While researching this post I realised that we covered a trilogy of Buddhism in Hong Kong; the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, Chi Lin Nunnery and finally the Tian Tan Buddha. These appear to be the must-see tourist destinations in Hong Kong; interesting that they are all Buddhist despite only around 20% of Hong Kong being Buddhist. Clearly this is a religion that knows how to attract attention (in a good way). That is not to say that Buddhism is not an important element in Hong Kong; when Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997 the Queen’s Birthday was replaced by the Buddha’s Birthday as a public holiday.
Tian Tan Buddha, 天坛大佛, is a little out of the way, on the island of Lantau, towards the South of Hong Kong. There is a cable car from Ngong Ping station but we chose to get the bus as it was pretty foggy and the bus was much cheaper. The bus ride was pretty enjoyable as we got to see a lot of the island. The bus struggled going up the hill and when we went downhill it felt like the driver was taking out his frustration at its crawling pace up the mountain by racing down the twisting mountain roads. This was a little scary but it certainly added to the experience.
We were pretty worried that the Buddha would not emerge from the cloud that hugged most of the island. Luckily he appeared as we approached the hill, sitting atop the mountain, looking out over the island. I have actually been to the Tian Tan Buddha before when I was much younger but the fog was much heavier and we barely even saw his knees through the cloud, so I felt lucky to finally get to see it.
Arriving at the bus stop, we walked through the grand white gates towards the path up to the Buddha. Lining the way on either side were the 12 Heavenly Generals, said to defend the Buddha of healing. There is a general for each animal of the Chinese zodiac, which corresponds to a time of day and carries a different weapon. These are fictional generals, rather than great figures of history and also feature in Japanese Buddhism as lesser kami. I will not picture all twelve of them here as they all looked fairly similar but here are four for your viewing pleasure.
Past the generals we got a good look at the plaza at the bottom of the Buddha’s hill, which featured a dais with coloured flags and some dogs looking for food. I thought they were stray at first but I think they belong to the monastery and they were trying their luck at getting a bonus dinner.
The Tian Tan Buddha is a statue of the Buddha Amoghasiddi. While I do not pretend to know anything about Buddhism, I can tell you that this Buddha’s name means ‘he whose accomplishment is not in vain‘ and he is associated with the accomplishment of the Buddhist path and the removal of the evil that is envy. The Buddha statue was built in 1993 to symbolise the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and religion. I suppose the Buddha does appear harmonious but the feat of building a giant 250 ton Buddha on the top of a mountain does suggest the conquering of nature rather than harmony with it. I’m not entirely sure if all people have a harmonious relationship with religion either, but that’s a debate I do not wish to get into. I suppose it is a nice sentiment.
Once you’ve climbed the 268 steps up to the Buddha you can walk around and admire the (hazy) view of the Po Lin Monastery and surrounding mountains. The path around the Buddha features six Devas (spiritual beings that are not gods but better than humans, a little like the Japanese kami) that are offering the Buddha flowers, incense, a lamp, ointment, fruit and music. These represent the things necessary to enter nirvana, symbolising charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom.
There were signs in front of every Deva statue telling people not to throw coins in several different languages, however there were a lot of people trying to get the coins into the statues’ hands. This is apparently for good luck. There was one enterprising little boy of around 7 that was collecting up all the coins that had missed and fallen to the floor. He got a lot of coins as the people throwing did not have great aim.
The Buddha was built of 202 separate pieces of bronze and contains a steel support inside to keep him sitting serenely atop his mountain throne. Inside the halls below the Buddha are a collection of scrolls and manuscripts (photos were banned I’m afraid) which are worth seeing. You cannot go inside this Buddha like the one in Kamakura but the view was pretty spectacular, I can imagine it would be even better on a clearer day. Interestingly all of the other great Buddha in China (there are 5 total) face South, but as the Tian Tan Buddha is to the far South, he looks North over the rest of China.
Heading down from the Buddha we went to check out Po Lin Monastery. The monastery is much older than the Buddha, founded in 1906 by three Zen masters, and is now an international Buddhist retreat. The monastery had beautiful colourful architecture and great carved pillars featuring dragons. There were several dogs walking around the monastery which got into a bit of a fight at one point when the monks tried to get them to move out of the way of a car transporting building materials through the courtyard. I got a lot of pictures of the monastery but to be honest there was very little I could find about the history of the place so just enjoy the pictures!
After we headed back from the monastery towards the Buddha we checked out the ‘village’ to the South that went down towards the cable car terminus. I say ‘village’ because it was a collection of shops and restaurants, I doubt anyone really lives there. They had a display of cable cars from all over the world lining the street as well as several cartoony sheep statues for the Chinese New Year. The fantastic masks you see pictured below were outside a shop dedicated to Peking Opera. I bought some flowering tea at one of the shops, which is the tea that blooms into a beautiful flower when you add hot water. I haven’t tried it yet but the example looked fantastic.
The Tian Tan Buddha is well worth visiting and a nice trip just outside of Hong Kong, taking you away from the built up city to a mostly rural island. There are other activities you can do there such as visit a fishing village and go walking, so if you have lots of time when you visit that might be something else to try out while you’re there. The Buddha and the monastery are free, it’s just a matter of transport.