St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was an astute observer of the psychology of religious donors. He saw how they found churches or cathedrals of splendid design and beauty irresistible and how they scrambled to offer them their money. Conversely, poorer, humbler, and less illustrious churches weren’t seen as attractive repositories for donations. This resulted in a vicious cycle of declining revenue for the luckless chapels, which led to deteriorating architecture and failing repairs, and therefore even less attention from desperately needed donors.
“In this way wealth is derived from wealth, in this way money attracts money,” St. Bernard noted irritably, “because by I know not what law, wherever the more riches are seen, there the more willingly are offerings made” (Rudolph 1990, 280–81).
St. Bernard’s observations couldn’t be more relevant to the latest Buddhist developments in Hong Kong. On 15 April, Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po opened to the public after much excitement in the press. Easily one of the grandest Buddhist projects in recent memory, it is notable for its massive budget, some of it spent on the lobby’s marble tiles, bathrooms befitting a hotel, and bulletproof windows for the dormitories. The temple complex boasts the elegant majesty of Tang dynasty architecture, covers 500,000 square feet, and boasts a 249-foot bronze-forged statue of Guanyin. Magnate Li Ka-shing contributed over HK$1.5 billion from his foundation to this project. There have been numerous private visits by foreign dignitaries, businessmen, and influential members of the Hong Kong community. It is beyond doubt that Tsz Shan will attract favor and donations for years to come.
We should wholeheartedly celebrate the philanthropists who are assisting the resurgence of Buddhism in Hong Kong. It is nevertheless difficult not to notice the stark difference between Tsz Shan’s fortunes and those of the monasteries in the rural “enclave” of Luk Wu. According to the Geography Department of The University of Hong Kong, Luk Wu is home to 38 Buddhist temples. One, Luk Wu Ching She, was built in 1883 as a Daoist establishment before being given to the Caodong school of Chan Buddhism, and is listed as a Grade II Historical Building. Most of the temples, however, are derelict. Many are home to aging monastic residents. Barely able to walk, these monks and nuns depend on the goodwill of lay hikers to go “temple-hopping” across the hills with bags of rice, vegetables, and packaged drinks, unloading as much as possible at the temples (which otherwise have no access to wet markets or supermarkets).
Green and tranquil, Luk Wu has always been recognized as an ideal place for meditation. One unusual phenomenon here is the small community of unmarried middle-aged to elderly laywomen who engage in Buddhist practice and meditation, supporting each other in a spiritual network that can’t be boxed within traditional definitions. They aren’t female monastics, yet they effectively practice as such.
The monasteries of Luk Wu have no consistent private sponsor to sustain their meager upkeep. A discussion paper (published on 10 October 2014 by the Planning and Conservation Sub-committee of the Lantau Development Advisory Committee) noted that after its 2010-11 Policy Address, the Hong Kong government covered Luk Wu (among other enclaves) with statutory plans for the purpose of conservation and social development needs. The government has also graded several temples (both Buddhist and Daoist) in the area as sites needing preservation. Most notably, the Policy Address made note of “incompatible developments” that needed to be prohibited for the long-term well-being of the sites.
But Ho Pui Han, chairperson of the Association of Tai O Environment and Development (Tai O is a village on Lantau Island near Luk Wu),* is not convinced that the government is being proactive enough in enforcing these commitments. “The government has no coherent methodology to enforce its policies on Luk Wu’s conservation. Nor does it recognize the importance of many of its landmarks as sites of religious culture,” she said. “In recent years there has been a fall in monastic numbers due to wider demographic factors, and the lack of practical care for these places is compounded by the fact that no individual or institution is willing to take over the administration of these structures. There are issues of disrepair plaguing many structures.”
Worse yet are the reports about missing items from the temples and creeping attempts to commercialize the area. The association is concerned that the government is passive in the face of challenges to its conservation policy, which in turn has led to a sense of insecurity and disempowerment among locals. Some temples have suffered from visible human intervention, such as Buddhist statues being moved outdoors by unknown parties. Also of great concern is the threat to the religiously significant and endangered tree, aquilaria sinensis, which is endemic to China. Aquilaria sinensis has had a long and influential history among the temples in Luk Wu and in China. It is used to make the incense tu chen xiang, or eaglewood, as well as medicines. I-Cable has reported 134 cases in Hong Kong for 2014 alone where these trees were vandalized or cut down for their sap and wood, and 21 cases from January to March this year already. With aquilaria sinensis becoming a protected species and the use of tu chen xiang dying out in Hong Kong, it is becoming an ever more attractive item to sell and export.
“The humble and politically uninvolved monastics don’t wish to highlight their plight via the press or media outlets,” said Ho.
“We’re severely handicapped in our cultural conservation efforts without active government assistance. Monastics and institutions of note and prestige need to be more open to the problems these women are facing.”
Tsz Shan Monastery and the Luk Wu enclave represent different faces of the Buddhist inheritance. One is imperial and magnificent; the other is as dilapidated as it is irreplaceable. Both faces, the beautiful and the decrepit, are part of Hong Kong’s heritage. But extra action needs to be taken for the benefit of the practitioners and temples in Luk Wu, especially when the future of their homes is more precarious than government papers would suggest. Cultural preservation is not glamorous work, but it is crucial. The philanthropists that understand this are of an especially noble stripe.
*The association received backing from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation for the foundation’s “Aquilaria Sinensis Ambassador” Training Programme. The “Aquilaria Sinensis Ambassador” Training Programme was launched by the Ho foundation in 2013 and seeks to promote public awareness of aquilaria sinensis. The association started with highlighting aquilaria sinensis issues in Tai O, before broadening its scope to the whole of Lantau Island.
Rudolph, Conrad. 1990. The ‘Things of Greater Moment’: Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia and the Medieval Attitude Toward Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lantau Development Advisory Committee. 2014. “Overview of Conservation in Lantau and Proposed Directions.” Development Bureau of the HKSAR. Accessed 17 April. http://www.devb.gov.hk/filemanager/en/content_923/PC_SC_Paper_No_04_2014_%28Eng%29.pdf.
For more information, see:
Association of Tai O Environment and Development: “Aquilaria Sinensis” Ambassador Training Programme (The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation)
Oral History of Project of Luk Wu, Lantau (Chinese only) (Geography Department, HKU)