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Pilgrimage: Visiting the Buddhist Mountain of Wutaishan

Karma, like history, is a complex thing. We inherit it and we create it. Karma, like a map, also organizes space. Without knowing our karma, we can get lost. As pilgrims, we explore holy mountains and, like maps, look to them to guide us to a new vision and, perhaps, step out of the stream of old tumultuous karma.

In October of 2019, I had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream to make a pilgrimage to Wutaishan, north Asia’s most distinguished Buddhist mountain. Wutaishan offers some 16 centuries of Buddhist experience that connects cultures from lands as diverse as China, India, Japan, Mongolia, Tibet, and even Vietnam. While geographically located in northern China at the crossroads of steppe, mountain, and valley, Wutaishan transcends China. Here Buddhism was nurtured, flowered, suffered, and is now reviving.

What follows is my experience of that mountain’s karma.

Wutaishan’s fall colors. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

At Wutaishan I did not feel like I was visiting a static museum or teeming tourist park, which is too often the case in today’s China. Instead, I felt that I was truly on a journey to deepen my knowledge of Buddhist values and expand my capacity for wisdom and loving-kindness. Like great mountains everywhere, there are many paths to choose. Today, the most popular common pilgrim tourist maps of Wutaishan each identify some 50–60 temples in the park. Added together, there are now some 75 temples open for pilgrimage.

Yet, Wutaishan’s temples are very different from those found elsewhere in China; many of the temples consist of the original sites, structures, and landscaping. Their structures date back to the time of their last renovation, often as early as the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Even if incomplete, nearly all of these magnificent edifices preserve something: an image, an altar piece, a painting, or the very rafters from the which the temple was first built. Many of these may date back to the time of that temple’s founding—be it 800 years ago in the Yuan (1271–1368), 1,000 years ago in the Song (960–1279), 1,300 years ago in the Tang (618–907), or 1,600 years ago in the Northern Wei (386–534).

One of the oldest Buddhist buildings of high Asia, the 5th–6th century stupa at Light of the Buddha Temple, Wutaishan. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

Located in the northern reaches of central China’s Shanxi Province, Wutaishan (五台山) or the “Five Platform Peaks” is China’s oldest Buddhist Mountain. Since the time of the Huayan patriarch Cheng Guan (澄觀) (738–89), Wutaishan has been celebrated as a spiritual “platform” dedicated to the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri. The least well known in the West of China’s four great Buddhist mountains (the other three being Emeishan in Sichuan, Jiuhuashan in Anhui, and Putuoshan in Zhejiang), Wutaishan exemplifies more than 1,600 years of Buddhist history. The mountain massif is covered with golden tamarack (deciduous pine trees) and its terrace upon terrace of mountain ridges, reminiscent of California’s Sonoma Valley, are sprinkled with red sumac, glistening aspen, and vibrant juniper.

According to an account in China’s oldest known sutra, The Sutra of 42 Sections(四十二章经), the Indian monks Dharmaraksha (Zhu Fa Lan) (竺法蘭) and Kasyapa Matanga (Zhushemoteng) (竺攝摩騰) established Da Fu Ling Jiu Temple (Great Buddhist Holy Vulture Temple) (大孚靈鷲寺) on Wutaishan between 65 and 72 CE. (Cui 2000, 58) While no such temple is mentioned in the Lives of Eminent Buddhist Monks(高僧专)or the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Jin (266–420 CE) dynastic histories, the intent of this apocryphal story is to demonstrate that the mountain has a deep karmic connection with India and the beginnings of Buddhism some 2,600 years ago. Indeed, Wutaishan’s valley, with its five peaks, resembles the configuration of India’s Vulture Peak, Sakyamuni Buddha’s favorite retreat in Rajagaha, Bihar.

