Beisita
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Vincent M
By Vincent M
A Phoenix of a Pagoda
4.0 of 5 bubblesAug 2019
Suzhou’s North Pagoda Temple has been laid waste time and again, but phoenix-like, keeps rising from its ashes. Visiting hours and rules of conduct are posted, but no historical or cultural info is provided at the temple, and nobody was there to ask. The entrance was unattended, and nary a monk was to be seen. So, to help other TA readers, I’ll provide information (of the “best guess but no guarantees” variety) on the temple’s history, architecture, and religious symbolism. [I’ve flagged trivia with brackets: for a quicker read, skip the brackets.] Why Beisita?: “Beisita” will do, but the temple calls itself “Beita Bao’en.” Bei (North) + Ta (Buddhist Pagoda) + Bao’en (Temple). A Merciless History: Buddhism’s Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, is known for her compassionate interventions. I didn’t find her anywhere here. Too bad the monks didn’t invest in a big shrine to her long ago. Divine interventions over the last two millennia might have prevented many a calamity. Here’s the temple’s eventful timeline. * 240 CE: Emperor Da of Wu builds the pagoda. [Wu was about as far east as you could get in Eurasia, but Da had direct trade relations with Rome, and he authorized one Roman trader to take back ten male and ten female “black dwarfs,” presumably Austronesians. A trade leading to slavery, death along the 10,000 km westward trek, or perhaps the Colosseum, whoever the poor dwarfs were.] * 525 CE or so: a second pagoda is added to the temple. * 1000 CE: Both pagodas were gone by this time, and the Bao’en would never again have two. Times were good if it even had one. [Fire is a likely culprit: a single lightning-strike in a congested wooden Suzhou on a gusty day would have done the trick. Chinese didn’t start building brick or stone pagodas until the 7th century C.E.] * 1131-62: A new Beita is rebuilt early in Southern Sung times. [The Sung dynasty had lost the northern half of China to the Jurchens in 1127, hence the “Southern” moniker. In 1161 the Jurchens assembled an invincible armada on the Yangtze between Nanjing and Suzhou, outnumbering the Sung fleet 20-to-1. They intended to ferry their also-invincible army across. But the high-tech Sung ships, powered by paddle-wheels, could run rings around the Jurchens, regardless of what winds and Yangtze currents were doing. And the Sung had artillery—catapults that fired gunpowder-sack bombs into the enemy fleet. The Sungs blew the Jurchens out of the water and drowned their Grande Armee, in the first major battle in history decided by gunpowder. Hong Kong’s Maritime Museum has a scale-model replica of a Sung paddle-wheel battleship.] Construction of the new pagoda had started a decade or two before this battle, so it was finished or close to completion, when news of the victory arrived. We can be confident that Beita Bao’en was packed with joyous thanks-givers: the happiest day it ever had. Of more importance to modern visitors: the Sung Dynasty was one of the high points in Chinese architecture: not just naval architecture, but pagodas as well. * 1275: The Beita is burnt to the ground when the Mongols under Bayan overrun Suzhou. Bayan’s boss, Kublai Khan, was exterminating the last vestiges of the Sung dynasty. The Mongol horde may not have deliberately put Beita Bao’en to the torch; but that’s a pretty good bet. * circa 1400: The Ming Dynasty rebuilds the pagoda. That’s very good news for modern visitors: the Mings appreciated Sung architecture, fostered great architecture in their own right, and essentially rebuilt this pagoda to the Sung model. I suspect that one Ming design change was enlarging the eaves, and giving them a more dramatic upswing. That may sound like a minor detail, but it’s visually significant, since the pagoda has 72 eaves! If you picked two Chinese dynastic styles to integrate into a single pagoda, Sung plus Ming would be hard to beat. * 1860-63: Beita Bao’en survives the Taipings. [The Taiping--“Heavenly Peace”--was a quasi-Christian theocracy which fought a 14-year war, initially to put a Ming pretender on the throne, and then to rule themselves when the Ming figurehead was captured and beheaded. The Taiping launched a genocide, massacring every Manchu man, woman, and child they got their hands on—40,000 in Suzhou alone—as well as millions of Han Chinese, including rival Taipings finally killing each other. Estimated fatalities due the Taiping Uprising run from 20 million to 100 million. The Taiping captured Suzhou in 1860, and occupied it for 4 years, by which time Suzhou was reduced to “a vast pile of ruins.”] Beita Bao’en, like the nearby Humble Administrator’s Garden, was comparatively