Yunnan is unique in China as being the ancient meeting place of three major Buddhist traditions — Tibetan Tantric, Theravada and the Chinese brand then permeating the Tang Dynasty. In the Nanzhao era — between the years 736 and 902 — the predominant Buddhist philosophy in what is now Yunnan, was a sect of Theravada, combining the other two, known as 'Acharya' from the Sanskrit "one who teaches by conduct". It was this hybrid philosophy that inspired the grotto carvings of Shibao Shan (石宝山) near Shaxi and possibly those much closer to Yunnan's capital city.
To discover that carvings of this era existed only 25 kilometers to the southwest of Kunming warranted some exploration. The grottos and carvings of Fahua Temple (法华寺岩石窟) are believed to have been the handiwork of stonemasons working during the Nanzhao era when Yunnan had yet to become part of greater China. The Southern Silk Road once passed through Yunnan and was likely the means by which Theravada Buddhism found a following in the countryside surrounding Kunming.
After checking out satellite images on Google Maps and the sparse online literature on Fahua Temple, we attempted to get there using public transport. We left Xiaoximen bus station one Saturday morning and took an hour-long trip to the lakeside Hundred Flowers Park (百花公园) in Anning. A low ridgeline with a sandstone escarpment is visible before entering the city, and it is home to the Fahuasi Grottos.
No buses went to the hills according to locals, so from the lake, a taxi driver took us to our destination. From our driver, we learned the temple at the base of the cliffs eight kilometers to the east of Anning was not exactly a tourist hotspot. Consistent with this, somewhat bemused park security checked us in at the visitor's office and sent us off up the hill. We were later to find that the 40 yuan cab fare was standard even though it was a mere five minutes out of the city.
During the Cultural Revolution many of China's historical sites suffered devastating damage as they were thought to be at the root of "old ways of thinking" and thus counter-revolutionary in their nature. The widespread destruction was never formally sanctioned by the Communist Party but carried out zealously by some of the revolution's more enthusiastic followers.
Fahuasi, unlike the famous and more distant Dazu Grottos in Sichuan, fell victim to vandalism during the ten years of anti-religious sentiment. Red Guards removed the faces of bodhisattvas and other religious icons with the idea of removing the four olds — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
A monk in pastel lime green greeted us and said we could wander wherever we liked. The grounds were unkempt and the paths overgrown. Grass grew from orange tiles sheltering a statue of Guanyin and the place looked as though no one had visited in a long time. A path to the right of the temple passed through vine scrub up stairways to a small natural rock outcropping.
The sandstone is a fine-grained, rusty red color and has been chipped away into an overhang housing a reclining Buddha. The Buddha statue is a 4.25-meter carving, reminiscent of reclining statues we had seen in neighboring Laos. The immediate surroundings are a lush green of monsoon scrub and conifers but the ancient statue gazes out toward an expressway and industrial zone in sharp and ugly contrast.
A path traverses the steep slope to the east and brings visitors to the Wall of Arhats — known in n Sanskrit as अर्हत्. Further along the trail a carving reminiscent of Lao Tzu and his water buffalo had been beheaded along with other unfortunate figures dressed in robes. It was sad to see the destruction of such ancient cultural relics.
From the Arhat Wall, the path winds up through scrub and vine thickets towards the top of the escarpment. Years of traffic and water flow has worn the path into furrows of smooth red sandstone. White rhododendrons in bloom along with other wildflowers make for beautiful contrast with the bright green of oak and Chinese yew trees.
Near the top we found a series of half-meter gauge pipes which we later learned are used to transport quarried sandstone rich in salt to a processing plant in the valley. It became apparent that this same rock is the source of salt in the famous salt village of Heijing in nearby Chuxiong County.
At the crest of the ridge is wide open space with a yew tree at its center and a black dragon statue framed by a big blue sky. Beneath the tree sits a gold colored Buddha and a white Guanyin statue resembling the Virgin Mary. It seems a strange arrangement being neither ancient nor at the top of the highest ground. On returning to the temple proper we found the monk working on his calligraphy. He had lived there alone for 13 years as a devoted guardian of the fallen cultural relics. He gave us some fruit and bid us farewell with directions to the nearest local bus stop.
Buses to Anning Hundred Flowers Park leave from the #Xiaoximen Coach Station# for seven yuan. Local bus number 35 travels between Hundred Flowers Park and Little Peach Flower Village (小桃花村) near the temple for one yuan.
Images: Benjamin Campbell© Copyright 2005-2018 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.