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The Importance of Being On Brand

18 Feb

When I first traveled to China and arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2012, I remember seeing a glossy advertisement for Maserati as I walked through the jetway. Having visited many other countries in Asia where Chinese-made cars and motorbikes are ubiquitous, I got a kick out of this prominent promotion of a non-Chinese brand directed at freshly arrived visitors to China’s largest city. A year later I was in Beijing, and after viewing the embalmed body and orange-colored face of Mao Zedong, as I left his mausoleum, I had to “exit through the gift shop” where I was besieged by vendors selling also sorts of Mao trinkets and other Cultural Revolution merchandise. Where did this appetite for luxury and desire to cash in on “commie memorabilia” come from? More importantly, what would be the limits of the PRC’s tolerance for the growing materialistic impulses and capitalist desires of a newly moneyed generation?  I had these questions swirling around in my head as I walked past the countless storefronts of fancy Western brands and franchises that crowded the large city blocks of Shanghai.

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Old Shanghai nostalgia: suitcases & “commie memorabilia” for sale in the now demolished Dongtai Road Antique Market – Shanghai, China (2012)

Since I had a few days to spend in Shanghai after I returned from my travel to Mt. Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha, I was keen to explore what remained in this megapolis of the Chinese Buddhist spirituality and religious practice of the generations before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While most of the historical Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples in Shanghai were destroyed, a few managed to survive or were reconstructed. Much of old Shanghai like the Dongtai Road Antique Market (which was on its last legs when I saw it in 2012) has been demolished to make room for shiny new developments, and so whether or not the remaining Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist temples in Shanghai may need to get relocated or continue as protected sites remains to be seen. Despite all the rapid change and reinvention, I did see 2 enchanting Buddhist temple complexes in Shanghai, as well as, a third temple that was recently restored with sleek features in sync with the bustling city sidewalks surrounding it.

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Longhua Pagoda constructed in 977 A.D. – Shanghai (2012)

First on my list was the Longhua Temple which is located in the far south of Shanghai. The Shanghai Metro (subway) manages to snake into most areas of the city and was my preferred means of transport. The Metro surfaced and then elevated above the city streets as it ventured into the city’s far southern reaches. I hopped off at a stop not too far from a brand new IKEA store that anchored the Xuhui Shopping Center. I then walked about 1km until I saw what once must have been among the tallest “skyscrapers” of old Shanghai — the Longhua Pagoda. This Pagoda is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monuments in Shanghai and was built out of brick and wood in 977 A.D.  It is over 40 meters/132 ft tall and yellow in color (which brought to mind the color of the Beamless Brick Hall of Wannian Monastery at Mt. Emei).  Given its age and fragile state, the public cannot enter and walk up to the top of the Pagoda.

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Inside Longhua Temple complex

After paying the admission fee and receiving a bundle of incense sticks, I entered the temple complex which was sparsely filled with visitors. I took my time to enter all the prayer halls and pavilions and some of these buildings had signs and old photographs noting their historical significance. One particular statue stood out above all else at Longhua Temple. This was a serene and intricate statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara known as the embodiment of all seeing compassion. The statue was flanked on each of its sides by its arms which were fanned out as if hugging the world. Each of the statue’s “thousand arms” had their palms visible and within each palm was a watchful eye — symbolizing Avalokitesvara’s all seeing nature and omnipresence.

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The “Thousand-Armed” Avalokitesvara statue – Longhua Temple

I noticed a group of Chinese patrons bowing multiple times in front of this statue with their hands gripping lit incense sticks over their foreheads. They may have been praying for assistance and support in dealing with a difficult situation, or affirming their gratitude for the compassion that this Bodhisattva provides to the world. I intently watched the actions of this pious group. It was evident to me that religious practice was very much alive and well in Shanghai despite the 20th Century effort to snuff it out as an opiate of the masses.

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Detail of Avalokitesvara statue – a watchful eye contained in each palm

Unfortunately, Longhua Temple was not always as peaceful as the day I visited. It has a bloody past and served as the grounds for over 5,000 public executions of communist party members by the Kuomintang (KMT) national party in April 1927. A few decades after this purge, communist soldiers ransacked Longhua Temple and used statues like the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara for target practice. One can still see bullet holes in the walls of certain buildings at Longhua. As I walked out of Longhua Temple and into an adjacent park, I came across the “Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Hall” which was built by the PRC in what was formerly the gardens of the Longhua Temple.  The Memorial Hall is free, and although all the exhibits are in Chinese, the sobering realization that the old gardens of Longhua Temple are a mass grave holding the remains of executed political prisoners needed no translation.

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Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple – Shanghai

After Longhua Temple, I took the Metro to west Shanghai to see the Jade Buddha Temple which dates back to the late 19th Century (although the original temple was destroyed and the present site was built in the late 1920s). As its name suggests, this temple contains 2 Buddha statues made of white jade. Both Buddhas were sculpted in Burma and had been acquired by a Chinese monk named Huigen who had been traveling through Burma in the early 1880s.

