The Dafo ("Big Buddha") Temple of Xinchang (the geographical qualifier is necessary, since there are five such Big Buddha temples spread about China) was built during the early years of the first period of rule – the Yonghe (CE 345–357) period – of Emperor Mu Di of the Eastern Jin (CE 317–420) Dynasty. The Big Buddha Statue itself is located in a grotto, and is carved of a massive slab of granite which, thankfully, is less subject to time-induced degradation than other stone types such as sandstone.
The Big Buddha of Xinchang belongs to the "Smiling Buddha" type of buddha figure, a variant of the Budai (also sometimes referred to as Milefo) figure whose other variant is the "Laughing Buddha". Both are based on a real-life Zen (Chan, in Chinese) Buddhist monk who lived during the time of the Liang (CE 502-556) Dynasty (one of the Southern (CE 420-588) Dynasties of the Southern and Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period) and who had an unforgettably affable disposition.
This buddha figure is sometimes taken to symbolize the Maitreya Buddha, who is prophesied as the "Second Coming" buddha, as it were, whose teachings will succeed the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The smile of the "Smiling" Maitreya Buddha, however, is more enigmatic than affable. It is this enigmatic quality that the Big Buddha of Xinchang captures, and which is one of the reasons why this buddha figure is considered second only among Chinese buddha figures to the Dafo of Leshan, in Sichuan Province. The Big Buddha of Xinchang is of course also exquisitely carved, and its setting, i.e., the architecture that frames it in the grotto where it is housed, complements the sublime beauty of the buddha figure.
The Big Buddha of Xinchang sits in a grotto inside Xianji Rock of Shicheng Hill. In front of the entrance to the grotto stands the temple's Hall of Sakyamuni (Sakyamuni being the Indian monk who introduced the world to Buddhism, i.e., to the struggle towards enlightenment). As one enters the hall, the pungent smell of incense and the sight of its curling trails of smoke greet one's senses, while from outside the sound of a gurlging stream can be heard. The visitor should linger in this anteroom for as long as is necessary in order to shake off the impressions of the "worldly" world that one has just stepped out of, as a preparation for the encounter with the buddha figure in the grotto beyond. Yet, no amount of mental exercise – or the emptying of one's mind – can prepare the visitor for the sight that one encounters when one stands face to face with the 15-meter-high (sitting!) Maitreya Buddha of Xinchang, so awe-inspiring is its size, so mystifying is its enigmatic smile, so all-knowing, yet non-judgmental, is its gaze.