What we also know is that many of the great patriarchs of the different Buddhist lineages and traditions, including Pure Land, Chan, Huayan, Tiantai, Vinaya, and Vajrayana, call this mountain home. The history of the sacred mountain leaves the mists of the past and enters the solid ground of history beginning in the Northern Wei dynasty (386–581 CE). By the fifth century, temples and monasteries begin to populate the mountain, with the earliest sponsored by the Northern Wei royal family, who were ethnically Tuoba nomads.

The Tuoba emperors deliberately sought to be seen as sharing Chinese identity through kinship with a distant son of the legendary Yellow Emperor, who lived some 4,000 years ago. The Northern Wei was also the first dynasty to nationally promote Buddhist practice as a means of cultivation for all people, particularly for its openness for bringing different peoples together. Buddhism, for them, was a way to promote unity yet allow for separate identity, an attitude that, in the beginning, was not held in high regard by the Confucian orthodoxy.

Northern Wei sponsorship of Buddhism reached its peak when Tuoba Hong, also known as Emperor Xiao Wen (孝文帝) (r. 471–99), built the magnificent Yungang Buddhist Grottoes in the old Northern Wei capital of Datong in 494 and the Longmen Buddhist Grottos in the new capital of Loyang in 495. These two cities are 200 kilometers and 600 kilometers south of Wutaishan, respectively. (Cui 2000, 50) During the late fifth century, several temples became established on Wutaishan, eight of which still stand today. Of these, Qing Liang (Clear and Cool) Temple (清凉寺), Fo Guang (Light of the Buddha) Temple (佛光寺), and Da Fu Ling Jiu Temple (大孚灵柩寺) are among the most famous. (Cui 2000, 50)

Ceremony at Shu Xiang (Myriad Manifestation) Temple. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

There is a delightful story of Emperor Xiao Wen of Wei (467–99) visiting Wutaishan and its wild and remote territory for the first time. Like his forebears, he was an accomplished archer and sportsman and upon seeing a deer, he shot it from horseback. When he went to retrieve the body, a nun appeared as if out of nowhere. She caressed the animal’s hooves and brought it back to life. The emperor then witnessed the nun calling out to all the animals, and as foxes, deer, birds, and even tigers surrounded her, they became engulfed in a golden light. Startled and curious, the emperor began a conversation with the nun. He asked her about the land and why the Eastern Platform Peak was also known as the Peak of the Hanging Moon: “Why this strange name? Doesn’t the Sun rise in the east?” To which the nun replied: “The peak is called Hanging Moon because it is the Sun that should be hanging in your heart.”

Impressed and intrigued, the emperor conversed with her more, and like many kings and generals back then, asked the nun to serve as a counselor in his court. She demurred, saying that her skills were better suited to taking care of the mountain rather than the worldly affairs of war and power. Realizing that he could not change her resolve, the emperor decided to give her an offering. “What do you need?” he asked. “Fill my begging bowl,” she replied. The emperor looked at it. “You are joking! This is filled with gold!” Then, to the emperor’s immense surprise, the nun tossed her bowl into the air and the sky was transformed. Like an eagle, he could see the entirety of Wutaishan for 500 miles. Lost in his vision, it was quite a while before the emperor realized that the nun had departed his presence. Scanning the horizon, he at last found her riding away on the back of a golden deer. It was then that he realized that she was no ordinary mendicant but Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. With great humility, the emperor vowed never to hunt again, and in honor of her teaching he vowed to build a temple on this magical mountain. (Zhou and Li 2007, 67–68) 

The mountain soon began to attract other visitors. While it is true that most Buddhist followers prefer distance from the roaring crowds, Wutaishan instead became a veritable city of Buddhist learning. As the seat of imperial endowment in the Sui (581–18) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, Wutaishan became a center for cultivation and academic study, much like the Vatican in Italy or the Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow. Wutaishan became a hub for the diffusion of Buddhist ideas, and in particular became the seat of development for the Huayan school. In particular, the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra became the school’s foremost guide to cultivation. While the Huayan school focuses on the interpenetration of samsara and nirvana, of conventional wisdom with transcendent wisdom, its main vision of truth is a net of jewels with the light in each crystal reflecting and sharing the light of all the other jewels around it.

