Chan monastery offers haven for pilgrims in search of peace
by Bach Lien
(VNS) The bells hanging in front of the main hall of Truc Lam Monastery tinkle in the wind, dispelling our weariness. Located on Phuong Hoang (Phoenix) Hill near the city of Da Lat in the Central Highlands, the monastery is surrounded by whispering pines and overlooks the mystical Tuyen Lam Lake. Since it opened to the public in 1994, its serenity and breathtaking beauty has attracted tourists nationwide and from abroad.
Peaceful portal: Passing through the monastery's triple-gated entrance, tourists feel a sense of peace.
|Mysterious: Truc Lam Monastery is surrounded by whispering pines and breathtaking views.
I recently visited Da Lat, known as the city of eternal spring because of its thousands of pine trees and flowers. The Chan (Thien in Vietnamese, Zen in Japanese) Buddhist monastery is 5km from the resort city and sits at 1,600m.
It is the biggest monastery in Da Lat and one of three in the country specialising in the Truc Lam Yen Tu sect. The two others are Truc Lam Yen Tu Monastery in Quang Ninh Province, and Truc Lam Tay Thien in Tam Dao, Vinh Phuc Province.
The monastery was designed by architects Vu Xuan Hung and Tran Duc Loc, with the participation of Ngo Viet Thu who designed the Re-unification Palace in HCM City. The monastery was founded by Buddhist monk Thich Thanh Tu to bring new life to the Truc Lam Yen Tu Chan sect, a uniquely Vietnamese form of Chan established during the Tran dynasty (1225-1400).
"One of the objectives of the temple is to recreate the spirit of Chan Buddhism during the Tran dynasty," says tourist guide Minh Thu. "The monks meditate three times a day, starting from 3am. Each session lasts two hours," she said.
She says the Chan tradition in VietNam was introduced by Emperor Tran Nhan Tong after he led Vietnamese troops in defeating China's Mongol-Yuan forces. He then abdicated the throne in favour of his son Tran Anh Tong to become a Buddhist monk.
The ex-emperor incorporated the three sects of Chan that had come to Viet Nam from China into a new Vietnamese tradition, known as Truc Lam. He then retreated to Yen Tu Mountain to begin his religious life, later travelling around the country to expound the dharma.
According to researchers, Chan, originally founded by Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma in China, helps people to live in full awareness while putting their minds into a peaceful state. Truc Lam Buddhist Chan emphasises interior concentration. This introspective training process leads to personal purification and helps one's good nature to surface.
There are three ways for tourists to enter Truc Lam Yen Tu monastery. They can chose the direct entrance to the monastery going up 61 steps from the road next to the hill next to the monastery. Or they can go directly past Tuyen Lam Lake and then climb more than 200 stone steps through a triple-gated entrance to enter the main courtyard. Since 2003, Truc Lam can also be reached by a scenic 2.3km cable ride from Robin Hill overlooking Da Lat. The price is at VND50,000 (US$2.50) for a return trip.
|Ceremonial: The bell at Truc Lam Monastery. — VNS Photos Bach Lien
On the approach road winding up the hill to the temple, the tiled roof and imposing bell tower come into view. At times, the deep boom of the one-tonne gong sounds throughout the region. On the bronze bell is a poem by King Tran Nhan Tong.
The monastery is located on 24 hectares, the largest monastic grounds in Viet Nam. Two hectares are occupied by buildings divided into domestic and public areas.The domestic area is for monks and nuns and is closed to the public. According to tourist guide Minh Thu, there are about 50 monks and 50 nuns at the monastery.
The public quarters were opened to the public in March 1994 and consist of a ceremonial hall, flanked by the bell tower on one side and guest facilities on the other. Inside the main hall which is in the middle of the monastery, golden statues look out with meditative gaze.
The most remarkable is a 2m high statue of Gautama Buddha seated on a lotus and raising a lotus in his hand – a symbolic image of Buddha, expressing the philosophy of "existence in nihilism". The ancient Indian sage is flanked on either side by two bodhisatvas, Van Thu riding a lion and Pho Hien riding a white elephant, respectively known for their wisdom and dedication.
An adjacent hall is used only on the 14th and 29th day of each lunar month, that is the eve of the full moon and the new moon. It's when the abbot holds a discussion session on meditation with students, including lay Buddhists.The monastery sometimes welcomes thousands of Buddhists monks and nuns.
One of the most restful areas is a big flower garden featuring blooms from around the world.
"I feel extremely tranquil when I visit the monastery," says Nhu Nguyen, a visitor."Its serenity and poetic beauty makes me forget the stress of the daily life."
When they finish visiting the monastery, tourists can take a boat tour on Lam Tuyen Lake to visit nearby areas and enjoy ruou can (rice wine) or other local specialties. — VNS