Buddhist temple a tranquil retreat

Shanghai Daily news, March 21, 2005

Shanghai, China -- Tucked down a long alley in Zhujing Town, Jinshan District, Donglin Temple is a wonderful place to recharge your spiritual batteries.

With its white exterior walls and black-tiled eaves, the temple is easily recognizable from a distance. Upon entering its confines, one may notice Donglin is different from other Buddhist shrines in the city. There are no crowds, no noisy pilgrims, only a few monks walking peacefully around the temple. The small, simple temple is a place for tranquil retreat and quiet meditation.

Constructed in 1308 during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the temple's 700 year history is full of ups and downs. According to temple abbot Da Yuan, Donglin was the oldest and the most influential holy place in Jinshan. A significant number of pious Buddhists worshipped at the temple. A century ago, Donglin reached its apex with nearly 1,000 monks living within its walls.

Unfortunately, a number of halls were demolished afterwards and the temple was even closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Guanyin Hall, reconstructed in 1829, is the only Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) style Buddhist complex remaining in the temple that still preserves its original semblance. The hall was protected as a cultural site in 1987 by the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage.

About 10 years ago, worshipers in the area called on the district government to reopen the temple. It took a while but eventually the worshipers got their wish.

After renovation work was completed, the temple was officially reopened to the public in 2002. The renovation project, which involved an area of 0.35 hectares, was financed by the district government and donations from Buddhists.

Guanyin Hall, or the grand hall, is typical of Qing style decor with red walls and black-tiled roofs with upturned eaves. A pair of stone lions - powerful protectors in Buddhism - guard the hall's entrance.

Guanyin Hall is the central place of worship where monks and Buddhists pray and participate in sutra chants every day. Each statue in the hall serves to inspire wisdom and spiritual awakening in each of us.

A white marble statue of Nanhai Guanyin, or Guanyin of the South Sea, is enshrined in the center of the hall. Standing on a lotus throne, the nine-meter statue of Guanyin holds a holy vase with willow branches in her hand. Customary candle holders and incense burners sit in front of the statue.

Guanyin is a beloved deity among ordinary worshipers. They believe she is able to save people from suffering and to eliminate obstacles. The statue is a reminder for visitors to apply compassion when dealing with people, their surroundings and the world.

Another highlight in the hall is the blue stone statues of the Eighteen Arhats (Luohan) arranged on the east and west walls. The attention to detail in the craftsmanship is striking. The Eighteen Arhats possess various supernatural powers in Buddhism.
In the southeast of the hall, a bronze bell is hung from a beam. It is said when the bell
is struck, it can be heard far away. According to Da Yuan, the bell-tolling celebration on New Year's Eve attracts about 10,000 people - all hoping for good luck in the New Year.

Visitors will also find several pieces of tablet inscriptions displayed on the temple walls. The most famous is one written by well-known monk Chuan Zi during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

Da Yuan said the temple will be expanded soon. Future plans include the construction of a 37-meter Guanyin Pavilion, a Sakyamuni Hall, a Heavenly King Hall, and a Hall for the Buddhas of the Three Worlds.

The construction project, which involves an area of 1.36 hectares, is expected to be completed within two years.