One of the most interesting days I spent in Beijing was one that I dedicated to the city’s many temples.
Yonghe Temple, or Lama Temple as it is more affectionately referred to in Beijing, was built during the Qing dynasty as an imperial palace. In the 18th century is converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan monks, and remains active today.
When I got off the subway to walk over to the temple I came face to face with all kinds of vendors hocking bundles of incense. I was surprised to see most of the people walking through the underground were stopping to purchase their wares, a rare site to see locals purchasing goods in the subway tunnels.
It all made sense however as I walked through the gates into Lama Temple. Hundred of people were engaging in their ritual bows, handfuls of incense burning as they knelt before the numerous shrines to Buddha.
The air was thick with the perfumed smoke as I wandered through building after building on the temple grounds, eventually arriving at the dormitories for the young men training to become monks.
Just beyond the dormitories stood a final building in the temple’s complex which I entered expectantly. You see, Lama Temple is known for housing a gigantic statue of Buddha. I instantly came face to face (or rather feet to face) with the statue. Standing at 26 meters tall, the statue is of the Maitreya Buddha and is carved out of sandlewood and painted gold. Unfortunately photographs were not permitted inside the buildings, but if you’re ever in Beijing this is certainly a sight worth seeing.
Although tourists were milling around the massive grounds of Lama Temple, devotees far out numbered us, which made the spirituality of the space more engaging. It was my first visit to a temple in China where I felt like I was experiencing Tibetan Buddhism first hand.
That same day I went to the Confucius Temple down the street where most of the ancient Chinese emperors paid their respects to Confuscius and studied his teachings. This temple was equally beautiful in terms of architecture to Lama Temple however there were far fewer people, and it seemed more of tourist attraction.
My final stop on my temple day in Beijing was the Temple of Heaven Park. I took a cab to the North Gate of the park and felt instantly at home wandering through the wooded acreage. It reminded me a little bit of High Park in Toronto except instead of maple and pine trees lining the paths Cyprus and juniper trees created the landscape.
This was one of the first moments during my trip where I just stood still taking in the experience. I was beaming as I stood there, alone in the heart of Beijing realizing what an incredible opportunity this was.
That smile grew as I neared the center of the park, arriving at the famous temple. It rises as if out of nowhere, perched on a hill surrounded by trees. The main building of the temple is a circular, built on tiers of carved stone, each ring representing a different part of the spirit.
As well as this main building the temple is home to the echo wall, located in the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Like the main building the echo wall forms a perfect circle and if you arrive early enough (and with a friend) you can stand hundreds of meters apart and whisper into the wall, the sound echoing around reaching your friend’s ears.
The final attraction in the park is the Circular Mound Alter and the Heavenly Center Stone. The stone is surrounding by nine tiles of stone in a circle, moving outwards in circles, each ring composed of a multiple of nine tiles, the outside ring consisting of 81 tiles, paying homage to the nine heavens.
A busy day, my visit to some of China’s most famous temples was quite rewarding. I felt I had the chance to really relish the experiences I was having and find a greater understanding of both the history and the cultural significance of Buddhism.