In Usnisa Palace, the golden Buddha lies beneath a 100-foot-high ceiling. // © 2017 Deborah Dimond
Feature image (above): The Baoen Temple’s light room dances in a rainbow of colors. // © 2017 Deborah Dimond
Even though I’m an atheist, I’ve always had a profound fascination with Buddhism. It started after wandering into a temple in my predominantly Osakan neighborhood of West Los Angeles more than a decade ago. Since then, I have made pilgrimages to many holy sites, including the spiritually renowned Bodh Gaya in India, where I meditated under a descendant of the famous Bodhi tree, where the Gautama Buddha was said to have gained enlightenment and birthed a religion that would go on to span the globe.
So upon my visit to Nanjing, the bustling capital of the Chinese province of Jiangsu, I was thrilled to visit two of the area’s newly opened Buddhist attractions.
Baoen Temple, also referred to as the Porcelain Tower, was once heralded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Age. The nine-story structure was encased in white porcelain-covered bricks; the smooth, reflective surface would make the pagoda shine during the day and become illuminated in the evening under the light of lanterns. The tower’s construction began in 1412 and took 17 years to erect. "Baoen" literally translates to “temple of repaid gratitude,” and it stood until the 1850s, when a civil war broke out and the structure was destroyed.
Fast-forward to 2007, when archaeologists were first granted permission to excavate the temple ruins. A year into the process, an immense discovery was made: Amongst many treasured and holy relics, scientists unearthed an elaborate golden box that was said to contain a piece of the Gautama Buddha’s skull. From that point, donations to rebuild the tower and form Porcelain Tower Heritage Park began to flow in, including some $150 million from a single donor: Wang Jianlin, a successful Chinese property developer.
Porcelain Tower Heritage Park serves to both preserve the past and show visitors what museums of the future might look like. The former brick tower has been reconstructed in steel and glass and sits surrounded by a perimeter of modern, sophisticated museum galleries.
While the galleries house traditional dioramas and artifacts from the 15th-century tower, the displays surrounding them are decidedly high-tech — from large expanses of walls covered with television screens that bring the ancient city to life, to the statue of an ancient monk meditating in front of a giant, ethereal, floating Buddha head made out of dots of light. My favorite display was a huge room covered from floor to ceiling in mirrors and color-changing light bulbs. What looked like a dance club with a statue of the Buddha in the middle of it was built to represent the Buddhist concept of light and "sarira," which refers to pearl-like bits of the body that are left after cremation and believed to stabilize the energy around places of meditation. If that sounds surreal, then the glowing disco-like room nailed it.
Nanjing Niushoushan Cultural Park
To complement a visit to the Porcelain Tower, clients can take a trip outside the city to Nanjing Niushoushan Cultural Park in the Niushou Mountains. Opened in 2015, the park is composed of numerous buildings, including multiple pagodas, a temple, a working monastery and a modern palace surrounded by posh eateries and boutiques. The purpose of the complex is to preserve and exhibit cultural treasures of Buddhist origins; the aforementioned fragment of skull that was discovered in the ruins of Baoen Temple is the cornerstone of Nanjing Niushoushan Cultural Park’s collection.
Travelers will be awed by the massive scale and grandeur of Usnisa Palace, the site’s main building. The structure was built into the side of a mountain and has six underground floors. As visitors enter the main hall — easily the size of an airplane hangar — they can take a moment to center themselves by washing their hands in a fountain. In the center of the room lies a Bodhi tree and a golden Buddha in repose, resting beneath a lattice-like ceiling reminiscent of a bird’s nest. The stone walls are dimpled with alcoves that house statues of 30 different interpretations of Buddha.
From there, clients can don provided booties and descend six flights of escalators to the gem of the exhibit: the Thousand Buddha Hall, a cavernous room covered in gold. The centerpiece of the room is a massive shrine that sits on top of the housing for the ancient skull bone of the Buddha. However, visitors should know that the relic is only displayed on certain national and Buddhist holidays. Next on the tour is the Ten Thousand Buddha Corridor, where travelers can stroll down opulent marble hallways and admire thousands of ornately carved statues.
Everywhere I turned in Usnisa Palace, my eyes encountered richly carved woods, fine tapestries and gilded, sculpted reliefs; I was overwhelmed by its sheer opulence and beauty. After a tour, guests can reflect on their visit over a vegetarian meal at the on-site cafe, then explore the monastery and temple.
For a more meaningful experience, I recommend that clients have at least a rudimentary understanding of the history and tenets of Buddhism before visiting either attraction. While I was always in the company of an English-speaking guide, there is little English signage at both sites, and it was sometimes a challenge to decipher the complex and subtle principles of the rich and nuanced religion. Heaven knows — you don’t want to lose that in translation.
While my trip to Nanjing’s newest Buddhist attractions was not quite as spiritually charged as my pilgrimages to India, I was nonetheless left in awe and wonder.