Shaxi Old Theatre Inn
Duan Jia Deng Village, Shaxi Town
Jianchuan County, Dali, Yunnan, 671302, China
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Esoteric Buddhism in the Dali region

Ancient religious traditions meet at the Pear Orchard Temple

  • 石钟寺 - 慈荫庵 之路- 云南沙溪

Dali has a unique form of Tantric Buddhist practice called Acarya, which dates back to the 9th century, traces its origins to India, and features prominently the goddess of mercy Acuoye, represented at Shibaoshan's grottoes carved 1,100 years ago.

Where did it come from?

  • 纳西天坛之路 - 慈荫庵 - 云南沙溪

Buddhism originated in northern India in the 5th century B.C.E., tracing its roots back to Siddhartha Gautama, typically referred to as the Buddha. Over its 2,500 year history Buddhism has evolved and spread throughout Asia, with three main branches of the tradition: Theravada (in south-east Asia), Mahayana (in north-east Asia) and Vajrayana (in Tibet).

Buddhism came to Dali along the Tea Horse Road, also known as the Southern Silk route, which linked India, Tibet and south-east Asia.

Dali played a key role in the spread of Buddhism from India to China, and its Nanzhao (738-902) and Dali (937–1253) kingdoms were notable for preserving Buddhism and also constructing large temples including the Dali Three Pagodas and Shibaoshan grottoes near Shaxi, which became important centers for Buddhist teaching.

According to ancient documents, a mystic Indian monk called Zhang Tor Jie Duo is credited with bringing Buddhism to Yunnan's Nanzhao kingdom in 840. From the 9th century onward to the end of the Dali kingdom in 1253, a brand new powerful branch of Tantric Buddhism formed and developed into a kingdom-wide religion.

Later, Zhang Tor Jie Duo became regarded as a manifestation of the 'lord of compassion' Acuoye Avalokitesvara (dubbed the Dali Guan Yin or goddess of mercy), who is the main religious figure worshiped throughout Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms.

The Acarya branch of Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism originated from India, and it was mixed with where in its early stages was fused with Brahmanism, the early priestly religion in India which evolved into Hinduism.
Acarya belongs to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism was a more liberal, accessible interpretation of Buddhism, open to people from all walks of life, not just monks or ascetics.

Acarya is a Sanskrit word, meaning teacher or victorious, and in Dali it became known by the Bai minority term 'A-Zha-Li'. A-Zha-Li initially referred to the master who conducted rituals and ceremonies of this branch of Buddhism, but later the name was used to locals to refer to this practice.

What is unique about Acarya Tantric Buddhism?

  • Acuoye Avalokitesvara 慈荫庵 - 云南沙溪

1. Devotion to Acuoye
Many Buddhist cults developed during the almost five centuries of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, but Acuoye Avalokitesvara in various forms was the dominant figure and the focus of devotion. One of the reasons for this was the key role of Acouye in both political and spiritual affairs. There was a strong linkage between the rulers of the Nanzhao kingdom and Acuoye in establishing both state and religion, with Acuoye featuring in the founding stories of the kingdom, helping legitimize the royal line.

According to folk stories, Acuoye arrived in the Dali area even before the establishment of the Nanzhao Kingdom, appointing its first ruler and providing protection for the kingdom. There was a belief that the royal lineage was approved by Acuoye, and that the rulers and their descendants were related to Acuoye. The ruling class built the iconic Three Pagoda temple in honor of Acuoye.
Acuoye is regarded as the first god to manifest to bring Buddhism to the Bai people, but there is debate about where Acuoye actually came from. While many scholars think Acuoye is just another manifestation of the Mahayana bodhisattva from India, there is conjecture that this figure of compassion came from south-east Asia instead. Some researchers speculate that Acuoye came from Malaysia or Indonesia, when in the 9th century one of Nanzhao kings received a bride from 'the realm of Kunlun'.

  • 大黑天神 - 慈荫庵 - 云南沙溪

2. Black Sky god
While Acuoye holds a central position in A-Zha-Li, other cults of Esoteric Buddhism developed under the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, including protective and wrathful divinities. Second only to Acuoye in popularity and devotion is Mahakala, the Black Sky god in Chinese, a divine demon and protective deity for Acarya Tantric Buddhism. Makakala is in fact the manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva. Throughout the Dali region many villages regard him as their local protector, or 'ben zhu'.

  • Feng Yi Village Erhai Dali

3. Unique role in society and inheritability of status
While many Buddhist traditions required a separate life for religious disciples from lay people, A-Zha-Li practitioners were able to get married and maintain a normal family life. One of the reasons for this might be traced back to the establishment of Acarya in Dali, with Nanzhao king Qu Feng permitting his sister to marry Indian missionary Zhang Tor Jie Duo who brought Tantric Buddhism to the region in 840 AD. A-Zha-Li masters and their descendants were able to continue this lifestyle with its integration into normal life. In Feng Yi village near the Erhai lake this bloodline tradition lasted for 42 generations among the Dong family, only ceasing with the founding of Communist China in 1949.

