The reclining Buddha statue.
The Dafo Temple or Great Buddha Temple (Chinese: 大佛寺; pinyin: Dàfó Sì) is an ancient Buddhist temple in Zhangye, Gansu, China, notable for its gigantic reclining Buddha statue made around 1100 during the Western Xia and Song dynasty, which is thirty-five metres long. After a restoration project in 2005–06, the Temple now attracts thousands of visitors. It has had several names over the centuries, including the "Kasyapa Buddha Temple" (迦叶如来寺), the "Bojue Temple" (宝觉寺), the "Hongren Temple" (宏仁寺), and the "Reclining Buddha Temple" (睡佛寺). The present name of "Dafo" means "Great Buddha".
The temple was built around the beginning of the 12th century, during the Western Xia (1038–1227) period. Zhangye (then called "Ganzhou”) was the capital city of the Hugu. In 1028, the Tibeto-Burman speaking Tangut people took over Ganzhou, and a few years later the Western Xia controlled the Hexi Corridor. To strengthen their hold over the area, the Xia built temples and ordered the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. They were especially strong during the reign of Emperor Li Qiangshun (1086–1139), and the Dafo Temple dates from this time.
The history of the temple relates that in 1098, a monk called Sineng Weimie had seen numinous lights and heard heavenly sounds coming from a nearby hill at the foot of a mountain. Investigating the area, Sineng unearthed a hoard which included a reclining Buddha statue and set out to build a great temple in honour of the image, which he believed had been revealed by divine favour. The nirvana image in the temple has a long history of patrons and visitors and has been protected for centuries by its Buddhist monks, but it has also suffered from decay and restoration. Protecting it was most difficult during the Cultural Revolution.
There is a story that Kublai Khan (1215–1294) was born in the temple, while his mother was living there, and another that Bing, the last Song dynasty (960–1279) emperor, was exiled to Zhangye and became a monk in the temple. However, Ruth W. Dunnell has reported that she has been unable to find evidence to support either of these claims. She notes that they "illustrate the accretion of legend around this particular Buddhist site".
The Hall of Scriptures has a double wall behind it and is forty metres long, twenty metres high. In 1996 the temple was added to the list of major national historical and cultural sites and the Beijing Review reported that 6,000 volumes of ancient Buddhist scriptures survived in the temple.
In 2005, the temple was reinstated as a place of worship, and the next year it was re-opened after a major restoration which aimed to promote it as a tourist attraction. On 1 July 2006, dozens of Buddhist masters blessed a large crowd which attended, in the largest gathering seen at the temple for more than a hundred years.
The temple's huge statue is made of clay on a wooden frame and depicts the Gautama Buddha's attainment of nirvana, with his ten disciples standing behind him. It is largely unaltered since the time of the Western Xia (1038–1227). With a length of some 35 metres (115 ft), Ruth W. Dunnell has described it as "the largest reclining clay Buddha statue in China".
The hall which contains the Buddha is 48 metres (157 ft) long and 24 metres (79 ft) wide, with a height of 33 metres (108 ft). It has a Qing dynasty (1644–1911) mural and is one of the few wooden structures of its period which survive. The mural tells the story of Xuanzang and his followers, showing Xuanzang riding on a horse and the monkey king Sun Wukong kneeling on the ground.