Wenshu Temple (Wenshu yuan 文殊院)–named for the bodhisattva of wisdom Mañjuśri–is the premier Buddhist institution in Chengdu. I’ve been a fan ever since my first visit in 1996. The vegetarian restaurant there (more on that later) became a favorite place for celebrations. In those days, the actual Buddhist practice there seemed a little … lax … but there was a vibrant cultural scene of people singing and doing qigong healing and everything else in the park surrounding the temple, not to mention the genial chaos of the teahouse. It was a great place! The temple and its associated monastery have really thrived over the last two decades, and devotion is more evident than ever before. We decided to go for a visit one of the first warm Sundays this spring.
One of the signs of this revival of Buddhist piety is the active worship service we saw while we were there. These used to be rare and attended by a very small number of people. This one was very prominent and had quite the crowd attending. The devotees were mostly middle-aged and older, however. The recording below is the chanting that was going one while we were there.
Back in 1996 I heard many stories of students who came to pray here before the grueling national college admission test, the gaokao 高考. I don’t know if that’s still common or not.
Here are a few of the highlights of our visit:
The line in the third image is people waiting to rub their hands on a character that is supposed to bring you good fortune. We took our turn once the line died down a bit. The building in the middle is a new, and very large, Buddhism research and teaching building. I doIn’t know exactly what they do, but I did see a decent-sized library there once before. On the far left is the gate that now marks the entrance to the temple’s street. That’s new (relatively). The streets around the temple used to be normal except for an abundance of shops catering to tourists and other visitors. Now they’ve been converted into an “Old China” theme. A bit cliche, yes, but nicely done and fun in spite of that.
I love temples in general, but I have to admit that the vegetarian restaurant at Wenshu was probably my favorite part of the whole temple. The food was good–vegetarian dishes given names that described the meat dish it was supposed to resemble (and usually didn’t!). The prize dish was an imitation of fish cooked in spicy fermented bean paste. The “fish” was tofu skin stuffed with mashed potatoes–and was delicious! But the real draw of the restaurant was the crazy culture surrounding it. You fought your way through a scrum (at a Buddhist temple) to buy tickets saying what food you wanted, then when to another window and fought your way through another scrum (still at a Buddhist temple!) to give your tickets to the chefs. Then you stood in the scrum and tried to keep the old (devoutly Buddhist) ladies from elbowing you to the back before you could get your food. It helped a lot if you were tall and had several friends to form a relay and pass the food back over the heads of the aforementioned old ladies. I suppose it was a masterful training in self-restraint!
The old restaurant is long gone. The new one is very fancy, very expensive, and uses iPads to order the food. It actually looks quite good, but we opted for a cheaper and faster option–complete with scrums–across the street. It’s a popular place specializing in small bowls of cold fen 粉–a slightly gelatinous substance made from a variety of different beans and vegetables which can be cut into noodles (it’s what so-called “cellophane noodles” are usually made of). It’s a Chengdu specialty and it’s marvelous. This place turned out to be well worth the scrum involved in finding a table and getting your food–which is not brought to you. Genteel battles for your food really do seem to make it taste better …