THE construction of the giant Buddha on Lantau caused enough trouble to guarantee anyone involved a ticket to nirvana. The statue rises 33.95 metres above the ground, a striking landmark in the northeast of Lantau and one of the first things that passengers flying in to Chek Lap Kok airport will see. But almost from the start the statue was dogged by problems, and only the skill of its Catholic architect and the ingenuity of its metallurgists from atheist China saved Po Lin monastery from a $60 million disaster. The idea for a huge statue at Po Lin was conceived in 1974. It took the monastery seven years to select nearby Muk Yu Hill as the site. An architect was commissioned to design the statue's supporting platform and plinth. He decided to use reinforced concrete for the entire structure including the statue. Work began on site in 1984 and was soon completed. At this point the monastery settled on a final design for the statue, one which turned out to be completely different from the model the original architect had been told to work from. Work was halted while the monastery deliberated over its next course of action. It decided to adopt the new statue design, but how could it fit the existing foundations? Architect Peter Ng Pin-kin took up the challenge. ''It was a very difficult job,'' he said. ''I had to almost redesign it.'' His first aim was to reduce the statue's weight, and he achieved that by dropping the idea of using reinforced concrete. Instead his eye drifted to the United States and the Statue of Liberty in New York. Mr Ng proposed a similar structure: a structural frame made of steel supporting copper sheets. Mr Ng opted for bronze instead of copper because it would last longer in Hong Kong's damp, salty and polluted air. To reduce the cost, he recommended the statue be made of cast bronze instead of sheets. In this way he halved the weight of the statue, to less than 300 tonnes. A Chinese firm, the China Astronautics Science and Technology Consultant Corporation, won the contract to turn the design into reality. It took three months, working from a one in five scale model, before it had perfected the life-size design. The Chenguang Machinery Manufacturing Company in Nanjing then began constructing the moulds from which the bronze would be cast. The plan was for 202 pieces of bronze, each about one centimetre thick and weighing 800 kilograms. Mould-making took seven months before a single piece of bronze was cast. The most important piece was the Buddha's face. It was decided to cast it in one piece, 5.8 metres by 4.8 metres. But the first cast was unsuccessful. The bronze cracked, and the foundry workers had to do extensive remedial work. With all the pieces finished, the foundry did a dry run to make sure they all fitted. They did not. Some were so bad they had to be recast, while others had to be cut, welded and patched to make them fit. This delayed the project another five months. Transporting the completed sections to Lantau for assembly posed another problem. The original plan to airlift the bronze pieces in by helicopter had to be abandoned when it transpired the five-tonne face piece was too heavy for the best helicopter in Hong Kong. It had to come in by road, a task which involved shutting off all roads to the monastery for three nights and dismantling lamp posts, and telephone and electricity poles. The entire statue was coloured, and then coated with zinc to stop it rusting. Even when the statue was finished in 1990, its opening was delayed three years while the Government expanded the only road from a winding mountain track to a dual carriageway, at a cost of $78 million.