I have always held a deep appreciation for Chinese culture. I find it fascinating that one nation can have such a large influence in the world and that until today, it has given rise to so many powerful leaders and thinkers. If you look at its neighbouring countries like Korea, Japan and Vietnam, you will see there is a strong Chinese influence in their food, architecture, clothing and even their language. When Chinese migrate all over the world, they carry their beautiful Chinese culture with them and they keep the traditions alive no matter where they are. To me this is an indication of a strong group of people who are very proud of their history and traditions.
Chinese history itself is very vast, complex and interesting. To study it can take a whole lifetime because it spans thousands of years. As a result, many dynasties and different types of emperors have emerged over the years to rule this vast empire. Some have faded into obscurity, some were tyrants, some had reigns which were rocked by scandal or other less-than-positive reasons. But one of the most famous emperors in Chinese history is Emperor Kangxi whose reign was characterised by stability, progress and development.
Emperor Kangxi (or K’ang-hsi) is known as one of China’s most benevolent rulers who is known and loved by the Chinese people until today. Unlike other emperors who are usually painted in military uniform, Kangxi is usually depicted as a scholar with a gentle expression and surrounded by books, or at a desk or holding a pen. Kangxi sponsored many literary works, monasteries, monks and teachers all over China, Tibet and Mongolia and he was considered extremely modern for his day because he also gave religious freedom to all religions. Kangxi is known to have given permission for Christian missionaries to carry out their activities in China. Given the scope of his works, I dare say he can be considered a kind of Dharma king.
I had my students do some research into Emperor Kangxi’s life which I wish to share with all of you here. As you can see, many of the monasteries that Kangxi built continue to exist today. Have you visited these places? Do you wish to go in the future? What do you think about Kangxi’s life? Please do let me know in the comments below.
Born to Emperor Shunzhi, Emperor Kangxi was the second and longest reigning emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty. He was instrumental in developing China after the war against the Ming Dynasty, and was very well known by all his subjects to be a humble and hardworking emperor. It was recorded that Emperor Kangxi would spend many hours during the day dispatching orders to his subjects to further improve the country and would work into the late hours of the night to make sure that the documents which needed his approval could be dispatched the next morning. As Emperor Kangxi spent less time on himself, he had fewer concubines compared with the other Qing Emperors.
Although not recorded in history, Emperor Kangxi’s father, Emperor Shunzhi had deep inclinations for the Dharma and planned to leave his throne shortly after Emperor Kangxi’s birth. He wanted to become a monk in Wutaishan to make up for the wrong deeds he did in the past. Fearing disgrace would befall the young Qing Dynasty, the Empress announced the sudden and unfortunate death of her husband. Thereafter it was announced that Emperor Kangxi was to take over Emperor Shunzhi’s throne at the tender age of six. As the second Qing monarch was still young, a regent helped rule the country until the young emperor came of age.
After years of war and chaos, Kangxi’s reign brought long-term stability and wealth throughout China. Masterful in uniting the Court to minimize plotting and unrest, Emperor Kangxi encouraged the Mandarins to focus on literary works, for example compiling information into vast encyclopedias and into the Kangxi Chinese dictionary. When dealing with his army, Emperor Kangxi was said to have shown care to his rank soldiers and yet exhibited masterful command of his generals in his self-reflection during his military campaigns.
Emperor Kangxi was known to be a great patron of the Buddhadharma and was not only a sponsor of the teachings, but had a personal interest in them too. Due to his early exposure to Buddhism from his elders, Emperor Kangxi was fascinated with the Buddha’s teachings especially that of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. He exhibited an instinctual compassion for all living beings he encountered and when interacting with his subjects, never carried himself with the arrogance of an emperor. As a result, he became the emperor of all of China both in position and in spirit.
It is said that Kangxi visited Wu Tai Shan and its Gelug temples for a record six times. He sponsored the writing of the Dragon Sutra using gold ink, which documented the concise Prajnaparamita teachings and which is still preserved today. Emperor Kangxi was also a sponsor of H.H. the 7th Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso’s entrance into Kumbum Monastery and bestowed the golden seal of authority upon him.
