Nanhua Temple is a famous ancient Chan Buddhist temple, acknowledged as the ancestral home of the religion in China. Buddha Huineng first introduced Chan sect of Buddhism here. In November 2002, Nanhua Temple celebrated its 1,500th anniversary since foundation. Many Buddhists and experts acknowledge that Nanhua Temple has a special cultural significance, a typical temple architectural style and an abundance of rare historical relics, including Altar Sutra, buildings, sculptures, gardens and tablet inscriptions. It meets the requirements of World Cultural Heritage in terms of history, culture, science, and artistic value, and is therefore qualified to apply for listing.
The Special Cultural Significance
Nanhua Temple was founded in 502 AD by an Indian monk. The religious group has branches in many countries throughout Southeast Asia, Europe and America, and also in India, the cradle of Buddhism. It was among the first group of key temples acknowledged by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in 1983, and was designated as one of “China's key cultural relics for state protection” by the State Council in July 2001.
Nanhua Temple is famous for being the origin of the Chan sect of Buddhism. The creation of Chan Buddhism is the greatest event in China’s 2000-year history of Buddhism. Huineng is the leader of Chan Buddhism. He couldn’t read nor write but his thoughts were collected in the Altar Sutra by his student Fahai and others. The Altar Sutra has been kept in Nanhua Temple up until today. It is the first sutra to be written by a Chinese person and defines its own unique religious system.
According to Prof. Huang Weizong of Zhongshan University, Huineng’s thoughts not only embody the Chan Buddhist system, but also create its own system, different from Confucius’ Confucianism and Lao Zi’s Taoism. Due to his wide influence throughout the world and his typical eastern style of culture, Huineng is respectfully addressed as one of the world’s greatest ideologists. His Chan Buddhism enjoys equal fame with Confucius’ Confucianism and Lao Zi’s Taoism. The ten greatest ideologists of the world are represented in the British Library, including the so-called “Three Eastern Saints” - Confucius, Lao Zi and Huineng.
After its creation, the influences of Chan Buddhism spread even further and five new branches of the sect were formed. They not only replaced other Buddhist sects domestically but also made their way overseas. The sphere of influence spread to Korea in the ninth century and to Japan in twelfth and thirteenth century, and soon became part of mainstream culture in both of these countries. Later Chan Buddhism spread from East Asia to Southeast Asia and then to Europe and America. After Huineng’s Parinirvana, his mummified body was kept in Nanhua Temple. Now, foreign believers of Buddhism make a pilgrimage here every year.
The Numerous Rare Cultural Relics
The architectural style of Nanhua Temple is unique. In the Hall of Sakyamuni, there are the three golden Buddhist statues over 8.13 meters high (26. 7-foot-high) and 500 arhats painted on the four walls, all artistic relics. In the Hall of the Sixth Master are the mummies of Huineng, Master Hanshan and Master Dantian.
There is the Zhuoxi fountain, sometimes called the Jiulongquan fountain (meaning nine dragon fountain), behind the temple. A clear stream continuously flows through the temple year after year. In front of the fountain are nine yews, each regarded as a “living fossil.” One of them is 40 meters (131.2 feet) high and over 500 years old, proving to be the highest tree of its kind in the world, according to an expert.
Now, Nanhua Temple has more than 300 relics listed under first-class state level protection, including the mummy of Huineng, the imperial decrees of the emperors from the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties, imperial Buddhist cassocks, the Qing Dynasty’s Dazangjing (Tripitika), the Kwan-yin iron casting, the wood carving of Arhats in the Northern Song Dynasty and the Southern Song Dynasty cooper bell.
Applying for World Cultural Heritage
The uniqueness of these cultural relics has been confirmed by many experts and scholars, and they have suggested Nanhua Temple applying for World Cultural Heritage listing.
Fang Litian, a professor at the Remin University of China, said it’s significant that Nanhua Temple apply for World Cultural Heritage. If it’s successful, it will not only raise the academic profile of the ancestral home of Chan Buddhism, but also ensure the temple is better maintained, developed and protected. At the same time, World Cultural Heritage listing will make Shaoguan and Qujiang County more famous and advance tourism, economics and communications with foreign countries.
Monk Shichuan Zhengda, the current abbot of Nanhua Temple, applauds the idea of applying for the World Cultural Heritage. He pointed out that it will be a great contribution to Buddhism throughout the world if it succeeds.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin, January 4, 2003)