Tag Archives: Buddhist Temples

Unfinished, Other Worldly in Xinbei

“Once you’ve seen one temple, you have pretty much seen all of them.”

This is a comment that I have heard on and off from several people over the years. While I disagree, I will concede one point. The style of both Buddhist and Taoist temples in this area share a lot of the same stylistic points. A lot of the statuary can either be vibrant or colorful, or they can be based on different shades of gold. So, when you find something that deviates from that pattern, it really stands out. Recently, I did. In fact, it looks like no other temple I have ever seen in Changzhou or elsewhere in Southern Jiangsu.

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Xiushan Temple 修缮寺 has the standard paint job and architecture of other temples. So, the strangeness of the place is on the interior, not the exterior. And it hits you immediately when you step through the front door.

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The religious statuary is all unfinished. For example, some of them have been sculpted in what looks to be clay. However, something seemed to happen to halt the installation process. Then, over the course of time — and due to heat — the statuary began to form wide cracks. This has lead to a seemingly unearthly, somewhat otherworldly look.

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This has lead to some wear-and-tear issues that leads to somewhat creepy-looking damage — like a jawless demon.

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These are just but a few of the statues. A majority of what can be seen has been crafted from wood. These are the statues that normally wouldn’t be painted. Rather, they would be plated in gold or otherwise gold-colored.

 

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However, some of them also have their own issues that has caused damage. Like the clay statues, cracks have developed.

 

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These are not simple fissures, but cracks wide enough you can see through.

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Some of these “cracks” are necessary. Not all of the pieces were carved from a singular piece of wood. Some parts were made sparately and then jigsaw-puzzled together. Take a close look at the above photo, and you will see that. Even if the statues were not damaged, the natural, unfinished look of the wood adds other elements I have not seen at other temples.

 

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In each of these statues, you can see the striped grains in the wood. You can also see the some of the circular knots. It’s just two more things that adds intricacy of something that already has intricate detail and weather damage.

So, what exactly happened here?

 

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This place is open to the public. It looks like it is being used as a local place of worship. I am just assuming, but I am basing the deduction off of the places to kneel, the sound system, and a few other things. There is a poster by the door of the main hall. From what I can piece together using Baidu Translate on my phone, the funding for Xiushan Temple seemed to have fallen short. Some of the signage seems to solicit donations.

Either way, visiting this place is a profoundly unique experience. It’s in northern Xinbei — on the way to the industrial ports alongside Changzhou’s portion of the Yangtze River. One can take a bus out this area; the 27 and 40 come to mind, but it also involves getting off and traveling down a narrow, but paved, country road. While it is open, there still seems to be active construction with workers. In that regard, it will be interesting to return here in the future to see what eventually changes. While I do hope the people running these temples can find a way to keep their statues from crumbling, part of me hopes they find a way to keep this the one-of-a-kind place that it currently is.

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Dabei Temple Was Not Sad

Sometimes names can be misleading, and this can be especially true when translation is involved. Other personal outside influencing factors don’t help either. Recently, I have been learning how to play the card game Magic The Gathering.  It’s fantasy based, and it is a million times more complicated than poker or canasta. Magic involves specialty character cards, and many of the them work and interact differently. It makes for a game of nearly infinite and hard-to-predict strategies. Since this a basically a fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons type game, many of these cards can have weird names. The following examples are made up by myself, but they speak to the oddity that sometimes is Magic The Gathering:  Codex of Dubious Confusion, Library of Lesser but Real Horrors, and Spire of Ominous Despair. All of this, recently, had an effect on how I explored Changzhou.

Copyright Magic The Gathering.
Copyright Magic The Gathering.

While looking at Baidu Maps recently, I noticed something called  大悲禅寺 dàbēi chán sì. That literary translates as “big sad temple.” Since I was looking at this with my head in the Magic The Gathering fantasy world, I started to laugh. Binge listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast didn’t help. It’s a fictitious community radio broadcast filled with sinister dog parks filled with hooded figures and reports of supernatural happenings – yet, it has the humdrum, low-key delivery of America’s National Public Radio. In short, I projected my own personal culture onto Dabei Temple instead of thinking of a possible Chinese context.  I thought if I went there, I might see a large statue dedicated to profuse weeping.

So, I set out on my ebike. This Buddhist place of worship is in northwestern Xinbei. It’s near the both Changzhou’s airport and the city border with Yangzhong. In short, this is not a place easily accessible by public buses. It is also a real place of religious worship and not something aimed at tourists. Eventually, I reached my destination by traveling down a dirt road.

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Dabei Temple quickly revealed itself.

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As it turns out, Dabei Temple is neither “big” nor “sad.” It just happens to be an average countryside Buddhist temple in a very remote part of Xinbei.

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It has the standard courtyard set up and grounds layout of small temples. This means a main hall with a few other nooks of worship and community space.