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Entrance to main prayer hall – Jade Buddha Temple

The story goes that Huigen had actually purchased 5 such jade Buddhas, but only 2 of these were transported back to his temple in Shanghai where special halls were built to house them. It is not clear what happened to the other 3 jade Buddhas. Since I had visited Burma and seen many jade and marble Buddhas there (Mandalay in Burma is still known for its mastery of marble & jade sculptures), I was curious to see how the 2 jade Buddhas of the Jade Buddha Temple compared.  

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The Seated Buddha of Jade Buddha Temple

Although photographs are not allowed of the 2 jade Buddhas, I did manage to surreptitiously snap a shot of the larger one — the “Seated Buddha”. This statue is displayed behind glass in its own hall which requires an entry fee that is separate from the general admission to the temple complex. Inside the hall, there is a railing in the back that keeps the public at a good distance away from the statue which is located in the front of the hall. The statue contains feminine features that are very similar to those I had seen in other Burmese statues of the Buddha. The seated pose of the statue depicts the Buddha in the “earth witness” (or bhumi-sparsha) mudra that was famously used by the Buddha to respond back to the demon, Mara, who was hoping to tempt the Buddha to give up his search for Enlightenment (see post: “Tempt” at https://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The second jade Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple is found in another hall and is much smaller. This statue depicts a Reclining Buddha and is serpentine in the way its body is curved. I found it interesting that both of these 2 jade Buddhas which reflect the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Burma were acquired by Huigen, a monk of the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The exquisite artistry of the 2 statues probably quelled any potential protests by fellow monks when Huigen returned to Shanghai and requested that the 2 Burmese-sculpted Buddhas be housed at their temple.

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Jing’an Temple (crowned with a mini-Mahabodhi Temple) at West Nanjiang Road – Shanghai

From the Jade Buddha Temple, I was back on the Metro and headed to Jing’an Temple. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Shanghai’s busy West Nanjiang Road, this temple could be mistaken upon first blush as some kind of modern religious theme park. The original temple that bore the name “Jing’an” dates back to the 3rd Century A.D., but that site was destroyed long ago and an entirely new temple was built at the current site of Jing’an Temple in 1216 A.D. from where it enjoyed centuries of unmolested religious activity and spiritual importance until the events of the 20th Century interfered.

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Central courtyard – Jing’an Temple

The present design and construction of Jing’an Temple took place in 1998 and incorporated some key Buddhist icons such as a mini-replica of the Mahabodhi Temple (found in Bodh Gaya, India) perched atop the temple and the Pillar of Ashoka (now in a museum in Sarnath, India) which pops out of the city sidewalk that borders the temple. When I entered Jing’an Temple, it dawned on me that this flashy temple fused together elements of China’s “Big 3” religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I saw distinct religious icons and offering areas for each of these 3 faiths inside the temple grounds and visitors were making their rounds to observe and pray before all of these.

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Central Buddha – Jing’an Temple

The central Buddha statue at Jing’an Temple appears to be made from iron or bronze and is nearly black in color. Directly behind this Buddha is a visually stunning panel that illustrates key episodes of the Buddha’s life (see first photograph in the post: “To the Wonder (again)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-PC).  While I can’t say that the present design and construction of Jing’an Temple captures any of the contemplative atmosphere or spiritual authenticity of either Longhua Temple or the Jade Buddha Temple complex, Jing’an Temple is very much “on brand” with the rest of the modern, reimagined Shanghai. It is a chic destination that allows lay people and devotees alike to practice (or go through the motions of practicing) their traditions of ancestral and spiritual worship.

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Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple) – Beijing, China (2013)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was in Beijing in 2013 where I witnessed the same kind of enterprising consumerism as in Shanghai. While most of the key historical sights in and around Beijing are connected to the city’s imperial past (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, etc.), there was one remaining Buddhist temple and monastery of interest. This was the Yonghe Temple (or Lama Temple) which also has its origins rooted in Beijing’s imperial past. This temple was first built in 1694 A.D. as a residence for the Qing crown prince. About 50 years later, the complex was reconfigured as a monastery and center for the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Stairway leading to main hall at Yonghe Temple

Not surprisingly, the entire layout and design of the Yonghe Temple is reminiscent of a mini-Forbidden City because the Qing Emperor’s son initially had lived there. During my visit, the Yonghe Temple was buzzing with visitors and monks were actively chanting mantras, playing drums and other instruments, and treating the public to the visual pageantry of Tibetan Buddhism. As I watched the interactions of the public and the monks, I could not shake the feeling that this spectacle seemed “staged”.  This was based only on my hunch and not anything else. But, it was hard for me to accept the legitimacy of this school or “lamasery” for Tibetan Buddhism given the stark absence of any photos or other acknowledgments of the current Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama). I also thought back to my experience at the moribund Tashilumpo Monastery in Tibet where the puppet Panchen Lama appointed by the PRC resides (see post: “For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-b4).

