Leshan Giant Buddha has been on original my bucket list since I knew about it from the movie Wind and Clouds 风云. Of course, it was not as dramatic as it was portrayed in the movie.
Building the Buddha
The Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛 is a statue of Maitreya bodhisattva 彌勒菩薩 in a sitting posture found along the river bank in Leshan City in the southern part of Sichuan province.
Most of us are familiar of Maitreya in another form which can be seen along the way up to the top of mountain. This form known as Budai Monk 布袋和尚 was thought to the reincarnation of the Maitreya.
It is the biggest carved stone Buddha in the world. It is carved out of a cliff face of Cretaceous red bed sandstones that lies at the confluence of two rivers, Min River 岷江 and Dadu River 大渡河.
Coming Round the Mountain
The way up is different from the way down to control the flow of large number of tourist traffic that comes here very day before the Covid pandemic struck the world. If you come by tourist coaches, you will be alighted at the tourist carpark to the west (next to the cruise harbour). If you come by private car, you can save some walking and come within the vicinity of the entrance.
As you walk towards the entrance, you can already see some carvings and statues in man-made niches made into the sandstone cliff.
To go up, you need to enter the park from the western entrance, where you buy the tickets. A word of advice, go to the washroom at the back of the ticket counters. You will thank me as it’s a long walk up with no bathrooms along the way.
It is a gentle walk up the 10 storeys high mountain. The whole walk takes a leisurely 30 min. Along the way up the mountain, you will walk past many niches 壁龛 carved into the mountain that house a buddha statue. And the higher you go, the more ancient it gets.
These were works through centuries of artisans who were paid by believers who wanted to proclaim their faith to Buddha by putting a personal altar along the cliffs of this sacred mountain. They would most likely be in full colour when they were new, as you can see vaguely from the plaster peeling off on the first buddha on the left.
Many were defaced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), as idol worship was not allowed. You can see in the shadows next to the headless buddha statuette is a mural that could be the image of the sponsor of this niche paying respect to the buddha.
Along the way you will come across a small pond called Dragon’s Pond and Tiger’s Den 龙湫虎穴. The dragon was said to wreck havoc in the river.
Legend has it that a white tiger frequently showed up in the mountain, terrorising the villagers. The Tang Dynasty poet and Mayor of Jiazhou, Cen Shen 岑参 once visited here and wrote, “Wind whirls into the tiger’s den, rain falls onto the dragon’s pond.” 「回风吹虎穴，片雨当龙湫。」Hence this place was named as such.
Believers used to offer prayers to the statuettes along the way. One, they caused pollution on the walls. Second, they were a fire hazard. A fire broke out in the 80s, and some Tang dynasty statuettes were destroyed along the way. Since then, all offerings are restricted to the temple compounds only.
And when you reach the gateway with the plaque that was written by modern Chinese scholar Guo Moruo 郭沫若, you know you have arrived at the top of the mountain.
The entrance is guarded by a pair of stone lions carved in the pre-Ming style. Pairs of guardian lions have a long history in China. They began to appear frequently in the early medieval period introduced with Buddhist imagery from southern and central Asia, the lions signifying the nobility of the Buddha and his power in the spiritual world. As lions are not native to China, Chinese envisioned them as fantastic, supernatural creatures and fierce protectors against malevolent forces.
Notice that they are different from the ones that you see in the Forbidden City in Beijing, they are not carved in the same styles as those you find there were only popular manifestation in Ming and Qing dynasty. They are not stepping on a young (female) or a ball (male).
Going Down Lingyun Pathway 凌云栈道
After you spend some time at the top of the mountain, you can walk down to the water’s edge to the Buddha at its feet, which will show you how majestic the statue is.
The path down to the river bank is called Lingyun Pathway 凌云栈道. This modern pathway was opened in 1984 for the increasing numbers of tourists. And among those, many could not tackle the challenging original pathway. The entire distance to the foot of the Buddha is 500m.
First, you walk down a series of zig-zag staircase that winds down the face of the cliff. The vertical drop is 70m. If you are afraid of height, certain portions would be a challenge as you simply stare into the river down there.
And when you reach the bottom, you walk along the bank and into a man-made tunnel before reaching the platform at the foot of the Buddha. Thank goodness these days, the pathway has been renovated with modern non-slip tiles with chains and fencing to prevent accidents. However, if you have weak knees or difficulty in walking, this is not for you and you should see the Buddha from a river cruise.
And when you made it, you would be rewarded with this fantastic view of the Buddha from its feet up. The original way down called Jiuqu (literally “Nine Bends”) Pathway 九曲栈道 (covered in scaffolding in the photo) was under renovation when I visited, or else that would be the path back up.
Thank goodness I don’t have to try that pathway. Now I can just use the same way down to go back up.
Su Dongpo and Leshan 苏轼与嘉州
Su Dongpo 苏轼 (1037-1101) was a Sichuan native and stayed in the nearby Meishan 眉山 and grew up in the shadows of the Giant Buddha. He wrote many poems about his time here in Leshan, which was called Jiazhou 嘉州 in olden time.
Along the way around the park, you can see multiple references to Su and his students. Right after you start the path up the mountain, you will see a large Chinese character 「佛」”Buddha” written by Su and carved into the wall. This is later found to be early 20th century, although the calligraphy is real and this is very common art form in China.
OK, this wasn’t a relic. But you can see the poem carved on the columns of the pavilion that was named after a phrase from this poem. It was named 载酒亭 Pavilion of Carrying Wine to commemorate Su. He would most likely be going up the mountain using this same path as I did, stopped here for a breather as he carried his bottles and picnic basket coming round the mountain.
The next instalment of the series will show you around the views and temple at the top of the mountain.
About Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛
The Leshan Giant Buddha 樂山大佛 is a 71-metre (233 ft) tall stone statue, built between 713 and 803 AD (during the Tang dynasty).
Due to the large amount of photos, I have divided this series into three parts:
- Going Up and Down – The path going up to the top of hill
- At The Top – Vintage point of looking at the Buddha’s head up close
- By The River – Looking at the Buddha along the river
Visited in Dec 2021