Zhizhen Temple History

Zhizhen Temple of Phoenix Mountain History 鳳 凰 山 至 真 觀

From ancient times there have been many immortals in Sichuan. According to the Scripture of Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing 山海經)Kunlun 崑崙 Mountain is a holy place where spirits and immortals congregate. Min Mountain (Minshan 岷山) is considered the lower portion of Kunlun, which places Chengdu right at the centre of heaven and earth. According to the Shudufu 蜀都賦, the city is named Chengdu because it is a magnificent and beautiful city that appears as if constructed of gold and stone right at the centre of the world. The quest for immortality began early in the days of the ancient emperors in the land of the kingdom of Shu 蜀 [Sichuan]. When we hear stories about ancient kings such as the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝), Cancong 蠶叢, Baiguan 柏濩, Yufu 魚鳧, Duyu 杜宇, Bieling 鱉靈 and others attaining immortality, and also leading their subjects to follow suit in attaining immortality, we can feel their tradition of deep love and respect for life.

Especially, on the ancient Shu Kingdom’s foundation of the “Dao of the Immortals,” the traditional religion of our nation—Daoism—was born in the miraculous land of Sichuan. According to Daoist sources, Zhang Ling 張陵, the eighth generation descendant of the great master Zhang Liang 張良 who helped found the Han Dynasty, renounced the life of an official to study the Dao and travelled to the mountains of the Shu region in the Yongping 永平 reign of the Emperor He of the Eastern Han.

Zhang Ling practiced alchemy and spiritual cultivation practices at many of the famous mountains in Sichuan including Cranecry Mountain 鶴鳴山, Yangpingshan 陽平山, Xichengshan 西城山, Emeishan 峨眉山, Yuntaishan 雲台山, Qinzhongshan 秦中山, Changlishan 昌利山, Lishangshan 隸上山, Yongquanshan 湧泉山, Zhenduoshan 真多山, Beipingshan 北平山, Chougengshan 稠梗山, and Qutingshan 渠亭山. He was already able to divide his physical form and perform many other miraculous spiritual feats Zhang Ling made a great vow that when his spiritual practices were fully accomplished, he would protect and work for the benefit of the people of the nation. This aspiration moved the deity Taishang Laojun 太上老君, who descended to Cranecry Mountain on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Anyuan 安元 reign of the Shun 順 Emperor. He bestowed upon Zhang Ling the True Scriptures of the Three Grottoes, esoteric instructions on alchemy, male and female swords, as well as spirit registers and a sacred seal. Zhang Ling was thereafter known as the Heavenly Master (Tianshi 天師), endowed with the responsibility of educating and saving the people.

Heavenly Master Zhang led the followers of Daoism as well as the Shu people as a whole to engage in various public works such as the creation of roads and wells. Skilled in traditional medicine and qigong, he was able to heal the diseases of the people and so he received their deep support and acceptance. Zhang Ling organized the people and divided them into twenty-four dioceses. In each diocese, Zhang Ling instituted libationers as leaders and used the Daodejing 道德經 to teach the people to love and respect themselves and to help each other. He did away with severe punishments, and instead let people who had made mistakes build bridges or repair roads to make up for their offenses. In order to reduce the burdens on his followers and the people as a whole, he did not allow the sacrifices to include alcohol and meat, so during the Spring and Autumn seasons people were not allowed to slaughter animals or brew liquor. He also established alms houses to help the poor and needy.

Heavenly Master Zhang established the Daoist religion in Western Shu, and since then Daoism has flourished in the Shu region [Sichuan], and many of the sacred places (“blessed lands” / fudi 福地) are located here in Sichuan, a land dotted with Daoist monasteries and temples as well as beautiful mountains and rivers. The Shuzhong Guangji 蜀中廣記 lists the sacred places on the north side of Chengdu, among which Wudan Mountain (Wudanshan 武担山), Jinma 金馬 Shrine, Taixuancheng 太玄城, Yuju 玉局 Temple, Shengxian 升仙 Bridge, Wansui 萬歲 Lake, and Archery Mountain are the most famous.

