Leshan Giant Buddha

Written by ivana Updated Jan. 27, 2022

The Leshan Giant Buddha, with its height of 71m, is the largest Buddha figure in the world (by contrast, the largest of the two Bamiyan Buddhas was only 53m in height, and these were standing Buddhas). The Great Buddha's head alone has a height of 14.7m, with 1021 nubs depicting hair, the ear is 6.72m long (high), the eye socket 3.3m wide, and the nose 5.33m long (high). Other key dimensions include the shoulders at 24m wide, the index finger at 8.3m long, and the lap, which can seat a hundred people, at 9m wide and 11m long.

In the back of the figure's head (the backside of the figure is of course attached to/ is part of the mountain) is a cleverly devised set of crisscrossing drain channels such that no water can accumulate here and weaken the mountain's "hold" on the figure, though some water damage to the Great Buddha has occurred, namely on its paunch/ lap area (and pollution has blackened its nose, though this can no doubt be safely removed). The fact that the Great Buddha remains in excellent overall condition after more than a thousand years can to a large extent be attributed to the ingeniousness of its drainage system.

Historical Background of the Great Buddha

In the first year of the first reign (the Kaiyuan, or "Initiating the First", reign) of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907)(his second reign was entitled the Tianbao, meaning "green waves"), namely, in the year 713, a monk of the Lingyun Temple, a certain Shi Haitong, believing that the turbulence of the waterway which forms the confluence of the Dadu, Min, and Qingyi Rivers near Leshan – which turbulent waters posed a danger to shipping vessels passing through them, and therefore posed a threat to the livelihoods of the local people – could be quieted if the people chiseled out a likeness of Buddha on the cliff-side of Lingyun Mountain facing this turbulent waterway.

Though the construction of Dafo (the Giant Buddha) was started in 713, it would first be completed ninety years later (when funding for the project was threatened – it turned out to be an enormous expenditure even for the time – Shi Haitong is said to have gouged out his eyes to show his piety and sincerity for the project). It would appear that the appeasement of Buddha in this fashion had the desired effect, for the turbulence of the waterway was indeed calmed, though the direct agent of this may have been the massive amount of chipped stone waste that had fallen into the waterway during the sculpting of the Buddha.

Dafo is in the image of a Maitreya Buddha, i.e., a unique "messianic" future Buddha who will indeed achieve complete enlightenment, then appear again on earth to teach the pure dharma that will supersede the incomplete teachings of the lesser Gautama Buddha. By tradition, the Maitreya is depicted as a "stout" monk, usually in a sitting position and with bare breasts and visible paunch (a symbol of affluence?). In addition to its stately pose, aided by the figure's symmetrical proportions, Dafo conceals a well-thought-out drainage system.

The Nine Turns and Lingyun Paths

To take in the sheer enormity of the sculpture, one can observe it at close quarters as one descends the "staircase" that zig-zags along the right wall – i.e., on the sculpture's right-hand side – of the cube that was cut into the mountain in order to create a throne, as it were, for the Great Buddha. This 250-step wooden-plank pathway (in all, nine "zigs" and "zags", hence the name "Nine Turns Path") was originally carved into the mountain in ancient times but has been improved through time such that today it is a wooden-plank staircase, yet it retains a link to its primitive origins. The descent down the "Nine Turns Path" is decidedly not for the faint of heart, but the reward is an impressive close-up view of one of the marvels of the world of Buddhism.

There is a less daunting staircase cut into the opposite wall, i.e., on the Great Buddha's left-hand side. Its origins are more modern, as are its method of construction and materials: deep excavations into the face of the wall, reinforced by steel bars. Yet it offers the visitor unhurried moments of observation and tranquility.

Once at the foot of the sculpture the visitor can look upwards at the enormous figure like a commoner might have looked up in awe at a king sitting on his throne, remembering that this figure belongs to China's feudal past. Lastly, the visitor can get a panoramic view of the Giant Buddha and its surroundings by taking a trip on one of the ferry-boats expressly commissioned for this purpose.

Leshan Great Buddha is a cultural treasure not only to the people of China but also to the world at large (as part of the Mount Emei Scenic Area it is as well a World Cultural Heritage Site).

