Situated in what is today a northwestern suburb of the city of Yangzhou, Da Ming ("Great Understanding") Temple is one of the Eight Great Temples of Yangzhou, just as many other cities or districts of cities throughout China boast of 'eight great temples' (viz. the Eight Great Temples of the Western Hills district of Beijing). As anyone familiar with Chinese culture will know, the number eight is particularly auspicious. For example, there are Eight Great Cuisine Schools in China, and in the city of Yangzhou itself, a group of heterodox calligraphers and painters formed their own special artistic group called the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, not to speak of the fact that a Chinese telephone number whose final set of digits (after the area code prefix) is all 8s will set you back a modest fortune.
Da Ming (more commonly written today as Daming) Temple has had many names down through its long history, among these: Xiling ("Living Soul") Temple, since there once stood a pagoda of the same name near the same site containing the ashes of Buddhist monks; Xi ("West") Temple, because the temple stood to the west of the then Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty palace, which inspired ordinary folk to refer to the temple by that directional name; Diping Temple, a name change the temple received during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty; and Fajing Temple, the name given to the temple by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, since the Qing Dynasty's Manchu rulers were particularly sensitive about all things remotely connected - or even disconnected in this case, except in name - with the previous Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty (more on this name change below).
A Brief History
Daming Temple was originally named after the second reign (CE 457-464) of Emperor Xiao Wu of the Song Dynasty (CE 420-479) of the Southern (CE 420-588) Dynasties period, itself part of the Northern and Southern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period, which, along with the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) period and the Western Jin (CE 265-316) and Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasties period, was a time of much internal division in China between encroaching northern tribes and the indigenous southern tribes (north-south unity was again established for a period with the advent of the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty). Chinese emperors often gave their various reigns different titles as a way of signifying a shift in emphasis, though not all Chinese emperors divided their respective periods of rule into separate reigns (note that Emperor Xiao Wu's first reign (CE 454-456) was named Xiao Jian, or "Xiao's Sword", suggesting that once Xiao had gained control, peace and understanding could follow).
Though Daming Temple was built during the 5th century CE, it first came to fame during the Tang Dynasty, when a Buddhist monk by the name of Jianzhen rose within the ranks of Daming Temple's hierarchy first to become Abbot of Daming Temple, then to cross the treacherous waters of the East China Sea to Japan - a journey that was only completed after numerous aborted attempts stretching over 10 years - where Master Jianzhen, during the twelfth year of the Tianbao Reign (CE 742-756) of Emperor Xuanzong, or in CE 753, collected funds for, then oversaw the construction of, Toshodiaji Temple in the Japanese village of Nara, located about 30 kilometers due east of the heart of Osaka, itself located roughly midway along the southern shores of the elongated, southwest-northeast oriented island that is Japan. Master Jianzhen spent the remainder of his life in Japan, spreading Buddhism in particular, and in general facilitating cultural exchange between Chinese and Japanese monks, artists and scholars.
Buddhism had already been introduced to Japan (specifically, to the village of Nara) via present-day Korea (the Joseon (1392-1897) Dynasty) in CE 552, and some sources suggest that already a century earlier, a group of Indian monks from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in an area of what is today northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan travelled to Fusang ("The Country of the Extreme East") in order to spread Buddhism. Indeed, Japanese Buddhist monks travelled to many Chinese cities in the years following the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, including to the city of Yangzhou, to learn about Buddhism. In fact, Master Jianzhen travelled to the village of Nara on the express invitation of the Buddhists of Nara, who had heard about the Chinese monk from Japanese Buddhist pilgrims who had visited Daming Temple.
The building of Toshodiaji Temple was only one in a series of cultural engagements between China and its immediate neighbors for which the Tang Dynasty would become famous as a beacon of enlightenment. A memorial hall in honor of Master Jianzhen, Jianzhenheshang, was built at Daming Temple in 1973 as part of the common effort between China and Japan to put the unhappy memories of the more recent past - especially the events surrounding the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), including the 1937 Massacre of Nanking - behind them. Visitors to Daming Temple can learn more about the life and work of Master Jianzhen at the Memorial Hall of Master Jianzhen, which is situated just east of the temple's main hall, Maravira Hall.
