Category Archives: Temples

Fushou Temple

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Qingming Mountain, over in the northeastern arm of Wujin, seems to be a spiritual destination in Changzhou. Dalin and Bailong temples are located there, and both are equally large as Buddhist and Taoist religious destinations. Both cost about 10 RMB to get in. But Qingming seems home to other places. A cemetery covers a lot of the hill. There is also a perpetually closed martyr’s graveyard, and then there is also Fushou Temple.

Every time I have visited Dalin or Bailong, the doors were usually closed and locked. Recently, I returned to Qingming Mountain to visit Dalin — as part of ongoing research into who and what louhans are in Buddhism. This time, Fushou’s doors were open, and there was a red and yellow banner over the entrance. Cars were parked there. I parked my bike and I walked in.

Unlike Dalin and Bailong, nobody was at the door to collect an entrance fee. I have seen this in temples around Changzhou when they are attempting to focus more as a place of worship and less as a tourist destination. As I walked around the temple grounds, one other thing just reinforced this. I passed by the main hall and heard chanting and a drum. I stopped to peer in. However, whenever I hear religious activity in progress, I tend to leave it alone. So, I didn’t enter that hall. Half an hour later, as I was leaving, I noticed the door to that big altar hall had been closed.

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One of the most intriguing things, however, was not that shut entrance. Fushou Temple is the home to three large golden statues. There is also a room of what looked to be white-jade sculptures — one of which is a reclining Buddha. In this building, I climbed a set of stairs to the second level and found an empty space. Still, I was able to get a good shot of the three gold statues from behind.

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The empty space reminded me of something else about Fushou. A lot of it seems to be renovation in progress. This isn’t like what you see at neighboring Dalin Temple, where new additions like an underground parking lot is being added. This looked like Fushou’s main facilities are getting an upgrade. After all, there was a cement mixer laying out in the open, as well as large stacks of concrete tiles. This puts the temple, like so many other places around Changzhou, on my “to watch list.” With a lot of facilities under renovation, this place could look completely different in one year. My guess, though, is that the three statues will remain.

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Unassuming Buddhist Temples

Note: This is another travel post. This will be the last. I am leaving New Jersey and will be arriving back in Changzhou on the 5th of July. 

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Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park, Downtown Changzhou

Spotting a Buddhist temple in Changzhou is fairly easy. The traditional architecture is the basically the same. The four points of every roof curve upwards. The buildings themselves all are yellow. In some cases, some of the windows in the walls or in the doors all possess ornate woodwork of intersecting lines and right angles. Never, ever do you see a temple with a white paint job. However, not all these places look the same — from the outside — once you leave Changzhou or China in general.

Just as the religion can be interpreted differently around the world, so can the look of a place of worship. This is extremely evident in Howell, New Jersey. The Garden State is perhaps more well known for have a high per capita amount of Catholic and Jews. Once a person gets closer to the northern end near New York City, there are also dense neighborhoods of Muslims, too. People do not often mention Jersey and Buddhism in the same breath. However, there is one notable community of Mongolians that has lived in the Garden State since the end of World War Two, and they have called Howell home for many decades now.

These are Kalmyks — otherwise known as Western Mongolians. These are people far outside the reach of Mongolia or the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Historically, they settled around Central Asia and areas of that could be described geographically that now fall into Russian or Ukrainian territory. The history of resisting Russian power goes back centuries, but in early Twentieth Century, they chose to oppose to Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Since the Red Army and communism won, the Kalmyks eventually had to flee. Some of them ended up setting up a community in southern Monmouth County, New Jersey.

As to be expected, casual American racism often lead this group to me misidentified by locals as ethnic Chinese or Japanese. Never mind that they landed in the USA able to speak their native language, Russian, and a few other tongues. They worked hard to embrace the very flawed, but inherently multicultural society that New Jersey essentially is. Many have married outside their ethnicity, and over the decades the small Kalmyk-American population has been shrinking. Their assimilation into American culture has also left their presence in Howell sometimes hard to spot. They own bungalows or two floor homes just like everybody else in the area.

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Fifth Street, Howell, New Jersey

Their three Buddhist temples, however, still remain. And these places look nothing like the places of worship you would find in Changzhou and other Chinese cities. These look decidedly suburban, and all three of them are located in residential neighborhoods. They are also small, and unassuming — easy to miss if you are not looking for them. Two of them look like your standard family dwelling with aluminum siding. Only one has a look of anything like the traditional architecture one might expect.