The Gigantic Sleeping Buddha

Another of the area's Buddhas, though "made" only in the eye of the beholder, is the gigantic "Sleeping Buddha" that is formed by the outline of several mountains, some adorned with man-made structures, including as well Leshan Giant Buddha, that enhances the illusion of a Buddha lying on its back. The "head" of this imaginary Buddha is Wulong Mountain with its many man-made towers, pavilions, halls, and temples with their colorful tiled walls, as well as the contribution of nature's own rock formations, trees, and towering bamboo plants, which, together, uncannily suggest the image of a head of wavy hair with the broad forehead, straight nose and slightly parted lips of a solemn yet kindly, quintessentially Chinese Buddha.

The "body" of the imaginary Buddha is represented by the nine peaks of Lingyun Mountain, suggesting swelling breasts, a well-formed round waist above which curves the slightly distended paunch of the typical Chinese Buddha, and finally, a set of sturdy legs.

To round out the impression of a sleeping Buddha, the figure's "feet" seem to rest against an upturned baseboard – as if the imaginary Buddha were indeed lying in a bed – which parts are formed by the contours of Guicheng Mountain. But the crowning perfection of this partly man-made and partly nature-made imaginary Buddha is that at its heart – i.e., at roughly the spot where one would expect its heart to be – sits Leshan Giant Buddha itself. The relaxed, yet composed posture of this sleeping giant – it spans more than 4000m in length – is so realistic that it is as if nature herself had deliberately chosen to honor the Buddha.

Wuyou Temple

Built on top of Wuyou Mountain in CE 742, circa, at the height of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, originally as a peaceful monastery that would undergo further renovation and enlargement during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, Wuyou Temple's original name was Zhengjue Temple. The name was changed to its present form during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty. Wuyou is a Zen Buddhist (Soto Zen) temple, which perhaps explains the very pleasing layout of the temple's various buildings, where high and low structures blend in serenely and harmoniously with the alternatingly high and low features of the surrounding terrain with its stony outcroppings and wooded areas.

On either side of the mountain gate leading to Wuyou Temple is a plaque containing a couplet, one based on a verse from a poem by the famous Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Du Fu and the other based on a verse from a poem by the almost-as-famous Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty Chinese multi-artist, Su Shi.

Wuyou Temple houses seven palaces such as Tianwang Palace, Mitsuo Palace, Daxiong Palace, Guanyin Palace, and Luohan Palace, which palaces also include Tianwang Hall, Amitabha Buddha Hall, Buddha Miatreya Hall, Guanyin Hall, Great Hero Hall, and Arhat Hall. The three famous Buddhist statues of Neishi, Wenshu, and Puxian, carved from camphor wood, then gold-plated, can be seen in the Great Hero Hall. The statues are larger than life, being about 3m high. They were temporarily removed to the city of Hangzhou in 1930 when the Great Hero Hall was being renovated.

Wuyou Temple's Arhat Hall has five hundred arhats (an arhat is a figure depicting an arahant, or one who has attained the ultimate goal of enlightenment, or nirvana, by following in the footsteps of the first such arahant, the Buddha himself, who rediscovered the path to enlightenment and taught it to his followers), which were remolded after the Cultural Revolution. They all have a height of about 1.3m but vary in form and in spirit. In the corners of the rooms of Wuyou Temple, one will find calligraphic inscriptions by famous Chinese celebrities, including names from the past. The most famous of these inscriptions are written by Zhao Xi, a famous calligrapher from modern times. The "Chuanruo Heart Channel" on the monument embedded in the wall of the Bell Drum Pavilion is perfect both in calligraphy and in the inscription, itself the pinnacle of calligraphy.

Lingyun Temple

Lingyun Temple is famous throughout Sichuan, and, indeed, throughout the world. It was originally named Bao'en Temple but was also referred to as the Great Buddha Temple because of the Leshan Great Buddha figure that is carved into Lingyun Mountain. Legend has it that the temple was built during the Tianbao ("Green Waves") period of the Tang Dynasty, which is earlier than the construction of the Great Buddha itself. On both sides of the entrance gate to the temple are four memorial monuments that record the temple's different periods of renovation during past dynasties. The principal building is composed of the Tianwang, or Heavenly King, Hall ("Tianwang" is a common name for palaces and halls), the Precious Hall of the Great Hero, and the Scripture Collection Hall, which neatly form a multi-tiered courtyard house. In the Precious Hall of the Great Hero are three statues of Buddha in the image of three bodily forms, namely those of Dharma Body, Reward Body, and Accommodative Body.