A Short Description of Daming Temple
In Mahavira Hall are three Buddha statue scenes: Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, is situated in the center, with an older disciple, symbolizing experience and wisdom, on Sakyamuni's left, and a younger disciple, symbolizing knowledge and power, on Sakyamuni's right; Bhaisajyaguru ("Medicine Master and King of Lapis Lazuli Light"), whose Chinese name is Yao Shi Fwo, to the east of Sakyamuni; and to the west of Sakyamuni, Amitabha ("Buddha of Infinite Light"), the principal Buddha of the Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism.
Along the eastern and western walls of Mahavira Hall are ranged the images of 18 arhats (an arhat is a figure depicting an arahant, or one who has attained the ultimate goal of enlightenment, or nirvana, by following in the footsteps of the first such arahant, Buddha Sakyamuni himself, who rediscovered the path to enlightenment and taught it to his followers). Along the northern wall are ranged 6 Buddha images representing the 6 founders of the Chan ("Zen" in Japanese) sect of Buddhism, while at the back, or southern, wall is an image of an island surrounded by the sea, with Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (and patron saint, as it were, of seafarers) standing on the head of a huge turtle. Guanyin, who is most often portrayed as a female, consoles all who suffer, and since many a Chinese seafarer - especially fishermen - has perished at sea, Guanyin has come to be associated with those whose livelihood bring them into contact with the sea.
East of Mahavira Hall stands Jianzhenheshang ("Memorial Hall of Master Jianzhen"), as indicated, where one can learn about the life and times of this remarkable monk.
In front of Daming Temple, and partially concealed by ancient trees, stands an ancient archway with the following inscription: "Ruins of Xiling", a reference to the now defunct 9-storeyed pagoda of the same name. The pagoda was celebrated in the poems of many Tang Dynasty poets who visited the pagoda, praising it for, among other things, the fantastic views it offered of the surrounding countryside. Alas, Xiling Pagoda was later burned down during civil strife, a fate that Xiling Pagoda shares with countless other religious and historical treasures throughout China.
In fairness to Emperor Qianlong, who changed the name of the temple to Fajing for fear that its original name might reawaken Han Chinese sympathies with the long since defeated Ming Dynasty, the temple was restored and expanded during the emperor's long rule (1735-1796). Some of the additions include: Tianwang Palace and Daxiong Grand Palace, as well as a mountain gate. Extensive refurbishments were made to: Pingshan Hall, where the famous Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty poet, Ouyang Xiu (CE 1007-1072), once gave lectures; Gulin Hall, built by another famous Northern Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi (CE 1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo; and Ouyang Xiu Ancestral Temple.
There are numerous calligraphic inscriptions on the walls of Daming Temple that were made by members of the literati, especially by Song Dynasty poets and calligraphers. One of the more eye-catching is an inscription consisting of five large calligraphic characters painted on the eastern wall of Daming Temple and representing the following, rather cryptic message: "The First in Huaidong", which translates from poet-speak into the language of ordinary mortals as: "Daming Temple and its surrounding scenery is the best, most highly valued prize that Yangzhou has to offer". The message is a quote from the famous Northern Song Dynasty poet, Qin Shaoyou (CE 1049-1100), who of course visited Daming Temple and was fascinated by its serene beauty.
In 1980, the abbot of Toshodiaji Temple, the Japanese Buddhist temple built by the former Abbot of Daming Temple, requested permission to exhibit a statue of Master Jianzhen at Fajing Temple. In honor of the exhibition - and, of course, also in honor of the memory of the former Abbot of Daming Temple - the city of Yangzhou changed the temple's name back to its original designation, Daming Temple.