Today Archery Mountain is known as Phoenix Mountain (Fenghuang Shan 鳳凰山); in ancient times it was known as Ascension Mountain (Shengxian Shan 升仙山), Archery Mountain (Xueshe Shan 學射山), and Hushi 斛石 Mountain. According to the Records of Chengdu by the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Qiu 盧求: At the north side of the city is Ascension Mountain, which is the source of Ascension River. According to legend, during the reign of Emperor Xiaowu of the Jin Dynasty, Zhang Bozi 張伯子 of Shu awakened to the Dao and became an immortal at Archery Mountain. He received the summons of the High Lord (Shangdi 上帝) and ascended [to heaven] riding on the back of a red tiger on the third day of the third month.

At 600 meters above sea level, Phoenix Mountain is the area with the highest elevation within the city limits. The mountain has a very unique shape, composed of two low mountains or hills running north-south and bending towards each other, like an image of male and female phoenix birds; also, this is where a range of low mountains comes to an end, like a phoenix nesting, so the mountain is named Phoenix Mountain. The Dongfeng 東風 Channel runs beneath the mountain; the top of the mountain is dotted with small ponds and criss-crossed with creeks, such as the two Phoenix Creeks which entwine around the mountain. Taken as a whole, it is a place of exceptional fengshui

    During the Han period, one of the later kings Liu Shan 劉禪 often brought his men to the mountain for horse races and military practice, hence the name Archery Mountain. The mountain has a long history of races and martial games, Ascension Mountain having been used for martial contests and training drills since before the Five Dynasties. In the second year of the Cheng Wu reign, the emperor of the Shu Kingdom also held military training and exercises on the mountain many times, as did his son King Yan.

During the Tang Dynasty, this was a place that attracted intellectuals and poets. The famous female poet Xue Tao 薛濤 came to engage in spiritual practices at the Daoist Temple on the mountain many times and left behind poems that have received wide acclaim. During the Song Dynasty, Ascension Mountain had already developed into a place that Chengdu people used for recreation, hiking, archery and martial competitions as well as engaging in spiritual pursuits and learning Daoism. In mid-Spring the trees would blossom into explosions of colours like brilliant clouds all around the temple. The skies were filled with soaring kites. Men and woman, old and young, would all come to the mountain on excursions, wearing their best clothes, carrying incense and candles and paper money to go pray at the temple. The sounds of music mingled with the scent of incense and the mist encircling the mountain, forming a rich atmosphere of both devotion and celebration.

The writer Fan Zhen 范縝 of Huayang wrote that on the third day of the third month in particular, people would come to participate in the archery contests held in the fenced-off competition area that the officials had built on top of the mountain.

There had been a shrine to the Immortal Zhang Bozi on the mountain since the Western Jin Dynasty. The Record of Newly Building the Shrine at Chengdu Archery Mountain (成都府學射山新修祠宇記) by Song Wentong 宋文同 says: “This is where Zhang Bozi lived and studied the Dao. On the day he accomplished his practice he received summons from the High Lord (Shangdi) and riding on a red tiger he soared up onto an avenue of clouds and flew into the Heavenly Gates. Afterwards many Sichuan people came to Tongzhen Temple to pray and took refuge or received esoteric Daoist registers here.

Zhizhen Temple was built on the mountain around the time of the Sui and Tang periods. In the first month of the second year of the Kaihuang 開皇 reign of the Sui (582), Emperor Wen gave an order that Zhizhen Temple should be built at Yizhou as a place to make offerings to the Three Pure Ones. The great majesty and beauty of the newly constructed temple was described in detail in the “Record of Zhizhen Temple” by Xin Deyuan of the Sui Dynasty. The Lu Zhaolin Collection (Luzhaolinji 盧照邻集) says: “Zhizhen Temple was built in the second year of Kaihuang of the Sui Dynasty, with myriads of images, both big and small, of Heavenly Venerables and the Accomplished Perfected. The stone altar has three layers and is more than a hundred paces around.” At that time the temple became Western Shu’s largest Daoist temple. However, the Wen Emperor was succeeded by the Yang emperor, who gave himself over to debauchery. The entire society became corrupt and people stopped practicing Daoism, and the temple was eventually neglected and forgotten during the chaos of a war.  

