Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of Gold and Jade – response to the Jade Buddha Temple

The Jade Buddha Temple appeared like an anachronism in the midst of the Shanghai skyscrapers. Outside the temple walls on the bustling street, cars are crammed on the two-lane street with bikes weaving in between them. Beggars are lined up near the entrance making full use of the simple English that they know.

Inside, the world is a much quieter place. Replacing the sound of horns and the chatter people is the constant murmur of people praying and the occasional bells. Monks complete their daily rituals while tourists are observing. Guards roam the temple grounds to ensure that no harm occurs to precious artwork inside and occasionally drag the unsuspecting group of college students with a professor in tow to the residential temple gift shop. However, let it not be said that the gift shop was any less spectacular with intricate woodcarvings and palm paintings, complete with palm painter.

Within main rooms of the temple, statues are lined up on both sides, surrounding the larger statues centering the room. Offerings are laid on top of intricately carved tables and a cushion is provided for those who wish to pray. Faces of the Buddhas seem dramatic to the point of almost becoming caricatures. Gone is the realism of landscapes found in ancient Chinese paintings. Instead, these seemingly realistic Buddhas carry superhuman features, looking almost unsettling.

In the library of the Jade Buddha Temple, contains a dedication to the artist, Hong Yi, who became an ordained monk at age 39. This small dedication features photographs, a new form of media at the time, and calligraphy written in a unique style. Perhaps most fascinating is the deathbed photo in which it is believed Hong Yi predicted his own death. After studying European and American history for so long at school, religion has become synonymous with old traditions and values. However, here on the other side of the world, Buddhism embraced modern media and the ever-changing world.

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