Since the concept of transmigration of the soul, or spirit, is central to Buddhist thought, the three statues are also called the three lives of a Buddha: the Previous Life, This Life, and the Next Life. The abbot room on the left of the hall has been transformed into the Nanlou Hotel. Tourists who stay at the Nanlou Hotel have the opportunity to appreciate at close quarters the magnificent landscapes from the hotel's windows. Surrounding Tianwang Hall is a small wood with towering camphor trees. In midsummer, the impressionistic green hues of the camphor trees are a delight to study.

Lingbao Pagoda

Lingbao Ta, or the Pagoda of the Souls, is built on one of Lingyun Mountain's nine peaks, Lingbao Peak. According to historical records, Lingbao Pagoda was built during the Song Dynasty and is quite similar in form and style to Xiaoyan Pagoda in the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, which dates from the earlier Tang Dynasty. Lingbao Pagoda is a hollow, four-sided, thirteen-story brick structure of 38m height with thick eaves that predate the upturned eaves era of Chinese architecture.

Inside, the pagoda consists of only five stories. Tourists are of course allowed inside and may climb the staircase to the fifth floor, a climb of ninety-five steps on red sandstone slabs. On each floor are niches housing statues of Buddha. The ascent up the pagoda offers some unique landscape views of the area, as the windows are left open, partly in order to provide lighting and partly to permit the visitor a panoramic view of the surrounding mountain peaks and meandering rivers.

Mahao Cliffside Tomb

The Mahao Cliffside Tomb is located above the east bank of the spillway (Yihong River) between Lingyun and Wuyou Mountains, near the village of Mahao. The tomb's coffin chambers were constructed by chiseling caves into the cliffside. The Leshan Han Cliffside Tomb Museum incorporates the Mahao Cliffside Tomb, supplementing it with North and South Exhibition Halls that display cultural relics excavated from the Leshan Han Cliffside Tomb, and thus reveals the general situation of cliffside tombs in the Leshan area during the Han Chinese period.

On both sides of the Mahao Cliffside Tomb gate are carved figures depicting "Triumphant Wind" (Kaifeng), "Welcoming with Solemnity", and "Bidding Farewell", while on both the side and back walls of the front room are carved figures depicting "Jing Ke Stabbing Emperor Qin", "Zhu Que (Red Bird)", "Banquet Conviviality", "Dobbin", "Statue of Buddha", "Head of Beast", "Fishing", "Gate Soldier" and "Pulling Cart". Above these, there are forty-eight ancient eave tiles with varied decorations and ornamental patterns.

Showrooms at the entrance to the tomb gate display cultural relics, one room concentrating on the general situation of the Leshan Han Cliffside Tomb and the other demonstrating how everyday life was lived during this period of Han Chinese cultural influence.

The showrooms exhibit essential stone, bronze, and iron implements of the period as well as pottery and other artistic works, including carved stones, figures, and inscriptions that were excavated from the Leshan Han Cliffside Tomb, and which therefore reflect various aspects of the lives of the people of the area during the Han Chinese cultural period, aspects such as the economic and cultural conditions they lived under as well as the artistic, architectural and ideological ideas they aspired to.

Wuyou Mountain

Wuyou Mountain is located to the east of Leshan City near the confluence of the Dadu, Min, and Qingyi Rivers. The three mountains – Lingyun, Wuyou, and Ma'an – stand in close proximity one to another besides the river and are called by the joint name of Qingyi Mountain. Lingyun Mountain stands erect on the right while Ma'an Mountain stands on the left. Wuyou Mountain, which is also referred to as Middle Qingyi Peak, lies between them.

