The road to bodhi begins at a taxi queue, more toward noon than is ideal and skipping on breakfast. The usual weekend crowds across Hennessy Road hamper my Path, and I am standing still for now.
As bodies squeeze along, I gauge schedules, ferry-routes and timetables, contemplating my eventual return to this particular slab of civilisation, one of the many wild and rushing corners in Causeway Bay. Glancing at my watch shows 12:30. The trek to Ngong Ping will undoubtedly consume today’s share of daylight, and my destination is just half the journey.
The Po Lin Monastery, one of Lantau’s numerous nooks of refuge, is home to a massive Buddha monument that sits in everlasting tranquillity atop Mount Muk Yue’s peak. Less than 40km away from the heart of the metropolis, this iconic statue serves as inspiration for Buddhist pilgrims and travellers alike. It is a symbol for man and nature coming together as one, an icon of equanimity amidst one of the world’s most potent torrents of chaos: Hong Kong.
Could the Tian Tan Buddha really be such a place of idealized wonder and connection with nature, humankind and myself? Or is this a baseless claim served up for the cost of admission?
A whizzing bus roars past, snapping me out of thoughts of Ngong Ping once again. Feeling fettered, I leave the madding crowd and climb into a red taxi bound for Central. My watch reads 12:45. Driver and I trace the harbour along Wan Chai and zoom through the grid of concrete to the ferry, pier number six. After paying, my wallet is HK$39 lighter, a small enough sacrifice to offer up along my Path.
We arrive at the station, the first of three legs toward the bulky bronze. Lingering schoolgirls lick at ice-cream along the waterfront. Sunglassed tourists drag unwieldy suitcases from dock to dock under the midday sun. My ferry sailing toward Mui Wo will land at Silver Mine Bay, home to idle fishermen, secluded foreigners and that great mark of global culture, McDonald’s fast food. From that second stop at civilisation’s border, a bus will weave its way along the southern edge of Lantau, and after an hour’s journey we’ll clip northward to the Po Lin Monastery, the veritable heart of the island and the final segment of my expedition. With an Octopus offering of HK$14.3, I’m aboard. A whirring siren and I’m off. The time is 1 o’clock sharp.
Leaving Victoria Harbour certainly helps to clear away some of the day’s earlier chaos. Soft machine hum lulls me into a meditative gaze through the window, where I watch as the city fades behind.
Like twin lighthouses standing watch over the port, Hong Kong’s tallest skyscrapers, IFC Tower 2 and the International Commerce Centre, are the last to see this vessel off. As it passes underneath them both, I’m reminded of the mythic statue of Helios, colossal guard of the ancient Rhodes’ seaport, and picture these two buildings as the god-like calves of some impossible behemoth, gazing down at the city from somewhere above the clouds. The Colossus is said to have been built in victory over an attacking Cyprus army. Musing, I wonder what my imagined concrete God of the Orient stands for? And if so, who or what has been defeated?
A smattering of islands begins to dominate the landscape. The ferry rocks me as if a cradle, left to right, and time begins to fade, sending the boat and its drowsy inhabitants into a collective daydream while we cross the South China Sea. Soon enough tiny Peng Chau Island comes into view to my right, Discovery Bay just behind it, Hei Ling Chau Island to my left.
After a quick stretch, we arrive, docking at Silver Mine Bay Beach. A sailor lowers the ferry landing door and I am ashore, enraptured by so much blue sky and unexpected silence.
Once again I’m at a timetable, though noticeably not as hectic. Checking my wristwatch comes not out of misplaced compulsion. I’m even pointedly oblivious to the fare. It seems the bus for Po Lin will not arrive for another twenty minutes, giving me time I thought I’d misplaced earlier in the day. I’ve a moment to simply breathe.
The beauty of Lantau impresses me deeply. I peruse an impromptu fruit stall and note several strays sleeping in the shadow of the China Bear pub and restaurant. Looking up, I’m shocked at just how absolute the blue hue above appears. Is this a blessing from The Awakened One, hastening my steps toward his mountain? Or is this simply a commonplace feeling and sight outside of the polluted confines of urbanity? I ponder this and the sea and sky, munching on a rubbery Big Mac, sitting amongst a row of lackadaisical anglers.
When the time comes, I nestle myself into the back of Bus No. 2 bound for Ngong Ping. As we set off, I undergo a transposition to a different place entirely. Rushing green continually blurs my line of vision out onto S. Lantau Road. Another mode of transportation on my journey and another welcomed step away from what I have come to see as commonplace, as natural. Now nature reasserts itself, engulfing me in a streaming show of trees and mountains and open sea. A collective of paragliders soar above the water just beyond Tong Fuk Beach, dotting the sky with a rainbow of sails. The bus blows by campgrounds and secluded housing for Hong Kong hermits. The far-off Shek Pik Prison shows itself deep below the island’s reservoir.
