Saturday, April 21, 2018

Naxi Religion: a Mixture of Creeds

                                                  by Jim Goodman

Wufenglou, the former entrance gate to Fuguo lamasery
       Before the tragic earthquake of 1996 devastated Lijiang, the old Naxi town of Dayan offered travelers a wonderful experience of traditional urban life.  Concentrating my research on northwest Yunnan then, I explored the city on many excursions in those years, wandering down every street and lane in Dayan, at all times of day, but especially in the early morning, when activity commenced.
       Dayan’s Naxi rose later than those in rural areas.  The first establishments to open were the noodle-makers and those preparing black bean pudding.  People began setting up market stalls and opening shops around 9 a.m.  Women came to the streams to wash vegetables, men led pony-carts of charcoal and firewood and shoppers started appearing shortly after. 
White Horse Pond, Dayan
       The one activity missing was anything religious.  No shrines or statues stood anywhere on the streets.  The only religious building was the temple next to White Horse Pond in the southern quarter.  It marks the spot where the Tang Dynasty Buddhist scholar Xuan Zang, on his way to India to procure religious manuscripts, supposedly stopped to give his horse a drink.  The modest temple, built in the 18th century, did attract occasional devotees who bought fish to set free in the pond.
       Still influenced by the Confucian tradition, the Naxi maintained their ancestral altars and made offerings to them at festivals.  But even the surviving village temples, those that hadn’t been converted to schools, were hardly active and the big monasteries barely maintained.  In general, the Naxi, in contrast to the Tibetans, Bai, Hui, Dai and Bulang, were not very religious-minded.
pictographs of a dongba manuscript
       Long before exposure to Buddhism or Taoism, the Naxi had established their own belief system, built on the propitiation of natural elements and the presumed existence of myriad unseen forces.  Everything in the world was endowed with a soul and life-force of its own, including inanimate objects such as mountains, streams, fires, cliffs and stones.  Ancient Naxi believed something or other controlled the weather, the rain, the wind, etc., and so deified and gave names to these assumed agents, while lesser deities and spirits were associated with other natural phenomena.  And to account for all that could go wrong in the course of a life the Naxi identified over 500 demons.
wooden swords for funerals and the propitiation of nagas
       To deal with these pernicious spirits, and to properly honor or beseech the gods, a class of specialists arose within Naxi ranks.  Known as a dongba, this specialist performed a wide array of numerous complicated rituals.  To prompt his memory he used manuscripts in coded pictographs and performed rituals both privately for patrons and publicly for the welfare of the realm.  He was so much at the core of traditional religious practice that even today the original Naxi belief-system is known as "Dongba Religion" or "Dongba Tradition."
       A few rituals lasted several days and required recitations from over a hundred books.  Among the most frequent were:  propitiation of the nagas—the huge, dragon-like serpent spirits believed to be the invisible owners of the land; the expulsion of demons, with rituals varying according to the type of demon and sometimes involving dancing while wielding swords; rites for suicides, who were nearly always young couples whose parents had forbidden their marriage; and funerals, the most spectacular being that of a dongba.  The highlight of the latter was the display of a painted scroll twenty meters long and a recitation of a text explaining the illustrations.
dongba performing a ritual at Dazui, Lugu Lake
dongba funeral painting
       In the old days, village dongbas customarily wore large-brimmed felted wool or bamboo hats.  Otherwise they did not stand out among the villagers.  They lived in the same kind of house and while the ceremony patrons fed them for the occasion, they did not receive a salary.  The only social advantage a dongba had was the prestige accorded by being one.
mural inside Dabaoji, Baisha village
       For rituals they generally donned a five-lobed crown, called kho, with deities painted on each lobe.  They employed thick, oblong cards with figures painted on them, called dzu, which they stuck upright in groups of 7, 9 or 11, in bowls of rice in the middle of the altar.  They also used wooden swords, called khobya, painted with pictographs, which they thrust into the ground next to streams (to propitiate the nagas) or on a hill away from a funeral site.  For some rites the dongbas also made small figurines of deities and demons out of corn flour.
