sacred mountains


sacred mountains
Though it is often said that all mountains in China are sacred, certain mountains have taken on a particularly sacred significance if numbers of pilgrims and temples are considered. The latter include the sets of mountains known as the ‘Five Marchmounts’ (Wuyue) and the ‘Four Great [Buddhist] Mountains’ (Sida mingshan). Though some are exclusively Buddhist or Daoist, most have an eclectic occupancy—Buddhist, Daoist and local cult. Mountains are considered ‘sacred’ through association with gods, ghosts, ancestors, immortals, buddhas or sages. Throughout much of Chinese history, mountains have been regarded as assembly points of the dead: ghosts or demons if fearful, gods if powerful, though not necessarily beneficent. It was such understandings that are responsible for most mountains being characterized as sacred. They were the physical refuges, places of judgment or residences of these post-mortem beings. With some exceptions, one need not go to the high point on the mountain to address a transcendent deity, as is common in many other cultures. The gods, ghosts and their demon attendants could be encountered throughout the mountain domains, and this was cause for either great caution or eager anticipation when entering mountains. The Chinese term most commonly characterizing mountains as sacred is ‘numinous power’ (ling). According to a popular expression, a mountain is not sacred or powerful because of its height, but because of the god (shen) or gods dwelling on it. Indeed, the central peak on Mt Putuo, one of the ‘Four Great [Buddhist] Mountains’, is only 300 metres above sea level. The presence of the bodhisattva, Guanyin, presumably accounts for its sacredness.
Mountainous ling is seen as marked by the presence of springs and caves, as well as of unusually shaped rocks, trees, waterfalls and distinctive landforms and orientations considered significant according to Chinese geomancy (fengshui). Medicinal herbs, roots and minerals gain much of their efficacy through ‘growing’ in and on such mountains (see herbal medicine). The sale of these drugs to visitors is a lucrative enterprise on sacred mountains.
In the pre-modern and contemporary periods, most of the gods regarded as inhabiting such mountains in earlier periods are understood as having been subdued by bodhisattvas or perfected Daoist masters and transformed into devotees and protectors. Accounts of mythic battles between these Buddhist and Daoist agents of order and the untamed denizens of mountains are a common feature of traditional and contemporary guide-books. These civilizing heroes and their human agents further transfigured ling-filled mountains by projecting onto them images drawn from Buddhist and Daoist sacred texts, pacifying them and making their power more accessible to the devout. These spatial projections of text can be seen in the arrangement and location of temples, the identification and naming of numinous objects and shapes, and the location of ritual or austerity sites. Monks and recluses take up residence on a mountain to access its power for their own transformations, and pilgrims, also hoping to benefit from that power, visit these mountains as acts of piety, which is called, ‘paying respects to the mountain and presenting incense’ (jinshan qiaoxiang) (see pilgrimage). Many seek visions of the resident deity. Gentry scholars have built retreats and academies on many of the sacred mountains and composed or edited mountain gazetteers (shanzhi), gathering together maps, literary compositions and information on history, flora, fauna and religious structures associated with a particular mountain. These gazetteers, which add one more layer of lustre to the mountain, continue to be reproduced today.
Einarsen, John (ed.) (1995). The Sacred Mountains of Asia. Berkeley: Shambhala Publications.
Naquin, Susan and Yu, Chun-fang (eds) (1992). Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yinguang, Fashi (ed.) (1979). Sida mingshan zhi [Gazetteer of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism], 4 vols. Taipei: Fojiao chubanshe.
WILLIAM POWELL

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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