It has to be one of Beijing’s best kept secrets. Mention Tianning Temple (天宁寺) to many people, and they haven’t a clue what you are talking about, let alone know where it is. It’s actually a Buddhist temple complex located near Guang'anmen in Xicheng District.
Its importance lies in the fact that it’s one of the most (if not the most) ancient above-ground buildings preserved in Beijing. Another reason for visiting it is its 12th-century octagonal pagoda, which was built over two decades from around 1100 to 1120, during the reign of Emperor Tianzuo of the Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125), shortly before it was conquered by the Jin dynasty.
The predecessor of Tianning Temple was Guanglin Temple, which had been built during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534 AD). Originally constructed in wood, the pagoda was destroyed by a wartime conflagration at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) and was subsequently repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. It had a number of names such as Hongye Tianning Temple, Tianwang Temple and Dawan’anchan Temple, until it got its present name in 1435.
Those in the know – such as historian and celebrated Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (1901 – 1972)— have lauded the pagoda of Tianning Temple as a ‘pristine architectural design of antiquity’. Gosh!
It’s a pretty attractive temple as temples go; and it’s still very much a working temple with monks and nuns all over the place, with visitors coming to pray at many of the shrines.
Whether these drying vegetables were for selling to hungry visitors, or were destined for the monks’ cooking pot later that day, I’m not sure. But it certainly makes good use of superfluous old clothes hangars.
In the courtyard in front of the Great Hero Hall is a nicely embossed bell (nothing particularly outstanding when you compare it with some of the bells in Dazhong Temple, but don’t let that detract from it).
The Great Hero Hall is where believers come to make their offerings to Amitabha Buddha.
The statue is 5.8m high and is made from Golden Silk nanmu (楠木) which, according to Wiki is a type of wood that was frequently used for boat building, architectural woodworking and wood art in China. The trees that produce nanmu wood are evergreens that have a long straight trunk which grows to 35 metres in height and one metre in diameter. The wood is very knotty and doesn’t react to humidity and temperature much so it tends not to get warped or cracked because of changes in climate.
A plaque outside the hall tells us that “the lotus throne is 1.1m high and the stone throne is also 1.1m. So the total height is 13 metres.” Errr… hang on… 5.8 + 1.1 + 1.1 makes 8 according to my maths. Maybe I’m missing something!
We are also told that Amitabha Buddha represents boundless light and infinite life. Therefore it is also known as Amitayus Buddha, he being the sovereign teacher of the Western Pure Land Sukhavati.
OK. I’m sure I feel better for knowing that.
“If you seek wisdom, prolonged life and blessedness, then please pay homage to Amitayus Buddha,” the instructions continue.
Now, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that no one likes a ‘smart ass’; and who wants to be ancient, anyway? So I see a problem ahead of me. Blessedness might be all very nice, but how do you pay only a third of the necessary homage to Amitayus?
I head on towards the pagoda. At 57.8 metres high, and with 13 stories, it is made of brick and stone, yet imitates the design of wooden-constructed pagodas from the era by featuring ornamental dougongs, or bracket supports.
It rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of the pagoda taking on the shape of a sumeru pedestal, decorated with carved arch patterns. (A sumeru was the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology.)
The pagoda also features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid without stairs inside or out as is often found in other pagodas. It is said that its design inspired that of later pagodas, such as the similar Ming Dynasty era pagoda of Cishou Temple near the western end of Line 6, that was built in 1576 (the temple, that is… not the subway station!).
Three layers of huge lotus petals, carved on the pedestal, support the first storey of the pagoda. On four sides of the first storey, facing the four principal compass directions, there are relief sculptures of heavenly guardians and arched gates. The pedestal is divided into six shrines by short columns, and features carved lion heads, lotus, warriors (vajrapanibalin) flexing their bulging muscles, bodhisattvas, and so on. The eaves diminish in size as they progress upward.
The pagoda itself rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of it taking on the shape of a sumeru (the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology) pedestal. The pagoda features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid with no hollow inside or staircase as some pagodas feature.
Tianning Temple acted as the depository for treasured Buddhist artefacts on the instructions of Emperor Wendi of the short-lived (581 – 618) Sui dynasty. (The Sui unified the North and South and reinstalled the rule of ethnic Han Chinese in the entirety of China proper. It also spread and encouraged Buddhism throughout the empire.)
Wendi built a pagoda in each of his 30 states to store the relics, which were deposited inside the pagodas in 602 AD.
And that explains why modern day believers walk around the pagoda, according to the instructions carved in stone: “Circumambulating the pagoda clockwise, we wish all living creatures would never go against the heavenly principle and therefore be equipped with great wisdom. We wish that karmic obstacles be annihilated, bliss and wisdom be ameliorated, health be maintained and dreams be realised.”
I feel somewhat out of place standing taking photos as believers circumambulate, but as most of them then take out their iPhones after getting back to their starting point and then snap away in front of the pagoda, I don’t feel so bad!
As mentioned above, the structure and ornamentation have remained basically the same since it was built; but in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake caused the original pearl-shaped steeple of the pagoda to collapse. It has since been restored, and the temple grounds surrounding it have also been renovated and rebuilt. The entire temple grounds were closed for many months during the restoration, and work continues even now that the temple complex is once again open to the public.
Getting up real close to the base, you get a detailed worm’s eye view of the saints on display. I hesitate when I call them saints, but as two brass plaques nearby explain, they are certainly described as such.
In fact there are two little halls dedicated to six of them – the Three Saints of both the East and the West. In the hall dedicated to the Saints of the East, you get to meet Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, Bodhisattva Sunlight and Bodhisattva Moonlight. “If you seek favoured fortune or hope to reduce evil karma, then please pay homage to Bhaishajyaguru Buddha”, we are told.
The three Saints of the West refer to Amitabha Buddha (he was the guy we met earlier in the Great Hero Hall), Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Amitabha, you’ll remember, represents infinite life; Avalokiteshvara represents mercy and Mahasthamaprapta represents wisdom.
So now I know.
I head on out of the complex the way I had come. It’s been a very pleasant half hour.
And a word to the wise, if you turn left immediately on leaving the main gate, there is a lovely little flower market that will take you all of three minutes to walk around.
To reach Tianning Temple, take subway Line 2 to Changchunjie exit D1, then walk westbound about a kilometre to Tianningsiqiao. Cross over onto the west side of the second ring road; then walk south and take the second turn to the right. You will see the pagoda sticking out above the residential blocks from some way off.