Sunday, December 6, 2009


      Every once in a while when you’re traveling, you stumble across some site or point of interest that is so beautiful or noble or awe-inspiring or just unutterably, breathtakingly astounding that words—and, God-willing, your bitchy, sarcastic sense of humor—simply fail you.

The Giant Buddha is not one of those sites.

What, you ask, is the Giant Buddha? 

Well, it’s kind of technical and difficult to explain, but what it comes down to is that it’s this Buddha, see?  And it’s really really really big.  So big, in fact, that some might call it giant.

I could tell you more, but that’s all that you really need to know. 

Situated on Lantau Island, the Jan Brady of Hong Kong islands, the Giant Buddha was dreamt up by some religious folks—I’m guessing they were Buddhists—who visited some other places (Taiwan, Mainland China, and Des Moines, Iowa) that had these really really big Buddhas, and these people thought, “Dang, that’s cool.  We need to get us one of them there giant Buddhas.”   So they came back to Hong Kong, did some serious fundraising, and built themselves the biggest, bad assedest Buddha they could. 

Now to be entirely fair—and for the moment, mildly reverent—the Buddha itself is pretty cool.  Looking at his calm face, his grounded body, one hand gracefully extended, you sense serenity.  And surrounding him are a dozen or so statues of female figures making offerings that are so beautifully done that they cause you to pause a moment and consider the nature of reverence and sacrifice. 

And the setting of the Buddha is astounding:  to get there, you have to take the train out almost to the airport, then take a cable car for twenty minutes, up one side of the island, across a small harbor, over the peak, and down the other side, the mountains and sea and sun and sky opening up in front of you in a way that is seriously awe-inspiring.  And then as your cable-car lowers over scraggy hillsides and rocky waterfalls, you look up and think—not a little ironically—Jesus Christ! What the hell is that?

For there, on the horizon, a huge figure cuts a silhouette against the pale sky.  And I do mean huge.  Think, Kirsty Allen on steroids.  Or Rosie O’Donnell as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Float.   Except more religiousy, with fewer strings and no Hostess Cupcake in her hand. 

For a moment, everyone in your car is dumbstruck.  The kids stop beating each other with the $40 balloons they made you buy while waiting in the huge lines; you and your wife stop arguing over whether or not it was worth it to get the “Crystal Cabin” deluxe package (it is, no matter what she says); the young Chinese couple you’re sharing the car with stop snogging long enough to get some air and stare, chapped-lipped, out the window. 

It’s magical.  Really it is.

Until you get out of the cable car, stroll through the obligatory cable-car gift shop (who can blame them for trying, right?) and into—well—


I kid you not:  same fake, white-walled, pseudo-old-country villagey buildings full of overpriced authentic Chinese crapola gift shops; same popcorn and cotton candy venders; same lousy restaurants with waiters and waitresses wearing polyester recreations of ethnic costumes from 300 years ago.  It takes you a good twenty minutes to make your way through this garbage, prying your kids away from the stores selling authentic Giant Buddha rubber-band guns and semi-authentic Giant-Buddha-arm-in-arm-with-Jesus computer mouse pads. 

Once you make it to the other side, sweaty, tired, and ten pounds lighter in the wallet area, you’re rewarded with—well—

A small monastery full of Buddhist monks going, Holy crap, what happened to our vision of a nice peaceful retreat, a quiet place to meditate and focus on our practice and our religion and making the world a better place? 

Sure, there are alters, and sure there’s incense burning.  And sure, there’s booth after booth of vendors selling white people who don’t know Buddhism from  Bartles and James giant wads of incense to light and burn and then—what?  They don’t know, because they’re white people raised Lutheran in South Dakota, where incense is what you use to hide the fact that you were smoking pot with your buddy Larry from your parents and that rat-fink of a sister Emily, who, first-chance you get, you’re gonna give an Atomic wedgie for making you miss the basketball game last week by narcing to your mom about the pack of Marlboros hidden behind your desk, which really isn’t fair, because they were Larry’s to begin with and you were just keeping them there because Tilly, Larry’s girlfriend, is trying to quit and you sort of have a crush on Tilly and keep thinking maybe if you’re nice enough to her then when she finds out that Larry gave Mandy Davis that huge hickie last summer, then maybe, just maybe, she’ll . . .

Well, you get the point. 

The one thing that makes this all worthwhile is that it causes you to think about what would happen if, some Sunday in South Dakota, a bunch of Asians burst in St. John’s Lutheran during the late service and started snapping photographs while Pastor Jeff passed out the communion wafers.  It’d never happen, of course, because Asians generally have more respect when they’re guests in other countries, but it’s a nice image to just hold in your head when you’re tempted to ignore the “Strictly No Photographs” sign and snap a quick shot or two of some old bald headed monk silently praying to his god amidst the circus-like atmosphere of the Giant Buddha. 