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Kalmuck Road, Howell, New Jersey

Religious difference might also fuel the differences in look between Changzhou’s and Howell’s temples. Many of Changzhou’s temples are Chan / Zen orientated, but with an ample influence of Chinese folk religion and Taoism. The Kalmyk’s Buddhism is more Tibetan in nature, and this can be seen in one temples ample amount of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

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Prayer flags

I never had a chance to see the interior of the temples on Kalmuck Road or Sixth and Fifth Streets in Howell. I am sure if I called in advance and explained my purpose, I would have been given a tour. Essentially, I had just showed up and wandered around. I talked to two monks at two of the three places. They were extremely friendly, and chatted for a bit. Most were intently curious about what life was like in China — especially in how I described how the Buddhist temples in Changzhou were different from the from the small, quiet places they called their spiritual homes.

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Sixth Street, Howell, New Jersey

Once I parted ways and started on my way back to my father’s house, I passed by a few Russian Orthodox churches. Place, there were a few other Christian places, too. And then, I got stuck in traffic in Lakewood, which is filled with Hasidic Jewish synagogues and yashiva schools for Torah study.  The sidewalks there are often filled with orthodox Jews in their black pants, black jackets, black fedora hats, and neatly ironed white shirts. All of this, within just a few miles of each other, reminded of how much more multicultural New Jersey is than many other parts of America.

What is a Luohan?

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Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park, downtown

“Each of these statues has a story behind it,” I said. I glanced over to my friend, and then back to a wall covered with hundreds of colorful sculptures.

“I know,” she said. “It’s a bit overwhelming. Like I am missing out on something I should know about.”

This is a common thing when you are not a Buddhist and you visit Buddhist temples. Imagine not being a Catholic Christian and trying to make sense of Stations of the Cross iconography. All you see is a bit of torture and a guy being nailed to planks of wood. Or, complex imagery in Christian church stained glass windows? You know a story is obviously there, but you do not know enough scripture to piece the story together. It would be easy to misinterpret what you see.

I have done this with statues of Buddhist luohans. For example, I was once standing in Dalin Temple over in northeastern part of Wujin. I saw a statue of a guy ripping his face off to show another face beneath. My mind instantly leaped to Clive Barker horror novels and movies — Hellraiser in particular. That is culturally wrong to do. Most of Clive Barker’s fiction is all about demons and tormented people. In Buddhism, a luohan is definitely not somebody with Hell on their minds. They are people who have found peace and enlightenment.

This is important to know, especially if you are trying to be a tourist who visits temples. It’s not just this way in Changzhou, but China as a whole and Asia in general. Luohans 罗汉 populate Buddhist sites of worship. And so, that leads to the inevitable question. What is a luohan? Who are these people you see statues of in Buddhist temples?

The easiest response is to say they are the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. They are not gods or deities; rather, they were people who reached the highest point of spiritual enlightenment. Because of that, they became elevated figures within a religion. Some people pray to them because they don’t want annoy a higher power with petty concerns. For example, in Catholicism, you do not pray to God to find your missing car keys or bank card. You pray to Saint Anthony. The prayer goes like this: “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and it must be found!” 

Of course, luohans and Christian saints may not be an exact comparison. Still, they are close. However, finding a suitable comparison is part of the challenge living in somebody else’s culture. You can treat visiting a temple as a tourist spectacle, or you can try to understand what you are looking at as a matter of respect. Understanding the concept of luohans is essential to unlocking a lot of the meaning in temple artwork.

Cian Still in Progress

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Most westerners tend to think the elderly are well taken care of in China. This is because the structure of family in the Middle Kingdom is much different than in west. Quite often, you see grandparents taking care of their grandchildren and often live with their children. This is not always the case. For example, what if you do not have children? Who takes care of you then?

China has old folks homes just like America and Europe do. Sometimes, they tend to be in Buddhist temples, however. It’s a growing trend, as China Daily points out — especially since the population of the elderly is growing due to now cancelled one child policy. This could also be why more temples are being built. This could also be why a great many current temples are having new additions being constructed. Most temples I have been to in Changzhou has some building activity going on.

