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An Awakening at Po Lin

The bus climbed higher and higher up the mountain. Soon we were driving high above the sea, which appeared far below us framed by long flapping Buddhist flags. Then the great Buddha statue came into sight - sitting atop the mountain, arms resting upon his lotus-positioned legs, hands upturned to the sky. We all disembarked from the bus, and the whole Po Lin Monastery complex could been seen encircling the giant statue in a ring-shaped valley within the mountain top.

We climbed down the 108 stairs to the circular plaza, from which a wide avenue lead to the principal monastery buildings. We ate at the dining room, and then wandered through into the main temple courtyard.

A formal Chinese garden surrounded the temple buildings, which were ornately carved and rose above the grounds on tall stone footings. Steep staircases lead up to the entrance and into the front door.

Inside, several large statues of Buddha sat and reclined. Far from being a peaceful sanctuary that a westerner might expect of a sacred place, the temple was full of life: people praying, lighting and waving bundles of incense, placing flowers and fruit in vases and bowls, and all the time moving slowly on along a predetermined pathway from entry and exit.

We walked around, looking, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing the place but at the same time feeling a little awkward, and little intrusive in this place of intense and preoccupied pilgrims who knew all the proper forms and rituals without even thinking about it, while we seemed to stumble along, inelegant aliens.

As we came out of the temple exit and on to the verandah, we stepped out of the moving queue as some other people were doing, and just stood looking out across the garden and over the garden wall. Our eyesight was naturally drawn up to the great Buddha statue, which could be seen in profile crowning the mountain.

As we just stood, our senses overflowing and struggling to comprehend, I felt a great sense of calmness come over me. I felt a little light headed - light bodied, even, almost as though a slight breeze would blow me up into the air. I held onto the verandah rail. I looked at him - I could see he was also feeling it too. We said nothing, and just stood there, feeling it, allowing it in, drinking it up, experiencing but not questioning it, tethered to the temple by our grip on the verandah railings alone.

After a little while, I don't know how long, we both seemed to come down, slowly, gently, until we looked at each other.
"Shall we go now", one of us said.
"Yes" agreed the other.
We walked off, and back down the steep steps into the garden.
"Did you feel that?", one of us asked.
"Yes", agreed the other.
"Wow".

We walked back down the avenue to the circular plaza. We stood in the circular podium in the centre of the plaza and discovered that if one of us stood on the edge and the other in the centre, the man on the edge could clearly hear the man in the centre whispering, but it was a whisper that echoed around the circle. Wherever the man on the outer stood, the whispering man in the centre was clearly heard. And of course, these was no edge - no ungainly alien rim. Just an understanding that wherever one stands, it is within the circle, no part more or less important, all connected and whole.

Shortly after, the bus came back, and we headed back down the mountain, away from the gods, to the earthly sensations of a fishing village.

10 June 2004, Blackheath
648 Words

Po Lin is the site of a Buddhist monastery, and the largest outdoor statute of a Buddha in the world. It sits on Ngong Ping, the highest peak of Lantau Island, the biggest island in the territory of Hong Kong in the South China Sea.