lucky: it needed repairs after the Taipings surrendered, but not a complete reconstruction. * 1937-59: The Japanese attack Suzhou on their 1937 drive from Shanghai to Nanjing, with massive air strikes and a heavy artillery pounding. Once again, the Beita Bao’en survived, though in need of repairs (which it didn’t get for decades). After the 1949 unification of mainland China, the Beita Bao’en, like Shanghai’s City Gods Temple, may have been secularized for a decade or so. * 1960, 1975, and 2006: Significant repairs and restorations were done to the Beita Bao’en. And now the North Pagoda Temple is once again open as a Buddhist place of worship. Best Pagoda Views: One good line-of-sight is from the opposite side of Xibeijei Road, where you can see the pagoda towering above the tree-line (see Pagoda from Xibeijei Rd photo). Another one is from the approach to the temple gate (Gate and Pagoda photo); the gate’s eaves recapitulate the pagoda’s, and are just as imposing (Gate Eaves photo). Closer to the pagoda, surrounding tree branches partially block your view; nevertheless, the most dramatic views of the pagoda’s eaves are from 10 or 15 meters away (Pagoda Eaves photo). Buddhism at Beita Bao’en. Buddhism has three major divisions: Theravada, Mahayana (Great Raft), and Tantric. The Mahayana Buddhism practiced at Beita Bao’en is of the Pure Land, Tiantai School, but with one prominent Zen feature, another duo based on Hinduism, and one recurring holy symbol dating back to the Old Stone Age. Budai: You can’t miss Budai: he’s been putting on the avoirdupois for a thousand years! Budai (named “Cloth Sack” after his monk’s bag) is an immensely-fat half-naked fakir, sporting the biggest grin you’ll ever see on any deity. Though he’s called the “Laughing Buddha,” he is NOT the Buddha. (Budai and Laughing Buddha photos). Budai was a Zen monk who lived a thousand years ago. [Zen (“Chan” in Chinese) and Pure Land are both Mahayana Buddhist, but in his day were as different from each other as Southern Baptist Evangelicalism is from Anatolian Greek Orthodoxy. Over the centuries, Taoists and Imperial cliques persecuted Zen mercilessly. In China as in Rome, promoting a new creed when the official state religion says the emperor is divine, could get you charged with high treason; and as the Taipings demonstrated, you might well be guilty as charged. Famous Zen masters fled to Japan for their health. Hence many Westerners think of Zen as uniquely Japanese. But though Zen waned in China, the Chinese refused to give up their beloved Cloth Sack! Now, a cloth sack would be a logical place for a mendicant Zen monk to store lychees, over-ripe durians, or whatever else he might receive from alms-givers looking to make a little merit. But Budai’s sack isn’t for holding what he receives: it actually holds gifts that Budai gives to others: abundance, good fortune, and so on. And jolly Budai is so delighted to help all good little Buddhists, that even Theravadans cherish him! Budai is of course the exact equivalent of an iconic Christian figure, Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century Anatolian Greek Orthodox bishop whom even Southern Baptists revere, as Santa Claus: paunch, bag of gifts for those who’ve been good, and all. Verily, there’s nothing new under the sun. Ho-ho-ho!] Fearsome Guardians: Also in the garden you’ll see an imposing statue of Chíguó Tiān, with a sword in his right hand, and his left hand on his hip. [Chíguó Tiān is the King of the East and Protector of the World. He comes down to us from the Sanskrit, and transcends the Mahayana-Theraveda Schism, thriving equally in Lhasa and Laos, Kyoto and Kandy: Chiguo Tian photo.] To get into the pagoda itself, you need to pass between two more fierce transplanted-Hindu guardian deities, the celestial equivalent of getting through security screening at Shanghai International (Guardian 1 and Guardian 2 photos). Provided you’re a righteous person not planning to steal a jade Buddha or gold reliquary, you should have no problem getting past these two. Octagons and Staircases: The pagoda’s ground-floor ambulatory is an octagon within an octagon: the outer one provides views of the garden, and the inner one holds a series of shrines (see Octagon photo). Can you can get to higher levels of the pagoda from within the inner octagon? One TA reviewer said he’d climbed up a steep staircase to the pagoda’s top; other reviewers said doing so was prohibited. I saw one or two doors that might have led to a staircase: but all were locked and none were labeled. You’ll be lucky if you get topside. Actually, many early Chinese pagodas had no interiors at all, let alone octagonal staircases. That’s not too surprising: you can’t take the stairs up to the top of Cleopatra’s