An island of calm in the frenzied world of Hong Kong – Chi Lin Nunnery
If you think that Hong Kong is only a concrete jungle filled with skyscrapers and shopping malls, there is a place you can escape to for a little peace. This quiet sanctuary away from the madding crowd is a relaxing respite from bustling Hong Kong.
Tucked away just a short walk from Diamond Hill MTR (subway) station, Chi Lin Nunnery exudes Zen-like calmness. It has undergone many reincarnations since its inception a hundred years ago – from a wealthy merchant’s villa in the earlier century to a free community school, to a Buddhist school to a home for the elderly and finally, to the present day temple. Chen Qi, the original owner, was a devout Buddhist who had sold his mansion at a budget to 2 monks for the spread of Buddhism. This building certainly bears witness to the development history of Buddhism in Hong Kong.
Modelled after China’s Tang Dynasty style architecture, its clean cut lines and neutral colours are unlike the usual Chinese temples’ often garish colours and outlandish designs. Built without using a single nail, this whole structure comprising 228,000 pieces of timber is held together using a complex interlocking system involving wooden dowels and brackets – a technique dating back to the ancient Tang Dynasty. This architecture wonder has soaring ceilings held up by 28 columns, measuring 18 feet each. The ceilings support roofs with traditionally-made clay tiles that weigh 176 tonnes.
Besides artistic aspirations, the nunnery also had to meet stringent structural and safety requirements that include fire safety (especially given its wooden structure), the ability to withstand severe typhoon as well as protection against termites and insects. A perfect marriage of ancient technique and modern technology, this gem of Chinese monastic architecture also manifest the unity of structure and art.
The overall layout is based on the Chinese philosophy of harmony between Heaven and Earth with an emphasis on nature. The spirit of Buddhism is reflected in its many structures – the seven-storey pagoda representing Buddhist teachings on moral values and the importance of repaying gratitude while the grand main hall and sutra room reminds one of Buddhist wisdom and practice.
If you think that its touch of Zen reminds you of those temples in Japan, well you are not far off the mark. Buddhism reached the height of its influence in China during the Tang dynasty so it probably spread to Japan then along with its architectural design.
The nunnery also incorporates classic Chinese courtyard-style influence into its design. Winding corridors and lotus ponds bear testaments to this. Naturally, no Chinese building is complete without the ancient art of ‘wind and water’ – the ubiquitous Feng Shui or geomancy.
In accordance to the principle of Feng Shui, the building faces south towards the sea with its back to the mountain. The facing is said to bring abundance and strong mountain backing ensures having a provider of strength and good energy. Besides having auspicious facing, the nunnery is also flanked by the Mountain of Compassionate Clouds on the left and the Lion Rock on the right.
Covering a space of 30,000 square meters, it took 11 painstaking years and multi-million dollars to reconstruct the building which reopened in 2000. Yellow cedar wood was imported from Canada and carved in China by skilled artisans. They were then reconstructed in Hong Kong like a giant piece of jigsaw puzzle. The main hall was modeled after the Foguang Monastery in Shanxi Province, China while the double-eave Hall of Celestial Kings is designed after the 11-century Phoenix Hall outside Kyoto, Japan.
Housing 16 Buddhist halls, Zen-style rock gardens and lotus ponds, landmarks include the magnificent Ten Thousand Buddhas pagoda as well as the pair of symmetrical Bell and Drum Tower at the entrance. Statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism some 2,500 years ago is suitably housed in the main hall. Statues of the Goddess of Mercy or Guanyin and the God of Medicine as well as other bodhisattvas are also present in the nunnery. They are beautifully crafted from gold, clay, wood and stone. Besides statues, the Patriarch Hall features many tablets with imprinted wisdom of many Chinese sages.
This gem of a temple woos one with simple pleasures – wood exuding a hint of fragrance all round, pretty little bonsai trees, artful rockeries in landscaped gardens with manicured shrubs. Besides, its lotus ponds in full bloom are truly magnificent sights to behold.
So the next time you are in Hong Kong and wish for a spot of peace, don’t forget to head to this charming little oasis. Best of all, admission is free.
Note: First published on buzzle.com on 12 August 2008