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Sichuan’s Ancient Buddha Is Sitting Pretty

5 minute read

Before Afghanistan’s religious zealots destroyed their famous sculptures in Bamiyan, did you know the location of the world’s tallest standing Buddha? The folks living in remote, mountainous Sichuan certainly did. Locals there have spent years tallying the centimeters of every giant Buddha on the planetand comparing them with their own. So while the rest of the world united in indignation when the Taliban blasted Afghanistan’s two 1,500-year-old carved Buddhas to rubble, residents of Leshan city took a more practical view: they called it good for business. “Now our Buddha is even more valuable,” says one local.

He’s talking about the Dafo, or the Grand Buddha, the largest Buddha in the worldeven though it has never even bothered to stand up. The statue of Maitreya, the future reborn Buddha, gazes serenely from his mountainside throne just south of Leshan, overseeing three rivers that flow together at his feet. Rich in Buddhist tradition, the area features some of China’s first monasteries, which were built on nearby Mount Emei. To add to the area’s holiness, in the 8th century during the Tang dynasty, Haitong, a monk and abbot at a nearby monastery, initiated the building of the Buddha and surrounding temples. In Haitong’s day the convergence of the Min, Dadu and Qingyi rivers was treacherous for local fishermen and the abbot figured a sculpture of the Buddha would also ensure the safety of the skiffs and junks that plied the rivers below. It worked, but not as Haitong expected. As construction progressed on the 91-year-long project, cast-off rocks filled the riverbed and calmed the dangerous swells that had proved so deadly.

Today, Maitreya is still protecting boats, safeguarding tourists who sail upriver from Leshan to pause at his feet and marvel at his towering 71-m presence. That’s a third taller than the largest of his unfortunate Afghan cousins. His ears are 7 m, his toes 8.5 m. Leshan lives by these figures. The Po Lin Monastery in Hong Kong, for example, boasts the world’s largest outdoor sitting bronze Buddha. Scoffs a Leshan guide: “That statue is new. Our Buddha is over 1,000 years old and carved by hand.”

This is more than pride talkingthe Buddha is a meal ticket. In a good month, a guide can make upwards of $250, almost three times the average local income. And Maitreya’s future appears bright. UNESCO has declared the Buddha a World Heritage Site and in 1999 the World Bank lent China $2 million for its preservation. As a result, young Chinese workers can be seen clambering for handholds across Maitreya’s face, fitting pipes into scaffolding from where they brush and firm his flaking clay skin. Close by, others pound soil into a fine silt that they use as a foundation to cover the blemishes on Buddha’s holy countenance. One uses a trowel to apply samples to a bare rock face, testing to see if the color matches when it dries. A skeleton crew of monks at the few still-active nearby temples maintains the grounds. These days it’s not the monks but businessmen who do most of the praying. Hoping the Buddha’s blessing will help clinch their next big deal and bestow prosperity, they bow with incense in their hands and cell phones on their hips.

The Chinese, of course, haven’t always shown such respect for their icons. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, zealous Red Guards attacked about 1,000 smaller statues carved in Leshan’s cliffs at Maitreya’s feet. Those too sturdy to destroy were often decapitated. Tourists today can wander among the damaged idols sitting in the lotus position, each maintaining a timeless posture of headless tranquillity. The Grand Buddha must have made a tempting target and if the teenage Red Guards had possessed the Taliban’s firepower, Hong Kong might have a great deal more to boast about. “But they were students,” says Huang Xeuqian of Leshan’s Cultural Relics Bureau. “They only used hammers and chisels.”

At Wuyou Si temple, a short walk from today’s more peaceful throng that bustles around the Buddha, is a respectable collection of classical Chinese artifacts. Haitong’s tomb is on display, as well as some well-preserved older tombs dating back to around A.D. 200.

To enjoy all the sights, take a tour boat from Leshan pier (costing up to $4, available all day) past the Grand Buddha to Wuyou Si (about 1 km away, entrance fee $5). Walk over the hill to a small bridge that leads to Dafo and the temple near the statue’s head. Return to Leshan on one of the frequent ferries. If staying overnight, try the three-star Golden Haitong in Leshan, which has doubles for $45. Call (81-833) 212-8888. Nearby the rustic Yangs’ Restaurant is very popular. The owner speaks English and can help arrange tours to the Buddha, nearby villages or Jianjiang Qianfoyan to the northwest, where 2,400 small Buddhas dot the cliffs.

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