Needle or Nelson’s Column either. [Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower, built exactly the same time that the Mings built this pagoda, recently got itself a spiffy new elevator: works great, has already paid for itself via a modest fee per foreign tourist passenger, financially supports Galata Tower maintenance, and still makes a tidy profit. I’m just mentioning this….] Buddhas, Lotuses, and Mudras: The Beita has eight shrines, one on each of its interior sides. Each shrine holds a Buddha sitting on a lotus flower (Interior photo). [The lotus is revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism, as it once was in ancient Egypt. Only the Mycenaeans disrespected lotuses, although Homer was wrong: toking up on lotus won’t get you high. Years ago I was rambling around Ceylon with a Buddhist; we came to a stinking pool of muddy water, with lotuses floating in full bloom atop the slime. The Buddhist said “Have you ever seen such foul water? Yet, only out of ponds like this, the worst of all waters, rises the most perfect of all flowers.” He said it well, but any naturalist could confirm the literal truth of what he said, and he sure as shooting hadn’t invented that line on the spot. The lotus has long symbolized purity rising out of impurity, and enlightenment rising out of confusion; the pink lotus represents the Buddha himself.] These lotus petals are white tinged with pink, and the eight Buddhas all wear dark pink robes. Each Buddha has a different hand gesture. Each gesture, called a mudra, has a unique meaning. If you’ve already mastered Comanche sign language, you might, with practice, be good at reading mudras. I haven’t, and I’m not. I’m confident that one mudra is the sign for meditation (Meditation Buddha photo), and I suspect another represents healing—there should be a small medicine bottle in his left palm, but I couldn’t spot one (Healing Buddha photo). As for what the other six mudras represent, you’re on your own, kemo sabe. Swastikas: Every Buddha has a golden swastika over his heart (Swastika photo). If you have a visceral reaction, just remember: the swastika is the most ancient sacred symbol on Earth. [Because “swastika” is Sanskrit for “all is well” and 4,000-year-old swastikas have been found in the Indus Valley, Hindus believe India invented swastikas. They’re wrong. 15,000 years ago, an Old Stone Age hunter-gatherer, wrapped in fur against the glacial cold in what is now Ukraine, painstakingly carved a swastika onto mammoth ivory; the earliest we’ve yet found. Radiocarbon dating confirms it’s twice as old as the runner-up, a Bronze Age swastika from Bulgaria; and almost four times older than the earliest Indus swastikas. Swastikas come in two basic forms: right-facing (RF) and left-facing (LF) depending on whether the lines projecting out from the center turn right or left. Beita Bao’en’s, like every swastika I’ve seen in China, are LF. Swastikas first symbolized natural phenomena: the sun, moon, thunder, daily and seasonal cycles, cardinal directions, etc. Thence: deities associated with such phenomena: Sol, Shamsuhk, Helios, Selene, Luna, Chandra, Thor…. Swastikas were holy for virtually all ancient Eurasians: Celts, Iberians, Etruscans, Romans, Teutons, Greeks, Trojans, Minoans, Carthaginians, Slavs, Scythians, Khmer, Koreans, Javanese and Japanese. East-Asian hunter-gatherers trekking across Beringia carried the swastika along: swastikas were sacred from the Canadian plains and Mississippian mound-builders, to the Andes, including the Olmec, Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. One American swastika is 5,000 years old, and a pre-Columbian shell-carving from Tennessee has both a swastika and a figure in a lotus-position. Swastikas were used in both East and West Africa. Early Christians used swastikas in Roman catacombs, Byzantine churches, and the spectacular Ethiopian Biete Maryam, which was carved out of solid rock, swastikas and all. The odd man out is ancient Egypt: pre-dynastic and post-dynastic swastikas have been found, but the dominant religious symbols under the pharaohs were the ankh, scarab, and djed. Significantly Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia never had swastikas (supporting the argument for cultural dispersion rather then multiple-independent invention). To this day, swastikas are religious symbols in both Navajo sand paintings and Tibetan sand paintings. The swastika is revered by Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists. In China the wan (swastika) dates back to the New Stone Age: China imported neither the symbol nor its name from India. However, China DID import Buddhism, mudras, and some uses of swastikas from India. The Hindu swastika symbolizes many things, and is put on