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Hsi Lai temple. Bringing buddhism to the west

Twenty miles east of Los Angeles lies the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western hemisphere.

The temple rises from a gently sloping hill, its golden rooftops gleaming in the sunshine like beacons of serenity. From the outside, it seems strangely out of place, perched above the San Gabriel Valley 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Here, in the land of make-believe, one is likely to mistake the temple's structures for a large movie set or for part of a theme park attraction. Its ancient Chinese architecture and pristine grounds are a stark contrast to the neighborhood traffic and telephone lines.

On the inside, however, one is caught up in the tranquillity and beauty of Hsi Lai Temple. The atmosphere is wrapped with a hushed reverence for life, creating a peaceful sanctuary in a busy world. Although the temple complex is quiet, it is bustling with activity, each of its many buildings-and much of its expansive grounds-hosting some form of worship or meeting: puja in the Bodhisattva shrine, discussions regarding Buddhism in the reception hall, chanting services in the main shrine, martial arts instruction in the courtyard. Monks, nuns, and novices, their heads shaved and their bodies covered in brown robes, move purposefully among the halls and gardens. The musky fragrance of incense and the sounds of bells, drums, and singing permeate the air.

Hsi Lai (pronounced "She lye" and meaning "Coming to the West," signifying that Buddhism is coming from the East to the West) is the largest Buddhist monastery in the western hemisphere, boasting fifteen acres of shrines, gardens, meeting halls, offices, classrooms, a museum, dining hall, and gift shop cluttered around a large central courtyard.

The temple was founded in Hacienda Heights, California, in 1978 by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, a Chinese-born monk who fled Communist China in 1949 for Taiwan, an island province of China where Buddhism is allowed to flourish. Master Hsing Yun is also the founder of the Fo Kuang Shan ("Buddha's Light Mountain") order of Buddhism, to which the monks and nuns of Hsi Lai belong. His objectives in establishing the temple are to nurture Buddhist missionaries through education, propagate Buddhism through cultural activities, benefit society through charitable programs, and edify the populace through Buddhist practices.

Buddhists from around the world donated the $30 million necessary to erect the temple, which was constructed from materials from a number of countries including the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Japan, and Italy.

The result is an elegant center for Buddhist study and practice, at once richly detailed and restrained. Its design is classic Chinese, with primary colors and ornate landscapes inviting the visitor to experience the surprises around the next corner. But with the temple's ubiquitous golden buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats, one is reminded that this is first and foremost a place of worship for one of the world's oldest religions.

Broad marble steps lead from the parking lot to the Bodhisattva shrine. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings motivated by compassion to remain in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth and assist other sentient beings until all are liberated from suffering. This shrine houses large renderings of five bodhisattvas: Samantabhadra, representing great practice; Ksitigarbha, representing great benevolence; Maitreya, the Future Buddha and embodiment of all-encompassing love; Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; and Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. At this shrine devotees perform puja, leaving offerings of fruit and flowers at the feet of the bodhisattva images.


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