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Observing Tibetan Buddhist Monks at Yonghe Temple

The entire vibe inside Tashilumpo Monastery had come across as artificial to me and I felt a similar feeling at Yonghe Temple. Regardless of whether or not the monks at Yonghe Temple must follow a schedule set by the PRC and have to put on a good show for visitors, the Yonghe Temple did somehow survive the Cultural Revolution and is very well preserved. The best sight of the temple is found inside the “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses” where one of the world’s largest Buddha statues made of sandalwood is located. This statue is 3-stories high and is housed within a colorfully painted space filled with Buddhist icons and symbols. The artistry and craftsmanship of both the statue and the interior of the pavilion are on par with what may still be seen in the monasteries and temples in Tibet. There is no doubt that the first wave of Tibetan Buddhists who traveled to Beijing to found the Lama Temple effectively replicated and shared their artistic skill and know-how in order to transform the once imperial residence into a center of religious teaching and worship that injected the spirit of Tibet into China.

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Sandalwood Buddha – Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at Yonghe Temple

As I said, the original buildings of Yonghe Temple had been planned and constructed by the Qing Emperor to mirror those of the Forbidden City.  Since I had visited the Forbidden City the day before seeing Yonghe Temple, its layout was fresh in my mind. While wandering through the Forbidden City (now called the “Palace Museum”), I had mentally replayed scenes from “The Last Emperor” and was able to pick out many of the exact same locations where Bernardo Bertolucci had been allowed by the PRC to shoot scenes for the film. Towards the north end of the Forbidden City, there is a rock garden area with leafy trees and I had ducked under one of these to take refuge from the scorching sun on the day of my visit. When I had cooled down, I walked up to an elevated platform where I was able to look beyond the tall walls surrounding the palace grounds. In the distance, I was surprised to see what appeared to be the shape of a stupa with Tibetan-like symbols and features.

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Beyond the walls of the Forbidden City – Bai Ta (the White Dagoba)

I used my camera’s zoom lens to take a closer look at this white structure and it was clear to me that this was some kind of Tibetan “chorten” (or stupa). Since this structure was located outside of the Forbidden City and had been built in the middle of an island in a lake, I wasn’t able to walk to it. Later on, I did some research into this curious sight and learned that this was “Bai Ta” (or the “White Dagoba”). It was built by the Chinese Qing Emperor to commemorate the first ever visit to Beijing by the-then Tibetan head of state, the 5th Dalai Lama. I was amazed by this. Apparently, none of the previous Dalai Lamas had ever visited, nor had entered into any alliance with, any Chinese Emperor. Since I had some knowledge about the 5th Dalai Lama’s great achievements and the vaunted place he held in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, it made sense to me why the Chinese Emperor had vigorously campaigned to meet with such a formidable and visionary man as the 5th Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama had done much to usher the Tibetan people into an age of advancement which had culminated with the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa (see post: “Sketches of Lhasa (#3)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-eQ). I remember viewing the 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb which is housed on its own floor within the Potala Palace and there are massive statues (one with an elephant with a huge pearl in its forehead) that surround it. When the 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in 1652 A.D., he was accompanied by 3,000 Tibetans and the journey from Lhasa had taken 9 months. No wonder the Chinese Emperor had built the Bai Ta stupa as the crowning feature on its own island in close proximity to the Forbidden City. This grand gesture clearly demonstrated that the 5th Dalai Lama was viewed by the Chinese as a strong independent leader of a foreign land and was someone with whom the Chinese Emperor wanted to establish fruitful foreign relations.

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Closer look at Bai Ta – Beihai Park, Beijing

In thinking back to my accidental spotting of Bai Ta from my vantage point at the Forbidden City, I have to believe that most visitors (including Chinese tourists too) are oblivious to this stupa which I did not see promoted as a point of interest in any travel guides or tourist brochures. Furthermore, whatever information that is provided to visitors about Bai Ta most likely reflects PRC-approved messaging. After all, how would the PRC reconcile the significance of Bai Ta with its long held claim that Tibet has always been a part of China? Assuming that the PRC does simply dismiss Bai Ta as an “off-brand” historical footnote of no importance, this monument’s indomitable presence piercing the skies above the grounds of old imperial Beijing emphatically suggests otherwise.

