Heavenly Sights: The Twin Temples of Fanjingshan
What would heaven on earth look like? High above the clouds, the “Twin Temples” atop the sacred Mount Fanjing — “Brahma’s Pure Land” — in Guizhou, China might be the closest visual one could imagine.
Mount Fanjing, or Fanjingshan (meaning “Buddhist tranquility”), is the highest peak of the Wuling Mountains. On top of this peak is a solitary high spire called the Red Clouds Golden Summit, where the two Buddhist temples are perched.
The pair is separated by the Gold Sword Gorge, a narrow crevice adjoined only by a sturdy stone bridge. Together, they overlook the lush flora and fauna of the scenic mountain range.
The journey to the top of Fanjingshan is as much of an experience as seeing the temples themselves. To reach it, one must climb an astonishing 8,888 steps or ride a cable car directly to the so-called “Mushroom Rock.”
Along the way, visitors will enjoy not only spectacular views, but also ancient inscriptions that date as far back as the 15th century.
The dense forests covering the mountains are home to many unique plant and animal species, some of which are endangered. The rich biodiversity and religious history surrounding Fanjingshan led UNESCO to declare it as a World Heritage Site in 2018.
A Sacred Summit
The Wuling Mountains, which stretch over 8,000 feet above sea level, have been a holy site for Buddhists since the Tang Dynasty when Buddhism was first introduced to China. Over 50 temples have been built around the area, although the raids of the Buzhou Rebellion destroyed many of them during the late 16th century.
But the most notable among these temples, of course, is the twin pair atop Fanjingshan. Their construction dates back as far as 500 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, although it remains a mystery how they were built in the first place.
“The fact that these twin temples were built was nothing short of a miracle,” said an article from The Daily Mail.
One of the twin temples is dedicated to the bodhisattva Maitreya — also known as “the future Buddha” — and the other is dedicated to Buddha himself.
Fanjingshan is recognized as the dwelling place or bodhimaṇḍa (“place of enlightenment”) of Maitreya. According to Buddhist traditions, Maitreya will descend from the heaven called Tushita to help other beings on earth reach enlightenment.
Many recognize that the two adjacent temples represent two integral things: the temple of Buddha embodies the present, and the temple of Maitreya embodies the future. The layout and construction of these temples are already very symbolic in themselves: To get to “the future,” one crosses the bridge “from the present.”
Natural Wonders, Cultural Reserves
Beyond its majestic temples, the Wuling Mountains also boast a diverse ecological scene and remarkable rock formations. The Red Clouds Golden Summit and its narrow gorges (such as the Gold Sword) are already proof of that.
Many plant and animal species in the mountains are endemic — meaning they are only native to that specific area — and thus conserved to the highest degree. These include the unique Guizhou Snub-Nosed Monkey, as well as the endangered Forest Musk Deer and Reeve’s Pheasant.
The Guizhou province is also the homeland of many minority ethnic groups in China. According to an article by SHINE News, some have lived in the area for over a thousand years. Despite disturbances from commercialism and tourism projects, many villages have fortunately been able to preserve their rich traditions and cultures.
The article describes the surrounding areas as “a countryside painting writ large.” They are filled with wooden houses, quaint cottages, and a variety of crops grown carefully and organically.
Within these nearby villages are souvenir shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfast joints available to those who traverse the mountains for hours. There are also occasional community activities, such as feasts and bonfires, in which tourists are welcome to partake.
A Spiritual Trip and Pilgrimage
Despite all its splendor, Fanjingshan remains a relatively quiet and unvisited space. It is a popular tourist spot, but it is not as crowded as others because of how distant and isolated it is.
A pilgrimage to these holy sites requires a great deal of willpower and perseverance. Climbing to the top is no easy feat — some report stopping one-fourths, halfway, three-fourths through. A writer from a travel blog, who descended the steps after taking thousands, called it “a true test of character.”
Still, it’s a journey worth taking. The sight to behold is worth all the effort, and the way down is just as comforting. A trip to Buddha’s and Maitreya’s temples above the skies may just be the closest you can experience the divine on earth.