Sacred Places of China
Ngn Ren Tsz--The Monastery of Benevolence.
THE premises of this temple are in close proximity to the campus of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society at Kiukiang, only a narrow lane intervening. The temple facing south and the girls' high school north brings the two institutions face to face. Like many other renowned places in China this temple developed from a very humble beginning, a little shrine, until the virtue proceeding from it reached distant places, even to far-away Tibet. During the golden age of Buddhism, when the faith of that religion had a deep hold upon all classes, having even many officials among its devotees, an Abbot had a dream. In this dream Buddha appeared to him and informed him that on a certain day an incarnate being would be coming down the Yangtse River from Tibet. The Abbot at once notified the officials of the city of his wonderful dream, and elaborate preparations were made for the reception of this divinity. Upon the appointed time the officials all appeared in their official attire and together went to the north gate of the city, where they waited for the coming of the promised deity. Soon they saw, to their amazement, a stone boat floating down the river, and in it stood a majestic being. At the gate the boat drew ashore, and the man of the West, after a dangerous voyage and much fatigued, stepped off, and asked for Ngn Ren Tsz. With due ceremony and in great pomp he was escorted to the sought-for sacred shrine. The news of this strange visitor to this humble place spread throughout the provinces. Pilgrims came from all parts seeking the blessing which this divinity had brought to this temple. To assure the perpetuation of
his favors, a life-sized metal image was made and enshrined as the patron of benevolence, and the temple flourished beyond all expectation.
The granite stone boat which brought this deity from the far West is lying in the temple grounds, and is proudly shown to this day by the credulous priests as the instrument that brought the once enjoyed fame to their temple. It is of one solid granite block about fifteen feet long and three feet wide, hollowed out like a trough. All admit that of itself it could not float, but the buoyant divinity bore it up, and it bore the divinity down through the gorges to his desired destination.
During the Taiping Rebellion this temple shared the same fate to which all pagan temples in Mid-China were doomed; all were destroyed. After the rebellion was over, and the Abbot returned to his sacred home, he found nothing but desolation and ruins. Out of the broken debris he constructed a little shed for his home and a shrine; but the former fame and virtue did not seem to return. No pilgrim worshipers sought his aid. Every effort to re-establish the past glory seemed in vain. Direst poverty stared him in the face. One day, as he was walking across the once beautiful grounds, he struck his foot against an object. With the usual epithet that always falls from the lips of a Chinese when something untoward happens, he was about to pass on, when, unlike his countrymen, he concluded to return and remove this obstacle, that no one else should henceforth be so unfortunate. When he began to dig with his mattock to remove the contemptible object, to his unspeakable surprise and joy he found it to be the image of the once famous iron Buddha, who had been the means of prosperity and fame in former times. The mutilated god was in a sad plight. One arm was entirely missing, and other serious defects were discovered. He handled him with great care. The missing hand was soon replaced, and all blemishes repaired. Newly gilded over and an altar extemporized, he was soon reinstated. When this
was known the former reputation of the temple began to return. An Imperial grant was made for the erection of substantial buildings, and a new era for the once famous monastery seemed assured.
Twenty years ago it was doubtless one of the best kept pagan institutions in this part of China. It contained all of the departments necessary to constitute a fully equipped monastery. In a lofty building at the main entrance stand the four imposing images known as the Guardians. Then follows an artificially constructed pool over which is built the Bridge of Fate, leading to the Chief Hall, where the Buddha of the Past, Present, and Future, and the Eighteen Lohan are enshrined. On the north side of the center altar the Goddess of Mercy is represented as standing at the seashore upon the back of a great sea monster. Here, as in other parts of China, she is the most highly revered deity in the Buddhist pantheon. She is to the Buddhist what the Holy Mother Mary is to the Catholic. In the northeast corner of this building hangs a large bronze bell, whose melodious sound is not supposed to die out. Every stroke upon this bell with a horizontally suspended piece of wood drawn by a priest is believed to send a flash of light into the darkness of Buddhist hades, and illuminates the path for a struggling soul to escape from the torturing demons. The vibrations of this bell seem to continue long enough to allow the faithful priest to take a little nap between the strokes. For many years a blind priest sat there day and night performing this meritorious service.
In this spacious hall many priests meet to hold annual gatherings during the month of September. These meetings might be denominated Liturgical conventions, or high mass. They are sometimes continued two or three weeks, and at the close young priests, having taken their vows, are consecrated to the priesthood by the Abbot, who, with a burning incense stick, brands them on top of their shaven heads.
NGN REN TSZ--THE MONASTERY OF BENEVOLENCE.
In the extreme rear of these grounds is a modest little structure within which stands the once famous iron Buddha in a glass case, testifying of the fame of his past days. To the right and left of this building the monks have their living compartments.
To the east, close by the temple grounds, stands a pagoda for which unusual merit is claimed. Many years ago when the literati of Kiukiang had failed for successive years in their effort to pass in the competitive examination for degrees, one of their number, a savant above the average, advised that a pagoda be erected to regulate the Fung shui, that fortune might again return to the wise men of Kiukiang. All who had faith in this prophecy contributed freely, and enough energy was set in motion to so stimulate the sluggish literati that the very next examination, after the completion of the pagoda, brought brilliant success to a number of competitors. The merit of the pagoda was established beyond doubt, and every year thereafter students of Teh Hwa-hsien Township have been successful. At the last examination, given under the old regime, two of the students of William Nast College were among those who gained the enviable distinction. The competitive examination has been abolished, but the pagoda will doubtless stand as a monument of past superstition for ages to come.
The last effort to fan the dying embers of this decaying monastery by a sister religion was the erection of a Confucian Ancestorial Hall at the southwest corner, between the Home of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society and the temple. The purpose of this effort is easily seen, even though Confucianists and Buddhists are not close friends. They are allied state religions, and will doubtless assist each other when the death knell of either is heard ringing. He who hath ears to hear can hear them ringing even now.