Towering high on a mountain top, far from the skyscrapers of Central, sits the beautiful Po Lin Monastery, and its Big Buddha, or Tian Tan Buddha, statue. It’s one of the largest seated Buddha statues in the world – so how did it get up there in the first place?
Buddhism in Hong Kong
Before it was annexed to the British in 1841, Hong Kong was a part of mainland China, and as such, most people followed the traditional Chinese religion, which includes elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Today, the city is an SAR of China, and is home to a diverse population, with many different religions represented. However, the majority of people, in both Hong Kong and China, still follow either the Chinese religion, Buddhism, or a mix of them. The Buddha’s Birthday is observed as a public holiday, and over 1 million people in Hong Kong identify as Buddhist. The religion follows the teachings of the Buddha, birth name Siddhartha Gautama, a man who sought to overcome suffering by attaining ‘nirvana’, where one is released from the cycle of rebirth.
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world with over 500 million followers. It started out in India, somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and then spread across most of Asia. It’s thought that Buddhism reached China via the Silk Road, around the 1st or 2nd century AD. Since then, it has fluctuated in popularity over the years, depending on each ruling dynasty. It reached an apex during the Sui and Tang dynasties (6th-10th centuries), especially in the production of religious art and imagery.
It’s believed that the oldest Buddhist temple in Hong Kong is Tsing Shan Monastery, in the Tuen Mun area of the New Territories. This was established by an Indian monk called Pui To sometime in the 5th century AD. During the 20th century in particular, and up to the present, it has gained an increasing number of followers in Hong Kong. More temples and monasteries were established at the time, as the city’s wealth and population grew under British occupation.
Establishing Po Lin Monastery
Long before the Big Buddha statue was built, a Buddhist monastery was established nearby; Po Lin Monastery, which is also open to visitors. Its origins trace back to 1906, when three Buddhist monks, Venerables Da Yue, Dun Xiu, and Yue Ming, travelled from Jiangsu province, China, to Lantau Island. Their intention was to set up a place of worship, and they chose this spot high in the hills because of its tranquility and serenity. Originally it was known as ‘Big Thatched Hut’ (translated from ‘Tai Mao Pung’), since that was what they had built, assisted by more monks who came to join them.
In 1924, Venerable Ji Xiu travelled to the monastery from China, as part of a tour of study. He became the first abbott, and it was renamed Po Lin Monastery, which can translate to ‘Precious Lotus’. Over the following decades, more halls were added to the monastery, transforming it into the colourful and ornate complex we see today. Much of this was during the abbotship of Venerable Fat Ho, in the 1930-40s. The most famous building though, is the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a recent addition which was started in 2000, and completed in 2014.
In 1979, a delegation of monks from Po Lin Monastery travelled to mainland China when the country opened up again. It was a ceremonial trip, to solidify relations between the Buddhist communities in Hong Kong and China. During this visit, they were gifted with one of the last official copies of the Qianlong Tripitaka (Chinese Buddhist Canon). It had been printed on wooden blocks in the 18th century. In 1992, a delegation travelled to Sri Lanka, and brought back two relics of the Buddha to Po Lin Monastery.
Building the Tian Tan Buddha
In 1974, Po Lin Monastery was granted to land to build a Buddha statue. The monks then found inspiration during their 1979 trip to mainland China. The name ‘Tian Tan Buddha’ is because of the base of the statue, which was inspired by the Temple of Heaven (‘Tiantan’) in Beijing. The figure itself was also modelled after statues in China. The facial features come from Buddha Vairocana, in the Longmen Caves, and the clothes are from Buddha Sakyamuni, in the Dunhuang Grottoes. The whole piece was designed to symbolise the harmonious relationship between man and nature.
Construction started in 1981, and it took twelve years for the project to be completed, at a cost of HK$60 million. The statue was first built as a plaster model, in mainland China. This was used to cast the 202 pieces of bronze, which were then transported to Hong Kong for assembly. The face is actually made from one solid piece of bronze! The statue sits at 34m in height, and weighs over 250 tonnes. This makes it the largest bronze, seated, outdoor Buddha statue in the world! The grand opening was held in December 1993, and Buddhist monks were invited from all over the world. The Tian Tan Buddha was a catalyst for Po Lin, making it a world-renowned monastery.
Tourism & Ngong Ping
The construction of the Tian Tan Buddha brought increased tourism to Po Lin Monastery. In 2002, the Hong Kong Government decided to encourage even more visitors, with the construction of Ngong Ping 360, a cable car up to the Ngong Ping plateau. A ‘cultural village’ was also built, with a piazza and commercial strip between the cable car terminus and monastery. Concerns were raised at the time about the impact on the environment, and loss of revenue for the monastery (which has a restaurant and takes donations). The MTR Corporation, who built and own the cable car, assured people that these were taken into account. The village was completed in 2005, and the cable car opened in 2006.
