Revered Mountains and Ancient Temples: Mount Heng, the Mountain of Longevity

Tian Xin

PureInsight | May 12, 2003

Misty Mount Heng

[] Located in the south-central region of Hunan Province, Mount Heng is the southernmost mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains in China and is often referred to as the Southern Mountain. It stretches across eight counties and cities of Hunan Province, meandering for eight hundred li (1 li = 0.5 kilometer). Zhurong Peak, the highest of Mount Heng's seventy-two peaks, is 1,290 meters above sea level. The view at the summit makes you feel that you have reached the sky. When you take a look around at the lofty peaks and steep ridges, you feel as if you are flying above the clouds. In his poem "Ode to Mount Heng," Wei Yuan, a famous scholar of the Qing Dynasty, praised the mountain by saying, "Only the Southern Mountain gives you the feeling of flying."

The trip from the foot of Mount Heng to Zhurong Peak is thirty-six li. When arriving at the "Mid-Mountain Pavilion," you are halfway up to the top of Mount Heng. There is a rhyming couplet inside the pavilion that says, "Follow the path, but you must persevere even at the half-way point. What your heart desires is not far away, but you must accept the challenge if you wish to reach the top."

The South Heavenly Gate (Nan Tian Men) serves as a prelude to the summit. Looking up at the Gate, you will see another couplet that says, "This gate leads to heaven, where you get close to the sky and stars. The path leads to the summit, where all other mountains are beneath you." This couplet gives you a mental picture of the majestic view from Mount Heng.

Gate to Zhurong Peak

There is a story behind the name "Southern Mountain." According to legend, Zhurong was a civil official at the royal court of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di). Back then, mankind knew how to make fire by using a stick to "drill" a piece of wood but did not know how to preserve the flame and use fire. Zhurong had an affinity for fire and became an expert on it. The Yellow Emperor thus appointed Zhurong as the principal governor of fire. Because Zhurong was also familiar with the affairs of the southern regions, the Yellow Emperor also appointed him as the administrative official in charge of affairs there. Zhurong lived, died, and was buried on Mount Heng. The Five Sacred Mountains are oriented in five different directions. According to the Theory of the Five Elements, each element – Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth – corresponds to one of the five different directions. The direction South corresponds to Fire. Therefore, the mountain where Zhurong, the fire governor, resided became the "Southern Mountain."

According to Historical Records of Central Hunan Province (Xiang Zhong Ji), "Mount Heng is the altar of Zhu Lin and the cultivation cave of Tai Xu. Mount Heng corresponds to the Zhen star. It gives everyone what he deserves according to his virtue. Mount Heng also provides an excellent choice for an observatory. It ought to be named after Ji Heng." Ji Heng is an instrument for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. This passage describes the correlation between Mount Heng and the celestial bodies that helped ancient Chinese astronomers study celestial bodies.

According to A Collection of Bizarre Stories (Shu Yi Ji) , Southern Mountain was transformed from the right arm of Pan Gu, the legendary Chinese god who created the universe. According to The Book of Astronomy (Xing Jing) , Southern Mountain corresponds to the Zhen star in a cluster of twenty-eight stars. There is a tiny star next to this cluster of stars, known as the Chang Sha star. Because the Chang Sha star is believed to rule the life span of all men on earth, and Mount Heng is located in the Chang Sha region according to the ancients, Mount Heng is naturally associated with longevity. Subsequently, "May your life be as lofty as the Southern Mountain" became a popular greeting for a person on his birthday. "Southern Mountain" of course refers to Mount Heng.

The very first stanza in "On the Renovation of the Inscribed Tablet at the Southern Mountain Temple," authored by Emperor Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty, says, "The Southern Mountain is the gigantic garrison of the southern sky. It corresponds toYu Heng in the Big Dipper. It is also known as the Longevity Mountain." Yu Heng is one of the seven stars in the Big Dipper, or the Zhen star in the cluster of twenty-eight stars.

The phrase "Longevity Mountain" is also described in the Source Book of Phrases (Ci Yuan) . The famous Chinese poet Li Bai extolled the Southern Mountain with a poem:

"The vast and hazy Mount Heng reaches the purple sky,
and faces Canopus in the south.
The whirlpool wind disperses the snow on the five peaks,
Sending the flower petals down on Dong Ting Lake."

Dong Ting Lake and Mount Heng are both located in Hunan Province. Here Canopus symbolizes "The Ancient Deity of the South Pole."

Throughout history, Southern Mountain has often been referred to as "the Mountain of Incomparable Longevity" or "the Mountain that Governs Longevity." Many man-made structures at Southern Mountain are named for longevity, or "Shou" in Chinese. To name a few examples, there are Wan Shou Palace (Palace of Ten Thousand Years), Shou Nin Palace (Peaceful Longevity Palace), Shou Jian Bridge (Bridge of Longevity Ravine), Ren Shou Pavilion (Humanity and Longevity Pavilion), Bai Shou Pergola (Pergola of A Hundred Years), Yan Shou Pergola (Extended Longevity Pergola) and Shou Fo Hall (Longevity and Buddha Hall).

