However I play it, it hasn’t been going all that well for the poor, much-maligned Writing Baronessa. If I’m not being slapped upside the head by architectural buffs, armed with ingenious origami blades fashioned from Diaoyutai brochures, I’m copping a shutō-uchi off an American Ninja. The killing blow was the Haduoken! I received on discovering I’d been beaten to the punch – and on home turf to boot –by this write-up of the Puji Temple, just up the road from Chez Writing. Oh, the ignominy!
Still, at least it wasn’t a “perfect,” for as every Tomo, Daike and Haru knows, the real prize is another 20-odd minutes walk up the hill. Follow Wenquan Rd (溫泉路) until it becomes Yinguang Lane (銀光巷) and starts to twist up through the woods. After a few steepish switchbacks you’ll come to the portals of the Shanguang Temple (善光寺). Dating from 1932, the Zenkoji as it was known to the Japanese after the original temple of that name in Nagano, is a three-tiered affair, bordered to the west by the humungous Yangmingshan No.1 Pubic Cemetery (陽明山第一公墓).The first time I ambled up there, I met a friendly Beitou-er named Mr Lee who accompanied me up the hill while attempting to flesh out the background of the temple. I couldn’t follow everything but one thing that was clear was his explanation of the distinctive stupa, a level up from the rather nondescript temple itself. A columbarium of sorts, he said it contained the ashes of the venerable Buddhist masters who had once presided here.
Mr Lee called these remains 舍利, which can just be translated as (post-cremation) ashes, or even, more generally Buddhist relics. But elsewhere, it seems the claim is that they are – 釋迦牟尼佛舍利 – literally the ashes of old Siddhartha himself, no less. Whoever they belong to, I think – as Mr Lee was trying to explain to me at the time – they refer to sarira: crystals or stones that are found in the ashes of holy men after cremation, and which allegedly indicate piety and spirituality. The more/bigger, the holier, I suppose.
On that first occasion, we were able to slide the doors of the temple open, have a look around the interior and snap some photos without any complaint from the elderly attendant (unlike at Puji where I was sent packing). This is definitely a distinct shrine and altar. I pontificated with Mr Lee and the temple attendant as to the name of some of the features and religious props but they appeared stumped. What Mr Lee did know a bit about, however, was the history of this specific school of Buddhism. Like Puji, the temple and stupa here are of the Shingon sect. A variant of Vajrayāna (Tantric) Buddhism, this belief system was imported to Japan from India via China during the Tang Dynasty. I think the equivalent in Chinese is Tangmi (密宗), i.e. “Tang Secret Buddism.”
PS: A couple of loose ends: What sent me here in the first place was the inimitable EyeDoc’s comments on a previous Beitou history post of mine. There is, as he guessed, no mention of the Japanese children who were evacuated to this site from Danshui to escape the US bombing from 1944-5. Nor the strafing of the temple itself. Any more on this period of history, EyeDoc?
Also of interest are the the floods of August 1959 which battered Taiwan. The period from 1950-70 was the worst in recorded history in terms of damage from typhoons and floods, but 1959 was particularly brutal with a death toll of 1,300 and damage totalling US$97 million. (More here.) The temple was destroyed by the floods of ’59 and rebuilt in 1962. That same year, the stupa was added to house “Buddha’s relics.” As to how those are supposed to have turned up in Taiwan, I have no idea. Perhaps they were pilfered and brought to Formosa as part of the infamous Yamashita’s Gold. On second thoughts, maybe it’s all a load of bollocks. At any rate, as I say, Mr Lee made the less fantastic claim that the stupa was simply a depository for the ashes/holy stones from the remains of esteemed elders.
Finally: I have no idea where the hokutolite stele that is supposed to be on the grounds is located. 1 Via its Japanese name of Hokuto, Beitou is – as far as I am aware – the only place in Taiwan to have a mineral named after it.
A geologist named Yohachiro Okamoto discovered hokutolite in a river bed in 1905. Pausing for a rest while shooting images of the thermal valley, Okamoto left some undeveloped film on a rock for a while. By the time he was home, the film had already developed due to the mildly radioactive properties of the Beitou stone … or so the story goes. This, and more, here.
Directions: To get there from Xinbeitou (新北投) MRT, walk straight out of the station, follow Zhongshan Rd (中山路) up the hill, alongside the park and the hot spring stream, then turn left once you’re at the top. The road begins as Wenquan Rd (溫泉路) but becomes Yinguang Lane (銀光巷) once you get into forest. At a brisk trot, the journey should take no more than 40 minutes.