The Precariously Hanging Monastery of Mount Heng

Hengshan, or Mount Heng, which is located in Shanxi province, is one of China’s Five Great Mountains. Pinned to the side of its cliff face is the Xuan Kong Si, also known as the Hanging Monastery.  Despite its precarious position, the monastery has been ‘hanging’ in its original position for more than 1,500 years, a testament to the ingenuity of its builders.

The Hanging Monastery is said to have been built in 491 AD, during the late Northern Wei Dynasty. It is commonly believed that the building of the monastery was initiated by a single individual, a monk by the name of Liao Ran. In time, however, Liao Ran received help from Taoist builders, who were drawn to the site due to its peaceful and serene atmosphere. The site was perfect for those engaged in meditation, as noises from the ground did not reach such lofty heights. In addition, its height ensured that the monastery was safe from floods. The Hanging Monastery is also protected from rain, snow and sun as it is sheltered by the mountain’s peak. This is one of the reasons for the monastery’s continual existence over the centuries.


In order to provide support for the monastery, holes were first drilled into the side of the cliff. Wooden pillars were then half inserted into the rock as the foundation. The monastery was then built on top of these pillars, with additional support from the rock at the back of the building. Some have claimed that the wooden pillars were not present when the monastery was being built, and that the building would be able to support itself should the pillars be taken away. The pillars, it is further claimed, were added later on, as visitors did not dare climb up to the monastery for fear that it would fall. It was subsequently enlarged over the centuries, and was also restored in 1900 during the Qing Dynasty.

Apart from being an architectural marvel, the Hanging Monastery is also a unique structure from a religious point of view. The monastery is dedicated to three religious systems – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, all of which co-exist harmoniously in the building. In the San Jiao Hall, for instance, the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined together with that of Lao Zi and Confucius. These are the founders of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism respectively, their existence side-by-side showing the harmony between the three systems in this sacred space.

Chinese Officials Accuse Dalai Lama Of “Betrayal” Over His Refusal To Reincarnate

The Dalai Lama’s latest remarks have infuriated the Communist Chinese officials to no end.

During a recent interview with the BBC, the Tibetan spiritual leader suggested that he might be the last to hold the esteemed title and may not have a successor.

“There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama,” he said.

These statements from the exiled leader raised the hackles of top Chinese officials, who insist that the decision making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama resides only in the central government.

“The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has to be endorsed by the central government, not by any other sides including the Dalai Lama himself,” said Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of China.

He further added that the Dalai Lama has taken a very disrespectful attitude toward the reincarnation, citing the monk’s earlier claims that his reincarnation could be “a female, a foreigner or even a bee.”

“Religiously speaking, he has betrayed Tibetan Buddhism and the succession system of the Dalai Lama, which requires strict religious rituals,” Zhu claimed.

The Dalai Lama currently resides in India, where he fled to exile after an alleged failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Since then, China terms the Nobel Peace Prize laureate a violent separatist while the Buddhist monk denies supporting the violence In Tibet, claiming that he only wants genuine autonomy for the people.

China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing discussed the issue at its annual parliamentary meeting, where the head of Tibet’s regional congress, Padma Choling, said that the Dalai Lama has to return, just as he has done for generations. As per the Buddhist traditions, each Lama reincarnates into a baby after his body dies.

Even though the Chinese leaders are referencing the traditional Buddhist values with the monk’s statement, this whole thing seems more like a battle for power, since the Dalai Lama is considered the head of the religion.

He was given the title when he was just a boy, but the events of 1959 raised some differences between China and the monk. In 1995, the Dalai Lama chose a boy in Tibet as a Panchen Lama – the second most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism; however, the Chinese officials disregarded the decision and chose another boy for the title, though many Tibetans consider him “fake”.

Since the Dalai Lama has expressed that the title could end with his death, signaling the Tibetans that next Lama could just be a facade if chosen by the government without his consent, which can cause future problems for the Communist Party.

