A Guangzhou temple’s Indian roots

By Christopher Williams

Before my trip to Shaolin Temple, I visited Hualin Temple in Guangzhou. It would be at this temple that I learned about some of Damo’s travels in China prior to his time at Shaolin Temple. Damo’s contributions to Shaolin Kung fu are legendary, but his time in Guangzhou is not as well known, especially to people outside of China.

Hualin Si is one of Guangzhou’s historical treasures tucked away in the city’s old jade district. Standing on a history of approximately 1500 years, Hualin Temple is housed along a bustling street lined with many jade and jewelry shops. When I crossed through the small gate, I felt as though I was stepping back into time, back to the age when Guangzhou was a major stop on the Silk Road on the Sea. Like most Chinese temples, Hualin Si is a serene and tranquil space where fragrant clouds of sandalwood incense hover and float in the main court yard, as devotees salute Buddha along with other deities.

I felt compelled to visit Hualin Si when I discovered that it was founded by      Damo, a dark skinned monk from Southern India who was invited to China to teach about Buddhism. Damo, who is also known as Bodhidharma, founded Xilai Si during the years 521-526 A.D. Since Damo founded Xilai Temple before he arrived at Shaolin Temple, Xilai Temple now named Hualin Temple is also considered to be the birth place of Zen Buddhism.

In Mandarin, Xilai means visitor from the West. At that time, India –not Europe—was seen as the West. Considering that India is the birth place of both Buddhism, Yoga and other spiritual arts and sciences, many Chinese considered India to be an ancient holy land. For example, the Chinese classic, “Journey to the West” is a novel about the adventures of a priest Xuanzang and his three disciples, Monkey, Pig and Friar as they search for a Buddhist sutra.

Before my visit, I like many other Westerners had considered Shaolin Temple to be the the birth place of Chinese Zen, but with my visit to Hualin Temple I discovered that Damo spent some time in Guangzhou before heading north to Shaolin Temple. In fact, Damo first went to Guangxiao Si, the largest and most influential Buddhist temple in Guangzhou. Founded in 400 A.D., Guangxiao Temple covers approximately 30,000sqm. However, the Emperor Liang Wu of the Liang dynasty who invited Damo to China, did not like his Buddhist theory, so he left.

Damo was born in 483 AD and is considered to be a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who renounced nirvana in order to save others. Damo is very important to Chinese Buddhism because the Yoga exercises and techniques that he brought to Shaolin Temple in the 6th Century contributed to the development of Shaolin Kung Fu. Additionally, Damo is the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

When he arrived at Shaolin Temple, Damo saw that the monks were weak and were not in the best of health. Damo was so distressed by their condition prompting him to retire for nine years. Following this period of deep meditation, Damo wrote two Chi Gong classics, Yi Jin Jing (muscle/tendon changing classic) and Xi Sui Jing (marrow/brainwashing classic). These exercises were created to develop strength, calm the mind and to improve health. Originally only Shaolin monks had this information. Today, these and other Qi Gong exercises are practiced by millions of people around the world.

In 1654, during the Qing dynasty, Xilai Temple expanded and was renamed Hualin Si. Thereafter, it became one of the five largest Buddhist temples in Guangzhou.

One of its most attractive features is the Five Hundred Lohan Hall, which was constructed during the final year of the reign of Emperor Daonan. Before entering 500 Lohan Hall, there are the Four Guardian Kings of Heaven that stand at the entrance. One of the kings has a black face, an image that I have seen in other Buddhist temples across China and parts of Southeast Asia.

The design of Five Hundred Lohan Hall is in the shape of a square, possibly the outline of a Tangka. At the top of this path is a shrine, beautifully decorated with flowers, plants with three large sitting Buddhas. From each direction, one can see hundreds of lohan, sitting or standing in numerous positions. All of the lohan statues have different facial expressions and postures. A lohan is a disciple of the historical Buddha or can be a person who has achieved nirvana by freeing themselves from desire.

On a number of occasions, my Chinese guide pointed to the various lohan statues and stated, “Look! Some of these lohan resemble your ancestors. Look at the curly hair and the facial features. These are your people because you like them.” As I listened to him carefully, it was obvious that he really did not perceive Hualin Si to be authentically Han Chinese; the Indian roots were too conspicuous for him to ignore. As I looked around the hall, there were many Chinese people visiting or assisting with the maintenance of the complex. Moreover, the temple’s worshippers did not seem particularly concerned about Buddhism’s Indian roots, nor did they seem to care that I was the only foreigner in the temple that afternoon.

Finally, I saw more evidence of the Indian roots of Chinese Buddhism when I entered the shrine dedicated to Damo. Housed in a large wooden structure with a high ceiling and wooden columns, Damo’s statue sat in the lotus position with his hands gently resting in his lap. Placed below the statue was a table, which was decorated with many plants, flowers and other objects. Here was Damo looking very Indian. Looking straight at me, my guide said, “See, Damo is one of your ancestors.” Shortly before leaving, I lit several sticks of incense for Damo and my ancestors, reflecting on the powerful legacy that he has left the world.