One such ongoing project is Cian Temple on Wunan Road. This would be very close to the College Town area of Wujin. Wunan runs a parallel to Mingxin Road, where the southern gates of three colleges are located.  It’s essentially one street down. I first learned of the construction two years ago. I had just bought my first eBike and I had gone on my first bit of cruising and exploring. Since then, out of curiosity, I have returned there from time to time to see how the construction has progressed.

Screenshot_2016-06-11-21-05-55-04[1]Two friends recently went there, and one of them shared her experiences. As a result, I was intrigued as to whether the temple was finally open. So, I went there myself. The answer is “sort of.” It is semi-open. There is a hall with a giant gold Buddha. There are a few other places to pray. The place where people often burn joss paper to remember their dearly departed has definitely looked used. However, there are still buildings that are unused and empty. One of the main display halls still has active building with construction workers. My two friends didn’t see this, because they were given a tour by a monk. I just walked around, alone and unguided.

Doing that, however, came at the expense of a lot of information. My two friends got to see the old folks home and I didn’t. The rooms and facilities are all new. Even more, there is a vegetarian restaurant there too. However, it’s more like a cafeteria and the dining times are fixed for only half hour servings. Guests of the temple are welcome to eat there for a 5 RMB minimum donation. Essentially, you are eating with the old people who live there, as one of my two friends pointed out. The tables are segregated into male and female only, and there is no talking. One of my friends noted that the food seemed like light and easy vegetarian fare. Things like tofu and vegetables. Easy to eat again, but it comes at the expense of thinking you might be taking food from somebody else. It’s easy to see how somebody might be skeptical about going. It’s not a culinary destination.

As a religious attraction, it would be interesting to visit. The buildings are ornate with red and gold colors. The are a number of five headed dragons and other mythical creatures to be seen. You can also see a small statue of Wei Tuo 韦陀 and his middle finger. But the truth is this, as a cultural site it is not finished the way Baolin, also in Wujin’s Hutang area, almost is. All this means for me, personally, I will be going back in six months time to see how it has changed. It seems to be an ongoing story for me and  Cian Temple for years now.

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Chongfa Temple Looks More Like a Temple

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When I moved to Changzhou two and a half years ago, Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park 人民公园 was in a bit of a shambles. While it sported a yellow paint job and the architecture of a temple, it really didn’t function like one. Every time I peered in, I saw large tables of most older people drinking tea or hot water. A lot of the paint was peeling, and people often complained of leaking roof. Then, one day, the government shut the place down for renovation and a structural overhaul.

For some months now, that rejuvenation project has ended. Now, if you got to the park and peer in, it actually looks like a temple complete with a golden Buddha, stone statues of what look to be lohans, and a shelf of buddhist reading material. Of course, there also seems to be a tea counter in there. Plus, the tables with the hot water carafes are still there two. So, Chongfa now looks more like a temple, but I haven’t seen anybody actually use it as one yet. So, you can say the space has been multi-purposed now. That is not a complaint either. It’s nice to see that place is being better looked after now.

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Dalin Temple

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Dalin 大林寺 is a Buddhist temple located in Wujin’s northeastern arm between Xinbei and Wuxi’s satellite city Jiangyin. The English and Chinese language marker at the entrance claims the temple is roughly about a 1000 years old, but Baidu’s version of Wikipedia notes the place was severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution.

This is a standard sort of temple with altars and depictions of Buddha and Bodhisattvas , but it also has a pagoda and few halls. One building showcases hundreds of colorful lohan / arhat sculptures. Also typical of many temples in Changzhou, there is ongoing construction going on to add a new facility.

Geographically speaking, Changzhou tends to be flat, but Dalin is located on one of the two “mountains” in the Dragon City. The word “mountain” is more of a misnomer. They are actually just big hills. Dalin Temple itself is located at the foot of Qingming Mountain 青明山. The area itself is being developed as a massive cultural attraction. Bailong Monastery 白龙观 is literally around the corner, which is an equally large Daoist / Taoist religious site. Since this is a far corner of Changzhou, both places should be combined into one day trip. Entry into both places cost 10 RMB, each.

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A Taoist Middle Finger

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In New Jersey, this could be taken as “How Ya Doin?” And being rude is a just a way of saying “Hi, I love you!”

