White Horse Temple

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White Horse Temple
White Horse Temple

White Horse Temple is, according to tradition, the first Buddhist temple in China, established in 68 AD under the patronage of Emperor Ming in the Eastern Han capital Luoyang.

The site is located just outside the walls of the ancient Eastern Han capital, some 12-13 kilometres (7.5-8.1 mi) east of Luoyang in Henan Province. It is located approximately 40 minutes by bus No. 56 from the Luoyang railway station. The temple, although small in size in comparison to many other temples in China, is considered by most believers as "the cradle of Chinese Buddhism". The geographical landmarks to the south of the temple are Manghan mountain and Lucoche River.

White Horse Temple
White Horse Temple

The main temple buildings, a large complex, were reconstructed during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties. They were refurbished in 1950s, and again in March 1973 after the Cultural Revolution. It has numerous halls divided by several courtyards and manicured gardens, covering an area extending to about 13 hectares (32 acres). The display plaques in Chinese and English give ample descriptions of the Buddhist deities installed in various halls. Significant statues include Sakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya-the laughing Buddha, the Jade Buddha, and figures of saints such as Guru Avalokitesvara, Amitabha and arhats. Stone statues of the two white horses, which brought the Indian monks to China, and of two mythical lions are seen at the entrance. Under international funding, the temple has undergone many changes, both structurally and internally. The most recent cooperative project, with India, was completed in 2008 when the Sanchi Stupa and the Sarnath Buddha statue were erected.

Architecture in White Horse Temple

The temple faces south and is aligned along a central axis starting from the entrance gate followed by several halls and courtyards in succession. The temple compound covers an area of 200 mu (13 hectares (32 acres)), and faces south. A stone paifang (archway), a three door covered archway, has been recently built, 150 metres (490 ft) in front of the original gate. The stone horses at the front of the temple are in the Ming architectural style, representing the white horses which carried the scriptures and the Indian monks to China. Between the archway and gate lies a pool with fountains, crossed by three stone bridges. The two horses at the entrance gate facing each other are made of green stone dated to the Song Dynasty (960C1279).

Entering the temple today, a number of plaques (both in English and Chinese) and signposts are seen, which guide the visitors and pilgrims through the various halls of the temple. The plaques briefly explain the various statues installed in each hall. The halls are discerned in the inscriptions on the plaques, include the 'Hall of Greetings', 'Hall of Six Founders', 'Hall of jade Buddha', the 'Hall of Heavenly Kings', Hall of Mahavira and Hall of Changing Ge (repository of ancient scriptures).

White Horse Temple
White Horse Temple

In addition, the 'Cool and Clear Terrace' known as the 'Qingliang Terrace' is located behind the main hall, the place where the original sutras were translated. This terrace is amidst bamboo forest of old pine trees and has halls which are interconnected. Four sides of the terrace are piled with green bricks. The terrace also has the Kunlu Pavilion with halls on its east and west that house the statues of the two eminent monks, She Moteng and Zhu Falan. These two monks were buried inside the temple gate after they died here; the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, in front of their tombs, were once prominent sights of the Luo Yang City.

In the courtyard, large incense burners are kept for worshippers to light incense sticks, creating a pungent odour. In the Main hall and other halls where various images are worshipped, the altars are filled with fruit and other offerings made by the devotees. Multicoloured tapestry hang from the ceilings of the halls and lighted candles float in the basins, presenting a divine spiritual setting.

The smallest hall in the temple is known as the "Hall of greetings". It is a relatively new building that was built during the 9th year of Guangho period as replacement to the original hall which was burned down at the beginning of the Tonghzi period. This small hall has deified statues of three western paradise (Indian) saints. Amitabha, the founder, is at the centre and is flanked by Guru Avalokiteswara, the God of Mercy on the left and Mahashataprapta on the right.