The Calming Influence of A Giant

7 Feb

After I had journeyed through Tibet in 2007, I made a vow to myself to never set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). My reasons for that are chronicled in my previous posts about my first-hand experience of the treatment of Tibetans and their vanishing culture under the oppressive policies of the PRC (click the “Tibet” heading under the “Categories” section to read those posts). Yet, even before I traveled to Dunhuang, China to see the Mogao Caves in 2016, I had already visited the PRC on 2 different occasions with the first taking place in November 2012. My 2012 trip was spurred by 2 things: first, China had embarked on a fascinating “re-branding” blitz that had begun during the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and second, my youngest brother was living in Shanghai and working on the design and construction of one of the massive new projects that was part of this “new China” — Disney Shanghai. I wrestled with the decision to go to China, but ultimately relented after convincing myself that the visit could provide me with insight into the attitudes and pulse of the upcoming generation there. In order to procure my Chinese visa, I had to have my brother write an “invitation letter” asking me to visit him in China and then I sent this letter along with an application fee and my flight arrival and departure information to the Chinese consulate in the U.S. While I was interested in seeing the soaring demand for consumerism and luxury Western brands in Shanghai, I had another destination in mind: Chengdu. So, after a couple of days getting acclimated to the frenzied pace of Shanghai, I was soon boarding a long domestic flight to what was once China’s western frontier.

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Wenshu Pavillion, Wenshu Temple – Chengdu, China (2012)

Chengdu was the 5th largest city in China at the time of my visit. This sprawling city sits about 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Shanghai and is located in the southwestern corner of China in Sichuan province. It is the last major city in this region of China before the mountains and the Tibetan plateau begin to rise and dominate the landscape. Chengdu is perhaps best known today for 2 things: food and pandas. There’s no doubt that Chengdu is the culinary capital of China with its fiery cuisine which features the spicy Sichuan peppercorn. There are thousands of hot pot restaurants where diners boil their own meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth saturated with Sichuan peppers and spices. Additionally, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is about 20km outside of downtown. The sole purpose of this conservation park is to breed, nurse, and in some cases, release Giant Pandas into the surrounding forests.

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Bottle feeding Giant Panda cub at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Pandas

Long before the gastronomy and panda craze, Chengdu was one of the “Three Kingdoms” that controlled China in the 3rd Century A.D.  Emperor Liu Bei had his palace in Chengdu and ruled what was called the Shu kingdom. His period of rule has been romanticized in important Chinese books and novels as a golden era of great learning, prosperity, and cultural exchange. Contemporary Chengdu is filled with construction cranes, huge buildings, and the city is connected by a  “flyover” highway where cars whiz above the city without the bother of traffic lights. A few key historical sights in Chengdu include the old district (called Jinli), the Tibetan quarter filled with raucous snooker halls, the Wuhou Shrine (Liu Bei’s burial mound), and Wenshu Monastery (originally called “Xin Xiang Temple”) — the oldest and best preserved Buddhist monastery in Chengdu.

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The Thousand Buddha Pagoda – Wenshu Temple

Wenshu Temple was built sometime in the 6th Century A.D. during the rule of Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty.  It is a large complex with multiple buildings and prayer halls. The most arresting feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Pagoda in the courtyard. In the 19th century, a well-known Chinese monk who had studied at Bodh Gaya in India brought back a fingerbone relic that is now thought to be enshrined inside the Pagoda.

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The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa at the Golden Summit – Mt. Emei, Sichuan province, China (2012)

Given Chengdu’s geographic location on the western frontier of China, it served as a natural corridor for the arrival of Buddhism into China. Buddhism is an alien religion in China. Confucianism and Taoism were long entrenched as the dominant philosophical and religious schools of thought before Buddhism began to spread from the Himalayas and deserts in the West to the populated Chinese regions in the East. About a 2-hour drive south of Chengdu is perhaps the exact location where Buddhism first took hold in China — Mt. Emei (Emeishan). This mountain is one of the “4 Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism” and is where the Buddhist monk, Samantabhadra (called Puxian by the Chinese), first arrived on the back of a white elephant with 6 tusks. Puxian taught in the Mahayana Buddhist school and is viewed today as a Bodhisattva associated with meditation and spiritual practice.  The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the slopes of Emeishan in the 1st Century A.D. The entire Emeishan region is a UNESCO site and there is a lot to see. My goal was to reach the “Golden Summit” and visit the key temple complexes that dotted the mountain. From Mt. Emei, I wanted to travel about 35km east to see the largest pre-modern statue in the world which was an ancient Giant Buddha carved into a riverside cliff.  Because of the tricky overland travel and the non-existence of English in West China, I decided to hire an English-speaking guide and driver in Chengdu who would take care of the logistics for getting to all these sites.

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Walking up the icy steps towards the cable car station at Mt. Emei

It was late November and an early winter chill was in full effect at the base of Mt. Emei where we purchased admission tickets for a cable car that would take us up to the Golden Summit. The journey to the cable car station itself required a combination of riding a shuttle bus, walking up steep stairways, and being on the lookout for hyperactive Tibetan macaques. Going up these stairways was treacherous given the ice and people were buying special shoe covers from eager vendors in order to walk safely. There are over 30 Buddhist monasteries and temples spread around Mt. Emei from its base (Baoguo Monastery), mid-mountain (Wannian Monastery), and top (Golden Temple, Silver Temple). Of all of these, Wannian Monastery is one of the oldest and most eye-popping in its aesthetic and impact.