At the end of the Zhenguan 貞觀 reign of the Taizong 太宗 Emperor, the magistrate in Yizhou, who was also the son-in-law of the Emperor, invited Master Zhaoqing (Zhaoqing Fashi 昭慶法師) to be the abbot of Zhizhen Temple. When Master Zhaoqing arrived at the temple, he found it so dilapidated, covered in dust, moss and lichens, that he was moved to tears when he saw the state it had fallen into. He determined to repair the temple, and in addition to repairing the existing structures he also built many new structures, including a large preaching hall behind the Heavenly Palace.

Master Zhaoqing was also an influential thinker who made important contributions to Chongxuan philosophy. The name chongxuan 重玄, which literally means “double mystery”, is a reference to the line “Mysterious and again mysterious” (xuan zhi you xuan 玄之又玄) in the first chapter of the Daodejing.  Chongxuan became one of the most important and influential philosophical and intellectual schools of thought in all of Daoist history. At the time of Master Zhaoqing, Zhizhen Temple became a pivotal intellectual base for Daoists who made contributions to the Chongxuan philosophical school. It is said that people who heard Master Zhaoqing teaching Chongxuan were moved as deeply as Confucius was when he heard Shaoyue 韶樂 (an ancient musical composition so beautiful that Confucius claimed he was unable to taste meat for three months after he listened to it).

When Master Zhaoqing had renounced the homelife to study the Dao for more than thirty years, he had amassed a vast number of followers who supplied him with uncountable offerings; the Master was filled with deep compassion whenever he saw anyone suffering, and aside from the minimum that he needed to live on he used the rest of the offerings he received to help the sick and needy or spread Daoism.

When it was time for Master Zhaoqing to pass on, his disciple Li Yuanxing took over as abbot of the temple. Li Yuanxing 黎元興, also called Li Xing, a native of Guanghanluo 廣漢雒, was also a famous Chongxuan thinker and the author of the Scripture of the Ocean of Emptiness (full title Taishang Yicheng Haikong Zhizang Jing 太上一乘海空智藏經). At that time Daoist studies were on the decline in the area around Xi’an but were flourishing in the central part of Shu (Sichuan). Daoism experienced a renaissance under the royal patronage of the Tang Dynasty, and many great Daoists appeared in Sichuan and became famous throughout the nation. There are at least six Daoists from Sichuan who were famous for Daoist hierology or for writing commentaries on the Daodejing: Zhang Junxiang 張君相 of Minshan 岷山, Li Rong 李榮 of Jinzhu 錦竹, Wen Ruhai 文如海 of Jiannan 劍南, Ren Taixuan 任太玄 of Meishan 眉山, and Li Yuanxing 黎元興 and Zhuang Huichao 張惠超 of Chengdu. They wrote commentaries, compilations, and exegesis to explain the profound meaning of Laozi’s thought. Zhizhen Temple became an important base of Daoist thought, with great masters like Zhaoqing Fashi, Li Yuanxing, and Wang Xuanjian 王玄覽, who helped explain and disseminate Chongxuan thought to the world. Wang Xuanjian was from the same village as Master Zhaoqing and Li Yuanxing. When he came to Zhizhen Temple, Li Yuanxing had only recently become the abbot. Wang Xuanjian was strongly recommended by Li Yi, an official of Yizhou. The relationship between Li Yuanxing and Wang Xuanjian must have been very close. From the Scripture of Oceans of Emptiness and the Record of the Dark Pearl (Xuanzhu Lu 玄珠录) we can see that they are both characterized by discussion of “the nature of Dao” and “the nature of living beings,” and their theories fit together nicely; it’s possible that Li Yuanxing may in fact have been Wang Xuanjian’s master.

Zhizhen Temple was completely re-built while Li Yuanxing was abbot. According to the Luyi Ji 録異記:

Zhizhen Temple of Chengdu was built by the Daoist Li Yuanxing in the middle of the Longshuo reign (661) at Archery Mountain. During the night he dreamed that a spirit person took him up into the midst of a great hall at the top of a mountain, where he saw Lord Huang-Lao (Huanglao Jun 黃老君). His body was many yards tall; his hair and beard were brilliant white; he wore a phoenix crown and robes of glowing clouds and was surrounded by a retinue of more than ten. He looked at Yuanxing and said: “I have some timber close to here, which you can use to build the temple, there is nothing to worry about.”

