Flying from Frankfurt to Perth we had a layover of nearly twelve hours in Hong Kong. Arriving early morning, we had a full day ahead for sightseeing. After inquiries at the airport we chose to visit the Po Lin Monastery (Precious Lotus Zen Temple) and the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. It was Naumi’s birthday and she felt that the visit to the monastery would make the day memorable.

From the airport we took a bus to the Tung Chung Station. We were too early for the Cable Car to Ngong Ping. After what appeared to be an interminable wait, we got into a crowded bus of what appeared to be peasants. Going through villages along a circuitous route, at last we reached the high ground where the village is located. We were among the first visitors to arrive at the Po Lin Monastery.

The Monastery was established over a hundred years ago and it has grown to have many pagodas and halls that are beautifully decorated inside with extravagantly painted ceilings and colorfully rendered carved eaves. The Monastery has a set of Tripiṭaka volumes that were wood block-printed in Qing Dynasty between 1735 AD and 1738 AD, and are the last official version printed in China. It also has relics of the Buddha that were brought from Sri Lanka in 1992.

Its main temple houses three bronze statues of Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha (left), Śākyamuni Buddha (center), and Amitābha Buddha (right). Śākyamuni in the middle is attended to by the smaller images of two acolytes: the aged and austere Mahākaśyapa and the young and learned Ānanda.

The Buddhas, apart from the historical Śākyamuni (Siddhārtha Gautama), are idealized enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) who lived before and will come in the future, and Dīpaṃkara and Maitreya represent the Buddha’s past and future lives; Bhaiṣajyaguru is the Buddha of healing who is popular in the East and known as Sman-bla-rgyal-po in Tibet, Yaoshi fo in China, Yakushi Nyorai in Japan, and Amitābha is the Buddha of infinite light and life. The many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas symbolize the different facets through which the mind can be apprehended.

At the lower level to the main temple is a hall that enshrines the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara (compassion), Mañjuśrī (insight), and Samantabhadra (worthiness). Avalokiteśvara also appears sometimes as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Most ceremonies are held in this lower hall. There is a separate shrine to the valiant general Skanda who sits behind the jovial Maitreya of the future. Another shrine is dedicated to Avalokiteśvara.

Behind the main temple is the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Its lower floor has five Dhyāni Buddha (“mind-arising Buddha”) statues of Amoghasidhi, Amitābha, Vairocana, Ratnasambhava and Akṣobhya, ten thousand miniature Buddha statues lining the walls and an elaborately decorated ceiling.

The fame of the Po Lin Monastery spread when the 34-meter tall Tian Tan Buddha statue was consecrated on 29 December 1993 on the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  The Śākyamuni Buddha sits cross-legged on a lotus flower and faces north to look over the Chinese people. The statue’s base is modeled after the Altar of Heaven of the Tian Tan — the Temple of Heaven — in Beijing.

To reach the Buddha one needs to climb 268 steps. Facing it are six smaller bronze statues of perfections (pāramitā-s) who offer flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha. These symbolize the six perfections of generosity (dāna), morality (śīla), patience (kṣānti), zeal (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna), and wisdom (prajñā).

The Buddha statue, which was constructed from 202 bronze pieces, took twelve years to complete.  The Buddha’s right hand is raised in the mudra of fearlessness and compassion (abhayamudrā) while the left rests open on his lap in a gesture of wish-fulfilment (varadamudrā). His palms and the sole of the foot have the imprint of the dharma-wheel, and his chest is marked by the svastika sign of auspiciousness.

Beneath the base of the statue are three additional floors: the Hall of the Universe, the Hall of Benevolent Merit, and the Hall of Remembrance. The museum has a huge carved bell inscribed with images of Buddhas. It is designed to ring every seven minutes, 108 times a day, symbolizing the clearing of 108 kinds of human vexations. The number 108 and other abstractions occur commonly elsewhere in the Vedic tradition.

The Piazza at Ngong Ping has a Bodhi Path flanked by twelve yakṣas, also called divine generals, who are the protective deities of Bhaiṣajyaguru. Buddhists connect these generals with the 12 hours of the day and the 12 years of the calendar cycle. The yakṣa (with yakṣī or yakṣinī) is the archetype custodian of treasures and the principal among them is Kubera, who rules the mythical Himalayan kingdom called Alakā. In Kashmir, yakṣa-amāvasya was a popular festival on the new moon’s day in the winter month of Pauṣa (December/January). A plate with fish, lentils and other dishes was left out in the courtyard at night for the yakṣa.

 

Those born under different zodiac signs are taken to be protected by eight different deities as listed below.

अवलोकितेश्वर, Avalokiteśvara (Jp: Kannon Bosatsu) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Rat

आकाशगर्भ, Ākāśagarbha (Jp: Kokuzo Bosatsu) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Ox and the Tiger

मञ्जुश्री, Mañjuśrī (Jp: Monju Bosatsu) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Rabbit

समन्तभद्र, Samantabhadra (Jp: Fugen Bosatsu) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Dragon and the Snake

महास्थमप्राप्त, Mahāsthamaprāpta (Jp: Seishi Bosatsu) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Horse

महावैरोचन, Mahāvairocana (Jp: Dainichi Nyorai) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Sheep and the Monkey

अचलनाथ, Acalanātha (Jp: Fudo Myo-o) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Rooster

अमिताभ, Amitābha (Jp: Amida Nyorai) – Protector of those born in the Zodiac Year of the Dog and the Boar

 

The visit to the monastery was most rewarding. We had seen much of the ideals or archetypes of the psyche that are at the basis of the practice of religion in East and Southeast Asia.

We lit incense sticks in front of the monastery before returning to the airport to catch our flight. The monastery in the outskirts of this great metropolis of the east had opened a window to a world of abstractions in Sanskrit that we only knew at a visceral level.

 

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Born in Srinagar and educated in Kashmir and Delhi, he has lived in the United States since 1979. He has has written six volumes of poetry in English and Hindi and another fourteen books on a wide variety of subjects that include history of science and art. He was the anchor in Raga Unveiled, which is a four-hour long documentary on Hindustani classical music.

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