The Natural Numinous Features of the Wutai Shan Pilgrimage
Figure 30: Cave where the Sixth Dalai Lama is believed to have meditated, Guanyin Dong. Photo by Isabelle Charleux.
Wutai Mountain boasts many natural features endowed with numinous power, especially caves, springs, ponds as well as the five peaks, which were no doubt as important to visit as monasteries. Visiting the caves seems to have been particularly important for Mongol pilgrims. Mountain caves are an essential component of Tibetan and Mongolian pilgrimage.114 Of the more than fifty natural features of Wutai Shan said to have sacred power (caves, springs, cliffs, peaks, curious rocks, and so forth) listed in the gazetteers, about thirty are caves. The Avalokiteśvara Cave (Guanyin Dong), located high up on a hill just north of South Terrace and very difficult to reach, was one of the favorite destinations for Mongols.115 The Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang GyatsoTshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho (1683-1706?) is believed to have meditated for six years in one of the Avalokiteśvara caves after his presumed death – many Mongols believed that he did not die near KokonorKöke Naγur en route to Beijing after he was deposed by the Qing in November 1706, but managed to give his escort the slip and started a new life, traveling as a beggar monk throughout East and South Asia, and finally settled in Alašan, where he stayed from 1716 and 1746 and built several monasteries.116 It [page 300] is also believed that Avalokiteśvara meditated there. A statue of the Sixth Dalai Lama could be seen in the Avalokiteśvara hall located just in front of the caves. Back home, the pilgrims would say “I meditated at the place where the Sixth Dalai Lama meditated.” According to his biography, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama also meditated in the cave of the Sixth Dalai Lama in 1908,117 and the small monastery still has the room where he lived. Infertile devotees also came to the Avalokiteśvara Cave hoping to be blessed with children, and Wutai Shan in general seems to have been an important destination for Mongols who wanted to have children.118 The Mongols and Tibetans also visited the ancient Sudhana’s Cave (Norzangnor bzang, Shancai, 善財, šuddana)119 where Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje lived before the construction of Zhenhai Si. The Newark Museum’s appliqué of Mañjuśrī was made to be placed in that cave (see Figure 9).120
The most important cave for Mongol pilgrims was the Mother’s Cave (eke-yin aγui) or Mother’s Womb (eke-yin umai), known in Chinese as the Cave of the Mother of Buddhas (Fomu Dong), or the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas (Qianfo Dong, 千佛洞). It is located on a cliff on the northeast side of the Southern terrace, seven li west of the Baiyun Si. The official gazetteers say the cave was discovered in the Jiajing (嘉靖, r. 1522-66) period of the Ming dynasty (1522-67), when a monk named Daofang (道方, sixteenth century), walking there late at night, followed ten thousand dots of lights into the cave where he saw rows of jade Buddha images. Lost in the cave, he chanted the name of Guanyin, vowed to make a sacred image and the ten thousand lamps turned into a single light that guided him out.121
Figure 33: Pilgrim being pushed into the narrow passage at the Mother’s Cave. 1846 Cifu Si map. Rubin Museum. Photo by Karl Debreczeny.
Surpisingly, the Mongol lore and practices concerning this cave bring to light a lived religion that is not documented by written sources. Ferdinand Lessing gives a full description of this cave according to his interviews with a Russian missionary in 1931 and, later, with the Mongolian Qalqa dignitary Diluwa Qutuγtu (1884-64), and was the first to highlight the ritual performed in the cave.122 Inside the cave is a hole, about three feet above the ground, with a diameter of ten to twelve inches. The pilgrims were advised to remove all excess clothing or even to undress completely.123 A Chinese monk, nicknamed by the Mongols “the midwife,” assisted the pilgrims and told them how to crawl in124 (today the hundreds of pilgrims queuing to enter the cave have plenty of time to study the board with diagrams and explanations on how to crawl through). The pilgrim would then find himself in a very narrow but widening passage, some three feet long and one foot high, that led into the inner chamber (the “matrix”), which allowed room for two people to stand. In its center was an altar bearing a stone statue of a deity, possibly Tārā or Guanyin, that the pilgrim had to worship. With the help of the “midwife,” the pilgrim would come back and been informed that he was within the womb of the Mother of Buddhas; and then that he had been reborn.125 The pilgrims had to pay a fee in order to enter the narrow passage, and [page 302] an additional “ransom” fee to leave the grotto. The “midwife” was said sometimes to leave devotees stuck and free them only after making a vow to make donations to the clergy. A similar description is given by the Chinese lay pilgrim Gao Henian in 1912.126 The earliest evidence of the womb-cave ritual can be seen on the 1846 Cifu Si map, where a man is seen pushing the behind of a pilgrim into the cave.
