Tag Archives: Buddha

Holy Men with Absurd Eyebrows

Image courtesy of Yahoo.

More than a decade before I ever thought of moving to China, I had fallen in love with martial arts films. I especially loved the ones set in ancient Chinese history. While shopping for DVDs back in 2002, if i saw a Taoist or Buddhist monk on the cover, I was easily sold. One image has stuck with me ever since then, almost like a animated gif or Wechat sticker eternally lodged into my mind: a Shaolin monk in a simple white robe stands in his fighting stance, and his absurdly long, white eyebrows flutter in the wind. I didn’t see this in just one Hong Kong kung fu flick, but many — too many to count.

At the time, I thought the image was a bit silly. Part of me always wondered why monks chose to grow their eyebrows out so long. Then again, part of me never cared enough to spend some time actually googling the subject. However, I recently realized that there really was a cultural meaning behind it all, and it came from my usual random-association pattern of thinking.

Over at Dalin Temple, in the eastern part of Changzhou near Wuxi, there is a hall of colorful luohan. The statues look cartoonish with flashy and brightly colored paint jobs. One particular luohan wears a blue robe and standing on a giant crab. His eyebrows are so long, he has two others standing next to him, holding his excess ropes of hair for him. Last time I was at Dalin, I laughed at this the same way I laughed at all those ass kicking Shoalin monks in old Chinese action films.

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Much later, I actually made a real cultural connection between luohan statues and all those cinematic eyebrows blowing in the wind. In Buddhism, luohan — or arhat as they are called in Sanskrit — are religious people who have reached perfection. Often, I like to call them the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. There are 18 original luohan in Chinese Buddhism. These were the original followers of Buddha. If you want another Christian parallel, you could liken them to the 12 apostles that originally followed Jesus.

One of those 18 luohan was a man named Changmei 长眉羅漢. His name in Sanskrit was Asita. He was also the person who initially predicted the rise of Gautama Buddha, and that was no small feat. If I am forced to draw another Christian parallel, than maybe Changmei / Asita is a figure like John the Baptist — the final Christian prophet that actually blessed Jesus.

I could be wrong, but what about all those extremely long eyebrows those movie martial arts monks have? Maybe it’s a way of honoring this important figure within Buddhism?

Disembodied Buddhas

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If you have been to enough Taoist or Buddhist Temples around Changzhou and other cities, you would see a lot of sculptures, carvings, and artwork displaying Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, lohans, Taoist gods, and much more. Temples are particularly ornate in the their decor.  In most cases, no two temples are alike either.

Crafting the works of art must be an industry unto itself. I only just realized this by accident. I was riding my ebike along the S232 highway in western Wujin. This is the part of the district that borders on Jiangyin. Dalin Temple and Qingming Mountain are also nearby. Out of the corner of my vision, I saw something like a Buddha sitting in an alley. So, I backed up and pulled into the alley. There, I saw something I have never, ever seen in Changzhou before. These were half finished, almost cast aside religious statues. For instance, a Buddha without a head. There was a fat Milefo laughing Buddha covered with splintered wood.

The varying degrees of incompleteness was also a bit interesting. Sometimes, when you see a statue in a temple, you may mistakenly think that they were carved or cast in a forge. Not the case with this lot. Much of what I saw consisted of smaller pieces that were numbered and riveted together almost like three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles.

This had me intrigued. It wasn’t the least bit unnerving to look it. Logically, it made sense if these was a religious sculpture workshop nearby. After all, not only is Dalin Temple nearby, but so is the Taoist Bailong Monastery — both seem to have ongoing construction for additions, too. But, quickly scanned the area. I took a picture of one factory’s name, but a Chinese friend quickly informed me, via WeChat, it was a business involving water treatment equipment. Maybe I saw it but didn’t see it. In the end, I gave up and left it what it should be, a bizarre mystery. Sometimes, that’s more fun than actually having a real answer.

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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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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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