The Lotus Building, A Massive Sculptural Building in China That Evokes 3 Stages of a Blooming Lotus Flower

The Lotus Building is a remarkable public building in China with a striking design inspired by a blooming lotus flower. The building is surrounded by steel “petal ribs” that evoke three stages of a lotus flower, from bud to fully-opened bloom. Inside the structure features cathedral-like ceilings, conference rooms, exhibition halls, and offices. A system of geothermal piles uses the surrounding lake to regulate the building’s temperature with minimal energy use. And a lighting system illuminates the building in multicolored lights at night for a most dramatic effect. The Lotus Building is located in the center of the Wujin District in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu. It was designed by Australian architecture firm studio505 and completed in 2013.

Club Meditation: China’s spiritual tourism boom

The bamboo clock struck at 4:53am, and if anyone managed to sleep through that, there was half an hour of sonorous gong-banging to follow. The first step to enlightenment, it seemed, was coping with awakening of the more literal kind. Having checked off the clichés of Chinese tourism long ago – from the landmarks of communist triumphalism in Beijing to the capitalist exuberances of Shanghai – I had come looking for the country’s spiritual side at the Perfect Enlightenment temple near Jiashan, an hour’s drive from Shanghai. Of course, there is no shortage of temples on most Chinese tours – and where they don’t exist, local governments are building them.

For religious (or even pseudo-religious) tourism is becoming big business in a country where Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism are growing and even becoming fashionable among the young. Daoism’s famous mountain, Wudangshan, saw a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in visitors in the first quarter of this year, while nearly 40 per cent more visitors travelled to Buddhism’s Jiuhuashan this lunar new year holiday than the last.

The Buddhist island of Putuoshan in the East China Sea has seen such an explosion of tourism that in 2012 it announced plans for an IPO (though public outcry later forced the local government to clarify that religious sites would not be included). And when I visited the sacred Daoist site at Mt Gezao recently, I was met by a monk with an MBA in Daoist temple management, toting a prospectus for a Rmb700m project to build a brand new temple. Temple tourism ranges from mass-market package tours to more informal “Buddhist wives” clubs that hire a minibus so they can pray at several local temples in the space of a single day.

My tour wasn’t of the drive-by variety, though. It was a 48-hour silent retreat – complete with meat-free diet and dawn wake-up calls – dedicated to the ancient spiritual practices of tai chi, qigong and meditation. After it, I can confidently assert that, though forms of exercise originating in the east, tai chi and qigong can also calm the mind of a westerner (though I can’t quite tell the difference between them yet). The tour operator, Yejo Circle, plans all its trips around the principles of escaping from the city, communing with nature and exploring one’s inner self. As an ageing hippie, that’s right up my street; but lucky for Yejo, this kind of short escape from urban life is also increasingly popular with middle-class Chinese.

They have fuelled a whole new industry of “back to the countryside” tourism, based on staying in simple villages, eating simple food and leaving behind the stress of big city life and all that neon. State media reported that visitors to “nongjiale” or farmhouse tourism sites over the Qingming Festival break in April were up 12 per cent year on year. But this was more than just a rural getaway – it was hard work. Our small group of western and Chinese visitors ranged from twenty- to sixtysomethings and stayed in twin rooms, where we slept on wooden pallets covered by thin quilts. At 5am we began with 90 minutes of Daoist qigong (think martial art, but thankfully not the kind where practitioners split planks with their crania). The scenery helped: the temple buildings, some 800 years old, were worthy of a film set. And because it was a silent retreat, I could spend more time drinking in the harmonious architecture and less time feeling I had to chat to my roommate.

Indeed, I never even found out what country she was from. We rewarded ourselves after the dawn workout with a bowl of rice gruel with vegetable garnish. After a few more hours of meditating (while sitting, standing and walking), practising tai chi (a form of moving meditation) and reading fairly incomprehensible chapters from Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing (the most sacred text of Chinese Daoism), we broke for an 11am lunch and a nap. And then we did the same thing all over again. I spent my free time reading The Tao of Pooh, the 1980s bestseller by Benjamin Hoff that tries to use the Pooh stories to penetrate the secrets of Daosim.

I made more progress with that than with the famously impenetrable Dao De Jing. Back in the city after the weekend, my iPhone wakes me instead of a bamboo clock. But lucky for those of us bitten by the Chinese spiritualism bug, tai chi and qigong aren’t only practised during silent temple retreats: every public park in Shanghai has groups practising at dawn and dusk – so many, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to find a spot. In the modern world, “awakening” comes in all shapes and sizes: qigong in a crowded park surrounded by skyscrapers? Well, we all have to start somewhere.


