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The Yonghegong or “Palace of Harmony” is the largest Tibetan-style monastery in Beijing. Built as a palace for the Yongzheng emperor, the complex was rededicated in 1744 by his son the Qianlong emperor as a monastery for Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Yonghegong significantly fused a site of personal importance to the Qianlong emperor, associated with his father and with his own past, to the architecture and iconography of the emperor’s grand present and intimated glorious future.
As a place of personal significance, not only did the Qianlong emperor associate Yonghegong with his father, it was also the site of his own birth in 1711 and childhood upbringing. The Qianlong emperor kept his father’s body housed at Yonghegong until the final burial place was completed, and even afterwards entrusted the Mongolian monks of Yonghegong with maintaining the imperial family’s shrine. Yonghegong was the site of the Yongzheng emperor’s ancestral tablet and the Qianlong emperor’s annual filial sacrifices. In his first Yonghegong edict of 1744, the Qianlong emperor cites earlier precedents in China for converting imperial palaces into monasteries after the resident emperor’s death. The Yongzheng emperor himself had converted his father Kangxi’s palaces into monasteries, and had converted half the grounds of Yonghegong – at that time the rest of the grounds served as the emperor’s traveling palace – into a Buddhist refuge in 1725, just two years after he ascended the throne. Although the Yongzheng emperor practiced diverse religious traditions, most notably Daoism, reference to this is elided, and instead the Qianlong emperor in his edict portrays his father as an enlightened being akin to Sakyamuni Buddha.
Yonghegong’s dedication as a home mostly for Mongolian monks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition belies its significance at the time of the Qianlong emperor’s “present.” The “Jetavana garden,” as the Qianlong emperor called it in his edict, simultaneously honored the Mongols by giving them care over the Yongzheng emperor’s relics but also worked to assert control over the Mongolian Buddhist establishment through paternalistic kindness. Yonghegong was also a war temple during both the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors’ reigns. There is a tower in the complex devoted to Yamantaka, the conqueror of death and protector deity of Beijing. The Qianlong emperor kept his own weapons here and sent high officials to offer sacrifice during times of war. Monks chanted in the temple every day. In the Yongzheng emperor’s time, a subsidiary temple called Qushengdian or Hall of the War God was built to house a deity associated with a Han Chinese war general from the third century, Guan Yu. Rol pa’i rdo rje also later had a strong connection with this deity, but this temple is no longer extant.
Responsibility for Yonghegong’s design was given to Qianlong’s childhood friend and Tibetan Buddhist guru, the Monguor lama Rol pa’i rdo rje, along with the Gandan Shiregetu Losang Tenpay Nyima, another great incarnate lama of Beijing. The iconography of Yonghegong reflects a primary concern with the future, as reflected by the central importance of images of Maitreya. The Tibetan name for the monastery is Gandenchincholing, meaning “Splendid Heaven of Joy” and referring both to Maitreya’s Tushita heaven and to the first monastery built in 1407 by Tsong kha pa – founder of the Dge lugs pa lineage to which Yonghegong belonged. Maitreya is a central deity in Mongolian Dge lugs pa Buddhism, being associated both with Zanzabar – who instituted a popular and annual public homage ritual to Maitreya on New Year’s Day – and to Taranatha, another popular Tibetan Buddhist missionary among the Mongols who was of the rival Jonangpa lineage but was nevertheless claimed as Zanzabar’s preincarnation. There are two Maitreya images in Yonghegong, a small “Laughing Buddha” Hwashang in the first hall of the monastery, and a colossal sandalwood Buddha in the second to last hall, the Wanfuge.
Another more Tibeto-Mongolian and specifically Dge lugs pa “millennial” practice associated with Yonghegong were the rites of the Kalachakra tantra, or the Wheel of Time. The Kalachakra tantra is said to have been revealed by Shakyamuni Buddha to the king of a mysterious northern land called Shambhala. The last king of Shambhala will wage a terrible war against evil and then preside over a new age of peace and harmony. This story could have been strongly resonant to the Manchu (northern) dynasty and to the Qianlong emperor in particular, who called himself a peaceful ruler. Yonghegong houses a Kalachakra mandala, paintings of Shambhala, and a Kalachakra deity with his consort Vishvamati. The tantra was also repeatedly and sometimes annually recited by separate groups of monks, who at one time reached a total of one hundred reciters. This practice often took place during the third month.
Several other elements of Yonghegong are of historical interest and show the Qianlong emperor’s changing relationship with Tibetan Buddhism over his reign. After its initial dedication, the complex was reconstituted in the model of the great monasteries of Tibet as a university with four colleges of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism, medicine, and mathematics and calendrical sciences. Yonghegong houses a famous thangkha painting of the Qianlong emperor as the Manjughosa emperor, which has been the subject of much speculation as to how far the emperor was willing to go to associate himself with (or as) this bodhisattva. Several steles in the courtyards of the Yonghegong complex are also famous for their multilingual inscriptions. Written in the four official languages of the empire, Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, and Tibetan, two steles display the Qianlong emperor’s dedication edict of 1744. The subtle differences in translation between the four languages have been interpreted as displaying the Qianlong emperor’s uncanny ability and even obsession with constituting his authority over each of his subject peoples in their own idiom. Another stele, often known as the “Lama Shuo” or “Speaking of Lamas,” can be found in a single pavilion of the fourth courtyard. This edict is an infamous criticism of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment written late in the Qianlong emperor’s life and after the death of his teacher Rol pa’i rdo rje. Although he distances himself from Buddhism in this edict – most strongly in the Chinese language – he also claims that it is his familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism that makes him uniquely appropriate to reform its practices.
Patricia Berger. 2003.
Empire of emptiness: Buddhist art and political authority in Qing China
. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Entry by Stacey Van Vleet, 4/3/07
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