Ep. 051: The Big Buddha and the Little Temple at Leshan

A day between Chengdu and Emeishan

Watch for a BONUS VIDEO for this Episode, coming soon on my YouTube channel!

The world's biggest ancient Buddha and a pretty little hilltop temple, joined by a gorgeous old (we thought) bridge? Yes, please! Learn all about our trip to Leshan in Sichaun Province in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES!

Just over 10 years ago, in May of 2010, my friend Franc and his Sichuanese wife made a visit to her home town of Chengdu. Since I needed to see four temples in the area, I decided to travel from Shenzhen, where I lived and worked, and meet them there--and happily, at the last minute, my wife Lila decided to join us.

With Franc (and sometimes his wife) we saw two temples in the city on a Saturday, and one more on the following Monday. On the Sunday in between, Lila and I boarded a bus on our own headed for Leshan, site of a seated figure of Maitreya Buddha which, at 233 feet, is often touted as the tallest Buddha statue in the world (he's not), and the tallest pre-modern statue of any kind (he is). (Six Buddha statues, and 19 statues of any kind, are taller, but none dates before 1967. The oldest of the taller Buddha statues was built in 1993!) They say if he stood up, he would be about as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

The view we did not see. (Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, he was not our primary goal.

Less than an hour's comfortable stroll down river (though there's something of a climb at the end) sits pretty little Wuyou Temple, Number 121 of the State Council of China's designated 142 National Key Buddhist Temples in the Han Chinese Area, a list created in 1983 and which I avidly pursued from 2009 to 2012. This would be the 21st of the 132 temples I have visited from The List so far.


We Dodge a Scam in Leshan (or so we thought)

So we rose early and bussed south from the city, arriving in Leshan some time around noon.

In Riding the Iron Rooster, travel writer Paul Theroux recorded a Chinese proverb popular in the 80s: "It's easy to fool a foreigner." Well, as Daffy used to say, "Not this little black duck!" sez I. When we got off the bus, there was a "free shuttle" that would take us the last mile or so to the Big Buddha's park. It dropped us in front of a grand "carved" gateway, which had a sign claiming that the entrance fee was a whopping $23! Something was not right. Trying to figure it out, I noticed that $10 of that was for something called "Eastern Buddha Town," and another $13 for the "Leshan Giant Buddha."

The gate of "Eastern Buddha Town" (or "Oriental Buddha Park") (photo by Lila)

Then I got it. The "free shuttle" had brought us to the gate of a sort of Buddhist theme park, a Dharma Disneyland, which Wikipedia translates "Oriental Buddha Park," and says is "adjacent to the Leshan Giant Buddha." It was "developed and operated by a private firm on a for profit basis." I'll say! Not having time to view its supposed "3,000 Buddha statues"--and not willing to be hoodwinked--we walked away. After a quick lunch, we found the real gate to the Big Buddha, paid the actual price of $13, and headed in.


In the Land of the Big Buddha

Like so many of China's Buddhist sites, this one was in the progress of being optimized for attracting tourists. It takes a little squinting to imagine the site as it may have been before the influx of government-lured looky-loos. We made our way through a Stele Forest of inscribed slabs (always lost on me, unable to read much Chinese) directly to the Big Guy himself.

The aptly-named Haitong ("Old Hand at Dealing with the Sea") (photo by Lila)

Back around the year 713, the waters in front of where the Buddha now sits were troubled by extreme turbulence--some say even whirlpools--being at the confluence of the Min and the Dadu Rivers. So along came a monk with the suspicious aptonym "Haitong" (something like "Old Hand at Dealing with the Sea" or "Ocean Expert," which sounds more like a nickname to me). He proposed building the Buddha as a means of calming the waters. So committed was he that he is said to have gouged out his eye (or eyes)--rather than surrender to a corrupt government official--the donations he had raised. (Ancient Chinese monks seem to have had little regard for their physical well-being; Huike, the Second Patriarch of Chan, cut off his left arm to prove his sincerity to the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma.)

After numerous delays, the work was completed after Haitong's death, under his disciples, in 803. And guess what? It worked! Skeptics (like me) believe it had something to do with the massive tonnage of rock dumped into the river during the construction, but you're free to believe what you will.

Our view of the Big Guy (note the crowds behind him, level with his hairline)

The best view, of course, was from below--a view denied to some of the ancients, as at various periods the statue was enclosed in a wooden pavilion which was repeatedly destroyed and replaced. But (a) we had neither time nor money to take the boat tour, and (b) we had neither time nor energy to climb the one-way stairs down--two segments in a massive centipede of tourists--and then back up again, somewhere over 200 feet in each direction. So we satisfied ourselves with marveling at all 23 feet of his ear (which, as it turns out, is made of clay-covered wood attached to the native rock), and moved on.


Along the Path to Wuyou

Haitong is said to have lived in a temple, Lingyun, on a hill above the statue. It has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries; we witnessed its newest resurrection in progress, then strolled on to a cave where the monk is also said to have stayed during the construction.

