I’m an American living in Nanjing, China, exploring the city solo while my husband goes to school! I had my first Buddhist temple experience so I wanted to share in hopes that it helps some of you. I went to Jiming Temple, which is the oldest temple in Nanjing. I was confused and parts were anxiety-heightening, but it was a great experience!
My First Buddhist Temple Experience
I biked to Jiming Temple, which only took me about 10 minutes from our apartment in the Gulou District.
This Buddhist temple is located in the Xuanwu District right next to a huge lake. The appeal to me was that it’s one of the oldest temples in Nanjing, with its initial construction taking place in the year 557. Yeah, that’s only 3 digits. In America, if something is from the 1800s I’m really impressed.
When you first get there, you have to buy a ticket at the front office which is 10 RMB, so only about $1.50 USD. I was looking for a place to have my ticket checked, but didn’t see one, so I just walked through the front entrance. As I did, these guys behind a counter were laughing and motioning for me to come towards them. They took my ticket stub and handed me 3 big sticks of incense that I had no idea what to do with.
Jiming Temple is sometimes called Gujiming Temple, which confused me until Eric told me the Gu- in front means “ancient”. Jiming, I later found out, means “rooster crowing”, and I still have no idea why that’s what this place is called. Any guesses?
After walking through the front gate, the first thing I saw was a small prayer area with speakers above playing some kind of audio track of prayer. It seems that the main activity done in these prayer areas is kneeling and bowing in front of a large sculpture, usually of Buddha.
In case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m close to clueless about Buddhist rituals and traditions. I studied Buddhism briefly in a world religions class, but I was raised in an area that’s predominately Christian, so I’m lacking experiences in Buddhist environments.
The pathways all lead upwards, with a seven-story pagoda structure at the very peak. This results in some awesome views of the city, lake, and nearby mountain.
Most of the intricate design elements, which I was dying to take pictures of, are within the prayer areas, which all have signs outside that say “No Picture”. Out of respect, I obliged, and kept my camera in my backpack most of the time. It became clear to me the further I walked through the temple grounds, that the majority of people on-site were there to pray and show their respect to Buddha and their Buddhist ancestors. I was absolutely the only white person on-site, and only one of three people I could see who were more interested in taking pictures than praying.
Since I didn’t get pictures of these prayer areas, I’ll try my best to paint a picture for you. Small buildings with open walls that are simple on the outside, and FULL of color on the inside, golds and reds being the obvious favorites. There are large structures of revered figures like Buddha or various Bodhisattvas, with flat counters built in front for offerings of food or beverages, wooden boxes for monetary donations, and cushions for kneeling and bowing. The ceilings are covered in designs that remind me of Moroccan tapestries. No two prayer rooms were the same, so this is a somewhat generalized description. I really just peeked in rather than spending time staring, because I felt a little awkward. The one I did go into was the tall pagoda. I was really hoping I would look up and it would be completely open and feel incredibly grand, but the first floor has its own ceiling and the spiral staircase that runs along the wall is blocked off.
The coolest part of this temple is that you really feel like you’re walking through a piece of history. Like I said, the initial construction was in the 500s, but Nanjing has seen quite a bit of turmoil in its history, so the temple structures have been destroyed and reconstructed multiple times. The existing design was erected in 1387, and then destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion, a 14-year civil war that resulted in approximately 30 million or more dead. This was a significant time in Nanjing’s history, so I’ll definitely be writing about it after I do more research. I’m not exactly sure when they rebuilt the temple structures that are standing today, but I imagine it was shortly after the Rebellion ended in the late 1800s. In the 1930s, the country was transitioning from Republican China into its current Communist Party system, so all but one of the temple structures were taken over by the police and army as barracks. They left one building for prayer (how nice of them).
So, what you’re actually looking at when you visit Jiming Temple today is Buddhist grounds that have endured some serious events. There are some particularly ancient feeling pieces throughout, like carved images along the walls that surround the pagoda, and a huge iron bell with a mallet strung up next to it that looks like it’s been used a million times. I wanted to hear about ancient legends, but the only one written in English on the temple’s official website is the Legend of the Rouge Well, which I’m still not sure I saw. As the story goes, the emperor of the Southern Tang Dynasty (mid-900s) and his concubine hid themselves in the well to escape, leaving stains of rouge on the well from the concubine’s makeup. Hopefully I can find more English text on Jiming Temple, but for now I’ll have to satisfy myself with that weird, extremely non-Buddhist feeling story.
To all you vegetarians out there, Jiming Temple has an active vegetarian restaurant on the temple grounds that looks delicious! I was afraid of going in by myself since I don’t speak Mandarin, but I’m really interested in Buddhist cuisine. If you’re a vegetarian and you come to China, I’ve learned that you’re pretty much stuck eating at Buddhist restaurants like one of these if you’re adamant about having your food truly separated from meat dishes.
The last place I visited on the temple grounds was the part where everyone but me knew exactly what to do with their incense. I walked around the area a while to subtly people-watch until I spent a few minutes doing so and was still confused. At that point I just blatantly stared at people. I get stared at all the time here, so I didn’t feel that weird doing it. Here’s how it works for my fellow Buddhist n00bs: You take your incense to a room filled with candles, and light them. Once they’re burning, you walk around a bit, making sure to bow in each direction and spread the scent around. After you’re done with that process, you stick the incense straight up into this HUGE iron pot thing that’s filled with ashes and previously burned incense sticks. It was confusing, but I survived relatively unembarrassed.
As I was attempting to find the exit, I found the entrance to the historic Nanjing City Wall, which is conveniently attached. I had extra time, so I went for it! This blog post is already WAY longer than I meant for it to be, so I’ll save City Wall for another post.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to comment below if you have any experience exploring Buddhist temples – I’d love to hear about your experience 🙂
Talk to you soon!
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