Recently I went back to visit my refuge temple, Hsi Lai, and wanted to take you along with me on this “Dharma Field Trip”.
Hsi Lai Temple (translated to mean “coming west”) is one of the largest temples in North America sitting on top of 15 acres in Hacienda Heights, California (about 20 miles east of Los Angeles). The temple is part of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order from Taiwan (where it is the largest organization there), although it is incorporated as “The International Buddhist Progress Society” (or “I.B.P.S.”). It took 12 years of planning and construction for the temple to be built, and was completed in 1988.
Fo Guang Shan, and Hsi Lai, are part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism with Chinese roots in Chan (aka “Zen”) and Pure Land. In-fact, they follow a form of Buddhism known as “Humanistic Buddhism” (sometimes known to many in the west as “Engaged Buddhism”) which combines both Chan and Pure Land Buddhism (more on that for another article).
The temple has four goals:
- To spread the Dharma, allow the seeds of Buddhism to grow, blossom, and bear fruit in the West, benefiting all humanity.
- To respect the ethnicity of all members of the community by conducting various international activities and striving to be the “United Nations of Buddhism.”
- To focus on the translation of Buddhist teachings and conduct Dharma lectures, with regular television and radio broadcasts.
- To conduct Dharma functions and chanting sessions in Chinese with English translations.
Before you even enter the temple itself, the grounds and architecture itself are beautiful to wander around and look at. Many who are rushing to get to services in the temple may miss out on all the decorations, plants, and other styling to be found on the temple grounds.
The temple itself is modeled after the original Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan (which is considerably larger), and both feature traditional Ming (1368-1644 C.E.) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.) style of architecture. Although interior photography is prohibited (so I can’t offer you any here), the “Bodhisattva Hall” and “Main Shrine” are sights to inspire and pray at.
Gateway to Dharma
Walking up the steps you are greeted by the temple’s gateway known as “Mountains Gate”.
The front side of the gateway welcomes you from the IBPS to the temple. On the reverse side (as you leave), you see Chinese characters listing the four universal vows of Buddhists: to save all sentient beings, to eradicate delusion and stress, to study the boundless Dharma, and to attain supreme enlightenment.
Upon passing the Mountains Gate, the main entrance is the “Bodhisattva Hall” where you can find statues of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (symbolic of great practice), Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (renowned for his commitment to save suffering beings), Maitreya Bodhisattva (the Future Buddha and symbol of great benevolence, he is often characterized as the “Happy Buddha” with the large belly), Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (symbolized the perfection of compassion and loving-kindness), and Manjusri Bodhisattva (known for great wisdom). You can see a picture of them here.
It’s important to note at this point that you’re not required to bow or pray anytime in the temple, as many non-Buddhists come through here daily to visit and learn (although you are expected to dress and act appropriately). But if you do wish to partake, bowing to the Bodhisattva‘s or Buddha’s anywhere in Hsi Lai is not looked upon as “bowing to an idol”, but in-fact it signifies our own humility and the curbing of our own ego.
You can pray and bow based on your own Buddhist school’s tradition (and that’s quite ok, I see that often while I’m here), and even give offerings (there are 10 different kinds you can give). Don’t worry if you didn’t bring any food or other offerings, there is usually a monastic and a volunteer right in the Bodhisattva hall where they are pre-made trays available for offerings if you choose.
There are two gardens flanking the middle courtyard. They are the Arhat Garden and the Avalokitesvara Garden
The Arhat Garden shows eighteen Arhats who were the disciples of the Buddha. Each of the Arhats is a specialist in their disciples and has a unique way of practicing Bodhisattvahood which is used to inspire practitioners.
The Avalokitesvara Garden features Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) Bodhisattva seated on a giant rock in the back, with her two attendants standing beside her. The Deva Kings, who are guardians who protect devot sentient beings from behind harmed by unwholesome elements, are found here as well in addition to the Dragon Kinds of the Four Seas. A graceful small waterfall is also here presenting a beautiful image.
Main Shrine (“Precious Hall of the Great Hero”)
Past the center courtyard (called the “Way to Buddhahood”) which is often used for walking meditation and outdoor events, the main shrine is directly in front of you. The sounds of chanting can often be heard during ceremonies filling the courtyard and the rest of the temple.
While I was there, it was a Sunday when weekly Dharma functions are underway (in the main shrine there was chanting of the Diamond Sutra, and there was also various classes such as English Introduction to Buddhism, meditation, and also a tea ceremony). You can listen to a little of the chanting here:
You can take a 360 degree Google ‘street view’ inside the main temple:
The three large statues are Sakhyamuni Buddha in the center (aka the historical Buddha), Amitabha Buddha to the left (teacher of the Western Pure Land), and Medicine Buddha on the right (teacher of the Eastern Pure Land of Pure Crystal Radiance).
At the rear (or ‘top’) of the temple is a memorial pagoda, of which I forgot to take a picture of this visit, but thankfully there was one online (click here):
Throughout the temple grounds, you can find many statues. Each one typically has accompanying text (or a story) you can read to learn more about the statue, and how it applies to Buddhism.
Heck you can even find Bodhidharma rolling his eyes at you for thinking you know who you are! (that’s a little inside joke that Chan/Zen Buddhists will understand)
More Than a Temple
There is more to Hsi Lai than just a regular temple.
Hsi Lai is also the world headquarters of the Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) which has over 200 affiliated groups/temples worldwide in most countries. There is even Buddha’s Light Publishing (BLP) which produces many books, pamphlets, and other materials about Humanistic Buddhism and by authors such as founder Ven. Master Hsing Yun.
Laypersons can take part in various ceremonies, such as the Triple Gem Refuge Ceremony, or even short term monastic retreats and five precepts ceremonies. This gives the laity the ability to grow their faith in Buddhism, and also experience monastic life if for just a short time. And of course there are various traditional Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) celebrations and ceremonies conducted such as the Buddha’s birthday, Chinese New Year, Sangha Day, etc.
There is also conference rooms, meditation room, and auditoriums used for lectures, weddings, performances, teachings, and other events. A tea room, book store, and cafeteria where you can have a vegetarian lunch are also on the premises.
For the rock bottom price of just a dollar (at the time of this article), you can visit the art museum in the temple (it’s on the left near the gift store as you face the main shrine). When I was there, you also had a lot of different artwork, art pieces, and historical items to include scripture on pattra leaves (click for a larger picture):
You can also find things such as micro-scriptures (these are so tiny that you need a magnifying glass to read it…which they have skillfully placed on them so you can view them larger), and even a Buddha relic. For a small gallery/museum it’s nicely laid out and is a nice walk through which won’t take up much of your day.
Children who are in kindergarten through the 6th grade can have classes at Hsi Lai in their own school, and there is always a plethora of activities for them from field trips to even recently a Halloween costume and pumpkin carving contest. I’ve always loved the little statues through that area of the temple (this is just a small fraction) which are both fun to look at, but also give skillful teachings.
Visiting Hsi Lai Temple
The temple is open 7 days a week (but during ceremonies, expect it to be busy and parking sparse) for everyone. They are located at: 3456 Glenmark Drive, Hacienda Heights, California, 91745. There are free guided tours, but you can also stop by the visitor center and partake in self-guided audio tours (or simply walk around). More information on tours and visiting can be found here: http://www.hsilai.org/en/tour_subpages/tour.html