Back in Beijing after my trip to the ‘countryside‘ I decided to indulge in some more Buddhist temple action. I’d naively imagined most, if not all, Buddhist temples had been turned into pigsties during the Cultural Revolution, so my visit to the Jietai Si temple was a surprise and made me want to discover more about the relationship between China and Buddhism. It turns out that Buddhism is alive and well, not to mention enjoying a remarkable revival, albeit under the ever watchful, suspicious eye of the Government.
I asked the receptionist in my hotel for a recommendation, she told me to visit Yonghe Gong temple. This, it turned out, was an inspired recommendation, and not only because it was an easy journey on the metro – you can’t get lost, the metro station is also called Yonghe Gong. The name means Tibetan Lama Temple, and in the 18th Century it was home to monks from Tibet and Mongolia. It had been home to the future Emperor Yong Zheng, only becoming a monastery when he moved into the Forbidden City.
Stepping out of the metro station I was confronted by shops selling brightly coloured temple paraphernalia – incense, candles, statues, flags – alongside a lot of tourist tat, including hats and bags decorated with images of Mao. If there was any justice the tourist tat would carry the image of former Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, whose personal intervention is reputed to have saved the temple from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.
As I entered Yonghe Gong I felt personal gratitude towards Zhou Enlai, because this is a truly wonderful place, full of colour, noise and life. I was also glad that following the Civil War the building was closed to the public for 30 years, probably saving it from serious damage. My guidebook said it was touristy – meaning Chinese tourists – but this only added to the experience as people, keen to show their devotion, burned vast bundles of incense and prayed in front of statues of Buddha.
The halls, pagodas and ornamental gardens are home to extraordinary sights. The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses contains an 26m tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood – good enough to get it included in the Guinness Book of Records. Coming across the plaque marking this event is nothing short of bizarre.
A 400 year-old building which survived the Cultural Revolution only because the second most powerful man in China prevented its destruction, has a plaque signed by Norris McWhirter. If this needs more context, the statue was a gift to the Emperor Qianlong from the seventh Dalai Lama, it took three years to have it shipped from Tibet to Beijing. Yet someone thought it was appropriate to call in the Guinness Book of Records because the statue happens to be quite tall. I hope the Emperor liked it when it finally arrived. Really, really liked it.
In the Pavilion of Eternal Happiness are a number of carvings of Buddhas having sex, which were used as educational tools for the sons of Chinese Emperors. Apparently eternal happiness was only for boys. Who knew? Today they are covered by curtains. I suspect an over-zealous government believes it needs to protect the moral fibre of its citizens from such shocking images; although its possible they want to protect the carvings from prying eyes and cameras.
As I wandered around I couldn’t help but marvel at all the activity, and the amount of smoke being produced by the incense burning. It suddenly occurred to me that Beijing’s fabled air pollution might just be incense from this one temple. People were actually disappearing in clouds of smoke billowing out of the incense burner. The smell was overwhelming; to prevent asphyxiation I had to keep moving when the wind blew the cloud toward me.
The Yonghe Gong is a Geluk (Yellow Hat) School of Tibetan Buddhism, and is one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside of Tibet. That said, this one is firmly under the control of the Chinese government who, it must be remembered, control Tibet with an iron fist. You won’t find many pictures of the current Dalai Lama around here. Whether the monks have real religious freedom is disputed, in fact there is debate over whether the monks are truly genuine.
In a country with a long and vicious track record of systematic abuse of minorities and religious groups, it is a dilemma whether to visit a ‘government approved’ religious centre. I’m glad I went though, it was a revealing experience, infused with an infectious fun generated by the worshipers. I doubt your average Tibetan would feel the same way though.