With the Olympics in Beijing coming up this week, and with a lot of talk over whether this communist enclave has the necessary facilities and requirements to host such a tournament, I thought I could recollect on my visit to the Lama Temple and my exposure to Buddhism. I was there in July 2007, a whole year before the Olympics and as I strode my way round a city covered in smog, smoke and bleakness, myself and my Dutch friend Rene took time to travel to the north east part of Beijing and the Lama Temple, a Buddhist religious quarter of the Chinese capital. It was some experience…
I would class my own religion as a Presbyterian Protestant, and certainly in my younger days I was a good example of this religion, going to Church or Bible Class every Sunday, attending Boys Brigade and partaking in marches to various churches in Northern Ireland. But I’ve neglected my own religion quite a bit lately, with a very low Church attendance. It is always fascinating to read and try and understand other religions. To walk into a temple in Beijing full of strict Budhists is another thing altogether. A very relaxing trip.
After eating Peking Duck and having a nice Beijing beer with two local girls, Rita Wang and Leanne Mok (my only “date” in China if you like…), Rene thought it would be cool to see the Lama Temple, which was due to close for the evening in a few hours, so we had to get there quick in case there were queues, it was a Saturday. We used the underground quite a bit in Beijing, but this time decided on a taxi to Yanghegong, which was the original name to what we now know as The Lama Temple. The history of this courtyard of buildings (temples and living quarters) dates back to 1694, in true Chinese style the arching rooves pave over buildings with colour and substance. Its not all bleak, boring and consistent communism you know.
Originally a palace which hosted the famous “Ming dynasty”, (Quing?) this converted Temple represents the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism. It is widely regarded as the largest of its type in the world. Wearing a bright green Northern Ireland shirt, I paid the 40 p entrance fee (which included a free DVD, this is China ffs!) and Rene and I as foreigners were not there to pray or get all religious; we just wanted to see how people pray and act in their chosen religion. I was amazed at the silence and respect by those praying and around. It looked like people kneeled down on logs and bowed down several times in honour of the Lord in the hope of having their prayers heard, understood and possibly acted upon. Who knows what people pray for in their little worlds.
Inside the Temple were many different rooms and sections, with some people going to a certain part to read the scripts on the wall, all of which were in Chinese or Mandarin (I don’t know the difference to be honest, unless I’m in Tesco looking for an orange). The visitors were mainly Buddhists, obviously and it was as if they were so happy to be there at the temple and able to worship, say their prayers, and probably some wishes and hopes of happiness. It was all very quiet, Rene and I chatted the whole way through however as we dandered from room to room. There was also the sign that read “paying homage to the Buddha three incenses”, there was a smell of incense in this smoggy Chinese air, as Buddhists lit candles and placed them in trays in front of them, or held them as they bowed to an unknown God several times. It was all surreal, and something I didn’t understand.
Each part of the temple was designed specifically for a different purpose, though we couldn’t really differentiate between them to be honest, as they all just looked like rooms to worship in, with different images on the walls etc. I noticed nobody else was taking photos in there and out of respect I didn’t make any videos this time, as I realise it was people practising their religion and should be left at that.
Walking round the Lama Temple actually took quite a long time, and I wanted to see every room and section, so I would at least get some kind of understanding about Buddhism. To be honest I still don’t have a clue what it means to be a Buddhist. Meditation and bowing down to a God seem to be all I understand it to be. The next time I meet a Buddhist, I’ll ask them all about it, its not something I’d go out of my way to find out about, but someday I’ll check it out.
As we left the Temple, it was at this point that Rene and I decided to visit the Hutongs of Beijing, possibly the poorest part of the world I’ve ever seen, where houses are bits of wood and brick pieced together, every night is a street party and television simply doesn’t exist. A real eye opener actually, but I always felt safe in Beijing, despite being completely overaud by the amount of Chinese people on the streets and the complete lack of English speakers.
Here’s some basic information for those wishing to try it out:
Lama Temple, or Yanghegong, has a long history. It was originally built in 1694 and originally used as official residence for court eunuchs of the Ming dynasty and was converted to the royal court of Prince Yongzheng(Yin Zhen) a son of Emperor Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty. Before he ascended the throne, during the 33rd year (1693) of Kangxi’s reign of the Qing dynasty, it was remamed Yonghegong.
After the prince came to the throne in 1723, half of the residence was used as an imperial palace and the other half was converted to a lamasery, a monastery for Mongolian and Buddhist Monks as it remains today.
Lama Temple is now a typical Tibetan Monastery. Having been closed for many years during the Cultural Revolution it was refurbished and reopened in 1980. Zhou Enlai is said to have saved it from destruction during that time. It is now a working monastery with Mongolian Monks.