This commentary was written in 2012. Certain parts of the story may be outdated and no longer apply.
A few years ago I was in Japan on business where a tour of local Buddhist shrines, temples and monasteries was arranged for me. I was picked up at my hotel by a chauffeur driving a shiny stretched Mercedes limousine and treated like royalty as I visited several wonderful spiritual sites. However, I found it odd that all kinds of McDonalds bags and soft drink containers were strewn all over the car. As my tour came to an end, I finally met my host and the mystery owner of this beautiful car: a Buddhist monk. The fast food garbage on the back seat was left by his children the night before.
Since then, my ideas about Buddhism have never been the same. In my head, I simply could not reconcile the idea of a monk driving Mercedes. Aren’t they supposed to live austere and simple lifestyles, totally devoted to a pursuit of enlightenment, not BigMacs and luxury cars?
In Hong Kong I had a chance to adjust my warped perception of Buddhism and monks: I came to visit the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island. The monastery is located on top of a mountain - perfect place for a reclusive lifestyle and reflection. In fact, half way there we had to change busses because regular city busses cannot make it up the steep hills and around the sharp switch-back curves. The things you do in your pursuit of spiritual truth!
The first you see of the monastery is the Buddha. You can see the statue already from miles away on top of the mountain. Almost 34 m (111 ft) in height and 255 metric tons in weight, it is an imposing structure, and it grows more impressive as you get closer. It is the largest sitting Buddha in the world. Once at the top, a whole different picture emerges: parking lots with busses, souvenir shops galore, restaurants and washrooms for every physical yearning and, eventually and if you make it this far, the temple. Wow! – this is quite an operation! And now they are adding on: an entire new huge temple building is under construction.
Established in 1905, this complex of spiritual life has grown to become a spectacular destination for pilgrims and families alike, despite the fact that it was destroyed by fire and re-built twice. The number of monks at Po Lin has steadily increased, too: from 3 at the time of the monastery’s establishment in 1905 to 5 (five!) monks in 2012.
Without doubt, many people come here to pray, to pay their respects to The Buddha, to bring offerings and find solace and comfort in their spiritual practice. People write their concerns and desires on red cards which they hang inside an incense coil for the smoke to carry their prayers up to the heavens. It is a beautiful and moving experience to see the devotion and earnest spiritual pursuit of the worshippers in the temple, despite the commotion around them.
Also on Lantau Island you’ll find a wonderful old-fashioned fishing village. Far from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, the village of Tai O has remained much the same over the last century. With houses on stilts and transportation happening on water, much of the village’s market activities are restricted to narrow aisle ways. Here, dried fish is the main commodity for sale. Walking through town, the eyes can feast on dead octopus and fish bladder. The smell can be overwhelming.
As in many other parts of the world, the fish harvest in Hong Kong is in decline. To curb consumption and the demise of fish stocks in the region, the government has now decided to restrict fishing. From next year on, fishing off the coast of China will only be allowed for the months of June and July. Wonder what this will do to the livelihoods of people in Tai O.