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What is the Leshan Giant Buddha?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Leshan Giant Buddha is an enormous statue of the Buddha in China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1996. The Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world, at just over 230 feet (70m) tall.

The Leshan Giant Buddha is located in the Sichuan province of China. It stands overlooking three rivers coming together: the Qingyi, the Dadu, and the Min. The size of the Buddha is truly impressive, with even its fingers reaching over 10 feet (3m) long each.

The Leshan Giant Buddha depicts the Maitreya Buddha in a seated position. Maitreya Buddha is a future Buddha who is said to come to Earth to teach the pure dharma, completing the task begun by the historical Sakyamuni Buddha who most people associate with Buddhism.

The building of the Leshan Giant Buddha was begun in the early-8th century by a monk named Hai Tong. The three rivers running together made for dangerous conditions for locals who used the rivers for trade and fishing, and many people died regularly. These deaths were attributed to a river spirit who was acting up, and Hai Tong thought that the presence of a guardian would keep the river spirit in check and protect the locals.

Hai Tong spent twenty years gathering the money needed to embark on his enormous project. When he finally had the money, people from the local government came to try to get it away from him. To show them how devoted he was to his cause, it is said that he gouged out his own eye and offered it to them, stating that they could have his eye, but he would never part with the money needed for the project. The officials left Hai Tong in peace after that.

For the rest of his life Hai Tong oversaw the carving of the massive Leshan Giant Buddha, dying when it was just over halfway complete. His students continued his work, and after nearly a century the Leshan Giant Buddha was finished. The Leshan Giant Buddha was equipped with a number of features to protect it from rain and erosion, including craftily hidden gutters. Nonetheless, over the centuries the statue began to degrade, until it was renovated by the Chinese government in the 1960s. Since then the Buddha has structurally been in good condition, although pollution from nearby coal plants and factories has blackened large swaths of it.

The Leshan Giant Buddha is facing the holy Mount Emei, and is part of the same World Heritage Site. Mount Emei is one of four holy mountains in China to Buddhists, and the mountain itself is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, and inhabited by incredibly tame monkeys. There are stone stairs going to the top of Mount Emei, which many pilgrims travel daily, and a bus or cable car can take you most of the way to the top.

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