It is said that in remote antiquity, Qingyi God grew mulberries and reared silkworms. In appreciation of Qingyi God's kindness in teaching the people the art of sericulture (i.e., the raising of silkworks, which requires mulberry leaves), the people offered a sacrifice to the Qingyi God on the mountain. In more recent times, Ban Gu, during the Han Dynasty, believed that the stone "room" at the foot of the mountain, dubbed by local people as the "Pure Girl Room", was the abode of the Qingyi God. The couplet at the gatepost to Wuyou Temple, therefore, reads 'tide finds its way to "Pure Girl Room" through sea cave', which means that the temple is communicable with Dongting and Baoshan. Wuyou Mountain is also called "Lidui", after Li Bing, the magistrate of Shu (a state at the time in what is present-day Sichuan Province) and an accomplished engineer who is credited with having developed the Dujiangyan Irrigation System along the Yangtze River in present-day Sichuan Province.

Ancient Cliffside Inscriptions of Lingyun Mountain

Lingyun Mountain, also called Jiufeng Shan (meaning "Nine Peaks Mountain") has been a tourist resort since antiquity. It is said that 'people may make a pilgrimage to Emei Shan above and to Jiufeng Shan below'. A large number of poems and cliffside inscriptions are preserved here. Under the grey pines and exotic cypresses of Jiufeng Shan, and between its ancient Buddhist temples and newer pavilions, abound infinitely interesting works of calligraphic inscription everywhere.

The four large characters, or inscriptions, of "Lingyun Voluntary Ferry" inside the Great Buddha Scenic Area record the history of the voluntary nature of this ancient ferry service of former times. Nearby the large inscriptions are smaller ones that give a clear indication that this service was indeed "free of charge". We see in this the altruism and sense of social solidarity shared by Chinese people of ancient times, which example of selflessness continues to evoke the respect of Chinese people today. The dragon character above the "dragon pool" is about 3m long and is rendered in a continuous brush movement, which has earned it the moniker "dragon at one stroke". In addition, alongside the Lingyun Plank Path are a dozen or so calligraphic inscriptions made by modern contributors against the red sandstone background of Lingyun Mountain. These inscriptions exude a grace and beauty that the only calligraphy can produce.

Anyone familiar with Christianity is tempted to draw a parallel between the Maitreya-Gautama Buddha relationship and the relationship between Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, or perhaps the relationship between the returning, triumphant Christ of the future and the Church would be the more appropriate parallel.

Du Fu (alternatively, Tu Fu, CE 712–770) is considered as one of China's greatest poets, if not the country's greatest. Because of his broad range of styles, he has been called a Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo, and Baudelaire, all rolled into one. Su Shi (alternatively, Su Dongpo, CE 1037–1101) was a writer, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman, as well as one of the major poets of the Song Dynasty.

This is surely a folkloric mix-up with – but perhaps not! – the likeness of "Lingbao" of Lingbao Peak/ Lingbao Pagoda of nearby Lingyun Mountain, one of the three mountains that make up Qingyi Mountain, to that of Lingbao, the religious school that synthesized Taoism and Buddhism shortly after Buddhism's introduction into Taoist China in the 6th century CE (Lingbao Peak may well have gotten its name from the religious school).

In Taoism, the labyrinth theme is common, labyrinths typically being present in holy places called "cave heavens", a particularly celebrated example being that of Linwu dong tian, a cave in an island of Lake Taihu, once situated between the kingdoms of Wu and Yue (of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, non-Han Chinese interregnum between the Tang (CE 618-907) and Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasties). The island is called Dong ting ("salt cave"), and the sacred cave is nestled in a hill named Baeshan (alternatively, Baoshan), which can be interpreted as "mountain of the sorcerer", or "mountain of the sorceress".

The cave is related to a legend about some famous talismen that involves Yu the Great, to whom was revealed information concerning the "five talismen of the Lingbao" by a "holy man", and which talismen enabled Yu to conquer the great flood (note that flooding, or turbulent waters in general, was a common problem necessitating "divine intervention"). Having used the talismen, Yu was required to hide them in a sacred mountain. Yu, therefore, hid the talismen in the cave of Baeshan. Later, King Helu of Wu, a contemporary of Confucius, ordered a hermit to enter the cave to learn more about it. Since the cave turned out to be a real labyrinth, the hermit traversed thousands of li (1 li = ½ km, though the distance has not been consistent through time) before he finally found a city from which a lunar light emerged, and there he found the sacred writings (the talismen) and brought them back to King Helu.

Ticket Price: RMB 80

Location: No.2435 Lingyun Street, Shizhong District, Leshan 614000, China

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