Throughout the ages mankind has always had one dream – to achieve longevity. The wish for longevity is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. Therefore, every Chinese person is generally familiar with theories on taking care of personal health. Many types of fitness training programs targeted at reaching longevity and better health have been developed. Many famous traditional Chinese medical doctors invented schools of Qigong or other exercises to achieve longevity, such as "The Exercises that Imitate the Movements of Five Animals," invented by the famous physician Hua Tuo.

The subject of life and death has always been a popular topic in human society. And despite the fact that man has always fantasized about longevity, mankind has never been able to escape death and the cycle of reincarnation or samsara. Countless men throughout history tirelessly tried to resolve the mystery of life and death to escape samsara. The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty spared no expense in trying to find a way to achieve longevity. Some of his efforts included sending people to famous mountains and riverbanks for magical herbs and sending Taoists to Japan for magical Dan, a special pill forged by Taoists to reach longevity. However, the First Emperor eventually died like everyone else despite his expensive efforts. Only a select few have ever learned that one could only be released from samsara through cultivation.

There were many Buddhists and Taoists on Mount Heng. In fact, Mount Heng is revered as an important cultivation site for both Buddhists and Taoists, including those in Japan, other parts of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. People from all over the world have come to Mount Heng to pay tribute to the temples and palaces. Taoists cleared caves on Mount Heng for cultivation as early as during the West Zhou Dynasty. Temples were first built on Mount Heng during the Liang and Chen of the Six Dynasties (222 – 589 A.D.). Monk Hui Si built Fu Yan Temple (Temple of Blessings Through Persevering in Cultivation) and Can Jin Hall (The Hall of Buddhist Scriptures Library), which still remains on Mount Heng today. Hui Si's disciple, monk Zhi Yu, later went to Tian Tai Mountain and established the Tian Tai branch of Buddhism. During the Tang Dynasty when Buddhism prevailed and flourished, there was a marked increase in the number of cultivation spots and temples on Mount Heng. The most famous ones during this period were "Ten Giant Forests of Cultivation" and "Eight Hundred Cottage Temples."

There is a Chinese saying, "Monks are the most common residents on all revered mountains." Why were there so many temples and monks on Mount Heng? Why did they choose to cultivate on Mount Heng? One of the reasons might have been that Mount Heng symbolized longevity, and one of their goals in cultivation might have been to reach longevity. But that might not have been the true reason why monks throughout the ages favored Mount Heng. One can reach consummation and release oneself from the cycle of samsara through cultivation [Editor's note: and this location may have been beneficial for their cultivation.]

In the cultivation arena, the ability of being able to "fly up into the sky in broad daylight" is regarded as a sign that a person has freed himself from samsara. There was a story, for example, that described how the Lady Wei flew up into the sky in broad daylight on Mount Heng.

Ms. Wei Hua-Cun, also known as Wei Xian-An, was a famous Taoist cultivator during the Eastern and Western Jing Dynasties. Her cultivation story was recorded in both Mao Shan Zhi (Stories of Mao Mountain) and "The Lady Wei of Mount Heng." She was originally from Ren City in Shandong Province and was the daughter of the Duke of Wen Kang, Mr. Wei Shu. Ms. Wei married Mr. Liu Wen of Xiu Wu County, and had two sons, Liu Pu and Liu Xia. After her husband's death, she went to Mount Heng and lived in seclusion so as to cultivate according to a secret branch of Taoism. Legend has it that the Lady Wei used to cultivate at the Huang Ting Taoist Temple and the Rock of the Flying God outside the temple at Mount Heng. Visitors can still see both these places today. Because Lady Wei cultivated Taoism on Southern Mountain, she was referred to as "Nan Zhen" ("Truthfulness of the South") by the Taoist cultivation community. After sixteen years of cultivation on Mount Heng, Lady Wei's skin looked like that of an infant despite her real age of 84. That was the year she rode on a wheel to soar into the sky.

It was believed that not only people but also trees could reach longevity on Mount Heng. There is a ginkgo tree at Fu Yan Temple that was planted by Monk Hu Si during the Six Dynasties (222 – 589 A.D.). It is now over 1,400 years old. It takes three adults with arms outstretched to encircle the tree. A white magnolia tree behind the Can Jin Hall is over 500 years old.

The Southern Mountain has become a synonym for longevity. As the poem about Mount Heng in the Historical Records of Central Hunan Province goes, "It gives everyone what he deserves according to his virtue." This line reveals a principle of the universe. The universe treats everyone fairly, but one has to be able to be enlightened to its principles and laws.

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