Given his benevolent nature, generous sponsorship, unceasing patronage and personal interest in Buddhism, it is no surprise that many luminaries and Buddhist masters recognised Kangxi to be more than just a secular Emperor. It was Lobsang Tamdin who first determined Kangxi’s connection with Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen and Manjushri when he wrote in his bebum (collected works on a subject) about a vision he had of Jamgon Sakya Pandita, Lama Tsongkhapa and Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.
In the vision, Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen made a prophecy which Lobsang Tamdin took to mean that as soon as Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen passed away, the Emperor of China would be born. This was later confirmed by an entry in Sumpa Khenpo’s Chronology of Tibet for the Wood Sheep year (1655-1656). The entry, which is preceded by a symbol denoting an entry for a person’s birth, states that “The Kangxi Emperor [is born and] becomes famous as the reincarnation of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen.”
Lobsang Tamdin believed Kangxi to be the reincarnation of Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen and an emanation of Manjushri, something which has been confirmed by many other masters. In the preface of one of the largest projects sponsored by Kangxi, the Mongolian Red Kangyur (1718-1720), it is stated: “The Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri, transformed himself into the occupant of the “Fearless Lion Throne of Gold” to appear as none other than the sublime ‘Kangxi-Manjushri.’”
CONTRIBUTION TO BUDDHISM
Known to be an accomplished scholar himself, Emperor Kangxi’s reign saw the promotion of the Buddha’s teachings throughout China. During his reign, the Tibetan scriptural canon, the Kangyur, was published from woodblocks, first in Tibetan and then in Mongolian (1718-1720).
In 1669, Kangxi sponsored the Tibetan Dragon Sutra, and commissioned for this text to be hand-written in gold ink. The Dragon Sutra is a Tibetan translation of all “teachings” and “laws” by Shakyamuni himself, and known as the Bkav vgyur (Translation of the world) portion of the Tibetan Tripitaka. It consists of six divisions, namely Rgyud (esoteric teachings), Sher phyin (perfection of wisdom), Dkon brtsegs (collected Mahāyāna sutras), Phal chen (flower-garland), Mdo sna tshogs (collected sutras), and Vdul ba (monastic discipline).
With more than 50,000 leaves in 108 cases, this voluminous collection of manuscripts was written in standard Tibetan script with saturated gold pigment on made-to-order cobalt-blue stationery. The front and back boards were decorated with 756 Buddhas, gorgeously and solemnly painted in colors. The front and back sutra boards are decorated with 756 color-painted Buddhas and inlaid with jewelry, covered by sutra screens embroidered in five colors – red, blue, green, white, and yellow – for protection.
In 1683 itself, Kangxi went on two pilgrimages to Wutaishan. In the spring, he sponsored the first of many ceremonies dedicated to the longevity of the Imperial Family. Upon his return in the fall, he again made offerings for prayers dedicated to the Grand Empress Dowager’s longevity. The latter ceremony was the most commonly listed ritual sponsored by the Imperial Family during the Kangxi reign. It is Emperor Kangxi who started the tradition for Tibetan Lamas to engage in pujas in order to lengthen the lives of our loved ones, and also for the flourishing of his kingdom.
MONASTERIES BUILT BY KANGXI
As one of Dharma’s great patrons in China, Kangxi was also responsible for the establishment, preservation and restoration of many important Buddhist temples and sites of pilgrimage in China, Tibet and Mongolia, many of which exist until today.
Location: Wutaishan, Xi’an, China
Guangren Lama Temple, located in the north-west City Wall of Xian, is the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Shaanxi Province. Built in 1705 when the Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) patrolled to Shaanxi, this temple was a Xanadu for the Grand Lama of the Northwest and Tibet when he passed through Shaanxi along the road to Beijing to meet with the Emperor. It is a witness to Tibetan and Han nationality’s cultural communication and national solidification.
Guangren Lama Temple was first rebuilt in 1952. After that, its main architecture, including the Mahavira Hall, the Sutras Keeping Hall and the Bodhisattva Hall among others, were brand new. In 1983, it was cited as a National Key Buddhist Monastery in the Han nationality region by the State Council. In 2006, Guangren Lama Temple once again underwent extensive repairs and during this time, it expanded to the large scale that it is at present.