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The yellow Beamless Brick Hall of the Wannian Temple complex – Mt. Emei

In keeping with the traditional layout of Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, the Wannian Monastery consists of multiple buildings which include an entry gate, prayer halls dedicated to the Buddha and Maitreya (Future Buddha), drum & bell towers, assembly pavilions, library rooms, and monk dormitories. The most unique of these buildings is the “Beamless Brick Hall” which one cannot miss due to its yellow color and dome. There are no wooden supports or pillars inside this building which is constructed by brick and is likely based on stupa and dagoba designs found in India and Sri Lanka. Directly underneath the dome is an astounding bronze statue of Puxian that was cast in the 10 Century A.D.  Puxian is holding a teaching scepter and sits in a lotus flower that rests atop a 6-tusk white elephant. The statue is over 7 meters/24ft high and is the absolute focal point of all activity inside.

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Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

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Bronze statue of Puxian from 10th Century A.D. – Wannian Monastery

When I tried to walk around the elephant in order to observe the statue from different vantage points, I noticed a group of Chinese individuals who were taking turns rubbing one of the back legs of the elephant. I could only interpret this as some kind of good luck tradition and noticed that the rubbed area of the elephant’s leg had eroded and was black. From Wannian Monastery, a shuttle took us further up the mountain to Jieyin Monastery which sits at an elevation of 2,540 meters. From there, we walked up another stairway to the cable car station. At this elevation, visibility was extremely limited due to thick clouds and fog. As the cable car started its way up, I braced myself for the probable disappointment that the Golden Summit itself would be completely encased in suffocating cloud cover.

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Above the “sea of clouds” with the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple in the distance – Mt. Emei

The cable car neared the summit within about 6 or 7 minutes and as it emerged out of the thick clouds, incredibly, my face was met by warm sunlight and I saw nothing but blue skies. The elevation of the “Jinding” (Golden Summit) of Mt. Emei is just above 3,000m (10,000ft) and in the distance way above the sea of clouds it is possible to see the tallest mountain in Sichuan, Mount Gongga (over 7,550 meters/nearly 25,000ft). As I began walking towards the main platform of the Golden Summit, I had to shield my eyes from the blinding golden temples and pavillions that were coming into view.  The summit platform itself was a fanatical sight of white elephants carrying the Dharma wheel on their backs, white trees, and in the center, a looming, frosted gold vision: the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa. 

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Walking towards the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa at the Golden Summit

The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa was built in 2006 and is 48 meters/127ft tall. Despite its recent vintage, there’s something magical about this statue. Perhaps the frost and passing mist that I saw around the statue added to its spectral quality, but I had never seen a stupa crowned with such a dynamic statue and was mesmerized. It was hard to pull my eyes away. At the base of the stupa, there was a doorway and when I walked inside I saw a statue of the Maitreya fronted by an altar area for prayer and offerings. The “Ten Faces” of Puxian represent the 10 virtues of truth that Puxian taught during his life.  Alongside the stupa are the Golden Temple and Silver Temple, and hanging on a cliff in the distance, is the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.

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The Golden Temple & Ten-Faced Puxian stupa

After spending about an hour wandering the Golden Summit and marveling at the perfect blanket of clouds below, we made our way back to the cable car and descended down the mountain. My driver then drove us east for about an hour until we reached another UNESCO site — the Leshan Giant Buddha (called “Da Fo”).  While the Ten-Faced Puxian stupa is a masterwork of modern design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is probably the most stupefying single statue of the ancient world.

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Riverside view of the Leshan Giant Buddha – Sichuan province, China (2012)

This statue was built in 8th Century A.D. and is 71 meters/233ft high. I first viewed this colossus from a boat which takes visitors across an intersection of rivers to a waiting area directly in front of the Giant Buddha. Today, the rivers are tranquil, but 1,300 years ago, there were 3 mighty rivers that merged in the same spot and due to their whitewater rapids and rocks, boats were routinely tossed and thrashed like rag dolls. It was because of these concerns that a local Buddhist monk named Hai Tong began his quest to build a guardian statue that would be blessed and serve to calm the wild waters. He spent 20 years of his life trying to raise money for his project and was rebuffed at every turn until he finally gouged out one of his eyes in dramatic protest. Apparently, this desperate act did the trick and money for the project quickly poured in from regents and locals. Construction started in 723 A.D., and although Hai Tong died before the project was completed, his disciples faithfully carried out his wishes until the statue was finished in 803 A.D.

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Statue of Hai Tong and entrance to the spartan cave he lived in during construction of “Da Fo”

The entire Giant Buddha statue is made of stone except for the ears which are built from wood and clay was used to fuse the large head to the torso.  At one point, the statue had a roof over it to protect it from the weather and other elements, but this feature was destroyed long ago. The statue is thought to represent the Maitreya (the future Buddha), and alongside it are other smaller stone statues, tombs, the remains of an old temple, and a few pagodas perched on the surrounding hilltops.

