Wu Wei

Fieldwork Note

In 2009 and 2013, I visited the provincial archive and several Buddhist sites in Sichuan. 

In the early twentieth century, some Han Buddhists attempted to introduce Tibetan esoteric Buddhism into their home communities. One of the best-known figures is the monk Nenghai 能海 (1886–1967). Nenghai, also known by his secular name Gong Jixi 龚缉熙, was born in Mianzhu 绵竹 county of Sichuan. Nenghai built a Tibetan Gelug lineage based in Jinci Monastery 近慈寺 in Chengdu in 1938. Over time, the lineage developed to include seven branches in Sichuan, Shanghai, and Mount Wutai. Holmes Welch (1968) has described Jinci Monastery as “a partial tantrification of Buddhism in China.” My study highlights the increasingly active interactions between Tibetan Buddhists and Han Buddhists, positioning Sichuan as a vital hub of intra-religious exchange in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Shaocheng Buddhist Society 少城佛学社

Before joining the monastic order, Gong Jixi was a prominent lay Buddhist leader in Chengdu. In 1916, he established the Shaocheng Buddhist Society 少城佛学社, which eventually became the largest lay Buddhist organization in Chengdu. Situated in Shaocheng Park 少城公园, the society relied on financial support from military commander Liu Yujiu 刘禹九. Xie Zihou 谢子厚 served as the society’s first president. Although the society no longer exists, it played an important role for circulating Buddhist books and hosting Dharma talks from the 1910s to the 1940s. Nenghai frequently invited monks and scholars from Chengdu and Chongqing to deliver lectures. Local scholars such as Liu Zhuyuan 刘洙源, Yu Shayuan 余沙园, and Shao Mingshu 邵明叔 also often gave talks at the society.

In 1924, Nenghai was tonsured at Wenshu Monastery 文殊院 in Chengdu. A year later, he received full ordination at the Monastery of Jewel Light 宝光寺 in the nearby Xindu 新都 County. Following his ordination, Nenghai pursued study in Tibetan Buddhism. He joined a group of monks led by Dayong 大勇 in Kangding, who were all attempting to study Tibetan Buddhism in Kham and Lhasa.

From 1928 to 1932, Nenghai studied Tibetan Gelug teachings under the guidance of the renowned Khangsar Rinpoche 康萨仁波切 at Drepung Monastery 哲蚌寺 in Lhasa. After his return to Chengdu, Nenghai built a Tibetan Gelug lineage based in the Jinci Monastery 近慈寺 in 1938. 

Jinci Monastery 近慈寺

Jinci Monastery was first constructed in 1590, during the eighteenth year of the Wanli era in the Ming dynasty (Huayang County Gazetteer 华阳县志). The monk Zhixian 智闲(系闲) was born into the Zhang family. Zhixian developed an interest in Buddhism and practiced meditation from a young age. Following the passing of his father and his mother falling ill, Zhixian converted his house into a Buddhist temple. This allowed him to be closer to his mother and care for her. Consequently, the temple was named Jinci 近慈, which translates to “Approaching Mother” or “Approaching Compassion.”

In the 1930s, Jinci Temple was a sub-branch 下院 of Wenshu Monastery 文殊院 in Chengdu. With the support from abbot Faguang 法光 of Wenshu Monastery, Nenghai and his disciples moved into Jinci in 1938. In the 1940s, Nenghai greatly expanded the temple. He built Yamāntaka Hall 大威德殿 in 1938, Tsongkhapa Hall 宗喀巴大师殿and a library in 1940, an altar for fire offering in 1941, and a translation center in 1945. He developed a graduated system of five halls, which include the Hall of Novice Monks 沙弥堂, the Hall of Learning Skills 学事堂, the Hall of Precept Learning 学戒堂, the Hall of Preparatory Practice 加行堂, the Vajra Hall 金刚堂. The temple accommodated over two hundred monks in the 1940s. Nenghai lived in Jinci Monastery until his relocation to Mount Wutai in 1953. 

Now it has two sites, the old Jinci Monastery 古近慈寺 and a recently constructed site Jinci Monastery 近慈寺.

The Iron Statue Temple 铁像寺

The temple was initially constructed in 1590 and underwent rebuilding in 1626 and 1739 (Huayang County Gazetteer 华阳县志). It derived its name from an iron statue of Sakyamuni Buddha enshrined in the temple.

Since the 1940s, Nenghai’s female disciples have resided in this nunnery, learning from him during his lectures at the nearby Jinci Monastery. The esteemed nun, Master Long Lian 隆莲 (1909–2006), served as the nunnery’s leader. It holds a significant position as an important nunnery in Chengdu.

The Temple of Cloudy Fog 云雾寺

This temple was initially constructed during the Jiajing era of the Ming dynasty by the monk Zhenkong 真空. It underwent reconstruction in 1793 and expansion in 1796 (Mianzhu County Gazetteer 绵竹县志).

In 1943, Nenghai established a retreat center at the temple, where he frequently conducted meditation retreats during the summer. Some of his senior disciples resided here, dedicating themselves to meditative practice. Sitting on top of the Mountain of Cloudy Fog 云雾山, it provided a serene environment for meditation. It is also known as the Temple of Cloudy Enlightenment 云悟寺.

Other Buddhist sites

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Nenghai collaborated with fellow monks to rebuild two significant Buddhist historical sites, namely the stūpa of the Efficacy of Piety 孝感塔 in Deyang 德阳 and the stūpa of the Rising Dragon 龙兴塔 in Pengzhou 彭州. Both sites held significant importance because they were believed to enshrine the sacred relics of the Sakyamuni Buddha.

In 1935, Nenghai, along with other monastic leaders such as Changyuan 昌圆 and Daowu 道悟, took the lead in the effort to reconstruct the stūpa in Deyang. This initiative is documented in “Announcement about Raising Funds to Repair the Xiaogan Stūpa in Deyang” (Nenghai, et al, 培修德阳孝感塔募捐序).

Initially built in 536, the Longxing stūpa was located in Longxing Temple 龙兴寺 in Pengzhou. In 1922, it suffered severe damage due to a lightning strike, resulting in the collapse of half of the structure. In 1943, Nenghai and Faguang 法光 called for its reconstruction and organized a committee, known as the Committee of Rebuilding the Yizhou Longxing Stūpa 重建益州龙兴塔筹委会, to oversee the project. In 1944, Nenghai and his disciples conducted the summer retreat at Longxing Temple 龙兴寺. They constructed a brick kiln, and the monk actively participated in making bricks.  They began erecting a 24-meter model stupa, inspired by the architectural style of the stūpa in Bodh Gaya 菩提伽耶, a sacred Buddhist site in India. The central structure is a large pagoda, surrounded by four smaller pagodas. The initiative is documented in “Original Conditions of Rebuilding the Rising Dragon Stūpa of the ancient Yi Prefecture” (Nenghai, 重建古益州龙兴舍利塔缘起). Buddhist followers contributed funds for the project, but construction was halted in the 1950s. The magnificent project of Longxing stūpa, following the patterns set by the model stūpa but much larger, was ultimately completed in 1992. 

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