gods’ hearts, foreheads, feet and hands.] In Chinese Buddhism, as in Hinduism, the swastika is a sign of divinity, eternity, infinity, good luck, long life, and (irony of ironies!) worldly prosperity! I’m afraid those last two were inevitable: any holy symbol that’s been revered as long as the swastika, must represent long life and prosperity. Holy symbols that represent early death and abject poverty are soon chucked into the nearest camp-fire. The spoken Chinese syllable “wan” has two meanings: 10,000, and swastika; but in writing, they’re clearly different words: “10,000” is 萬; but “swastika” is 卍, (a really easy calligraph for non-Chinese to remember). In China, you’ll often find wan on the soles of reclining Buddhas, and over the hearts of sitting and standing ones. Buddhas exactly like those at Beita Bao’en, sitting in lotus position atop a lotus, hands in a mudra, LF swastika on their breast, go back at least 1300 years to the Tang dynasty. And in Tang times, the calligraph for “sun” was a 卍 inside a circle. Hindus always use RF swastikas to represent Vishnu the preserver, a sun god; and LF swastikas to represent Kali the destroyer, a night goddess. Because RF and LF swastikas are mirror images of each other, they often represent opposites. Beita Bao’en’s Buddha swastikas are left-facing, just like the Chinese word 卍. But the Nazi Party’s swastika was right-facing. Ergo: the swastikas on the Beita Bao’en Buddhas represent the exact opposite of everything Adolf Hitler and his Nazi swastika stood for! And oh yes, I do feel sorry for that 15,000-year-old mammoth hunter: if he’d only copyrighted his symbol, he’d be a gazillionaire by now. Rules and Reflections: Nine temple policies are posted in English (see Notice photo). I was struck by three of these: “II: Visitors can go in free of charge.” Sounds good. “III: Please abide by the public order: No candles, tinfoil, and paper offerings are allowed to take inside. (Free incense is offered inside).” Sounds even better; glad there’s a public order against it. Buddhist monks make a tidy sum selling candles and joss sticks to the faithful; trust me on that (if you’re a Westerner with a Buddhist fiancee, she’ll have the boundless faith, and you’ll have the bottomless wallet). But the mega-bucks are in the ghost money industry, aka “tinfoil and paper offerings.” [Ghost money is a Taoist concept that squeezed into Chinese Buddhism, even though theologically it’s not a good fit. You buy gaudy ghost money from monks, with real money. You burn the ghost money to send it to your ancestors, who can use the ghost money to buy karma, which reduces their time in “Buddhist Hell” (they’d all eventually get out anyway; how soon they get out is supposed to be based on karma they honestly earned in their previous existence, not karma purchased with financial aid from their descendants). Meanwhile, the monks use the immense profits from the ghost money sales, to maintain or improve their temples and meditation centers (tales of rich-as-Midas abbots buying limousines and Learjets are abundant, but apocryphal). On Taiwan alone, devout citizens spend more than US $400,000,000 on ghost money per year! That’s enough to buy 20 brand-new Learjet 85s, and makes the ghost money industry about as close as you can get to the “infinite prosperity” that the sacred wan symbolizes.] “IX. Without permission no personal conduct of commerce or begging alms, etc. is allowed in the name of the temple. The offender shall be investigated for responsibility.” Huh? Rule IX stopped me in my tracks, particularly in combination with II and III. No selling of Buddhist statues or books permitted? And why should a Buddhist monk need government permission to accept alms, or be investigated by the authorities for having a monk’s bowl? Jolly Budai was a monk; under these rules, he’d have been as thin as a rail. I saw no donation box as I left Beita Bao’en; hopefully there is one and I just missed it. Buddhists don’t tithe the church. Without admission fees, religious sales, and acceptance of alms, how can they maintain a temple? How do the monks eat? Not that I actually saw any monks at Beita Bao’en; heck, I didn’t even see any free incense. Without any funds, how can Beita Bao’en be maintained? Is it being maintained? If you look carefully at the photo labeled Meditation Buddha, you’ll notice that all round the shrine, paint is peeling off the walls, and bits of plaster have fallen off the ceiling. It looks as if Suzhou’s historic North Pagoda Temple may be slowly dying of impoverishment and neglect. Oh, well, I’m not too worried. No matter what you do to them, phoenixes have an uncanny ability to rise from the ashes. Beita Bao’en has been doing that for almost 2,000 years, and has a proven track record.