As the sun in empty space
Illumines all places,
So too the Buddh
a’s wisdom,
Penetrates the dharmas of the three periods of time.

As a bright pure jewel
Can universally illumine all things,
The Buddha’s wisdom also in this way,
Universally illumines all creatures’ minds.

(The Flower Ornament Scripture, Chapter 39)

On the temporal level, Wutaishan sits at the crossroads of northern nomads and southern farmers, western minorities and eastern urbanites. By the time of the Tang dynasty, the intellectual rigor of the mountain became famous throughout all of Asia. Not only did the patriarchs of Huayan, Pure Land, Chan, Vinaya, and other schools make their home here, but monks from India, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam also cultivated and transmitted the Dharma here. As early as the eighth century, Wutaishan also became a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual destination. By the time of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1279–1368), it became a major place of Vajrayana pilgrimage, with no less than the Third Karmapa Patriarch Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339) and the Fifth Karmapa Patriarch Deshyin Shekpa (1384–1415) establishing monasteries here. According to local accounts, the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683–1706) spent six years in solitary refuge at Wutaishan’s Cave of Avalokiteshvara (观音洞).

Wutaishan’s snowy vista in October. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

At the territorial level, Wutaishan is not just one peak but a vast mountain massif holding a spectacular collection of five flat-topped peaks, which are in turn surrounded by hundreds of lesser mountains. The northernmost, North Platform Peak, is the highest, reaching 3,025 meters. The other four peaks are East Platform, South Platform, West Platform, and Central Platform Peak. Located several hundred kilometers north of the cities of Datong and Taiyuan cities, this northern tip of Shanxi Province is particularly desolate. The summer temperatures rarely exceed 30ºC and the winter temperature sinks to a bone-chilling –30ºC. Strong winds blow year-round, bringing summer dust storms and winter blizzards. Local farmers rely on potatoes, corn, and tomatoes (interestingly, all crops of New World origin) because the soil and climate are too poor to raise the native crops of wheat, millet, and barley.

This mountain plateau, with its gentle slopes, is a millennia-old crossroads for Khitan, Mongolian, Tibetan, Xiongnu, and other nomadic peoples, and is far better for raising cattle, sheep, and horses. Because of this extreme and unhospitable climate, the mountain region’s first name was Qing Liang Shan (清凉山) or Clear and Cool Mountain. Indeed, as the Flower Garland Sutra describes a clear and cool mountain paradise that is the home of Bodhisattva Manjushri, Shanxi’s mountain range became equated with the one in the sutra. Thus, the earthly world of Qing Liang Shan became equated with the transcendent world of Manjushri.

One tradition says the first occupants of Wutaishan were Daoists. According to the Xian Jing (The Classic on the Fairy Beings; 仙经), cited by Ge Hong (283–344 CE), a famous Daoist philosopher, mathematician, and metaphysician: “Wutaishan was originally called the ‘Vermillion Residence’ (紫府). The mountain often has vermillion vapors and mountain spirits dwell here.” (An 2015, 18–20) Daoism and mountain worship were simultaneously widespread throughout China by the time of the arrival of the first Buddhist monks from India in the first century. Moreover, the character for xian (仙) or fairy being is composed of the radical for spirit standing next to the ideograph for mountain. While the account rings true, the presence of Daoism on the mountain has diminished. During my eight days on Wutaishan, I saw only a few Daoist shrines dating to the Ming or Qing dynasties (1644–1911) and I saw no Daoist clerics.

Nevertheless, The Classic of the Fairy Beings is correct. The mountains are alive with mist, and the cloud-like dragons do play among the peaks, with the pearly sun glowing in their streaming breath.