Be fighting fit with Qigong aka ‘Chinese yoga’

Getting fit by traditional methods such as martial arts, kung fu, etc has its own set of perks. It not only makes your body more agile but also improves concentration power, mental alertness and coordination. Qigong is an ancient Chinese healing technique that dates back to more than 4,000 years is now gaining popularity amongst fitness entusiasts who don’t want to be restricted to the gym. Qigong (pronounced ‘chee-gong’) is made up of two Chinese words. Qi is usually translated to mean the life force or vital energy that flows through all things in the universe. Gong means accomplishment, or a skill that is cultivated through steady practice. Together, the two words mean cultivating energy to maintain health and increase vitality.

The practice involves a series of exercises and postures, such as slow, circular movements, all while employing regulated breathing, focused meditation, and some self-massage.

Qigong has many varied forms, with some styles being extremely gentle while others have the more vigorous vibe of kung fu. One of its most basic forms is Baduanjin qigong with eight movements, often called the Eight Brocades.

Benefits of qigong

While large-scale studies are mostly lacking, qigong is believed to relax the mind, muscles, tendons, joints, and inner organs — helping to improve circulation, relieve stress and pain, and restore health, writes WebMD. And some research supports these claims.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Hypertension found that qigong helped lower blood pressure.

Another study published in 2007 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found the practice helped control diabetes.


Qigong is mostly gentle, but if you are older and/or have a health condition, talk to your doctor about your plans to try the practice, advises WebMD. Also, if you’re pregnant or have a joint problem, check with your physician first. And of course, talk to a qualified qigong teacher about your concerns.

How it differs from t’ai chi: Here some debate on the subject exists, with some saying that both kung fu and t’ai chi are actually forms of qigong. However, LiveScience reports that unlike the much younger t’ai chi which dates back a few hundred years, qigong has little in the form of movement based on self-defence. Rather, it takes a deeply spiritual and even paranormal approach and some forms can involve touch healing, distance healing, and even levitation. But other forms are more physical and better adopted by Western practitioners.


Buddhism in art

Almost 30 years ago, a hot Chinese TV drama Ji Gong turned the then 53-year-old You Benchang into a household name not just in his own country, but also in some foreign countries in Southeastern Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia. His vivid portrayal of the historically renowned Buddhist monk Ji Gong (1130-1207) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) left audiences with a deep impression of a wild and eccentric monk who at the same time has a very compassionate heart.

Now You is bringing the image of another great Buddhist monk from history to audiences’ minds. The Final Victory, a stage drama about Master Hongyi (or Li Shutong, 1880-1942), just concluded two performances last weekend in Beijing. Since its premiere in 2009, the drama has toured China performing in many cities including Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai and Taipei.

“Since 2009, we have gone from Tianjin (the birthplace of Li), then to the southern cities of Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou (where Li became a Buddhist monk when he was 38), and finally from Xiamen to Quanzhou (southeastern Fujian Province), the place he achieved Nirvana,” said You. “These cities actually mark all the footprints in Li’s life,” You told the Global Times.

Buddhist ties

Mostly known by his Buddhist name “Hongyi,” Li was highly talented when it came to the arts including painting, music, drama, calligraphy, seal cutting and poetry. As a renowned Buddhist, his influence was not just limited to China, but reached even countries like Japan. Presenting the final years of Li, The Final Victoryshows his firm belief that the Chinese people would prevail in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

Dedicated to the late master, performances of the drama are non-profit in nature and so don’t charge any fees. During the two-day performance in Beijing last weekend, fund raising was held to help children in poor areas in Northwest China’s Qinghai Province. The event collected 39,429 yuan ($6,502) by the time it was finished.

“Donations have been given to the Qinghai Xuefeng Charity Public Fund, which will give the money to children in need to be used for education,” said Zha Wenbai, director of The Final Victory.

“Audiences watching this drama have come because of their reverence for Master Hongyi and their belief in Buddhism. We are tied through it,” he stressed.

