While the two precious jade Buddhas were brought to Shanghai from Burma in 1882, the Jade Buddha Pagoda was not built until 1917.
Shanghai’s Ngoc Phat ( Jade Buddha) Pagoda attracts visitors from around the world, including the former United States President Bill Clinton. It was a sunny spring day when I toured this impressive pagoda.
There’s an interesting story behind Ngoc Phat Pagoda’s name. In 1882, at the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty, a Chinese Buddhist priest named Huigen visited India. On his way back to China he traveled via Myanmar (then Burma) and was so impressed by the country’s jade that he decided to bring several jade Buddha statues back to China. He designed five small and five large statues in different postures and commissioned Burmese sculptors to carve them from blocks of the finest jade. Huigen then carried the statues to China by sea.
In Shanghai, news that a Buddhist priest had recently returned from a pilgrimage to India and Burma soon spread. Large crowds came to see Huigen and begged him to leave one sacred statue in Shanghai. Huigen decided to leave one large and one small statue at what became known as Ngoc Phat Pagoda. This pagoda was not actually built until 1917. Over the years, the precious statues were moved many times due to warfare and social upheavals.
The pagoda features a number of different shrines. The first shrine on the Ngoc Phat floor is made of shiny black wood and has a small sanctum with an intricately carved ceiling. Inside rests a 1.9 meterhigh and 1.3 meter-wide statue of a seated Buddha carved from a single block of white jade. Inset with precious stones, this exquisite image is draped with gold girdles. The Chinese have a saying: “Gold is precious. Gems are invaluable.” This statue is priceless not just on account of its materials but also due to the skill with which it was carved. A second shrine, Ngoa Phat Temple, contains a 0.96 meter- long reclining Buddha, also carved from white jade. This serene image depicts Buddha in Nirvana.
As I studied the pagoda’s many carvings my cheerful guide explained that they were produced in an area famous for woodcarving. Ch’ing Dynasty kings sent money and silver to the mandarins of Jiangnan to arrange for sculptors to carve statues from precious Khuong Truong wood. Covered with red lacquer and trimmed with gold, these exquisite carvings are of a quality that is no longer produced.
On the roof there are 500 smaller statues, each of which has a board inscribed with a name at its foot. For many years, Shanghai residents who donated to the pagoda had their names’ inscribed here to bring luck to their families. In the pagoda yard is a bronze bell decorated with an image of a strange creature called a pho la. Neither a dragon nor a unicorn, it has two heads but no tail. This magical creature is associated with generosity and compassion. Leaving this special pagoda I hoped that one day I would return.