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On the Well-Beaten Path

A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple, one of Shanghai's tourist attractions

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
Outside Jade Buddha Temple  

SHANGHAI (CNN) -- You could almost walk or drive past the entrance to the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, except for all the tour buses out front. Its exterior walls are interesting, but not really striking enough to make a busy passerby pause.

Construction of the temple began in the late 1800s, after a monk brought with him to Shanghai from Burma two amazing pure jade statues of Sakyamuni, the historic Buddha.

The more famous of the two statues is nearly 7 feet tall and jewel-encrusted, portraying the Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment. The other shows the Buddha lying on his side, a crooked arm supporting his head, the position of repose he took when he left this world for Nirvana.


A day at Jade Buddha Temple

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Jade Buddha Temple

The temple was destroyed in 1911 during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and ended imperial rule in China. It was rebuilt seven years later.

I purchased an elaborately decorated ticket and maneuvered my way through the crowds into the main courtyard. While the temple is just over a century old, it is done in the style of the Song Dynasty, which arose more than 1,000 years ago. Ignore the people and the handful of cars parked inside the courtyard, and you could be back in Old China.

Clouds of incense hit me within a few seconds. I like the scent of incense, but I also like to breathe. I had moments when I had to choose to stay put or find a pocket of fresh air.

Holy smoke: Incense is an important part of this style of Buddhism  

Incense is an essential part of this style of Buddhism. The faithful burn it as offerings to their ancestors and wave it to bring favor from the Buddhist pantheon of gods. You do not have to bring incense with you. It is readily available at the temple shop, along with postcards and other keepsakes.

The temple was surely turning a profit on incense when I was there. Some people waved modest handfuls. Others burned it in large bundles, pressed between clasped hands.

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • All this resulted in a nearly constant "foom, foom, foom!" as two or three persons at a time rapidly waved their incense torches. A virtual bonfire of fragrant smoke came from the courtyard's incense burners -- one round, signifying heaven, one square, representing earth.

    In the midst of these applications to a higher being were several hundred visitors from all over. Most had tour guides who had to yell over each other to explain to their respective groups the significance of each of the temple buildings and altars.

    The Jade Buddha Temple is not simply a tourist attraction. It is also home to several dozen monks, most of whom appeared to be teenagers or in their 20s. They dodged tourists as they crossed the main courtyard toward their quarters or to the vegetarian restaurant on the temple grounds.

    Stepping into the temple's main building takes you away from the crowds in more ways than one. The interior is dark, tall and vast, the light seeming to emanate from the gilded Buddhas.

    I sat there for a moment, regarding the large bell and drum by the building's entry, when an elderly monk appeared. He was wearing black, unlike the brown or gray of the other monks I had seen. I asked permission to take his picture, and he smiled and nodded his assent. I then asked him about the crowds. He smiled again but touched his mouth, signifying he could not or would not speak.

    Speechless: This monk smiled, but would not talk  

    On the other side of the main building a man lay nearly prostrate in front on another altar. He stayed in this position, only moving his head slightly up and down, for the better part of two minutes, as scores of people walked around him.

    Outside in the main courtyard tourists attempted to throw coins into a tall bronze vessel covered with elaborate markings. Having your coins land inside the bronze apparently brings you good fortune.

    Some tourists allowed their competitive natures to get the best of them. They cheered when the coins sailed inside the bronze, and uttered loud exclamations of disgust when the coins bounced off and landed in the dirt. It was somewhat like watching a pickup basketball game in a cathedral.

    King of the South
    Temple guard: A woman prays before the King of the South, one of the four heavenly kings who protect the temple from all directions  

    I know I sound rather contemptuous of the scene at the Jade Buddha Temple. It's more that I have a problem with crowds, especially crowds of tourists.

    I was actually pleased to see the temple in action -- to see that Buddhism is still an active part of Chinese society and culture.

    Tourism also generates the funds to keep the temple going. But maybe we should let them worship in peace every now and then.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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