Mount Wutai is not for casual tourists who are
willing to spend just a few hours there before
rushing to the next county for more photo
The mountain, named for its palm-like shape, covers
some 600 square kilometers. I wonder if any traveler
has scaled all five of the peaks, the tallest being
the North Terrace at 3,061m. They are all quite flat
at the top, but getting up there may force you to go
through several seasons, and you may end up face to
face with remnants of glaciers.
Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty
(1644-1911) made it his goal, but he had to settle
for the Blue Snail Peak, which has the height of a
130-story building. It is a temple that assembles
Buddhas from all five peaks, so he could simulate
the experience by trekking up the 1,080 steps.
Nowadays tourists do not even need to walk. A cable
car ride will do the trick.
Mount Wutai is a sanctuary for Buddhists. At its
height in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), there were
as many as 360 temples. Now only 60 remain, covering
an area of 300 sq kms. If you want to pray and
meditate at each of them, it will take you weeks.
Fortunately, they have a dummy version for
I rushed through four - in one morning. My prayer
sessions lasted about 15 seconds each, and I didn't
burn any incense.
My parents would kill me if they know I wasted such
a golden opportunity. They may not have crawled up
the stairs like some of the more pious pilgrims, but
they would surely have spent hours in each compound.
Yes, a temple here is not a single building, but
multiple buildings with walls and an imposing gate.
The most ubiquitous god at Wutai is Manjusri, the
Bodhisattva of wisdom. This explains the throng of
college-bound students and their parents, who
implore him for higher scores. In this post-national
entrance exam season, they have come back to express
their gratitude because their erstwhile prayers have
I don't know the etiquette for those who failed.
Should they come back to say "Thank you for nothing"
or should they stay at home and mope? Surely, you
should not hold grievances against a god.
The funniest scene is that of a wall painted with a
giant fo, the Chinese word for Buddha. The last
stroke happens to go all the way down and I noticed
many youths clinging to it and rubbing it so much it
has lost its color. It turned out that they were
hanging on to the Buddha's foot, a metaphor for
On the contrary, the pilgrims personified patience.
Some had journeyed from Tibet. Wutai is the place
where Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism coexist in
harmony. Some even came from other Asian countries.
The best-known symbol of Mount Wutai is the white
pagoda, the kind you see everywhere in Tibet. The
56.4-m structure dates back to 1302, when a Nepalese
monk used small stones to erect it. Its base is
encircled with prayer wheels. There is a pavilion
nearby with one big wheel. My guide instructed me to
"go around the big one three times and the small one
once". Off I went and finished the holy task.
On my way out I found, to my dismay, that I had made
a mistake. What he meant by "big wheel" was the
bigger structure, not the size of the wheels. I had
done the opposite. How was I going to make amends?
There is a compound attached to Tayuan Temple, where
the white pagoda sits. It's called "the residence
Mao Zedong passed by". On April 9, 1948, the
Chairman and his entourage slept here for one night.
You don't believe it? There is a blurry photo blown
up for all to witness. In the room recreated for its
authenticity, there is a prayer cushion in front of
Now I can only ask the Great Helmsman to forgive my
sin in messing up my holy merry-go-rounds.
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