Revered Mountains and Ancient Temples: Mount Heng (N), the Most Significant Mountain in Northern China

Tian Xin

PureInsight | June 9, 2003

The rocky ridge of Mount Heng at Dusk

[] Mount Heng is the Northern Mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains. The Northern Mountain Mount Heng sounds identical in Chinese to the Southern Mountain Mount Heng, but their written Chinese characters are different. The Northern Mountain Mount Heng is in Chinese while the Southern Mountain Mount Heng is in Chinese. Its main peak soars majestically over the northern Shanxi Province. Legend has it that about 4,000 years ago, Emperor Shun, one of the two saintly emperors in Chinese history, came through on an inspection tour to the north Hun Yuan. Emperor Shun was amazed when he saw the majestic and towering peaks of Mount Heng. They appeared to him as the northern gate to heaven, and so he bestowed on Mount Heng the honorable title "the Northern Mountain." Therefore, Mount Heng became known as the king of the more than ten thousand mountains in northern China.

Mount Heng meets Yanmen Pass in the west and towers over Taihang Mountain, extending for 250 kilometers in a northeast-southwestern direction. This is why the Chinese people call Mount Heng a natural screen." Tianfeng Ridge (or Heavenly Peak Ridge) is the main peak. It rises 2,017 meters above the sea level and is located in Hun Yuan County. Mount Heng has been described as "the northern column rising to heaven" and "the first mountain beyond the Great Wall." Mount Heng was once famous for "Eighteen Sites of Interest." During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Mount Heng was famous for its "Three Temples, Four Ancestral Temples, Nine Booths and Pavilions, Seven Palaces, Eight Caves and Twelve Shrines." A dozen sites of interest still remain, such as Xuankong Monastery (or Hanging Monastery), Beiyue Temple (or The Temple of the Northern Mountain), Feishi Cave (or Flying Stone Cave), Huixian Mansion (or Celestial-Meeting Mansion), Jiutian Palace (or Nine Heavens Palace), as well as a great number of other places of interest.

Mount Heng was once called Mount Chang (or Mount Constance in Chinese), Heng Zong, Xuan Yue or Zi Yue. Mount Heng was first renamed Mount Chang during the Han and Song Dynasties. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Mount Chang was renamed Damao Mountain or Shenjian Mountain. The Northern Mountain of Mount Heng has been discussed in history books since ancient times and is associated with many important historical incidents. According to the Yugong Chapter of Shang Shu (or The Book of History, one of The Thirteen Classics), "Taihang Mountain and Mount Heng were originally a stone tablet in the ocean." One reads in the Zhi Fang Shi Chapter of Zhou Li (or The Book of Rites of the Zhou Dynasty) that, "Mount Heng is the fort guarding the northern state Binzhou (today¡¯s Shanxi Province)." Shan Hai Jing (or The Book of Mountains and Seas, the title of an ancient Chinese geography book) calls Mount Heng "The Northern Mountain." The famous historian Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty wrote in Shi Ji (or The Historic Records): "Mount Heng (or Mount Constance) is the Northern Mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains." Located in the north, Mount Heng is where all the living creatures were born. It is a place that will last forever; therefore, it is called Mount Heng (or Mount Constance as translated from Chinese.)

Mount Heng in traditional Chinese watercolor

Throughout historical times, many famous Chinese scholars have produced vivid descriptions of Mount Heng. Ban Gu, a historian of the Han Dynasty, wrote: "Looking at the towering Mount Chang, and climbing up the lofty ridge of the Northern Mountain." Jia Dao of the Tang dynasty wrote in a poem titled, "The Temple of the Northern Mountain: There are five mountains between heaven and earth. Mount Heng towers in the north. With thousands of rocky ridges piled against each other, Mount Heng appears to be unpredictable, tricky and peculiar. Tourists are intimidated by its appearance. Temples are dark even during daytime. Sometimes it rains heavily on Mount Heng, spraying the grace of heaven to earth. Is the God that created Mount Heng still with us and watch over us from above Mount Heng?" Li Bai, the great poet of the Tang Dynasty, left his calligraphy of two Chinese characters at Mount Heng: "Zhuang Guan" or "Spectacular" in English.

Taoists regard Mount Heng as the residence of the immortals and will cultivate on Mount Heng. Taoists call Mount Heng the Fifth among the Thirty-Six Blessed Lands, or Zong Xuan Dong Tian. Sima Chengzhen wrote in Map of the Heaven and Earth Palace, The Thirty Six Small Blessed Lands: "The Fifth Blessed Land is located on Mount Chang, which measures 3,000 li (a Chinese linear measure about one third of a mile) in circumference. The Fifth Blessed Land is also known as Zong Xuan Dong Tian. It is located in the Quyang County, Mount Chang, Heng State. It is governed by the Immortal of Truthfulness Zhen Zizhen."

