Gérard Dupuy: "In search of immortality"

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

In China, living in accordance with the principle of interdependence is almost atavistic. Movement is at the heart of everyday life. This is why, according to the moments of their existence, the Chinese are Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians. The sacred mountains bear witness to this freedom to be and to think about the world. Fascinated by China and its mountains, magical places conducive to meditation, and by their imagination, Gérard Dupuy reflects this reality by evoking in this interview the sacred peaks, their particularities and the origin of their divinization.

How did you come to be interested in the Chinese mountains, their imagination and their symbolism?

As soon as we approach classical Chinese to access the original texts, literary or poetic, we note that the mountain is constantly evoked as a major figure of the great Chinese land. My interest comes from the long frequentation of the mountain – in this case, the Alps – then from the discovery of the Chinese mountains. The idea came to me to try, from the innumerable source texts to "pull the thread" of the mountain motif over an approximately chronological period, going from the beginning of the Chinese world to the fifth century of our era, where the sensitivity to the landscape appears. If I choose the expression "beginning of the world", it is to avoid any notion of "creation" of the world. Some writings mention, from an undifferentiated background, a spontaneous deployment of breaths, some light and subtle going to form the sky, others heavy and coarse constituting the earth.

Has the mountain always been deified throughout Chinese history?

There are no great founding myths, but stories and legends around the first times which present a certain coherence. Pillars came to fix the earth and keep it at the right distance with the sky. These pillars prefigure, in my opinion, the sacred peaks which appear by name in an encyclopedia dating from the 1500rd century BC, the Erya, four in number distributed according to the orients, then five, with the appearance of a central peak . From a mental representation, these peaks then took on a physical determination and were precisely named and located on Chinese territory. The oracular inscription "sacred peak" is found according to numerous occurrences on the breastplates of turtles or bones of bovines used for the complex techniques of divination which were developed between 1000 and XNUMX years before our era. We also find the inscription “mountain”, but much less frequently. The term "sacred peak" is particularly appropriate, because from these remote times, certain mountains were perceived as harboring a particular power that had to be reconciled, in particular by means of sacrifices to the deities who resided there.

How did the Chinese come to distinguish five mounts or sacred mountains? What are the particularities of these five sacred mountains?

The mythical emperor Yao consulted the four sacred peaks - east, west, north, south - as attested by the Document Classic (Shujing), one of the oldest texts in the written tradition. As we said, a fifth central peak was mentioned. We can think that these peaks had the function of fixing the Chinese earth which floated on the waters, of distributing the space of this one "under the sky" ("tian xia", expression used until today), as well as maintaining the relationship with heaven. Thus, at certain times, notably under the Han, sovereigns performed rituals relating to a particular sacred peak, codified down to the smallest detail. This is particularly the case of Taishan, in what is now Shandong province. The sovereign, after having received many warnings and having carefully prepared himself, began the ascent of the sacred peak. He addressed himself to heaven, through the intermediary of the divinity of the place, gave an account of the exercise of his mandate and saw it revived. The search for immortality was not absent from his concerns.

Did followers of Buddhism differ from Confucians and Taoists in their way of venerating mountains?

Confucianism constituted a powerful current of thought which is perpetuated, but one can consider that it is more of a social nature; the spirit and the behavior must contribute to the good relations between the individuals considered in concentric groups: the nuclear family, the extended family including the ancestors, the kingdom in its right functioning. Mountains are rarely mentioned in Confucian texts.

Buddhists, coming from China or from more distant countries such as Japan, Korea or India, have visited temples, monasteries, hermitages, gardens and residences to find relics, traces of the Buddha on Chinese soil.

It is very different from the Taoists who were passionate about the mountains considered to be able to harbor great inner power. Crossing paths and streams, comprising huge rooms where adepts could meet, described in secret maps, the mountains communicated with the outside through “sky caves”. Considerable literature has been produced on the dangers of the mountain, but also on the preparations and rituals for approaching and entering it. Buddhists may have seen mountains more as a place of memory.

How did the cohabitation between Buddhists and Taoists operate when Buddhism took over mountains that were originally Taoists?

It is true that the two religions were able to “invest” the same mountains and establish monasteries and temples there. Their “cohabitation” took on all the gradations of relations between dialogue and deep rivalry, without the latter going as far as mortal combat. It should be added that over the course of Chinese dynastic history, Buddhism has experienced very contrasting attitudes from the power, ranging from establishment as an official cult to severe repression.

Mountains are often places of pilgrimage in China. What are the Buddhist pilgrims looking for who go to climb these mountains?

Buddhists, coming from China or from more distant countries such as Japan, Korea or India, have visited temples, monasteries, hermitages, gardens and residences to find relics, traces of the Buddha on Chinese soil. It should be noted that certain places such as the Wutaishan massif or the Peak of the Vulture (in fact, there were several Peaks of the Vulture) seemed to represent the original Indian places of Buddhism. Vision and memory animated these pilgrims, some of whom could come and learn from famous monks.

From the Six Dynasties between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, four sacred mountains could be considered as more particularly Buddhist:

– Wutai shan, in Shanxi, linked to Manjusri and the element “air”

– Putuo shan, in Zhejiang, linked to Avalokiteshvara and the element "water"

– Jiuhua shan, in Anhui, related to Kṣitigarbha and the element “earth”

– Emei shan, in Sichuan, linked to Samantabhadra and the “fire” element.

There are accounts of these visits, one of the finest of which is found in the diary of the monk Jôjin (1011-1081), Pilgrimage to the Tiantai and Wutai mountains, written in 1072 and 1073. Note, in passing, that the important school of Japanese Buddhism Tendai is a revised import of the Chinese school Tiantai taking its name from the eponymous mountains

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments