The monk and his treasures

Even now, when I think back to our visit to the Hualin temple in Guangzhou, I remember the hall of the 500 arhats. It is only when I look my photos that I recall the many other beautiful objects that I saw. It is amazing to think that almost every beautiful object was recreated a couple of decades ago. The temple was originally founded in 526 CE, possibly in the lifetime of Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism to China, extended massively in the 17th and 19th centuries CE, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and reincarnated in the 1990s.

We peered into the side galleries. The gallery was a modern building made of cinderblocks. The industrial look was softened by the beautiful decorations over the doors, one of which you can see in the gallery above (click for a slide show). The rooms hold different Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. I’m not adept enough at Chinese Buddhist iconography to figure out which statue is whose. The rooms are beginning to fill up with memorial tablets. Notice the money in the hands of the statues. Donations of this kind are very common.

The surroundings of the temple were interesting. This was a temple which seemed to have been completely integrated into the neighbourhood. It was only through later reading that I realized that during the Republican period a part of the temple grounds had been sold off to create housing. The view that you see in the photo above shows that these housing blocks are now being destroyed, and the new high-rises are replacing some of them. The Chinese government is planning forward to a time when a quarter of a billion people leave villages to come to town, but the building projects have drawbacks. That is a different story.

The large pavilion in the center of the courtyard is a calm place, unlike the hall of the arhats. This means, of course, that it is not as important from the religious point of view. But it gave us the leisure to walk around and admire all the art on display. The beautiful pieces tell you that traditional arts are alive and well in China. I’d met artists working in ceramics on earlier visits: there are wonderful new glazes being invented (you see one them in the peacock vase in the gallery above). The strong men holding up the base of the central statue are beautifully detailed, the tigers which roam the pediment snarl gracefully. There is clearly a renaissance in the arts.

And what of Bodhidharma, the wandering monk who founded Chan (Zen) Buddhism? He is so deeply forgotten in his country of birth that we don’t even know whether he was from Persia or the south of India. But in his karmabhoomi he is deeply venerated. The first statue we saw when we entered the temple was his. He is always depicted as a wandering monk, sometimes with a begging bowl, sometimes with a staff, but always bad-tempered. Zen Buddhism is not known as a gentle or easy path. If you are a teacher, have ever been one, consider again this superstar: always in a foul mood, but so influential that, after one and a half millennia, nearly a billion living people are influenced by his teachings.

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The Door to China

I stood at the intersection between the Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street and the Kangwang South Road in Guangzhou without knowing that I was at the place which is traditionally accepted as the point where the monk Bodhidharma first stepped on Chinese soil. This was the door through which Buddhism entered China. I wouldn’t have been able to read the full text (Xilai gu an = come-from-west ancient landing-place) even if I had known that there was a commemorative stone here. The nearby Hualin (Flourishing grove) temple which I had visited a few days earlier was called the Xilai (Coming from the West) temple when it was founded in 526 CE, about three hundred years after the arrival of Bodhidharma. The modern name was given in 1654 CE when the temple was expanded.

It had taken us a while to find the temple. I’d followed what I thought was a well-marked road on the map. But the map was not accurate enough, and The Family and I wandered around narrow residential roads for a while before we found a well-dressed lady who directed us to follow her. Trailing in her wake, we walked through the Hualin jade market and reached the gate of the temple. The building inside was definitely modern. It didn’t take too much of a search to find references to the 20th century history of the temple. A part of it was sold off to create housing during the Republican period. All the statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and were remade in the 1990s when the temple reopened.

Today the crowds are back. A monk handed us incense sticks as soon as we entered past the two immense dwarpalas who guard the door. Although we are not believers, we took the sticks, lit them and stuck them into the large brazier in the middle of the courtyard. One is polite to one’s hosts. Guidebooks do not mention the fact that the temple is newly reconstructed. Looking at the crowds streaming in, you would not believe that the tradition of going to temples had been interrupted for more than a decade.

The tradition of exchanging money for luck is much more easily visible in China than anywhere else in Asia. I was getting ready to take a photo of the lion with money stuffed into its mouth when the gentleman you see in the photo above came by to complete the picture. The tall metal urn in the courtyard, which you see in the companion photo above, is full of coins. You toss coins into it for luck. Young and old vie to toss coins into the upper level of the urn, presumably you gain credit by doing that.