“Accomplished in so many artistic aspects, Li played a significant role in the cultural development of contemporary China,” said You. “However, for such an artistic master, people nowadays know too little about him. Some people know Hongyi, some know Li Shutong, but they don’t know the two are actually the same person!”

Successfully erecting a classic image of a historic Buddhist through the six episodes of Ji Gong, first broadcast in 1985, You himself also has his ideas about the religion. “Ji Gong’s name stands for Jishi Weigong (do good deeds to help the public). We should always have a ‘public’ heart and be aware of being occupied by our own self-concerns,” he said.

To better play Master Hongyi, the 81-year-old You converted to Buddhism in 2009. “It was very challenging for me to play such an accomplished Buddhist. He was very different from Ji Gong both in appearance and temperament,” said You, “but they have one in common, their altruistic spirit.”

Old man, or post-80s youth?

“I too am a post-80s youth!” he said using the term usually used to indicate young people born during the 1980s and 1990s.

Showing no signs of senility nor the deep wrinkles normally seen in seniors, You looks extremely well considering his advanced age. He even walks likes a robust young man. Occupied with a busy schedule full of performances, lectures and other social activities, he has his own secrets for keeping fit.

Stretching is essential, and he called it a must-do for any actor. He also has his own exclusive invention: the dry-bath.

Each morning, he and his wife will knee, pinch and flex their limbs from head to toe, making movements similar to those people use when bathing. He explained that these movements help loosen up the body and is very good for one’s health. “If a body can move freely, you won’t feel any pain,” said You.

You has not stopped performing, either on stage or screen, in spite of his age. In recent years, he appeared in several blockbusters such as The Butcher (2011), Region of Assassins (2010) and The Painted Skin II(2012). Most of the time, he was invited to play various religious masters.

“People have begun to call me ‘the master specialist,'” he laughed.

Buddhism in daily life

From playing Ji Gong to Hongyi, You deeply believes that karma affects a person’s life, “As a man sows, so does he reap.” He believes he was not meant to practice Buddhism in a temple or on a mountain, but in everyday earthly life.

“The mind decides everything” is what You emphasized the most during our interview. From current political affairs around the world to historic Chinese figures like Qian Xuesen (1911-2009, a famous physicist and father of the Chinese aerospace industry, he is also widely acclaimed for his devotion to the country at the sacrifice of his personal welfare), You views everything through the lens of this Buddhist philosophy.

“Why is Abe (Shinzo Abe) such a rightist? Because his family is historically related to the imperial household, and he himself is a descendant of a war criminal (Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, 1896-1987, was arrested as a Class A war criminal at the end of WWII), as such he is focused on the interests of his own family,” he said.

“Devotion to the public interest is what this era lacks most,” You emphasized.


Obama meets Dalai Lama at White House despite Chinese objections

China demanded that President Obama cancel a meeting Friday with the Dalai Lama, but it went ahead as scheduled at the White House, albeit in low-key fashion.

Ignoring Beijing’s warning that the meeting would severely harm U.S.-China relations, Obama met the Tibetan spiritual leader in the Map Room of the White House. It was the president’s third such meeting with the Dalai Lama and the first of his second term. Obama last met the Dalai Lama in July 2011.

Each meeting has drawn severe criticism from China, which considers the Dalai Lama an anti-China separatist.

“The Dalai Lama is a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday in a statement before the White House meeting. “By arranging a meeting between the president and the Dalai Lama, the U.S. side will grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations and severely impair China-U.S. relations.”

On Thursday, the White House played down the political aspect of the visit.

“The president will meet with the Dalai Lama in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement to news organizations.

“The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China,” she said. “We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, as a means to reduce tensions.”

The White House did not officially announce the meeting with the Dalai Lama until late Thursday. The exiled Buddhist monk, a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is visiting the United States on a speaking tour.

China has long history of angry reactions to foreign leaders’ meetings with the Dalai Lama. Among its more dramatic responses, China curtailed some diplomatic ties with Britain in 2012 after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama.

But with the United States, China has not followed through with equally strong measures.

On Friday, hours after China issued its demands for Obama to call off the meeting, U.S. and Chinese military leaders announced separately that they planned to establish regular dialogue between their armies.

The announcement came during a visit to Beijing by Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff.

