In the heart of downtown Shanghai there rests a massive Buddhist temple called Jingan. The shimmering gold and smooth wood seem utterly out of place among the skyscrapers and bustling city streets, but upon entering the temple’s gate I am immediately swept into another world entirely.
China’s many Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist temples play an integral role in the country’s culture. From modest to grandiose, these houses of worship are ever-impressive reminders of China’s religious devotion, of the skill and expertise their builders have been capable of throughout history.
Adventures in Asia
Part IV: Every Detail Tells a Story
Today’s visit to the Jingan Temple left me feeling nothing short of overwhelmed at the attention to detail and craftsmanship displayed by the makers of the building. As I wandered around the temple’s grounds, I realized just how much intricacy was present in the various carvings, shrines and structural details that comprise the sanctuary. From immediately prominent golden statues adorning the altars and pillars to the smallest engravings on the ends of the rooftop tiles, every part of the temple seemed to possess an endless amount of elaborate precision in its design and construction.
Similar to the vast array of accompanying aspects of Chinese culture, the ornate details found in the architecture of its religious temples tell a story that goes far beyond aesthetic appeal. Nothing is simply used frivolously because it looks nice; the abundance of shapes, forms and symbols come together as pieces of a larger picture to provide a richer context to the whole. To use Jingan Temple as an example, there are various literal symbols of the Buddhist faith that are employed throughout the temple grounds; the carved jade Buddha statues, the lotus pictograms inlaid in shaped stone on the temple floor, and the Dharma Wheel icons carved into the ends of each roof tile are all visual representations of Buddhist belief and tradition.
In addition to breathing discipline and complexity into the structure of the Jingan Temple, these decorative details also have additional purpose beyond what is immediately comprehensive to the viewer. For example, the outer wall of the main hall features three-dimensional wood carvings depicting various animal scenes and other Buddhist symbology which are beautiful and elegant from a visual and religious standpoint, but the carvings’ creation by the temple’s resident monks also teaches its creators patience and the strengthening of oneself through meditation. Small ornamental figures throughout the outer layer of roof tiles conceal nails and sharp materials, keeping in line with the traditional Chinese methods of construction.
I have never really considered myself a very religious person. Not because I don’t believe in a higher power or a personal devotion to a system of beliefs, but because the practices I experienced have never quite resonated fully with me. I grew up attending a really supportive Mennonite church until I was about 12 years old with plenty of fond memories, but I spent most of my Sunday afternoons perched on a pew far from the altar, doodling away in my sketchbook and letting my mind wander to distant places.
That being said, my visits to Buddhist temples like Tiger Hill and Hanshan in Suzhou and Jingan in Shanghai were enlightening to say the least. I have witnessed firsthand like never before the deep commitment to faith that so many people from all walks of life feel. A little boy, no older than two or three years, giggled as he learned the practice of prayer from his parents at the Hanshan Temple. Families joined groups of monks in chanting prayer for loved ones in the rooms of Jingan. At Tiger Hill, an elderly man bowed before the giant statue of Buddha, praying with visible emotion. I was hit with a lightning bolt of curiosity.
My classmate Felicia explained the movements and thought process behind the practice of Buddhist prayer, and I tried it for the first time at Hanshan. The devotion to faith that I have experienced while visiting these world-renowned temples has shown me just how much influence Buddhism still holds on the people of China today, and sparked an interested in religion in me that I have never previously held.
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