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Mish M
Johannesburg, South Africa67 contributions
5.0 of 5 bubbles
Dec 2019
Easy access via underground from Suzhou Railway Station, near the Silk Museum and a powerful presence both of the Buddha at the foot of the pagoda, and the tall pagoda itself
Written 1 January 2020
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Vincent M
New Orleans, LA2,258 contributions
4.0 of 5 bubbles
Aug 2019
Suzhou’s North Pagoda Temple has been laid waste time and again, but phoenix-like, keeps rising from its ashes. Visiting hours and rules of conduct are posted, but no historical or cultural info is provided at the temple, and nobody was there to ask. The entrance was unattended, and nary a monk was to be seen. So, to help other TA readers, I’ll provide information (of the “best guess but no guarantees” variety) on the temple’s history, architecture, and religious symbolism. [I’ve flagged trivia with brackets: for a quicker read, skip the brackets.]

Why Beisita?: “Beisita” will do, but the temple calls itself “Beita Bao’en.” Bei (North) + Ta (Buddhist Pagoda) + Bao’en (Temple).

A Merciless History: Buddhism’s Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, is known for her compassionate interventions. I didn’t find her anywhere here. Too bad the monks didn’t invest in a big shrine to her long ago. Divine interventions over the last two millennia might have prevented many a calamity. Here’s the temple’s eventful timeline.
* 240 CE: Emperor Da of Wu builds the pagoda. [Wu was about as far east as you could get in Eurasia, but Da had direct trade relations with Rome, and he authorized one Roman trader to take back ten male and ten female “black dwarfs,” presumably Austronesians. A trade leading to slavery, death along the 10,000 km westward trek, or perhaps the Colosseum, whoever the poor dwarfs were.]
* 525 CE or so: a second pagoda is added to the temple.
* 1000 CE: Both pagodas were gone by this time, and the Bao’en would never again have two. Times were good if it even had one. [Fire is a likely culprit: a single lightning-strike in a congested wooden Suzhou on a gusty day would have done the trick. Chinese didn’t start building brick or stone pagodas until the 7th century C.E.]
* 1131-62: A new Beita is rebuilt early in Southern Sung times. [The Sung dynasty had lost the northern half of China to the Jurchens in 1127, hence the “Southern” moniker. In 1161 the Jurchens assembled an invincible armada on the Yangtze between Nanjing and Suzhou, outnumbering the Sung fleet 20-to-1. They intended to ferry their also-invincible army across. But the high-tech Sung ships, powered by paddle-wheels, could run rings around the Jurchens, regardless of what winds and Yangtze currents were doing. And the Sung had artillery—catapults that fired gunpowder-sack bombs into the enemy fleet. The Sungs blew the Jurchens out of the water and drowned their Grande Armee, in the first major battle in history decided by gunpowder. Hong Kong’s Maritime Museum has a scale-model replica of a Sung paddle-wheel battleship.] Construction of the new pagoda had started a decade or two before this battle, so it was finished or close to completion, when news of the victory arrived. We can be confident that Beita Bao’en was packed with joyous thanks-givers: the happiest day it ever had. Of more importance to modern visitors: the Sung Dynasty was one of the high points in Chinese architecture: not just naval architecture, but pagodas as well.
* 1275: The Beita is burnt to the ground when the Mongols under Bayan overrun Suzhou. Bayan’s boss, Kublai Khan, was exterminating the last vestiges of the Sung dynasty. The Mongol horde may not have deliberately put Beita Bao’en to the torch; but that’s a pretty good bet.
* circa 1400: The Ming Dynasty rebuilds the pagoda. That’s very good news for modern visitors: the Mings appreciated Sung architecture, fostered great architecture in their own right, and essentially rebuilt this pagoda to the Sung model. I suspect that one Ming design change was enlarging the eaves, and giving them a more dramatic upswing. That may sound like a minor detail, but it’s visually significant, since the pagoda has 72 eaves! If you picked two Chinese dynastic styles to integrate into a single pagoda, Sung plus Ming would be hard to beat.
* 1860-63: Beita Bao’en survives the Taipings. [The Taiping--“Heavenly Peace”--was a quasi-Christian theocracy which fought a 14-year war, initially to put a Ming pretender on the throne, and then to rule themselves when the Ming figurehead was captured and beheaded. The Taiping launched a genocide, massacring every Manchu man, woman, and child they got their hands on—40,000 in Suzhou alone—as well as millions of Han Chinese, including rival Taipings finally killing each other. Estimated fatalities due the Taiping Uprising run from 20 million to 100 million. The Taiping captured Suzhou in 1860, and occupied it for 4 years, by which time Suzhou was reduced to “a vast pile of ruins.”] Beita Bao’en, like the nearby Humble Administrator’s Garden, was comparatively lucky: it needed repairs after the Taipings surrendered, but not a complete reconstruction.
* 1937-59: The Japanese attack Suzhou on their 1937 drive from Shanghai to Nanjing, with massive air strikes and a heavy artillery pounding. Once again, the Beita Bao’en survived, though in need of repairs (which it didn’t get for decades). After the 1949 unification of mainland China, the Beita Bao’en, like Shanghai’s City Gods Temple, may have been secularized for a decade or so.
* 1960, 1975, and 2006: Significant repairs and restorations were done to the Beita Bao’en. And now the North Pagoda Temple is once again open as a Buddhist place of worship.

