Sunday, January 04, 2004

January 2 — Before returning to Chengdu I wanted to visit one more temple. This was the Fu Hu (“Crouching Tiger”) Temple, located on a hillside eight-tenths of a mile up the main road from the Baoguo Monastery. A paved path leads from the road through the forest, across a tiny covered bridge over the Fu Xi Brook, and up a short series of staircases to the temple entrance. The main buildings of the complex date were built in the 1650s, during the reign of Qing Emperor Shunzhi. Outside the main entrance in small niches are the same two guardians found at the Baoguo Temple—the Earth God of the Shu Kingdom (fourth century bc) on the right, and the Dragon God of the Shu Kingdom on the left. Unlike at Baoguo, inside the entrance way are also found ten-foot high statues of four traditional temples guardians: the Heavenly King of the East, Dong Fojiao Denggao Gangshen Yi; Heavenly King of the South, Nan Denggao Gangshen Er; Heavenly King of the North, Bei Denggao Gangshen San; Heavenly King of the West, Xi Denggao Gangshen Si) Next is the traditional statue of the Laughing Buddha, backed by a small statue of Samantabhadra on his elephant. Beyond these is a courtyard littered with stacks of planks and raw stone. A dozen workmen with hammers and chisels are carving new railings and balustrades for the porch of the main temple. Like most temples on Emei Shan, Fu Hu is undergoing extensive restoration work in an attempt to repair the damage incurred during the Culteral Revolution when Mao unleashed his Little Generals.

After orisons in the main temple with its Three Buddhas of the Past, Present, and Future I follow a sign pointing the way to the Lou Han Hall, located in a separate elevated courtyard to the left. In the entranceway I am stopped in my tracks by an huge thirty-foot long, brightly painted statue of a peacock surmounted by a statue of, I think, Kuan Yin, since she is often associated with peacocks, although this identifiction remains tentative. Even more striking are larger-than-life-size statues of the 500 Lohans, also known as Arhats, or beings who have perfected themselves, arranged on high benches along the walls and in a maze-like pattern in the middle of the hall. These have the exaggerated, caricature-like features often found in such statues and are painted in what to Western sensibilities at least seem like very garish colors. At first the whole effect seems over the top, like an exhibition at some cheesy albeit ambitious roadside amusement park, but the longer I walk through the aisles the more real the statues appear, until finally I experience the unsettling illusion that not only are statues alive but that they are following me with their eyes. But that’s not all. Right in the middle of the hall, under a wooden canopy open to the air on the sides,. is a forty four high golden-colored statue of four standing figures connected to a central core, with each of the figures facing one of the four cardinal directions. Raising out of the central core, above the heads of the main figures, is a cluster of even more heads, giving the impression that the statue is some sort of mammoth broccoli-like plant. I have never seen anything like this and have no idea what it is supposed to represent. Although the large hall, measuring about 150 feet square, apparently dates back to the original Qing era monastery, the exhibition within appears new, and it is not mentioned in any of my guide books or in tourist brochures, nor are there any signs in English. I wander out of the hall slightly dazed. Although some may question the aesthetics of the various statues, it must be admitted they are certainly eye-popping.

Just below the Lou Han Hall, in a small courtyard surrounded by gardens, is the famous Hua Yan pagoda. Almost twenty feet high, the copper pagoda was fashioned in 1585. On its sides are over 4700 images of Buddha ranging from an inch to several inches in height. Between the Buddhas and on narrow horizontal flanges circling the pagoda are etched all 195,048 Chinese characters of the Avatansaka (Garland) Sutra. This sutra was the main text of the Hua Yan school of Buddhism promulgated in the early seventh century by Fa Zang, who was born in China but whose family were non-Chinese originally from the ancient kingdom of Sogdiana, in roughly what is now Uzbekistan. His knowledge of languages led him to work as a translator with the famous Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang, who had traveled to India in the seventh century and returned with a huge cache of Buddhist manuscripts. The highly esoteric Hua Yan school had a sizeable following up until the Great Persecution of 841-5, which equaled or exceeding the Cultural Revolution in the ferocity of its attacks against Buddhism. Although the sect reportedly still exists it is now considered a minor school. As far as I can determine the Avatansaka Sutra has never been translated into English.

I hurried back to the Teddy Bear, grabbed my pack, and caught the next bus to Chengdu. The movie on the bus the James Bond flick “Tomorrow Never Dies.” It was a large mental leap from Hongchunping Monastery. Three hours later I was back on Chengdu.