Standing at the bottom of her feet, looking up

Today, I finally – finally! – had the opportunity to stand at the bottom of the 73 meter high statue of Guanyin and look up at her face. I have been hoping to do this for a very long time now (read this blog post and this one), and today was the day. Together with two employees of the Buddhist organization I visit regularly we drove over to the construction site – and were granted access to it! The hour after that, we were guided around the premises by one of the executive managers of the newly build monastery: a very intelligent, realistic, and visionary man.
Seeing the site and looking up the huge statue left an even deeper impression on me than I could have foreseen beforehand, and it raised some interesting questions (questions that so far remain unanswered).

[To give you an idea of the size of the Guanyin statue: the pearl she is holding in her hand is about the same height as me.]

An impressive site
The site – consisting of a large monastery (two large halls, offices, and dormitories) and the 73 meter high statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin – is situated in the New Territories, in the northwest part of Hong Kong, near the border with mainland China. It is being build on a hillside, overlooking Pover Clove. From a feng shui point of view it is the best site you could ever imagine: The hill behind the monastery gives it protection, whereas the sea in front of the site is enclosed by mountains, which means the sea can contain all its good qualities and always be in a tranquil state. The statue of Guanyin is facing south; if there hadn’t been a mountain in the way, Guanyin and the Big Buddha on Lantau Island could see see each other, and perhaps smile to each other. Guanyin is holding the pearl of Wisdom, and is pooring the nectar of Compassion – two aspects that are missing in contemporary Hong Kong society, according to our guide.

The wood used for the building of the site comes from Africa – strong tropical teak. The stones that decorate the halls on the outside are shipped in from Norway. Even though the designs of all the statues (including the Guanyn statue) are made by a local Hong Kong Buddhist artist (the same artist that designed the Big Buddha), the statues are actually made in mainland China. The huge statue of Guanyin is also made in the mainland (by rocket scientists, belief it or not), and shipped to Hong Kong in hundreds of small pieces. The paint that was used to make the statue white (originally the statue is made of bronze) was manufactured  in Germany. All the large trees – some of them more than a hundred years old – come from the mainland. All in all, the project of building the site and the large statue must have costed millions of dollars.

Is it necessary to build such an expensive new monastery, that at this moment only houses fifteen monks, and that has already been so damaging from an environmentalist point of view? Apparantly so. Hong Kong already has big, beautiful monasteries – but this one is different. It is not like the touristic Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, where tourists speak very loudly inside the temple walls, wear undecent clothes, and complain about the food in the cafeteria being vegetarian. And it also not like Chi Lin Nunnery, where the gardens are artificially made (though very beautiful!) and the program mainly consists of Dharma talks.
This temple on the other hand is not open for tourists, only for people who want to study and practice Buddhism. It will offer Dharma lectures in the large theater hall (that can house 300 people), meditation sessions and trainings in the meditation hall, caligraphy courses in or around the main hall, specially designed bird watching tours around the premises, and open air concerts. It offers a holistic approach to mindfully studying and practicing Buddhism, in and around a temple that was build according to the architectural ideas of the Tang Dynasty. It is something new, and something needed in contemporary Hong Kong society – at least according to the man that guided us around.

“No support from our weak government”
So apparently there is a need for a new monastery in Hong Kong – a natural, tranquil place where busy people can come to relax, to explore their personal Buddha nature, and to practice. How lucky then that there was a donor so benevolent that he offered his money for the building of this site – a site that is not only impressive because of its beauty and tranquility, but also because of its size. Because in Hong Kong, a region with not a lot of space left, size does matter. And in Hong Kong, if you want to build something this big on a piece of land that is this valuable (considering the government might one day want to build a lot of residential areas here) you need some good donors.

At the end of our tour over the premises, we were standing in the soon to be vegetarian canteen. As usual, the conversation drifted off to the Hong Kong government and the possible support of the government. “Our government is weak”, was the conclusion of the conversation. “They have offered us no help. They don’t even let us have our own shuttle buses to make people come to this site more easily. They are not strong enough to make right decisions, and so they are very conservative. However, Hong Kong needs a place like this, and hopefully the government will one day see how lucky they are that there was such a great donor.” Later on, our tour guide tells us that “before 1997, the [British colonial] government very much priviledged Christianity in Hong Kong. Look at all the big churches that are build on prime locations! I had hoped that after 1997, the government would begin to favor Buddhism. But it doesn’t, it doesn’t favor any religion anymore”.

The government of Hong Kong is now, after 1997, neutral to all religions. It will not give priviledges to one religion over the other anymore, like it did before 1997. The downside of this policy however is that the government nowadays doesn’t support any religious organization at all anymore, out of fear of being accused of favoring one over the other (NB: with regards to social services provided by religious organizations the government takes a slightly different stance; I’ll talk about this in a later blog).

Turning point
While riding back home after the tour on the construction site, one question kept bothering me: What is the turning point between ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’? When does something ‘immanent’ become ‘transcendent’? Is the monastery already a ‘holy place’, a place where one can get into contact with the Buddha nature, or is it still ‘just’ a building being constructed? Is the statue of Guanyin already a religious statue, or just a thing made of bronze painted white? Are the statues of the three Buddhas in the main hall already the manifestations of the Buddha, even though they are still covered in plastic to protect them from the dust?

From a ‘business’ point of view, these questions can be simply answered: The profane becomes sacred through ceremonies and rituals. The land on which the monastery is build has been consecrated; the statues that are already there have been blesses by monks – therefore everything I saw today can already partly be identified as ‘religious’ (not yet totally though; the completion of the ceremonies is yet to come).

But I was left wondering how different individual people would answer this question. When I looked at the big Guanyin statue, I felt her sacredness, her compassion, her mercy – for me she was already the bodhisattva. But what about for the workerman who was entering the the inside of the statue to do some maintenance work there? On the other hand, when I walked around the monastery, I saw a beautiful and impressive building, but nonetheless just a building. How would this be for the fifteen monks that already live at the site and chant the sutra twice a day, thereby sending their blessings out into the world?

Where lies the turning point between ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’? Does such a turning point even exist? Or is it all just subjective (like almost anything else in anthropology)?

See how big it is!

See how big it is!

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