Why Buddha Laughed

China's first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

China’s first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

The Chan — Zen — sect runs China’s wealthiest temple. Near ritzy Hangzhou (subject of this Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty post), called Lingyin, 1,700 years old, English name “Soul’s Retreat.” It’s a wooded valley in the Wulin Mts., along a stream tourists were wading in. The cliff walls rising beside it were carved 1,000+ years ago into amazing Buddha reliefs, two of which laugh heartily, big ‘bellies large enough to contain everything in the world that people cannot bear.’

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

In its heyday (around 900), the temple and monastery held 3,000 monks. It has been destroyed either 10 or 16 times: in ’26 during the warlords period. In ’66 the Red Guards tried to destroy it, but the locals lined up and had a standoff that August, (they also pasted Mao posters on the cliff carvings) until Zhou Enlai closed it, for its protection.

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

The temple halls beside here ascend the mountain, and hold China’s largest wooden Buddha (circa 1954, covered in gold), at 82 feet. The temple hall is the tallest single-storey building, with apparently, an 110′ ceiling. It’s widely called the country’s “wealthiest” and the most important Buddhist temple in Southeastern China. Since ’00 it has held an important library of Sutras.

Deng Xioping regularly came here, and Jiang Zemin apparently personally calligraphied the tablet inscription out front.

But why DOES Buddha laugh? This is a far cry from the somber, tranquil, otherworldly Buddhas we normally see. It is also a very Chinese image. Aside from the famous quote (belly holding what is intolerable), and “He laughts at him who deserved to be laughed at”…what’s the origin of this character? This embodiment?

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Kenny and Felai Feng grotto buddha, Lingyin Si         (Jill was here)  (Jill was here)

There’s a local (now widely known) folktale about a magical wanderer with a big belly, who worked wonders. He carried a cloth sack of treats, candies and fruit that he gave to children and the hungry. At his death, it was revealed he was a Buddha. He is revered  as the laughing Buddha, protector of the poor and weak, Buddha of happiness, generosity and wealth, and in Shintoism (where the tale is local) as well as in Taoism where he is the God of Abundance.

He is one of about 330 carvings here, considered the best in the South along with Dazu (subject of a post last year) near Chongqing. (Once led by fallen Mayor Bo Xilai “Bye-bye Bo Xilai”– whose son Bo Guagua was, The Times reported today, is to attend Columbia Law School. With what funding, no one is quite sure.)

China's largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

China’s largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

Lingyin Si bamboo forest

Temple curtains

Temple curtains

It is Chan (Zen) Buddhism, maker of mysterious koans. Here is one from Lingyin Si, inscribed as part of a couplet on a pavillion sitting beside the brook:

“When does the spring become cold?”

lingyin 2 beautiful carvings

Decapitated Buddha

nanjing buddha cave10 really many

The Thousand Buddha Cliff, at Qixia Shan outside Nanjing in central-eastern China, was empty when we went. It’s an active center of learning — there were lots of middle-aged Chinese laypeople studying in a study hall down below, then having quiet lunch in rows of tables facing forward. But up on the mountain, Qixia Shan (“Chisha” Shan) was really no one — and the sad sight of headless Buddhas in these many caves.

nanjing buddha cave 4

They go back, in some cases, to 500 AD. Others date to the Ming and Qing (500 years ago and less). During the Seecond World War, when Nanking (and nearby areas’) residents were fleeing the “Rape of Nanking” during the awful period of Japanese invasion, many took shelter here. The caves are among the oldest in China so damage goes back to many period, for many reasons. Some damage, however, must date to the Cultural Revolution. Research in English is sparse.

nanjing buddhacave headless

nanjing buddha cave 11

Buddha caves  were sites for meditation, initiating new monks / nuns, and veneration of Buddha.

IMG_0625
They were put in mountains where the beauty and peace of nature made the places right for spirituality. Many were also on trade routes, for easy access — and to encourage patronage by wealthy traders passing by.

Qixia Shan, near Nanjing, Jiangsu province

Qixia Shan, near Nanjing, Jiangsu province

The caves provide vivid testimony of faith, and of political turmoil in China.
nanjing buddha caves by building

By the way, there are only 250 caves on the Thousand-Buddha Cliff, but…who’s counting.
nanjing budha closeup 5 headles

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia

Devotion (Lambie Discovers Buddhism)

Lambie visited the Yung gang (“Cloud Ridge”) caves, and saw that devotion moved mountains.

Lambie was happy and astonished to see how Buddhism flourished here.


She learned that the ancient Silk Road passed by, carrying goods and gods. While trading foods and fabric, the road carried culture from India, flowing robes of Greek sculptures from Rome, artistry from Iran. Turkestani rulers, who unified northern China, embraced India’s Buddhism, and melded it all together. Here is a great world religion at its height.

Lambie is pumped to see what happens when great civilizations meld.

The giant Buddha caves of Bamyan, Afghanistan were destroyed. These remain, surviving 2,000 years of erosion, corrosive pollution, vandals, political attacks, and millions of visitors.

Lambie was sorry to see holes and some broken caves.

Lambie knows about Pharoahs. The giant Buddhas were Pharoanic in a way, offering worship to Buddha and glorifying the ruler.

Indian monks, Turkic kings, Hellenic motifs...yet distinctly Chinese Buddhism.

Lambie hopes to become more like Buddha by following his example: Meditation, morality, insight, generosity, patience, and kindness.

Lambie is happy.

Hangin’ at a Hanging Monastery

By Ethan Coplan

Seen from below.

I really enjoyed the hanging monasteries because it looked really scary from the very top.

Whaaaaaa!

I really liked the view from different spots.

Filing through the cliff dwelling.

Since it was so freezing, people were wearing big green Chairman Mao army coats. It was really cold there because of the high altitude. We paid 20 kuai (about $3) to rent them. It was the best 20 kuai my mom ever spent.

The Xuankong Si hanging off Mount Hengshan was built in 491. We heard Taoist monks lived here until a few hundred years ago. Fall has arrived.

Big, Big Buddha

We rode a sleeper train to see Buddhas, carved inside mountains, in human-dug (not natural) caves (or shiku), on the Silk Route. The Yung Gang Shiku were created around 400, funded by a Northern emperor. Carvers roped themselves up high, dug a hole, and began with Buddha’s face.

There are hundreds of caves, large and small, filled with Buddha and carved tales of his life. Some Buddhas were destroyed by water, coal dust from nearby mines in Shanxi (a rather poor, mining area with distinctively eroded white cliffs, almost like the Badlands), and vandalism during the Cultural Revolution. Some were colorfully painted about 600 years ago during a restoration.

Some Buddhas were painted outside the caves.

A lot is going on inside these caves.

Preservation is a huge challenge with millions of visitors.

A cave beside Buddha was a good place to meditate.

In all, there are 55,000 Buddhas here.


A few more pictures:



We were told it took about 40,000 people about 60 years to carve. A few weeksago, the Chinese government opened a sprawling complex of Buddhist temples, ponds and pavillions as an entryway. There, the Great Hall Buddhas are molded of plastic.