Tag Archives: 佛

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.

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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