“I have a very positive opinion on our future relationship as we develop the army dialogue,” Odierno told Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, according to the Associated Press.

Among the issues the two military leaders hope to discuss is increased educational exchanges and cooperation in peacekeeping.


Buddha statues get bigger on mainland China in bid to lure tourists

Local officials on the mainland are drawing inspiration from Buddha, but perhaps not in a way he might have intended.

Tourism bureaus and developers are racing to build ever-higher statues of Buddha, in an attempt to copy the success of the Lingshan Grand Buddha in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

The 88-metre-high attraction drew about 3.8 million visitors last year, generating more than 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.5 billion). Not a bad return on 725 tonnes of bronze sheet.

Hong Kong’s Tian Tan Buddha, at a modest 34 metres, would barely rise to the knees of the current behemoths such as the 208-metre-high Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan county in Henan province.

At least five others taller than Tian Tan are spread across the mainland and the list is set to grow, including a planned 88-metre-high statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin in Suzhou , Jiangsu province, a 99-metre depiction of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in Anhui province, and a 48-metre statue of Amitabha Buddha at Lu Mountain in Jiangxi province.

According to the New Weekly, the Aerosun Corporation, which built the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau, is developing more than 10 such projects across the country this year.

China has a long history of Buddhist art and sculpture, with the Sui dynasty (589-617) and Tang dynasty (618-907) considered peak eras. But many of the best examples were destroyed along with much of the nation’s other religious heritage in the years that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic. “There were more than 1,000 temples in Beijing before 1949,” Xue said. “But now only 20 to 30 remain.”

In the eyes of some tourists, Buddha-themed parks can become too grandiose. The Lingshan park charges 210 yuan (HK$267) per ticket and gets very crowded at holiday times.

“The park is full of tourists with cameras and is definitely not a good place for religious practice,” said Kent Cai, a visitor from Ningbo in Jiangsu.

“I felt dazed when I saw so many incense packages on sale – 50 yuan to pray for health, 128 yuan to pray for a child, 398 yuan to pray for vast happiness and 598 yuan for huge fortune.”

Sometimes Buddha attraction developers must contend with monks and residents who differ over ownership of a site.

In impoverished Lushan county, the developer spent 1.2 billion yuan on building the Spring Temple Buddha in 2008.

Monks have tried to take charge of the attraction and admit people free of charge.

In Leshan , Sichuan province, local residents have said a theme park with replicas of more than 3,000 Buddha statues, including world-famous ones in India, Thailand and Myanmar, badly damaged the 71-metre Giant Buddha, the world’s tallest stone Buddha statue, built 1,200 years ago.

“As a Buddhist, I would like to see more Buddha statues. They help show the public the teachings and practice of becoming a Buddha,” said Huiyao, a nun at a temple in Yangzhou in Jiangsu. “But I don’t think they all need to be more dozens of metres high or break the world record.”

Xue Yu, of the department of cultural and religious studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said local governments would view giant Buddhas as an ambitious way to boost tourism.

“The projects use the popularity of Buddhism and are a politically safe way to help build social harmony,” he said.


Chinese Twitter Removed Two Giant, Naked Buddhas From The Top of This Building

In China, fo tiao qiang is an expensive delicacy that typically includes shark fin, scallops, quail eggs, ham, abalone, pork tendon, and chicken. It also translates to “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” a kind of linguistic joke on vegetarians with the implicit claim that the soup can entice even meat-eschewing Buddhist monks to come racing over to the establishment that serves it.

One restaurant in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, five hours south of Beijing, decided to take the interpretation of the dish literally. They installed two giant, naked Buddhas clambering on top of the building in search of the soup–fat rolls, cellulite, everything.

At first the marketing ploy worked, in a sense, because the images, circulated by state-run China News, China Radio International, and Beijing Youth Daily, went viral. But on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, many Buddhists were horrified.

“I burst into tears when I saw naked Buddhas climbing over the wall! How come a nation with a thousand-year history has so little respect for its own culture?” the South China Morning Post quoted one Weibo user as saying.

By Monday morning the Buddhas were gone, ostensibly removed by local authorities, according to a micro-blog of Jinan residents. It’s just one more example of how the virtual can shape the built environment, though the images are likely seared permanently into many brains.