The whole temple covers an area of 2.6 acres. Upon entering the temple, the main architectural features fall into place from south to north as follows: the Mountain Gate, the Devaraja Hall, the Mahavira Hall, the One Thousand Buddha Halls and the Sutra Keeping Hall, while on both sides there are flanking halls, wing-rooms and cross-yards.
The original Mountain Gate had already been destroyed before the restoration. Carved with beams and beautiful paintings, the new gate looks magnificent. As the main entrance door is closed, visitors should enter the temple from the small eastern wicket. Inside the Mountain Gate, there is a Zhao Bi (a stone wall) engraved with the embossments of Buddha and the eighteen arhats. It is a grand brick-carved piece of architecture. Across the Zhao Bi, you will see a tall hexagonal pavilion with an imperial stele of ‘The Guangren Lama Temple Stele Erected under the Imperial Order’ written by Emperor Kangxi who erected it. There are wells with stone rails on both sides of the stele.
Eight Treasures in the Temple
- The Guangren Lama Temple Stele Erected under the Imperial Order’ written by Emperor Kangxi
- The original stone sculpture of ‘The Guangren Lama Temple Stele Erected under the Imperial Order’
- The Ming versions of ‘The Heart of Prajna Paraminta Sutra’ in 6,600 volumes
- The marble lotus vat bestowed by Emperor Qianlong
- The lotus throne of the Tang Dynasty for the statue of 12-year-old Buddha Sakyamuni
- A pair of nanmu dragon lanterns awarded by the Empress Dowager Cixi
- A sandalwood throne of the Qing Dynasty in the Grand Hall
- A hand-engraved gold Manda from Nepal
Location: Zhongdian, Yunnan, China
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery was built by the Great 5th Dalai Lama in the year 1679, during the reign of the famous Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi, who would frequently visit to oversee the construction of the monastery. It is said that the Great 5th Dalai Lama decided upon the location of the monastery through divination and gave it the name Ganden Sumtseling. “Ganden” indicated that this monastery would inherit the same pure doctrine of Ganden Monastery which was founded by Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelug tradition.
The monastery quickly became one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries and as such, it was also a monastery that practices Dorje Shugden, which all Gelugpas acknowledged as the supreme protector of the Yellow Hat teachings.
Although designed to look similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, due to the absence of certain parts of the Potala Palace’s blueprints, Sumtseling does not exactly resemble the actual Potala Palace, as it should. There are six main structures, which include eight monastic colleges. The main gompa (prayer hall) is a five-storey Tibetan-style building with the capacity to house more than 1500 monks. It is accessed through a 146-step staircase that connects to the entrance gate.
Within the gompa stands a golden eight-meter tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue. On the main altar, butterlamp offerings are lit all year round. Sumtseling Monastery has two main lamaseries, Jikang and Zhacang, both of which appear as Tibetan-style watch towers and are surrounded by eight sub-lamaseries and dormitories for resident lamas and monks.
The rich history of Sumtseling Monastery is depicted in the many Buddhist treasures that are stored in this monastery. Many rare Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves and also scriptures that were used by the great Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas of the past are still preserved in Sumtseling. It seems only fitting that Emperor Kangxi, who was known to be a scholar, would play such a significant role in the physical preservation of significant and precious Buddhist texts.
One of the most famous Buddhist treasures at Sumtseling is the eight gold-covered sculptures of Shakyamuni, which were made during the time of the 5th and 7th Dalai Lamas.
Up until today, Kangxi’s sponsorship of Sumtseling continues to have an effect on the preservation of the Dharma. Instead of being another tourist destination, Ganden Sumtseling continues to be an active Buddhist monastery and the study and practice of Dharma remains strong there to this day. Pilgrims will see many study rooms which are designed for young monks from the age of five years old, studying the Buddhist canons and philosophies.
Location: Mount Büren-Khaan, Selenge Province, Northern Mongolia
In his will, Kangxi bequeathed 3,860 kilograms of silver with instructions to his successor that it be used to construct a monastery as a final resting place for Zanabazar (1635-1723). Zanabazar was a spiritual mentor to Kangxi and also the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, or spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for the Khalkha in Outer Mongolia. Thus, with this silver, Amarbayasgalant was established and sponsored by Kangxi’s successor, the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng and later completed under his successor the Qianlong Emperor.
