Pragmatism and faith put new buddha in Hong Kong

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 14, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

LANTAU ISLAND, Hong Kong -- This is about an exceptionally savvy monk, a really big buddha and some curious dealings.

The Buddhist monk, the Rev. Sik Chi Wai, chief executive of the Po Lin Monastery here, has a moon-shaped face accentuated by black half-circles under his eyes. He's what the Chinese call a "political monk."

His business card lists leadership posts with a dozen groups. His confident air bears more in common with, say, Ross Perot than the detachment advised by the 6th-century B.C. Indian prince known as Buddha.

"Some monks lead a meditative life," he says. "Others work in the world."

The reverend's mother brought him to Po Lin 57 years ago, when he was 3 years old and the monastery was just a tiny retreat 2,500 feet up on a lonely, mist-shrouded mountainside.

Now its administrators use computers and portable phones, and its temples fairly hum with as many as 4,000 tourists and devotees a day.

Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong's 236 islands, is so sparsely populated that stray cows roam freely along its narrow roads. At the island's north end, a massive new airport is planned. Toward the south, workers are chiseling a highway out of steep hillsides to ease the way of even more visitors to Po Lin.

They are coming to witness the fruit of an idea that came to Mr. Chi Wai in 1974, a notion to build a buddha statue on a prominent hill overlooking Po Lin.

The monk is vague about the scope of his original concept, but what has risen there is a $9 million, seven-story monument believed to be the largest outdoor bronze buddha in the world.

The 87-foot-high buddha is not nearly as huge as the Lushan buddha, carved from a cliff in China's Sichuan province, nor as elegant as the gold-finished, reclining buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. Nonetheless, it is a magnificent work of art, technology and belief: 202 pieces of bronze, about a half-inch thick and averaging more than a ton each, welded together to form the figure that throughout much of the world conveys infinite compassion, wisdom and understanding.

It was rumored that Japanese Buddhists offered to finance the Po Lin buddha if only the statue was positioned to gaze toward Japan. Instead, the buddha looks northeast toward the Chinese mainland. And with the coming of Hong Kong's takeover by China in 1997, it is now being touted as a sort of religious Statue of Liberty.

But this buddha is a curious symbol of religious freedom. It might not have been built without the help of the Chinese government, which tightly controls religious activities through state churches and which has persecuted Buddhists from the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s to present-day Tibet.

Most of the money to build the Po Lin buddha was raised in Hong Kong with a sophisticated program of incentives. Donors of at least $128,000, for example, have had their names engraved on the large, bronze lotus petals upon which the buddha figure sits.

One of these 20 petals bears the name of the state-controlled Chinese Buddhist Association, which gave the project its blessing and which collected about $650,000 from visitors to mainland temples.

Another early backer was Xu Jiatun, who once headed the Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, China's de facto embassy in the colony -- though this has been played down since Mr. Xu fled Hong Kong and the Communist Party in 1990 for a Buddhist temple run by a Taiwanese monk in Los Angeles.

The Po Lin buddha was cast in Nanjing, China, by the China Astronautics Science and Technology Consultant Corp., a company run by the government ministry that makes missiles for the Chinese military.

Mr. Chi Wai sees little irony in all this.

He offers a bottom-line logic to explain why the buddha was built in China: "They had the technology. They gave us a special rate, and they were willing to take installment payments."

Likewise, he avoids voicing concerns about the coming of Communist control here. Though he has frequently visited mainland monks since 1979, he claims never to have discussed with them the limits on their religious freedoms.

"China's history is long," he says. "Some of its dynasties have been good and some bad. But Buddhism has always been there. There's no need to worry."

Such is the confidence of the faithful.

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