The Leshan Giant Buddha (simplified Chinese: 乐山大佛; traditional Chinese: 樂山大佛; pinyin: Lèshān Dàfó) was built during the Tang Dynasty (618–907AD). It is carved out of a cliff face that lies at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers in the southern part of Sichuan province in China, near the city of Leshan. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world. The Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. It was not damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Construction was started in 713, led by a Chinese monk named Haitong. He hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. When funding for the project was threatened, he is said to have gouged out his own eyes to show his piety and sincerity. After his death, however, the construction was stuck due to insufficient funding. About 70 years later, a jiedushi decided to sponsor the project and the construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803. Apparently the massive construction resulted in so much stone being removed from the cliff face and deposited into the river below that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the waters safe for passing ships. A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the Leshan Giant Buddha when it was built. It is still in working order. It includes drainage pipes carved into various places on the body, to carry away the water after the rains so as to reduce weathering. When the Giant Buddha was carved, a huge thirteen story wooden structure, plated in gold, was built to shelter it from rain and sunshine. This structure was destroyed and sacked by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, the stone statue was exposed to the elements.
The Leshan Buddha has been affected by the pollution emanating from the unbridled development in the region. According to Xinhua news agency, the Leshan Giant Buddha and many Chinese natural and cultural heritage sites in the region have seen degradations from weathering, air pollution, and swarms of tourists. The government has promised restoration work.
At 71 metres (233 feet) tall, the statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. His shoulders are 28 metres wide and his smallest toenail is large enough to easily accommodate a seated person. There is a local saying: “The mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain”. This is partially because the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located is thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha as its heart.
Wei Gao, a military governor of Sichuan who finally completed the construction of the Leshan Giant Buddha in 803 CE, begins his record on the history of the statue with an interesting remark: It is the holy who initiate the teaching, and it is the wise who follow after them. As their expedients become great, benefits [for the sentient beings] become widespread. As their achievements are fulfilled, their civilization [of the sentient beings] becomes marvelous. They go forth to the Emptiness and unravel our numerous delusions. They manifest their figures and relieve us from dangers of the world. We well witness such intentions [of the holy and the wise] from the old stone statue of Jiazhou’s Lingyun temple (the Leshan Giant Buddha). “Great” and “marvelous” indeed the figure of the Leshan Giant Buddha is; 71 meters high, 28 meters wide, being the tallest pre-modern statue in the world, the colossus has been captivating people with its sheer immensity for more than twelve centuries. The creation of this enormous artifact was first planned out in 713 as a half-flood control, half-religious project by Haitong, a monk referred here by Wei Gao as one of “the wise”. Originally from Guizhou, Haitong settled in Lingyun Mountain in search for serenity after years of wandering. But there, he came to witness sufferings that changed the course of his career.
Lingyun Mountain is located at the confluence of three tributaries of the Yangzi river ― the Min river, the Dadu river and the Qingyi river. It is told that back then, the turbulent waters of this area frequently swept away boats heading down the river, causing huge loss of life and fortune. As the record by Wei Gao goes, Haitong lamented these misfortunes and observed, “Since the stream around this mountain is most ferocious, and its steep cliff is very high, I think that if we make use of the rocks [of this cliff] and break them down, the river might accumulate them and calm down. If I [attempt to] exhibit [on the cliff] merciful appearance [of a buddha] and surround it with [his] marks, karmic merits will be attained, and public support [for the project] also will be [easily] gathered.” The Buddha he chose was the Maitreya Buddha, probably influenced by Wu Zetian’s decade long promotion of the Maitreya faith, or simply because the advent of him symbolized pacification of the mundane world.
As the design of the statue was ready, funding, labor, and craftsmen started to gather at Leshan. Wei Gao’s record says that these offerings did not only come from nearby Sichuan area but also from distant places along the Yangzi river and the Grand Canal reaching as far as modern day Xuzhou. We also see a passage in the record that, “Capital city of Shu (Chengdu), together with Wu and Chu region (lower and middle Yangzi valley), grieved upon these sinking accidents [at Leshan].” These observations reflect once-isolated Sichuan region’s integration with the Southern economic core that took place during the Tang dynasty. As trades boomed along the Yangzi river, a shipwreck in Leshan now meant loss of a fortune for merchants far away in the Jiangsu province and gave them a good reason for investing in Haitong’s project. The wealth that must have been brought about by this economic integration also explains how a purely private, non-governmental funding for launching this huge construction project was ever possible.
A few years passed by after the initiation of the project, and a giant bust of the Maitreya Buddha appeared on the cliff of the Lingyun Mountain. Also just as Haitong intended, large amount of rocks thrown into the river evened its bed and stabilized the water flow. “Giant stones fell [into the river] like thunders, frightening hidden dragons to run away, and as the huge valleys were filled [with the stones], water demons were also gone away,” Wei Gao figuratively depicted. Leshan Giant Buddha was a civil engineering achievement of medieval China as much as it is a gigantic religious monument. Wei Gao presents an interesting explanation about how this man-made marvel that triumphed over the natural disaster was devised by the mind of none other than a Buddhist monk:
Eliminating natural disasters with merciful exertion and changing violent waves into a stable stream ― how was it possible? If one closely studies various beings of the object realm, one knows that they are all products of our delusions. And if one understands the fact that even these delusions are originally tranquil [, that is, have never arisen], one also see that all the various beings of the object realm are empty. If even the things to be either “empty” or “existent” are nonexistent, where can either “danger” or “safety” be? Supreme sages quietly observe that things are neither empty nor existent, and according to given stimuli they properly react. Who would understand the depth [of the mind of such sages]? As they civilize the world based on [understanding of] the nonexistence, how can there be things they cannot change! If it was not the utmost supreme mind [of Venerable Haitong], who could have brought peace to this calamity?
That is, Haitong was a sage who realized the emptiness of beings that there is in fact no such thing as a fixed, intrinsic nature of beings, thus even denying the idea of absolute emptiness of beings. And from the same insight he also figured that seemingly inevitable natural disasters that others resigned themselves to also lacked a definitive nature, and therefore that they can be altered somehow.
Haitong could not witness the completion of his project before he passed away. But around 740, Zhangqiu Jianqiong, a predecessor of Wei Gao, picked up where Haitong had left off. He first used his own salary to keep the construction going but soon the Tang court, probably impressed by reports about the project’s achievements, allocated regional tax revenue for the project. In 785, when Wei Gao was assigned as the military governor of the Sichuan region, the construction was more than halfway done, leaving only about 30 more meters to the ground. And 18 years later the Leshan Giant Buddha’s feet were finally carved, fully revealing the statue’s splendor as we know of today.