Posted by: rbbadger | June 11, 2009

The Lama Temple

Seoul is located very close to Beijing.  Thus, it is very easy for me to go over there, as the flight is only about an hour and a half.  One reason why I had been putting it off is that for a while, the Chinese government was strictly controlling who and who could not go to Beijing and all sorts of additional paperwork had to be submitted just for the visa.  For some reason, the Chinese government charges US citizens three times the price that they charge everyone else for the visa.  With the cheap fares on China Eastern, I felt that I could easily afford to go this time.   However, with the Olympics over, things are more or less back to normal as far as visa issuance goes.

The Lama Temple is a large Tibetan Buddhist temple in central Beijing.  Tibet has long had a tortured relationship with China in its various incarnations.  Tibetan lamas have resided in Beijing since the 18th century when the Emperor Qianlong built this temple for them.  The buildings are utterly magnificent, but you are forbidden from taking photos of the interior.  Unfortunately, camera flashes tend to do some not very good things to the interiors of buildings after a long while.  The lamas would prefer not to have to go through another expensive refurbishment.  Often, redoing the traditional paintwork can cost as much as the buildings themselves.

When you exit the subway, you quickly come upon this magnificent structure.  This temple was originally a palace, perhaps a quiet retreat for the Emperor away from all the business of the Forbidden City.


There are some magnificent Chinese gates in the complex.  I quite like the East Asian style of gates, whether they be the torii of Japanese shinto shrines, the gates of Korean Buddhist temples and palaces, or the gates of Chinese temples, palaces, and so forth.


Like with Beijing’s Forbidden City, the plaques above each of the buildings are sometimes multilingual.  From right to left, you can see Manchu, Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian.  Mongolian currently uses the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, but they do have a writing system of their own.


I was very surprised by a couple of aspects to these temples.  If you visit a Korean Buddhist temple, you are forbidden from entering the centre doors to the Buddha halls.  These are reserved solely for the monks.  However, people here were going in and out of the centre doors with nary a thought.  The Chinese do love burning incense.  In fact, you can sort of find the entrance to the temple by smell alone.  Signs around the temple indicate that you are forbidden from burning incense sticks of a certain length.  In Daoist temples, not only will they burn incense, but they will burn fake money, houses, cars, credit cards, and so forth.  The Chinese have traditionally believed that you CAN take it with you.  It is for this reason that a couple of Chinese emperors had huge armies, sculpted all out of terra cotta, buried with them in their tombs.  By burning piles of hell banknotes, some believe that they are providing for the welfare of their ancestors in the afterlife.  Chinese religion is often a syncretic affair.  Daoists will often visit Buddhist temples and vice versa.  In Singapore, I’ve heard of Chinese patrons of a certain Daoist temple going next door to the Hindu temple to appease the Hindu gods, figuring that appeasing as many gods as possible can’t possibly hurt.  I can’t say if the same is true for the Hindus!



Anyhow, the surrounding neighbourhood is full of Buddhist shops chock full of incense, miniature (and not so miniature) Buddhas, and so forth.  These old neighbourhoods are very much under threat, as the Chinese government is developing the city with a vengeance. 


In fact, parts of Beijing are starting to look a lot like parts of Seoul with high rises as far as the eye can see.  A number of old neighbourhoods were razed in time for the Olympics and homes, some dating back to the 18th century or earlier, are now lost to history.



  1. I love those colors and intricate designs. It’s sad that so much history has been destroyed.

  2. Thanks for sharing! Glad you got to go! Wonder where in China Vaughn & Tifani Wilhelm live? You could go visit them!

  3. […] Eum.  On the wheel is inscribed the matra “On mani padme hum”.  Seeing as the famous Lama Temple in Beijing is a Tibetan lamasery, it is not surprising to encounter one of these […]

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