Japanese Zen Roots… in the Baoning Temple in Hunan’s Countryside

Modern China is not exactly known for its religiosity, and when we think of something like Zen Buddhism, we tend to forget about its roots in China.

Imagine my surprise when I found a temple deep in the Chinese countryside which had great historical importance – and is totally unknown.

The temple I am talking about is the Baoning Si (Baoning Temple) in Hunan’s You County.

I have been deeply fascinated by this temple ever since I first discovered it – meaning, my father-in-law brought me there.

Where Baoning Temple Is Located

You County (now) belongs to Zhuzhou’s administrative influence; Zhuzhou is, together with Changsha (Hunan’s capital) and Xiangtan, one of the three sister cities in the middle of Hunan.

Jiubujiang, my wife’s hometown, has been developing into a tourist destination (for Chinese tourists, anyways), and visitors are encouraged to also visit the temple – or at least, they can encounter a road sign pointing the way there while they go to the reservoir lake that is Jiubujiang’s big draw.

Huangfengqiao, another little village, is even closer.

I mention these places both so that you could, if you wanted to go looking for it, find the area this temple is located in, and to probably make you realize that you have no idea what area this is.

Even Chinese have not typically heard of most of these smaller places (if they don’t live nearby or have other connections there); Chang-Zhu-Tan (the agglomeration of Changsha, Zhuzhou, and Xiangtan is rather well-known in China and those are major cities… of a provincial level).

Non-Chinese are unlikely to know any city of the above-mentioned save for Changsha (and that, as mentioned, is Hunan province’s capital).

The ignorance about this area also extends to the temple, and it goes deeper when it comes to it as there are, as usual, other temples with the same name, in other places, which are better known.

This extends to the supposed existence of a Baoning Temple in Changsha, according to Wikipedia, which is absent according to (Google) maps.

The Baoning Temple in You County, meanwhile, is on Google Maps mainly because I added it there, but Wikipedia does not know of its existence.

ChinaWiki.net is one of very few websites that describe this temple.

The History and Zen-Relation of Baoning Temple

It seems very curious that this temple should be in this place.

There is no holy mountain here, no major river, no old trade route. It is about as far from any place of importance, or even just anything that looks like a major pathway or attraction, as one can get.

Of course, who knows, maybe that was one reason it was built there: To be away.

Baoning Temple seen from the pond in front of it
Baoning Temple seen from the pond in front of it

The reason the Baoning Temple was established in You County is actually very straightforward: It is said that it was founded by a Buddhist monk who was a native of this area.

As so often, things are a bit complicated; the histories are quite unclear.

The founding of the temple is said to go back to 751 CE, and it is said that it was an ancestral home of the Caodong school of (Chan) Buddhism.

Things are very curious with this branch of Buddhism, however: The Caodong school was officially founded by the masters Caoshan Benji and his teacher Dongshan Liangjie (and probably derived its name from their names, Cao-Dong) sometime after 850 CE.

They taught in Jiangxi and Hunan, and the Southern School of Buddhism developed here.

The history of the Cao-Dong school goes back to around 750 CE, however; it traces its roots to master Huineng, who lived 638-713 CE in Guangdong – and one of his disciples, supposedly, was the monk who founded the Baoning Temple.

Who the famous monks who were taught (and/or themselves taught) here were, what role this temple played in the development of (Cao-Dong) Chan/Zen Buddhism remains unclear.

Shitou Xiqian (700-790), the second master in the Cao-Dong lineage after Huineng, an ancestor in the lineage of Dongshan Liangjie (and thus Caoshan Benji) is said to have taught at Nantai Si (South Peak Temple) on Hengshan (Nanyue, the southern holy Buddhist mountain of China in Hunan), which thus claims to be an ancestral temple of the Cao-Dong school.

Front View of Baoning Temple
Front View of Baoning Temple

Information about this role of the Baoning Si is missing in all literature I know, except for the short mentions of Japanese visitors who came here (in 1983) to commemorate their religious ancestors.

This part of the history, however, has become very clear from the association of the You County Baoning Chan Si with the Cao-Dong school: The Japanese school of Buddhism that has its roots here is none other than Soto Zen, the largest of the Japanese Zen Buddhist schools. It was founded by Dogen Zenji after 1227, when this Japanese monk returned from his Chan studies in China (with Tiantong Rujing at Qingde Temple in Ningbo, Zhejiang province).

