23 May 2014
Toward the center of Penang island is the temple of Kek Lok Si, nestled in the plains below Penang Hill. According to feng shui measurements or parameters or whatever, this location was the perfect spot to build a temple. It really is a beautiful spot with the huge hills on one side, a few foothills, and the plains rolling off to the sea (and George Town).
Anyway, instead of signing up for a tour, I opted to take the island bus (Rapid Penang) to the town of Itam, which is the closest spot to Kek Lok Si. Everyone knows the place, and the bus driver was very nice about letting me know where to get off the bus.
Of course, it was raining by the time I got there. Itam has both a dry market and a food market right across the street from the bus stop, so I stopped for a cup of tea while I waited for the rain to let up. (Note to travellers - just look for the food stand with lots of cups on the shelves. Somehow the food vendors only sell one kind of item, like all soups. Or all noodles. So you have to find the all drinks vendor. And hope they still have tea or coffee from the morning. Somehow even getting a cup of tea becomes an adventure when you're a stranger in a strange land.)
Eventually the rain lightened, and I started uphill, following the signs to the temple. I could see the temple complex in the distance, dominated by the pagoda with a giant statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and the white tower pagoda for which Kek Lok Si is most famous. The white tower is seven stories high and houses 10,000 statues of Buddha. You can read more about the pagoda as well as the temple here: http://www.tourism.gov.my/en/sg/web-page/places/states-of-malaysia/penang/kek-lok-si
The temple construction started in 1893, although it seems like construction, or maybe maintenance, is ongoing. You can see the scaffolding on the white pagoda, which we couldn't visit because it is being worked on at the moment. It would have been nice to see the 10,000 Buddha statues, I can't even imagine that many in one place!
I started out in the parking area, which is lined with large stone statues of, you guessed it, Buddha. Buddha in all his manifestations, including different ages. Each one represents some personality trait or event on the path to enlightenment, and I guess it's up to us to try to follow that path.
Of course, somehow I managed to get off the physical path to the temple, and started wandering into the school that shares the hill with the temple. Yes, I know. I was waved away by the security guard, who pointed out the right stairs.
So, uphill walking, and upstairs, ascending to the temple - it seemed rather appropriate, at least in a Judeo-Christian kind of way - heading upward toward enlightenment, or the heavens, or something. Except that the entry has tourists and visitors wandering through a covered market, full of tee shirt and souvenir vendors. You could buy a life-size statue of a variety of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Or a tee shirt with the Buddha of your choice. (Or Starbucks, which seems to be featured on tee shirts around here.) Small statues in ceramics or stone. Wishing ribbons. Jewelry. All kinds of items for the temples, shrines, your home, your office, even your car.
And of course, the vendors all try to sell their items as I went walking by, so my dialogue sounds like a crazy woman: "No, no thank you, no, I don't need any, no no no no no." At least I wasn't talking to myself.
So, just to make things more surreal, the first thing I encountered, once I made it through the market obstacle course, was a pool of turtles. I know, right? Surreal! There's a man selling local water spinach (or something like that) so we can feed the turtles. I like turtles, although these are lake and river turtles, not sea turtles. But they were friendly, and all craned their heads to see where I was tossing the leaves and stems. I tried feeding the smaller turtles, but they weren't very assertive.
Wander and wind and wend my way through a maze of stairs and hallways, I found myself in a temple with 4,321 Buddha statues. Very small Buddhas, alternating rows of gold- or copper-coloured, row upon row upon row. Each one sits in a little arched niche, with a small lightbulb in front - it must be spectacular when lit, which happens for special occasions like the Chinese New Year. The en-niched Buddhas cover all four walls, floor to ceiling and around the windows. It's an absolutely incredible sight, because at first it looks like wallpaper and then you realize it's three-dimensional statues in the alcoves. I asked, and the ladies said I could photograph the wall in back of the inevitable sales section. She told me there are 4,321 Buddhas here, although she didn't say if that number was significant.
The wall opposite the okay-to-photograph-wall housed three large Bodhisattvas, each a very large golden statue with surrounding carvings, and people meditating or praying in front of them. I believe Bodhisattvas are similar to Christian saints, and so are asked to grant differing prayers or requests.
The outside of this temple was gorgeous, with all the ceilings and rafters painted in bright primary colours and intricate designs. The inevitable red and gold lanterns were hung at intervals, and reddish stone pillars served as the uprights. Everything was so bright, colourful, and cheerful compared to the more sedate colours of the interior.
The entire temple complex has paths and stairs that intertwine like a Gordian knot, with glimpses of places you can't enter, such as the stepped gardens leading up to the white pagoda tower.
But there are sights to see at every turn - bright goldenrod glazed tiles cover the roofs which are embellished with marching figurines and flourishes, or protective gargoyle dragons at each end. The actual buildings are ornate, full of colour and design filling every conceivable surface.
Random walls separate temples and gardens, setting apart spaces for meditation and contemplation, or just relaxing and catching the breeze.
And circular entrances, looking something like Chinese hobbit holes, seemed to crop up everywhere.
