Lantau Island: Big Buddhas, Big Crowds, Big Questions
Prominently situated in the heights of Lantau Island, the Po Lin Monastery, Tian Tan Buddha and Wisdom Path attract thousands of spiritual leaders and curious tourists each year. Constructed in 1906 by a group of Monks, the Po Lin Monastery is marked by its elaborate exterior. Adorned with flowers, flags, and intricate engravings and inscriptions, the monastery’s extravagant façade alludes to the important relics housed within the structure. Though currently under construction and inaccessible to visitors, the monastery contains three Buddhas, representing the past, present and future, as well as various halls, including the “Great Hall of Treasure.” Across from the Po Lin Monastery is the 112 foot tall Tian Tan Buddha, a bronze statue of Buddha Amoghasiddhi, which, since its completion in 1993, has become inextricably iconic of Hong Kong. The Buddha, which is accessed by walking up a series of 240 steps, is said to embody spiritual harmony between the earth and its people, and is surrounded by six devas, each offering various gifts to the Buddha including fruit, incense and music. The Buddha is positioned on top of a structure meant to resemble the Tian Tan Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China—the structure for which the colossal Buddha received its name. A short hike separates the Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery from the scenic Wisdom Path. The Wisdom Path is marked by 38 wooden columns arranged in the shape of an infinity sign and inscribed with verses from the Heart Sutra, also known as the “Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom.” Positioned against a verdant landscape, the Wisdom Path offers visitors an escape from the intensity of Hong Kong. These sites are easily accessible thanks to the Ngong Ping 360 tourism project, which constructed a cable car system to transport visitors from the Lantau Island MTR station to the top of the mountain, a 3.5 mile adventure that boasts scenic 360 degree views of the island.
Superficially, the Ngong Ping 360 project is an economic success as tourists eager to experience Lantau island are equally eager to purchase the relatively expensive tickets up the mountain, as well as souvenir photos, merchandise and food, in an effort to preserve and remember their experience. At a glance, the project also seems to be a cultural success, as visitors from all around the world come together to appreciate the important landmarks. However, though inducing a steady and important stream of revenue and acting as a site of cultural exchange, the island’s newfound accessibility and commercial success have proven to be problematic for the practicing Buddhists of the Po Lin Monastery. “Monks at Po Lin Monastery have stepped up their battle to stop the government turning the area round the temple into a tourist haven,” Chow Chung-yan wrote in the August 2012 South China Morning Post article titled Monastery lifts fight against tourism. These concerns offer important questions surrounding the accessibility of historic sites, as well as the ethics of tourism. Though reviews of the Lantau landmarks on site such as tripadvisor.com offer high praise, including testimonials of “stunning views,” “peace and happiness,” and “another prospective of HK—its people and culture,” there is a certain unsettling effect of putting a culture and religion in the commercial arena to be “viewed” and “experienced”— an act that turns sacred practices into spectacles, and distances the visitor from the meaningful site being viewed. Though it is quick and easy to take a photo or purchase a souvenir, it is challenging to seek true understanding. That isn’t to say that many of Lantau’s visitors truly do visit for spiritual or intellectual pursuits—it is simply to propose that designating a place of spiritual significance as a “must-see” location for tourism may have further effects outside of the economic realm.