Dragon and pearl in Wutaishan. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

Some stories of Wutaishan are Daoist in flavor, even though Buddhist in content. These are the legends of dragons. One day, Manjushri offered to give a teaching to the mountain’s Dragon King if, in return, the Dragon King would give him some small gift. Seeing the benefit of a good teaching, the Dragon King, a being of generosity and sincerity, said: “Anything you ask, my beloved and esteemed master.” The bodhisattva gave his teaching and the Dragon King was delighted. Seeing that the Dragon’s couch would make a fine meditation platform, Manjushri asked for it in recompense. “But it weighs several tonnes!” exclaimed the Dragon King, ashamed that he would renege on his promise and not offer his throne of rest upon which he renewed his power daily.

“It is no matter,” said Manjushri, and in the blink of an eye he transformed the Dragon King’s stone couch into a pebble no bigger than a grain of barley, pocketed the pebble, and departed. When the Dragon King’s five sons returned home for supper that day, they discovered the disappearance of their father’s Dragon Throne. Within moments they rose up as one and vowed revenge. Flailing their powerful tails, they scoured the mountain looking for Manjushri. In the course of their tumultuous search that night, their tails chopped off Wutaishan’s five tallest peaks. These are now the five flat-topped mountains that we see today. Now known as Manjushri’s Platform, the Water Dragon’s stone couch is proudly displayed in Qing Liang Temple (清凉寺) in the southern perimeter of the mountain park.

Visiting with Ven. Xin Wu of Wutaishan’s Qing Liang Temple in front of Manjushri’s Dragon Couch. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

Returning to history, during the Sui (581–618) and Tang dynasties, the mountain achieved its first heyday and was home to as many as 350 temples. (An 2015, xx) It was at Wutaishan’s Boruo Temple (般若寺) that the nun Zhi Xian (智仙) raised the future Sui Emperor Yang Di (隋炀帝) (569–618). (Ru and Guang 2007, 92–94) The Huayan patriarch Cheng Guan (澄觀) (738–839) and Pure Land patriarch Fa Zhao (法照) (?–822) visited here. Some of Wutaishan’s monks were so prestigious that they were granted their own servants and chariots to convey them to the palace 600 kilometers away in Luoyang. Emperors again and again issued edicts creating temples, establishing ceremonies, and endowing the monastic communities with brocade, food, and silver.

The emperors codified the practice of celebrating the Buddha’s birthday on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month and practicing Ullambana or the summer “Ghost Festival” to liberate those still in Hades on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. One monk, Amoghavajra or Bu Kong (不空) (705–74) of Sogdiana (in today’s Iran) brought the mountain to national prominence when he persuaded Tang Emperor Dai Zong (代宗) (727–79) to issue a royal proclamation granting the mountain’s monasteries the authority to chant prayers for the well-being of the country. Amoghavajra’s temple, Jin Ge Temple (金阁寺) still stands today. Thus, Clear and Cool Mountain was no longer just a Buddhist holy place, but had become an established national shrine for the protection of China, with the same level of imperial and folk reverence as Shandong’s Great Mountain (泰山) that stands over the birthplace of Confucius in Qufu (曲阜).

Wutaishan reached its second heyday during the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644–1911). Prior to conquering China in 1644, the Manchus of northeastern China had adopted Vajrayana Buddhism, receiving the transmission from their Mongol rivals to the west. The Manchu emperors ordered the conversion of eight Chinese Buddhist temples to the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. One of most famous of these is the Cave Temple of Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin Dong in Chinese) (观音洞), where the Sixth Dalai Lama (1686–1706) spent six years in seclusion.  In 1908, the 13th Dalai Lama made a short retreat at the Cave Temple of Avalokiteshvara during his trek from Mongolia to Beijing. Another prominent Vajrayana shrine is Pusading (菩萨顶) or the Bodhisattva’s Summit, which is located at the highest point of Tai Huai Town, the mountain park’s city center. Legends say Northern Wei Emperor Xiaowen founded Pusading, and in the Ming dynasty the temple was gifted with complete set of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, the Kangyur. Traveling 400 kilometers from Beijing in the northeast, Manchu emperors Kangxi (康熙) (1662–1722) and Qianlong (乾隆) (1736–95) made several pilgrimages to Pusading.

