White Horse Temple: the First Buddhist Temple in China

The White Horse Temple (Baima Si), located 12 kilometers away from the east of Luoyang City, Henan Province, is the first Buddhist Temple in China and is respected as the “originating court” and the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism”.

White Horse Temple, LuoyangThe White Horse Temple was first built in 68 during the Eastern Han Dynasty, with a history of over 1900 years. According to legend, the Eastern Han emperor sent two envoys to India to learn Buddhism. After undergoing much hardship, the two envoys returned with two eminent Indian Buddhist monks, She Moteng and Zhu Falan, who brought with them a bundle of Buddhist sutras and figures carried by a white horse. In order to memorize the white horse, the temple was named the White Horse Temple. It is the first temple built since Buddhism spread to China in the Han Dynasty. It was in this temple that the first Chinese version of the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters was produced.

The White Horse Temple has been through many changes. What we see today is a rectangular courtyard complex reconstructed during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, with an area of 40,000 square meters. Outside the Temple Gate stand two green stone horses opposite to each other, which were made in the Song Dynasty.

White Horse Temple

Facing the south, the main buildings of the temple are arranged along a central axis that extends northward inside the entrance, including the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Hall of Great Buddha, the Hall of Mahavira, the Hall of Guidance, and the Vairocana Pavilion. Each hall stands higher than the one in front. On the east side of the halls and the pavilion are the Guest Hall, the Hall of Prayer, the Hall of Abstinence, and the living chambers of the monks. On the west are the Hall of the Founder of Buddhism, the Hall of Meditation, and the Preaching Hall. There are two opposite courtyards, and the complex as a whole is well proportioned. It has the flavor of traditional Chinese architecture and shows a distinction between more important and less important structures.

The Hall of Heavenly Kings is the first large hall inside the temple, in which the Maitreya Buddha was enshrined with clay-molded statues of four Heavenly Kings on both sides. The four Heavenly Kings hold respectively a pipa, a sward, a snake and an umbrella in their hand, which symbolizing favorable weather for crops and a prosperous and peaceful country for the people. Behind the Maitreya Buddha is the statue of Skanda Bodhisattva (Weituo), the protector of the Buddhist doctrine.

White Horse Temple-Hall of Heavenly Kings

Behind the Hall of Heavenly Kings is the Hall of Great Buddha. In the middle of the hall stands the statue of the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni, flanked by two of his disciples – Kasyapa and Ananda. On both sides of them stand the Bodhisattva of Wisdom – Manjusri (the one with sutra in his hands) and the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence – Samantabhadra. Behind the statue of Sakyamuni is the statue of Avalokitesvara.

White Horse Temple-Hall of Great Buddha

The third hall is the Hall of Mahavira, the most magnificently decorated hall in the temple with its roof carved with colorful lotus patterns. This hall houses three Buddhas: Sakyamuni, Medicine Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha, flanked by the eighteen Arhats. The wooden shrine in the hall houses over 5,000 statues of Buddha.

White Horse Temple-Hall of Mahavira

The fourth hall is the Hall of Guidance, where the Amitabha Buddha is worshipped. On his right and left are the Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva and the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva respectively. This hall is the smallest hall in the temple.

White Horse Temple-Hall of Guidance

Behind the bamboo forest is the Cool and Clear Terrace, which is known as the first place at which Buddhist sutras were translated in China. Four sides of the terrace are piled with green bricks. The Vairocana Pavilion on the Cool and Clear Terrace stands especially prominent and magnificent. Halls on its east and west house respectively the statues of the two eminent monks, She Moteng and Zhu Falan, who were buried inside the Temple Gate after they passed away. In front of the tombs are the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower.

White Horse Temple-Cool and Clear Terrace

East of the temple stands the Qiyun Pagoda, a 13-story square brick structure rebuilt in 1175 during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). It is 25 meters high and 7.8 meters long on each side at the bottom. The eaves are built with small, exquisite overlapping bricks. When one claps one’s hands 20 meters away from the pagoda, the echo reflected from the eaves sounds like frogs croaking. Qiyun Pagoda is known as the first pagoda in China.

White Horse Temple-Qiyun Pagoda

Two new temples have been built in recent years, which are the Indian Temple and the Thailand Temple. The materials of the temples were brought from the two countries. The styles of these two temples are exotic, with strong features of India and Thailand respectively.

The Hall of Great Buddha houses a huge bell from the Ming Dynasty, weighing 1.25 tons. The bell will be stroke to welcome the New Year, which attracts flocks of domestic and foreign tourists.

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