The Lama Temple: Buddhism in Beijing

Before visiting China, I had the amazing opportunity to hike the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal.  As I’ve said time and time again in my blog and to family and friends, this was the one trip in my life that really touched my soul.  It inspired me.  It changed me.  And most of all, it encouraged me to continue exploring as many far off destinations that I can possibly visit.

My trip to Nepal was my first exposure to the Buddhist religion.  Sharing a border with India, Nepal, a tiny mountainous kingdom, was exposed to two main religions:  Hinduism and Buddhism, that grew and developed to become the two prominent religions in Nepal.  During my trek through rural mountains villages in Nepal, I was blessed with one Buddhist village after another.  Temples, colorful prayer flags, gigantic prayer wheels and burning juniper incense infiltrated my heart and soul.  The monks dressed in maroon robes and praying softly was a pleasant, peaceful experience.  I instantly purchased the Dalai Lama’s famous autobiography when I got home.  I felt inspired by this magical religion and wanted to learn more.

I read his book, appropriately titled “Freedom in Exile:  The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama“, and felt an anger and shock burning inside my soul that drove me mad.  I could not believe what the Chinese government had done.  It was tragic, sad and terrible.  Yet, it was a story that had been repeated all too frequently in our world’s history.  America and the injustice done to the Native Americans.  The “colonization” of South America.  The tearing apart of Africa.  And the list goes on.

What I had a hard time coming to terms with after reading this book was my feelings on traveling to China.  I understood that human rights were far from being achieved by the Tibetans as well as most of the population of China.  Would I be ok with that? 

Driving around town in the Twin Cities (the local term here for Minneapolis and St. Paul area) I grew accustomed to seeing “FreeTibet” bumper sticks on many cars.  I knew that the Dalai Lama had recently come here to speak with his people, the local Tibetans who have come here in exile to start a new life.  What do they think of the Chinese government?  I wondered but felt like I knew.

I wouldn’t find my answer of course until I was in China, looking around, visiting Buddhist temples and talking to people.  The first stop in my quest to understand Buddhism in Beijing was the most revered Buddhist temple outside of Tibet:  The Lama Temple.  Originally built in 1694 during the Qing dynasty it was used as a palace and later changed to lamasery in 1744 by Emperor Qianlong.  Today it is the largest, most well-preserved lamasery outside of Tibet and is a renowned place of worship, pilgrimage and importance in the heart of China’s capital.

We set off on our last afternoon, walking, to the Lama Temple.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s tragic account of events, I wasn’t sure what kind of religion I’d find in China.  I understood that the Communist Party of China had no official religion yet tolerated religious practice to some degree.  Yet it was hard to get a sense of how religious the Chinese are overall since many prefer to keep their religion private.  Some estimates state that there are approximately 100 million Buddhists in China.  It is the most prevalent religion, followed by 18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants, and 4 million Catholics (Facts from “Culture Smart China:  The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture” 2010 edition).  Yet in a land of 1.3 billion people, these numbers lead me to believe that there are a lot of people who do not practice a religion or chose not to tell anyone that they do.  Like most statistics in China, it is hard to get a clear picture.

Regardless, Buddhism has a strong cultural importance in China as it has been inside the country for thousands of years since its introduction from India via the Silk Road.  I was keen to visit the Lama Temple and see what it was all about.  After visiting this lovely place, I was even more confused than ever.  For it was simply serene and the devoutness of the practicing Chinese Buddhists was deeply touching.  It didn’t make sense to me what had happened and why Tibet cannot be free.  Like most of my trip to China, it proved that it is a land of paradoxes and contradictions that a foreigner may never fully understand.   There are many questions in life that will remain forever unanswered.  Perhaps this is one of them.

Here are my pictures and commentary from my visit.

The walk from our hotel near the Forbidden City took us over an hour passing through main thoroughfares, small streets and plenty of interesting things to take pictures of.  We knew that we were finally getting closer to the Lama Temple when we reached this street packed full of Tibetan shops. 

Suddenly gray dull Beijing came to life with color, smell and sounds as we entered the Buddhist district near the Lama Temple.

The majestic archway leading into the Lama Temple.

The walkway to the temple was beautifully adorned with shade trees that cast a peaceful glow on the area.

There were plenty of monks dressed in brilliant orange.

Some monks had obviously come from far to pray and also be like a tourist and snap some photos.

When you were done with your incense, you placed them in the fire pit to burn.

As always, there were lions protecting the temple.  This one is a male with its location on the east side of the building and grasping a ball.

The breathtaking architecture of the temple reminded me of the palaces in the Forbidden City.  Yet the smoke-filled air from the burning incense gave the Lama Temple a much more mystical feel. 

Perhaps there was too much smoke in the air to take this picture but I still enjoy the close-ups of the incredible art and detail of the buildings. 

I left the Lama Temple feeling relaxed and peaceful.  It was such a special place and I was relieved to see so many ordinary Chinese there practicing their religion openly.  It is estimated that hundreds of Buddhist temples were destroyed after the revolution in China in 1949.  It is a pity that they no longer exist.

Stay tuned..Next stop is “Everyday life in Beijing”.  It is my last post on Beijing and a compilation of tons of great photos I haven’t shown yet.  Thanks for reading !

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