Many centuries ago, in 713 AD, a Chinese monk named Haitong decided to carve a giant Buddha into the red sandstone cliff above the treacherous confluence of three rivers in Sichuan Province. He thought the Buddha’s visage would safeguard the boats that had to navigate those waters—and the large volume of rubble that would fall into the river might tame them. Haitong moved into a cave on site and spent the next 30 years working on a 233-foot-tall seated Buddha, eventually with the help of many other people.
Haitong is said to have been so totally committed to his project that he gouged out one of his own eyes to prove his sincerity when the project’s funding was threatened. The Buddha was not completed until after his death, and it has been badly damaged and restored a number of times, but today Dafo (Giant Buddha) is a major tourist attraction cared for by the Chinese government.
The Giant Buddha resides a short distance outside the city of Leshan, a city that is small by Chinese standards, although it has a population of more than a million people. Leshan, in turn, is a two-hour bus trip from Chengdu over a modern, multi-lane toll road.
Some people take tour boats to visit the Giant Buddha, but Martin and I queued up with hundreds of other mostly Chinese tourists, and after viewing and photographing his head, we descended a long, narrow, staircase cut into the red rock to view and photograph his toes. We detoured to eat lunch in a fishing/tourist village a short distance upstream and then climbed back up again, passing through rock chambers and up more rock stairs.
Buddha buddies and senior discounts
Although he is the most famous, the Giant Buddha has many nearby Buddha buddies, including a 558-foot-long “sleeping” Buddha, also carved into the red sandstone, who’s part of the Oriental Buddhist Theme Park. There are many smaller Buddhas carved into theme park rock, and some freestanding Buddha statues as well. One very large statue sat in a shrine atop a long flight of stairs. Corroded brass padlocks, all of the same design, hung from the cable railing to either side of this flight of stairs. And at the top, in front of the statue, you could buy a shiny new padlock, to be hung on cables in front of the altar. A sign read, in English: “Peace Padlocks: Become attached to the Buddha.”
There was much to admire in the Oriental Buddhist Theme Park, including an alcove cut into the rock with a taiji diagram (yin-yang circle) on its floor and Daoist tablets on its walls (my personal favorite); and a temple with a massive carved wooden sculpture of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion (Martin’s personal favorite).
As well, I learned that The Senior Discount has come to China.
I’ve forgotten whether it was when we bought tickets to the Giant Buddha or to the Oriental Buddhist Theme Park—but one of those times we were given a senior discount without knowing it existed. I don’t know that Martin was particularly happy about this, since he’s younger than I am, but I’ll take any senior discount anyone wants to give me. At 70, I always qualify.
I don’t know whether Leshan considers itself a Buddhist city, but it definitely considers itself a Giant Buddha tourism city. Leaving town, our bus circled a roundabout within which were perhaps a dozen concrete poles 2 or 3 feet in diameter. Cut into each pole were many niches, and within each niche was a small Buddha, similar to the many small Buddhas carved into the red rock surrounding the Giant Buddha.
It was past 8 o’clock and quite dark when our bus arrived in Chengdu. We got off the bus and Martin looked around and announced that he had no idea where we were. Martin hadn’t known that buses from Leshan went to more than one of Chengdu’s bus stations, and when he’d asked for two tickets to Chengdu at the Leshan station, the clerk hadn’t bothered to ask which station he wanted—and so we were now out near the Chengdu airport.
Because he speaks Chinese, Martin was able to sort it all out and find a bus to take us to his neighborhood. But I was enormously glad that I wasn’t alone there in the dark, trying to find a way to get home with my tiny vocabulary of poorly pronounced Chinese words.