Big Buddhas & Tang Era Tales

The secret no one tells you about living adventurously is this: sometimes you get lazy.

Living in China, I have at my fingertips some incredible opportunities to explore, to experience new things. Some days I’m great at availing myself of them; when last I attended hot pot (for more on this unique eating experience, peruse here), I said, “Hey, when in Rome” and tried the cow tendon and throat our Chinese friends had ordered up. I was actually disappointed when all the duck kidney got snapped up before I could give it a go.

Other days, however, I become incredibly slothful. Just tired in that unique way only intercultural interfaces can make you. Those days, I’ve no interest in practicing my Mandarin. I don’t want try exciting new food. I cannot even face the thought of going to the dry cleaners, knowing the visit may be riddled with land-mine-style language barriers. These are the days I’m in danger of sleeping my way through our China tour, closing my eyes when I should be jumping on opportunities that may never come my way again.

As my husband and I round the corner into the second half of our assignment here, I’ve adopted a new resolution to appreciate the chances I’m handed. So early one Monday morning, my husband and I dragged ourselves out of our apartment and traveled the 2.5 hours to visit the Leshan Buddha–all despite that Monday’s being a long-desired holiday off work. I was so proud.

…Even if it is a bit sad that it took us this long to get to Leshan, given that Mt. Emei’s giant cliff-side buddha is among the most significant sites in our current home province of Sichuan.

Nevertheless, I can now officially say I’ve seen the world’s largest stone buddha. Which is, indeed, an imposing structure. See Exhibit A for scale:

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That large blob on the bottom left is one of the buddha’s big toes (see the sliver of toenail?). Take note of the tiny people milling around it, and you’ll see the buddha deserves its reputation as a monolith.

Getting to the base of the buddha–the best vantage from which to appreciate it–is no small process. First, we had to queue up in a snaking line reminiscent of those found at Disney World, which is, admittedly, a weird association to make with an ancient religious site. But I digress….

Forty minutes later, upon breaking free of the queue, you find yourself facing off with a long, descending staircase chiseled into Mt. Emei’s red stone. This seemingly-never-ending route leads to the buddha’s gigantic feet. It’s only after you finish snapping your pics that you realize there’s only one way out of that small ravine. And it involves more stairs.

This time ascending.

Sigh.

All told, between our climb to the see the buddha and a secondary trek to visit a hill-top temple, we walked 5 miles and 40+ flights of stairs. Not too shabby for a trip meant to be a relaxed tourist outing.

This hike also hints as to why the buddha may have required 90 years of construction. If it was that exhausting to visit the structure, can you imagine how wearying it must have been to build?

But in addition to its unabashedly imposing size, the buddha’s attraction is, for me, augmented by the multiple (potentially apocryphal) tales associated with it.

Tale No.1: Apparently the monk whose passion first fueled the project–a fellow named Hai Tong–sought its construction as an antidote to the restless nature of three rivers that converge at Mt. Emei’s base. (Exhibit B: Views of these river from the buddha’s head and feet, respectively.)

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From the buddha’s head.
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From the buddha’s feet.

These rivers were turbulent, wild, often deadly. The local people believed an evil river demon was to blame. As buddha sculptures are held to administer peace wherever they may be built, Hai Tong decided to spearhead the construction of Leshan’s buddha as a means of defeating this wicked aquatic foe. (I actually tried to snap a picture of a carving of this river dragon, found along the path to the buddha, but our guide stopped me; apparently, it’s bad business to go around photographing demonic water beasties.) Incidentally, the buddha’s construction led to massive amounts of dirt, stone, and debris being removed and dumped into the river, causing the waters to settle and become traversable.

Hurray!

Tale No.2: China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian, may have been a big source of inspiration for this buddha’s genesis. Ruling from 690-705 AD, Wu Zetian (no one will be surprised to learn) had a bit of a rough road to hoe getting her subjects to accept her as their first female ruler. To help cement her reign, she commissioned a book to be written which claimed–and “proved”–that she was the buddha reincarnated. Gaining the support of her people via buddha-worship, Wu Zetian spent the remainder of her reign heavily promoting and facilitating the construction of buddhas across China. The Leshan is among the many buddha constructions that popped up during and just after her reign, it’s own construction begun in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty.

Is it ethical to manipulate your subjects into thinking of you as a god? Probably not. Not a shabby political strategy, though.

Tale No. 3: Our monk Hai Tong was dedicated to his Leshan project. Not surprisingly, funding was a major problem throughout the course of the buddha’s creation. It took Hai Tong 20 years of begging alms before he had the money for the buddha’s creation. When some local government officials came sniffing around, interested in diverting these hard-earned funds for their own interests, Hai Tong is rumored to have returned with this retort:

You may get my eyeball, but you shall never have the Buddha’s money.

He then proceeded to rip out his own eyeball and offer it to these officials. Who took off running.

I can’t imagine why.

So, since I’ve planted that lovely image in your head, I offer you a parting gift: a few photos of our trip as a mental balm.

Bonus? Now you don’t have to walk 5 miles and 40+ flights of stairs to pay the world’s largest stone buddha a visit.

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