A Meditation Cave (top left) on Mount Heng

Zhang Guo, a Taoist of the Tang Dynasty, is the well-known Zhang Guo Lao, one of the Eight Immortals, who once cultivated the Tao on Mount Heng. Volume 191 of Jiu Tang Shu (or Old Tang¡¯s History) states, "No one knows who Zhang Guo is. During the reign of the female Chinese Emperor Wu Ze Tian, Zhang Guo lived in seclusion on Mount Zhongtiao and was seen generally only between Fen and Jin. There were rumors at that time that Zhang Guo possessed a Vital Elixir, which allowed him to live for hundreds of years. Zhang Guo wrote The Profound Explanations of Yin Fu Jing. Emperor Wu Ze Tian sent a messenger to summon him to the royal court, but Zhang Guo faked death to avoid a meeting with Emperor Wu Ze Tian. Later, people saw him walking around on Mount Heng. In the 21th year of Kai Yuan reign (773 A.D.), Wei Ji, Prefecture governor of Heng Prefecture sent Xu Qiao, a local government official, with a handwritten official invitation letter Zhang Guo. Zhang Guo followed Xu Qiao until Dong Du. [¡­] Later Zhang Guo bid a sincere farewell and returned to Mount Heng. [¡­] Zhang Guo was given such honorable titles as "Yin Qing Guang Lu Da Fu", and "Gentleman Tong Xuan." [¡­] Zhang Guo disappeared on Mount Heng and was not seen again."

Today there remain rows of three-inch deep circular indentations on the rocks at Zhang Guo Lao Ridge. Legend has it that Zhang Guo Lao, one of the Eight Immortals, studied alchemy and cultivated in the Tao at Mount Heng. Zhang Guo Lao left trails on the rocks when he traveled up and down Mount Heng on a donkey. The Chinese people call them "celestial marks of Zhang Guo Lao." Mount Heng tourists enjoy stepping in the indented rock. It is alleged that one can thus "absorb some of Zhang Guo Lao¡¯s celestial energy."

Besides the Zhang Gou Lao Ridge, there are many awe-inspiring natural phenomena. For example, there are two wells at the halfway point of Mount Heng, one producing sweet and the other bitter water. The two wells are only one meter apart, yet the water qualities are completely different. One well produces water that is sweet, cooling and refreshing, and is thus called the sweet well. The other well produces bitter and dry-tasting water that is unfit for drinking. The sweet well runs only a few feet deep, yet the water supply has been ceaseless since historical times. It can supply water for ten thousands of people. During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), Emperor Li Longji bestowed upon the sweet well a horizontal inscribed board that said, "Long Quan Guan" (or Dragon Well Temple.)

Built during the Hong Zhi period of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD), the Northern Mountain Temple is the most glorious temple among all temples at Mount Heng. The Northern Mountain Temple is situated below the southern precipice of the main peak of Tianfeng Ridge (or Heavenly Peak Ridge.) There is a giant horizontal inscription above its main gate that says: "Hall of Zhen Yuan." There is also a set of vertical verses at the sides of the main gate. The left verse says: "Mount Heng is a fort guarding China for eons, only because there was peace and agriculture during our saintly reigns we experiences prosperity for three hundred years." The right verse says: "The six stars of Wen Chang join with the North Star, only cultivated Taoists can carve the dragon and embroider the tiger, which brilliantly shine across the nine realms." In the main hall inside the Northern Mountain Temple, there is a regal statue of the Celestial Emperor of the Northern Mountain. The walls at the eastern and western walls in the main hall are decorated with highly artistic mural gigantic paintings, measuring 18 meters in width and 8 meters in height. The mural paintings are allegedly the work of Wu Daozi, a famous artist in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). The mural paintings on the east wall, titled "Moving Clouds and Falling Rain", depict the moment when many gods joined forces and send rain to relieve a drought. The gigantic green dragon in the painting roves in the clouds and fog, as if ready to fly out of the wall. The mural paining on the west wall is titled "All Kingdoms in Eternal Peace." The painting portrays a significant moment when countless gods bestowed prosperity on humankind, lightening the calamities of people, before returning to their celestial palaces.

Hanging Monastery nestles against an enormous rock and is supported by many poles.

Hanging Monastery Seen from Below

One cannot introduce Mount Heng without mentioning Xuankong Monastery (or Hanging Monastery.) The Hanging Monastery is one of the most noteworthy attractions on Mount Heng. It was constructed during the later period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534 A.D.). The Hanging Monastery has a 1,400 year history. It has miraculously survived all calamities. The architectural design is most ingenious and beyond compare. It took more than the wisdom of an average architect to nest a monastery against a deadly cliff. There are winding verandahs within its structure, following the uneven shape of the rock. The structure is sturdy and solid whenever necessary. With rocks hanging overhead and gorges below, the foundation of the Hanging Monastery was built upon rocks, which required chiseling into the rock to nestle it against the cliffs. The horizontal and vertical located wood support poles complemented each other, and produced a most amazing architectural structure, accenting a very unique architectural style.

An Inscribed Stone Tablet at the Hanging Monastery

An awesome sight at the shrine of the three founders is the statues of Sakyamuni, Lao Zi and Confucius. There may be a special reason why there are statues of Sakyamuni, Lao Zi and Confucius in a Taoist temple. Sakyamuni represents the Buddha School, which cultivates "Shan" (Compassion). Lao Zi represents the Tao school, which cultivates "Zhen" (Truth). Confucius represents the Confucius School, which cultivates "Ren" (Forbearance), widely accepted philosophies. It is unlikely that the founder of this temple cultivated in three different cultivation schools at the same time, because that would be unacceptable to a cultivator. In the cultivation community, it is particularly important that one does not cultivate different cultivation principles before one reaches consummation in one cultivation school. For an example in the Tao School, the name of Sun Buer [Buer means no second way in Chinese], one of the Seven Taoists, shows the importance of concentrating on one cultivation school only.

There are many more mysteries in the Hanging Monastery besides its architecture that require further exploration.

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