Ep. 094: Shanghai's Temple of Tranquility and Peace

Jing'an Temple rises from the grave

Buddhism was booming a decade or so ago, when I was actively visiting the 142 Key Temples of the Han Area of China. Where some might have been frustrated by all the construction I encountered, I was (usually) thrilled to witness "history in the making." Witness the changes wrought at Shanghai's Jing'an Temple--the Temple of Tranquility and Peace--in the two-and-a-half short years between my visits in August of 2009 and again in January of 2012, in this episode of--

TEMPLE TALES!


August, 2009

The brand-new front gates of Jing'an Temple

Ever since my arrival in Shanghai, I had been passing Jing'an Temple on my way to and from the subway stop bearing its name. (The entire district where I was staying is named for it as well.) So it was with a feeling of familiarity that I passed through the massive new gates and entered the grounds proper.

Word is that the British built Shanghai's first tramline from here to the famous Bund in the International Settlement along the western bank of the Huangpu River (now a protected historical district) in 1908, so the subway stop has a long history.

The temple had been built beside Suzhou Creek in 247, during the Three Kingdoms period. Because of constant flooding, it was moved to its current location in 1216, during the Song Dynasty; it was later reconstructed in the 1880s, in the late Qing. During the Cultural Revolution, a plastic factory was established on the grounds; it was razed to the ground in a 1972 fire. With the restoration of sanity in the country, in 1983 the temple property was returned to the Buddhist authorities (under state oversight, of course), and reconstruction began again. It reopened in 1990.

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The temple was far from finished when I visited in August of 2009. Current articles say that the temple has three main halls: the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Mahavira (or Main) Hall, and the Hall of the Three Saints.

As seen from the air today: gate flanked by drum (l) and bell (r) towers at bottom; Main Hall in center, third hall, then pagoda at top. Large buildings on either side are Shakyamuni Hall (l) and Guanyin Hall (r). Note large Ashoka pillar at lower right. (Wikipedia)

When I visited, the Mountain Gate--probably the "Hall of Heavenly Kings"--had what looked like a place-holder statue of the Laughing Buddha, but nary a king was to be seen. This is probably properly populated by now. I suspect that the Hall of the Three Saints--if it exists at all--is the building to the rear of the property. My map (on the back of the entry ticket) calls this a "Golden Buddha Hall," but I suspect the plan was changed. That hall was closed when I was there, but it's in the usual location of a temple's sutra repository and dharma (teaching) hall. It remains a mystery.

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But a few interesting features had been completed, or were in process.

Looking up inside the bell tower

Just inside the gate, to the right, the bell tower was being used to generate donations. There's an ancient-looking square well in the room, right under the massive Ming Dynasty copper bell. (More interesting than either the well or the bell is the building itself, with its round opening through which the bell can be seen.)

My sources say that the temple was once called "Bubbling Well Temple." Nanjing West Road, which runs in front of the temple's gates, was called "Bubbling Well Road," and Jing'an Park, across from the temple, was until the 1950s "Bubbling Well Cemetery." (The graves, including nearly 60 British military graves, were removed--one hopes.)

These were all named for an ancient well (or spring?) that bubbled continuously in front of the gates. But that well, they say, was filled in in the 1960s. The well I saw in the bell tower is a smaller replica of that older one; whether it produces water, and of what quality that might be, I couldn't say.

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An odd structure surrounded the incense tower in the main courtyard. Note the small Ashoka pillars on either side of the stairs, and the larger one barely visible at top left.

Moving on: In the main courtyard, I saw that the tall incense tower was surrounded by a most unusual, truncated structure, with a railing and roof eaves. It looked like it might be part of a building, but I was not to find out the rest of the story until my next visit.

The jade Shakyamuni and the camphorwood Guanyin

Facing each other across the courtyard are the Shakyamuni Hall on the left, and the Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) Hall on the right.

The Shakyamuni enshrined here is made of white jade, said to weigh eleven tons and stand twelve feet tall. It's claimed to be the largest sitting jade Buddha in China--a claim which must certainly be disputed. Several sites boast that it's bigger than the one at Yufo (Jade Buddha) Temple, which we'll visit in Episode 096. So large is it, they say, that "the temple gate had to be demolished in order to bring it in." Hmmm. Sounds like poor planning to me.

