Art,  Heritage,  Travelogues

The serene Po Lin Monastery in Hong Kong

We first caught sight of the Po Lin Monastery between the misty clouds from the Ngong Ping cable car. And then again we spotted it from the top of the peak when we climbed up to see the Big Buddha.

As we came down the stairs from the Tian Tan Buddha, it began to rain heavily. We didn’t have a rain poncho or an umbrella, and quickly ran to the Po Lin Monastery which is located right in front of the Big Buddha statue. The Po Lin Monastery has a history of more than a hundred years and is one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums.

The monastery was initially called Tai Mao Pung or ‘The Big Thatched Hut’. It was founded in 1906 by three monks from Jiangsu province, Da Yue, Dun Xiu and Yue Ming, who were visiting Ngong Ping Plateau. Nestled in the mountains, this was a tranquil plateau which for ideal for pursuing meditation. Since then, several monks of Buddhist Sangha were attracted to the place, marking the gradual rise of the Ch’an (Zen) School of Mahayana Buddhism in Hong Kong.

The new name Po Lin Monastery was given in 1924 by Ji Xiu, who became the first Abbot of the monastery. Po Lin means ‘Precious Lotus’. The lotus symbolizes purity in Buddhist scriptures. The monastery attracts several tourists all around the year.

San Men (Mountain Gate)

Facing the Big Buddha, the monastery’s major structures are aligned on the north-eastern to south-western axis, overlooking the South China Sea. To the right of the circular Di Tan (the Altar of Earth) is a white Pai Lau (Chinese gateway or torii) carved out of a large rock. This is regarded as the main entrance to Po Lin monastery and is called San Men or the Mountain Gate. It was erected when the monastery was first established in front of the old Main Shrine Hall. San Men leads up to the Hall of Skanda Bodhisattva and the souvenir shops which sell statuettes and incense. You will find several tourists offering incense sticks in front of the monastery. Burning incense is not allowed within the monastery.

The Hall of Skanda Bodhisattva

The main entrance to the monastery leads into the Hall of Skanda Bodhisattva. The first sight in the hall is the rotund, welcoming and jovial Buddha Maitreya (Buddha of the Future). On the opposite side is Bodhisattva Skanda, the valiant general who as Bodhisattva can contain and tame all evil and demons, and who may well be ready to release himself to become Buddha. This Bodhisattva faces the Main Shrine of the Buddha and is believed to be guarding it.

The Four Heavenly Kings (Sì Dà Tiānwáng)

In the flanks of the Hall of Skand Bodhisattva are seated four Heavenly kings. These kings are the Buddhist versions of the Lokapalas which are mentioned in Hindu scriptures and guard the four cardinal directions.

The Guardian King of the East (Dhritrashtra) has a stringed musical instrument (the peepa) in his hand. He upholds the realm, is harmonious, compassionate and protects all beings.  He intends to use music to convert all beings to Buddhism. The wide-eyed Guardian King of the West (Virupaksha) is one who sees all and can observe three thousand world at the same time. His symbolic weapon is a snake that is representative of a dragon. As the eye in the sky, he sees people who do not believe in Buddhism and converts them. The Guardian King of the North (Vaishravana) is the chief of the four kings. who holds a pagoda in his hand reminds people to curb their desires and be happy. He is the Buddhist counterpart of the Indian God of wealth, Kubera. The Guardian King of the South (Virudhaka) is the one who causes growth. He is the ruler of the wind and he protects Dharma. 

The Main Shrine of the Buddha

A central courtyard connects the Hall of Skanda Bodhisattwa to the Main Shrine of the Buddha. Major ceremonies of the monastery are held in this courtyard. Flanking the central court on the wings are two pavilions, planted with flowers and trees, providing shaded shelters for people.

The main shrine houses three bronze statues of the Buddha. These represent his past, present and future lives. The Main Shrine Hall of Buddha was completed in 1970. It is a seven-span structure with a double-eaves gablet roof, adopting Ming and Qing’s palatial architectural design.

The Main Shrine Hall of Buddha enshrines Buddhas of Three Worlds, Buddha Sakyamuni of our World in the middle, Buddha Bhaisajyaguru (Master of Healing) on the left, and Buddha Amitabha (Buddha of Unlimited Light and Life Spans) on the right. Buddha Sakyamuni is attended by two acolytes, the aged one being Mahakasyapa, the younger one Ananda. Mahakasyapa was the most austere amongst Buddha’s ten disciples. Ananda was the most learned and the most well-versed with the Buddha’s teachings.

A pair of stone lions stand guard in front of the hall. The hall itself is supported by octagonal stone columns carved with dragons. The roof ridges are fitted with decorative ridge-capitols and ornamental auspicious figurines. Inside the hall, joints of columns and beams are decorated with ornate fitting sets. The inner walls are adorned with colour-rich frescos.

The Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas

The impressive Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas has recently been constructed behind the temple in 2014. Covering 6000 square metres, this five floor building is built in the architectural style of the Song Dynasty. This houses idols of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Buddhist scripture library, the Abbot’s Chamber, a Dharma Hall and a permanent Ordination Platform. Every corner of this hall is filled with rows and rows of shiny gold Buddha statues. The ceiling and corridors are stunningly adorned. The murals and carvings are exquisite.

