I am currently in a class called Religion and Society in China where, every other week, we collectively hop on a bus and go to a location that has religious significance. Our most recent trip was to the Buddhist Longhua temple. This is also the the trip that I found to be the most beautiful as every room of the temple was inundated with golden statues of Buddha, inscribed walls, and colorful artwork. As the concept of fengshui dictates a lot of classic Chinese architecture, the outside was just as beautiful and interesting as the the rooms of the temple itself. I was able to discover hidden, small, waterfalls and gardens as I was wondering through the temple.
One particular statue that really resonated with me was the statue of Guanyin, showed in my feature picture. Just the sheer structure and design of her overtook me. She is known as the Goddess of One Thousand Arms which were all physically there on the sculpture. While the beauty of the statue itself overwhelmed me, I was even more touched by seeing Guanyin because I knew the story behind her.
The previous week in our class we talked about this goddess’ legend. She started off as a woman named Miaoshan, daughter of King Miaozhuang. Miaoshan refused to get married so her father ended up executing her. Her soul descended into hell; however, there, she saved other souls by preaching Buddhist Dharma to them. She then was able to return to earth. Disguised as a monk, she gave her father her own eyes and hands. It was this act of grace to the person that murdered her that allowed her to transcend her role on earth and become a goddess, receiving one thousand arms and one thousand eyes. She is one of the most famous goddesses in Buddhist culture and an embodiment of Chinese feminism. She rejected the traditional role that was set out for her, to be a wife and mother, even dying for her beliefs.
To know what she meant to the Chinese community and specifically to Chinese women and to be able to see that sculpture firsthand, was inspiring and beautiful. I do not know if I would have had as strong of feelings seeing this sculpture had it not been for me knowing the back story. In the chapter “On Eye-Opening Art,” de Botton comments “We overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as being worthy of appreciation, or because some unfortunate but random association has turned us against them” (3). Although there were many beautiful, golden statues and art works I was exposed to that day, the image of Guanyin stuck with me the most. It was because I had taken the time to learn about the back story that I deemed it “worthy of appreciation.”
I think I have often focused on the aesthetics of art rather than their meaning or history. However, having this experience in China has promoted me to question the art I see. The legends and historical stories here are boundless. If I have the opportunity to see a tangible manifestation of this history, I should see them as an informed and appreciative spectator.
One other aspect I wanted to note about my trip to the Buddhist temple was the juxtaposition between some visitors viewing the temple as simply a spectacle while others were there for the purpose of worship. I feel as though because so much art here is deeply rooted in religion, it is a commonplace for worship sanctuaries to be transformed into tourist destinations. While I believe the Buddhist temple served this duality well, I believe visitors should be a bit more mindful of the worshipers there.