During the 20th century, Wutaishan fell upon hard times. First came the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911, bringing 2,000 years of monarchy to an end. While Buddhist leaders on China’s eastern coast pondered the challenge of restoring Buddhism as a lay movement, China’s warlords in the interior vied for civil power, as the loss of tradition created a vast social vacuum. Old and new values were being simultaneously questioned. Buddhism, while not always seen as the cause of China’s weakness, became regarded by many as a manifestation of a society that had become superstitious, insular, and unconcerned about the poor. Indeed, prominent Chinese politicians, such as Sun Yat Sen and Jiang Kai Shek, became Christian, partly to show that they were “modern,” forward-looking, and innovative. The Warlord Era of the 1920s then morphed into full-scale civil war when Japan invaded the Manchu region in 1931 and China’s heartland in 1937. In those turbulent times, petty officers sought to become emperors, businessmen strived to become presidents, and Marxists demanded an end to tradition and capitalism.

During this cataclysmic era, Buddhist Master Shi Yin Guang (释印光) published a comprehensive overview of the mountain in 1937, The Four Great Mountains of China (忠告四大名山). In his section on Wutaishan, “A Gazette of Qing Liang Shan” (清凉山志), he identified no less than 108 major temples. However, during his 20 years of compiling The Four Great Mountains of China, nowhere did Venerable Shi Yin Guang discuss his country’s dire political situation or the social problems facing Buddhism. Without imperial direction from above and pilgrim support from below, Wutaishan’s hundreds of temples fell into neglect.

Worse was still to come. Japan invaded Shanxi in 1937 and their army occupied Wutaishan from 1937–45 (Szczepanski 2012, 142), turning the mountain from a peaceful refuge to concatenation of military barracks. Come 1949, life on the mountain reached a new low with the victory of the Communist Party and the then-Marxist critique that “religion is the opiate of the people.” Monks and nuns went into hiding and the neglected and dilapidated temples were abandoned. With the Cultural Revolution (1966–77), Mao’s youthful Red Guards unleashed a latent fury of hatred for the past and tore through the Chinese countryside, burning temples and humiliating their few remaining residents. By 1977, nearly 99 per cent of China’s religious places, including farmers’ shrines to the Earth God, Tibetan and Mongolian stupas, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, as well as Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples had been destroyed. Wutaishan, however, with its significant distance from any major town and thus lacking food to feed marauding soldiers and Red Guards, saved the mountain complex from the worst of these abuses.

Yet revolution cannot march on an empty stomach. According to the accounts of local elders, Wutaishan’s proximity to the Mongolian border (and the former Soviet Union) also made the area a prominent military district and this military presence may have constrained the efforts of Mao’s marauding gangs.

Stairway to the Cave Temple of Avalokiteshvara. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

Last but not least, Wutaishan is home to China’s oldest wooden structures. These date back to the Tang dynasty. Discovered in the 1930s, the mountain in the early 1960s had become recognized as already a landmark of national heritage and thus nearly on the same footing at Beijing’s guesthouse for the Dalai Lamas, the Temple of Eternal Tranquility (Lama Temple) (雍和宫). This may have given local leaders the necessary authority to restrain the Red Guards. After 11 years of chaos, it was not until 1979 that Premier Deng Xiaoping put a stop and reversed the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and opened up China. Come the 1980s, Wutaishan, along with the tiny remnant of surviving temples throughout China, was allowed to reopen, rebuild, and once again become a place of refuge. 

In 2019, I witnessed Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism and Chinese Mahayana Buddhism coexisting in harmony here. While each temple has its own history, most share elements from both traditions. Monks and nuns of all lineages could be seen at every temple offering incense. Chinese temples would display Tibetan prayer flags and thangkas of White Tara and Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, while Tibetan temples would offer Chinese kneeling cushions and images of Chinese general Guan Gong (关公), who has vowed for all eternity to protect all Buddhist temples. Indeed, Wutaishan is where one can find Tibetan temples where all the monks are Chinese.

