Although no longer officially sanctioned, Buddhism has had a remarkable impact on the beliefs of the Chinese people. And the people over many centuries have expressed their beliefs in many of the architectural wonders of the country. Once such monument is the Hanging Monastery (pronounced "Xuankong si" in Chinese) in Shanxi province west of Beijing. Shanxi means western mountains and accurately describes the topography of the region.
The Hanging Monastery lies approximately 75 km southeast of the capital of Shanxi Province, Datong, renowned for it's coal mining. Because of the poor soil and vegetation of the region, flash floods raging through the gorges frequently wiped out villages and crops. The Monastery was built into the side of the mountain of one gorge to protect the villages further down the valley from flooding. The climb up to the monastery is short but pretty steep. It is still a working monastery as well as tourist destination.
The structure is nearly entirely made of wood with colorful tiles to protect the roof. Along the eaves mythological figures protect the monastery from evil spirits. Although the original purpose of the monastery was to protect from flooding, looking out over the valley you can see the concrete dam that has taken over that task.
Inside the monastery, small rooms overlook the main courtyard, as the monastery continues the climb up the side of the mountain. The rooms with tiled roofs are ablaze with color in the typical Tibetan Buddhist style. As the narrow walkway winds it's way along the mountain's edge, the view as you look down reminds you of how precarious the whole place seems. Yet, it has survived, with modification, for more than 1400 years.
Inside the temple halls you find intricately carved figures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In one chamber nine bodhisattvas, 4 on one side, and five on the other, surround the monks and worshippers as they pray. In another hall, a large black Buddha in red and yellow robes awaits supplications from the faithful who make sacrifices of food, money, flowers and other belongings. In yet a third hall, another Buddha adorned in red robes sits flanked by two bodhisattvas. Its not just the Buddhist statues or figurines on the roof that capture your imagination of the spiritual presence in the monastery, even the ceilings are painted elaborately with traditional Chinese dragons, long revered to bring luck.
Although it hangs a little out of the way and off the beaten path, the Hanging Monastery is well worth the trip.
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