The Big Buddha Community
Deep in Sichuan province, in the town of Leshan, Jacob and I stood with several hundred Chinese on a plateau overlooking the tip of his head. Then we proceeded in a series of switchbacks beside his right earlobe. I inched along the trail, rounded a bend – and gasped. Before me, sitting peacefully in his mountain abode, was the largest human being I had ever seen.
Granted, he was a statue. But still. At 233 feet tall, this giant Buddha is enough to make anyone feel a little small and inadequate.
No doubt that was largely the intent. Legend has it that a monk named Haitong conceived the project in the 8th century as way of pacifying the turbulent waters that often led to shipwrecks in the nearby river. Though Haitong labored fervently on the project, he did not live to see his ambitious endeavor completed some 90 years later.
I was struck by the vision of a man willing to devote his life to a project he would likely not live to see completed. It is someone who doesn’t care about recognition, glory, or fame, at least in this life. It is someone who is dedicated to a cause larger than himself. Indeed, Haitong’s story is filled with accounts of his rectitude and devotion – when a greedy local official threatened to siphon off funds from the project, Haitong gouged out his own eye to demonstrate his piety and sincerity. As you stare up past toes about as large as you into the face of this serene, timeless Buddha, Haitong’s message of the insignificance of the individual is one that resonates.
I once had a history teacher who used to say that you could discern much about a society’s values by looking at their largest edifices. The coliseum in Rome, for example, indicates a love of entertainment for the masses; the pyramids of Egypt indicate an obsession with the afterlife.
So too does this Buddha – the tallest pre-modern statue in the world – tell us about Chinese values. Instead of dedicating their largest structure to themselves or an individual in their midst, the people here dedicated it to their common ideals of Buddhism. And Haitong’s story tells us of the selflessness that led to its creation. This structure is the product of a society that places the community above the individual.
This ancient ideal of self-sacrifice and emphasis on the community has its roots in Confucian teachings on filial piety and social harmony but echoes into modern times. It explains why some Chinese are so willing to forgo individual rights if it helps communal progress.
One student I met here was sympathetic towards the plight of Bo Xi Lai, the disgraced communist party official whose career erupted in scandal after he allegedly helped cover up his wife’s murder of a businessmen. He was also widely reported to abuse his powers to crush opposition.
“So you don’t believe all the evidence against Bo Xi Lai?” I inquired.
“Oh, I believe it, but he did so many great things for China. He helped the economy and lowered crime. Nobody cares about his abuses compared to how much he helped China.”
I guess, to some in China, it doesn’t matter if you enrich yourself and your friends through corruption, cover up a murder, and arbitrarily imprison people – as long as you increase GDP somewhere along the way. The individuals who are left behind are perhaps just casualties in the march towards communal goodness.
In front of me, the giant Buddha stares impassively into the distance. Looking into eyes just about as big as myself, I think I get a sense of where the Chinese are coming from.