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You have the usual sort of Buddha statue set up once you enter the main hall.

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Behind that, there is a sculpture wall dedicated to Guanyin, a figure of divine compassion. This is also a pretty common thing in the layout of temple main halls in this area — Buddha upfront, Guanyin in rear.

Despite the fact that I have seen a lot of temples like this, I left this place feeling grateful. I got to see a part of Changzhou and Xinbei I have never been to before, but it reminded me something I had already known. It reminded me of a fundamental truth. I had just temporarily forgotten it due to my new obsession with Magic The Gathering and the great many professional distractions and obligations I have had over the last month. It’s this: you can’t make assumptions on things when translation is involved. Not only are you bringing your personal biases into a travel experience, but you are letting your native culture effect how you see a foriegn country. That is not a good thing.

The 36 to Hell and Back

Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.

This display can be found at Wanfo Temple. There was a previous Real Changzhou post about this place more than a year ago, but  that was more of explaining what the place was and what it culturally meant. Back then, I found it while riding my ebike in Northern Xinbei. Recently, I figured out how to get there on the public bus.

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Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.

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Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.

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Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.

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The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.

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A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.

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As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.

 

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The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.

 

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The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.

Baota Temple in Jintan

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Baota Temple is a Buddhist attraction in Changzhou’s western Jintan District. It is located near a revolutionary martyr’s cemetery and Gulongshan Park.

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There are a number of the usual attractions to be seen — altars and dedicated spaces to kneel and pray or to light candles and burn incense.  One of the more specialized spaces is an intricate hall of luohans.

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The hundreds of statues here are both colorful and detailed. While Buddhist temples usually have some depictions of luohans, this one is more of the epic scale that can found at Dalin in eastern Changzhou. That temple however, has Buddhist saints with more exaggerated features — literally, the arms and legs are much longer than at Jintan’s Baota.

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One of the more unique things here are the little statues of kids in monk’s garb.

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And, of course, if a visitor climbs to the top of the pagoda, they can get a good panorama of Jintan and the surrounding parks. Since this temple is in an out of the way location from the intercity bus station, it is best to pair a visit hear to Gulongshan Park, which is hilly and a good place to take a woodland walk. The day I visited, nobody at Baota charged an admission fee.

Guanyin at Baolin Temple in Wujin

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According to local legend, Guanyin was key in the formation of Gehu Lake — which is also known as “West Taihu Lake.” The body of fresh water is located near the flower expo grounds in Wujin. This act of Guanyin’s was a way to show mercy to locals besieged by floods. And that is what she does. In Buddhism, she is a goddess of mercy. Some pray to her in times trouble and turmoil. This is just one of morsels of information that can be learned at Baolin Temple.

This is a Buddhist religious attraction near the Wujin’s Martyr’s Memorial. Baolin is perhaps one of the biggest cultural treasures in a district that is currently seeing a lot of construction. This is true for the temple itself. In the few thousand years it has existed, Baolin has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. So, it’s largely renovated now and not in its original state. One of the more recent additions in the past two years is a pagoda a friend of mine compared to a pineapple.

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This pagoda is dedicated to Guanyin. She is all over the exterior with golden statues and exterior paintings depicting her showing mercy to people.

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Baolin has a lot of the stuff you could expect to see at Buddhist temples. But the real attraction here is the four-floor-high Guanyin statue inside the pagoda itself. It is simply a wonder to behold.

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The pagoda has an elevator. I usually like to take it to the fourth floor, walk circles around the statue, and then take the stairs down one floor at a time.

Tianning Temples Luohan Halls

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Someone once joked that I visit too many temples. It’s something I freely admit to, as well. The beauty of Buddhist and Taoist temples are the ornate attention to detail. If you love art, you will always see something you never noticed before. You just have to look closer.

This is especially true at Tianning Temple in downtown Changzhou. One of the things I most often like returning to are the two halls of luohans. These are relatively close to the front entrance — so, nowhere near the pagoda. Here are some of the shots from my recent visit.

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A Post for Tomb Sweeping

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“I was going to ask you if you felt anything. You know, like a haunted presence?”

A friend said this once while visiting Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei. We had just spent a lot of time looking at brutal and bloody depictions of torture. The temple has a room depicting diyu 地狱 aka Chinese Buddhist Hell. But that was more kitsch than off-putting.  My friend was referring more to the small mausoleum we had accidentally walked into. She tends to be a lot more spiritually sensitive than me. To be honest, I had no feelings of foreboding, but once I realized where we were, I decided to stop taking pictures.

I’m only posting photos here, because well, it seems appropriate.  Today is Qingming 清明节 in China — Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s a festival to honor the dead and prior ancestors. Comparing this to American Halloween would be a mistake. That’s just a day people dress up like monsters and have a party. It’s much more solemn than that. In fact, it’s much more similar to All Souls Day in Europe. In some countries, like Belgium, it’s a day to go to a graveyard and clean and respect your dearly departed’s burial plot.

