Saturday, 31 December 2011

Preview: The Leshan Giant Buddha

Meet Dafo.

Dafo is a statue of Buddha, one of hundreds of thousands... hell, hundreds of millions, in Asia. That's no exaggeration. In Burma, there is a temple, Thambuddhei Paya, with over a half a million statues of Buddha inside, and there are numerous locations across the continent with the "Thousand Buddha" appellation (I'll be visiting a Thousand Buddha Caves in China); across Asia, Buddha is very well represented. In my list of Wonders, he appears prominently (that is, as pretty much the chief focus) no less than five times, and his statue and image is well represented in another nine. He gets around. So what makes Dafo so special?

Well, I suppose you could say that Dafo is the grand old man of the Buddha statue world. His name, Da Fo, literally just means "Big Buddha" in Chinese, and that pretty much sums him up. Leshan is a small city in central-southern China, and Dafo is the Leshan Giant Buddha. He's 71 metres tall, but that's just sitting down; should he choose to stand, he would likely reach over a hundred metres. However, as he's been sitting comfortably in the same position for over 1200 years, it seems as though he's settled. Besides, he has nothing to prove - for over a thousand years since his construction, he was the tallest statue in the world and by quite a considerable margin; even his closest rival, the largest of the now Taliban-destroyed Bamiyan statues, only came in at 55 metres, and he was standing up. Even today, Dafo still comes in at number 15 on the tallest statue list, and is still the largest rock-carved statue around.

Perhaps its his grandfatherly status in a world otherwise of very modern tall statues that makes me feel a little affection towards this massive chunk of stone. Cut from a cliff face but still seemingly nestled cosily into the cliff, and seated by the riverside, seen from a distance he looks like an old man sitting back and watching the world go by. Although massive and impressive, unlike the modern giant statues which stand proud and dominate their surroundings, Dafo seems much more unassuming. He's not showing off, he's just taking it easy. On his face is the hint of a smile. From photos, at least, Dafo seems a very likeable statue.

The reason for Dafo being given a seated position isn't just to rest his weary old feet, it's because the type of Buddha he represents is the Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is the name of the future Buddha, the next Buddha to come to earth and show us the way to enlightenment, after his predecessor did so in around 2500 BC. But it might be quite a wait until Maitreya arrives - according to some texts, he will only be born at a low point of human existence, at a time when the teachings of the earlier Buddha are all but forgotten, and in an age where humans will live to eighty thousand years old. Crikey. Until that time, he's just hanging about in a different world, kind of like a version of heaven. Hence why Maitreya - and Dafo - are seated, they are just biding their time, waiting until mankind is desperate and the world is ready for him. Don't worry, in this heavenly world, a hundred years passes like a day, so things aren't dragging on too much.

I suspect also that carving Dafo into a seat may also have been a little easier for the sculptors back in 713 AD when they started. A standing statue of unprecedented height might have been a bit unstable, so it was best to say it was of Maitreya and have him sitting down. But that's my own idle speculation as nothing in the way of the builder's thoughts on the matter are recorded. As with pretty much all of Chinese history (and, in large part, most ancient history), the architect and craftsmen aren't known about, it's just the commissioner that is remembered. In this case, it was a monk, called Haitong. Haitong was concerned about the turbulent waters at that particular spot in the river. It was the spot where three rivers - the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi - met, and was a real problem for the trading vessels that passed by frequently. Leshan was at that time at a crossroads and was a major trading centre, with the rivers bringing prosperity. And Haitong was determined to make life a bit safer for all concerned.

So he came up with the idea of building the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha by the danger spot of the river as he believed Buddha would then protect the boats and the travellers. For the rest of his days, he fund-raised to first begin the construction and then keep it going. The story goes that he even gouged out his own eyes as a show of piety and dedication to the cause. An official tried to claim the money that Haitong had been raising for his project and Haitong told him, "It is easier to pluck out your eyes than get wealthy following Buddha", a quote which is now an inscription at the base of the statue. The official challenged Haitong on this, and Haitong gouged his own eyes out to prove a point (some versions have him just gouging one eye out). It appeared to work and appeared to inspire the workers, who presumably figured out that Haitong was not someone to mess with.

Sadly, Haitong didn't live to see the finished statue, and not just due to his lack of eyes. He died several years after construction started, and everything ground to a halt. It took a decade until it kickstarted again, due to the efforts of a local governor, but this was short-lived, and it wasn't for another forty years until another governor got things going again. Dafo was eventually finished in 803 AD, ninety years after being started. And though he wasn't around to see it, Haitong's plan worked. Due to the massive amount of rock that had fallen into the river after having been cut away from the cliffs, the river current changed, and the waters became much safer for vessels to pass through. The giant Buddha indeed gave his protection.

Much time and much wear-and-tear have happened in the twelve centuries since. A thirteen-storey wooden shelter built to protect Dafo from the elements was destroyed during late 13th Century wars, and hundreds of years of erosion and water damage have faded Dafo. He even has bullet holes. More recently, pollution and acid rain blackened his nose and speckled black his face, as if Dafo had contracted some kind of skin disease. Happily. he has had a $30 million facelift. Since being put on the UNESCO Heritage List in 1996, more attention has been paid to him, and in 2002 and 2003 a major maintenance job was performed, cleaning him, filling in the cracks that had formed, installing improved drainage, and protecting against future wind and water damage. Dafo is a new man again.

All photos of the Leshan Giant Buddha look pretty impressive, and it can be approached either from the top of the cliff, or by taking a boat and sailing by. It shares space on my Wonders list with Abu Simbel and the Moai of Easter Island as my only ancient statues, but is considerably bigger than both of these, so it could be something quite special.

I'll be visiting the Leshan Giant Buddha in March, and will give a fuller account, plus my own impression, then.

Reviewed 6th April 2012.


  1. I thought Leshan said lesbian. Disppointed there is not a giant sapphic statue.

  2. The LGBT community are woefully under-represented in the World of Wonders, and I don't think there is a single gigantic statue of a homosexual (although the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha does look quite "precious"). There's still plenty of time however, and in this modern age it is quite possible an existing Wonder can be "converted". My personal thoughts are that the Statue of Liberty and most of the French buildings are fair game.


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