Though so near at hand to this world of greenery, I’ve suddenly begun to doubt myself. My quest to become an ascetic suddenly feels phony. Everything about my journey testifies instead to my absolute identity as a tourist, a greedy voyeur seeking to expose nature with a camera glued to the window as it traces the island’s outer circuit. Can I capture it? Even this plane of glass, like a cinema screen, separates me from the real outside. This mechanized bus, too, artificially carries me along a road paved by the commoditisation of nature and religion. As such, I fear I’ve lost the Path. There is no deep, transformative immersion occurring as of yet. I am still me, a casual observer existing in an unnatural state, separate from nature. I long to get out and stretch my legs on land. I long for an encounter with the ideal, the real behind the façade, to see Nature with a capital N, to touch something au naturalle, naked and clear.
Eager as ever, the bus penetrates thick forest, steadily gaining on that mystic mountain and the secrets it holds within. These secrets are the stock-in-trade I hope to uncover.
Buddhism, as far as my current understanding goes, rests its roots deep in Eastern ideology. Geographically it would claim India near Nepal as its home, its time antiquity. It began as a derivative of Siddhartha Gautama’s loose Hinduism and his subsequent teachings. After achieving buddhatva, he is said to have remained on Earth to share his knowledge of enlightenment with the rest of humankind. According to those principles, this process first requires recognising that humanity’s greatest weakness is desire, and that this desire is what leads to suffering. Buddhism is concerned with emptying one’s mind, then, of all wants and knowledge, of all things in order to clear the way toward total mental and spiritual freedom. Milarepa, the Tibetan Yogi, said, “acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings, in destruction; meetings, in separation; births, in death” and that “one should…renounce acquisitions and storing-up, and building, and meeting; and…set about realizing the Truth.”
For me, the complications are immediate. Aren’t desire and suffering an inherent part of being alive, of being human? Isn’t the Truth a result of pursuing knowledge and goals, not giving them up? I’m reminded of the Taoist philosophy, another prescribed pathway toward enlightenment that crosses the Buddha’s in many places. Lao-tzu suggests his followers “stop thinking” and later claims, “I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty”. A mistranslation of ancient Chinese wisdom from Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching? Or perhaps just plain old bad advice? I’m not sure, but I do recall that familiar English adage, “Ignorance is bliss”, which echoes his sentiments.
Though I’ve only a layman’s understanding, my personal knowledge of Buddhism’s admittedly complex ideology begins where Christianity’s ends. Still, I see some familiar chords being struck here, the same philosophical underpinnings like the obsession and subsequent denial of human desire. I see the shaming of natural dispositions and the hierarchy of feeling over knowing. But apart from some light reading, I am on the whole painfully uninformed; admittedly intrigued yet shamefully ignorant.
The bus arrives before the seated statue. Now is my chance to learn.
The Tian Tan Buddha sits high above me, shrouded in wondrous blue. He is calm, unaffected, and does not turn to greet me—I must go to him.
Facing the mainland, the Buddha waits atop a long staircase. His size is imposing at the foot, but his half-lidded eyes and Mona Lisa smile have a certain charm that draws you up with haste. He sits upon a lotus throne, on his chest the tantric swastika symbol, long since bastardized. It is said that this statue was designed from canonical Buddhist Sutras that describe his features first-hand: the elongated ears for long life, the pearls for hair that represent a pure mind full of wisdom, the mudrā gesture with both hands, one up and one down, featuring the famous Dharmacakra, or Wheel of the Light. Curiously enough, this symbol looks like a wooden ship’s rudder wheel, and I think it a well enough symbol for a life spent on the Path. This statue, completed nineteen years ago now, looms above me like a god should.
Around the Buddha, six deva statues present gifts of incense, flowers, light, ointment, fruit and music, not simple gifts in and of themselves, but symbols for six characteristics required for Buddhahood: morality, charity, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom. I have no such gift to lie at his feet, and none of those qualities would I dare lay full claim.
Standing amongst these enlightened ones, however, I am moved by everything’s aesthetic simplicity. The order of the place simply feels right. Its overwhelming size, an impressive architectural endeavour, and the natural setting give added weight to its purpose. But even without the religious meaning underneath it all, being here is certainly a peaceful exercise. The same reverent atmosphere has also overtaken other travellers visiting this holy spot. Some come to pray. Some others, like me, come to contemplate.
