Last updated: 12:59 PM ET, Fri October 21 2016

Dispatch Sichuan: A Journey to the Sacred Mountain

Tour Operator National Tour Association (NTA) David Cogswell October 21, 2016

Dispatch Sichuan: A Journey to the Sacred Mountain

Photo by David Cogswell

At the Third Annual Sichuan International Travel Expo, which I attended with the National Tour Association, the China National Tourism Administration and the local tourism authority offered some excursions to enable attendees to experience some of the tourism attractions of Sichuan. The southwestern province is a favorite destination for domestic Chinese tourists, but lesser known to the expo’s international attendees. One of the best excursions was a trip to Mount Emei, the largest of the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism.

The conference is held in Emeishan, a small town named for its proximity to Mount Emei. I piled into one of the vans that were assembled at the conference hotels to take groups of a dozen each to the top of the sacred mountain. We took off for the outskirts of town, then started up the road that leads to the mountaintop.   

Mount Emei stands 10,167 feet above sea level, a giant presence jutting up over the Chengdu Plain. My Chinese friend who goes by the name Selina told me that Buddhism was brought to Mount Emei in about 100 BC. Buddhism has been practiced on that mountaintop for 2,000 years and the place is rich in Buddhist heritage.

There were as many as 100 temples and monasteries there at one time. There are fewer now. I heard different numbers ranging from 20 to 76. Some of the more famous ones are Devotion to the Country Temple (Baoguosi), Ten-Thousand-Year Temple (Wanniansi), Immortal Peak Temple (Xianfengsi), and the temple at Elephant Bath Pond (Xixiangchi).

Our van climbed up the mountain on a winding two-lane road, passing closely by descending vehicles at practically every curve. It felt like an adventure just to be traveling on that highway headed toward the sky.

The mountain road was cloistered under the cover of trees that towered over us on both sides of the road. The right side inclined steeply upward, and the left side looked down over a precipice to the bottom of a deep crevice.  

The day was overcast, giving it that sense of timelessness when the movement of the sun is undetectable. It was misty and everything was moist. The mountain forest was dense. The vegetation was hearty and thick.

We saw many waterfalls along the way gushing out over cliffs and falling into sparkling mountain streams below. The mountain scenery was gripping. Everything dwarfed us. It was hard to remain unmoved at the grand scale, the beauty and vigor of nature that seemed to be rolling out before us as we proceeded upward. Nature was vast, fueled with primal energy on a massive scale.

As we kept climbing toward the summit of Emei, the panoramas that spread before us became increasingly vast and awe inspiring. We climbed up the giant mountain like a tiny caterpillar, winding back and forth to take the nearly vertical climb in stair steps.

Before cars, the journey to the top of the sacred mountain was a much greater undertaking. The footpath is 31 miles long and takes several days to walk.

As we climbed I felt increasingly engulfed in the nature around me. I was a tiny particle in the overwhelming spectacle. No wonder the ancients had designated Emei a sacred mountain, a place of enlightenment. Thoughts and impressions rushed through my mind with the force of the torrents of water that were gushing out of the cliffsides.

The scene brought to mind an old song by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin: “I Was Not Born to Follow.”

Oh I’d rather go and journey where the diamond crescent’s flowing

And run across the valley beneath the sacred mountain

And wander through the forest where the trees have leaves of prisms

That break the light up into colors

That no one knows the names of

It was as if those words had been stuck in my memory bank for decades waiting for this moment to burst out complete and intact to show me what they were talking about. The song began to play persistently in my head as the scenery seemed to fulfill the lyric.

And when it’s time I’ll go and wait beside the legendary fountain

Till I see your form reflected in its clear and jeweled waters

And if you think I’m ready you may lead me to the chasm

Where the rivers of our vision flow into one another

The drive culminated at a plateau where the cars park, and from there people pile into cable cars for the final portion of the journey to the Golden Summit. The cable cars lifted us steeply up the side of the mountain to another plateau from which we could reach the summit by a series of stairways.

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On top of the mountain was a gigantic golden statue of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism that -- along with Gautama Buddha and Manjusri -- forms the sacred trinity of Buddhism. The golden statue was practically too large and brilliant for the brain to decode the visual signals it generated. It was a gigantic golden deity with many heads, seated on four elephants, towering over the top of the mountain.

The day we were there was a day of special celebration for Buddhists. A ceremony was being conducted by monks with shaved heads and robes and was attended by people of all ages who paraded around the area with their hands together in gestures of reverence. There were abundant flower creations and rows of bright red candles burning.

It was the whole spectrum of Chinese life on every step of the path of life, from rowdy teenagers, to young couples with babies, to very old Chinese people with lined faces that seemed to tell ancient stories.  

The wind was cold. My fingertips became tingly, then numb. Ten thousand feet is high, and the air gets thin up there. The altitude will likely make the unaccustomed visitor experience a light-headedness that could well be enough to set off a religious experience in itself. I could feel it, but the whole experience was so heady, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling.

Maybe it was the altitude, the concentration of negative ions that cluster around mountain peaks. Maybe it was the concentration of human energy focused on Buddhism there for 2,000 years. Maybe it was jet lag, culture shock. I don’t know.

But that whole experience — ramping up as we drove through the fantastic mountain landscape on our way to the top of the sacred mountain, and finally reaching the summit where the gigantic golden statue stands, and seeing the devout Chinese parading in observance of a religious occasion — made my mind reel. It was as if my whole life passed before me and I observed everything in my history from a new perspective, from the summit of the Sacred Mountain.

I don’t want to say I had a religious conversion or anything like that, but the experience moved me deeply. I felt that I had been altered in some permanent way. It was much more than just an excursion to a tourist attraction. It changed my perspective and I will never forget it.