The six banyan trees

Our temple circuit of the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou had taken in Confucianism, Islam, Daoism, and was to end with the Buddhist Temple of Six Banyan Trees (Liurong Si). Unlike the other three, Buddhist temples in China are never oases of peace or calm. People come here to ask for their needs, and it seems that enough people feel that their prayers and answered to keep more coming. Crowds peak before the national university entrance exams (the gaokao), but this was off season.

On the day of the New Year’s Lantern Festival there are long queues here to light incense. As we entered, a monk seated at the door handed us some of the sticks to light. We looked admiringly at the obviously powerful Dwarpalas. One of them serenely played a lute while crushing evil-doers under his feet. Another kept a watchful eye on a pagoda, presumably this very one, while doing heavy crushing with feet. Being pretty non-evil, we passed unscathed to deposit lit incense sticks into the large pot in the middle of the courtyard kept for this purpose. We are not only non-evil, we are also polite guests.

Between the Dwarpalas was an enormous laughing Buddha. It is so strange that a wandering monk who roamed another country, preaching the virtue of becoming nothing (nirvana), has become confused with jolly old Ho Tei, a monk from the 11th cetury CE. We went into the Daoxian Baodian (Great Buddha) hall to see the three brass statues that are supposed to have been made in the 17th century CE, during the time of the Kangxi emperor. These Qing dynasty statues (featured photo) represent Amitabha, Gautama, and the Apothecary (left to right). I liked the pink lotus flowers with hidden LEDs in the ceiling above them.

The statues of the Buddha in a niche outside the pagoda which you see in the photo here was decidedly different in style. The features are Indian, for one thing. The very ornate bronze piece below the pedestal could be from the Indonesia or Thailand, but the simple brass one could well be from India. There was no plaque here which I could translate. The other photo shows a martial figure. At first look I’d thought it could be the emperor Ashoka, but then found it could perhaps be Weituo, a general who had a hand in recovering the relics after they were stolen.

The Flower Pagoda (Hua Ta, above) is the center of the temple. It holds the ashes of a particularly saintly Cambodian monk, which the temple was constructed to hold. The pagoda would have been built in 537 CE, rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire in 1057 CE, survived the Mongol invasion, but had to be rebuilt after another fire in 1373 CE, and restored in 1900 CE, during the last decades of the empire. The name of the temple has an equally tortuous history. It was called the Baozhuangyan temple at the time of its founding, then became the Changzhou temple, and later the Jinghui temple, before a 10th century poet, Su Dongpo, named it after the six banyan trees he saw here. The banyans are long gone.

Serial lives

We had half a day free in Hefei after my work was over, and it had started to rain. The Family and I gave up the idea of a stroll in a park to see Hefei’s Lord Bao’s temple. Plan B was to go down to the Huaihe shopping street and look into a couple of interesting spots. One was the Mingjiao temple. There’s been a temple in this spot for more than fourteen centuries. The earliest one was destroyed in war at the beginning of the 7th century CE, at about the time chess was invented in India, and smallpox was first recorded in Europe. A century later, an iron statue of the Buddha was found in the ruins of the temple, and the Tang emperor Daizong ordered a temple to be rebuilt on this site. This was called the Temple of the Iron Buddha. Seven or eight centuries later, during the Ming era, it was renamed the Mingjiao. In the 19th century the temple was destroyed again in war, and rebuilt in 1886. During the 20th century it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The version that we saw was rebuilt in 2015. We’d gathered this much from a tourist booklet in our hotel before we set out in the rain to see it.

The temple looked pretty impressive even in the dull light of a very overcast and rainy day. I spent some time in the open area in front of it trying to get a photo. The temple is too long, and the area too short, to get the full complex into one shot. I gave up on it and climbed the stairs to the Shanmen, literally the mountain gate. The few people inside the gate were curious to know where we came from, and the word Yindu produced welcoming smiles. We entered our names in a book that was pointed out to us, left our wet umbrellas near the entrance, and walked in.

Just inside the gate was the usual outer hall of Buddhist temples, called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings. The main statue is of Maitreya (featured photo), the Buddha who will come in the future. The other kings were also impressive: you can see one above and another below. They are clearly very powerful beings. One of them sits on an elephant, and dwarfs it quite thoroughly. The other holds a lotus bud as he sits on a beast which looked like a lion at first sight. But when I looked closer it turned out to be the Suanni, one of the hybrid dragons of Chinese lore. The blue of the Suanni was quite striking.

The temple had a rectangular layout. Along the sides of the rectangle were rooms. We had entered through the main gate which was in the center of the longer, south-facing, side. Covered corridors ran along the inside of the rectangle, facing an open courtyard which we had to cross to get the main hall. This is called the Mahavira hall (photo below). It was raining too hard to pause in the courtyard to take photos, but I got a reasonably complete photo of this central hall from the corridor.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to take photos of elephants, even if they are made of stone, have three pairs of tusks and wear a red bonnet. This is a representation of the Elephant King incarnation of the Buddha. I don’t recall having seen this image in India (although there is at least one in Ajanta), but it seems to be pretty common in China. In fact, the introduction of Buddhism to China has been dated to at least the first century CE by tracing the appearance of six tusked elephants in Chinese art.

The rain was not going to taper off soon. The Family and I ran across the courtyard and up the steps of the Mahavira Hall. The golden statues and the yellow light inside looked warm and inviting. I was very impressed by the statues behind the main altar. This triplet of statues of the Buddha was too dimly lit for a good photo. It is possible that on a less gloomy day the light is sufficient for photography.

On one side wall were more statues of Bodhisattvas, previous incarnations of the Buddha. As I walked around and got to the back of the main altar, I saw a really impressive statue of Guanyin. This incarnation would be called the Avalokiteshwara in India, and Kannon in Japan. Somehow, in traveling from India to Japan, the gender of this Bodhisattva changes. I found it interesting that this statue is backed by an enormous wall-sized print of a forest glade with a woman in the center. In China, forests are deeply associated with Buddhism and its message of the renunciation of worldly desires.

At the back the Mahavira hall joins the northern part of the corridor. “How silly,” I said to The Family, “We need not have run. We could have just walked round the back, and we would have come here without getting wet.” She disagreed, “It was nice to come up the steps and see the Buddha statues first,” she replied. It was. The little hall behind is dedicated to the Buddhist monk Ksitigarbha (called Dizang in Mandarin). I like the offerings of fruit piled up in front of him.

There were many more statues of the Buddha in the side halls, but the only one I was allowed to take a photo of was this one in his last sleep, the Mahaparinirvana. I leave you with this photo of the Buddha, as, according to belief, he finally departs from the burden of serial lives.

An initiation into Tibetan history


This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.

Religion returns


The oddest thing about China is resurgent religion. It is not the middle-aged or the old who take to religion, it is the young. You can see the fervour with which they pray to Buddha in the photo above. I saw this again and again, in different temples. Shatters my naive belief in the materialistic culture of the orient.