Seated Freestanding

by wjw on December 24, 2010

Here’s the cover photo for our splendid calendar, featuring the giant bronze Buddha on Lantau Island, in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.   The local gwailo call him “Big Buddha,” and, at 112 feet [35 meters or so], he is claimed to be the largest seated freestanding Buddha in the world. (One would think that “seated freestanding” is a contradiction in terms, but apparently not.)

The Po Lin Monastery was founded around 1900 with the intention of becoming a “rich monastery,” and you’ve got to admit that it’s succeeded.   (Westerners think of Buddhism in terms of philosophy, but a lot of Buddhists seem to think it’s about money.  I should think the Prosperity Gospel would go over very well in Asia.)

However mercenary some aspects of the culture, it has to be said that Po Lin is ideally suited for a life of contemplation.  It’s alone on a plateau in the middle of a large, underpopulated, subtropical island, placed amid craggy, mist-shrouded peaks.  If I were a Zen master, this is the sort of place where I’d try to locate my cave-of-residence.

I felt in need of exercise after getting off the bus, so I decided to bound up to visit Buddha right away.  Seeing Buddha is free, technically, but you’re required to buy a meal.  I sprung for the deluxe lunch, which cost $100HK, something like seven or eight bucks American.

Buddha sits atop a bronze lotus set on a conical artificial hill reached by something like 250 steps.  He’s surrounded by smaller statues of graceful Boddhisatvas making offerings: a cup, a flower (gold, frankincense . . . ).  There are three levels of museum underneath Buddha, but I believe only one was open on the day I visited.  (The exhibit was all about building Buddha— he’s actually fairly recent, and was completed only in 1993.)

I understand that in one of these museums you can see a reliquary containing some of the actual real-life Buddha’s ashes.  Though you have to pay extra.  (Even more, probably, if you sneeze.)

From the hill, I had a stunning view of the surrounding landscape, all the gorgeous natural sights plus the gardens and the red-and-gold temples belching enormous clouds of incense.

Westerners are generally unprepared for the in-your-face nature of Asian religion, particularly if your only idea comes from the far more austere architecture of, say, Japan.  Chinese temples are loud, in the visual sense.  There are incredibly tacky souvenir stands.  These temples were made of modern poured concrete, and featured concrete bas-reliefs of dragons and divinities.  The main temple, slathered in vermilion and gold, featured three ten-foot-tall gold statues of Buddha, massive coils of incense, altars brimming with fruit and flowers, scarlet hangings, pillars inscribed with sutras, gold statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and stained-glass windows.  Weird electric light displays.  Colossal shifting clouds of visitors and tourists wandered through.  A posse of middle-aged ladies doing a flag dance.  There was no one to ask what that was about.

The original temple, closed to the public, was tucked away behind somewhere.

In all this I only saw one actual monk, posing for photos with tourists.  My friend Erick Wujcik explained that this was probably because it was Sunday and all the monks were visiting their families in Hong Kong.  I wandered around trying to figure out where the monks lived and did their spiritual exercise, but all I could find were enormous banquet halls.  I decided I might as well go with the flow and have lunch.

If anything could convert me to vegetarianism, it would be food like this.  Shrimp-flavored shrimp made out of tofu.   Grilled mushrooms that looked and tasted like beef.  Vegetables that looked and tasted like vegetables, which were very welcome after days of Chinese broccoli with hoisin sauce, which was the inevitable vegetable side dish found in Hong Kong restaurants.  All served in an enormous, tastefully decorated dining room with hangings depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology.

After I’d eaten and drunk my fill, I took the bus down to the once-sleepy harbor of Tung Chun, now a bustling, highrise- and mall-filled bedroom community for Hong Kong.  I ate Haagen-Dazs, which is absolutely my kind of spiritual exercise, and waited for the train.

After a visit to Big Buddha, the neon-lit, thunder-amped streets of Causeway Bay began to come into some kind of focus.  What was it but an even bigger, even louder, even flashier monument to the God of Consumerism?

Are we not in the world, and of it?   Maha Jayamangala Gatha Gucci.   .Nam Myoho Versace Kyo.  Glorious it is to be rich.

Even BMW-driving cats sometimes catch mice.

Matt December 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

I just finished a “Buddhist Traditions of South Asia” class. Next semester is “Buddhist Traditions of East Asia”. It has been interesting. Not as interesting as the “Unitarian-Universalist History” class, but still good.

Reading old British books and papers written by scolars on the study of Buddhism was quite a trip. The predjudices and scholastic infighting were amazing.

Dave Bishop December 24, 2010 at 9:59 am

My first encounter with Buddhism was in Thailand. I had been sent there, for a couple of weeks, by my employer. On my arrival I was shown round the factory and its grounds by a young Thai woman wearing a lab coat. In the factory grounds we encountered an enormous anthill by a small pond. When we got back to the factory’s lab I found that I had several of the anthill’s inhabitants on my person – one of which promptly bit me on the neck (I picked it off and squashed it). Then I noticed that my guide had several ants on her lab coat. I told her about this and she calmly went outside, carefully picked off each ant and placed it on the ground. I realised that this was a very Buddhist reaction because to a Buddhist every living thing is sacred.

I’m not sure how this squares with a city like Bangkok which is so enormous, over-populated and saturated with hydrocarbon fumes that it is probably inimical to all life!

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