Hand gestures mean different things in different cultures. For example, sticking out a pinkie and a thumb means “six” in China. In the USA, it’s a thing surfers used to do instead of saying “cool.” Los Angeles gang signs are a topic I just want to skip completely. Yet, this was something I was forced to consider recently when visiting Taoist Temples in Changzhou.

Specifically, I was at Bailong Monastery 白龙观 in Wujin’s eastern arm. Once you walk through the front door, you see a golden figure with a sword raised. He has quite a scowl on his face, and he also holding up his middle finger. Back in Jersey and the USA, that would definitely be considered rude. The middle finger essentially means “Fuck you.” It’s a hell of a thing to be greeted with once you walk through the door. I later learned the statue is of a god named Wei Tuo 韦陀. So, was he telling me to fuck off? While threatening to hit me?

Um, no. Again, hand gestures can mean several things in several different cultures. Especially in Asian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Hand signs are sometimes referred to as mudras, and they are meant to be meaningful sources of magical power. It’s why you see people use them in meditation. So, Wei Tuo’s middle finger is not meant to be rude. I think.

However, it’s a bit murky — especially once you do research into who Wei Tuo actually is. This is where it gets a little confusing for me. When I search his name, he often comes up as a Buddhist topic and not necessarily a Taoist one. Yet, there is a lot of bleed over between the religions. It’s sort of similar when you consider Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: three religions sharing the same set of angels. Taoism and Chinese Buddhism share a lot of the same gods.

As for Wei Tuo, he is often considered the guardian of teaching. In some legends, he’s the bodyguard to Guanyin, a goddess of mercy. In this regard, it makes sense that he is the first thing you see once you enter a temple or monastery. He is there to protect the place and keep out ghosts, demons, and unclean spirits. In this regard, you can read the western meaning of the middle finger into this. If you are a monster with ill intent, and you’re trying to enter Bailong Monastery, Wei Tuo will definitely tell you to fuck off.

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Wanfo Temple

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佛 means Buddha or Buddhism

Sometimes, I find things in Changzhou by complete accident. One day, during the winter holidays, I went searching for the Yangtze River. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly. In Xinbei, a huge industrial port takes up a lot of space, and I couldn’t find something as simple as a riverfront park on my map. So, eventually I gave up and started heading home. From, the road, however, I saw a stone pagoda, rechecked my map, and noticed that yes, there was a Buddhist temple nearby.

So, I checked it out. Turns out, this one — Wanfo Chan Temple — was open to the public, all sorts of strange sights. It was here, for instance, that I accidentally walked into a bloody rendition of Buddhist purgatory. When I returned with a friend weeks later, we also happened into a mausoleum with pictures, hell money, and boxes of bone ash. Other attractions include a very large reclining Buddha surrounded by hundreds of statues. There is also a small cave with tiny figures in nooks and crannies. Plus, there are the multitudes of small, tiny Buddhas sitting cross-legged to give the place the number in its Chinese name.

While Wanfo is an interesting place, it seems a little more dusty and not as well maintained as some of the other temples one can visit in Changzhou. The place does not seem as immaculately clean as Tianning or Dalin, for example. Then again, I saw more people here than I did in Huilingshan in Zouqu.  But then again, you could also argue that this gives Wanfo it’s own, unique personality. It feels more like a legit religious destination and not so much of a tourist attraction. Getting here from without an ebike requires taking the 48 city bus.

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To Smile at Zouqu’s Laughing Buddha

IMG_20160504_185957For many Americans, Buddhism is a frequently misunderstood religion, and like Christianity, there are many variants.  Most Americans know maybe a fleeting little about Zen — thanks to America’s occupation of Japan after World War Two. Occupying a country and not having them hate you afterwards involves a lot of cultural exchange. Yet, this understanding of Buddhism revolves not really around worshiping the supernatural but as a way means of finding inner peace through meditation. This idea is sometimes reflected in popular books like Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — even though the author has openly admitted he really wasn’t writing about Zen in the real sense.

Of course, visiting an actual Buddhist temple in an Asian country shatters these preconceptions — especially when looking at artistic renditions of Buddha. There isn’t just one; there are many, and they are / were different entities or people. The laughing one isn’t the same as the standing one with a hand to heaven and a hand to Earth. They jolly and portly guy is 布袋 Budai, because he usually can be seen carrying a cloth bag. However, I never hear Chinese people call him that. They usually refer to him as 弥勒佛 Milefo. That’s sometimes considered a different Buddha completely. That’s the “The Buddha to come.” However, some religious practitioners believed that Budai fulfilled that role. I learned this recently after visiting 会灵山寺 Huilingshan Temple  in Zouqu, a part of Wujin’s Western Arm that’s near Qingfeng Park.