This is not an innovation of the 20th century but a development that dates back to Manchu emperor Qianlong, who in the 18th century wanted to promote the Vajrayana Buddhism of his people, and win over the hearts and minds of the Central Asian nations that bordered China and the minorities who dwelt inside China’s Great Wall, especially in Shanxi. This tolerance and inclusion on Wutaishan is something that long precedes the Qing. While the individual monastic communities with their 10–40 residents are currently nowhere near the hundreds of prior centuries, they still welcome all visitors, all nationalities, and all levels of cultivation.

One excellent example of this hospitality is Wutaishan Buddhist University for Nuns, which is located at Pu Shou (Ubiquitous Eternity) Temple (普寿寺). Here its impressively large sangha of 700 nuns are pursuing higher studies. Ordained a nun in 1981, Venerable Ru Rui (如瑞) has offered her entire life to raising the quality of life and learning for Buddhist nuns. In 1991, with only 115 yuan (US$17) in her pocket, Ven. Abbess Ru Rui founded Wutaishan’s Buddhist University for Nuns. She has also written several books on cultivation for lay students, male and female, to guide them on their journey. For the last 30 years, she and her lay and monastic disciples rebuilt the thousand-year-old site (which the Red Guards did damage) and transformed it into a reserved and elegant cluster of marble buildings in the grand Tang style. (Mao 2015) Surrounded by its cool gray pavilions, I had the chance to meet several of Pu Shou Temple’s engaging nuns. We discussed the revival of Buddhism in today’s China and the new flowering of Buddhism in the West, and, in a marvelous karmic moment, they invited me to return the next day to receive the Five Precepts.

At roughly 8:30 in the morning, the 60 of us gathered in the Dharma Hall and found a place on the lotus-shaped rugs woven by the local women. Some 30 nuns greeted us and pointed to where we should sit. Those who would take the Three Refuges were arranged in rows on the right while takers of the Five Precepts were seated on the left. The disciples came from everywhere. I heard the buzzing r’s of northeast China, the soft consonants of the southern coast, and the nasal vowels of Beijing and Hebei. Ven. Ru Rui entered and we all rose to greet her like elementary students receiving the school principal. However, without ceremony, she simply and directly sat down at her plain wooden table and warmly greeted us. She asked our group to speak up and share why we wanted to take the Three Refuges.

Unlike the polite, formulaic responses that are so customary during public occasions in China, these people shared from their hearts. One middle-aged woman from Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, became teary-eyed as she recounted how she needed a compass to guide her through the vortex of life, in which friends were unreliable and even family members would do harmful things. Ven. Ru Rui listened deeply and without interruption. When the pilgrim had finished, the abbess held up her meditation mala, caste her eyes around the room and with a broad smile affirmed: “Like these beads, our past karma leads us from the past to the present. With awareness, however, we can decide to choose where to go and as we choose the next bead we decide to continue on and choose to go forward.”

Later, one gentleman remarked how he could not stop drinking and live his life responsibly on his own, to which Ven. Ru Rui responded: “We can blindly let karma compel us or we could look for good friends. These good friends can help us master our past karma, guide us as we plant the seeds of new karma, and help us to focus on the fruit of the good karma to come.” Always, her words were gentle and affirming.

Now the time to begin the ceremony had arrived. We each were presented with a tiny sutra printed in the accordion style of traditional Chinese texts, each encased within its own gold-and-orange brocade pouch. We practiced the verses and the choreography of when to kneel, bow, sit, and stand. Now, no longer just a friend in the Dharma, Ven. Master Ru Rui transformed into a magisterial mandarin from China’s past, righteously determining what is good and what is evil. Serving as precept master and witness, Ven. Ru Rui picked up her wooden mallet and, with a quick snap, sharply struck her table. The silence rang through the room. With each and every verse, she rapped her mallet while we, one by one, we took our vows of refuge and cultivation. After the granting of vows, she excused herself without ceremony and departed for another event. The vows were what mattered. 

