Aman Fayun: Temple of the Soul’s retreat

Aman Fayun Village

As I wait to take the train back to Shanghai the words inscribed on the tablet penned by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) resound in my head as I navigate the crowded waiting room of Hangzhou Station.

On the door of the Hall of the Heavenly Kings in Lingyin Temple is a couplet that says ‘Let us sit and wait upon the threshold, where we shall see another peak flying from afar. Let us welcome spring with a smile as the snow melts and the brook starts to flow once more.’

The memory of the great hall of the Heavenly Kings, with its double eaves, some sixty feet in height makes this return to the real world a little unsettling. Everything I have seen in China so far has been about size and grandeur but this has been a unique experience of splendor and serenity that rightly gives LingYin Temple its reputation of being the temple of “the soul’s retreat”.

Ling Yin Temple at sunrise

Ling Yin Temple at sunrise

I discovered the temple during my short but “soulful retreat” to the tranquil Amanfayun, the new Aman built in the spirit of a traditional village with the same stone pathways, shaded courtyards, lush groves of bamboo and tea fields which form such an essential part of my childhood memories at my grandfather’s village in Kerala. The astounding similarities and the discovery of Lingyin Temple “China’s own Tirumalai” made the stay at Aman Fayun’s village a sweet pilgrimage down memory lane.

For those who haven’t heard Lingyin Temple is a Buddhist temple of the Chan sect located north-west of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, People’s Republic of China. The temple’s name is commonly literally translated as Temple of the Soul’s Retreat. The monastery is the largest of several temples in the Wulin Mountains, which also features a large number of grottos and religious rock carvings, the most famous of which is the Feilai Feng (“the peak that flew hither”).

The monastery was founded in 326 AD during the Eastern Jin Dynasty by the Buddhist monk Hui Li, who came from India. He found that the peak resembled part of the Gradhrakuta Mountain in India. The temple is without doubt a premier showpiece in the West Lake environs and is notable also as one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples of China. At its peak under the Kingdom of Wuyue (907-978), the temple boasted nine multi-storey buildings, 18 pavilions, 75 halls, more than 1300 dormitory rooms, inhabited by more than 3000 monks.

The hall of the Heavenly Kings at the Temple (where I found this statue of Dritarashtra) is larger than the main hall at many temples I have seen, reflecting its status as the centre of Buddhism in south-eastern China. To the left of the courtyard stands the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats.

Hall of 500 Arhats

The Grand Hall of the Great Sage is triple eaved and stands 33.6 metres tall. It houses, as is traditional, a statue of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. The present statue was carved in 1956 from camphor wood in Tang Dynasty style and coated with 60 taels of gold. It is the largest wooden Buddhist statue in China. At the back of the main statue is a statue of Guanyin, backed by a large screen that features the carved images of some 500 Buddhist pilgrims and arhats. The building has a complex floor plan, shaped like a Buddhist swastika. Along the arms of the swastika are arranged the five hundred arhats as slightly larger-than-life bronze statues. At the centre, where the arms of the swastika join, stands a bronze canopy housing statues of four bodhisattvas representing the four cardinal directions. This is currently the tallest solid bronze structure in the world. The interior of the hall reaches about 30 metres, with a gold-painted ceiling featuring base relief images of traditional Buddhist symbols. Size and grandeur can leave you completely dumbfounded – a feeling I have had everytime I have stood before the idol of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirumalai.

As I related to friends over a bowl of congee that evening how the strong Indian connect I had discovered in Lingyin this weekend made this pilgrimage so sacred, a friend at Amanfayun narrated, that Feilai Feng, or “the flying Peak”, is so-named because legend holds that the peak was originally from India (with some versions suggesting that it is Vulture Peak), but flew to Hangzhou overnight as a demonstration of the omnipotence of Buddhist law. A large number of carvings dot the surface of the peak. More are located in various caves and grottoes throughout the peak.

In contrast to the temple experience of overwhelming size, splendor and grandeur is the simple charm and comfortable familiarity of Aman Fayun village situated on 14 hectares of natural surrounds and fresh village air. A spirit which transforms your soul and takes you on the rest of the journey of the “Soul’s retreat”. Or like for me – it’s very much like going home!

About Prasanna Bhaskar
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