A few days later, someone was fishing on a boat out on Wansui Lake, and suddenly saw that there were a great many huge trees at the bottom of the pristine clear lake. He told Yuanxing who sent someone to get the wood. They retrieved more than a thousand logs of carbonized poplar, some as long as a hundred feet, and used them to build the temple with a hall to Lord Huang-Lao, the image of Lord Huang-Lao being modelled on the image in the dream. There was sufficient enough wood that they also built a teaching hall, a zhaitan, and other corridors and rooms beneath the hall to the Three Worthies.

At this time Zhizhen Temple was designed on a huge scale, with a Huang-Lao Hall, a shrine to the Three Worthies, a heavenly palace, and many other structures and myriads of images of spirits—it was the largest Daoist temple in the Southwest region. The Tang Dynasty poet Lu Zhaolin described the importance of the temple’s location. Situated in Sichuan, right in the centre of the heavens and earth, it is a place where the ancient kings have been, and the people who stay here are guests of the highest deities.
During the Northern Song Dynasty, Zhizhen Temple changed its name to Tongzhen Temple (Tongzhen Guan 通真觀) and built many new structures and halls, including a new shrine to Immortal Zhang.

At the beginning of the Southern Song, however, Tongzhen Temple was again destroyed in a war. The new abbot Deng Chuhou 鄧處厚 set about the task of rebuilding the temple assisted by the immortal known as Barefoot Luo (Luo Chijiao 羅赤腳). According to records from that period, Barefoot Luo mingled with the secular world, but his spirit was already perfected. He had bright shining eyes and was able to tell people’s fortune’s as accurately as divination by turtle shell, without any error at all. People came to him in droves to bow down and pay their respects to him. He was able to talk about their lives and fates as if he was describing things he had seen clearly with his own eyes. One day a woman asked about her posterity, Luo replied that she would be able to have wealth and success and indeed have children as well, but that would be short-lived. He said the only way to prolong her life and avert an early death was to help rebuild the temple. Her husband, as an official with a great deal of wealth and property, donated to the temple, allowing the temple to be rebuilt in the twenty-seventh year of the Shaoxing 紹興 reign.

Hiking up Archery Mountain on the third day of the third lunar month to pray and exercise has been an extremely popular custom among the people of Chengdu for a long time. In the old days the officials even organized activities for the people to participate in on that day. Suihua Jili 歲華紀麗 says: “The third day of the third month is the day that Zhang Bozi ascended on Archery Mountain. Magus and conjurors would sell talismans on the way, and the visitors use them to aide silkworm cultivation and avert misfortune.”

 Zhizhen Temple has also traditionally been a place where people come to pray for success in the raising of silkworms. During the Gaozong period of the Tang, the Daoist Wang Hui 王暉 of Zhizhen Temple could tell just by looking if silkworm eggs would be able to hatch productive silkworms or not. Du Guangting 杜光廳 recorded the temple’s importance to the local silkworm raisers in his Shenxian Ganyu Zhuan 神仙感遇傳, noting that there were rituals and prayers conducted for silkworm production at the temple and that the silkworm market near the temple was thriving and prosperous.

In recent times, however, Tongzhen Temple was almost entirely destroyed; the monastery itself was in ruins, the Daoists dispersed, and the grounds overgrown, leaving only a broken monument. In 1996 Daoism began to revive, however two temples within Chengdu city had to be relocated to accommodate the changing cityscape: Nanhai Temple 南海道觀 and the Guandi Temple 關帝廟 were relocated to the site of Tongzhen Temple, which was then known colloquially as “the White Temple.” The three temples were merged and known for a few years as “South Sea Phoenix Temple” (Nanhai Fenghuang Guan 南海鳳凰觀), which was officially recognized as a legal site for religious activities. In 2011 the name was once again changed back to the Zhizhen Temple, the name used in ancient times.

Today Phoenix Mountain is being developed into an ecological park extending over a thousand acres. The mountain will become the largest health and recreation park within Chengdu city limits—and the ancient, sacred site of Zhizhen Temple will once again be restored to its historic grandeur, invoking a sense of reverence and contemplation, conveying a sense of awe and sacredness.