Tradition holds that while searching for an appropriate site to build the monastery, the exploratory group came across two young boys, Amur and Bayasqulangtu, playing on the steppe. They were inspired to build the monastery on that very spot and to name it after the two children, Amur-Bayasqulangtu. More likely, the location was chosen because it stood at the place where the lama’s traveling Da Khuree (his mobile monastery and prime residence) was encamped at the moment of his death. Construction took place between 1727 and 1736 and Zanabazar’s remains were transferred there in 1779.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery is dedicated to Zanabazar’s main tutelary deity, Maitreya. Unlike Erdene Zuu Monastery, which is an ensemble of temple halls of different styles, Amarbayasgalant shows great stylistic unity. The overriding style is Chinese, with some Mongol and Tibetan influence. The monastery resembles Yongzheng’s own palace Yonghegong in Beijing, later converted by his son the Qianlong Emperor into a Buddhist monastery. Originally consisting of over 40 temples, Amarbayasgalant was laid out in a symmetrical pattern, with the main buildings succeeding one another along a North-South axis, while the secondary buildings are laid out on parallel sides.
Amarbayasgalant was one of the very few monasteries to have partly escaped destruction during the Stalinist purges of 1937, after which only the buildings of the central section remained. Many of the monks were executed by the country’s Communist regime and the monastery’s artefacts, including thangkas, statues, and manuscripts were looted, although some were hidden until more fortunate times.
Today, only 28 temples remain. Restoration work began in 1988 with funds provided by UNESCO and private sources and some of the new statuary was commissioned in New Delhi, India.
Pule Temple (Temple of Universal Joy)
Location: Chengde, Hebei, China
When the Kangxi Emperor discovered the site that would become Chengde in the early 18th century, the most notable natural feature was an odd phallus-shaped rock that came to be known as Qingchui Peak. Visible for many miles around, the peak invited easy comparison with Mount Sumeru of Buddhist cosmology, which is considered to be the axis mundi of the Buddhist world. The presence of a nearby substitute for Mount Sumeru may have played a critical role in Kangxi’s decision to set up a hill station in what would become Chengde. However, the most suitable region for an encampment in the area lay in a wide valley several kilometres to the southwest of Qingchui Peak. This did not deter Kangxi, who established a symbolic connection to Qingchui by creating the artificial Jinshan hill at the centre of his encampment. The temple on Jinshan peak, filling in as an artificial Mount Sumeru / Qingchui peak, formed an adequate substitute around which a summer palace and several prominent temples were constructed by the time of Kangxi’s death.
As Philippe Foret points out in his book “Mapping Chengde”, the orientation of the Kangxi-era temples was cosmologically defective in that they were not arranged around the Jinshan axis. Perhaps to compensate for this, Emperor Qianlong decided to construct a new temple exactly along the axis linking Jinshan and Qingchui Peak. A suitable site that fit the criteria lay midway between Puren Temple (built by Kangxi) and An Yuan Temple, built in 1764 by Qianlong. Work on Pule Temple began in 1766 at Qianlong’s request.
The temple is constructed in the form of a Tibetan mandala built upon three square platforms. The mandala design was likely chosen for several reasons. First, it was a symbol familiar both architecturally and spiritually to the Mongol tribes whose visit to Chengde the temple was intended to commemorate. Secondly, it was a sensible design for marking a point along the axis defined by Jinshan Temple and Qingchui Peak, since the entire world was often depicted as a mandala form with its central axis around Mount Sumeru. In this case, Pule Temple created a third and central axis mundi at Chengde and reoriented the entire landscape around it. Qingchui Peak, Jinshan Temple, and the other outer temples became satellites in Pule Temple’s orbit.