Figure 34: The Chinese monk who revived the Mother’s Cave in the late 1990s. Photo by Corneille Jest.
Up to now this cave has been particularly favored by Mongols and Tibetans: “it is said that Mongolians, famous for their fervent piety, invariably cry when they enter the inner chamber.”127 It is now also very popular among Han tourists who believe they can erase their sins, get rid of all the evils of their previous life – get rid of the charnel envelope and change bones (tuotai huangu, 脫胎換骨), obtain a second life, or even be reborn as a Buddha. They are told that the Cave of the Mother of Buddhas is the very body or womb of Śākyamuni’s mother and, as with Śākyamuni, they will be reborn out of her armpit. The stalactites are said to be women’s entrails.128 Modern pilgrims are very frightened by the experience; when they come out, exhausted and covered with dust, they really feel like children.129 Pilgrims are said to be transformed and regret their past sins. Three Chinese monks have lived in a hermitage on the slope since the early 2000s; one of them, Beiyue (悲月, twentieth century), has been restoring and reviving the place since 1996 and has collected one million yuan in donations to build a one-kilometer-long stone staircase leading to the cave.130 In July 2007, the Cave of the Mother of Buddhas was one of the most crowded places of Wutai Shan.
As stressed by Lessing131 and Stein132 the womb-cave rituals are poorly documented in the official and clerical records, and clearly belong to popular beliefs and practices that were not considered worthy of attention by the pilgrimage guides. The Qingliang Shan zhi and the extended Qinding Qingliang Shan xin zhi, mention the discovery of Wutai Shan’s Fomu Cave in the 1560s, but say nothing about the womb cave and its rite.133 In his pilgrimage guide, Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje retells Daofang’s discovery, and simply replaces Guanyin’s name by Mañjuśrī’s.134 Ono Katsutoshi and Hibino Takao do not mention it in their remarkable study of Wutai Shan monasteries and holy sites.135 Lessing, who bases his study of caves of initiatory rebirth on oral sources, qualifies this religious practice as “more or less secret.”136 Lessing’s teacher, the dorampardo rams pa lamabla ma Lozang ZangpoBlo bzang bzang po (twentieth century) “pretended never having heard about such an outrageous rite.”137 The silence of these erudite lamabla mas is surprising, because in other Esoteric Buddhist traditions such as in Cambodia or Japan, the womb-cave ritual is officially interpreted by Buddhist priests as being the womb-world maṇḑala (garbhadhātu maṇḑala) where the practitioner can reunite himself with Vairocana138 and be reborn in the sense of being newly endowed with esoteric knowledge and powers.139 Besides, Lessing and Stein have shown that the Mongol monks and important religious figures who visited Wutai Shan, such as the Diluwa Qutuγtu (1884-64) and the Fourth Jebcündamba Qutuγtu, were well aware of this kind of popular ritual. The Fourth Jebcündamba Qutuγtu, for instance, wrote a Tibetan inscription on a stele erected at the entrance of the cave.140
The Womb Caves in Tibetan and Mongol Pilgrimages
Womb-caves – horizontal or vertical, natural or man-made – are a well-known type of holy cave found in the Tibetan cultural area. Modern scholars of Tibetan pilgrimage have described many examples of narrow caves or passages in Western Tibet (Mount Kailash), Central Tibet (GandenDga’ ldan Monastery; TerdromGter sgrom near Drigung Til’Bri gung mthil), AmdoA mdo (Amnyé MachenA myes rma chen), Nepal (Tarap in Dolpo, the Halase-māratika caves in Eastern Nepal), and Bhutan.141 In Tibet, they are used for the ritual testing of one’s positive or negative karma. If the pilgrim succeeds in going through the narrow passage, he/she is ensured of the purification of his/her sins and a better rebirth, and is released from the terror of the intermediate state between death and rebirth (bardobar do). On the other hand, pilgrims with “bad karma” may get stuck. It is believed that the clefts and passages change size automatically to allow any morally suitable candidate to pass through, regardless of his or her actual body shape and size. At the same time the pilgrim who succeeds is ensured of having good karma, of being purified of all his/her sins, and of being reborn.
