Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

Wutai shan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5714, pp. 1-133.

© 2011 by Karl Debreczeny, IATS, and THL

[page 1]

Abstract: The sacred mountain Wutai shan, located in Shanxi Province, China, is believed to be the earthly abode of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Mañjuśrī. While Wutai shan was a sacred site to Chinese Buddhists as far back as the fifth century, from the seventh century on, it became an international pilgrimage center, attracting Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as India, Kashmir, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Wutai shan had become especially important to Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchus, when Tibetan Buddhism was at its apex there and the mountain was a confluence of Himalayan cultures. The exhibition “Wutaishan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain” (2007) introduced the nature of this transnational pilgrimage site dedicated to the embodiment of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, and explored the rich interrelationships between faith, politics, ethnicity, and identity which make the site unique. The accompanying introductory essay explores the history of Tibetan involvement on the mountain.

Introduction

Figure 1. Map of Cultural Convergence at Wutai shan.

The sacred Five-Peak Mountain (Wutai shan, 五臺山, Riwo Tsengari bo rtse lnga), located in Shanxi Province (Shanxi sheng, 山西省), China (Fig. 1), is believed to be the earthly abode of the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (Jampel Yang’jam dpal dbyangs; Fig. 2). While Wutai shan was a sacred site to Chinese Buddhists as far back as the fifth century, from the seventh century on, it became an international pilgrimage center, attracting Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as India, Kashmir, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. By the eighteenth century Wutai shan had become especially important to Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchus. Although most studies have focused on the Chinese experience at Wutai shan, especially during the Tang (唐, 618-906) [page 2] and Song (宋, 960-1279) dynasties,1 the Columbia University conference “Wutai Shan and Qing Culture” held at the Rubin Museum of Art (May 12-13, 2007) and the coinciding exhibition “Wutaishan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain” (May 10-October 16, 2007)2 together highlighted a period from the seventeenth to twentieth century when Tibetan Buddhism was at its apex there and the mountain was a place of confluence with Himalayan cultures.

Figure 2. Chinese Form of Mañjuśrī. Yuanzhao si, Wutai shan. Photograph by Gray Tuttle.

Over the course of 1500 years not only has this complex of mountains been a nexus of pilgrimage, cosmological conceptualization and cultural exchange, but it has also been the focal point of various religio-political discourses. The concatenation of these forces undoubtedly reached its apogee during the long reign of the Manchus, who were not only portrayed as emanations of the bodhisattva of wisdom, but also fostered the folk etymology of their ethnonym as deriving from Mañjuśrī. Yet, while this project of symbolic appropriation is now common knowledge, less is known about how it affected the inherently transnational nature of this site. In other words, an important unanswered question is: how did the various discourses during the Qing dynasty (清, 1644-1911) actually engage, shape and influence the practices and conceptualizations of the constituents of the Qing Empire? Moreover, how did innovations or transformations on the margins impact the imperial center? The aim of this conference was to employ the historical [page 3] importance and transnational nature of Wutai shan in order to attempt a re-evaluation of Qing culture.

Within this framework the concurrent exhibition sought to introduce the nature of this transnational pilgrimage site dedicated to the embodiment of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, and explore the rich interrelationships between faith, politics, ethnicity and identity which make the site unique. As Wutai shan is located in China, this exhibition also sought to highlight the importance of Himalayan art which extends well outside the traditionally narrow confines of the Himalayas. The broad cultural diversity characteristic of Himalayan art is reflected in the objects in this exhibition, which come from Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, and China and include paintings, sculptures, masks, and book covers and feature a six-foot wide woodblock print (Cat. 1), a panoramic view of Wutai shan filled with temples and miraculous visions.


[1] On the Chinese experience on Wutai shan, see for instance the writings of Raoul Birnbaum (“Buddhist Meditation Teachings and the Birth of ‘Pure’ Landscape Painting in China,” Studies on the Mysteries of Manjusri, “The Manifestation of a Monastery: Shen-Ying’s Experiences on Mount Wu-t’ai in T’ang Context,” “Secret Halls of the Mountain Lords: The Caves of Wu-t’ai,” “Visions of Manjusri on Mount Wutai,” and “Light in the Wutai Mountains”) and Robert Gimello (“Chang Shang-ying on Wu-ta’i Shan” and “Wu-t’ai shan during the Early Chin Dynasty: The Testimony of Chu Pien”). Only very recently have important inroads been published in western scholarship on the Tibetan involvement on Wutai shan: Gray Tuttle, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005); and Gray Tuttle, “Tibetan Buddhism at Ri bo rtse lnga/Wutai shan in Modern Times,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 2 (August 2006): 1-35, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T2723 (a paper originally presented at the 1998 meeting of the International Association of Tibetan Studies held in Bloomington, Indiana); Natalie Köhle, “Why Did the Kangxi Emperor Go to Wutai Shan?: Patronage, Pilgrimage, and the Place of Tibetan Buddhism at the Early Qing Court,” Late Imperial China 29, no. 1 (June 2008): 73-119 (based on her 2006 MA thesis); and Wen-shing Chou, “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China,” Art Bulletin 89, no. 1 (March 2007): 108-29. This new generation of scholarship on Wutai shan in late imperial times culminated in the conference “Wutaishan and Qing Culture” with which this exhibition was conceived. As one will see from the many Chinese secondary sources cited here, Chinese interest in Tibetan Buddhism on Wutai shan began to appear in print in the late 1980s and 1990s.
[2] The author would like to thank co-curator of the exhibition Jeff Watt for all of his suggestions, input, and his guidance in mounting the exhibition. Thanks also to Donald Rubin and Caron Smith for their support appointing me the first Rubin Museum of Art curatorial fellow which gave me the opportunity to work on this project. Special thanks to Wen-shing Chou and Gray Tuttle for enthusiastically sharing their materials, and to David Newman for his collaboration creating the on-line interactive digitally decoded 1846 map of Wutai shan. Gene Smith of TBRC and Pema Bhum of Latse Library were both invaluable in locating Tibetan sources, as well as clearing up several questions arising out of the literature. Thanks to Jann Ronis and Alex Gardner, fellow Rubin Foundation Scholars in Residence, for their help in coming to accessible yet faithful translations of Tibetan texts. Thanks to Elliot Sperling, Gray Tuttle, Johan Elverskog, Kristina Dy-Liacco, Helen Abbott and Neil Liebman for their many valuable suggestions in improving this essay. Also thanks to Jessica Klein, Lisa Arcomano, John Monaco, Dudu Etzion, Jennie Coyne, Kathryn Selig-Brown, Kei Tateyama and Zhu Runxiao for their help at various stages of the exhibition and publication.

Note Citation for Page

Karl Debreczeny, “Wutai Shan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5714 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Karl Debreczeny, “Wutai Shan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 1-133, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5714 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Debreczeny, Karl. “Wutai Shan: Pilgrimage to Five-Peak Mountain.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 1-133. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5714 (accessed ).