Best Pagoda Views: One good line-of-sight is from the opposite side of Xibeijei Road, where you can see the pagoda towering above the tree-line (see Pagoda from Xibeijei Rd photo). Another one is from the approach to the temple gate (Gate and Pagoda photo); the gate’s eaves recapitulate the pagoda’s, and are just as imposing (Gate Eaves photo). Closer to the pagoda, surrounding tree branches partially block your view; nevertheless, the most dramatic views of the pagoda’s eaves are from 10 or 15 meters away (Pagoda Eaves photo).

Buddhism at Beita Bao’en. Buddhism has three major divisions: Theravada, Mahayana (Great Raft), and Tantric. The Mahayana Buddhism practiced at Beita Bao’en is of the Pure Land, Tiantai School, but with one prominent Zen feature, another duo based on Hinduism, and one recurring holy symbol dating back to the Old Stone Age.

Budai: You can’t miss Budai: he’s been putting on the avoirdupois for a thousand years! Budai (named “Cloth Sack” after his monk’s bag) is an immensely-fat half-naked fakir, sporting the biggest grin you’ll ever see on any deity. Though he’s called the “Laughing Buddha,” he is NOT the Buddha. (Budai and Laughing Buddha photos). Budai was a Zen monk who lived a thousand years ago. [Zen (“Chan” in Chinese) and Pure Land are both Mahayana Buddhist, but in his day were as different from each other as Southern Baptist Evangelicalism is from Anatolian Greek Orthodoxy. Over the centuries, Taoists and Imperial cliques persecuted Zen mercilessly. In China as in Rome, promoting a new creed when the official state religion says the emperor is divine, could get you charged with high treason; and as the Taipings demonstrated, you might well be guilty as charged. Famous Zen masters fled to Japan for their health. Hence many Westerners think of Zen as uniquely Japanese. But though Zen waned in China, the Chinese refused to give up their beloved Cloth Sack! Now, a cloth sack would be a logical place for a mendicant Zen monk to store lychees, over-ripe durians, or whatever else he might receive from alms-givers looking to make a little merit. But Budai’s sack isn’t for holding what he receives: it actually holds gifts that Budai gives to others: abundance, good fortune, and so on. And jolly Budai is so delighted to help all good little Buddhists, that even Theravadans cherish him! Budai is of course the exact equivalent of an iconic Christian figure, Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century Anatolian Greek Orthodox bishop whom even Southern Baptists revere, as Santa Claus: paunch, bag of gifts for those who’ve been good, and all. Verily, there’s nothing new under the sun. Ho-ho-ho!]

Fearsome Guardians: Also in the garden you’ll see an imposing statue of Chíguó Tiān, with a sword in his right hand, and his left hand on his hip. [Chíguó Tiān is the King of the East and Protector of the World. He comes down to us from the Sanskrit, and transcends the Mahayana-Theraveda Schism, thriving equally in Lhasa and Laos, Kyoto and Kandy: Chiguo Tian photo.] To get into the pagoda itself, you need to pass between two more fierce transplanted-Hindu guardian deities, the celestial equivalent of getting through security screening at Shanghai International (Guardian 1 and Guardian 2 photos). Provided you’re a righteous person not planning to steal a jade Buddha or gold reliquary, you should have no problem getting past these two.

Octagons and Staircases: The pagoda’s ground-floor ambulatory is an octagon within an octagon: the outer one provides views of the garden, and the inner one holds a series of shrines (see Octagon photo). Can you can get to higher levels of the pagoda from within the inner octagon? One TA reviewer said he’d climbed up a steep staircase to the pagoda’s top; other reviewers said doing so was prohibited. I saw one or two doors that might have led to a staircase: but all were locked and none were labeled. You’ll be lucky if you get topside. Actually, many early Chinese pagodas had no interiors at all, let alone octagonal staircases. That’s not too surprising: you can’t take the stairs up to the top of Cleopatra’s Needle or Nelson’s Column either. [Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower, built exactly the same time that the Mings built this pagoda, recently got itself a spiffy new elevator: works great, has already paid for itself via a modest fee per foreign tourist passenger, financially supports Galata Tower maintenance, and still makes a tidy profit. I’m just mentioning this….]

Buddhas, Lotuses, and Mudras: The Beita has eight shrines, one on each of its interior sides. Each shrine holds a Buddha sitting on a lotus flower (Interior photo). [The lotus is revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism, as it once was in ancient Egypt. Only the Mycenaeans disrespected lotuses, although Homer was wrong: toking up on lotus won’t get you high. Years ago I was rambling around Ceylon with a Buddhist; we came to a stinking pool of muddy water, with lotuses floating in full bloom atop the slime. The Buddhist said “Have you ever seen such foul water? Yet, only out of ponds like this, the worst of all waters, rises the most perfect of all flowers.” He said it well, but any naturalist could confirm the literal truth of what he said, and he sure as shooting hadn’t invented that line on the spot. The lotus has long symbolized purity rising out of impurity, and enlightenment rising out of confusion; the pink lotus represents the Buddha himself.] These lotus petals are white tinged with pink, and the eight Buddhas all wear dark pink robes. Each Buddha has a different hand gesture. Each gesture, called a mudra, has a unique meaning. If you’ve already mastered Comanche sign language, you might, with practice, be good at reading mudras. I haven’t, and I’m not. I’m confident that one mudra is the sign for meditation (Meditation Buddha photo), and I suspect another represents healing—there should be a small medicine bottle in his left palm, but I couldn’t spot one (Healing Buddha photo). As for what the other six mudras represent, you’re on your own, kemo sabe.