Tibetans refer to these passages as hell paths (nyellamdmyal lam), or narrow paths (tranglamphrang lam), and also say they represent the Gates of Hell (those who pass will escape from the hells) or the way leading to a Pure Land.142 These testing rituals can be performed in caves, in an opening between two rocks, or on a narrow natural stone bridge across a deep ravine.
By contrast, most of the narrow caves of Mongolia, Buryatia, and Tuva are dead ends that closely evoke a womb. The Mongolian terminology for these caves focuses on the Mother (womb, belly). For the Mongols, the womb-cave ritual is obviously a form of earth worship, of rebirth and fertility ritual: the Mongols revere Mother Earth as an important popular deity, and their word for mother (eke) frequently appears in the names given to natural features of the landscape (mother [eke] is homonymous with origin [eki]).143 In the Mongolian world, these caves are especially visited by childless couples or people wishing to help others who are childless, in order to obtain children, such as the womb-cave of the pilgrimage site of Alkanay near Chita, in Buryatia. The Buddhist aim of this ritual – to be reborn purified of one’s sins144 – obscures the more popular ones (obtain children, [page 305] benefit from the contact with the Earth goddess, being revitalized and healed with the earth’s magnetic energy, augment one’s fortune – kii mori).145
Figure 35: A Mongol pilgrim crawling in the womb-cave of Tövgön hiid, Bat Ölzii sum, Övörhangai Province, Mongolia. Photo by Don Croner.
While most of the Mongol womb-caves are located far from settlements, several monasteries were established close to womb-caves.146 Among them, we find the two main NyingmapaRnying ma pa monasteries of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia: Qamar-un Keyid (East Gobi) and the Monastery of Padmasambhava,147 linked to the great lamabla ma-poet Danjinrabjai (Danzan Rajvaa, 1803-56), the Fifth Noyan Qutuγtu.148
The Mongol fertility ritual and Earth-worship were therefore transplanted at Wutai Shan, in an old Chinese cave that perfectly matches the requirements of a womb and a narrow passage. Rolf Stein, in his extensive study of womb-caves throughout the Asian world (Tibet, Nepal, India, Cambodia, and Japan), believes that Wutai Shan’s Cave of the Mother of Buddhas is the only known example of a cave of initiatory rebirth in Han China. The Chinese (up until the twentieth century) did not develop rebirth symbolism and ritual around their caves.149 The Wutai Shan Mother’s womb cave therefore seems to be a typical Tibeto-Mongol pilgrimage characteristic transplanted upon the Chinese mountain.
Other Features of Tibetan Pilgrimages Present at Wutai Shan
Another type of cave that seems to be an extension of womb-caves is the tunnel cave leading to a distant place in a very short period of time. The Wutai Shan Mother’s womb cave is also described as a tunnel cave in a popular legend150 that [page 306] also echoes that of the Jin’gang Ku, with a hidden entrance, which is regarded as a paradise-cave where one remains inside, withdrawing completely from human society, and attains enlightenment or obtains various spiritual powers.151 The Vajra Cave participates in both the Tibetan and the Chinese pilgrimage traditions (see the Chinese Taoist grotto-heaven [dongtian, 洞天]).152 It was worshipped from the seventh century and recognized as the home of Mañjuśrī. Since the Tang or maybe the Song dynasty, the entrance has never opened again, but pilgrims could visit a man-made grotto as well as the Banruo Monastery (Banruo Si, 般若寺) that protected it. The Jin’gang Ku was one of the residences of the Zhangjia Qutuγtu before the construction of Zhenhai Si. The cave153 and the nearby ruined Pule Yuan are still important destinations for Mongol and Tibetan pilgrims.