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Eye-to-eye with the Leshan Giant Buddha

After our boat turned back to the dock, we drove across a bridge and arrived at the official entrance to the Leshan Giant Buddha where we purchased our tickets. The visit to the Leshan Giant Buddha starts from the top where the statue’s head rises just above the cliff plateau. From there, one must patiently and carefully walk down the “Nine-Turn Cliff” to get to the bottom of the statue. Signs in Chinese and English are posted warning visitors who suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, or “old-age” not to walk down the Nine-Turn Cliff.

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Carefully descending the Nine-Turn Cliff

On my way down the Nine-Turn Cliff, it became immediately clear why the need for the warning. The stairway is steep and the railing that separates you from a likely lethal fall is not very high. To complicate things, people are haphazardly stopping all along the way to snap photos, rest, or chit-chat, so you have to be on high-alert for human traffic jams and not bump into the person ahead of you.  It is also difficult to pass slow-pokes given the narrow stairway. If someone twists an ankle or gets a panic attack and needs to turn around and walk upstream against the slog of people coming down, this could trigger a nightmare scenario of being temporarily stuck.

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Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

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A colossus

When I reached the bottom, I walked behind a large incense urn and kneeling area and stared up. This statue was constructed in only 80 years over 1,300 years ago. That seemed inexplicably fast to me. I could see lush bushes and vines growing out of certain areas of the statue (I learned later that every few years Chinese officials undertake the painstaking effort of removing all this greenery which always grows back). This symbiotic relationship between the Giant Buddha and the vegetation that sprouts out of it reminded me of large whales that have barnacles attached to them. These bushes that had managed to take root in the statue made the statue appear alive and sentient. Then, I had a funny thought that the Leshan Giant Buddha was not just the world’s largest pre-modern statue, but also the world’s largest Chia Pet!

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The climb back up

After viewing the Giant Buddha from below, I had to go back up through another stairway on the opposite cliffside. The walk up was very slow and claustrophobic in certain places given the tight tunnel-like switch-backs dug into the cliffside. As I climbed higher and looked down at the river below, I could see it was shallow with sediment piled up in certain places. Interestingly, this sediment was all the result of the construction of the Giant Buddha. All of the silt, rocks, and other sludge which had been removed from the cliff in order to carve the statue were not carted away or transported elsewhere for other uses. Instead, all of this excavated cliffside debris simply fell into the wild rivers below, and gradually, the rivers were reshaped and the once raging rapids ceased. So, the Giant ultimately accomplished what Hai Tong had sought long ago — it had calmed the rivers.

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A final look on the way out

Behold A White Horse

31 Jan

About 15 months after my visit to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in India, I was in a small town in western China called Dunhuang. When the Silk Road trading routes were at their height of use and long caravans filled with spices, silk, grains, teas, fruits, gunpowder, precious stones, and other in-demand goods were busy treading back and forth from the East to the West in the 4th to 15th Centuries A.D., Dunhuang was a boomtown. It sat at a key crossroads of the southern Silk Road trade route and offered weary travelers an oasis of refuge as they battled the elements of the Gobi desert in the northeast and the Taklamakan desert in the west.

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Not a mirage – megadunes of Mount Mingsha looming over dusty Dunhuang, Gansu, China (2016)

Since the easternmost starting point of the Silk Road was the city of Xi’an in east-central China, I guess it made sense that I had to transit there in order to catch the only connecting flight to Dunhuang. I began the first leg of the journey on a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Xi’an which was about a 2-hour flight. In Xi’an, I had a 2-hour layover and then hopped on the once-a-day flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang which took another 3-hours. Everywhere in China is on Beijing standard time. So, although I was over 3000km (nearly 2000 miles) from Shanghai when I landed in Dunhuang, I lost no hours. I was still in the same time zone from when I started, but other than that, I was in a completely different world.

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The mythic oasis of Crescent Moon Spring Temple where travelers gave offerings to the Bodhisattva Guanyin for safe passage through the desert

To use a “Star Wars” analogy, Dunhuang is like the outer rim desert trading outpost of Tatooine. The town sits in Gansu province which extends from Sichuan province at its most southern border all the way to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its northwest border. Its population reflects this positioning since I saw many Uighur people who live and work in their own district in Dunhuang (packed with Uighur food vendors, restaurants, mosques, and schools), while a good chunk of “new” Dunhuang is filled with the neon lights and hot pot glitz that I’ve seen in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. From the moment I arrived in Dunhuang, I found no one who spoke English and it was a major feat just to finagle a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. After I was able to check-in at my hotel (which required the use of a translation app by the front desk clerk), I wandered through Dunhuang’s downtown and noticed that all the stores, restaurants, and other public establishments had thick, clear plastic curtains that one parted like the Red Sea in order to enter. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why these obstructive curtains were everywhere.

