountain gate. In 1437, Emperor Yingzong’s elder sister, Princess of Shunde (顺德长公主), married and the royal family sponsored the temple’s renovation. The Tianqi Emperor (明熹宗朱由校) (1605-27) granted Hongluosi a “Tianqi Big Bronze Bell (天启大铜钟)” in 1626, which has been preserved in the Daxiong Hall for nearly 400 years. (Chang Cheng)
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the regent Dorgon (摄政王多尔衮) (1612-50) cast a bell inscribed with the words “Protect the Great Qing and ensure its eternal stability” at Hongluosi. During the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (清嘉庆年间) (1760-1820), the dynasty erected the “Four Boundary Steles (四至石碑)” in front of the Daxiong Hall of Hongluo Temple. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) (1835-1908) of the late Qing wrote the words “fortune” and “longevity,” which were hung in the guest hall of the eastern courtyard of the temple. Shortly after returning to the palace, she sent two treasures, “Four Jade Screens” (四扇玉屏风) and “Nine-Loop Lotus Lantern” (九曲莲花灯), to the temple. The jade screens were placed in the living room, while the lotus lantern was hung in front of the statue of Sakyamuni in the center of the Daxiong Hall. (Chang Cheng)
Legends of the temple
There are various local traditions regarding the origin of the name of Hongluosi. One of the myths is that the two daughters of the Jade Emperor, a pair of fairies, are said to have descended to the world from the Heavenly Palace. In their wanderings they stumbled upon a large mountain, where they came to be taken by the peaceful and exquisite ambience. This sacred and serene area compelled them to stick around. They assumed human forms during the day so that they could join the monks in worshipping the Buddha and reciting texts in the temple. At night, they transformed into two enormous red snails that lived in the temple’s release pool (now known as Hongluo Spring) and shone thousands of red lights that created a red cloud that enveloped the temple and the mountain’s base.
Since their arrival, the fairies have kept the temple and the locals safe using their divine power. The weather has been pleasant, the forests have flourished, food is plentiful, and the citizens have found contentment in their daily lives. [cntgol.com]
The Jade Emperor later learned that the two fairies had lingered on Earth and summoned them back to the Heavenly Palace. The locals named the mountain to the north of the temple “Hongluo Mountain” in recognition of the good deeds of the two Hongluo fairies and in the hopes that the fairies would one day return. [cntgol.com]
The second myth is about the ghost of a black fish that in Yanshan Lake that would frequently catch boys and girls living in the area and consume them. The populace expressed widespread alarm and asked for divine intervention. The news of this reached the Jade Emperor, prompting him to dispatch a fairy to arrest the spirit of the black fish. The battle between the fairy and the black fish ghost lasted for eight days and nights before the fairy triumphed. The fairy felt sorry for the locals, so she took the form of a giant red snail and made her home in the lake. Later generations honored her by naming the mountain to the north of the lake Hongluo Mountain and constructing Hongluosi at its base. (cntgol.com)
An oasis of calm on an island of beauty
Hongluosi continues to play an essential role in fostering national harmony and togetherness over the course of many centuries. These tales and myths that have been told from one generation to the next and are more than simply stories. They are a reminder of the power of hope, kindness, and benevolence of supernatural powers. Thinking about the treasures and the myths of Hongluosi brings home the truth that everything is interconnected: an ageless wisdom at the core of Buddhist teachings.