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White Horse Temple Archway

White Horse Temple – The Cradle of Chinese Buddhism

Buddhism first came to China during the first century AD through missionaries or ācāryas (preceptors or instructors) from India during the Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàncháo; 206 BC–220 AD). The White Horse Temple (Traditional Chinese: 白馬寺; pinyin: Báimǎ Sì; Wade–Giles: Pai-ma Szu), the first Buddhist temple in China was built in 68 AD under the patronage of Emperor Ming near the Eastern Han dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 東漢; pinyin: Dōnghàn; 25 AD–220 AD) capital of Luoyang in Henan Province. It predated the Shaolin Temple (founded in 495 AD) by 427 years.

The White Horse Temple lies 12–13 kilometers (7.5–8.1 miles) east of Luoyang. Though small compared to many other temples in China, the White Horse Temple is honored as "the cradle of Chinese Buddhism." It is ringed in on the south by the Manghan mountain and Lucoche River.

White Horse Temple Gate

White Horse Temple Gate


Mythical Lions


The Two White Horses

The White Horse Temple has undergone numerous structural and internal changes over its 1900 year history. The current temple has architecture from the Yuan Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 元朝; pinyin: Yuán Cháo; 1271–1368), Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644) and Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 清朝; pinyin: Qīngcháo; 1644–1912). The main temple buildings were renovated again in the 1950s and in March 1973 following the Cultural Revolution. Display plaques in Chinese and English describe the Buddhist deities placed in the temple halls. The major statues include Śākyamuni Buddha, Maitreya (the laughing Buddha in China), the Jade Buddha, figures of saints like Guru Avalokiteśvara, Amitābha, the arhats, stone statues of the two white horses which brought the Indian monks to China, and two mythical lions at the entrance. The most recent remodeling, a cooperative project with India, was finished in 2008 when the Sanchi Stupa and the Sarnath Buddha statue were raised.

Heavenly King Hall

Heavenly King Hall

Facing south, the main buildings of the temple stand on or along the central axis, including the Temple Gate, the Heavenly King Hall, the Great Buddha Hall, the Main Hall, the Jieyin Hall, and the Pilu Pavilion. Alongside those main buildings are the Reception Chamber, the Cloud-water Chamber, the Ancestors Chamber, the Guests Chamber, the Buddhist Chamber, and the Abbot Courtyard and so on. The White Horse Temple has over 100 rooms and consists of numerous halls divided by courtyards and manicured gardens, covering an area of about 13 hectares (32 acres).

Qingliang Tai "Clear Cool Terrace" (清凉台) was used by the two monks from India, Matanga and Gobharana, for whom the White Horse Temple was built when they translated the Buddhist sutras they brought with them into Chinese. Pilu Pavilion is on Clear Cool Terrace. Today the Clear Cool Terrace is arranged like a courtyard with cypress and cassia trees for visitors to enjoy the quietness.

The White Horse Temple can be divided into three primary sections.

The main temple is the highlight of the White Horse Temple complex. It includes five halls.

To the west of the main temple is the newer foreign temple complex with temples from India, Thailand, and Myanmar.

To the east of the main temple is the Qiyun "Approaching Clouds" Pagoda (Qíyún tǎ 旗云塔), the living quarters of the monks, which are restricted to visitors. It is approachable after crossing the manicured garden and a bridge to the left of the main temple. This pagoda was built in the 12th century in the fifteenth year of the Dading reign of the Jin Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 金朝; pinyin: Jīn cháo; 1115–1234). It is a 13 tiered, 25 meters (82 ft), high cubic shaped brick tower. It has been renovated in subsequent periods. The tomb of the famous Tang dynasty official Di Renjie (狄仁傑; 630-700)is also located in the eastern end of the complex. The Qiyun Pagoda is the oldest existing building in the White Horse Temple. Though leveled many times, the present Qiyun Pagoda was constructed in 1175.

Although the temple is open to the public, visitors are monitored for security purposes. The chief abbot stays informed about China's political situation through a TV installed in his room and monks living in the temple carry an identification card at all times.

The central axis line begins from the Temple Gate, a roofed entrance arch with three doors. A pair of stone horses stands on the two wings in front of the outer wall. The Heavenly King Hall (Tiān Wàng Tīng 天旺廳) is the first hall inside the temple. In that hall sit the clay-molded statues of four Heavenly Kings, Maitreya Buddha and Skanda Bodhisattva.

Behind the Heavenly King Hall is the Great Buddha Hall (Dàfú Tīng 大佛廳), which is the main hall of the temple where major Buddhist rites are held. The grounding platform is about 1 meter high. The hall measures five bays in width and four bays in depth or 22.6 meters long and 16.3 meters wide. It is double roofed, with Chinese characters 佛陀照耀著中心的大地 meaning "Buddha shines over the earth in the center." In its center sit the statues of Sākyamuni, Chiligyi, Ananda, Manjusgri, and Samantabhadra. A huge bell 1.65 meters in height and weighing 2,500 kilograms hangs in the southeast corner hall. The bell was cast in 1555 during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty. The bell is engraved with interlaced dragon patterns and Chinese characters "May good weather for the crops; May the country be prosperous and the people at peace." The bell's toll can be heard as far as ten miles away, making it one of the eight attractions of Luoyang City. The traditional bell-striking on the first day of the Chinese New Year takes place in the Great Buddha Hall.