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Climbing up the dunes near Mingsha

There are “megadunes” of desert sand that frame Dunhuang like a massive mountain range. These ginormous sand dunes are known to make “chiming sounds” (which is what “Mingsha” — the name of the highest dune means) and shift quickly when the wind rustles through them. The town gets blanketed with sand when powerful gusts blast the dunes. So, the plastic curtains on all the doorways are an absolute necessity. Luckily, I had arrived in late winter, and aside from the brisk temperatures, the winds were calm. I had come to Dunhuang for one purpose: to see the fabled Mogao Caves.

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Approaching the Mogao Caves

These caves were first dug into the side of what I would call a massive “petrified” sand cliff in the the 4th Century A.D. The very first cave was carved out because of the vision seen by a Buddhist monk who had settled in Dunhuang. On a meditative walk through the desert plains outside the town, a near-blinding, shining halo consisting of a Thousand Buddhas appeared before him. Determined to capture his vision on the spot, he began digging into the side of the sand cliff where he saw the Buddhas. After this cave was dug, he dedicated it as a shrine to his vision and began using it for prayer and sharing it with others. This socialization of the cave naturally lead to other monks creating their own similar caves alongside the first cave and this went on and on for 1000 years all the way through the 14th Century. Each subsequent cave iterated on previous caves in some way and pushed the artistic envelope by getting bolder and more intricate with the paintings, sculptures, and design & size of the caves themselves. Word of these stunning caves in the desert soon spread and attracted a wide-ranging group of pilgrims, traders, religious leaders of other faiths, and tourists of the day who stopped at Dunhuang with their trade caravans.  A mind-boggling total of 732 caves (that have been excavated) were dug.

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Exterior views – Mogao Caves

When the Silk Road routes began to wane in the 15th Century, Dunhuang also shrunk in size and significance. As a result, the Mogao Caves were largely swallowed whole by the sand with a remaining few used as a temporary homes for squatters, and later, as jails. In 1900, the world rediscovered the unparalleled collection of Buddhist art at Mogao, when a local caretaker who was curious about the strange path of cigarette smoke followed it to a blocked cave. Inside this cave (today called Cave 17 or the “Library Cave”), there was a treasure trove of old manuscripts, woodblock paintings, scriptures, musical instruments, ritual artifacts, and other Buddhist art.  Within a few years, there was a rush of international archaeologists eager to gather the spoils of the find, and as result, much of these artifacts ended up spread around the world or sold to private collectors. Fortunately, the Chinese government has come to recognize the importance of the Mogao Caves and has done a commendable job in preserving these fragile caves for posterity to behold.

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Exterior views

As part of their preservation efforts, there is a strict daily quota placed on the number of visitors who may enter the Mogao Caves. Additionally, only a small portion of the over 700 caves are open during any day for ticketed visitors. The rest of the caves are kept locked. I had been unable to register for a ticket in advance through the official Mogao website, but since it was the low season for tourism in the area, I felt good about my chances to buy a ticket directly at the ticket office.  I had a bit of a challenge in finding the right bus to get to the Mogao park headquarters (about 25km from Dunhuang) due to the language barrier, but my hand gestures combined with repeating “Mogao, Mogao” finally resonated with a local who scribbled directions to the bus stop on a piece of paper and pointed me to a driver who then read the note and took me there.  At the bus stop, I jumped on the first green-colored bus I saw (I had read that the bus to Mogao was green). I paid my fare directly to the collector on the bus and about 30 minutes later the bus pulled up to the park gates.  I saw a small queue of people and walked to the back of this line. As a foreigner, I had to buy the foreigner ticket admission which was tied to a specific timed entry to the cave complex. After sitting in a waiting area for 15 minutes or so, I was ushered by park staff into a state-of-the-art dome theater that showed a high quality animated & live action film about the history of the Mogao Caves.  

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Exterior Cave 437 and Cave 444

Once the film finished, everyone in the theater was chaperoned to shuttles which took us up a small hill to the entrance to the caves. I walked towards the turnstiles of the entrance when I got off the shuttle, but was stopped and told to wait until my guide arrived. No visitors are allowed into the cave complex without a guide. The guides have keys to those caves that are designated as open on any day, and the guides open and lock each cave as they take the visitors around the cave complex. Since I was the only English-speaker that day, I received an English-speaking guide who provided me with a very intimate, one-on-one experience through the caves. She liked the fact I was asking many questions and demonstrated my curiosity about the caves and the Buddhist art inside because it allowed her to practice her English in a more comprehensive way. She also unlocked and took me inside many additional caves that were usually not open to visitors in order to continue our discussions. It was like having a private, VIP tour of the all the art held in the Vatican.