While we were a little nervous at the beginning of our gathering, in the end we all felt reassured. We had made the right choice at the right time at the right place with the right teacher. She clearly exemplified the Buddhist teaching that every word and every thought matters. The impulse and ignorance of the unexamined life has been replaced by the compass of cultivation. Our practice no longer points north or south but to the center. Practice is now here in this very moment and in this very body. 

Visiting Wutaishan

The valley town of Tai Huai (台怀镇), at an altitude of roughly 1,500 meters, is how virtually all pilgrims begin their journey to the mountain. Tai Huai is home to dozens of hostels and small hotels, over a hundred religious shops, and all manner of eateries. For those who read Chinese, the main street of Taihuai is also home to an excellent Buddhist bookstore, Zen Forest. While English is very limited on Wutaishan, everyone is welcoming. Many monasteries have erected signs in Chinese, English, and Tibetan to describe their historic, artistic, and spiritual value. While hotel staff and shopkeepers have very limited English ability, they all know how to use translation apps. The renting of rooms, purchasing of bus tickets, and bargaining for souvenirs can be done in English, but once a visitor goes outside these limited areas, the knowledge of English drops to zero. Also, most hotels do not accept Western credit cards. Carry cash or set up a WePay account on your Chinese cell phone.

Taxis can be hired, but only to explore the outer perimeter of the Tai Huai Town valley area, which goes no higher than 1,200 meters. Many wonderful temples can be found in the Tai Huai valley, including the Cave of Avalokiteshvara.

One can trek to any of the five Platform Peaks, but most opt to get a seat on a four-wheel drive tour bus. Each bus holds 13 passengers plus the driver. Tickets are bought through the dozens of hotels and guesthouses found throughout Tai Huai. Tours usually consist of all-day travel to all five peaks at roughly US$60 per person. Individual tickets can be bought to visit specific peaks, but these must be purchased 2–4 days in advance in order to fill the designated bus. Individual travel by private car is all but banned, and for good reason: The mountain roads above 1,200 meters are unpaved, uneven, and unmaintained. Snow and ice can happen in any month. The ban on private vehicles also retards the wear and tear on the mountain of hundreds of thousands of visitors and keeps the roads from turning into a parking lot. Riding the buses also offers the opportunity of meeting other pilgrims and making friends.

A Tibetan Rinpoche blessing Wutaishan pilgrims. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

Trekking up and camping on the mountain is permitted, however, due to the unpredictable weather, a tent and backpack will not be enough to protect visitors from the frequent storms and chilly temperatures. Thus, nearly all trekkers opt to stay in a monastery dorm set aside for overnight visitors. By and large, all temples are closed for visiting by 5pm. Trekkers and monastics can secure a place to sleep merely by asking. However, this will not be a temple stay like any you may have experienced in Japan, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia. Different visitors have had different experiences due to different expectations and karmic opportunities. One foreign visitor in 2019 found little problem in arranging a temple stay, but that meant sharing a room with 30 others! I have heard accounts of Westerners being welcomed and accounts of where they were politely refused. Thus, I would recommend packing patience and being ready to consider staying at one of the Tai Huai hotels, where a perfectly fine room can be had for at little at US$30. Last but not least, the temples also offer vegetarian lunches and dinners, some by invitation only, some as canteen service for a set fee of 40 yuan (US$6.30) arranged by the tour bus driver. Still others offer a formal meal taken in silence with the monastic residents and payment is a free-will donation.