IMG_20160504_191235The temple itself seemed deserted. Two cars were parked there, but the main facilities and were all padlocked. However, the most interesting thing there didn’t consist of altars or places to light candles or burn joss paper. A huge sitting Buddha greets you once you walk through a gate. He’s smiling, big, and fat. He’s sitting in what looks like a large man-made cave. Vertical lines of Chinese text flank him. One talks about his smile, and the other talks about his big belly.  Essentially, the text expresses the values of happiness and generosity of spirit.

The exterior features other things, like elephants and a few other figures. But the concepts of generosity and happiness carry into the man-made cave. There are two tunnels that lead to the smaller, more modest (at the time locked) temple facilities. In several nooks, fatty, happy Milefo statues await.

I also saw a small opening where lots of religious objects were clustered together on the ground. Part of me pondered if this had a story, or if this functioned as a storage area. And, then, I started try and figure out why everything was locked. Was this place still under construction? Was it closed to visitors, and I was trespassing? Were angry Chinese people about to yell at me and demand that I leave? And then I laughed. Out loud.  Shaking my head, I told my obsessive, neurotic brain to just shut up. To just feel and enjoy the wonderful sense of discovery this place gave me. In the end, I left with the same broad smile as the Buddha behind me.
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Solving an eBike Issue

At Dalin Temple
At Dalin Temple

I was staring at a statue of a guy ripping off his face, and I was trying not to make a connection to old Clive Barker novels and movies. After all, I was a Dalin Temple in Wujin’s northeastern arm, and the cosmologies of Buddhism and Hellraiser are not exactly the same.  Dalin has a building filled with colorful statues, and I really haven’t figured out what the story is there yet. I just know it was a more playful scene than the bloody recreation of Buddhist purgatory 地狱 I have seen at another temple.

Once I finished my visit, I went outside and got on my eBike. It was time to go home, as I had classes to teach in two hours. I put my key into the ignition, and as I turned the throttle to leave, something snapped. Loudly. My front brake stopped working. When I looked at my wheel, it dangled on a cable.

To say this was a problem would be an understatement. This part of Wujin was 30 kilometers away Hohai University and Xinbei. For a little perspective, Hutang and the parts of Wujin where expats live was even farther. I thought of calling a Chinese friend, but since I am incredibly stubborn and hardheaded, I didn’t want to do that. I could just lock the bike, leave it for another day, and try and find a taxi, but the cheapskate in me would have none of that.  I realized the bike could still be ridden. The back brake still functioned.  So, I rode the thirty kilometers back — but at snail speed. Each time I turned, the flopping brake either smacked against the wheel and dragged against the concrete.

The snapped brake. Took this picture to show a mechanic.
The snapped brake. Took this picture to show a mechanic.

Once home, I tried to figure out replacements. My go-to mechanic works in Wujin, where I bought the bike when I lived the College City area. Obviously, I didn’t want to ride another 30 kilometers and damage the thing even further.  Eventually, I realized that Lippo Plaza had eBike shops. This is the shopping center directly across the street from Wanda. This also means walking distance from my job and apartment.

Unfortunately, NKNY has no presence there. I checked Baidu Maps, and I realized NKNY shops were nowhere around this part of Changzhou. So, I walked from shop to shop, looking to see if any of them sold what were, essentially, heavy electronic motorcycles. Once I did,  I looked at all of their brakes to see if any of them shared the exact same brand and part number as mine. Sure enough, the LVNeng one did.

Thankfully, the guy running the place there offered a lot of help — without knowing a single word in English. Once you have a good translation app, transacting comes easier. Only, that requires both you and the shopkeeper knowing how to use such apps. More recently, I had speed problems and tried using an NKNY shop. That older mechanic didn’t even have a smartphone and communicating bike problems became all the more difficult. So, lesson learned. Next issue, I’m going back to the LVNeng guy first.

LVNeng across from Wanda Plaza
LVNeng across from Wanda Plaza