Some of the 500 tomb caves in the area

The area in fact is riddled with caves (people really dug that place--get it?). As we strolled along (still within the ticketed "Scenic Area") we passed a series of tomb caves--according to an interpretive sign, there are around 500 of them. We also walked through a former fishing village, now given over to selling trinkets and meals to the tourists. It was much, much quieter than the area immediately around the Buddha; it seems that most of the tourists wanted to take their selfies in front of him (we did!) and then go home (we didn't--yet).

The not-so-ancient (dammit!) Haoshang Bridge

After moseying along for a bit, we rounded a corner and saw one of the top ten beautiful sights in my many, many travels. For there in front of us was the Haoshang ("Upper Trench") Bridge. Wuyou Temple is separated from the Big Buddha area by a "distributary"--a branch of the river--that rejoins it again downstream, creating an island. Haoshang is the "shortcut" from the area near the Buddha on the mainland to the island (a vehicle road crosses the gap further downstream). The bridge was all the more beautiful for having been stumbled upon unexpectedly.

Now, ten years later, I have been doing some research. Have you noticed my use of such expressions as "or so we thought" in regards to not getting scammed? Well, for years we have been extolling the beauty of this "ancient" bridge. Its three arches are reflected in the sluggish river underneath them. Delicate pavilions decorate the top, and the bases of the two central pylons are pierced by dragons--the head sticks out of the upstream side, and the tail downstream.

But in the past few days I've noticed that sites keep describing the bridge as "being built in the 'ancient' style." "In the 'ancient' style" but not "in the ancient days"? The sad truth is, we were scammed, if covertly! The bridge dates only to the 1990s, and was--I surmise--built by the same people who opened the scammy Oriental Buddha Park in 1994! It doesn't detract any from the beauty, but it is a kind of a letdown.


Wuyou, the Temple of the Burning-Faced Ghost King

Wuyou Temple; see the text for the key to the letters.

Once we crossed the bridge (after we came to it), the path started up Wuyou "Mountain." At last, after passing more caves, pavilions, and other structures, we reached the Heavenly Kings Hall of Wuyou Temple, the Temple of the Burning-Faced Ghost King, founded in 756 CE.

It's said that the mountains around the temple form a Sleeping Buddha when viewed from far away (we never got this perspective), and Wuyou Shan is his head. One can't help but feel the temple has been squeezed onto a mighty small space. Oddly, the Heavenly Kings Hall (A) lacks a "Laughing Buddha" statue in its center--we'll see why in a moment. Past this is a sort of alley that runs along the edge of a cliff, passing a standing 16-foot figure of Amitabha Buddha in his own "hall" (little more than a glass case with a roof), and leading to a flower-bedecked terrace (B) with a river view on the left.

To the right (adapted to the terrain, so--unusually--facing west) is the Maitreya Hall (C), so tiny that four figures (Bodhisattvas?) are seated two on either side of the Laughing Buddha (here he is!). They're arranged in a straight line, rather than ranged around him in the four corners of the hall, as the Four Heavenly Kings usually are. They look for all the world as though they're seated in the front row of a theater, watching a movie!

The temple's cramped courtyard; Maitreya Hall on the right; Main Hall at the left; bell tower at the rear

Passing these, with the figure of Wei Tuo behind (flanked by two Daoist-looking characters), we enter a cramped little courtyard (D), with an octagonal drum tower on the left and a matching bell tower on the right. All of the buildings look like black lacquer with red-painted eaves under the black-tiled roof--a stunning look. The Main Hall (E)--called "The Precious Hall of the Great Hero," meaning it enshrines a statue of the historic Shakyamuni Buddha--actually features the "Three Saints of the Huayan," in which Shakyamuni is flanked by statues of Manjushri (Wenshu) and Samantabhadra (Puxian).

The Buddha of the Five Directions in the Tathagata Hall behind the Main Hall

Behind that is an exquisite little Tathagata Hall (F) with the Buddhas of the Five Directions on the main altar. Along either wall at eye level are the 18 Arhats (nine to a side) and standing on top of the Arhats' cabinets are smaller figures of the 24 Deva Kings. All of the figures in this packed hall look like they were made of papier-mache. Almost cartoonish in their simplicity, they are nonetheless very pleasing, feeling as though they had been donated by a hyperactive Sunday School class.

Arhats (18 of them) below, and Deva Kings (24 of them) above, in the Tathagata Hall

On the left side of these two halls, the "compound" has a Chan (Zen) Hall and a Guanyin Hall with a fine 10-foot bronze-looking statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, flanked by two smaller figures appearing to be made of jade. The right side of the compound has a Five Views (Dining) Hall and the Abbot's reception room. (Somewhere back there was a small hall with the Three Sages of the West, but I can't see where in my notes.)

Some of the much-younger-than-me 500 Arhats

If you stand on the terrace back out front facing the Maitreya Hall, to the left--almost touching corners--is the 500 Arhats Hall (G). Shaped like the Chinese character tian (田), meaning "field"--hinting at the idea of "cultivation"--it is a reproduction of an older hall on the site. That hall's Arhats were smashed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution; the life-sized clay figures we see today were made between 1986 and 1989.