What Remains of the History

History, as so often, loses itself in time, but curiously, the three natural wonders of Baoning Si remain to point back: There is a camphor tree, Guanyin taro, and a well in the temple, all said to be a thousand years old.

A long time – but actually, not long enough to have been there when the monks commemorated on memorial markers, up a path arching around the back of the temple – and thus, curiously, beside a Taoist temple that sits right beside Baoning Chan Si – were active there: All the memorial plaques for them speak of times around 700-800!

The beginning of the path between the Baoning Si and the Taoist temple
The beginning of the path between the Baoning Si and the Taoist temple

At the foot of this path is a memorial to the Japanese monks who had studied Chan Buddhism, the forebear to Japanese Zen, there.

Memorial to the Japanese monks / disciples who studied at Baoning Si
Memorial to the Japanese monks / disciples who studied at Baoning Si
Monks Memorials at Baoning Si
Monks Memorials at Baoning Si

Also on this path was the camphor tree, signposted as being 1000 years old – and a sign to another of (another) three wonders of Baoning Temple, the Putong Stupa.

The second time the Japanese, according to lore I was told, came around, and this time managed to convince the locals that they came to the temple because of their ancestor’s relationship with it, they built – or probably, more likely, restored – this stupa. (The first time they came, they were laughed out and sent packing.)

I could not find the stupa, however.

The path  where the sign towards the stupa points was overgrown and blocked by fallen trees to such an extent that I did not dare to follow it further.

With my wife around and always telling me of the poisonous snakes they have in those mountains, well, my curiosity had its limits…

People In The Modern Temple

The path my wife and I took through the temple grounds was particularly interesting, anyways, because of the people currently there.

On the way around the temple, first of all to be decent visitors and pray, my wife and I encountered the strangest set of people.

The main hall of Baoning Temple
The main hall of Baoning Temple

First, an old man. Old does not begin to describe it, though. He looked ancient, more than half blind, and spoke in dialect only, with slurred speech at that. Even for my wife, it was difficult to make out anything at all he was saying, except that he had been around for a long, long time.

Then, on the other hand, there was a middle-aged couple who looked quite well to-do. And definitely quite devout. With them, we got help with the incense and “hell money”… and when we saw that man again later, it turned out that he knew about the Japan connection; he pointed me onto that path past the memorial marker for the Japanese student monks here I had seen on an earlier visit, but hadn’t known enough about (or dared to venture past).

The Taoist temple next to Baoning Temple
The Taoist temple next to Baoning Temple

In the middle of the temple’s main courtyard, I also found natural signs of human habitation: Some local relatives of Sichuan pepper and other herbs were set out there to dry.

A kind of Sichuan pepper and herbs drying in the sun
A kind of Sichuan pepper and herbs drying in the sun

In front of the pond in front of the temple, I had during one visit also seen blanched chilli, out to dry and bleach in the strong summer sun into Hunan’s typical bai lajiao (“white chilli”).

Blanched chile peppers drying into bai lajiao in front of Baoning Si
Blanched chile peppers drying into bai lajiao in front of Baoning Si

We took the way out through the buildings at the side, down from the Taoist temple. Someone we had met at its entrance gate told us to have a look… and a family turned out to live there.

Right down the first stairs, the old-style charcoal pellets I hadn’t seen in years were piled up. An old cooking stove for them was still around, as well.

Coal under the stairs - and the metal "container" behind the waste basket is the "stove"
Coal under the stairs – and the metal “container” behind the waste basket is the “stove”

The next courtyard, a cute child was playing with his toy gun, his mum preparing food nearby. It didn’t look like they’d seen too many non-Chinese, but they weren’t fazed by our sudden appearance, either.

The boy just chatted with us a bit and showed me strange “uncle” and the “aunty” where we should go. Having had too many people point me out to others and stare at me, it was quite a relief.

In typical microexploration fashion, I investigated further in theory, to learn more from what I had seen. The results are what you just read above.

Now, I have a bit more knowledge of this temple. A few images of the old memorial inscriptions and newer plaques that were added.

There is still no certainty about this Baoning Chan Temple’s historical importance, but at least a little more understanding.

The Cao-Dong school didn’t like Koan practice as much as meditation done in simple sitting and observation – and it seems quite fitting that learning about its Baoning Temple required quiet contemplation.


ChinaWiki.net “Baoning Temple” https://www.chinawiki.net/thread/48/22032.html

James Mitchell, Soto Zen Ancestors in China https://zendogen.es/textos-zen-pdf/Soto-Zen-Ancestors-In-China-James-Mitchell.pdf

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