The Nunnery of East Hill

Dongshan or East Hill is quite as well known and as beautiful as Xishan. It is also known as Eastern Dongting because of the Dong and the Ting islands. The East and West Dongting Hills are said to be “the two pearls on Taihu” or Tai Lake.

The purple gold nunnery

Dongshan was the resort of King Wu and his high officials in the Spring and Autumn Period, 770 to 476 BC… about the time when Rome was founded in 753 BC and Buddhism began to flourish in India between 560-483 BC.

Dongshan has three “must see” sites. One is the Mansion of Carvings, built by a rich Shanghai businessman for his mother to replace the old one, which she detested. Another is the Xiyuan or Xi Garden on the eastern side of the peninsula. Last, and the one I personally would like all of you to visit, is the Zi Jin An Nunnery or the Purple Gold Nunnery. The place is so famous that even President Jiang Zemin paid a visit several years ago.

An English translation describing the priceless objects housed in the nunnery has never been completed. That will change. One day I visited the nunnery…my third with Eugenia, my Chinese friend and guide…the director of the temple was so impressed with her fluent English explanation that he decided on the spot to have her do a translation for him. This, of course, will take time. So, in the interim, I am providing a detailed description of the nunnery to encourage you to visit.

Sixteen arhats

The Chinese word, An, actually means nun and a small temple. Hence, the word nunnery. The sixteen clay statues of Arhats housed in the nunnery are reputed to have been made by the famous folk artists, Lei Chao and his wife, during the Southern Song Dynasty, 1127-1279. The statues were modeled after Tang Dynasty statues, examples of which you can see in Luzhi. They are so well sculpted that they look life-like, measuring two-third’s the height of an average person. The word, Arhat, is used for a Buddha’s disciple who reached the state of Nirvana or the Enlightenment, not to be born again.

When looking at the clay figures, you’ll notice the three layers of clothes underneath the colorful cassocks worn by the Arhats. Each layer clings naturally to the body, as if it were made of real fabrics. The folds and creases of the cassocks hang so beautifully, it’s hard to believe that they are made of clay. Your attention is also drawn to the vivid facial expressions of each sculpture.

Closed eyes that see

Entering the main temple, you will see three large statues. The center one is Sakayamuni, a title of respect given to Buddha. On his left is the Amithaba, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and on his right is the Medicine Buddha, sitting inside a lotus flower. According to the Buddhist ‘s belief, a lotus flower is a symbol of purity – the flower pushes itself to grow above the muddy water and still maintains its beauty.

The standing statue on the left of the Sakayamuni is his cousin, Ananda, who was known for his elephant’s memory and was responsible for the Buddhist scriptures or sutras. The Arhat on his right organized the first meeting of the five hundred earliest Arhats after Buddha’s death. The three statues have their eyes closed, but if you look carefully, you will see that their eyes seem to follow you as you move.

Inside the hall, the statue of the Laughing Buddha is quite unique – he seems to be smiling with his large mouth closed and his eyes clenched shut. This statue was originally outside the hall to welcome visitors, but was eventually placed inside to protect it from adverse weather conditions.

Along the gallery are clay figures of the Sixteen Arhats. The first of these Arhats has long eyebrows, which symbolize longevity. The second Arhat is cocking his ears to listen and his gaze is resting upon the entrance, while holding an iguana in his arm. Two Arhats are facing each other in a discussion.

Above these two is an Arhat holding a silk handkerchief in his left hand. Only three fingers can be seen holding the handkerchief, which is fluttering in the wind. The sculpture is considered to be the second wonder in this temple – the first are the moving eyes of the previously described figures.

There is no mistaking that the Pride Arhat is very proud. The Smiling Arhat has a tiger sitting at his feet – the parable states that if you want to teach someone something, do it with a smiling face. Even a tiger can be tamed, if taught with good humor. The sixth figure is the Crossing of the River Arhat. These clay sculptures are the most interesting ones inside the temple.

The remaining Arhats, though equally popular, were not made by the same artists. They are in various postures with vivid, but differing expressions. A group of three Arhats look at a dragon hanging on a pole. The Beautiful Arhat is sitting peacefully and looking very profound. The Worrying Arahat counts worries with his fingers. The Honest and Loyal Arhat is pointing at his heart with his right hand. The Meditating Arhat has his two hands clasped in prayer.

A canopy of clay

The third wonder of the temple is a canopy of green silk with a peony woven into it. The folds and the flowers of the weaving look amazingly real. Below the canopy is the clay sculpture of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, who is standing on the back of a sea monster to prevent it from causing catastrophic tidal waves.

A touch of serenity

At the back of the courtyard, two ancient boxwood trees stand, which are two thousand years old. Usually, boxwoods do not grow this high. Because their leaves have two layers, it is believed that this plant helps to purify the air and keep the environment clean. When the leaves turn yellow, they act as a fire alarm because the leaves make a crackling sound in the heat.

The nunnery and its surrounding area are very peaceful. When we visited the place that day, it had just rained. The grounds were green, soothing and refreshing. A lovely scent of plum and cherry blossoms drifted in the air. In June, we will see Chinese farmers selling juicy purple-color berries called “yang mei”. They are quite delicious and available only in this area. If you are looking for a touch of serenity, this place will do very nicely.