Friday, August 29, 2008

Beijing: Lama Temple and Dongyue Temple

(This is part of a series of posts on our trip to China last June. We'll be posting for the first several weeks of the school year.)

During our time in Beijing, we visited two major temples, in addition to the Temple of Heaven (previous post): Dongyue Temple, a vaguely Taoist shrine in one of Beijing's biggest business districts, and Lama Tempe, a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery on the northeastern edge of Beijing.

Dongyue Temple
Dongyue Temple, founded during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is the largest temple of the Zhengyi Dao school of Taoism. In the early part of the Zhengyi Dao movement, practitioners were best known for peddling talismans and prayer tablets like those shown below.

Zhengyi Dao is a very old sect, and Dongyue an old temple, which is easy to tell from a quick stroll around the grounds. The place is littered with steles (inscribed stone tablets) from the Yuan Dynasty and later.Eventually, though, like most Taoist sects, Zhengyi Dao was absorbed into the religion of the imperial court, and that's where the fun begins. The imperial religion of China is CRAZY. (See previous post on the Temple of Heaven.) Basically, the emperor and his cronies decided that they loved their overbearing earthly bureaucracy so much, they wanted to take it with them into the afterlife. So they carved heaven into a bunch of departments, each tasked with regulating some aspect of heavenly business.

And Dongyue Temple includes a statuary shrine to each and every one of them.

Some of the departments are not terribly surprising, merely the predictable marriage of a bureaucratic world view to the standard polytheistic fare. For example, the Department of Forest Deities, depicted below:
The departmental shrines, however, quickly veer off into the goofy, the gory, the terrifying, and the downright arcane.
Behold, the Retribution Department, a paean to poetic justice, featuring . . .
. . . a liar having his tongue cut out . . .
. . . a thief with his hands lopped off . . . a (surprisingly thin) glutton with his guts spilling out . . .
. . . and, of course, an unspecified ne'er-do-well being hanged.

Other gruesome departments include the Department of Suffering, represented by a sick young man and a starving bum . . .
. . . and the Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death, which appear to include beheading and drowning (below).
Many of the statues in the temple are surprisingly expressive, despite being covered with dust. Take, for example, this wily fellow, from the Department for the Suppression of Schemes.
My overall favorite display, though, was probably the Department for the Prevention of Obscene Acts. Not only does it feature an apparent prostitute trying to entice a potential customer with a flash of skin . . .
. . . it also has a creepy, toothless old man leering at her from several feet away.
Clearly, someone put considerable time and effort into these displays, and for that I can only thank them, whoever they are. Especially considering that the departments shown here only scratch the surface of the dozens of displays on the Dongyue Temple grounds. Just a sampling of the deliciously bizarre corners of heaven not depicted here:

The Death and Life Department
The Department of Resurrection
The Insect Birth Department
The Mammal Birth Department
The Evidence Department for Issuing Warrants
The Department of Controlling Bullying and Cheating
The Door God Department
The Jaundice Department
The Department of Pity and Sympathy
The Department of Signing Documents
The Signature Department (by this point, even the Taoists were beginning to lose track)
The Department for Three-Month-Long Meditation
The Toxicant Department (which had, by far, the most donation of any shrine in the place)

Lama Temple

In addition to Dongyue Temple, we also visited Lama Temple, the main site for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing.

The story of exactly how Tibetan Buddhism got to Beijing is an interesting one. During its early, missionary period, Tibetan Buddhism spread among the peoples along China's Western and Northern edges, while more traditionally Chinese strains of Buddhism, such as Chan ("Zen"), dominated within China's borders. One of the places Tibetan Buddhism took hold was Mongolia, so that when the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (see above) conquered China, it brought Tibetan Buddhism with it. The same happened again several centuries later with the Manchu (Manchurian) Qing Dynasty, and it is this later invasion we can thank for Lama Temple as it stands today.

Lama Temple was built in 1694, during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, and originally served as a residence for court eunuchs. It was converted to a lamasery shortly thereafter, and granted permission to use the signature yellow roofing of the imperial house after an emperor was buried there in 1735.

The temple is a blend of Han Chinese and Tibetan architecture, providing for some stunning little nooks and crannies utterly unlike anything else found in Beijing.

Unfortunately, photographs are prohibited in the worship spaces, which house enormous statues of the Buddha and look like something straight out of a classic kung fu film. These exterior shots should give some idea of the structure.

And yes, if you couldn't tell already, our visit was blessed by some afternoon rain. Not only did it take the edge off the day's heat, it also lent some welcome atmosphere to the scene.

Stay tuned for more shenanigans!