The most famous Buddha in Hong Kong is the so-called ‘Big Buddha’ on a hill on Lantau Island. You can sometimes see as your plane comes into land. I missed it then, but paid it a visit last Saturday. ‘Big’ is an understatement. It’s the largest outdoor Buddha in Asia, so if it wasn’t for the power of alliteration it would be called ‘Huge Buddha’.
The best way to get up close to HB is to travel to Po Lin (monastery) by cable car, so this was our plan. It was only as we were embarking, however, that my companion mentioned to me that this really was quite a long cable car ride. I gulped when he mentioned ‘half an hour’. It is in fact 5.7 kilometres, but the time, like the view, just flew by. It is truly spectacular, even on a misty, smoggy day – which most are, and ours was, at least to start with. Actually, I’d say it would be worth making the cable car journey even for a small Buddha – or, thinking about it, even for no Buddha at all.
As well as seeing the Buddha close up I was able to visit the ‘wisdom path’. There are four of us on this expedition, by the way. Two of us are Anglican clergy. One of us is a Taoist priest and expert in Buddhism and he was able to explain, via our third companion, who is also a scholar but a lesser scholar and yet a better English speaker and so the translator, the meaning of the characters on the vertical poles.
To imagine them, think of something twice the width of an old wooden telegraph pole and half as tall again. Slice it vertically and see the flat plane inscribed with Chinese characters from the top down. These poles mark out the wisdom path, which describes a ‘figure of eight’ on the mountainside when seen from the air, and signifies infinity. The texts were all from the ‘heart sutra’ which is a primary Buddhist text about emptiness.
The central post was itself empty. The calligraphy of silence, one might say.
I would love to be more articulate about the Buddhist understanding of emptiness but it’s not an easy subject, and my learning on this occasion was impaired by the overwhelming scale and beauty of the context, the noise of the noisiest cicadas I have ever heard, and the fluttery flight of the biggest butterflies I have ever seen. At first I thought they were bats, but this was the mid-day sun and bats are not out then. And the sun was hot – very hot and the sky was now a mercilessly cloud-free blue.
Words of Noel Coward, a regular visitor here in a very different era, jangled unhelpfully in my mind:
‘In Hong Kong they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun,
to reprimand each inmate, whose in late …
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’
Lunch followed in the huge vegetarian restaurant run by the monastery. Our Taoist priest presided over the meal with tremendous relish and aplomb, washing everything that we would use in tea before we started. This was for reasons of hygiene, not ritual.
There is a strong consciousness about hygiene here. People wear facial masks not to keep pollution out (as I thought) but when they have an infection that might be spread. Handrails on escalators are regularly disinfected. It’s not actually very difficult – someone just needs to stand still holding the suitably doused cloth against it as it moves around in its endless cycle.
Handrails on escalators are a serious matter. Passengers are repeatedly told in station announcements that they must hold the handrail and pay attention. Other instructions come too. ‘Do not look only at your mobile phone,’ rails the recorded announcement at one of the MTR (Tube) stations; this being one of the least successful attempts to influence behaviour that I have ever come across.
After lunch we had a meeting with a Zen Buddhist monk, but it took while to find him as he wasn’t part of the main monastery but of a different sanga living nearby. He is, as far as I can make out, Thich Nhat Hanh’s number 1 in Asia and, like Thich Nhat Hanh himself, our monk is Vietnamese. He is also deeply involved in the practical application of meditative techniques in daily life and, in particular, mindfulness.
The room where we met was absolutely the opposite of the palatial room at the Taoist temple. It was large and simple, austere and sparsely furnished. This was definitely the Franciscan end of Buddhist monastic spectrum; the two modern conveniences being some air conditioning at the sitting end – which was switched on for our benefit – and, in the corner of a similar room nearby, a multi-gym.
And there was a clock. Curiously it struck Westminster chimes on the quarter hour. Even more curiously, whenever it did so our monk stopped what he we doing for a moment of mindfulness. This was quite nice, actually, even though it often fell mid-sentence. Needless to say there was no choice but to join in. I was glad to do so. I can see that a few seconds of mindful reconnection every 15 mins could take the stress out of a day – especially if the day is filled with meetings. But I wonder whether I would have the nerve to install a chiming clock in my office, and then follow the discipline. And, as he said, ‘it’s tricky when you are on the phone’. But he also added – ‘if you are driving, you can do it at traffic lights’.
Speaking of clocks, at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s HQ in France, they sell watches which, rather than having numbers to indicate the hour, have the word ‘now’ at every hour mark. Whatever time it is, it’s ‘now’. Does that mean that clock-time doesn’t matter? Not at all. On a white board the monastic day was spelt out in some detail beginning with ‘4.30am – wake up’. You can imagine a novice asking ‘what, now?’ and then seriously regretting the unintended irony.
After our conversation we visited another Temple and then went back to the cable car. We were led on this journey in walking mediation by our new, and delightful, Zen friend. It was a touch cooler than earlier, and we were walking in the shade of trees, mindfully enjoying some breathtaking views.
The journey down by cable car extended the bliss of the day. Then, in no time at all, we were hurtling along on the MTR, rubbing shoulders with people who had spent the day at the nearby Disney World. This was a very different now, but a now nonetheless.