“The first Buddhist temple in China was built here in Sichuan Province in the 1st Century A.D. in the beautiful surroundings on the summit of Mount Emei. Over the centuries, the cultural treasures grew in number. The most remarkable is the Giant Buddha of Leshan, which was carved out of a hillside in the 8th Century and seems looking down on the confluence of three rivers. At 71 meters high, it is the largest Buddha in the world. Mount Emei is also notable for its exceptionally diverse vegetation, ranging from subtropical to subalpine pine forests. Some of the trees there are more than 1,000 years old.” This is the remark that the World Heritage Committee made when Mount Emei and Leshan Giant Buddha scenic areas were inscribed into the World Heritage List in 1996.
Mount Emei (literally, “Delicate Eyebrow”), located in the central and southern parts of Sichuan Province, derived its name from its beautiful scenery like a maiden’s look and her eyebrows. It is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, together with Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province, and Mount Jiuhua in Anhui Province. Mount Emei is regarded as the domain of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and has been a famous holy land of Buddhism.
Construction of Buddhist temples on Mount Emei began in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), and flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) after dynasties of development. The Buddha’s halo that appears from time to time on the Golden Summit of Mount Emei is considered by Buddhist followers as the “grand brightness” of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. For this reason, Mount Emei is also called “Mountain of Brightness.” During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, Buddhism reached its zenith in Mount Emei. At that time, there were nearly 100 temples with thousands of monks. Presently, the mountain still preserves more than 30 Buddhist shrines, including Baoguo Temple, Fuhu (crouching tiger) Temple, Bailong (white dragon) Cave, Qingyin Pavilion, Wannian Temple, Xixiang Pond, and Huacang Temple. Grand Buddhist rites are often held in those time-honored temples.
The highest peak of Mount Emei, the Wanfo (literally, “Ten Thousand Buddha”) Summit, rises 3,099 meters above sea level. Rising abruptly from the level ground, the magnificent mountain boasts an elevation difference as high as 2,600 meters. For this reason, it preserves a complete variety of vegetation distribution belts and many rare endangered species, endemic species and type species. The mountain has long enjoyed reputations such as “Paradise for Plants,” “Kingdom of Animals” and “Geological Museum.”
Leshan Giant Buddha, situated on the Qiluan Peak of Mount Lingyun in southeastern Leshan City, Sichuan Province, faces the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers. Historically known as the Stone Statue of Maitreya in the Lingyun Temple of Jiazhou, the Giant Buddha was carved out of a cliff in the west of Mount Lingyun. Begun in 713 (the first year during the Kaiyuan reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty) and completed in 803 (the 19th year during the Zhenyuan reign of Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty), the statue took three generations of artisans 90 years to carve. The Giant Buddha in sitting posture has his two hands placed on the knees and his bare feet stamping on the river, generating a graceful and majestic atmosphere. The statue rises 71 meters high overall, with the head measuring nearly 15 meters. His feet are large enough to accommodate nearly 100 people at one time. The Giant Buddha is the largest stone statue in China, hence the local saying: “The Buddha is a mountain, and the mountain is a Buddha.”
Initially, the Giant Buddha was roofed with a wooden building known as the Giant Buddha Pavilion, which had 13 layers of eaves outside and seven floors inside. After repeated destructions and reconstructions, the building was renamed Tianning Pavilion in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) until it was destroyed due to warfare in the late Ming Dynasty. So far, the cliff and the body of the Giant Buddha have still preserved many pillar holes and foundations, reminding people of its past glory. Today, the Leshan Giant Buddha sits in open air, overlooks all living beings, and protects boats cruising on torrential rivers at his feet.
A plank road zigzags downwards on the cliff to the right of the Giant Buddha, which is the famous Nine-turn Plank Road that was built together with the Giant Buddha. At the first turn of the plank road, there are exquisitely-crafted stone carvings that vividly depict Buddhist tales and buildings such as towers, pavilions, and pagodas, which are of high value for researching Tang-Dynasty sculpture and architecture.