History of Daci Temple – One of the Oldest Temples in Sichuan

history of daci temple

Daci Temple, also known as the Great Mercy Temple, is a place of immense historical importance and deep cultural significance in Chengdu. Its origins can be traced back to the Wei and Jin dynasties, and it reached its pinnacle during the Tang and Song dynasties. The temple’s reputation is built upon its expansive size, esteemed Buddhist monks, and its revered status as the “foremost forest of Zen in China.”

Wei and Jin Dynasties

Historical records from the Song Dynasty mention the visit of an Indian monk named Baozhang to this region during the Wei and Jin eras. Baozhang journeyed to Sichuan to pay homage to the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and found solace at Daci Temple. According to the writings in Puji’s “Wudeng Huiyuan,” it is estimated that the temple was established between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, making it over 1600 years old.

Tang Dynasty

In the first year of the Tang Wude era (618 AD), the renowned monk Xuanzang embarked on a journey from Chang’an to Chengdu. Under the guidance of esteemed masters such as Baoxian, Daoji, and Zhizhen, he devoted himself to the study of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries. In the spring of the fifth year of Wude (622 AD), Xuanzang received ordination and pursued Vinaya studies at Daci Temple in Chengdu. Over the course of four to five years in Chengdu, Xuanzang delved deep into various Buddhist texts and delivered enlightening lectures at temples like Daci and Konghui, earning great admiration from the local community. However, Xuanzang’s thirst for knowledge transcended Chengdu as he embarked on a courageous voyage through the treacherous Three Gorges, ultimately reaching Chang’an and accomplishing his monumental quest to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from the Western Heaven.

In the fifteenth year of the Tang Tianbao era (756 AD), when An Lushan seized Chang’an, Emperor Xuanzong sought refuge in Chengdu. It was during this time that Emperor Xuanzong witnessed the compassionate actions of a monk named Yinggan from Daci Temple. Yinggan selflessly distributed porridge to the impoverished people on the streets of Chengdu and offered prayers for the welfare of the nation. Deeply moved by his noble deeds, Emperor Xuanzong bestowed upon him the prestigious title of “Great Holy Mercy Temple” and granted him a thousand acres of land. Moreover, Emperor Xuanzong appointed Wuxiang, a Korean monk and the third prince of the former Silla Kingdom, who had traveled to Shu, to oversee the construction of an immense royal temple. This magnificent temple comprised 96 monastic complexes, housing an astonishing 8,542 rooms.

In the seventeenth year of the Tang Zhenyuan era (801 AD), Wei Gao, the military governor of Shu, undertook the expansion and renovation of the Puji Hall at Daci Temple. Furthermore, he initiated the excavation of the Jade Stream that gracefully flowed in front of the temple. These endeavors enhanced the serene environment of Daci Temple, solidifying its reputation as a renowned center for Buddhist teachings during the Tang Dynasty. In the second year of the Tang Muzong era (822 AD), the esteemed monk Zhi Xuan, also known as Master Wudaguo, delivered enlightening lectures at the Puji Hall, attracting a daily audience of over ten thousand individuals.

During the fifth year of the Tang Huichang era (845 AD), Emperor Wuzong initiated a campaign to suppress Buddhism. However, owing to an inscription made by Emperor Xuanzong, Daci Temple was spared from destruction, becoming the sole Buddhist temple that survived in Chengdu during that period. It also held the distinction of being the largest temple in the Shu region.

The successive visits of Emperor Xuanzong and Emperor Xiuzong of Tang to Chengdu attracted numerous renowned painters, leading to a flourishing artistic scene. Within Daci Temple alone, there existed over a thousand murals created by esteemed artists, with more than sixty of them achieving nationwide recognition. Li Zhichun’s “Record of Daci Temple” during the Song Dynasty attests that Chengdu boasted the most prominent painters in the entire country, with Daci Temple serving as the epicenter of this artistic vibrancy. Works such as “Chengdu Ancient Temple Famous Brushes” by Fan Chengda and “Records of Famous Paintings in Yizhou” by Huang Xiufu documented the artists and content of the murals at Daci Temple.

Song Dysnaties

During the Song Dynasty, the Zen master Daolong embarked on a monastic journey at the age of thirteen, entering Daci Temple. After completing his studies there, in the sixth year of Chunyou (1246), he led a group of disciples on a voyage to Japan, where he became the first to spread the teachings of Zen Buddhism. Subsequently, Emperor Go-Saga of the Sōhei summoned him and granted permission to establish Jinnaji Temple. Over the course of his thirty-two years in Japan, Daolong attracted a multitude of disciples and gained a reputation comparable to that of the Tang Dynasty monk Jianzhen. Following his passing, Daolong was posthumously honored with the title “Great Awakening Zen Master,” marking the initiation of posthumous titles for Zen masters in Japan.

During the prosperous era of the Tang and Song dynasties, Daci Temple held a prominent position in the eastern part of Chengdu and served as a popular tourist destination of the time. The temple grounds bustled with vibrant activity during temple fairs, while the surrounding area flourished with commercial endeavors. In front of the temple, a seasonal market emerged, offering a wide range of goods such as lanterns, flowers, silkworms, medicine, hemp, and precious gems. Additionally, night markets sprouted along both banks of the Jieyu River. Descriptions found in “Fangxingshenglue” and Tian Kuang’s poem “Ascending the Tower at Daci Temple to Observe the Night Market” vividly portray the lively night market near Daci Temple during the Song Dynasty. The tradition of night markets endured until modern times.

Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the tenth year of the Xuande reign in the Ming Dynasty (1435), Daci Temple was ravaged by a devastating fire, and it suffered further damage towards the end of the Ming Dynasty. However, it was reconstructed during the reign of Emperor Shunzhi in the Qing Dynasty, and the local magistrate Ji Yingxiong had the honor of inscribing the plaque “Daci Temple” for the reconstructed temple. In the sixth year of the Tongzhi reign (1867), the temple underwent yet another round of reconstruction, resulting in a magnificent complex. The main buildings along the central axis included the Mountain Gate Hall, Maitreya Hall, Guanyin Hall, Mahavira Hall, Dharma Hall, Scripture Repository, and the Connecting Hall (unfortunately demolished in 1958 during the expansion of Dongfeng Road). On both sides, there were additional structures such as the Guest Hall, Dining Hall, Zen Hall, and Ordination Hall, creating a harmonious architectural layout. The temple spanned an expansive area of over 40 mu (approximately 26,667 square meters), showcasing its grandeur and importance.

Adorning the façade of the Mountain Gate Hall, a significant stone plaque was inscribed with the words “Ancient Great Compassionate Temple” by Huang Yunhu, the Sichuan Inspector. Each hall within the temple complex boasted magnificent stone pillars, upon which were engraved exquisite couplets composed by renowned literati of the Qing Dynasty, including the esteemed Gu Fuchu. These couplets added an artistic and intellectual touch to the temple’s ambience, further enhancing its cultural significance.

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