1 February 2020

Tian Tan - The Big Buddha of Lantau

Flying from Tokyo to London in 2007 I had a stopover of a couple of hours in Hong Kong. Too long to sit about in the airport, but not really long enough to do anything else. I’d been to Hong Kong several times before, but I’d never visited the Big Buddha on Lantau, the same island as the airport. But what the heck, I thought – I’d take a chance and be adventurous. Outside it was a bright sunny day with blue skies. So instead of waiting in the transfer terminal I passed through immigration and with my passport freshly stamped, I headed down to the taxi rank where I jumped into the back of a turquoise cab and asked the driver to take me to the Tian Tan. Normally you would probably choose to take the cable car from the airport over the hills right up to the top of the ridge where the Big Buddha sits serenely gazing out over the green hills, but at that time the cable car was closed indefinitely due to on-going maintenance issues. So the quickest way that day would be by taxi. Another one of my madcap dashes to squeeze the most out of every flying visit I ever seem to make (see here)!

It was quite a long drive, through the small town streets and then slowly zig-zagging up the hillside roads through the valleys, past a prison and a reservoir. The roads getting steeper as we climbed. We had to pause part way up as there was roadworks ahead – a huge machine with an industrial hose mounted on a truck was blasting concrete against the hillside above the road, reinforcing the cliff-face to prevent landslides. I didn’t know it then but some friends of mine later said they’d got stuck at this point a few days before and had sat in a traffic jam for a couple of hours as banksmen with Stop/Go signs alternated the flow of traffic going up and coming down, everyone inching along tediously in the baking hot sunshine – little did I know the risk I was running, given that my flight was departing in just a couple of hours’ time!

When the taxi finally reached the top of the ridge I asked the driver if he’d wait for me. But he shook his head and pointed to a taxi rank at which I could see two turquoise taxis waiting, telling me I could pick up another cab there when I was done. So I thanked him, paid him my fare and watched as he zipped away, heading back down the hillside as fast as he could.

Before climbing the steps to the Big Buddha I decided to take a look around the Po Lin Monastery. The monastery was first established in 1906, but only properly founded as the Po Lin (meaning Precious Lotus) Monastery in the 1920s. It is dedicated to Guanyin, and the main temple building houses three bronze statues, representing the past, present and future Buddhas. The Tian Tan, or Big Buddha statue on the peak overlooking the monastery was built much more recently in 1993. The monastery itself was quite a secluded place until the 1970s when it first opened its doors to visitors – now, especially since the building of the Big Buddha, it’s one of the main tourist attractions in Hong Kong, visited by coachloads of tourists daily. However, I was lucky in that it was relatively empty the day I visited. Great sticks of incense burning in the courtyard outside. It seemed blissfully quiet and peaceful.

I climbed the long flight of steps up to the Tian Tan – 268 of them according to my guidebook, not that I counted them myself. The great Buddha looming overhead is quite an imposing sight as you climb, and the view from the platform on which the Buddha sits in serene meditation is quite something else. The Buddha’s right hand is raised in a gesture that signifies the removal of affliction and his left rests in his lap in an open gesture of generosity. Unlike the other great Buddha statues elsewhere which face south, this Buddha faces north. The circular stone dais supporting the giant bronze lotus flower on which he sits is modelled on the Altar of Heaven in Beijing, but unlike the Altar of Heaven it’s made of grey stone rather than polished white marble. Surrounding the Buddha are six smaller bronze figures, representing the Offerings of the Six Devas – each offering in turn, a flower, incense, a lamp, ointment, fruit, and music – symbolising the Six Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom. The Big Buddha itself is also made of bronze – it is 34 metres tall and weighs over 250 tonnes. It was constructed of 202 separate pieces of bronze on a steel framework. Inside the statue’s base I saw a set of photographs showing the statue during the various stages of its construction, each photo accompanied by a very British caption extolling the technical marvels of this feat of engineering in terms of the relevant facts and figures. A list of statistics and Meccano-set-like instructions which, I thought, rather robbed the Great Bronze Buddha of any sense of reverential awe. More a case of empirical facts and figures rather than faith and feeling, unlike going inside the giant bronze statue of the Daibutsu at Kamakura in Japan (see here), which has the patina of some eight centuries long since passed to burnish that sense of deep time and the sanctity of genuine belief. Initially I felt much the same about the Che Kung Temple and Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery at Sha Tin in the New Territories when I first visited these too – there’s just something seemingly not so very sacred about modern concrete effigies, even if they do impress by their sheer size and gaudy decoration. I wonder now though how they might mellow with the passing centuries? – Even the Daibutsu must have looked new and shiny once upon a time long, long ago …

Time certainly was ticking however. Glancing at my watch I realised I should be getting back to the airport where I’d still need enough time to check-in and pass back through immigration and security before boarding my onward flight. Heading back down the steps I was rather dismayed to find the taxi rank completely empty. There was nothing to do but wait. The place was eerily quiet. As the minutes ticked by I tried not to fidget too soon with a growing sense of unease, but luckily before my steadily growing anxiety really got to sink its fangs in, compulsively causing me to clock up increasingly fretful glances at the seemingly-speeding-up minute hand of my watch – a turquoise taxi appeared, and laboured round the roadway to drop off a couple of tourists arriving just in time to catch the onset of late afternoon and an enchanting sunset if they chose to stay that long. As for me though, I hopped quickly into the back of the cab and was soon whizzing back down the winding roads, descending the hillside, past the hose-like neck of the industrial dragon breathing concrete across the flank of the mountainside, zipping back through the little towns to the airport where my onward flight was waiting to take me back to London – my little adventure having been worth the risk to pay my respects to the peaceful Tian Tan, the Big Buddha of our modern age, perched upon the hazy hillside looking far out across the green hills and valleys to a calm and serene sea.

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