If you want to experience something sincere and quiet and meditative and, well, Holy, then go to the Man Mo temple in Old Tai Po.  And leave your damn camera behind, and for god’s sake, button up and don’t go in there with a whole big group of fat people wearing purple.

But assuming that’s too remote for you—most HK tour companies actually think Tai Po is in the PRC—then take the MTR to the Diamond Hill Station, get out, and take the escalator toward the mall.  When you arrive at the garage level, take a right and follow the sidewalk curving left along to the intersection.  Cross the street when you get a chance, then go under the big highway overpass.  Go up the big stone stairs, take a left, and .  .  .


Well, the Chi Lin Nunnery is one of those things that really requires as few words as possible.  But you’re stuck with me, so here goes:

Everything here is designed to make you pause and—well, just pause.  You stroll in through huge wooden gates under a heavy timber roof that frames a brick square.  Somehow the sky looks different when you’re looking at it from under that roof:  it’s bluer, bigger, higher.  Skyscrapers are visible from almost everywhere, but only over the slanting, Tang Dynasty-style roofs (think Kung Fu Panda, minus the Panda, the Tiger, and the Kung Fu), making them seem inconsequential.  The main courtyard holds four Lotus ponds rimmed with bonsai trees, the water is green and dark, and looks full of life.  There are no benches:  what monks you see move slowly and steadily, hands behind their backs. 

What’s crazy about this place is that even white people from places like, say, Boone, Iowa, where “Eastern religion” refers to that Methodist church out on Old Highway 30—even these folks can stand in this courtyard silently for all of five seconds and get it—and I mean really get it, deep down in their bones—the way the structure of the building is meant to connect the sky to the earth and the earth to the sky and the soul to the universe. 

It beats the Crystal Cathedral any day, that’s for sure. 

The inner courtyard is smaller and warmer, more intimate.  In sharp contrast to the monks at the Giant Buddha, one of whom threatened me with a shotgun and a “Right righteous HK ass-whoopin’,” (his words, not mine), the nuns at Chi Lin are quiet and gracious, smiling even.  One of them gave Jamie a small cylindrical pendant, then one to Ellen and me, telling us it was for luck.

The day we were there, the nunnery was filled with visiting monks offering gifts to the sisters—a hand-made banner, a small golden carving.  They all smiled at Jamie and tried to get him to talk.  Jamie returned the favor by giving them his “cross-eyed” look:  eyes slitted, lips pursed, fists clenched by his jaw.  We have no idea why he does this.  But it makes monks laugh, so it’s probably okay. 

The nunnery is so beautiful that you think nothing can match it.  And then you take a stone bridge across the street and enter the nunnery’s gardens.  An acre in size, the garden is centered around a huge pond containing Koi and a bridge to a golden pagoda.  There are bonsai gardens, with graceful trees rooted beside striped stands of petrified wood.  There are purple blossoms and combed beds of sand and a vegetarian restaurant with a sheet of falling water in front of its plate glass window.  From nearly every angle, you can see skyscrapers shooting into the air.  Rather than ruining the sense of calm and solitude in the garden, though, they reinforce it.  You appreciate the order and peace more for being reminded of the chaos and construction just a quarter mile away. 

One of these days I’m going to quit watching Hong Kong’s version of The Price is Right, get off my butt, and do a little research about religions in southeast Asia.  And when I do, I’m guessing I’ll find that Buddhism places an emphasis on deliberateness. 

Case in point (real Buddhists always say “Case in point”):  stretching around the huge pond in the middle of the garden is a rim of flat, white, oval stones.  The thing is, these stones aren’t just every which way and hodge-podge (real Buddhists always say “hodge-podge”).  No, these stones are layered in careful rows, one over another at an angle.  They’re beautiful.  But of course you know that to get them that way, some dude, probably the chief peon’s peon, spent days—weeks, even—placing those rocks down, one by one.  And then the next row.  One by one.  And then the next row. 

And the weird thing, as you look at those rocks and think about being the sucker who had to put the down, is that you get it:  you understand, perfectly, that this deliberateness is, if not meditative, at least contemplative.  That the rhythm of selecting a rock, placing it, pausing, selecting another, placing it, pausing—that all of this must have been less of a burden than a means of breathing more carefully, of seeing more carefully, of being more carefully.

Or maybe not:  maybe laying out those stones was just a pain in the butt.  I’m a Lutheran living in Virginia, for Pete’s sake—what do I know from rocks? 

But I don’t think so. 

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