Spirit of enterprise

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 December, 2010, 12:00am

I'm not of any religion, but have dabbled in a few. The flirtations have been out of curiosity, not a need for enlightenment. So it was with such a sense of purpose that I rode the Ngong Ping 360 cable car from Tung Chung last week to reacquaint myself with Buddhism through its most famous Hong Kong gateway, the Po Lin Monastery. There would be no surer way to escape Christmas commercialism than whiling away a few tranquil hours among contemplative monks, I had figured.

Not having been to the monastery and its Big Buddha statue for a few years, I hadn't counted on the scene that greeted me. Shoulder-to-shoulder tourists had been anticipated; they were coursing through the purpose-built Ngong Ping Village after sampling its restaurants and trinket shops, then swarming up the steps of the platform on which the Buddha sits. But I wasn't fleeing people - my quest was for a brief respite from the festive cacophony. I couldn't have chosen a worse refuge.

I've had a few surreal moments, but perhaps none as odd as the one I had before entering the monastery grounds. Christmas was alive and well in Ngong Ping Village, with carols blaring from speakers and shops. My search for a vegetarian snack befitting my nearby destination had been fruitless, so I had succumbed to a German sausage on a stick. Standing before the majesty of the seated statue, mustard-dribbling wurst in hand and the strains of the carol Away in a Manger and its line about the little lord Jesus asleep on the hay as background accompaniment, it was easy to think of the Buddha's expression as less of a smile than a sneer.

More surprises awaited. Major construction is under way at the monastery with the building of the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a mammoth structure that will feature more than 3,000 square metres of exhibition space when it opens in 2012. The tranquility that I thought could be had in a temple or courtyard was obliterated by the reverberations of hammers and drills. Commercialism was as alive and well as elsewhere, with what I perceived to be an overpriced vegetarian restaurant, bulging souvenir stalls and a centrepiece donation board for the new building, with suggestions ranging from bricks for HK$200 apiece to a Buddha statue for HK$6.8 million.

There's nothing wrong with this; Buddhism hasn't any rules that say a monastery can't expand or be ambitious. Across Asia and especially China, an entrepreneurial spirit is surging through the religion, drawing in new followers with attractions like convention centres and meditation classes. Po Lin's plans for an exhibition hall to display relics are nothing compared to the endeavours of the Shaolin Monastery, which has developed an industry around its association with kung fu. Despite this, I was taken aback by what I saw at Po Lin.

University of Pennsylvania professor of religion Justin McDaniel put my reticence down to Western historical perceptions that still thrive despite simply not being the case. English-speaking scholars who first studied Buddhism had portrayed it as being intellectual, of quiet meditation and about simple living. Commercialism had been tied to the religion from its earliest days. Hun Lye, a Malaysian-born professor at Davidson College in the US who specialises in Chinese religions, told me that there were those in Buddhism who believed that co-operation with the wealthy and powerful in society was necessary to ensure its longevity. Buddhism had in part succeeded in China because of monks who were skilful at working with governments. But the economic and political changes nonetheless brought tensions.

I've been visiting Po Lin for the past 25 years. It has shifted from being a sleepy retreat for the faithful to a thriving centre of religion, culture, social work and tourism. The monastery appears wealthy; it is clearly doing something right.

Change, whether in religion or life, is good. With it comes uncertainty or insecurity, but the risk is necessary to attain greater gifts and goals. One model doesn't fit all, though. Fortunately for those who crave the Po Lin of old, it can still be found among the numerous other monasteries scattered across Lantau Island.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post