At the confluence of three rivers stands – or rather sits – the giant Buddha of Leshan. The waters of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers run past the red cliff face into which the Buddha was carved during the Tang Dynasty. Starting from the head down, it took 90 years to finish construction of the 71-metre Buddha.
The waters are high following several days of torrential downpours, and the rain continues to fall as I join a group of Chinese day-trippers in fluorescent raincoats on a short boat trip to the Buddha. As we make our way to the site my guide, Zhao Jing Bin – or John as he’s called when he uses his western name – shares the story behind this staggering monument.
“A travelling monk called Hai Tong came to Leshan in the early 700s to study. He saw that the local farmers and fishermen suffered each year from floods. So he decided to use the power of Buddha to control the waters and help the people,” he explains.
For several years, he says, the monk travelled around the country raising enough money to realise his vision. But when he finally returned a local official threatened to obstruct the project by refusing him a building permit.
‘You can take out my eyes but you can’t have any of this money,’ Hai Tong is believed to have said in response, in defiant demonstration of his determination and faith.
“So he gouged out his eyes,” John says, “he really did.”
But that’s not quite the end of the tale. Fifteen years later the monk died, by which time only the head had been finished. Delays and lack of funding meant that it would be a further 75 years before Hai Tong’s followers could complete the project. And a great job they did.