Swastikas: Every Buddha has a golden swastika over his heart (Swastika photo). If you have a visceral reaction, just remember: the swastika is the most ancient sacred symbol on Earth. [Because “swastika” is Sanskrit for “all is well” and 4,000-year-old swastikas have been found in the Indus Valley, Hindus believe India invented swastikas. They’re wrong. 15,000 years ago, an Old Stone Age hunter-gatherer, wrapped in fur against the glacial cold in what is now Ukraine, painstakingly carved a swastika onto mammoth ivory; the earliest we’ve yet found. Radiocarbon dating confirms it’s twice as old as the runner-up, a Bronze Age swastika from Bulgaria; and almost four times older than the earliest Indus swastikas. Swastikas come in two basic forms: right-facing (RF) and left-facing (LF) depending on whether the lines projecting out from the center turn right or left. Beita Bao’en’s, like every swastika I’ve seen in China, are LF. Swastikas first symbolized natural phenomena: the sun, moon, thunder, daily and seasonal cycles, cardinal directions, etc. Thence: deities associated with such phenomena: Sol, Shamsuhk, Helios, Selene, Luna, Chandra, Thor…. Swastikas were holy for virtually all ancient Eurasians: Celts, Iberians, Etruscans, Romans, Teutons, Greeks, Trojans, Minoans, Carthaginians, Slavs, Scythians, Khmer, Koreans, Javanese and Japanese. East-Asian hunter-gatherers trekking across Beringia carried the swastika along: swastikas were sacred from the Canadian plains and Mississippian mound-builders, to the Andes, including the Olmec, Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. One American swastika is 5,000 years old, and a pre-Columbian shell-carving from Tennessee has both a swastika and a figure in a lotus-position. Swastikas were used in both East and West Africa. Early Christians used swastikas in Roman catacombs, Byzantine churches, and the spectacular Ethiopian Biete Maryam, which was carved out of solid rock, swastikas and all. The odd man out is ancient Egypt: pre-dynastic and post-dynastic swastikas have been found, but the dominant religious symbols under the pharaohs were the ankh, scarab, and djed. Significantly Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia never had swastikas (supporting the argument for cultural dispersion rather then multiple-independent invention). To this day, swastikas are religious symbols in both Navajo sand paintings and Tibetan sand paintings. The swastika is revered by Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists. In China the wan (swastika) dates back to the New Stone Age: China imported neither the symbol nor its name from India. However, China DID import Buddhism, mudras, and some uses of swastikas from India. The Hindu swastika symbolizes many things, and is put on gods’ hearts, foreheads, feet and hands.] In Chinese Buddhism, as in Hinduism, the swastika is a sign of divinity, eternity, infinity, good luck, long life, and (irony of ironies!) worldly prosperity! I’m afraid those last two were inevitable: any holy symbol that’s been revered as long as the swastika, must represent long life and prosperity. Holy symbols that represent early death and abject poverty are soon chucked into the nearest camp-fire. The spoken Chinese syllable “wan” has two meanings: 10,000, and swastika; but in writing, they’re clearly different words: “10,000” is 萬; but “swastika” is 卍, (a really easy calligraph for non-Chinese to remember). In China, you’ll often find wan on the soles of reclining Buddhas, and over the hearts of sitting and standing ones. Buddhas exactly like those at Beita Bao’en, sitting in lotus position atop a lotus, hands in a mudra, LF swastika on their breast, go back at least 1300 years to the Tang dynasty. And in Tang times, the calligraph for “sun” was a 卍 inside a circle. Hindus always use RF swastikas to represent Vishnu the preserver, a sun god; and LF swastikas to represent Kali the destroyer, a night goddess. Because RF and LF swastikas are mirror images of each other, they often represent opposites. Beita Bao’en’s Buddha swastikas are left-facing, just like the Chinese word 卍. But the Nazi Party’s swastika was right-facing. Ergo: the swastikas on the Beita Bao’en Buddhas represent the exact opposite of everything Adolf Hitler and his Nazi swastika stood for! And oh yes, I do feel sorry for that 15,000-year-old mammoth hunter: if he’d only copyrighted his symbol, he’d be a gazillionaire by now.

