Visionary Landscape in Tibetan Buddhism, 18th-20th c.


A review of The Visionary Landscape of Wutai Shan in Tibetan Buddhism from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century, by Wen-Shing Chou.

In the last decade, Wutai Shan, a mountain range in China’s Shanxi province, has generated a great deal of scholarly attention in regard to its Tibetan Buddhist context. Although it originated as a sacred site for Chinese Buddhists and Daoists, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Wutai Shan had become a major pilgrimage destination for Tibetans, Mongolians, and Manchus, primarily on account of its reputation as the earthly abode of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Mañjuśrī. Some of the recent studies on Wutai Shan have focused on Buddhist practice and experience (Raoul Birnbaum), Sino-Tibetan relations (Gray Tuttle and Elliot Sperling), Manchu Qing identity formation (Patricia Berger and Natalie Köhle), and Mongolian Buddhist pilgrimage (Isabelle Charleux). In her remarkably original and thoroughly researched dissertation, Wen-shing Chou, an art historian, contributes much to this recent body of literature, undoubtedly securing her position among even the most seasoned scholars as a leading expert on Wutai Shan.

The central issue addressed by Chou in this dissertation is “How has Wutai Shan been seen, visualized, or imagined, both by pilgrims who have braved the journey or those who have desired to?” (p. 2) This question is predicated on her observation that, even more so than the physical landscape of Wutai Shan, including temples and objects, individuals’ ways of remembering and envisioning the mountain played key roles in defining its religious identity. The emphasis Chou places on individual agency is reflected in the organization of the dissertation’s four chapters, which each focuses on a moment between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries when an individual—including a Tibetan Buddhist master, the emperor of China, a Mongolian woodcarver, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama—reshaped the way in which Wutai Shan was viewed and remembered. In every case, Wutai Shan emerges as a principal object of textual and artistic production within the Tibetan Buddhist sphere.

Following a brief history of the mountain, Chapter 1 focuses on the ways in which the sacred geography of Wutai Shan was significantly impacted by the experiences there of Rölpé Dorjé (1717-1786), the well-known Tibetan Buddhist polymath and close religious advisor to the Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796). Rölpé Dorjé resided in retreat at Wutai Shan nearly every summer from 1750 until 1786 in order to distance himself from court politics and to become physically and spiritually closer to the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. Based on close readings of his biography and personal writings, Chou demonstrates that among the most seminal events in Rölpé Dorjé’s life were the ‘visionary encounters’ he had with past Tibetan Buddhist masters of the Geluk sect while meditating at the mountain. Chou argues that the textual recounting of these experiences helped establish a concrete teacher-disciple lineage of Gelukpa masters that was firmly embedded within the religious landscape of Wutai Shan.

In the second part of Chapter 1, Chou discusses the role of Wutai Shan in the formation of Manchu imperial Buddhist identity, building upon scholarship by David Farquhar, Samuel Grupper, and Patricia Berger on Qianlong as Mañjuśrī incarnate. In this discussion, Qianlong’s motivations for engaging with the mountain are contrasted with those of Rölpé Dorjé. Chou suggests that whereas for Rölpé Dorjé Wutai Shan was a stable site of religious practice, for Qianlong, who never resided at the mountain but only traveled there as a pilgrim and tourist, Wutai Shan and the associated cult of Mañjuśrī were sources of spiritual efficacy that could be appropriated for personal and political means. This idea, argues Chou, is best evidenced in Qianlong’s act of constructing architectural replicas of Wutai Shan’s famous temples in Beijing and Chengde, which, she suggests, relocated the ‘authentic’ sacred power of Wutai Shan to the setting of the Qing court.

Chapter 2 analyzes two maps, a mural at Badγar Coyiling Süme monastery (early nineteenth century) in present-day Inner Mongolia and a set of woodblocks carved by a Mongolian lama at Cifu Monastery on Wutai Shan in 1846. The Badγar mural depicts several major Tibetan Buddhist holy sites, including Badγar itself, Wutai Shan, and the great monasteries of central Tibet. Chou observes that the architectural complexes in the depiction of Wutai Shan bear strong similarities to those illustrated in popular Chinese guidebooks that circulated widely during this time. The lists of sites in these guidebooks, in turn, are identical to those found in prints of the Qing emperors’ tours to Wutai Shan, which were produced by the court and retold from the perspective of the emperor as a pilgrim. As Chou points out, this indicates just how prevalent “imperial claims” (p. 54) to the mountain range had become in the nineteenth century.

