Hi errrrrbody! This morning I went to 雍和宫, Yonghe Gong, or the Lama Temple. This is a Tibetan monastery in the middle of Beijing, and this post is probably going to be one of those “educational” ones as there was some fun China-fied history floating about the place, and some fun things about what lets you know this monastery is in the government’s pocket (although, to be honest, that has been the purpose of the monastery since it was built 300 years ago, this is no new PRC thing). I also went to the Earth Temple, but that will be another post : ) Also, I will throw out that I did appreciate this temple because you could take photos………………..
Anyways, FIRST! my pictures! The first photo is a photo of Skanda, one of the guys busy protecting the building. The recording that they provided (besides being fairly sillily pronounced English), was a little over the top in its descriptions of most things- Skanda’s serene face means that he is vanquishing desire and that it is possible for anyone to do this and the serenity means he’s not angry while also killing things (desire?) with the nasty little dagger he’s holding blah blah blah blah blah about the same thing for every single statue in the place. Also the recording always said “mediating” instead of meditating, which was cute the first time but then it bugged me. The second picture is mostly pretty- the top of the sculpture is heaven or at least somewhere nice, and then all the turbulent water beneath are the different hells.
Photos three and four are just a few of the buildings from the outside. They’re pretty large and impressive, to say the least (walkways three stories up kind of surprised me). The place was originally built for the Yongzheng Emperor, the 5th emperor of the Qing dynasty (he lived in the 18th century, the Qing dynasty is 16something-1911). After he died, the Qianlong Emperor revamped it and made it into a Tibetan lamasery. Why? Because the Manchus were pretty much the expanding China masters (at least for a hundred years or two), going out and conquering places like Mongolia and Tibet where no Han emperor had really ever dared to try and maintain control over. In the pursuit of this, he set up this temple to a) present as more or less a gift to the Tibetans, so they’d think Qing-dynasty China was a cool place to be a part of, and also to please the Mongolians, who were largely Tibetan Buddhists(ish) at the time, and b) to try to get some control over the religion (and therefore its Tibetan and Mongolian practitioners) by crafting an important ritual center right in the middle of Beijing.
Photos five and six dig into the Tibetan-ness of the place. The fifth is a simple prayer wheel, with Tibetan on it (most inscriptions throughout the temple were written four times, in Chinese (for the Chinese folks), Manchurian (for the folks ruling China), Tibetan, (for the folks who were responsible for the religion being around in the first place) and Mongolian (for the guys the Manchus were trying super hard to be friends with)). Spinning it is a good thing to do. 6 is a statue (and you can tell how big it is because of the monk standing in front of it) of Tsongkapa (I’d give you the Chinese but it’s just a crude transliteration of the Tibetan). He is the founder of the “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the most popular sects and the one responsible for things like the Dalai and Panchen Lamas being important. He travelled all around Tibet in the early 15th century, learning things and making new teachings, and when I go to Qinghai next weekend, on the Tibetan plateau, I’ll be visiting a lamasery where, as the story goes, Tsongkapa’s father buried his afterbirth, after which a great big nice tree grew, and then a while later they built the monastery.
The point that I’m trying to make though is that the Beijing-ness, and the Government-controlledness of the monastery comes out a little here. First, all of the tour guides were not monks. Closer to Tibet, where the government cannot so readily provide the government-trained tour guides, and where the lamaseries don’t bring in enough money to really pay extra people for this, the monks run the tours and most of the related stuff like that. Even though none/few of the monks I saw here were Tibetan, they still weren’t the ones allowed to present the story of the lamasery. Second, in the room with the big Tsongkapa statue, there were two places set up for the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, which traditionally feature photos (although other lamaseries tend to be COVERED in Dalai and Panchen Lama photos, including past Dalai Lamas). The place for the Dalai Lama’s photo was, conveniently enough, empty, and the Panchen Lama’s had the photo of the fake Panchen Lama that the Chinese government chose. Kind of a pretty clear signal as to what the party thinks about the whole affair, even if they keep this temple nice and pretty.
I will not talk forever! Promises! The next two photos are of a 50 ft + tall Buddha. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of monstersized Buddha statues (no but seriously. Like four. maybe five.), BUT THIS IS THE FIRST ONE I COULD TAKE A PHOT OF! So I’m excited. He’s big, as you can tell. It is the Maitreya Buddha, or the future Buddha. Buddhism works in cycles - a Buddha shows up, brings enlightenment and the way to end suffering, but as time goes on people forget/things get muddled/there’s more desire and pain and less enlightenment until! a new Buddha shows up. This guy is next on the list. (just in case you get a trivia question, the one before Sakyamuni/Siddharta Gautama/the historical Buddha who showed up in 600 b.c., is the Dipankara Buddha).
LAST PHOTO/PARAGRAPH. This is the mountain of 500 Arhats. It is cut out of some kind of wood or another, and it’s this big sculpture/mural of a mountain. Featured inside are some 500 figures, Arhats, who are essentially really awesome Buddhists that have made it to that step you get to before Nirvana. It’s pretty, and intricate.
STAY TUNED FOR THE EARTH TEMPLE!