The Foo Dogs or Lions are colourful but somewhat wistful, as if they are saying, "Please don't do anything wrong here" rather than looking fierce and ready to do battle.
And of course there are more Buddhas, more Bodhisattvas, looking like cookie cutter versions of each other. I'm not sure what the constant repetition represents - philosophically, or maybe metaphysically, maybe this symbolizes the Divine Presence is everywhere and anywhere, filling the earth and perhaps the universe. Maybe it represents that the divine is in each of us. Or perhaps that there are as many interpretations of the divine as there are people. Or that the path to Nirvana is individual, and there are as many paths to enlightenment as their are humans.
Maybe they're a visual interpretation of timelessness, of infinite time, infinite mercy, infinite space. Or maybe it's an artistic device, sort of a visual theme and variations.
I don't know, and there really wasn't anyone around to ask. But it does seem as if there's a meaning behind the endless Buddhas.
Or maybe that's the meaning, that Buddha, and the path to enlightment, is endless, that it is forever and ongoing, and that there really isn't any end.
About the swastikas - this is an old symbol representing life, used by many cultures, from Native American to SE Asian and some of the islands in between. The Nazis took it, reversed the direction (turning counter-clockwise), and thus representing death. So while it seems creepy to see the swastikas on these statues, well, that's what's going on.
The roofs are amazing, and I'm going to show them as large as I can, so you can see all the ornamental details with the dragons heads and faces, acting as guards along the building tops.
There were more temple rooms, more Buddhas (almost always in gold), more gardens and round portals.
The place seemed to go on and on, just like the rows of statues.
Because we were in the foothills, there was a good breeze. It was a hot and sunny day, post rain, but the breeze was wonderful. And I suspect the buildings and gardens were oriented to maximize the breeze.
I also heard occasional temple bells, and recorded chanting. I'm not sure if the bells were recorded as well.
But there was a noticeable absence of monks here. No monks to be seen anywhere. I later found out, from the Kantan Kafe people, that the Buddhist temples in Malaysia are primarily Taoist Buddhist - not the same as Buddhism in Thailand, where there are monks everywhere. In Thailand, people are expected to dress modestly when visiting temples, and there are places to rent a sarong if needed - no such expectation here in Malaysia, no one to enforce clothing rules or rent out the sarong. No monks collecting alms, or giving blessings, or tying on prayer bracelets for visitors. It was very different. I'm not sure of the differences between the various Buddhist practices or sects or whatever it may be called here, but the place definitely felt different from Buddhist temples in Thailand. Maybe more commercial, but at the same time less touristy. More peaceful and spiritual. Or maybe, because this was such a large temple complex in the middle of a tiny town, there were just fewer visitors.
For whatever reason, it was lovely and I absolutely enjoyed my several hours there.
The big feature was the pagoda with the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. First, you go through a series of smaller temples, past more Buddhas and temple guards, as well as the Four Heavenly Kings, who each control one of the points of the compass. Wander around some more, and eventually come to the funicular, the vertical (really more diagonal) lift, what in Chile they call the acensore. It isn't quite straight up, but it definitely is a diagonal that is almost vertical - and worth every ringgit. (It cost 6 ringgits for a round-trip, which is about $2 US. I can't imagine climbing the narrow and steep stairway with the little funicular trains going by ready to clip your elbow.)
The garden at the top of the hill has some of the friendliest looking animal guards - the tiger looks cuddly, the Foo dog looks frisky, the elephant looks infinitely patient and wise. And forget the guard dog at the bench, he just wants a pat on the head. The horse, this year's zodiac sign, has a special red ribbon, just in case you weren't sure that this is, indeed, the year of the horse.
The real guardians, however, look much fiercer than the animals.
And Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, definitely looks the part. She is serene, calming, soothing. In Western art, she'd be a Madonna. Isn't it amazing how there are so many archetypes that transcend location and culture and ethnic heritage? Really, look at that face and tell me she doesn't look like a Madonna sculpted by Michelangelo, or painted by da Vinci or Rafael. And isn't Mary the saint to whom people pray for mercy and intercession? (I'm not Catholic, so I'm not sure, but I believe she is.)
I'm just saying that there are more commonalities that tie us together than there are differences that separate us. How many cathedrals, monasteries, churches, are built on hilltops? So that the faithful must make a pilgrimage and climb up, ascending the hill, to visit the statues, a statue of Mary with the same existential grace as this statue of Kuan Yin.
There is a human need to define good and evil, to put a face on each, to give ourselves a human form that embodies good or evil. And to establish a deity, or spirit, or some personality in some form, to which we can ask for mercy.
We seem to realize that we are less than perfect, that we are, indeed, human. We know, at some level, that we ourselves contain that good and that evil, that these two impulses are the Yin and Yang of our souls.
And when we feel we cannot control or balance these impulses, we need an exterior being to intercede on our behalf, or at least to feel that there is someone or something to whom we can turn for guidance, for comfort, for rational thought when we are overcome by emotions.
Mary. The Madonna. Gaia. Bastet. Isis. Devi. Shakti. Kuan Yin. I'm sure there are more names. Whatever we want to call her, she is the eternal mother who guides us all.
Such was my contemplation while I was there.