The second image discussed in Chapter 2, the Cifu Monastery map, illustrates a large panoramic view of Wutai Shan, including over 130 temples as well as “apparitions, emanations, miraculous events, and activities that induce such encounters with the divine” (p. 66). According to local legend, the creation of the map owes itself to a vision its lama woodcarver had of the prominent Gelukpa master Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) while on the mountain. Chou argues that on account of this divine encounter the woodcarver was able to articulate and expose a level of reality in his mapping of Wutai Shan that was “accessible to only the initiated” (p. 69). In terms of their functions, Chou suggests that the printed maps probably served as guides for popular pilgrims, instructing them not only on where to go, but also on how to behave at the mountain. They may also have been worshiped as surrogates for Wutai Shan: because in the Chinese Buddhist context woodblock prints were considered the ideal medium for preserving and propagating ‘true’ words and images, the mountain’s sacred power was transmitted in each reprint; on the other hand, every time a print was re-colored, its original meaning was somehow altered and destabilized.

Whereas the first two chapters deal with images that represent what Chou regards as a ‘visionary reality’ of Wutai Shan, this chapter instead discusses an unprecedented ‘empirical reality’ witnessed in two nearly identical early twentieth-century murals commissioned by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933) that are located in the Potala and the Norbul Lingkha palaces in Lhasa. These murals depict both mythical and actual sacred sites in a collage-like assemblage that Chou relates to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of a chronotope (in the way that time and space are revealed together) and Michel Foucault’s concept of a heterotopia (in the way that mythical places are paired with real ones). Chou examines the murals in connection to events in the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s life, arguing that the murals map an empirical view of the holy sites in China and India that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama personally visited while in exile, including Wutai Shan and the Mahābodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, onto an existing visionary cosmography, comprising emanations and miraculous encounters. The notion that these images reflect the Dalai Lama’s first-hand accounts of the sites is supported visually in the photographic qualities of their painted representations. Chou suggests that the images of sacred places within these murals assert the Dalai Lama’s spiritual control over parts of India, Tibet, and China during a time when the geopolitical borders were in constant flux.

The final chapter centers on the post-Cultural Revolution revival of Wutai Shan in light of the renowned Tibetan Buddhist master Khenpo Jikme Püntsok’s (1933-2004) pilgrimage to the sacred mountain in 1987. For example, Chou shows how the numerous sculptural images offered by Khenpo Jikpün and his entourage reestablished a presence of Tibetan-style holy objects at Wutai Shan that had been destroyed in the previous decades. Additionally, Khenpo Jikpün’s many visions on the mountain reinvested certain historical sites with numinous power. Chou bases her analysis on oral histories and written records by Khenpo Jikpün’s disciples, which, she points out, echo those of countless other religious figures who visited Wutai Shan in either their physical or emanational forms. Ultimately, Chou demonstrates how Khenpo Jikpün’s visit not only renewed an interest in Wutai Shan as a pilgrimage site, it also prompted many of the texts and images discussed in this dissertation to once again circulate, thereby restoring memories of the mountain’s “visionary landscape” (p. 121).

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Chou’s dissertation is the way which it brings to the fore the seemingly intangible concept of visions and imaginings as important subjects of art-historical inquiry. This will likely forge new pathways in the field of Asian art history. Equally remarkable is Chou’s ability to incorporate into her study such a vast amount of textual information (in modern and classical Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese languages) on such a wide variety of subjects—from architectural history, to Buddhist studies, to early twentieth-century Sino-Tibetan politics. Chou’s interdisciplinary research will undoubtedly be useful many scholars. I, for one, very much look forward to reading the book.

Aurelia Campbell
ACM-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Art
Lake Forest College

Primary Sources

Beijing National Library
Badγar Coyiling Süme (Monastery of the White Lotus), near Baotou, Inner Mongolia
Cifu Si (Monastery of Benevolent Virtues), Wutai Shan, Shaanxi Province
Cave 61, Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu province
Nyiwö Shar Ganden Nangsel (Eastern Sunlight, Luminous Holder of Happiness [hall]), Potala, Lhasa

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2011. 335 pp. Primary Advisor: Patricia Berger.


Image: Photo by Wen-Shing Chou

1 comment
  1. silence and serenity of mountains play a very important role in Buddhism………i think that this book will help us in this respect………

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