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Up the mountain of gods in Hangzhou…

Caroline Mwangi @carolinebobo

Ni men hao ma?! (How are you all doing?) It is yet another beautiful Thursday so let us thank God and rejoice in it. I know you’re rolling your eyes right now at my sudden-religious tune after I spent acres of space of this esteemed newspaper last week telling you about being starry-eyed and in love and proposals!

Well, I will have you know that this sudden piety (though I am very much the pious Christian and staunch Catholic to boot!) has been inspired by a recent trip to the mountains in Hangzhou City, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China where I encountered the most magnificent Buddhist temple I have ever seen.

Nestled between the Feilal and Beigao Mountains, the Lingyin Temple or the Temple of the Souls’ Retreat is a sight to behold. The temple is said to have been founded 326 AD by Master Huili, a monk from western India who is said to have been impressed by the area due to its apparent spiritual nature.

During its heydays, the temple had nine buildings, 18 chambers, 72 halls and 1,300 living quarters for its more than 3,000 monks. At the entrance of the temple are grottoes that bear rock relief statues of Buddha, the most prominent being the large, pot-bellied, laughing Buddha.

Buddhists say that the reason he is always laughing is because his giant stomach can hold all intolerable things and his mouth is always ready to laugh at snobbish people. Here thousands of tourists and Buddhists and monks from all corners of the world come to pay homage, with the lush greenery of the area and the streams below, making it all the more special.

A few metres from the rock grottoes stands the Hall of The Heavenly Kings, considered to be the formal entrance of the temple. Here you encounter humongous statues of four gods who impact various lessons for followers from living in moderation to the importance of showing others mercy.

Outside the Hall of Heavenly Kings are these huge burners where worshippers and tourists burn incense sticks and chant prayers in offering to the gods. It is quite the sight when, in their hundreds, they hold the incense sticks in front of them, bow several times and in different directions, chanting prayers for good health and a good, long life.

Another key feature of the Lingyin Temple is the Hall of The Five Hundred Arhats. Inside this huge hall stand 500 life-size sculptures representing 500 Arhats. Arhats are the people who are recognised as the disciples of Buddha.

This huge hall is a fantastic piece of architecture. Each sculpture weighs more than a ton! At the centre of this hall, is the ‘Bronze Hall of Four Great Mountains’ with each god being the patron of one virtue or another.

While here, one of the gods seemed to be visited and prayed to more than the rest, arousing my curiosity, but I was soon to find out why. He is the god of wisdom. All the people that appeared before him in prayer or presented offerings were either students or loved ones of students who were about to sit the recently-concluded, dreaded and tough-as-nails college entrance exam known popularly as gaokao.

The most outstanding feature of the temple, however, is the Grand Hall of The Great Sage. As the name suggests, this hall is grand indeed. After all, it is here that Sakyamuni Buddha, whose teachings founded Buddhism, is worshipped. Inside, Sakyamuni Buddha’s statue stands, a whopping 24.8 metres off the ground.

His head is slightly leaning forward and eyes set at a slight gaze to indicate his solemn kindness. When we arrived at the Grand Hall, we found that we were just in time for worship. From one of the rooms inside the hall, a group of about 20 monks, chanting prayers and beating drums gathered at Sakyamuni Buddha’s feet as they do several times a day.

These are men who have completely dedicated their lives to the service of their religion. To prayer and to live a holy life. It suffices to say, however, that as we climbed down the holy mountain, I felt a profound sense of peace and desire to be a better person and to be kind to others.

I wish the same for all Kenyans at a time when the political drumbeats are beating louder than ever and the temperatures are heating up. Kenya is our home, we have no other place to run to. Can’t we all just get along? May peace reign and may God preserve our motherland!

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