Hall of Mahavira

Hall of Mahavira

Behind the Great Buddha Hall stands the Hall of Mahavira (Dàxióng Tīng 大雄廳). It features an overhanging gable roof and measures 22.8 meters in length and 14.2 meters in width, making it the largest hall of the White Horse Temple. In the center sit three awe-inspiring Buddhas. The middle one is Sākyamuni, or Gautama Buddha who is considered to be the Supreme Buddha, on whose left is Amitābha possessing surpassing merits, while on whose right is Bhaisajyaguru, customarily known as the "Medicine Buddha." All of the Buddhas face south. Two Heavenly Generals Wei Tuo and Wei Li are on their feet in front to protect three Buddhas. Eighteen Arhats, however, are installed evenly on the both sides.

Several versions of the legend of the foundation and naming of the temple exist.

According to 'The Chapter on the Western Regions' of the Hou Hanshu (Traditional Chinese: 後漢書; pinyin: Hòu hànshū; Book of Later Han or History of the Later Han), which was based on a report to the Emperor c. 125, (compiled in the 5th century):

"Tradition is that Emperor Ming dreamt that he saw a tall golden man the top of whose head was glowing. He questioned his group of advisers and one of them said: "In the West there is a god called Buddha. His body is sixteen chi tall [3.7 meters (12 ft)], and is the colour of gold." That is why the Emperor sent envoys to Tianzhu [South or Central India] to inquire about the Buddha's doctrine, after which paintings and statues [of the Buddha] appeared in the Middle Kingdom [China]."

According to the Book of Later Han History, Emperor Ming (also known as Han Mingdi 漢明帝, r. 58–75 AD) was said to have dreamed one night in the year 64 of a golden person standing 20 meters tall and with a radiating white aureola flying from the West. The next day he told his ministers, and the minister Zhong Hu explained to him that he had probably dreamed of the Buddha from India. The emperor then sent a delegation of 18 emissaries led by Cai Yin, Qin Jing, and Wang Zun to seek out Buddhism.

In Central Asia, Emperor Ming's emissaries met two Indian monks named Kasyapa Matanga (She Moteng 摄摩腾) and Dharmaratna or Gobharana (Zhu Falan 竺法兰). They persuaded the monks to return with them to China, bringing their books of Buddhist scriptures, relics, and statues of Buddha with them on two white horses.

One year after their arrival in 67, Emperor Ming built a Buddhist temple, China's first, in their honor three li east of the capital Luoyang and named it the White Horse Temple or Baima Temple in appreciation of the white horses that had carried the monks. The construction of the temple began in the 11th year (68) during the Yongping reign of Emperor Ming.

Emperor Ming called the temple "Pi-ma-sai" meaning "White Horse Temple" where 'pi' means "white", 'ma' means "horse" and 'sai' or 'ssi' is "temple". 'Ssi' in Chinese also signifies residence of Buddhist priests.

Emperor Ming ordered the suffix 寺 (pinyin: si) to be used in the temple's name, as a show of respect. This character had been used to designate ministries of the imperial government. In later periods, all temples came to use this character in their name and it was dropped from the names of government ministries. As a result, the temple's name is sometimes translated as White Horse Ministry, a translation accurate to earlier times. White Horse Temple is the modern meaning.

The monks resided at the new temple, where they translated the Buddhist scriptures they had brought with them into the Chinese language. The most notable of these was the Sūtra of Forty-two Chapters (四十二章經), which was translated by Matanga. It was the first Buddhist sutra to be translated into Chinese, giving it a special place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Gobharana translated the Dasa Bhumi or the Ten stages of Perfection as well as five other texts.

Matanga and Gobharana died on the temple precincts and were buried in the courtyard of the temple. Following the establishment of the temple, 1000 monks resided there and practiced Buddhism, which grew to be one of the Three Teachings of China.

Matanga and Gobharana introduced Theravāda Buddhism, which the Chinese called Xiaosheng (Traditional Chinese: 小乘; pinyin: Xiǎochéng; lit. "the Lesser Vehicle"). Xiaosheng Buddhism was promoted by Buddhabhadra, who was the first abbot of the ShaolinTemple.

Xiaosheng Buddhism was supplanted by Mahāyāna, or Dasheng (Traditional Chinese: 大乘; pinyin: Dàchéng; lit. "the Great Vehicle") Buddhism after the arrival of Bodhidharma in China around 527. Bodhidharma journeyed to the Shaolin Temple, where he laid the seeds for Ch'an (Chinese Zen) and became the Chánshī (禅师; lit. "Dhyana Master" or "Zen Master"), the first patriarch of China. Bodhidharma also laid the foundation for Shaolin Chuan Fa (Traditional Chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: Shàolín Chuān Fǎ; lit. "Shaolin fist technique"). Shaolin Chuan Fa became part of what came to be called Ch'an martial arts (Traditional Chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: Chánzōng wǔshù), which combines Ch'an philosophy with the fist technique of the Shaolin Temple.

The tradition of Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin Chuan Fa are continued in martial arts classes for men and women offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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