The Five Golden Dhyani Buddhas

The grandest part of this hall are the five Golden Buddhas, who are the icons of the Mahayana tradition.

The five Dhyani Buddhas from left to right are: Amoghasiddhi, Amitabha, Vairochana, Ratnasambhava and Akshobhya. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation. Each Dhyani Buddha has a specific color and symbol which represent his meanings and the purpose for meditating on him. Mudras, or hand gestures, are also used in Buddhist art to distinguish one Buddha from another and convey the appropriate teaching.

Amoghasiddhi (Almighty Conqueror) appears to represent the accomplishment of all action. Amoghasiddhi is associated with impulses, which is strongly associated with action. Meditation on Amoghasiddhi Buddha vanquishes envy and jealousy. Amoghasiddhi is most often depicted in Buddhist iconography as radiating a green light, which is the light of accomplishing wisdom and promoting peace. His hand gesture is the mudra of fearlessness: his right hand in front of his chest and palm facing outward as if to say ‘stop.’ He holds a crossed vajra, also called a double dorje or the thunderbolt. This represents accomplishment and fulfillment in all directions.

Amitabha (Infinite Light) is probably the best known of the Dhyani Buddhas. Amitabha was a king who renounced his kingdom to become a monk. He practiced diligently for five eons and realized enlightenment and became a buddha. Amitabha symbolizes mercy and wisdom. In Buddhist iconography, Amitabha’s hands are most often in a meditation mudra: fingers barely touching and gently folded over the lap with palms facing upward. His symbol is the lotus, representing gentleness and purity.

Vairochana (The Embodiment of Light) is sometimes called the primordial Buddha or Supreme Buddha. He is thought to be the embodiment of all the Dhyani Buddhas. He is everything and everywhere, omnipresent and omniscient. He represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness. Vairochana is considered a personification of the dharmakaya — everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions. Meditation on Vairochana vanquishes ignorance and delusion, leading to wisdom. His symbol is the Dharma wheel, which, at its most basic, represents the study of the dharma, practice through meditation, and moral discipline. His hand gesture is known as the Dharmachakra mudra and is often reserved for the iconography of either Vairocana . The mudra represents the turning of the wheel and places the hands so that the thumbs and index fingers touch at the tips to form a wheel.

Ratnasambhava (The Jewel-born One) represents richness. In Buddhism, the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and Ratnasambhava is often thought of as the giving Buddha. He is associated with sensation. Meditation on Ratnasambhava Buddha vanquishes pride and greed, focusing instead on equality. Ratnasambhava Buddha symbolizes earth and fertility in Buddhist iconography. He often holds a wish-fulfilling jewel. He holds his hands in the wish-fulfilling mudra: his right hand facing down and the palm outward and his left in the mudra of meditation. This symbolizes generosity.

Akshobhya (The Immovable One) was a monk who vowed never to feel anger or disgust toward another being. He was immovable in keeping this vow. After striving for a long period, he became a Buddha. In Buddhist iconography, Akshobhya is most often pictured touching the earth with his right hand. This is the earth-touching mudra. In his left hand, Akshobhya holds a vajra, the symbol of shunyata — an absolute reality that is all things and beings, unmanifested. In Buddhist tantra, evoking Akshobhya in meditation helps overcome anger and hatred.

The Scripture Library

The Scripture Library houses a precious collection of Buddhist sutras and canons, including a set of Chinese Tripitaka, the Qianlong Tripitaka, consisting of 7,173 volumes, produced in Qing Dynasty during the time 1735 AD to 1738 AD. It is a much treasured version, being the last official wood-block print published in China.

The monastery is organized in an orderly fashion. On the flanks of these three main buildings, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, the Hall of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, the Meditation Hall, the Dining Hall and the Sangha Hall are arranged symmetrically. There are airy courtyards between the edifices. On the south side of the axis are the Po Lin Hall and the facilities for ceremonial and religious activities. In 1918, three nuns ordained at this monastery established a private nunnery called Chi Chuk Lam dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.

The Dining Hall

Most visitors come here to partake the vegetarian lunch in the Dining Hall. The timings are from 11.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. A set lunch is offered. Vegetarian food served by the monastery is prepared with natural ingredients using the most delicate methods, meeting health requirements and gratifying the senses.

Besides these, the monks take pains to maintain the green landscape. There are four patches of green called the Bauhinia Grove, the Banyan Grove, the Laurel Grove, and the Evergreen Grove. The trees and the bird songs keep the place green, serene and brimming with happiness.

Po Lin Pond

A Po Lin (lotus) pond is situated on the left of the Hall of Bodhisattva Skanda. A round fish pond stands in the centre, with a lotus petal-shaped fountain in the middle. The fish pond is bounded by an encircling footpath, which is itself encircled by an outer pond planted with lotus and water lily. The lotus pond is a special Buddhist feature which symbolizes eight qualities: purity, coolness, sweetness, softness, moistness, harmoniousness, with the ability to dispel limitless calamities such as hunger and thirst and the ability to nourish all good roots and make them grow.

Our visit to the Po Lin Monastery was memorable. The spiritual surroundings amidst so much beauty and aesthetics left us mesmerized.

(For directions on how to reach here see this post.)

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