The cable car stretches 5.7km up the hillside on Lantau Island, starting next to the Tung Chung MTR station. The cable cars provide panoramic views over the surrounding scenery, and there’s the option of a glass floored ‘Crystal Cabin’. Clear, sunny days are the best times to visit, to make the most of the views, both from the cable car, and the mountaintop. Ngong Ping village includes several souvenir shops and restaurants, but also a traditional Chinese tea house, a stage area for cultural performances, and ‘Walking with with Buddha’, a multimedia attraction that tells the life story of the Buddha.
The Big Buddha
You’ll be able to see the Tian Tan Buddha as soon as you arrive on Ngong Ping plateau, towering above on the hilltop. First, you will pass through a stone tiled piazza. This is lined with the Twelve Divine Generals, statues representing the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Each general has its own distinct weapon. From, the base of the Buddha you can get some pretty good views looking up, especially with the circles of flags nearby.
There are 268 steps up to it, but for anyone with mobility issues, a staff member can show you the pathway instead. Once you get to the top, you will see six stone Bodhisattvas, known as ‘The Offering of the Six Devas’. They are Buddhist deities which help people towards enlightenment. Each offers a different tribute to the Buddha; flowers, fruit, incense, music, ointment, and light. The offerings symbolise patience, morality, wisdom, charity, zeal, and meditation. Under the Buddha, you can visit three halls, housing artefacts about the Buddha.
The Tian Tan Buddha sits atop a lotus flower, a symbol of purity. He faces to the north, towards mainland China, which is unusual as most statues face south. The face has soft features, to show compassion and wisdom. The right hand is in the mudra of ‘imparting fearlessness’ as the Buddha seeks to free beings from suffering. The left is in the mudra of ‘fulfilling wishes’, as he seeks to grant happiness and blessings. Each palm has the Dharma wheel on it, symbolising his teachings and eternal truth. The reverse swastika, or sauwastika, symbol on his chest shows that he possesses all virtues. This is a centuries old Buddhist and Hindu symbol, the word meaning ‘well-being’, but in the Western world, it was stolen and its meaning twisted by the Nazis.
Po Lin Monastery
Don’t miss out on visiting the monastery too! Some buildings are restricted only for the monks, but you can still see the main halls. First, you will pass through the vast Mountain Gate, and then the Bauhinia Grove (the flower of Hong Kong), where dozens of incense offerings burn. The entrance to the monastery is a temple gateway, guarded by several deity statues. Throughout the halls, everything is ornately decorated with intricate, symbolic paintings and carvings. Across the central courtyard, you will find the Main Shrine Hall, with three golden Buddhas inside. There are fruit and flower offerings, and many grand lamps suspended from the high ceilings.
Behind the Main Shrine, you will find the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. This is a recent addition, completed in 2014, after several years of construction. It’s one of the largest buildings, with several tiers and a colourful exterior. The Hall is truly breathtaking inside, with thousands of tiny golden Buddhas lining the walls, and five larger ones in the centre, surrounded by offerings.
The monastery also has a vegetarian lunch available from 11.30am, typical of what the monks eat themselves. You have to get a ticket in advance from the counter at the base of the Buddha or the kitchen reception, which costs around HK$60, or $100 for the deluxe option.
Nearby, you can also visit the Wisdom Path. This is a series of 38 timber columns, each inscribed with Chinese characters, arranged in the infinity symbol. These form a prayer, the Heart Sutra, which is commonly used by Buddhists. One column is left blank though, to represent emptiness. This is a very peaceful area, much less crowded than the Big Buddha, and only takes around 10 minutes to walk through.
Entry: Free. Charge of HK$60 for entrance to the museum under the Buddha.
Tian Tan Buddha – daily, 10.00am – 17.30pm
Po Lin Monastery – daily, 8.00am – 18.00pm
There are several options to reach the Tian Tan Buddha, but the most popular is the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car, which is an attraction unto itself. This takes 25 minutes, and costs HK$235 for an adult round trip. First, you have to take the MTR to Tung Chung station, and the cable car terminus is just outside. The MTR is the most convenient way to reach Lantau, as other options (bus or ferry) take much longer.
If you prefer not to take the cable car, or want a cheaper option, there is also a bus station next to the terminus. New Lantau Bus 23 (approx. HK$17 weekdays, $27 weekends) will take you to Ngong Ping Village, a journey of 45 minutes. You can also take a ferry from Central to Mui Wo, and then Bus 2 to Ngong Ping. Taxis are also available from anywhere on Lantau. Another option, is to hike the mountain, which will take a couple of hours at least.
Have you visited the Big Buddha before? Leave a comment about your experience!