Traditionally speaking, Qingming is sort of the same in spirit. How the dead are respected, however, might be a little more  different. The mausoleum my friend and I walked into was filled with pictures of the dead. Sometimes, flowers were near these pictures, and other instances sacrificial offerings. Quite often, this takes the form of food or fruit. You see this often in temples — especially altars devoted to Buddha. Only, here, you could also find bundles of “hell money.” Its a special type of Joss Paper printed to look like cash. More often, these bills look like the red 100 RMB note.  The idea is that you are giving a form of spiritual currency that they can spend and use in the afterlife.

I found this all quite fascinating to look at — until I recognized one subtle detail near some of these pictures. Behind glass, wooden boxes sat.  I quickly realized that these were likely urns filled with ashes. Human remains were all around my friend and I. While I had not had any sense of foreboding before, I was a little unsettled now. I was looking at this place from the perspective of a curious foreign tourist, and I realized it would be best to leave and leave the dead in peace.

Hell By Another Name

hell1You are standing in the Museo de Prado in Madrid, staring at Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s a triptych, which means it is three panels depicting three different scenes. You find Bosch’s attention to detail appealing. You find the third panel – a depiction of Christian hell – the most interesting. After all, there you can see a pig in a nun’s habit trying to kiss a naked man. Not far away, a nude woman balances dice on her head. Another man has musical notes tattooed on his buttocks. Those three are only tiny details in a densely populated and gruesome landscape, and the darkly funny brutality goes on and one.
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For the longest time, I didn’t know Buddhism had similar concept. Most Americans know Buddha through Zen, if at all — which is more about intellectual enlightenment than supernatural ghosts and gods. Chinese Buddhism is a blend of things also borrowed from Taoism and traditional folk religion. It even has hell; it’s called Diyu 地狱. Only, Buddhists are not condemned for eternity the way Christians might be. Once they have paid their karmic debt, they can be reincarnated into a friendlier existence. In a way, this makes their “hell” more like Christian purgatory.

I learned about all of this, recently, because I found a depiction of Diyu just as violent as something you would see in a Bosch or a Hans Memling painting. Perhaps even a Slayer song?  It consisted of a series of painted statues depicting torture at Wanfo Temple 万佛禅寺 in northern Xinbei, near an industrial port along the Yangtze River. Wanfo is mostly like other temples in Changzhou. You can see most of the same iconography here that you can in other places.  Only, here, you can also see people getting ground into a bloody pulp. Here, you can see people eviscerated and disemboweled. Here you can see tongues getting ripped out. Here, you can see a flogged sinner being forced to look at himself into a mirror. As the legend goes, sinners must endure these repeated torments again and again and again. Once a fatal amount of damage

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One of the Yamas, or judges, sets behind this very unfortunate guy.

is inflicted, bodies become whole again and the violence starts anew.

At Wanfo, this hellscape takes up the ground floor of a two-story building. Most of the torture takes place in front of desks, where a judge sits. This man is a Yama – a minor deity who decides who must stay for further torment and who can be spared additional abuse. Diyu has many levels, and so there are many Yama sitting behind desks with their record books. Around them, you usually see four other figures. Two of them are Heibai Wuchang — one wears white and has extremely pale skin. The other wears black and possesses a darker complexion. Absurdly long tongues hang from both their mouths. Essentially, these are Chinese Grim Reapers, and they ferry the damned into the underworld. In English, they are also known as the White and Black Impermanence. You will also see Horse Face and Ox Head. In some legends, they are also reapers. However, they are most commonly the guards at the entrance. Most of the sinner’s punishments, though, are doled out by lesser demons.

I had a hard time processing all of this at first. I found both Wanfo Temple and the recreation of Diyu completely by accident. I snapped a few cell phone pics, texted a friend, and eventually I left. Part of me wanted to stay and stare, create stories for what I was seeing. But, the rational part of me knew I needed to go home, get on the internet, and do some research and learn to appreciate whatever it was this temple wanted to teach me. I gained a little more confidence

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The White Guard. One half of the Heibai Wuchang

with the subject matter, and a few weeks later, I returned with an equally curious friend.

Getting to Wanfo Temple from Xinbei Wanda Plaza is nearly absurdly simple –but only if you are driving or going by eBike. Go north on Tongjiang Road for like 20 kilometers until you are near Changzhou’s industrial port along the Yangtze River.  Then, take a left turn onto a concrete road splitting a small farming plot. From there, you travel through an economically depressed neighborhood before taking a right and parking in front of the temple entrance. You can easily see the stone pagoda from the road.  Taking a bus is more complicated. The 48 is the only one servicing this area.