Rules and Reflections: Nine temple policies are posted in English (see Notice photo). I was struck by three of these: “II: Visitors can go in free of charge.” Sounds good. “III: Please abide by the public order: No candles, tinfoil, and paper offerings are allowed to take inside. (Free incense is offered inside).” Sounds even better; glad there’s a public order against it. Buddhist monks make a tidy sum selling candles and joss sticks to the faithful; trust me on that (if you’re a Westerner with a Buddhist fiancee, she’ll have the boundless faith, and you’ll have the bottomless wallet). But the mega-bucks are in the ghost money industry, aka “tinfoil and paper offerings.” [Ghost money is a Taoist concept that squeezed into Chinese Buddhism, even though theologically it’s not a good fit. You buy gaudy ghost money from monks, with real money. You burn the ghost money to send it to your ancestors, who can use the ghost money to buy karma, which reduces their time in “Buddhist Hell” (they’d all eventually get out anyway; how soon they get out is supposed to be based on karma they honestly earned in their previous existence, not karma purchased with financial aid from their descendants). Meanwhile, the monks use the immense profits from the ghost money sales, to maintain or improve their temples and meditation centers (tales of rich-as-Midas abbots buying limousines and Learjets are abundant, but apocryphal). On Taiwan alone, devout citizens spend more than US $400,000,000 on ghost money per year! That’s enough to buy 20 brand-new Learjet 85s, and makes the ghost money industry about as close as you can get to the “infinite prosperity” that the sacred wan symbolizes.] “IX. Without permission no personal conduct of commerce or begging alms, etc. is allowed in the name of the temple. The offender shall be investigated for responsibility.” Huh? Rule IX stopped me in my tracks, particularly in combination with II and III. No selling of Buddhist statues or books permitted? And why should a Buddhist monk need government permission to accept alms, or be investigated by the authorities for having a monk’s bowl? Jolly Budai was a monk; under these rules, he’d have been as thin as a rail. I saw no donation box as I left Beita Bao’en; hopefully there is one and I just missed it. Buddhists don’t tithe the church. Without admission fees, religious sales, and acceptance of alms, how can they maintain a temple? How do the monks eat? Not that I actually saw any monks at Beita Bao’en; heck, I didn’t even see any free incense. Without any funds, how can Beita Bao’en be maintained? Is it being maintained? If you look carefully at the photo labeled Meditation Buddha, you’ll notice that all round the shrine, paint is peeling off the walls, and bits of plaster have fallen off the ceiling.

It looks as if Suzhou’s historic North Pagoda Temple may be slowly dying of impoverishment and neglect. Oh, well, I’m not too worried. No matter what you do to them, phoenixes have an uncanny ability to rise from the ashes. Beita Bao’en has been doing that for almost 2,000 years, and has a proven track record.
Written 18 October 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Kyle B
Fishers, IN44 contributions
5.0 of 5 bubbles
Apr 2019 • Business
This park/garden area is in the heart of the city, and if you climb to the top of the tower, the view of ancient Suzhou is worth the effort! It's a unique garden in the city, with more of a city feel, but still quiet and historic.
Written 8 May 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Ivan D
Frisco, TX162 contributions
4.0 of 5 bubbles
Sept 2018 • Couples
Beautiful pagoda in a complex of Buddhist temple. Worth visiting if in Suzhou. It is pity that pagoda is closed for visitors but nevertheless, from outside, it looks amazing. Free entrance
Written 19 September 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

ra j
Dalian59 contributions
5.0 of 5 bubbles
Aug 2018 • Solo
This located just in front of the another marvelous place to visit "Suzhou silk museum" and on the metro stop named "Beisita" as well.It is much less crowded compared to other site in Suzhou and can be visited at your pace while enjoying historical and monumental China.
Written 28 August 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

PushExplore
Singapore, Singapore5,000 contributions
4.0 of 5 bubbles
Aug 2018
The Beisita is another iconic pagoda in Suzhou, which is rather modern looking compared to the one in Tiger Hill.
Written 14 August 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

KW M
Belfast, UK541 contributions
5.0 of 5 bubbles
Jun 2018 • Couples
Located on the corner by the metro stop, it is a nice please to take a break from all the crowds.
Free entrance. This is a buddhist temple so if you want to go, watch what clothing you wear. no short skirts/shorts.
Outside on the street thousands of people were heading to the other sites, while this place had perhaps a few hundred. At just over 5 acres, they disappeared and created a nice break from the crowds.
The pagoda, the buildings, the grounds and the gardens are all well done and worth a look.
A nice bit of history here.
Written 18 June 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Bryce S
New Hope, PA2,093 contributions
4.0 of 5 bubbles
May 2018 • Friends
Beisita Temple was one of the sites we saw on a recent visit to Suzhou. It's quite impressive. Admission to the area is free. They have a posted set of rules that are interesting to read. You can't ascend the building, but that's not a serious issue. It's a serious place, because it's a house of worship.

It's worth a visit
Written 8 June 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Anne-Marie H
Dunedin, New Zealand94 contributions
4.0 of 5 bubbles
Apr 2018
This pagoda is just across the road from the Silk Museum and Silk Factory about 15 mniutes walk from the Humble Administrators Garden. Worth a look
Written 28 April 2018
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

Willa
Avon, CT377 contributions
5.0 of 5 bubbles
Aug 2017 • Family
I remember previously it is not free, but now it is free, which is great! Close to the Suzhou museum and central shopping area. This place is a hidden gem. If you spend half a day inside, there are a lot of rare and explore inside the temple. The guan yin temple is still in original shape without new polish, if you look up, you can still find many ancient wall arts on the ceiling and the top portion of the walls. Amazing!
Written 27 August 2017
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews as part of our industry-leading trust & safety standards. Read our transparency report to learn more.

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