Thursday, June 4, 2015

Maijishan Buddhist Cave Grottoes

            Last weekend I took the opportunity visit Maijishan (Pronounced My-Jee-Shon), a pilgrimage site of Buddhist Cave Grottoes. It was absolutely spectacular. First of all, I got to experience the Chinese train system, and its delightful combo of timeliness and chaos. Then, since Maijishan is right outside the small city of Tianshui, I was able to see China beyond the big city. I realize now as well that I have not explained why I have had the opportunity to visit the City God Temple and this site. Here in Xi’an at Shaanxi Normal University, I am taking a class on the great religions and philosophies of Asia, and, as part of the class, I must visit many ancient temples and sites (not that I’m complaining, as I said before, they are fantastic, and it is a privilege to visit them). Now, back to Maijishan. One of the four Great Buddhist Cave Grottos in China, the site is a grandiose carven cliff face with over 200 grottos, accessible by a maze of stairs and walkways. Maijishan’s construction began in 384 CE during the later Qin dynasty, and was continually added to and repaired throughout the following years, from the Sui dynasty to the Qing dynasty. Anyway, I ramble, so here is a probably unnecessarily detailed description of the journey up the mountain:
As a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists, the ascent is a significant part of the pilgrimage process. The climb begins on a road up to the mountain, and although it may seem that such a modern implementation would mar the journey, the area still holds beautiful scenery in abundance, encapsulating the rolling, verdant mountains China is famous for. Additionally, Maijishan’s grandeur remains in view, and only becomes more impressive as you ascend. At the base of Maijishan lies a temple, unfortunately closed off to visitors, as well as signs and a visitor’s center for further information on the site. It is at this point that Maijishan, an enormous carved pinnacle, looms over you, the true size and grandiosity of its grottoes and statues in view. A short path of stairs leads to the base of the cliffs, and here, like a goat clings to the rock of a mountainside, the web of stairs and pathways provide an ominous indication of the next leg of your journey. As you navigate the stairways, the cave grottos pass by on the side, holes hewn directly into the wall. Most grottoes follow the same pattern, of a Buddha with its attendants and Bodhisattvas by its side. Many of the grottoes are painted as well, in colors whose vibrancy has survived centuries. Near the top of Maijishan, a row of much larger grottoes are sunken in, the row of Buddha statues flanked by two red-skinned figures, named Ha and Heng, who are often referred to as the guardians of Buddhism. Above each guardian are smaller grottoes containing the figure of a seated Buddha, known as Maitreya, or the “Buddha of the Future.” Continuing through the stairways, on one side the figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas stare eternally past you at mountains the color of jade, the tree shrouded mounds unfolding before their eyes. The stairways end and a path winds you back to your departure site, the temple at the foot of the mountain.

            So, that is Maijishan. Ancient, beautiful, and above all, culturally significant in its perseverance as a pilgrimage and prayer site. It was undoubtedly the best adventure I’ve been on here yet, and I am psyched to be able to visit another one of the great cave grottoes in Luoyang in a couple weeks!

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