A particular kind of tunnel-cave, the sea’s eye (haiyan, 海眼), connects with the sea and can cause flooding if not blocked by a stūpa. At Wutai Shan, the Zhenhai Si, “Monastery that Subdues the Ocean” – Luus-i Daruγsan Süme, “Monastery that Subdues the Water Spirit” in Mongolian – is said to have been built after a sea’s eye (haiyan) connecting with the Northern Sea caused sea water to flood an area of more than a hundred kilometers around. The hole was blocked by Mañjuśrī with a cooking-pot, and later a stūpa was built to seal it closed.154 The sea’s eye may reflect the complex subterranean water system under the mountain: the waters of Sanquan Si were said to connect with the Black Dragon Pool (Heilong Chi, 黑龍池) of the Northern Terrace;155 the water from Nārayāna Cave (Naluoyan, 那羅延) flows to Fuping to the south and Fanzhi to the west.156 A similar story is found in Beijing: on Qionghua Dao (Beihai Park), where the emperor Shunzhi built a White stūpa in 1651, a well called sea’s eye was said to communicate with the sea.157 These legends reflect the Tibetan lore about the origin of the KokonorKöke Naγur [page 307] Lake,158 as well as the Tibeto-Nepalese legend explaining the draining by Mañjuśrī of the lake that covered the Kathmandu Valley. In the Tibetan world, some caves are worshipped because their extended galleries, passages and underground rivers suggest access to the underworld of the Nāga.159
When on a Tibetan pilgrimage to a natural site, the five senses are all brought into play. Tibetan pilgrimage “is about a direct (and observable) physical, sensory relationship of person and place through seeing (in both the sense of direct encounter and ‘reading’ and interpreting the landscape, and so forth), touching (by contacting the place), positioning (body in relation to place), consuming/tasting (by ingesting place substance), collecting (substances of the place), exchanging (place substance with personal substance/possessions), vocalizing (prayers addressed to the place or specific formulas), and even in some cases listening (for sounds produced by the place).”160 The womb-cave involves touching and positioning; the prostrations connect the whole body with the sacred ground. The pilgrims touch the stūpa and statues with their forehead, and vigorously massage with their hands Mañjuśrī’s footprint at the Zaoyu Chi.
The pilgrims – Mongol, Tibetan, and Chinese alike – also practiced “collecting” holy water. Wutai Shan boasts more than twenty sacred springs and ponds, such as the tasting spring trickling from the Avalokiteśvara Cave,161 the sacred water (foshui, 佛水) of the Pool Reflecting the Moonlight (Mingyue Chi, 明月池), or Guanhai Si, south-east of Zhenhai Si that pilgrims came to drink and collect during the sixth month festival,162 and the water of Baisha Quan of Zunsheng Si that cures a hundred different illnesses. The sacred water of the Banruo Spring (Banruo Quan, 般若泉) was used to bathe the statues on the eighth day of the fourth month, the festival of Śākyamuni’s birthday; it is said that the Manchu emperors and great lamabla mas only drank this water when they stayed at Wutai Shan. Pilgrims brought back home bottles of this water, which made a precious gift to their friends. At [page 308] Baishui Pond (Baishui Chi, 白水池), not far from Jin’gang Ku, the milky water was used to wash one’s eyes.163 The ice of Wannian Bing (萬年冰) called by the Mongols “the ice that never melts” was collected by Mongol pilgrims who would take away a piece “to work cures on their sick friends at home.”164
Pilgrims also collected earth and dust, for instance at the “Rock with a Bull’s Heart” (Niuxin Shi, 牛心石): the pilgrims rubbed the stone and collected the dust which served as a cure-all medicine;165 in a torrent above the Baiyun Si, sand found in a stone, called “śarīra-golden sand” (jinsha shelizi, 金沙舍利子) was collected and used as medicine.166 The bark of the sacred tree at the Wulang Miao is peeled to serve as medicine. Everything that grew on the mountain was filled with spiritual power, such as the miraculous grass, flowers and water of the excellent pastures of Dailuo Ding and Southern Terrace that attracted herders who came to fatten up or cure their animals before selling them.
Other common features of Tibetan sacred mountains found at Wutai Shan include the footprints and handprints of deities (a footprint of Mañjuśrī at Zaoyu Chi; Śākyamuni’s footprints at Tayuan Si; prints of Mañjuśrī’s hands and feet at Jin’gang Ku);167 legends about the submission of local deities trapped underground (Longquan Si, five hundred dragons subdued by Mañjuśrī on the mountain); the presence of many medicinal plants – however these are all shared by the entire Buddhist world.