  • Nanzhao Sanskrit

4. Variety of Practice
There were three main ways of practicing A-Zha-Li: masters teaching students from scriptures in secret, and using mantras and magic spells; adoption of body postures and hand positions to practice; and meditation.
In addition to the various Buddhist texts, we know that the Buddhists of Nanzhao and Dali cherished spells and mantras of any kind, and for any purpose. Many were engraved on stone slates and impressed onto clay and bricks. Later, mantras and spells were engraved on wood and printed on paper. This practice probably dates back to the 9th century in Nanzhao. Interestingly, these mantras and spells were written in Sanskrit. In the rest of China, mastery of Sanskrit was the domain of only a few select educated people, while around Dali it appears that the links with India and understanding of Sanskrit were maintained.

  • Dali Azhali funeral

5. Death rituals
The A-Zha-Li practices also included death and burial rituals, to guide the deceased along the right path to Nirvana. Even today this aspect of tradition is well preserved and plays a very fundamental part in the funeral rites of Bai people.

  • Yunnan tea horse road map - Shaxi Old Theatre Inn

6. Hybrid of religion appears
Buddhism under the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms wasn't exclusively Esoteric in nature. Before Buddhism established and spread in the 9th century, the local people practiced a more nature and spirit-based shamanism similar to Bon Buddhism found in Tibet. Daoism, a Chinese-rooted philosophy, was founded in the 6th century.some of the Dao core concepts get mixed with in later practices too. After the end of the Dali kingdom by Khubai Khan's army in 1253 the Chinese influence increased in the Yunnan region. In the Ming and Ching dynasty Confucianism became the dominant system for social order, weakening A-Zha-Li.
Another important factor is the Southern Silk route, also known as the Tea Horse caravan route, which brought traders and merchants from different nations holding a wide range of beliefs and practices. This led to the enrichment and development of A-Zha-Li, as it took on-board these influences, reflecting the diversity of peoples and thought.

What was the impact of A-Zha-Li on Bai society?

  • three pagodas dali yunnan china

The A-Zha-Li Esoteric Buddhist practice was quite widespread during the second half of the 9th century and flourished until the end of the Dali kingdom in 1253. A Chinese scholar Xu Xiake visiting the region before the fall of Dali described Buddhist practice as 'common in every household, no matter whether they are poor or rich, there is Buddhist ritual space in every family s living rooms. No matter whether they are young or old, everyone carries a talisman with them. There are many regular days throughout the year when people fast or refrain from eating meat or drinking alcohol. The number of visible temples and monasteries on hillsides is uncountable.'

A-Zha-Li and politics
A-Zha-Li participated directly in the political life of the region. Governance and religion became one. Zhang Tor Jie Duo was appointed as strategist of the kingdom after his marriage to the king's sister. Notably of the 22 kings of the Dali kingdom, nine gave up their royal life and retreated to monasteries to live a monastic life as ordianed monks.
A-Zha-Li practices were a vital part of local identity and a source of guidance in turbulence, warring times, with Tantric rituals carried out to provide supernatural aid in battle.

A-Zha-Li and economics
Large donations and land were made to build and maintain monasteries and temples by the royal family. The monasteries and temples also held large portions of land and collected wealth. In Dali, the Three Pagodas temple alone had 890 buildings, with 11,400 Buddhist statues made up of 20,295 kilograms of copper.

A-Zha-Li and culture and education
Monks and monasteries became the first schooling system, tutoring students to learn Buddhist texts and classic Confucian teachings. All the artforms including paintings, architecture and carving show strong influence of A-Zha-Li.

Why did A-Zhal-Li Decline?

  • Bai women pray in Dali

Following the conquering of Dali kingdom in 1253 by Kublai Khan, for the first time Yunnan becomes included on maps as part of Greater China. This marked the end of the independent kingdom. After this historic event, A-Zha-Li faced many challenges and gradually declined in strength and prominence. Several reasons for this were because the new ruling class – Chinese – forbid the open practice of A-Zha-Li and sought to reduce its practice and power. The Qing government also suppressed the A-Zha-Li practice, describing it as 'not true Buddhist, not true Daoism, and not true Confucianism, so it confuses and misleads ordinary people to wrong ideas', causing social instability and anarchy. The form of Tantric Buddhism was also frowned upon, particularly as monks were allowed to have families, eat meat and drink wine.
The Zhengde emperor banned A-Zha-Li in 1507. Zen Buddhism became popular and also led to the decline of A-Zha-Li, as well as the dissemination of Confucianism by the Ming dynasty. These pressures pushed A-Zha-Li from the ruling and upper classes to common people, where it became a folk religion. Fortunately the ordinary Bai people's preservation of A-Zha-Li and its blending with other religious practices and beliefs kept it alive through the centuries.