The last thing to expect in Hunan countryside is a Japan connection, yet there it was…
In the eastern part of the Jiuxian Lake Scenic Area in You County, Hunan, just about as deep into the Chinese countryside as you can get without traveling back in time, there are two Buddhist temples.
One, the Baoning Si (宝宁寺), shares its name with much better-known temples, can be found on TripAdvisor – with zero advice, only its address… and was, apparently, quite important in introducing the branch of Buddhism we now know best under its Japanese name of Zen to Japan.
The other temple, the Qinglong Si, is new and consequently kitschy, but even more active as a place of worship and spiritual practice. And, it holds surprises, beyond its mere existence as a new construction so close to older ones, speaking to the resurgence of spirituality in China – with truly special Chinese characteristics.
The Baoning Si (宝宁寺) of Youxian, Hunan
“Turn in… No, not here, there!”.
We had only taken the little motorcycle, my wife, me, and her dad, to take the road around Jiuxiang lake to its northeastern end.
Or at least, we wanted to.
At another of the many, many inclines, the bike sputtered to a halt and refused to start anymore. Some waiting time and a phone call to a teacher colleague later, we continued in his car.
Rumbling up a tight road aside one of the Buddhist-temple-typical maroon walls, we got right to a little square in front of the Baoning Temple’s main structure to the left, a pond with stones across it to the right.
As it would turn out later, we had taken a side entrance that bypassed the actual entrance gate – and the ticket booths that would have been there.
Standing in front, there is what looks to be a second, Taoist, temple complex on the right, which we also had a quick look at. There would be memorial grave sites(?) along a path up the hill behind the temple, starting from there.
For the dead or the alive, that (part of the) temple was deserted, though.
Japanese? In Hunan?
Maybe up that path would have been a way to get to the building that had apparently been built by Japanese adherents of the Buddhist branch that has roots in the Baoning Si, but things went a bit as they apparently went for them, initially:
The first time a Japanese delegation came looking for that temple, it is told, nobody believed them the link they proclaimed was really true.
Japanese were not exactly popular, anyways, and with that – or maybe, with a few stories they had been told, the tales differ – they invested their money somewhere in Liling or another bigger city nearby.
We were also only told, and my father-in-law knew of, the structure they had actually built, somewhere up the mountain. Nobody knew quite where and how to get there, and of course we had to try and not bother the teacher colleague who had now driven us there too much, so that was a literal no-go.
No Temple for Tourists (Not That Way)
We did go into the Baoning Si, though.
Like the tourists we went in, if with respect for the faith and its traditions… and promptly, a temple caretaker inside raised her voice:
“You don’t go to a dance only to stand around and look. This is a temple, so don’t just stand there, Pray!”
So, we gave some donations, she gave some incense, and ritual bows were made, incense presented, all accompanied by a ritual ‘drumming’ on a wooden fish (Chinese temple block).
We’re still trying to decide whether we’re Buddhist or really not, by the way. But, good thing about Chinese religion: It doesn’t really matter what you are.
You take what is there, what you find appropriate, or what seems to be helping. If it doesn’t help, you don’t do it. No exclusivity here, just live and let live.
(For the sake of correctness, though: This has not always been the case, historically. As shown in part by the temple’s history…)
The (Japan-Related) History of Baoning Si
The Baoning Si, according to a little introduction at its entrance, was founded in 751 CE and is one of the earliest Buddhist temples in Hunan.
One of its major figures, if not its founder – except that the dates don’t match up all that well – was Kuang Changzi (旷长髭, who lived from 740-830 CE).
Caodong to Sōtō Zen
From Kuang Changzi, teaching lineages somehow extend into the lineage of Huineng (638-713) or, anyways, into the Caodong school of Buddhism which Dōgen (Daoyuan 道元) studied in China between 1223 and 1227 before returning to Japan and, through those teachings, setting up what would become the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism.
Somehow, I have been finding it impossible to really establish the exact relationships, but they sure are there, given that a Japanese delegation apparently visited in 1983 and a bit later, in 1985, a Changzi Kuang tower/pagoda was erected near the Baoning Si to commemorate this ancestor (also) of Sōtō Zen.
Those years of the Tang and Song Dynasties, from 618 to 960 and 960 to 1279, respectively, saw the Baoning Si as one of the major Buddhist temples of southern China.
In the Yuan, however, it was destroyed and rebuilt a bit later; more recent times also saw destruction here and the current structures are said to date from the Qing dynasty (1867, to be exact, if there really is any exactness in that.)
Aside from the Changzi Kuang Tower we missed, there are also other sights of note, nicely ranging from architectural ones to natural ones:
Tomb towers, other such towers, and – nowadays, not of historic value, I think – the statues in the temple halls, and the halls themselves.
There are also, for the natural, a spring that is said to have never run dry in a thousand years, the Guanyin taro around it and a (supposedly) 1000-year-old Cinnamomum micranthum tree. (These natural treasures are known as what the sign translated as the “Three Odds” – but the word used also means rare, remarkable, wonderful).
The Qinglong Si (青龙寺)
Another day we had gone other places in another way. Thus, I didn’t realize how far back we had come until I suddenly saw us pass by the Baoning Si.
Our last stop before heading home, though, had been another temple.
This temple, the Qinglong Si, would be even harder to visit, outside of the Jiuxian Lake Scenic Area’s touristy influence as it lies.
Where this Temple of the Green Dragon lies, though, is beautifully at the edge of rice fields, looking over toward the nearby ‘town’ of Huangfengqiao, climbing up a (quite steep) hillside.
New Temple, No History, But a Future
What is particularly interesting, though, is that I cannot really tell you anything more about it, in terms of its history, because it looks to basically have none: It was newly founded only recently, from what I was told.
Still, or perhaps even more so, it is active.
When we arrived, there were some people in Buddhist garb chanting ‘prayers’ in the temple’s main hall before returning those robes and, probably, heading right back to their house and farm work (they were all women, from what I can remember – I didn’t want to pry).
I had a look around the whole temple area, up to its top.
The view from there was nice…
…and it provided another kind of interesting tidbit to think about: Up there, there was something of a little chapel, similar to many a side building/hall of a temple.
Not quite so similar were the saints enshrined in that hall, though. But, you’ll have to watch the video to see those.
Pay and Pray
My wife and I paid our respects by giving a donation, and promptly landed her name in the temple’s records as a donor and ourselves in another “Now that you’re in a temple, get something out of it and pray!”-situation, with a full round of devotional paper and incense burning.
With that much help from above, or maybe within, on the story goes…