White Horse Temple (白马寺) is, according to tradition, the first Buddhist temple in China, established in 68 AD under the patronage of Emperor Ming in the Eastern Han capital Luoyang Today the site is located just outside the walls of the ancient Eastern Han capital, some 12–13 kilometres (7.5–8.1 mi) east of Luoyang in Henan Province. The temple, although small in size in comparison to many other temples in China, is considered by most believers as "the cradle of Chinese Buddhism". The geographical landmarks to the south of the temple are Manghan mountain and Lucoche River.
The main temple buildings, a large complex, were reconstructed during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties, They were refurbished in 1950s, and again in March 1973 after the Cultural Revolution. It has numerous halls divided by several courtyards and manicured gardens, covering an area extending to about 13 hectares (32 acres). The display plaques in Chinese and English give ample descriptions of the Buddhist deities installed in various halls. Significant statues include Śākyamuni Buddha, Maitreya-the laughing Buddha, the Jade Buddha, and figures of saints such as Guru Avalokiteśvara, Amitābha and arhats. Stone statues of the two white horses, which brought the Indian monks to China, and of two mythical lions are seen at the entrance. Under international funding, the temple has undergone many changes, both structurally and internally. The most recent cooperative project, with India, was completed in 2008 when the Sanchi Stupa and the Sarnath Buddha statue were erected.
On arrival of the two monks from the land of the Yuezhi (who controlled northern Afghanistan and parts of north-western India at this period), they were housed in the temple. This temple was called the "Pi-ma-sai" meaning White Horse Temple" where 'pi' means "white", 'ma' means "horse" and 'sai' or 'ssi' is "temple". 'Ssi' in Chinese also means residence of "Buddhist priests".
Here are some forms of the legends relating to the foundation and naming of the temple:
Following Emperor Ming's dream vision about a Buddha who established Buddhism in India, two of Ming's emissaries departed to search for Buddhist scriptures. They encountered two Indian Buddhist monks in Afghanistan, and persuaded them to join them and return to China, bringing their book of Buddhist scriptures, relics and statues of Buddha with them on two white horses. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honour and named it the White Horse Temple or Baima Temple, as an appreciation of the two white horses that had carried the two monks. The monks resided at the new temple and here they translated the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma, another monk from India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries.
At the invitation of the Chinese Emperor Ming Di, two Indian monks namely, Matanga and Gobharana, translated the Buddhist classics at the Baimai Temple at Luo Yang, which was then the nation’s capital. They translated many scriptures, the notable of these was the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters (四十二章經), which was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese language and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Gobharana translated the 'Dasa Bhumi' or the 'Ten stages of Perfection', apart from five others. The temple then increased in importance as Buddhism grew within China, and spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The introduction of Buddhism in China was also a significant influence on Chinese morals, thought and ethics.
The temple's story begins with the dream of Emperor Mingdi and his establishing the temple in 68 AD honouring the two Indian monks and the white horses that brought them to China with Buddhist scriptures. The two Indian monks translated many Indian scriptures while living in the temple, which was named as White Horse Temple. They also died in the temple precincts and are buried in the first courtyard of the temple. Following the establishment of the temple, 1000 monks lived here practicing Buddhism.
There are numerous differing accounts explaining how the temple was established. According to 'The Chapter on the Western Regions' of the Hou Hanshu (Book of Later Han), which was based on a report to the Emperor c. 125, but was not compiled until the 5th century:
The White Horse Temple enjoys the reputation of the No.1 Ancient Temple of China. It lies on the south of Mangshan Mountain, and faces the Luohe River in the south. The construction of the temple started in the 11th year (68) during the Yongping reign of Emperor Mingdi in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). The White Horse Temple has a history of over 1900 years. It is the first temple built since Buddhism spread to China in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). According to historical records, Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty dreamed of a golden man flying above the courtyard. After he woke up, the emperor sent Cai Yin and Qin Jing as envoys to western regions to invite Buddha and learn Buddhism. The two envoys underwent much hardship and met two eminent Indian dignitaries She Moteng and Zhu Falan on the way. Cai Yin and Qin Jing came back to Luoyang City with the two monks, and a white horse carrying the sutras. Emperor Mingdi ordered the construction of the temple to the north of the imperial road outside the Xiyong Gate of Luoyang City. The White Horse Temple, built after the style of Indian temples, was the place for She Moteng and Zhu Falan to translate Buddhist sutras and write sermons. In order to memorize the white horse for its carrying back of the sutras, the temple was named the White Horse Temple.
The White Horse Temple has undergone many repairs and renovations in all previous dynasties. The present appearance is much different from its original one. What we see today was restored during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with an area of 34,000 square meters. Facing south, the main buildings of the temple stand on or along the central axis, including the Temple Gate, the Heavenly King Hall, the Great Buddha Hall, the Main Hall, the Jieyin Hall, and the Pilu Pavilion, etc. Beside those main buildings are the Reception Chamber, the Cloud-water Chamber, the Ancestors Chamber, the Guests Chamber, the Buddhist Chamber, and the Abbot Courtyard and so on. The huge White Horse Temple has over 100 rooms.
The central axis line starts from the Temple Gate, a roofed entrance arch with three doors. A pair of stone horses stands on the two wings in front of the outer wall. The Heavenly King Hall is the first hall inside the temple. In that hall sit the clay-molded statues of four Heavenly Kings, Maitreya Buddha and Skanda Bodhisattva. Behind the Heavenly King Hall is the Great Buddha Hall, which is the main hall of the temple. The grounding platform is about 1 meter high. The hall measures five bays in width and four bays in depth. It is double roofed, with four Chinese characters meaning Buddha shines over the earth in the center. In its center sit the statues of Sakyamuni, Chiligyi, Ananda, Manjusgri, Samantabhadra, etc. There is a huge bell that weighs 2,500 kilograms hung in the hall. That bell is a historical relic from the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty.
The third hall is the Main Hall, and houses three Buddhas: Sakyamuni, Medicine Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha, flanked by the eighteen Arhats. They treasures of arts of the Yuan Dynasty are vivid in modeling and graceful in painting. The wooden shrine in the hall houses over 5,000 statues of Buddha. The fourth hall is the Jieyin Hall. Behind the bamboo forest is the Qingliang (cool and refreshing) Terrace, with old pine trees flourishing, and halls connecting with each other. Four sides of the terrace are piled with green bricks. The Kunlu Pavilion stands prominent on the terrace. Halls on its east and west house respectively the statues of the two eminent monks, She Moteng and Zhu Falan, who were buried inside the Temple Gate after they passed away. In front of the tombs are the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. The Horse Temple Bell Ring was once one of the eight great sceneries in Luoyang City.
Fifteen meters east of the temple, in the lush trees, stands the Qiyun Pagoda, also called the Pagoda of Sakyamuni's Relics. The cubic shaped pagoda has 13 storeys, and is 25 meters high. Its construction started in the fifteenth year (1175) the Dading reign of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). It is one of the most ancient buildings preserved in Luoyang City. Outside the Temple Gate stand two green stone horses opposite to each other, which were made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
As the first Buddhist temple in China, the White Horse Temple plays a significant role in the history of Chinese Buddhism and China's international cultural exchanges. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the People's Government paid much attention to the temple and thoroughly restored it several times from 1952 to 1973. It has become an attraction to domestic and foreign tourists.