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Colorful Buddha image painted on the outside wall of one of the Mogao Caves

In most of the caves, there are no lights whatsoever, so my guide and I used our own flashlights to shine on the multi-colored fresco paintings and stucco sculptures inside. As our flashlights moved along the walls above and around us, it was like a slow reveal of the mysteries of the universe. Because of the fragile state of these wall and ceiling paintings, no photos are allowed in any of the caves and only the larger caves housing the mammoth-sized statues have a few electrical lights installed in them. The rest of the caves are more or less kept as they were centuries ago aside from some temperature control equipment. In certain caves, I saw smoke residue blackening wall paintings and my guide told me that was due to people living in certain caves in the early 20th Century. Unlike the paintings inside the Ajanta Caves, which have largely faded or been damaged, the cave paintings at Mogao are very much intact and their colors are still vivid — no doubt due in part to the arid desert climate and cold interior of the caves. There also has been international collaboration in order to digitally map and restore certain sections of the caves, so that the Mogao Caves may continue to be analyzed and studied without the need for physical intrusion.

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Exterior Cave 16 and 17 (the Library Cave)

Two highlights at the Mogao Caves are the “Giant Buddha” in Cave 130 and the “Reclining Buddha” in Cave 148.  There are a few other large Buddha statues tucked within the belly of Mogao, but these 2 sights are the ones that I will always remember. Cave 130 is the centerpiece of Mogao and the Buddha inside is colossal. It is the third largest stone constructed Buddha in the world. 

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Cave 130 – housing the “Giant Buddha”

As I entered Cave 130, I had to almost immediately lift my eyes upwards because there was little room in the cave to see anything else other than the colossus above. This statue rises up 6 floors. The full length of the interior walls and ceilings are all beautifully painted with colorful Buddhist iconography and decorative themes. The Giant Buddha was built in the 8th Century A.D. and is over a 1000 years old. Yet, other than some grime, soot, and a little fading here and there, the statue is in very good condition. Clearly, it was built to last through the ages.

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Sign outside Cave 130 with image of the Giant Buddha inside

Cave 148 houses a long Reclining Buddha and behind it are over 30 life-sized statues of disciples, arhats, and other monks. The cave is a tight, claustrophobic space with a low ceiling. I felt I was inside a tube-like kaleidoscope of thousands of cascading Buddhas painted above me as stories from the Buddha’s life filled the side walls.  The Reclining Buddha statue itself reminded me of a 14-meter long Reclining Buddha I had seen 4 years earlier at the Dambulla Caves in central Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Caves are thought to have first been dug in the 1st Century B.C., so they are older than the Mogao Caves and likely influenced the Buddhist art and sculptures at Mogao. In comparing a photo I took of the Reclining Buddha in Dambulla (known as the “Cave of the Divine King”) with a photo of the Reclining Buddha at Cave 148 in Mogao (as shown in the sign outside the cave), there is a strong similarity in the depictions of the flowing Buddhas on the ceiling of each cave and the coloring and certain features of the statue.

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Reclining Buddha at the “Cave of the Divine King” – Dambulla Caves, Sri Lanka (2010)
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Sign outside Cave 148 with image of the Reclining Buddha inside

As I was writing this blog and looking over my photos from my trip to Dunhuang, I remembered that although I had come to Dunhuang to see the Mogao Caves which were beyond staggering and jaw-dropping in their artistic genius and beauty, I was most touched by a tale of a horse named Tianliu or “White Dragon”. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, just across the Danghe river, is an old Buddhist monastery called Puguang Temple.  In the courtyard, there is a rather unassuming pagoda called the White Horse Pagoda. It was originally built in the 4th Century A.D. as a shrine to the beloved white horse of an Indian Buddhist monk named Kumarajiva who had ridden this horse through treacherous desert conditions as he ventured out of what is today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kumarajiva’s goal was to preach about Buddhism all the way east until he reached Xi’an. He had stopped at the Puguang Temple in Dunhuang to teach there for a few days.  The night before he was to leave Puguang for Xi’an, his horse fell ill. On that same night, Kumarajiva had a dream where the horse spoke to him and explained that it would not be able to continue the journey. A despondent Kumarajiva chastised the horse for abandoning the duty to spread the Buddhist scriptures right when they had reached the half-way point to their final destination. The horse replied: “I have fulfilled my task. Ahead of you, not far from here, you will find Crescent Moon Spring where the heavenly steeds gather. There you will find another white horse waiting for you. It will accompany you to the East.”

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White Horse Pagoda – Dunhuang

The next morning, the horse had died. Kumarajiva first built a small altar for the horse and performed Buddhist rites of mourning there for 9 days. Still overcome with the emotion of the loss, he directed his grief towards the building of White Horse Pagoda. Unfortunately, the original pagoda which had stood for over 1500 years was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, but in the early 1990s it was rebuilt. A solemn mood washed over me as I stood looking at the replacement pagoda. There was a lone prayer scarf tied to the protective gate around it. Other than this, the pagoda had no signs of any offerings or ritual items. In fact, there was no one else at the temple and it felt deserted. Just as I gathered myself and was about to turn and go, a breeze billowed through the dormant trees and the tiny bells atop the pagoda began to chime in step. The high-pitched pinging grabbed my attention. There was something familiar about the sounds that rang out — like a cheerful call of the spirit, or just maybe, the triumphant neigh of a horse.

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