mural at Suhe Dajue Temple, Xiawu village
       The venues for these rituals could be anywhere within the village or outside by a stream or on a mountain.  There was no dongba temple of any kind, though.  The first temple in Naxi territory was to their own war god Sanduo, but it was built in 784 under orders of King Yimoxun of Nanzhao, the state that ruled over Yunnan at the same time as the Tang Dynasty in China.     
       Lying at the foot of Jade Dragon Mountain, just below present-day Yufeng Temple, Sanduo's temple is called Beiyuemiao—Temple of the North Sacred Mountain.  A statue of the god, in white armor and helmet, brandishing a white spear, astride a white horse, stands outside the temple entrance.  A manuscript inside contains prayers to the god, as well as the legends and exploits associated with him.
Tibetan deity in Yufeng Temple
Naxi fresco at Suhe Dajue Temple, Xiawu
       The most famous legend is of Sanduo’s aid to Azong, the last Naxi ruler prior to the Mongol conquest of Yunnan in 1253.  The god appeared to Azong in a dream, complimented him as an "upright" magistrate and promised to help him on the battlefield.  From then on the god appeared whenever Azong went to war, “rushed furiously in the front line of battle," and disappeared in a storm afterwards.
Wenfeng Monastery
       After the Mongol conquest Mahayana Buddhism gained a foothold in Lijiang with the construction of Jinshan Temple and Donglin Temple.  Dabaoji in Baisha village is its finest Ming Dynasty expression.  Daoism found a place as well in Dayan and adherents built the Jade Emperor Tower Temple and the Royal Heaven Temple.  Its philosophy was popular among the literati and its Dongjing music became part of Naxi tradition.
       The introduction of Buddhism and Daoism influenced Naxi painting, which rapidly evolved from the simple, almost crude pictographs of the dongba manuscripts to the sophisticated wall murals that graced thirteen temples in the Dayan area.  The overall balance of the murals, the orderly disposition of the figures, reflected the Han tradition.  Subject matter could be Mahayana Buddhist or Daoist themes.  The vivid coloring, emphasizing red, gold, black and silver, and the decorative aspects, reflected the Tibetan influence.
monk in his quarters at Wenfeng Monastery
Wenfeng Temple lama
       Sadly, most are gone, for nine of the temples fell to ruins and the other four were completely destroyed or badly vandalized during the Cultural Revolution.  The outstanding extant example is at Dabaoji in Baisha village.  The main fresco depicts the Buddha achieving enlightenment, surrounded by haloed holy men and bodhisattvas that appear to be floating in the clouds.  Other murals feature Tibetan lamas, dakinis, fierce deities and magistrates in hats and robes conversing, while elsewhere the Day of Judgment takes place.  Vignettes of contemporary life, such as plowing or weaving, are sometimes in the margins.
thangkas at Puji Monastery
       Nearby Dading Tower also has some Qing Dynasty frescoes, mostly restored, except for the gouged-out eyes. The only other testimony to the expertise of classical Naxi painters is the smaller set of murals at Xiawu village, west of Baisha, in the Suhe Dajue Temple.  Against a black background, the figures are skillfully painted, emphasizing gold, red, black, white and yellow, with fine details on the faces and in the jewelry.
       Lijiang’s lamaseries date from the end of the 16th century, with the introduction of the Karmapa (Red Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  The earliest was Yufeng Temple, built between 1579 and 1619 at the edge of the forest on Jade Dragon Mountain, a kilometer up the hill from Beiyuemiao.  The great camellia tree, which attracts so many to the Sanduo Festival, was planted a century earlier, so one of Yufeng's courtyards was constructed around this tree.  Carved doors and windows, a pebbled courtyard floor in geometric designs and the remains of the original interior frescoes are the other attractions of this temple.
Puji Monastery
       More dramatically sited is Wenfeng Monastery, high up on Wenbishan, nine km southwest of Dayan.  Completed in 1733, it is isolated far above the nearest village, lying beside a forest and spring.  Until 1949 monks came here to perform an unusual ascetic rite.  Digging holes near the spring, they climbed into them and made them their residences for the next three years, three months, three days and three hours.  During this period they never left their holes and spent the time meditating, chanting and otherwise purifying themselves.  When they finally emerged, they were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers, such as the ability to fly.