Deep underneath the Buddha are a disturbing number of curiosity shops, a large bell that does not ring, and, most importantly, a supposed Śarīra of the Buddha himself. While a dubious claim, this relic from Śākyamuni’s death is purported to be a bone fragment from when he achieved parinirvana. At that time when his body finally failed, his spirit could not, imbuing his remains with mystic powers. A miniscule bone fragment from his cremation now rests in a glass vase before me, veiled by orchids, locked behind glass, guarded by ropes and guards and finally an impenetrable wooden fence. In this way, standing before this tiny bone fragment, my quest has reached its zenith. But the bone is unassuming and the hall feels somewhat sepulchral. I am also ever conscious of the hollowness of the bronze statue above my head.
Spirits are high back outside as I trace down the 260 or so steps toward the adjacent Po Lin Monastery. I even have time for an ice cream myself from one of the myriad of souvenir shops choking the pathways below. I’m painfully reminded, many years ago, of my patronage at the Starbucks within Beijing’s Forbidden City, where I failed to see the significance of such a paradox.
The act of tourism stings less here. Perhaps, because the secrets of religious philosophy are not “forbidden” from me now, but have already been stripped of their value before I arrived. Buddhism feels less like an authentic, functioning system, even here in Hong Kong, and has been made instead to stand as an aesthetic marker of the One and Only Way, an exotic alternative that is long lost, leaving only a shell, a sign of what it once was. Even here at this holy temple, Buddhism has been relegated to an all-in-one sightseeing package, a pre-scripted cultural experience for easy consumption.
I am aware of my role in this, a victim and perpetrator of this delusional thinking. I, who set aside just enough time to take in thousands of years of culture and thought in a single afternoon! And did I wonder or feel disappointed at its ineffectualness?
Before I speak too soon, I must note that the Monastery is strewn with signs asking for money (millions upon millions) for redesigns and further holy Buddhist statues made from gold. The place is filled with goggling foreign faces taking photos instead of praying. There is just one solitary monk among us all, sweeping away the dust at the entrance.
It is past time to leave the temple. Hidden in the trees, thrushes and song-sparrows provide music for my departure.
Near the Ngong Ping Village’s skyward gondola station, a feral pack of water buffalo loiter in a parking lot. Shielded from my curious camera by a ring of dung, I inspect them from afar. Once a crucial aspect of rice farming on this island, these beasts of burden have clearly left their agricultural past behind. The cement world around them provides stark contrast now. A pack of dirt-stained dogs, halfway between wild and domesticated, sniff at trashcans back on the main strip. A fresh litter of pups wrestle in the bushes.
Finally on my way home, I wave goodbye to the stoic and silent statue from my suspended gondola. It glides quietly toward Tung Chung while the last flecks of sunlight peek over the Lantau mountainscape. I say farewell for the last time, though not to the reverent Gautama Buddha, nor to Śākyamuni, but to a dusty teacher from ancient times. A human Prince. A mere man. Simply Siddhartha and nothing more.
Perhaps this is what Peter Matthiessen meant when he mentioned the “desolation of success” in his book on travelling through Tibet in search of the snow leopard. It is the feeling of reaching the summit and finding nothing more than a mole-hill beneath one’s feet. It is the feeling of discovering Milarepa was most likely a cold-blooded murderer. It is the feeling of knowing the Buddha statue is nothing but bronze, cold and vacant beneath the surface.
My parting reveals an inner frustration, perhaps a lack of understanding drawing from a lack respect, an ideological separation. I’ve fallen short of āryāṣṭāṅgamārga, the Path and its Eightfold ways to awakening: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The best I could do was a fivefold hustle along public transportation, moving from taxi, ferry, bus, gondola and soon enough to the subway train toward Hong Kong Island.
After all, I was not taught the salutation act of añjali mudrā, nor do I feel an inherent respect leading me to greet begging monks with “namaste”. An eastern veneration for Buddhist philosophy in me is at best an abstract tolerance, akin to a western salute to authority, reciting a pledge before a flag, crossing oneself before a guilt-ridden prayer at night—all of which I am infinitely acquainted. Is this typical Western delusion? Do I grasp onto the world’s dukkha and the things it teaches, or do I learn to release … to let them go before they consume me? Had I waved my flag when meeting the Master—approached him with a closed mind, unable and perhaps unwilling to consider what it had already decided against?
No answers come. The gondola has drifted smoothly above the Tung Chung metro station without a hitch. The familiar cacophony slips around me once again via hot signs and flashing lights above an endless shopping mall. Somewhere inside, a pathway cracking open has closed. Soon enough, I’m browsing shoes, 30% off.