Mahamayuri, the "Peacock Wisdom King," at the front of the 500 Arhats Hall

Though they're very nice, there's nothing groundbreaking about most of the figures in this hall: the 500 Arhats, the figure of the antinomian Jigong, the three seated Buddhas at the far end of the central axis, the multi-armed Guanyin. But truly unusual is the figure immediately in the Hall's doorway, one I cannot recall seeing anywhere else. It is unmistakable: a Buddha-like figure seated, eyes closed and palms joined, on a giant peacock! This is Mahamayuri--whose Chinese name, Kongque Mingwang, translates to "Peacock Wisdom King." Usually, however, this figure would have four arms and sometimes three heads, and would be more feminine in appearance. (Wisdom kings--in Japan, Myo-O--are generally very masculine and quite fierce-looking, but not this one.)

The Wuyou Hall

We have one more hall to visit, housing the temple's name sake. To the right of the main compound (as you face it) is a small hill, at the top of which is a hall (H) dedicated to "Wuyou Mahasattva" (the latter word meaning "Great Bodhisattva"), the temple's namesake.

The word wuyou is essentially nonsense. When Sanskrit words entered China, they were adapted in one of two ways: they were either translated (as when the word tathagata became rulai or "thus come"--one of its meanings) or transliterated, that is, reproduced in sound but not in meaning (as when "Shakyamuni" became Shijiamouni). A temple sign explains that "Wuyou" is a transliteration--but from what, it does not say. I simply cannot find the original figure's name in Sanskrit, and the two Chinese characters together carry no meaning. However, the same sign tells us that the name has been translated Mianran, or "Burning Face." It further specifies that this figure is a guiwang or "King of Ghosts," and is one of the 33 forms of Avalokiteshvara in some traditions.

This gave me enough to go on. One of the largest Buddhist holidays in China and its derived cultures is the "Ghost Festival" held in the seventh month (usually August for us). And a central ceremony held in that month is the Yujia Yankou or "Yoga Flaming Mouth" rite, in which food offerings are made to the Hungry Ghosts. "Flaming Mouth," it seems, is synonymous with "Burning Face," and this "ghost king" is one of the central figures in the ritual.

As the story goes, the hungry ghost named Burning Face (described in gruesome detail) appeared to the Buddha's disciple Ananda and told him he would die in three days, and be born a hungry ghost himself. Seeking a way out, Ananda asked if there was nothing he could do? The Ghost King set him a task of feeding the innumerable hungry ghosts, as well as brahmins, seers, and so on. If he did so, his longevity would be increased; if he could not, it was curtains for him.

In a panic, Ananda went to the Buddha, who told him not to worry: there was a ritual for this. So he set out for Ananda The Buddha's Discourse on the Scripture for the Spell of Saving the Burning Mouth Hungry Ghost (catchy title, ain't it?), and explained to Ananda that conducting this ritual would supernaturally relieve the hunger of all those ghosts, obviating the need to actually gather up tons of food. It continues to be performed to this day.

Wuyou Mahasattva, or "Burning Face," or “Flaming Mouth”

The statue of Wuyou himself is a frightful-looking esoteric figure said to have been cast in India (though some sources say "in the Indian style") in the Tang Dynasty. The sunlight streaming in the hall's front door hit the glass case he was in, making it impossible to get a good shot of the six-foot-tall figure--he was flaming! A little head of Avalokiteshvara sits atop of his own; the lips of his gold face are bright red; and an aura of bright red flames surrounds him. He was truly awesome.

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Having drunk our fill, Lila and I ambled down the hill, gratefully finding the bus stop for a ride back to the highway bus terminal--no more rapacious "free shuttles"--and heading back to Chengdu tired but very very happy.

Thanks so much for traveling along with us! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


QUESTIONS:

  1. Haitong and his followers must have raised a lot of money to build this Buddha. How do you feel about religious funds going for projects like this, instead of for social programs like feeding the hungry, or educating people?

  2. Wikipedia notes, "The commercial nature of the [Oriental Buddha Park] next to a heritage site [The Leshan Giant Buddha] has attracted commentary from academics. Local Leshan scholars Jiaming Luo and Chunjing Zeng in a conference paper pointed out the profit driven nature of the park invited the question of whether a commercial entity 'can become the mediator to revitalize the spirit of heritage.'" What are your thoughts? Is it appropriate for "theme park"-type operations to attach themselves to legitimate cultural sites? (And of course we all agree that their operators shouldn't be hustling tourists, like they tried with us, right? RIGHT?!)

  3. Does the fact that a seemingly-ancient bridge or other structure turns out to be just a couple of decades old detract in any way from its beauty?

  • Subscribers: There's still a "Secret Group" on Facebook where your questions and comments can get more personal attention. If you're not already a member, let me know and we'll figure out how to loop you in! (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Oh, and Non-subscribers? Join the club!


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In the next episode: Come with me as I visit Shisen-do, the retreat built by a retired samurai-turned-poet in Kyoto's northeast foothills--and now a Buddhist temple.