Anyway, big ain't necessarily beautiful. This one looks rather lumpish in the body to me; his face is that of a Cover Girl model, and his earth-touching (right) hand is disproportionately large.

The Guanyin across the courtyard, on the other hand, is a graceful figure pouring out the "nectar of compassion" from a vase. It is said to be carved from thousand-year-old camphorwood (see Episode 048 about a famous pair of Japanese statues made from this material) and stands over 20 feet tall. Around the sculpture, as in the Shakyamuni Hall, hang long yellow fabric strips indicating donations, usually in memory of a loved one.

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Arhats flank a poster in the Main Hall's "basement" room.

Continuing, we discover in the "basement" of the Main Hall a set of 18 arhats along the back wall, flanking a poster of a Buddha--perhaps Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha, though it could have been Amitabha. Presumably the arhats would be moved upstairs to the Main Hall when the temple was finished. This hall seats up to a thousand people for lectures.

A modern-looking Ashoka pillar rises above the Bell Tower. Note the workers in the tower's gable.

As we approach the stairs to the Main Hall (upstairs from the basement), on either side, we notice two small "Ashoka pillars"; more are located along the second-floor railing, imitating the much larger one that stands outside the grounds, between the unfinished bell tower and a mall. This is a very modern, almost cartoonish, representation of memorial columns placed by King Ashoka of India (whom we discussed in Episode 084). Twenty of these pillars are still standing in India, some inscribed with edicts promulgated by Ashoka promoting a Buddhism-based morality. Many of them mark important sites from the life of the Buddha, which were places of pilgrimage.

Pillars and roof structure inside the Main Hall

The Main Hall itself, though virtually devoid of statues at the time, was magnificent: like the rest of the temple, it's a mostly-wood edifice with lacquer over the natural grain of its Myanmar teak, rather than paint. The underside of the roof structure alone was worth the visit.


January, 2012

In early 2012--in fact, at New Years--Lila and I were flown to Shanghai to attend an event in nearby Wuxi (a former student of mine was being installed as abbot of a temple). Having a day to ourselves on the way to the event, we retraced some of my 2009 steps, as I mentioned at Yuanming Jiangtang in Episode 092.

Jing'an Temple was still not complete, but a couple of interesting projects had been more-or-less finished.

Fifteen tons of silver in the Main Hall's Buddha

First, let's talk about the Main Hall. Though it still didn't have a full complement of statues, the one it did have was sufficiently impressive. In the center of the hall sits a solid silver Buddha. I have never seen anything like it: nearly 29 feet tall and weighing 15 tons! It sits on a marvelously carved pedestal.

One of the exquisite jade panels behind the Buddha in the Main Hall

More marvelous still were the three panels behind it. Carved of various colors of jade, they depict events in the life of the Buddha. Though they were huge, the way they were mounted led me to believe that this was a temporary display, and that they would be affixed somewhere more permanent when the temple neared completion.

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The pagoda. It caused some controversy when it was first unveiled: some found it beautiful, and others, ghastly. I lean toward the second camp.

The other noticeable change was hinted at when I realized that the incomplete structure that had been plopped down in the courtyard on my last visit was gone. Searching for it, I discovered a lofty (if, to my taste, somewhat ugly) pagoda behind the last hall. In fact, it is best viewed from the street behind. The piece that I had seen was but one of its seven eaved floors. The top is in the form of a "Diamond Throne" pagoda, a taller central tower with four smaller ones on each corner of a square platform. The Jing'an Pagoda was completed in 2010, the year after my first visit.

At some point in the future, the pagoda will hold "treasures" (historical items, relics, and so on) and a Golden Buddha will be seated on the top floor. Perhaps that is the source of the name "Golden Buddha Hall" shown on my map?

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One of the pleasures of looking like the Laughing Buddha: People kept handing me their babies--especially at New Years! This is Tonky.

I hope I get a chance to return to Shanghai someday and see the final product at Jing'an Temple.

And that, my beloveds, is that. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: We'll meet a sweating saint--well, Bodhisattva, anyway--at Iwama-dera, high on a mountain in Shiga Prefecture, Japan.