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The sculptor who builds giant Buddhas

On Wednesday, the Mitreya Buddha statue on Cam Mountain entered the Asian Book of Records as the biggest statue on top of a mountain with a ceremony held by An Giang's People's Committee.

The sculptor who builds giant Buddhas

Living large: The Goddess of Mercy stands atop Linh Ung 3 Pagoda in Son Tra District of Da Nang City. With a bottom diameter of 30m, the statue is as tall as a 30-storey building. — VNS Photo Nhat Anh

by Minh Tuan and An Vu

Artist Thuy Lam's statues steal the hearts of viewers with their angelic features, unlike the the man himself. At the age of 65, he looks like a bumpkin, with a tobacco pipe in his mouth and flat cap on his head. It's hard to believe he is a well-known sculptor of giant Buddhist statues.

Visitors to Cam (Forbidden) Mountain are dazed by the huge smiling Mitreya Buddha, 716 metres above sea level, amid the sombre forests of the southern province of An Giang.

This is only one piece in the huge collection Lam has produced.

Born Pham Dan Chu, the sculptor grew up in Tan Chau District of An Giang. As a boy, Lam was taken to local denominational schools to study fine art, where his teachers nurtured and developed his talent for drawing.

When Cambodia's political situation became unstable in 1970, his family moved to Sai Gon (now HCM City). Experienced teachers at the Gia Dinh Fine Arts College took him under their wing, and he followed them to decorate many hotels and tearooms.

Pinnacle of success:Sculptor Thuy Lam (second left) with his audience on the day it was announced that his Mitreya Buddha was the biggest statue on top of a mountain, according to the Asian Book of Records. — VNA/VNS Photos Vuong Thoai Trung

Lam says one of his life's turning points was being able to work in Minh Dang Quang Pagoda, where local artists go to sketch bodhi trees.

"From the moment I sat under the pagoda's roof, I felt a pure and noble life, without a trace of the scrambling that takes place outside. I found inner peace in my soul and my work. This was all thanks to my master, Bay Chanh, a famous Buddhist sculptor in Phu Lam, a commune in Phu Tan District in An Giang. I made up my mind that I would spend the rest of my life making big Buddhist statues," Lam recalls.

Greeting us in a simple outfit, he tells us how he lived for a whole year on construction sites, eating and sleeping with workers in tents and pagodas, without needing to buy a house. "Although I made large-scale statues for many provinces, I poured almost my whole budget into those projects, so I am still poor. No one uses Government funds to build statues," he laughs loudly.

Lam's first work was the 32m Buddha Statue at Duc Trong's Vinh Minh Tu Institute in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. It took two years to execute. Since he was an inexperienced newcomer, he put all his passion and effort into the work. As a result, the site was listed in the Viet Nam Book of Records for having the biggest Buddhist statue in the country.

"The building materials are brought from the foot of the mountain to the top. I had 50 workers form the statue by pouring concrete and then carved it myself. During work, I turned my cell phone off and committed to a vegetarian diet. I was very happy when they told me the statue's face was very merciful," he says.

Then Lam began to make Quan The Am (the Goddess of Mercy), which is 67m high.

After several months of considering where to place the statue, he chose the Son Tra mountain region in the central city of Da Nang.

"The most memorable moment for me was making the statue's face. For the whole month, I hung in the air from a cable attached to a crane to carve the holy smile into the rock. The statue leans back on the mountain's edge, while the face turns to the sea as if showing the way to fishermen.

"Along with a close friend and a team of six, I worked for six years to finish it. When people asked me why the workers got paid and I did not, I replied that seeing people happy made me fulfilled enough," he says.

Just as some people save money by putting it in a piggy bank, the artist explains, he makes Buddhist statues for people to contemplate, "hoping to create a piggy bank of merit for the next generation". — VNS

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