Besides the visit to famous monasteries and lamabla mas, the Tibetan and Mongol pilgrims also performed Tibetan and Mongolian rituals and practices such as the womb cave ritual, and the collecting of natural products. They had visions of Tibetan deities or saints and added new legends and stories to the already [page 309] many-layered past of Wutai Shan. We do not know how and when these Tibetan and Mongolian features were brought to Wutai Shan, but we can assume that both the lamabla mas, overcoming their disdain for these popular practices to please and attract the Mongols and Tibetans, and the pilgrims themselves who already knew and practiced them in Tibetan and Mongolian pilgrimage sites, imported them to Wutai Shan. The high-ranking lamabla mas who traveled between Tibet, Wutai Shan, and Inner Mongolia probably played a role in this transmission. Rolf Stein thinks Mongolian lay people and monks who visited Wutai Shan may have imported the rebirth ritual from Wutai Shan to Mongolia.168 But the Mongolian womb-cave may have been used from time immemorial: the lamabla mas could have imported, from Tibet or from Wutai Shan a new interpretation of this practice. On the other hand, the transmission of this fertility ritual of Earth worship is more likely to have occurred from Mongolia to Wutai Shan.
Mongolian Pilgrimages Related to the Wutai Shan Pilgrimage
In order to understand how Tibetan and Mongolian practices were transplanted to Wutai Shan, it can be useful to mention some popular Mongol pilgrimages which are related to Wutai Shan. The Monastery of Padmasambhava in Inner Mongolia presents many of the characteristic features of Tibetan pilgrimage sites: legends about Padmasambhava who tamed the local deity and meditated in caves, a womb-cave, a tunnel-passage allegedly leading to Central Tibet in one day’s walk, visions of miracles, water and earth collecting.169 In addition, the Monastery of Padmasambhava’s womb-cave is known to be a “relative,” actually, the “daughter,” of Wutai Shan’s Mother’s Womb. A learned Tibetan historian, Nyima DorjéNyi ma rdo rje (twentieth century), told Raoul Birnbaum that “it is inappropriate to enter the mother cave [at Wutai Shan] if one previously has entered the daughter cave” [at Monastery of the Caves (aγui-yin süme, Agui Miao, 阿貴廟)?].170 It seems to be a question of precedence: one must visit the mother at Wutai Shan before visiting the Mongol “daughter.”
Figure 39: Gilubar Monastery, Baγarin Left Banner, Chifeng Municipality, Inner Mongolia. Photo by Isabelle Charleux.
Gilubar Juu, a renowned pilgrimage site in Eastern Inner Mongolia during the Qing dynasty, was called “Little Wutai Shan.”171 Gilubar Juu was founded around 1770 by the Second Jamyang Zhepa’Jam dbyangs bzhad pa (1728-91) of LabrangBla brang Monastery in AmdoA mdo on the site of an old Liao dynasty rock monastery. Besides the three caves that still enshrine Liao dynasty images of Buddha and Bodhisattva, is an Eke-yin Umai, a “Mother’s Womb.”
Considering the success of Wutai Shan in the Qing dynasty, these local pilgrimages probably could not replace the great pilgrimage to Wutai Shan for Mongol laymen and monks. At present we do not know if these local pilgrimages first developed as a surrogate pilgrimage for Wutai Shan, or if they developed completely independently up to the time when a learned cleric saw correspondences and asserted a connection between the two. The Gilubar Juu could have just been called “Little Wutai Shan” because its festival attracted almost as many pilgrims as the Chinese mountain. Similarly, the Sine Usun Juu in Ordos (Otuγ Banner), founded in the late eighteenth century, was compared in local songs with Wutai Shan.172 A mountain in the Left Qaγucid Banner of Inner Mongolia was called Wutai Shan because several miracles happened there and it was recognized as a holy place.173 This would be comparable to the title of “the Tibet of China” given to Wutai Shan, or the “Tibet of the East” given to the Caγan Diyanci-yin Keyid, a major pilgrimage site in the Eastern Tümed Banner (now in Fuxin District, Liaoning Province). If lamabla mas wanted to promote a local pilgrimage and attract devout Mongols, it was in their interest to compare their monastery to Wutai Shan. In the same way, Mongol monastic guide-books naturally emphasize the holiness of a site by saying that worshipping this particular monastery is equivalent to worshipping all the other places.174
Note Citation for Page
Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).
Note Citation for Whole Article
Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).
Charleux, Isabelle. “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).
- Popular Wutai Shan
- Promoting the Mountain
- The Mongolian Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan
- The Natural Numinous Features of the Wutai Shan Pilgrimage
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