A Tourist without a Fanny Pack Part I: The Big Buddha

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I’m not the kind of person who goes to a religious site and has a spiritual awakening.  I take a very clinical approach to spirituality, which is to say that I don’t believe it exists.  What I do believe is that people like to attribute feelings that they have to some supernatural force because it’s less scary than coming to terms with being an accident of nature, billions of years in the making, without purpose, all alone in the universe, and destined to die.

On a lighter note, I did, however, learn some things in my trip to the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island to see the Tian Tan Buddha, colloquially known as “Big Buddha.”  The Buddha statue is quite large, indeed, clocking in at 112 feet in height and weighing 250 metric tons.  Many asterisks in the travel guidebook designate this particular Buddha as the largest sitting, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world.

Even absent some religious epiphany, I did get to brush up on my Buddhist history.  As the legend goes, Gautama Buddha, like some other very famous religious figure who comes to mind, was conceived immaculately and born in transit.  His quest for truth led him to become an extreme ascetic.  However, after starving himself to the point he collapsed into a river and nearly drowned, he reconsidered his path.  He sat beneath the Bodhi tree for 49 days, refusing to arise until he had found enlightenment.  When he emerged from meditation, he preached the “Middle Way,” urging, as the name might suggest, moderation, and the attempt to understand and assuage the human suffering that derived from resistance to change.

A thousand years later in the Western hemisphere, people alternately bought indulgences to secure their spots in heaven despite their gluttonous lifestyles, and walked in Conga lines where they flagellated each other as penance.

It was only after riding on the glass-bottom cable car that coworkers informed me that one had fallen from the cable line several months ago.

It was only after riding on the glass-bottom cable car that coworkers informed me that one had fallen from the cable line several months ago.

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So close, and yet so far...

So close, and yet so far…

This does not mean what you think it means.

I was also surprised and slightly alarmed to see swastikas everywhere. However, before calculating that I should run and hide in the nearest attic, I researched the history of the swastika, first as a Hindu symbol of the sun and the god Vishnu, and then appropriated by Buddhists to symbolize auspiciousness and the heart of Buddha, which probably explains why there was a giant swastika positioned over the Big Buddha’s chest.  In other words, this picture does not mean what you think it means.

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Leaving after sunset

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