Before I go home for a week’s vacation, my boss offered to drop me off for a day trip to see the Leshan Buddha. This particular Buddha is the world’s largest (carved of stone), a great carving straight into the side of a mountain. He sits at over 200 feet tall.
Note: I find the modifiers on Buddha statues a little ridiculous. When I was in Hong Kong I saw the Big Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery, touted as the largest bronze sitting Buddha. I checked the Wikipedia page, and now it’s the “largest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2000.” That many modifiers really kills the power of the title, don’t you think? I mean, where’s the largest indoor bronze seated Buddha, or the largest after 2000? Or the largest outdoor bronze frisbee-playing Buddha? I bet Buddha would have loved Frisbee.
We left early. I had a rather rough digestive night (I blame it on the ice in my milk tea), so I was sipping hot tea and nibbling crackers most of the morning. I was not in a mood to climb, and yet that is exactly what the day called for. I fortified myself mentally during the two hour drive. I was also not prepared for the steep cost of the tickets – it was 170rmb to see the Buddha and the “Scenic Area” attached. I didn’t have that sort of cash, and had my student guide ask for the nearest ATM.
TRAVELER’S NOTICE: There are no ATMs at Leshan, and that includes the shopping street across from the site. The nearest ATM is at the tourist village, two bus stops north of the site.
Though I started in a sour mood, the scenic area was well worth the admission. Not historically accurate, The Oriental Buddha Park is a collection of Buddhas from all over China, most carved into the mountain. It’s a history and an art lesson all at once. I was enchanted – it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Not that I haven’t done it before, but you have to work at it. And I love stonework. I love how time affects stonework, and the effort that must go into creating carvings in a mountain. I love the grace from hardness.
The humidity was rising as we reached the flat top of the area, walking in and out of caves filled with a variety of Buddhas, some carved into the walls, others separate statues. I couldn’t figure out the signs to see the Leshan Giant Buddha, and my “guide” was less than helpful. Another student from Chengdu, this one had never been to Leshan, and didn’t know enough English to answer most my questions with anything other than “I don’t know.” This student also had a supposed medical condition where he needed frequent snacks, but then he did not bring any and did not want to eat anything but hot dogs (there were none to be found). When he finally demurred that he was “maybe a little dizzy” I forced him to buy some mini cakes. He was mildly put out.
After some more walking and looking at confusing signs for a little bit, we started down this very steep set of switchback stairs. I noticed that we were the only ones going down – everyone else was climbing up.
“Are we going the right way?” I asked at the halfway point, after I thought some of the stares directed at me were more hostile than normal.
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“Would you please ask someone?”
“Uh…ok.” There was a conversation with a climber. “He says we are maybe going the wrong way.”
“Ugh. Fine, let’s go back up.” We start climbing again, my mood slipping back to sour. But at least we caught it early. My guide has another conversation with the same man as we go, stopping. I pause.
“He says we can maybe go down this way.”
“Yeah, maybe…we can go down this way.”
“Well, can we or can’t we?” Uh oh, I’m using unnecessary enunciated English.
“Yeah, I don’t know…maybe.”
“Jesus!” I hiss and start back down, not caring if the student follows. It’s hard enough not knowing for myself where to go, but when my “guide” can’t tell up from down it’s more than infuriating. He was wrong anyway – we were going the wrong way. I realized it when we emerged at the foot of the Leshan Buddha and I saw that there was a huge, controlled line descending on the other side of the cliff face. That’s where we needed to go.
Like I said, it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful space. I should put an addendum on that: it’s easy to fall back into a bad mood at a beautiful space. I had arrived surly, and worked out of it. All it took was the umpteenth utterance of “I don’t know…maybe” to get me right back into surly, accompanied by my stomach saying it was all better and why hadn’t I fed it breakfast?
So I stood there, at the foot of the world’s largest stone Buddha, and furiously tried to not be in a bad mood. I wanted to be happy, but I was not. It was awful. When would I ever get back to this site? When would I ever be able to look out over the rivers at the foot of this ancient monument and reflect? Then I got sad that I was angry – a wonderful combination.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” I ask the student, more out of obligation than desire to be nice (if I’m being honest).
“Yes. Of course, sure!” He says. I do so – the Buddha is so big that to fit it all in you have to cut out most of the human subject’s body, but that’s fine. It’s a cool photo.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” The student asks, probably with the same amount of duty. I haven’t been a peach this trip either I know.
“Thanks,” I say, trying to mend the fence I kicked. I stand close to the foot of the Buddha, plastering a smile on my face. The student nervously laughs, moving between a stand and a squat.
“Maybe I can’t get all of you in the photo. You’re… so short and it’s too big, maybe.” He shrugs, with a second nervous laugh. I have clearly frightened him with my earlier snap. I take my camera back with a testy “That’s fine. I’ll just take one of myself.” I remind myself to breathe.
I look at the Buddha some more. There are plastic bottles of oil at his giant feet. I stare up at his serene expression, eyes half closed. He was built to calm the waters of the river. He was built because a monk thought that putting a Buddha by a river with a strong, dangerous current would fix the river. And according to some versions of the story, he was right. All the discarded rock which got thrown in the water altered the river’s flow. Buddha works in mysterious ways.
And then I could not keep my anger up. It’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. You can do it, but it takes work. It’s easy to fall back into a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Then you have to make a choice as to whether to work out of it or not. I decide that being angry won’t solve anything. I’m not in a good mood all of a sudden, but I’m reconciling.
At the top of the switchback stairs (which I climbed in the correct direction), we walk past the top of Buddha’s head. I look out across the river. The large city has exploded there – I can see several dirty white high rises just off the banks of the far shore. Construction cranes are visible. A slightly brownish haze hangs in the air over the city. What this Buddha has seen, I thought, looking at the modern world before him. When he was built there was nothing but villages and trees and the river. The items are sort of the same, but there are fewer trees, and the city is massive and the sky is hazy. How much those relaxed eyes must have seen. Much more than I could ever hope to see. I can see some of the clever irrigation, which has prevented the Buddha from eroding over the centuries.
I stop to drink some water. A family smiles at me, a little girl with big eyes among them. They start talking to her, giving her slight shoves. I hear them whispering, and one of the words is “hello.” I smile at the little girl.
“Hello.” I say. The family beams, the little girl looks so very shy. “Hello,” I smile.
“Hello.” She says, finally. The father claps his hands and says something else. “My…name…is…Jenny.” She mumbles her name.
“Your name is Jenny?”
“Hello, Jenny. My name is Jean.” She doesn’t look at me as her mother and father start peppering her with more things to say. I feel bad for her a little, but she dutifully speaks again.
“What are you do in China?” She take her time, each word broken by a rather long pause. I rest my head on my walking stick so that I’m eye level with her. I pretend that I don’t see the Mom circling with the camera.
“Wŏ shì lăoshī – I am a teacher.”
“Oh,” Jenny says, looking at me like I would look at a living dinosaur.
“Nĭ shì xuésheng ma – Are you a student?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“You speak English very nicely.” I say. Jenny blushes. Feeling the pressure of being seen too much, I conclude with “I am going to go walking now. I am happy to have met you, Jenny. Goodbye!”
“Goodbye!” calls the whole family as I leave.
It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.