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Kavitha Dispatch

Buddhism? Here? Visiting the Yuantong Temple
June 28, 2000

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Trekker goddesses grace a Buddhist temple
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Walking through the streets of Kunming, I was surprised about a lot of things. I was surprised to find such modern, clean streets, so many enormous skyscrapers, and such cold gray skies. But my biggest surprise came while Jasmine, Abeja, Yang-Yang and I were walking across town yesterday and passed a monk in yellow and maroon robes. Wait a second…Where are we? In India and Nepal, I was accustomed to seeing Tibetan Buddhist monks on the streets, but we left India and Nepal over a week ago! Thousands of Tibetan Buddhists fled from their homeland of Tibet to seek refuge in India and Nepal when the Chinese government took over Tibet and proceeded in destroying most of the temples and sacred artifacts during the Cultural Revolution .

After learning about how repressed Tibetans were and how forbidden it was for them to practice their religion under Chinese rule, I was surprised to find this monk in full robes, walking so freely in the streets of China. I had thought that religion was abolished under the Chinese Communist Party.

Map
The Communist government of China feels religion is a hindrance that kept the people subordinate to the old traditions and ruling classes of the past. Thus, many monasteries and temples all over China were destroyed since the Communist Party has been in rule. However, today there is still a minority of people who practice traditional Chinese religions such as Taoism and Buddhism. If you're lucky, you can still find some of China's beautiful ancient temples that were saved from complete destruction.



Tour the Yuantong Temple in Kunming

28.8 56.6 DSL

(Video Help)

Abeja, Jasmine, Yang-Yang and I were just that lucky as we turned the corner and followed the monk in yellow and maroon robes to one such temple: the beautiful Yuantong Temple, the largest Buddhist complex in Kunming. In middle of a busy metropolis, this peaceful temple complex is a wonderful escape from the loud city. We walked past yet another site for the construction of a new skyscraper, and ducked away under the entrance gate to the temple grounds. Immediately we left the loud traffic and hubbub of the city streets and were transported back in time. Gone were the fancy department stores and karaoke bars, gone were the high rise buildings. We were surrounded by green forests, beautifully carved Chinese arches, buildings painted with dragons and other religious symbols, and monks in their traditional robes...it could have been a scene from the past or present. Behind a haze of smoke created by all the incense that worshippers leave burning, the majestic temple pavilion sits in the middle of a small lake. We crossed the bridge and approached the hall entrance to get a closer look of the golden statue of Buddha. The standing figure has many arms outstretched, each holding its hand in a different manner. Behind this altar is another one with a different Buddha in a different style.

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The Yuantong temple is a sight to behold
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Behind this temple is another larger hall, with yet another style inside. The Buddha in this temple was the traditional image to which I am accustomed, of Buddha sitting in a meditative pose. This giant statue was surrounded by different figures of saints or images of Buddha that I have never seen before. The cascading carvings down the side walls were new to me as well.

The Yuantong Temple was first built over 1000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty that ruled China from around 618 CE until 907 CE, a period that many Chinese feel was the most glorious period of their history. Buddhism flourished under the Tang Dynasty as many Chinese pilgrims made their way to India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and brought back a renewal in the religion. As dynasties rose and fell throughout the history of China, the Yuantong temple too went through changes. Sometimes it was neglected while at other times it was graced with expensive gifts and renovations as power passed from emperor to emperor. That explains all the different halls and pavilions in the large Yuantong complex! After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the temple was later enlarged in the 1300's during the Yuan Dynasty, and then rebuilt again during the Qing Dynasty.

Vocabulary

repressed - kept under control, or kept down
subordinate - placed in a lower rank, subservient
metropolis - a large, busy city
cascading - falling, like a waterfall
flourished - prospered

All the way in the back of the temple complex, against a stone cliff and more greenery, the newest addition to Yuantong temple was yet another surprising sight that had us questioning, once again, "Where are we?"! The temple is exactly the same architecture and style as the ones in Thailand. Even the images of Buddha inside and the paintings of him cutting off his hair are similar to the images that we saw in Buddhist temples all over Thailand. But we left Thailand two days ago! Later, we found out that the hall was indeed a gift from the king of Thailand.

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larger view
The team strikes a pose
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Soon the calming hum of chanting could be heard and we all wandered back to the largest of the halls to find the monks gathered together in prayer. There were only about 20 or so, ranging from young to very old, which is surprisingly few, considering how large the temple complex was. I guess it's a sign of what a minority practicing Buddhists are today in a country as large and populous as China. During the next few weeks we will be visiting more of the old Tao and Buddhist temples that have been spared, and will learn more about how these minorities continue to practice in Communist China. Stay tuned!

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

Jasmine - The World Trek Is Bringing It Home...Kunming, China Kicks Off The Grand Finale!
Monica - Monica's Farewell: Trekking Out of India
Abeja - Confucius Says: Welcome to China
Yang-Yang - The World Trek in China Begins!
Team - Dragon's Bones or Really Old Teeth? The Peking Man Site
Team - Making a Difference - Do As I Say, Not As I Do, And No, You Can't Have Any of My Weapons: Getting MAD About Nuclear Proliferation

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