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.

More than simply a place of worship, Hsi Lai Temple is the cultural focal point for thousands of Chinese-Americans who come to Hsi Lai not only to practice their Buddhist faith, but to provide their children with an education of their Chinese heritage. To serve the community, the temple provides lessons in Chinese and Buddhist culture to elementary students and adults alike. Parents may enroll their children in after-school studies at the temple and then, if they wish, earn a bachelor's degree in Buddhism or a master's in religious studies for themselves at Hsi Lai University. Hsi Lai even offers courses in English as a second language (ESL).

According to Man-ho Shih, assistant to the abbess at Hsi Lai Temple, Master Hsing Yun wanted to promote "Humanistic Buddhism," which applies the Buddha's teachings to daily life.

"The Buddha taught us to have compassion, to obey the law, not to kill, steal, lie, or engage in sexual misconduct, and not to take intoxicants," she says. In this way, we don't have to wait until we die to reach the Pure Land. We have a Pure Land on Earth."

For devotees of the Pure Land school, such as those who practice at Hsi Lai, Pure Land refers to one of many transcendent paradises ruled by a buddha. Adherents believe the Pure Land is the stage just before reaching nirvana, and one gains access through rebirth and devotion to a specific buddha, such as Maitreya.

So why wouldn't a Buddhist want to reach nirvana, that supreme spiritual bliss, right away, since it's the ultimate goal of Buddhists? The desire to reach Pure Land has its origin in the early Buddhist cosmology, when it was proposed that the ability to achieve enlightenment by one's own efforts would degenerate within a few hundred years after the Buddha's death (483 B.C.E.); consequently, one was dependent upon the graces of buddha to gain access to the Pure Land, which has thus become an alternate route to reaching nirvana.

The devotion to this concept of a Pure Land is especially evident in the main shrine, across the courtyard and up another flight of marble steps. Here, in a richly decorated room, the faithful gather on rows of red cushions to participate in religious services. They are guided through the service by several orange-robed monks, who lead everyone in chanting. The voices have a haunting, chanting rhythm, and they are interrupted only by the occasional sound of a drum or bell, rung by a monk to indicate when in the service devotees should stand or prostrate themselves before the three monumental statues in the shrine.

These enormous images dominate the scene with a golden glow. To the left is Amitabha Buddha, symbolic of mercy and wisdom. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Perpetual Life, is the ruler of the Pure Land known as Western Paradise, or "Sukhavati." He created this Pure Land through his karmic merit, and Buddhists in the shrine recite Amitabha's name in the hope of being reborn into this land of bliss.

In the center of the main shrine is Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who was born a prince in India more than 2,500 years ago. He gave up his royal life to seek enlightenment and, upon achieving this, went on to teach an ideology that has come to be known as Buddhism: life is impermanent, without essence and characterized by suffering. Recognizing these principles is the beginning of the Buddhist path, which points the way to a release from suffering.

To the right of Sakyamuni is Bhaishajya-Guru- Vaidurya- Prabhassa Buddha, or "Medicine Buddha," who reigns over the Eastern Paradise (another Pure Land). Medicine Buddha symbolizes the healing or perfecting quality of buddhahood and is, consequently, invoked and meditated upon for healing purposes.

Flanking the central courtyard below the main shrine are two of the temple's large gardens. The Avalokitesvara Garden, with its many gold-colored statues and colorful flowers, honors the bodhisattva of compassion.

Avalokitesvara, depicted in the garden as a female, is the power of the buddha Amitabha manifested as a bodhisattva and appears as his helper. She sits on a rock with her two attendants, Shan Chai and Long Nu. Before them is a pond surrounded by four Deva Kings (celestial beings), who are the guardians of devout sentient beings.

The Arhats garden is a scene of eighteen gold-robed statues, each in a different pose. Cousin to the bodhisattva in the Buddhist pantheon, the arhat is an enlightened being who has attained nirvana but does not have the goal of assisting other sentient beings with that objective. The statues are gathered among the verdant flora in a symbol of good fortune.

