Tanzhe Temple: the Oldest Buddhist Temple in Beijing

The Tanzhe Temple (literally “Temple of Pool and Zhe Tree”) is located at the foot of Tanzhe Mountain in the southeast of Mentougou District in west Beijing, about 30-odd km from the downtown. It is the oldest Buddhist temple in Beijing, even older than Beijing city, and is one of the most important temples in the nation. The temple also enjoys a magnificent view of a beautiful natural environment dotted with many old trees and valuable flowers.

Tanzhe Temple, Beijing

First built in 307 during the Western Jin Dynasty, the Tanzhe Temple boasts a history of more than 1,700 years. Hence a common saying in Beijing that“First came Tanzhe Temple, then Beijing.” As there is a Dragon Pool behind the temple and cudrania trees (wild mulberry trees) on the mountain, the temple has been called Tanzhe (Tan refers to the pool while Zhe refers to cudrania trees in Chinese).

Sitting north and facing south, Tanzhe Temple is large in size, covering an area of 2.5 hectares. The layout of Tanzhe Temple is arranged in an orderly fashion, and it is said to have provided a model for the layout of the Forbidden City. At present, the Tanzhe Temple has 943 buildings, including 638 ancient architectural halls. Many of the buildings that can be seen in the temple were built during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, but pagodas and other structures from the earlier Jin and Yuan (1271–1368) Dynasties still remain.

The complex is divided into three parts. Along the middle road, which is also the central axis of the temple, there are the Archway, the Front Gate, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Grand Hall, Vairocana Hall. The eastern section consists of the courtyard buildings, including the Abbot’s Room and the temporary imperial palace where the emperor would stay for short trips away from the capital during the Qing Dynasty. The western section includes the Hall of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Hall of Dragon King and an ordination altar.

Tanzhe Temple-the Front Gate

The Hall of Heavenly Kings has six Buddha statues: a seated Maitreya Buddha in the middle and behind it stands the statue of Skanda (Weituo) holding a monster-fighting stick. To the side of the Maitreya Buddha are the four Heavenly Kings of Celestial Guardians, two on each side.

Tanzhe Temple-the Hall of Heavenly Kings

The Grand Hall is the largest hall inside the Tanzhe Temple and houses the statue of Mahavira and his students. This double-tiered roof hall is covered with yellow glazed tiles and has glazed green adornments on both sides of the roof.

Tanzhe Temple-the Grand Hall

Behind the Grand hall grow two gingko trees. The one to the east, planted roughly 1,000 years ago, is more than 40 meters high, and over 4 meters in diameter. Legend has it that in the Qing Dynasty, when a new emperor came to throne, a new branch would stretch out of the root, and gradually combine with the old main trunk. So it was named the “Emperor Tree” by Emperor Qianlong. The “Emperor Tree” is accompanied by another gingko tree in the west, which is a little smaller and has been called “Empress Tree”.

Tanzhe Temple-Emperor Tree and Empress Tree

The double-floored Vairocana Hall, located at the end of the central axis, is the tallest building in Tanzhe Temple. The carved brick artworks on the roof lend an air of enchantment to the pavilion.

The Floating Cups Pavilion, situated in the temporary imperial palace in the eastern section of the temple, is where the Emperor Qianlong and his courtiers used to play an interesting drinking game, during which people sat around the trough and floated a wine cup in it; whoever the wine cup stopped in front of would then drink the wine and recite a poem. This is a traditional Chinese custom.

Tanzhe Temple-the Floating Cups Pavilion

The Hall of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, in which Avalokitesvara is worshiped, is located at the end of the west side of the temple. This hall is also associated with Princess Miaoyan, the daughter of Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. The princess felt such guilt over the many lives taken in battle during her father’s reign that she converted to Buddhism and entered the monastery in order to do penance in her father’s name. It is said that the princess was buried within the temple’s grounds.

Tanzhe Temple has many famous scenes and rare and valuable historical site and culture relics, including the big bronze cauldron, the stone fish, stone tablet with poem of Jin dynasty, dragon beard bamboo and worship bricks of Princess Miaoyan.

The big bronze cauldron, sitting in front of the Hall of Heavenly Kings, is about 1.85 meters in diameter and 1.1 meters in depth. It was used as a cooking dish by the monks. There used to be three cauldrons in the temple, and this remaining one is the smallest. Then we can imagine how many monks there were in the Tanzhe Temple at that time.

To the west of the Hall of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is the Hall of Dragon King, in front of which hangs a deep green stone fish, which is 1.46 meters long and weighs 150 kilograms (331 pounds). This fish was cut from a huge stony meteorite that contains bronze, so that if you rap on it you could hear a metallic sound.

Tanzhe Temple-the Stone Fish

Outside the temple stand East and West Avalokitesvara caves, Dragon Pool and other scenic spots. Besides, you could also see the splendid Pagoda Garden with 75 pagodas in front of the Tanzhe Temple. It is the best-preserved Pagoda Forest with the largest amount of pagodas in Beijing so far. Among the so many pagodas, the best known is probably the one of Princess Miaoyan. Her tomb pagoda is a solid brick five-storey construction with elaborate eaves, with a smaller pagoda on each side for company.

Tanzhe Temple-the Tomb Pagoda of Princess Miaoyan

Address: Foothill of Tanzhe Mountain, south-eastern part of Mentougou District, Beijing.

Transportation: Take bus 336 at Fuchengmen Wai Station and get off at Pingguoyuan Station, transfer to bus 931 and get off at Tanzhe Temple.

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