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China Travel Guide: The Soul's Retreat, Lingyin Temple


  • China
  • Travel to China
  • China Tours

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CTS Horizons is the UK's number one operator for China and beyond. We offer superb private journeys and tailor-made holidays to the world's most fascinating destinations!

Located right outside Hangzhou and set not far from the famous West Lake, the Lingyin Temple (灵隐寺) is one of the most famous scenic spots in the area. It is one of the most famous and oldest Buddhist temples in China.

1. History
The first temple was founded during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 - 420AD). The first temple was built by an indian monk called Huili.  The name translated in English as Temple of Soul's Retreat, was picked to symbolise the beauty, tranquillity and spiritual nature not only of the temple itself but of all the nature surrounding it.
At its point of maximum expansion, the temple reached during 900s, the temple counted nine multi-storey buildings with 18 pavilions and 72 halls. Also, around 1300 dormitory rooms were built to host over 3000 monks. Many of the rich Buddhist carvings in the Feilai Feng grottoes and surrounding mountains also date from this era.
During the Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the Temple kept its status as one of the most important in China. Throughout the years though, the temple was plundered and damaged many times. It was subsequently rebuilt 16 times and the last one happened during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) whose buildings are the ones still standing today. After the fall of the last Dynasty, thanks to its importance and long history, Lingyin temple was preserved as well by the Party's institutions.
2. Surrounding

The area around the temple called Wuling Mountains area is where the Chan (禅) Buddhism flourished. Chan is a branch of the Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed majorly during the Tang and Song Dynasties. It also developed in Vietnam and later reached Korea and Japan in the 13th century where they called it Zen, like is more known nowadays.

Different smaller temples were (or still are) located in the same area. 
Along with the temple, in the same area there is also another spot called Feilai Feng. Upon entering, on the left just on the opposite shore of a small creek, a series of several ancient sculptures, grottoes and alcoves with different Buddhas' representations dot the entire hill. Some of these statues are invaluable and hundreds of years old as some of the trees around the temple's garden.
The main grotto contains the oldest statue dedicated to Bodhisattva Guanyin and it is illuminated through a small opening in the ceiling that lets the sunlight in. While you walk along the creek to reach the temple they contribute to the absolutely unique atmosphere that this place conveys.
3. Structure and features
After walking up the pathway on the right appears the first building: The Hall of the Heavely Kings.  The main axis of Lingyin going from south to north includes five-halls. In the front a plaque written by Kangxi Emperor can be found with the characters 云林禅寺, meaning  'Chan temple of the Clouds and Forests'.
Here there is also the Maitreya Buddha or the Laughing Buddha. Then at the back, there is the Skanda Buddha. This statue is 800 years old and thus the oldest and most important in the entire temple. Against the side walls of this hall are the Four Heavenly Kings.
Proceeding out of the back of the Hall of four Heavenly Kings and through the large courtyard where many people everyday come to pray we reach the Mahavira Hall. To the left of the courtyard stands the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats. The Grand Hall of the Great Sage is bigger than the previous one, and the building taller. It houses, as is traditional, a statue of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. This one is the largest Buddha wooden Buddha statue in China, differently from others is quite recent, and was carved in 1956 and then coated in gold. At the back an impressive wall, rich with numerous carvings of Buddhist personalities.  
Following there is the Hall of Bhaisajyaguru that contains the statue of the Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, also called the Medicine Buddha. Then, the Buddhist Texts Library. It contains numerous precious relics and finds. Right after the library is also the Huayan Hall. 
Finally, the building on top, is called the Avatamsaka Hall, or Huayan Hall. This massive building houses three huge Buddhas statues painted in white that represent the sages of the Huayan Sutra, called Shakyamuni, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra. These last two structures were built between 2000 and 2002.
Despite not being always on the main route that tourists take, especially when they come to China for the first time, Lingyin Temple is definitely a place that should be added to any list as one of the most impressive examples of Buddhist Culture you will ever see. Check out our itineraries such as Water Towns & Gardens of China which includes or contact us for more information.



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