White Horse Temple
White Horse Temple

The six founders of the temple whose statues are worshipped in the 'Hall of Six Founders' belonged to the sect of Chan. The names of the founders as displayed, in the order of their succession: Bodidharma, the first founder of the temple who hailed from ancient India where he was the 28th generation patriarch preaching the Buddhist philosophy, the second founder was Huike, the third founder was Sengcan, the fourth founder was Daoxn, the fifth founder was Hongren and the sixth founder was Huineng. Subsequent to Huineng, five schools of Buddhism and Seven Orders were established.

In the 'Hall of the Jade Buddha', an image of the Sakyamuni Buddha has been deified. The 1.6 metres (5.2 ft) tall image made in jade was donated in 1988 by a Chinese man settled in Burma. This elegantly sculpted and cherished statue has a precious stone embedded in its forehead. Before it was shifted to this temple in 1992, it had been stored in the Pilu pavilion.

The first large hall in the temple complex is known as 'The Hall of Heavenly Kings' where statue of Maitreya, known as the laughing Buddha, is the main deity deified right at the forefront of the hall. This statue is flanked on the eastern and western sides by four heavenly kings, each representing one fourth of the universe. The eastern side is ruled by Chigua (guardian of the State) carrying a Pipa, the western side is controlled by Guangmu (Sharp-seer) with a dragon in his hand, the southern direction is represented by Zengzhang (Growth Protector), carrying an umbrella and the northern direction is represented by Duowen (Knowledge Preserver), carrying a Pagoda. In addition, there is also a statue of Skanda (a high ranking heavenly general and defender of Buddhist law) with back to the Maitreya statue.

Hall of Changing Ge, built in 1995, is a repository of ancient scriptures and has more than ten types of Buddhist texts, including the Longzang Jing Dazong Jing, Dazeng Zong Jing, Tibet Jing and so forth. An ancient Buddha statue of China is installed at the centre of the repository. The making of this Buddha statue is traced to the Eastern Han Dynasty. The statue was misplaced at the early 20th century. However, it was later found in Thailand and was replicated in bronze into two 97 centimetres (38 in)) tall statues and then gilded. One of these is deified in the library and the other was sent to Thailand.

White Horse Temple
White Horse Temple

In the "Hall of Mahavira", there are statues of three principal Buddhas. The central image is of the Sakyamuni Buddha. This statue is flanked on the left by the Bhavisyajya guru and on the right by Amitabha; both these in turn are flanked by two heavenly generals named Weituo and Weili. Statues of 18 arhats adorn the side of the hall. All the statues were made in ramie-cloth during the Yuan Dynasty. The walls on both sides are adorned with carvings of ten thousand Buddhists. A statue of Jialan is installed facing north of the backdoor.

In the Main Hall, at the altar, there are three statues, the central statue is that of Sakhyamuni Buddha flanked by statue of Manjushri and Samantabhadra. There is a very large bell weighing more than 1 tonne (a figure of 2.5 tonnes is also mentioned), installed during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty, near the altar, which is still struck in time during the chanting of prayers by the monks. A community of ten thousand monks resided here during the Tang Dynasty. The inscription on the bell reads: "The sound of the Bell resounds in Buddha's temple causing the ghosts in Hell to tremble with fear."

The living quarters of the monks are situated in an exclusive pagoda, with restricted entry, called the 'Qiyun Ta', or Qiyun Pagoda. It is approachable after crossing the manicured garden and a bridge to the left of the main temple. This pagoda was built in the 12th century in the fifteenth year of the Dading reign of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). It is a 13 tiered, 25 metres (82 ft)), high cubic shaped brick tower. It has been renovated in subsequent periods.

Although the temple is open to the public, inquisitive visitors are under close scrutiny for security purposes. The Chief Abbot of the temple keeps in touch with the political situation in the country through a TV installed in his room. The monks are required to carry identity cards issued to each monks.

How to get White Horse Temple

Address: Old Luoyang, 12km (7mi) east of modern Luoyang, Henan Province, China

Transport: Take bus #56 or #58 from the Luoyang train station to Baima Si