You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This


A Heart Sutra in the heart of Shanghai.

Shanghai can be a bit rough around the edges sometimes. I fully acknowledge this. Most locals would say the same when asked about the traffic, crowds, air quality, and surprisingly cold winter. The Shanghainese themselves can sometimes also be a bit rough around the edges (in a lovable sort of way) to faint-hearted Westerners. Get between a Shangher and their food and they will assuredly cut you in line, order, and pay before you even notice.

But really, the city and its people have a soft side. Which happens to be the same side that loves glittering gilded gold pagodas, towering ornate statues of Buddha, high-vaulted worship halls, impressive and expensive art exhibits, intricately carved wooden screen doors, and, of course, an ever-present assortment of merchandise.

If there’s one thing I can say about downtown Shanghai, it’s that it’s not Shanghai unless it’s dressed to the nines and full to the brim with people. Jing’an Temple is no different. But no matter how much you’ve seen of this city or how long you’ve lived here, this place is absolutely unparalleled.

Seriously.

Located on West Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s busiest streets, the city’s lifeblood flows into this place. 静安寺 (Jing4an1 Si4) translates literally as the Temple of Peace and Tranquility, but both those characteristics take unorthodox shape here — like “Buddhist Temple by Gucci” sort of shape.

To find Jing’an, take metro line 2 or 7 to the stop of the same name. Exit to find the temple sitting square above the station. Once you’ve spotted the pillar bedecked with four massive gold lions, you’ve found the place. A few steps through the aptly named Mountain Gate, and you’ll enter mid-scene:

Exit Line 2

Visitors and locals alike visit Jing’an in all seasons, but if you catch it on the 1st or 15th of every lunar month, entrance is free. You’ll have access to copious shots of the striking architecture, hand-crafted furniture from the Qing and Song Dynasties, Tibetan artwork including 25 meticulously painted bodhisattva statuettes and a stunning 10x10ft. sand mandala, worshipers engaged in their beautiful practice, and astounded tourists with their jaws on the ground.

What’s truly remarkable about Jing’an is that the tourists don’t outnumber the worshipers — the temple draws all sorts of people to its gates. Countless kneeling pads stitched in Chinese red and gold are lined up in 4 main halls, with dozens more adorning the spacious but modestly decorated worship room underneath the central one, the Precious Hall of the Great Hero. Queues form up (a rarity in China) while people wait for an available place to offer their supplications.

The spicy-sweet smell of incense pervades. Worshipers hold them with clasped hands above their head in prayer.

One trip to Jing’an completely explains the Shanghainese mindset. Crystallized in a city-meets-spirit attitude, this city never ceases to inspire. Sure, it’s a city that will undoubtedly rip you off if it gets the chance, stare at how blonde your hair is and how not-local your features are, but it’s also a city that will surprise you with eager curiosity and easy friendship. Shanghai is as varied as the human race, as re4nao (lively) as a family Thanksgiving, and as genuine as your high school history teacher. All it takes to see it clearly is a little perspective.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai while studying Mandarin and teaching English. He moved home to continue writing and working and then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.