The mandala symbolism extends to the superstructure of the temple. The three square bases are surmounted by a double-tiered conical roof that mimics the form of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Within the circular structure is a wooden mandala shrine, within which the god Samvara stands in sexual union with Vajravarahi, symbolizing the intimate connection between wisdom and compassion. The ceiling of the structure above the mandala is decorated with a dragon figure representative of the Emperor, signifying Qianlong’s ambition to establish himself as the centre of the Buddhist world. Qianlong’s Manchu ancestors had long aspired to a prominent position in the Buddhist pantheon, with the first leader of the Manchus, Nurhachi, declaring himself to be an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri (from which the word Manchu may have been derived). Qianlong continued this tradition by publically declaring himself to be a reincarnation of Manjushri. This enabled him to exert the spiritual authority necessary to depict himself as a dragon overarching the Buddhist world, while allowing him the temporal authority to claim suzerainty over the Tibetan Buddhists tribes at the western limits of his empire – the very subjects Pule Temple was intended to placate.
Location: Zhoushan, Zhejiang, China
Fayu Temple, also called Stone Temple, is one of three major temples in Mount Putuo. Mount Putuo is an island southeast of Shanghai, in Zhoushan prefecture of Zhejiang province, China. It is a renowned site in Chinese Buddhism, and is considered the bodhimanda of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), a revered Bodhisattva in many parts of East Asia.
Fayu is the second largest temple on the island, with Puji Temple being the largest. This temple is famous for its ancient architecture, delicate wood carvings and inscribed calligraphy by ancient emperors. It is located on the left top of the Baihua Hill, close to 1000-Pace Beach. You can go there with the cableway or walk up the hill.
Its history reportedly goes back to 1580, during the Ming Dynasty. As a monk, Da Chi prayed to Guanyin at the Cave of Tidal Sound, and envisioned that a large bamboo had washed ashore on the 1000-Pace Beach. Soon afterward, he built a hut on the beach and named it the ‘Sea Tide Nunnery’ (Haichao Nunnery). Many faithful adherents contributed to expanding the modest temple through the years.
In 1699, Emperor Kangxi decreed that the deserted Imperial Palace in what is now Nanjing should be moved to Putuoshan to enshrine Guanyin. The palace building which was moved is known as Yuantong Hall today. The main hall was added and Emperor Kangxi bestowed a horizontal tablet inscribed with four characters of “Tian Hua Fa Yu”, which has been interpreted to mean that the Buddhist doctrines are like rain and flowers from heaven. Thence, the Fayu Temple got its name.
There are now 294 halls and rooms, occupying a floor space of 8800 square meters. The whole temple is arranged on a six-layer mound which starts ascending from the temple gate. A miniature golden pagoda stands between the Nine-dragon wall and the first of the temple’s several halls, where visitors can toss coins through five tiers of windows for good luck. The main hall is called Jiulongdian and was built during the Qing dynasty. The ceiling is concave and in the middle of it are nine dragons hanging, playing with a pearl of gold. There is also a statue of Thousand-Armed, Thousand-Eyed Guanyin and in the back of the hall there is a great piece of art called Haidao Guanyin. It is a painted sculpture of Guanyin surrounded by 53 important Buddhist figures.
Having ruled the Land of the Dragon for 61 years, Emperor Kangxi was laid to rest in the Eastern Qing tombs located 127km northwest from China’s capital, Beijing. In keeping with the manner in which he lived his life, he decreed that his tomb should be similarly humble and simple. Within the walls of the tomb were carved images of the 35 Confession Buddhas and other Buddhist deities, a testament of the Emperor’s enduring faith and love for the Buddhist religion.
Emperor Kangxi lived a life focusing on the welfare of his country, and ensured that his subjects were treated well and with dignity and great care. The peace, harmony and prosperity during his reign, the likes of which have rarely been seen in the world since, can be accredited to his wise ruling and hard work. Forward-thinking and exposed, Kangxi gave every ethnic group their freedom to practise their own faith freely without infringing on others, and even gave Christian missionaries permission to build churches and propagate their religion. Everyone who lived during the time of Emperor Kangxi would credit their ruler in their writings, poetry, stories and innumerable folk lore which was passed down through the generations.
Emperor Kangxi was a ruler who lived and ruled by the Buddhist teachings of kindness and discipline without the mention of the word Buddhism. His reign saw the flourishing of literature, art, science, culture and religion throughout China. It is a testament to his scholarship, political astuteness and selfless behaviour that hundreds of years later, the Chinese people continue to know him as one of the greatest emperors to ever rule.
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