The hidden Buddhist grottos in Kunming

By Ma Tongchun, a local resident and senior English-speaking tour guide with over 30 years of professional experience. 


Early morning last Sunday, I drove my car to Green Lake Hotel to pick up my American friend Mason Smith for a pilgrimage to the Fahua Buddha Grottos in Anning. Half hour later, we drove out of the express way and found the winding country road to the grotto. 


We were stopped by a long iron bar laid across the road when we drove through to the end of the Taoyuan Village. A man of about 70 walked out of his small hut when he heard the horn and asked loudly: "where are going, sir?" I quickly got out of the car and walked up offering a piece of cigarette and said: "senior Uncle, we go to the grotto for a pilgrimage, please do us a favor and let us drive up." The skinny man swept away my cigarette and said: "who else comes with you?" I quickly replied: "an American Buddhist comes with me and he likes to pilgrim the Buddha of the grotto."


The man walked down and peeped through the car window and saw Mason, then said: "Ok! Ok! a foreign Buddhist! I let you go! Usually I will not let you go but you take a foreign monk here with a string of Buddha bead around the neck. But I make it clear: No cigarette, no fire in the mountain because of the forests! You remember?" I said: "Yes! Yes!" I then knew he was the local forest ranger. 


The bar slowly raised and I horned again for thanks and drove up the zigzag road to the grotto with a full power. Through about ten zigzags, we parked the car finally at the grass ground in front of the grotto which is the Fahua Temple Grottos.


It is located in Luoyang Mountain 5km away east of Anning City in the west of Kunming. The grotto got its name after the Fahua Temple that already collapsed long time ago. But according to the local records of Anning Prefecture, Fahua Temple was built in the Tang Dynasty. It was destroyed later, and rebuilt at the site in the period of Qianlong Emperor reign and destroyed again later. Today, only the small rebuilt temple and the partly damaged grottos exist. 


The stone carvings of the Buddha figures in the grottos were the works of the Dali Kingdom period (937-1253) in the Song Dynasty. These grottos were all carved on the precipice of Luoyang Mountain and there are four sections.


The First section had only two niches, the left is Bodhisattva Guanyin standing on a lotus flower with her bare feet, and the right is the Bodhisattva sitting on the lotus seat. 

The Second is the Eighteen Arhats carved on the east precipice, spreading upper, middle and lower layers. The poses and appearances are different from each other, about 70cm tall. There were two Chinese characters engraved under the Arhat carvings: wanzhao (sunset on the cliff). It is the carving done in the period of Kangxi Emperor's reign in the Qing Dynasty. “The Sunset on the Cliff” was one of the eight sceneries in Anning in the ancient time.


The Third, used to be three niches, now only one. You can see the Buddha squatting half and stroking his knees with his two hands, showing his image of asceticism.

The Fourth is a big long sleeping Buddha carved in a red sand stone shrine on the southwest precipice that is the biggest and the highlight in this area, 4.8m long, a tall crown on the head, one hand as a pillow supporting the head, and one hand stroking the knee. The body lies down sideways, bare feet, and with a happy face. Above the niche is the Gouloubei Stele facsimiled by Yang Shen, a famous scholar in the Ming Dynasty. 


Now, the morning sunshine was all over the west precipice, and we were excited to see the sleeping Buddha in the cave of the precipice. Mason and I tried our best to climb to the Buddha. It was about 100 meters walk from the parking area and the track was steep, zigzag, slippery and stony. With hand cane in hand, we got to the Buddha in 10 minutes. High standing on the platform we have a good view of the environment, the Taoyuan village, the field, and the express way, all in our sight. We turned our eyes to the 4.8m-long Buddha, it lay in the chiseled cave, in a position when Buddha was at his nirvana, the face toward the east for morning sun with peaceful expression, the right hand pillowing the head, and the left hand stroking the knee. We turned to the east, the Arhats Grotto was in the shade, clear but not bright.


The Fahua Temple Grottos was mostly a shallow one of its kind, usually one niche enshrined one Buddha, similar to the style of the Shibao Mt Grottos in Jianchuan County in Dali. The Fahua Temple Grottos is the real material to study the carving art of the late period of the Dali Kingdom. 


Sharing more from Master Wake-up
It was at noon when we walked down to the small rebuilt temple. We stepped into the hall, prayed before the Buddha and put some money into the donation box. The single abbot Master Wake-up greeted us and entertained us with simple vegetarian food, a cup of tea, a bowl of rice, fried tofu, glass noodle, green cabbage, onion, fresh chili, and a plate of mountain fruit green prune.


We talked about the temple at the teatime. Master Wake-up signed a deep breath: "time worn down the temple and the grottos, time witnesses the fall and rise of the temple. Now it is still going on."

The Master added: "this mountain was not big, but there are some beautiful legends, the Great Yu (the King of the Xia Dynasty) had been here when he was controlling the floods. Tang Sanzang (the holy monk of Tang Dynasty) passed here when he travel to the West Heaven for sutras. There was a Goulou Stele and Drying up Sutra stone in the mountain. The Goulou Stele with the description and footprints of Great Yu copied was set up by Yang Shen, a reputed scholar in the Ming Dynasty. There was Sanskrit on the stone though the words were not so clear. 


The fact is that the earliest Chinese words were the oracles excavated in Yinxu (the Shang Dynasty), and the Chinese words were created much later in the Shang Dynasty, there couldn't be any Chinese words in the Xia Dynasty. So the Goulou Stele was a kind-hearted and wise forge in memory of Great Yu, but they forgot the time and history of Chinese characters' origin. Anyway, the Goulou Stele carved in the Ming Dynasty still has some value of history and culture."


Master Wake-up took us to the first grotto and showed us the two niches Bodhisattva Guanyin and another Bodhisattva. For the second grotto the Eighteen Arhats carvings, he said: "you see one of the eighteen has disappeared because he‘flew away'!"


"The third grotto had two niches," Master Wake-up continued, "one is the shepherdess offering milk to the Buddha in austerity, another is Bodhisattva Manjusri in ascetic practice."


Master Walk-up also told us the interesting story about the shepherdess offered the milk to Buddha. When Budhha was practicing in his early time, he went astray into heretical sect and he was practicing hard in a forest. He was almost starved to death but luckily he was survived by offering milk of the shepherdess. Sakyamuni jumped into Ganges River for a thorough bath and thoroughly enlightened getting onto the right way for practice and achieved his success.


He wanted to show us the sleeping Buddha but we stopped him and said we already climbed to and saw all of it.


At about 5 pm, we said thanks to the master again, and walked out of the Buddha hall. The Arhats Grotto was all bright in the evening sunshine and we believed what was the Evening Setting Sunshine on Fahua Temple.


We waved goodbye to the master and drove to another scenic place the Anning Hotspring where we intended to spend night.