Tag Archives: Temples

First Time to San Sheng Temple

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Sometimes I think I have seen all that Changzhou has to offer, and then something comes out of left field and really surprises me. And, that’s what I can easily say about San Sheng Temple 三圣禅寺 — it really surprised me. With the exception of Maoshan  out in Jintan, I thought I had seen all of Changzhou’s major temples: Tianning, Bailong, Dalin, Baolin, Wanfo, and so on. Well, I was wrong, but then again me being wrong is nothing new. Still, I was awestruck by this place.

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Comparatively speaking, it felt roughly the same size as Tianning — albeit with a smaller pagoda. The pagoda is also not open, so you cannot climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area.

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There is so much to see here, it would be hard to fit it all into one post. So, here are just some of the more unique things.

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There is a huge lighted display dedicated to Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.  The lights change from red to blue and green. However, this wall is massive.

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The textured background is made up of thousands of hands. We also see longer arms sticking out of this wall as well.

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This has spiritual significance; Guanyin is often dipicted with multiple arms, hands, and heads so that she can maximize her reach in hearing prayers and dispensing with mercy. She looks this way because it assists her in helping as many people as possible. There is a downside…

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It’s kind of weird to see disembodied arms in bubble wrap. This is emblematic of what is also currently going on here. The place is undergoing renovations. It seems like they may be adding more arms to the wall. Speaking of walls …

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There is an epic sculpture wall on one side of a staircase. Luckily for me, I had a very kind monk who offered to show me around.

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There is just so much here; it’s hard to digest it all in one visit. I am definitely going to return. However, some people who know me personally might ask, “You have lived in Changzhou for years. How is it you missed a place this large?”

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It’s in a very remote part of Changzhou. This is out in the former Qishuyan District, which is now currently part of Wujin. As a one way bike ride, this was 20 kilometers away from Xinbei. Basically, it’s eastern Changzhou, near the hills where there are a lot of public cemeteries. The 316 bus from the downtown train station comes out this way, but there are only a few buses a day, as the below sign illustrates.

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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.

Qingyunshan and Qingming

If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.

–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Understanding Taoism sometimes can be quite a challenge. Allow me to reference Winston Churchill: it’s like a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma. True, Churchill was originally talking about understanding Russian politics, but that doesn’t stop people from using that quote to talk about things that seem utterly opaque.  Yet, I tried to understand Lao Tzu’s (Laozi in Pinyin. The book I referenced used the Cantonese spellings for author and title) words over the Qingming holiday.

The cold weather had gone away, and I finally got back to wandering around Changzhou on my ebike. Since it was a holiday to honor the dead, I thought I would go out hunting for cemeteries. Only, I didn’t go into any of them. That might be culturally offensive, and I just wanted to look at them from afar. In the process, I saw people lots of people burning Joss Paper, hell money, and so much more. Burnt offerings is a way to honor the dead in China. So, setting “hell money” aflame is like an inter-dimensional wire transfer for somebody who has yet to be reincarnated. At one cemetery, I saw one family build a fake house and then torch it.  But, that wasn’t the thing it that made me think of the Tao Te Ching quote. It was this place.

 

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This is Qingyunshan Temple 青云山道观. It’s in Wujin, but not really in the Hutang area most foriegners know. Actually, its in Niutang, which is west of Hutang, and it’s at the end of a bumpy and cracked concrete road. I didn’t find this place by accident. Besides cemeteries, I spent my Qingming holiday looking for a Taoist place of worship. Changzhou doesn’t have many of them. I found this as a result of entering vague Chinese keywords into Baidu Maps and navigating towards a red dot on my mobile phone. Qingyunshan basically looks like this …

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Forlorn. Seemingly abandoned. There was almost a haunted vibe here. I pressed my phone up to one window to get a shot inside.

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According to Baidu, this Qingyunshan Temple is 500 years old. It made me think a little about Lao Tzu’s words. “If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.” This place looks like it lacks life. Yet, it hasn’t vanished. The Cultural Revolution and the contemporary boom in real estate and infrastructure construction has made plenty of places vanish. So, maybe it’s not truly dead?

Yet, even on Qingming, when some people actively seek out such places to religiously honor their ancestors, it was relatively silent, solemn. It would be a mistake to think that this place was totally abandoned, though. The few candles somebody lit appeared sort of fresh. So, somebody other than me had been here recently.

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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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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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