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Wednesday, August 2, 2006

"It's Just a Tale"

A Little Folkloric Fieldwork

Uposatha Day

Today is the 1st Quarter (8:46 GMT)

(Stories about Hua Yan Temple begin here)

During our week in the temple, my able translator (and good friend) Diego did an amazing job of translating lots of material, a task which would be daunting even for a person twice his age. In our first few days, we were establishing ground rules, and I think he was sometimes surprised at what I wanted.

Two times on our first full day together, Venerable Hui Jing, the administrator of Hua Yan Temple, spoke to Diego at length, and Diego turned to me and said "It's just a tale."

Both times, I explained to him that, in fact, nothing is "just" a tale; that tales were the best part of the experience; and that I in fact need tales. First, because, having read so many "tales" in books, it was a real thrill to be hearing them from a monk as we stood in front of the very statues that "starred" in the tales. And second, I pointed out that I might be the first person to be hearing these exact tales about this exact statue in English.

This is the statue who featured in the two tales: Da Ri Fo, "The Great Sun Buddha" which I discussed on July 22. And here are the two tales:

One night, burglars broke in and tried to steal the statue. It was so heavy, it took thirty men to carry it. They struggled all night to get it down the mountain. When the sun came up, they discovered that they were still in the hall where the statue is kept: they had been walking in circles inside the hall all night!

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Another time, the statue was successfully stolen and thrown into a fire to melt it down. No matter how they stoked the flames, the iron statue wouldn't melt. It did, however, levitate, floating within the flames. But it remained intact, so the robbers returned it.

Now, these tales are far from "original." But they add color to the story of this temple. We could get lost in questions about the value of "miracle" stories in Buddhism, connected as they are to deeper questions about "faith" and "devotion," aspects of the Mahayana. But when you're standing in front of the statue, and a diminutive monk is telling you these tales in Chinese, all those theoretical questions drop away, and you are simply charmed by the power of the tale.

The role of devotion is quite important, however. Hsi Lai Temple has a small bead in its museum, which they say is a bone relic of the Shakyamuni Buddha. One day I asked the then-abbot, my friend and student Venerable Hui Chuan, how there could be so many relics of the Buddha in the world. With utmost sincerity, he responded that relics multiply in reaction to devotion to them.

I find this idea highly instructive (if not entirely plausible). Put it this way: "Relics are created by devotion." That much, I think, is true.

This ties in to another problem. Every Chinese temple claims to be hundreds of years old (usually dating back to "the Tang Dynasty"). And yet we know that many of them have been built in the last few years. (I have yet to visit a temple with even one truly old building [but after this, I saw many].) How can this be? Well, we know of the Cultural Revolution; this "new construction" is largely a result of the ravages of that terrible time. So the temples' locations are old, as are their names. They have history.

And there is one interesting argument that the temple is not the building, but the main statue. That may be why there are so many great stories about the supernatural qualities of the statues.

For a short time, I was trying to pursue a 33-temple pilgrimage in the western prefectures of the Japanese island of Kyushu--one of the only pilgrimages I have started but left unfinished (so far). One of the temples (Number 12? I'll have to check my notes in Shenzhen) was nearly impossible to find. The address I had led only to a small residential neighborhood. After asking around, though, I found it: It was a house! The proper temple had long been destroyed, but the honzon--the main statue--had been preserved, and was now "enshrined" in a room over the garage of the modest-looking house. It was still actively venerated, and thus the "temple" still existed.

[2023: My mad research skills--and a much-improved internet--tell me it was Seiryu-ji on Mt. Aso, #12 on the Kyushu Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. The statue is inside the cabinet with the flash-bright door. My photos.]

Now, of course, the question arises: What if the statue is a fake? The monk at Hua Yan had made it clear that devotion would empower any statue; therefore any revered statue is "authentic."

So, the question remains, "What is a temple?" And I guess what we have come down to is this: A temple is constituted by the activity of the people. A bogus statue in a rebuilt temple still represents "continuity" if it is the object of ongoing devotion by the people. I think that's a fine resolution to the problem.

Given the Buddhist grasp of impermanence, what more could we ask for?

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