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One Pillar Pagoda the soul of Ha Noi

Update: May, 12/2013 - 14:56
Rising up: Lotus blossoms rising up in a muddy pond are a symbol of pure virtue in all circumstances, according to Buddhist philosophy. — VNS Photos Truong Viù

Buddhist monks, Ha Noi officials and experts are trying to figure out the best way to preserve one of the most beloved cultural heritage sites of the Vietnamese people. Nguyen My Ha reports

In the early 1990s, as a student, I often visited Chua Mot Cot – the One Pillar Pagoda.

I had an internship in an office nearby. I remember seeing the front yard full of patients, young and old, with needles on their body and limbs. Most Venerable Thich Tam Can, also an acupunturist, was treating them for free. Assisting him was a young man who was learning how to listen to a patient's heartbeat by feeling the pulse on the wrist.

"Every day, between 50-70 people came here for treatment," recalled Dang Thi Binh, who had polio as a child and has been living at the pagoda for 40 years.

Repairs needed: Broken tiles let rain water run into the ceiling, damaging the wooden structure, dampening the walls and ruining the supporting pillars.
 

A few days ago, I was shocked to hear that the pagoda had to undergo serious restorations, which made headlines in all the major newspapers.

"In 30 days from today (May 2), if we don't hear from relevant authorities, we will have to act on our own to save the pagoda," wrote Most Venerable Thich Tam Kien in an appeal sent to the Ha Noi People's Committee on May 2.

If you showed an image of One Pillar Pagoda to anyone Vietnamese, they would immediately link it to Ha Noi. While there are many sites that are equally evocative of the thousand-year-old city's past, such as the Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake, One Pillar Pagoda is so unique and special and deep in our hearts it catches attention every time it shows up in the news.

Despite the name, there is more than just one pagoda. The eponymous pagoda stands on top of a pillar, symbolising a lotus flower in bloom rising from a serene lotus pond. Another pagoda named Dien Huu stands on the ground next to it with two buildings, one for worshipping Buddha and another for worshipping the monks who previously lived in the pagoda.

Last week, Most Venerable Thich Tam Kien of the Dien Huu Pagoda raised a public outcry by sending an appeal to the Ha Noi People's Committee to speed up the on-going restoration project to protect the pagoda.

Pointing to the flood-water marks on the wooden pillars and wall, the Most Venerable said, "When it rains, water comes down through the leaks in the roof to damage the wall and Buddha statues."

In response to the letter and reports in the news, an ad hoc committee investigated the claims at the pagoda on Thursday afternoon and a meeting between the Ba Dinh District People's Committee and the monk and representatives from the Department of Cultural Heritage followed.

"We will make sure that the restoration of the pagodas respects their original form and the Cultural Heritage Law," said Do Viet Binh, Chairman of the Ba Dinh District People's Committee.

At the meeting, Chairman Binh also promised to send workers to tile the roof.

"It is the monks' responsibility to keep the pagoda in good shape," historian Le Van Lan said. "I believe that the monks need to coordinate with district officials to protect the pagoda and strictly follow the Cultural Heritage Law."

The One Pillar Pagoda is not only revered as a sacred religious heritage site, but also as an architectural gem – the only pagoda standing on a pillar in all of Viet Nam and across Southeast Asia.

National treasure

The Mot Cot - Dien Huu Pagoda complex is indeed a national treasure in the hearts of all Vietnamese.

Built in the 11th century, when Buddhism was the national religion under the Ly Kings, the Lien Hoa Dai (or Lotus Tower) was more renowned than the main Dien Huu Pagoda. Dai Viet Su ky Toan Thu, or the Complete Annals of Great Viet, states that King Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054) did not have a son to carry on his name. He had a dream where bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, sitting on a lotus blossom, handed a baby boy over to him. The King then married a peasant girl and she later gave birth to a son.

In 1049, as an act of gratitude, the King ordered a pagoda built in the shape of a lotus blossom (a symbol of purity in Buddhism). The pagoda was built from wood on a single stone pillar. Inside, the altar was dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.

During the centuries of monarchy, the pagoda was the worship site for all royals until the Nguyen Dynasty, which started in 1802.

In 1954, after the French were defeated in Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Agreement divided Viet Nam into two, the colonists had to withdraw from Ha Noi and bombed the One Pillar Pagoda into pieces.

No time to lose: The Most Venerable Thich Tam Kien has strongly urged the Ha Noi People's Committee to request immediate action to fix damage at the Dien Huu Pagoda.

Today's pagoda was rebuilt from wood and rests on a concrete pillar.

Visiting the pagoda on Thursday, I saw many groups of tourists from all over the world, coming to see the pagoda after visiting the Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh.

Showing me to the lotus pond, the Most Venerable Thich Tam Kien said he was applying to raise the ground of the pond because "fish from the nearby bigger pond come over the border and eat up all the lotuses in this little pond."

When the restoration project continues, I believe that there will be plans to grow lotuses again in the little pond surrounding the pagoda.

I lit an incense stick to pay tribute to the silent charity work performed by Most Venerable Thich Tam Can, who perished in 1996 at age 83. Times have changed, and no longer is medical treatment allowed in the front yard. — VNS

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