       Puji Temple, all but hidden in a forest five km northwest of Dayan, was the third Karmapa lamasery, originally built in 1771.  Two great crab-apple trees with twisted trunks stand in the main courtyard.  Time, the weather, and neglect have reduced most of the exterior wall murals to mere traces and outlines.  But the interior furnishings are in better shape, featuring painted religious scrolls (thangkas), bright silk suspended banners and various images of the Buddha and venerated Tibetan lamas.
special lantern hung for the Mid-Autumn Festival
       The other two Karmapa temples were Zhiyunsi, on the shores of Lashi Lake, and Fuguosi, above Nguluko, the northernmost village on the Lijiang Plain.  Zhiyun Temple has been turned into a school and the buildings of Fuguo Temple were removed to Black Dragon Pool Park in Lijiang.  The very ornate entrance gate, Five Phoenix Tower (Wufenglou), graces the southern end of the park.
       After 1949 the lamasery residents were reduced to a bare minimum.  Proscribing their dongba ceremonies, the government co-opted the dongbas by making them village chieftains.  Beyond the Lijiang Plain, though, the dongba tradition survived, even if not so openly, especially Baishuitai, its birthplace in southern Shangrila County.   After the reforms of the 70s and 80s it became more public. 
       Around Lijiang, hardly any former dongbas were still alive.  The rituals did not revive, but the local government set up the Dongba Research Institute near Black Dragon Pool Park and hired them to translate the pictograph manuscripts that had survived.  A museum next door exhibited some of these books, plus the hats and robes, wooden swords, funeral paintings, drums, figurines and other items associated with dongba rituals.
Sanduo--the ancient Naxi war god
floating a lamp in Dayan at the Mid-Autumn Festival
       Like other minority nationalities in Yunnan, the Naxi were reviving their traditions, but that didn't necessarily include whatever religious piety they once had.  While in areas far from Lijiang, like Baishuitai, or Dazui, the Naxi village on the northern shores of Lugu Lake, the dongba tradition continued, not many young men were taking up the role.  No new dongbas appeared in villages on the Lijiang Plain.  The mind-sets of the Naxi people had moved beyond the animism and nature-worship that essentially characterized the dongba tradition.
       None of Lijiang’s lamaseries regained their former popularity.  In the 90s Zhiyun Temple was still used as a school.  Lay caretakers looked after Pujisi and two septuagenarian monks lived at Wenfengsi.  Only Yufengsi had been able to recruit any new novices.  About twenty were living there by mid-decade, compared to the hundreds resident before 1949.  The new mood of official tolerance meant monks could preach again and a Tibetan huofu (reincarnated lama) of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order set up in Dayan to instruct Naxi in Tibetan-style Buddhism.  But after two years of scant success he departed.
the old camellia tree at Yufeng Temple
       Traditional festivals, however, came back into vogue.  The Naxi celebrate the major Han festivals, but sometimes with special features.  Their New Year rites include an outdoor Sacrifice to Heaven and at the Mid-Autumn Festival for venerating ancestors, they hang fancy big lanterns at their doorways.  On the first day, with firecrackers and hot-air balloons, the Naxi salute their ancestors and invite them to their homes.  On the second night they place small paper lanterns, usually lotus-shaped with a candle in the center, into the streams.  And on the third night they inscribe their clan names on paper and make sacrifices of fruits and grains to their ancestors.
       The biggest traditional event, 8th day of the 2nd moon, is the Sanduo Festival, honoring their chief indigenous deity.  In the morning they hike up to Beiyuemiao, kowtow to Sanduo’s statue and leave offerings.  Afterwards they ascend to Yufengsi, where the old camellia is in full bloom, to pose for photographs.  Then they may make a stop in the compound where the lama is performing his rituals for the occasion.  Upon departure they will head for a spot in the woods or on a nearby hill and have a leisurely picnic.
       Back in Lijiang in the afternoon, they may form up for ring dances in one of the squares. Sometimes traditional orchestras are contracted to play for the day and much feasting ensues from dark.  Ostensibly a religious festival, but one totally identified with the Naxi identity, people relish this as a time of socializing and public entertainment.

Naxi devotees passing a reliquary mound en route to Yufeng Temple
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For more on the dongba and the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon.

Lijiang and Baishuitai are both stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s route through northwest Yunnan.  See the details at

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