Splashes of color accent the temple grounds in many forms. Bright-hued ceramic animals crouch in corners. Lavender chrysanthemums highlight the landscape. Round, red and yellow paper lamps dangle from building eaves.

The exhibition hall serves as the temple's museum, where visitors can view an impressive collection of Buddhist iconography and related artwork from such countries as China, India, Tibet, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. Among the exhibits are a number of statues representing various bodhisattvas, beautifully rendered wall hangings (known as "thangkas"), and examples of religious artifacts. There is also a fine collection demonstrating the Chinese art of painting the inside of small perfume bottles. These intricately decorated bottles, painstakingly hand painted with tiny brushes, depict classic Chinese scenes with amazing clarity.

This aggregate of carefully manicured gardens and colorful buildings, each adorned with detailed Buddhist and Chinese images, is but one branch on a tree that covers five continents. The Fo Kuang Shan order has established similar monasteries in Canada, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, and other countries.

Not surprisingly, the temple's impact on the local community in Southern California has been enormous. Since Hsi Lai's opening in 1988 (it took ten years to plan and construct), Chinese immigrants have flocked to the area, searching for north-facing homes (the Chinese custom) near Hsi Lai. According to the Greater La Puente Chamber of Commerce, which collects statistics for Hacienda Heights, the Asian population has gone from representing 13 percent of the total population in 1988 to 42 percent of the city's 52,350 residents today.

Of course, the temple's influence reaches far beyond city limits, attracting visitors from all over the world. "Hsi Lai Temple is very famous in China, Taiwan, and other countries," says Man-ho. She admits that most of the visitors from the People's Republic of China are not Buddhist devotees, but tourists attracted to the temple's beauty. "The Communist government in China does not allow Dharma propagation (Buddhist teachings) outside the temple grounds," she explains. "Buddhism encourages freedom, and that is something the Communists will not permit."

This is a sad irony, for Buddhism has a rich history in mainland China dating back 2,000 years. It was transmitted into China from India via the old Silk Route, the east-west trade route that brought the finery of China to Europe. As merchants, monks, and other travelers brought Buddhism deeper into the East, the religion gradually grew in popularity and was seen as a threat to the existing Confucianism, a philosophical system founded in China by Kongzi (Confucius) in the 6th century B.C.E. Confucianism proclaims a strict social order, respect for the ruler, and a devotion to moral ideas.

China's Later Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.) saw the emergence of the un-Confucian Taoism, which stresses the need for meditation, simplicity, and harmony. In the Taoist philosophy, the Chinese detected similarities with the Buddha's teaching that a simple existence unfettered by desire is the best life. This led to a greater acceptance of Buddhism in China and by the sixth century, Buddhism enjoyed an enormous advance in the mainland. Yet, even at its height of popularity during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), Buddhism shared the spiritual spotlight with Confucianism and Taoism.

The advance of Communism in the 20th century has given Buddhism a serious blow. While looking upon Buddhism with disfavor, Communist China has officially permitted it to exist, believing that the establishment of an ideologically correct state would cause the religion to atrophy on its own. It didn't.

During the so-called Cultural Revolution of 1965-1975, Buddhist temples and monasteries in China and Tibet were destroyed and the future of Buddhism in the mainland became tenuous.

Today, Taiwan and Hong Kong are where Chinese Buddhism thrives. And, of course, it flourishes here in America, where the Hsi Lai Temple and its Fo Kuang Shan monastic order have brought Buddhism to the West and serve an ever-expanding Chinese-American community.

By Mark Hawthorne
Mark is a freelance writer living in Orange County, California.

For information on the Hsi Lai Temple, Hsi Lai University, ESL classes, Buddhist studies, or other services, contact the temple at:
3456 South Glenmark Drive
Hacienda Heights, CA 91745
Phone: (818) 961-9697, Fax: (818) 369-1944

Hsi Lai Temple is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There is no charge for admission or parking, although a $1.00 donation is requested to enter the museum. A vegetarian buffet lunch is served in the dining hall from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays and from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekends (donation requested). Visitors are welcome in the shrines, but no photography is allowed inside.

Reprinted from Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness
Copyright 1996, reproduction prohibted without written permission.