Room prices in Wutaishan’s hotels and guesthouses range from 100–600 yuan per night. The 100 yuan guesthouses are in difficult-to-find alleys and offer no utilities or dining options. Pay 200 yuan, and the visitor can find a very pleasant guest room with a private shower, toilet, and a convenient restaurant with vegetarian and omnivarian options. Breakfasts of buns, porridge, and vegetarian dishes will cost only 10 yuan, and a lunch or dinner, including meat dishes, will set one back no more than 50 yuan. If you are a coffee drinker, bring your own. Otherwise, the most inspired and earnest pilgrim will soon realize that finding coffee on the mountain will be harder than finding enlightenment. A room at a larger, higher-grade hotel can be had for 600 yuan. However, the latter are a poor alternative as the mountain terrain makes cellphone connections difficult and the fancier hotels have thin walls, overpriced food, and must overcome the same room and water-heating issues as the smaller hotels. When checking out a prospective guesthouse, always ask to see the room before agreeing to stay. Some rooms may have been previously occupied by a chain smoker or heavy drinker.

Tai Huai Town is filled with all manner of restaurants, from 10 yuan bowls of Shanxi cut noodles with spicy diced pork to fancier places where the dishes run for 50–200 yuan. The vegetarian restaurants are all excellent, with menus and portion sizes designed to meet the needs of just of one or two diners. As I am gluten intolerant, I was very happy to discover that restaurants throughout the area do not use gluten-based mock meats, instead relying on the traditional mushroom and soy products for which China is so famous. When choosing a restaurant, it is always better to go by your nose. As the Buddhist saying goes: “appearances are deceiving.” A fresh smell and enticing aroma will all but guarantee a good meal.

As no two temples, like people, manifest the same personality, I cannot say which temple is the most beautiful, the most peaceful, or the most historic. I would recommend that pilgrims pick one specific temple a day and then let your karmic inclinations guide your journey. Take the time to feel the breeze, turn a prayer wheel, contemplate the clouds, and soak in the sun. All is created by mind and heart. Explore the mountain with your third eye. See what two millennia have wrought and find your truth!

The author looking out from Western Platform Peak, Wutaishan. Image courtesy of Roseanne Freese

See more

The Flower Ornament Scripture (City of Ten Thousand Buddhas)
Wutaishan (Rigpa Shedra)
[Outbound]: Hiking the Sacred Mountain (Smart Shanghai)
Wutaishan Pusading (Columbia Tibetan Studies)


An Xiu Tang. 2015. Wutaishan In Illustration. Shanxi Publishing Media Group and Shanxi Economy Publishing House, Taiyuan. [按秀堂著. 2015. 说五台山. 山西出版传媒集团和山西经济出版社,太原市.]

Charleux, Isabelle. 2017. “Chinese, Tibetan and Mongol Buddhists on Mount Wutai (China) from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century.” In Thierry Zarcone, Pedram Khosronejad & Angela Hobart. Pilgrimage and Ambiguity: Sharing the Sacred, Sean Kingston Publishing. 87–118.

Cui Zheng Sen. 2000. A History of Buddhism on Wutaishan. Vols. 1 and 2. Edited by Wang Zhi Yong. Shanxi: Shanxi People’s Publishing House. [崔正森著. 2000. 五台山佛教史. 王志勇主编. 山西人民出版社, 上下本.]

Mao Ruijing. 2015. “Chinese Bhiksunis in contemporary China: beliefs and practices on Three-Plus-One Project.” In International Journal of Dharma Studies, December 2015; also, Mao, R. Int. J. Dharma Studies (2015) 3:10., extracted on November 5, 2019.

Szczepanski, Beth. 2016. The Instrumental Music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist Monasteries, New York: Routledge.

Yin Guang. 1999. A Gazette to the Four Great [Buddhist] Mountains [of China], China, 1937, Taiwan Reprint, 1999. [释印光. 1999. 四大山志,中国,1937,台湾重版,1999.]

Zhou Ru Bi and Li Guang Yi. 2007. Telling Stories of Wutaishan, Author’s Publishing House, Beijing. [周如璧合李广义. 2007. 讲述五台山的故事. 作者出版社,北京.]

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