We entered the hall of the 500 arhats. Temples in China are bustling and cheerful places. The first view was quite stunning, with long cases full of statues of the arhats and the central aisle dominated by the usual Chinese Buddha. For me this is always a little disconcerting: to find representations of an ascetic who preached an end to existence as the ultimate spiritual aim converted into a delighted gourmand. But why not? The Buddha ate kheer after enlightenment. The paintings on the ceiling seemed to have been done on paper and then mounted on the masonry. They were as interesting, and possibly as modern, as the statues in the hall.

An unexpected sight was of the Emperor Ashoka being worshipped in a temple. Ashoka’s lion pillar is a symbol of the Indian state today; identity cards of government functionaries will have this seal on them. In China the lion pillar is a symbol of the Buddhist religion. Ashoka was responsible for the spread of Buddhism through Asia, so it makes sense that he should be held in some esteem. Borrowing from Taoist practices, I suppose he can become a Buddhist god. In any case, this explained why some monks asked me where I was from, and on figuring out that I was Yinduren, remained alert and helpful during the time I spent here.

One corner of the temple was set up with tables and many older men and women sat there eating. I wonder whether this is common, or something that happens on special days. The previous night was Diwali, and often temple festivals are tied to the phases of the moon. So I could not rule out a special event. This twenty-armed goddess stood in a nearby altar. I still haven’t figured out what role she plays in the pantheon.

One of the interesting things about this temple is that one of the arhats is supposed to represent Marco Polo. That’s the one you see in the round hat in the photo above. Since this is just folk belief, I hesitated to ask a monk. The Family cut short my search by taking the bold step of asking one of our friendly monks about this statue, and he led us there. Marco Polo was so taken up by Guangzhou, and gave it such glowing reports, that I’m not surprised that local sentiment favours him.

The most wonderful thing about this place are the 500 arhats. We wandered through the aisles of these larger-than-life statues, occasionally getting a little instruction from a monk in some special aspect of one or the other. I was a little surprised at finding arhats here. Theravada Buddhism holds that the highest level of attainment that a person can have is an arhat, whereas Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in China, holds that every person should aim to attain the state of a Bodhisattva. This is one of the main doctrinal differences between these two schools. Bodhidharma founded Zen Buddhism, which is a part of Mahayana tradition. So finding arhats in this temple is strange. I was happy to take photos anyway, even knowing that these statues are considerably younger than me. We realized that we’d spent a long while here, and it was time to see the rest of the temple complex.

The National Museum in Yangon

The highlight of Myanmar’s National Museum in Yangon is the lion throne (simhasana) of the Mindon dynasty. Once carted away by the British as a spoil of war, it has now been brought back and displayed in teakwood-lined room in the museum. Unfortunately one is not allowed to take photos here.

Photography is allowed in all other rooms of this small but interesting museum. There is enough variety here for any interest: from royal dresses and fossils to items of daily use. One of the things that impressed me was from the gallery which showed household instruments. The large orange press in the shape of an elephant’s head, which you see in the featured photo, must have belonged to a pretty extensive family.

Bodhisattva image in the National Museum of Yangon in MyanmarThere were wonderful pieces from many different periods. I had to hurry through the museum and did not have the time to appreciate the changes in styles over the centuries, but the variety of media was interesting. Buddhism arrived early, soon after the Indian emperor Asoka’s time, and stayed. The Indian influence has merged with Chinese to create a very different aesthetic. Here is a photo of a wooden sculpture of a dancer which shows this melding.

Tablet in the National Museum of Yangon in MyanmarWhen one has little time to travel across a country, a national museum is often the place to head to. Myanmar is no exception: the museum has a curated display of some of the finest pieces of art I saw in the country. The tablet with a scene from the jatakas which you see here is an example. The pagodas of Bagan and Indein are full of beautiful art, but to see the quality and variety that is easily accessible here, one has to spend much time at those places, and others. Another way to look at a museum is as motivation you to explore. Either way, the National Museum succeeds in showcasing the artistic genius of Myanmar.

Among the other exhibits which I found interesting was the hall which showed the evolution of the modern Burmese script. The exhibits in the natural history section were also interesting; among the fossils was an exhibit of an early anthropoid and cave art and artefacts from the neolithic era.