China is home to one of the oldest cultures on earth and its massive empire is dotted with Buddhist Temples. When you step over the threshold of one of these temples in China, you are stepping into a space where time has no meaning. Buddhism has been practiced where you stand the same way since the building was painstakingly crafted. And that is fitting because Buddhists believe there is no end to time into the past or the future. Enter the zen gardens of China to lose yourself in a centuries-long history.
Enter the formal Hall of the Heavenly Kings to enter Lingyin Temple. Chan Buddhism has been calling the Wuling Mountains home for centuries. The scenic mountainous area around the temple is as big of a draw as the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat itself. You’ll have to pay for admission to the mountainous Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area which is full of bridges, monuments, statues, grottoes, artwork and pavilions. The temple is one of the largest and wealthiest in China. It’s evident by the luxurious and ornate grottoes that dot the campus of the monastery. The massive temple houses the Grand Hall of the Great Sage, Hall of the Medicine Buddha, Sutra Library, Huayan Hall and the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats.
Nanshan Temple is the largest Buddhist holy site built in China since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It features a towering 100-meter (350-foot) glimmering white statue built onto a rocky outcropping in the South Sea of Sanya. The entire temple grounds is built with this statue as the focal point. Its main entrance plaza, surrounded by ornate white spires, reaches out to the statue in the sea with a wide walkway. A beautiful pond sits on one side of the walkway and a cluster of woods to the other to funnel your attention to the impressive, three-sided statue. This South China temple is named after a popular Buddhist saying — “Good fortune is much as the East Sea; longevity is high as Nanshan”.
Tradition states that White Horse Temple was the first Buddhist Temple built in China. The ancient temple, built in 68 AD, sits just outside the walls of the ancient Eastern Han capital. It’s an easy visit for Western tourists because all signs are in Mandarin and English. The main temple has been refurbished many times over the years, notably during the Ming and Qing dynasties, in the 1950’s, and, most recently, in 1973 after the Cultural Revolution. Numerous halls are opened up to manicured gardens and galleries in this beautiful temple. Note the beautiful statues like the two mythical lions at the entrance, the Jade Buddha, and the world-famous Śākyamuni and Maitreya Buddhas.
Built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda stands seven stories tall in southern Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. It’s been renovated many times throughout the centuries and originally stood five stories tall. One of the many purposes for the building was to house the sutras, statues and figurines of Buddha brought back from India by the famous Buddhist traveler Xuanzang. While the interior of the temple is now modest, it is worth the trip to see this ancient building rise above the modern surroundings. There’s also an open-air mall just to the south that’s worth the wander.
A staggering 2,300 caves are carved into limestone cliffs that extend for nearly a mile in Henan province. The caves house some of the world’s finest examples of Chinese art from the Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907). A series of metal and limestone stairs can take you to the caves higher up on the cliff side so you can see all 110,000 statues, 60 stupas and 2,800 inscriptions. The statues and Buddhas are carved right out of the limestone that makes up the hillside. Essentially, each cave is an ornate relief that you can physically walk into. Incredibly preserved, this etched cliff sits right on the banks of the Yi River.
Right in the middle of the Buddhist firmament in Beijing, you’ll find the glittering Lama Temple. The former residence of Emperor Yong Zheng, the Lama Temple was converted into a lamasery in 1744. If you can only tour one temple in China, make it the Lama Temple. It is perhaps the most famous Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside of Tibet and for good reason. The Lama Temple, in the heart of one of China’s biggest cities, features breathtaking frescoes, a 18-meter (60-foot Buddha) in Tibetan form, tantric sculptures, gorgeous archways, handmade carpentry and dazzlingly ornate roofs. Split into five great halls, you could spend days wondering at the splendor.
The Shaolin Temple is the main worship temple of the 1,500-year-old Shaolin School of Buddhism. The temple and school have been the frequent target of attacks over the centuries, the last coming in 1928 when the school was set fire. The surviving halls have all been modernized for the tourist. Waves of selfie-seeking travelers fill the halls of this commercialized temple every day. Shaolin, famous for its practice of kung fu, is a bucket list destination for anyone practicing a martial art. The Wu Shu training center is a sight to see. You’ll be treated to a yard full of kung fu newbies breaking boards and tumbling for the crowds.
You’ll walk past Buddhist pilgrims prostrating themselves outside the ancient Jokhang Temple in the center of Tibet. They come to worship at the feet of the 1,300-year-old central golden Buddha statue, the most revered of all Buddha images in the world. The temple is maintained by Gelug School but they accept all different sects of Buddhists to worship here. The dazzling gold roof of the two-story temple houses a visually rich maroon and gold interior. Visit in the mornings when the temple is accessible and surrounded by pilgrims eating yak butter. In the afternoons, part of the temple is shut off and only visible through grates.
Built straight into a cliff 75 meters (246 feet) off the ground, the Hanging Monastery sure earns its name. Beautifully ornate Buddhist prayer houses are supported by long stilts punched right into the cliffside. Narrow bridges and small corridors connect theses houses of worship, but you won’t be able to visit for long. Large numbers of visitors have eroded the efficacy of the buildings’ foundations. Out of concerns for safety, the Hanging Monastery will shut out visitors sometime in the near future. Hengshan was built in 491. The fact that it has held up this long makes it an architectural wonder. And if you do get shut out, don’t worry. The temple itself is rather standard. It’s the marveling at precarious buildings etched into the cliff side that makes this temple unforgettable.
The most famous temple in China, the Temple of Heaven isn’t technically a temple at all; it’s an altar. You won’t find monks, worshippers or incense here. But you will find stunning architecture in the heart of Beijing. The walled-off garden has entrances on all four compass points. The garden inside is meticulously kept in straight-line sections as to eliminate the imperfections of nature. The temple halls rise impressively above the garden grounds. The buildings are round while their foundations are square to reflect the ancient belief that heaven is round and the earth was square.
The highlight of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a beautiful structure with a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace. Tourists are also attracted to echo walls where a whisper can be heard from one end to the other. The entire Confucian structure was built for an emperor known as the “Son of Heaven” who used the altar to pray for his people’s good furtune.