On a freezing morning in my first February, with guidebook in hand, I visited the Lama Temple. I hoped to find respite from the biting Beijing winter and bustling crowds that fear no weather. I knew from my guidebook that the temple has an extraordinary history and is home to the largest Buddha statue carved from a single piece of wood. Sadly, it has no heat. My guidebook was translated from Chinese and had amusingly peculiar syntax; I wasn’t sure whether the statue was notable because it was large or because it was made from a single piece of wood, or both. In any case, I was mostly looking for sanctuary.
The temple was uncharacteristically deserted – just a few monks and me. I stamped my feet to keep warm and wandered from one building to the next. Each building had a statue of Buddha that was bigger than the last and each time I thought this must be it. Impressive though they were, all huge Buddha tend to look alike, and I was never quite sure whether I was encountering the biggest of the big. They just kept getting bigger! It was only when I came upon a plaque bestowed by The Guinness Book of World Records that I knew I had finally met the biggest Buddha….made from a single piece of wood.
Tacky plaque notwithstanding, this was an impressive Buddha and it is easy to understand why he is listed among the Irreplaceable Treasures of China. He stands a towering 59 feet high and it is impossible not to be wowed. He was made in Nepal as a gift from the Dalai Lama to Emperor Qianlong in 1750. It took 3 years to get him to Beijing, a fact that is casually mentioned but enormously impressive in its own right. One can only imagine the logistical impossibility of lugging a monstrously large statue from the Himalayas to Beijing. He weighs one hundred tons! Though the gallery he lives in was purposely built to house him, the modern Chinese saw no reason to not build the subway directly below. Oddly, the rumble of the subway gives the impression that Buddha might be suffering some mild indigestion.
The Lama Temple is one of the most important Buddhist complexes in China and was built as a residence for the palace eunuchs (tough job application!) in 1694. It became home to Prince Yong and, upon becoming Emperor in 1722, he converted half the property into a Buddhist temple. When he died, his successor displayed Yong’s coffin here and changed the colors of the roof tiles to yellow, thereby signifying an imperial status.
Eventually, the entire complex became a monastery. However, it did not always house calm peaceful monks as it does today. In the 1880’s a British diplomat famously took his riding crop to a gang who tried to steal his camera and by the 1920’s the monks had a much-deserved reputation for thievery and violence. The guidebooks of the time advised tourists to carry guns if they wanted to visit the temple.
Nonetheless, people still flocked to see the treasures, including a series of five statues indulging in explicit sexual acts. They were rumored to have been used to teach the emperors about the birds and bees, something the eunuchs were ill-equipped to provide. Now the titillating parts are strategically covered with yellow silk scarves.
The Temple was closed from 1949 until 1980. But, miraculously, the buildings and all their riches were untouched during China’s dark times. It was saved by the action of Zhou Enlai, the premier of China from 1949 until 1976. Despite being a long-time comrade of Mao and a hero of the revolution, he took great personal risk in protecting the temple and trying to mitigate other excesses of the period. We should all be very thankful.
As the Lama Temple is all-too-often crowded with busloads of tour groups I am grateful for the serendipity that brought me to the big Buddha in such serene circumstances. I return several times a month and have found little corners of quiet that seem to be missed by the conga-line of shuffling tourists. I will meander around the sides until I find a quiet sun-trap where I can read my book, write in my journal or do my Chinese homework under the peaceful influence of the tallest Buddha in the world… made from a single piece of wood.