Ten thousand Buddhas and a smoking monk
Admiring the view from my bedroom window, I often notice a temple of some kind with a small pagoda on the roof and wonder what lies inside. Well, I wonder no more.
Last week I took a wander in the general direction of the pagoda and ended up spending a couple of hours inside (thanks to a sudden Saigon downpour). I discovered that the temple – called Ten-Thousand Buddha Temple – is, despite its outside appearance, quite an interesting one.
The name of the temple is no exaggeration, as there are thousands upon thousands of buddhas in the temple, most of which are in small recesses in the walls of the main room on the fourth floor. Each one is numbered and has its own individual name written in Chinese.
The thing that really impressed me about the temple though, was the variety of intricate embellishments throughout the complex. Along the walls were cast characters, often playing musical instruments or dancing.
The intricacy and variety was unlike anything I’d seen in China mainland China. It seems the Chinese that left the motherland have retained something of what the Cultural Revolution stole from those that remained.
Every inch of the temple featured wood carvings, cast metal sculptures, and painted decorations. Each was meticulously crafted. It’s as though I had gone to Vietnam to finally experience the craftsmanship and creativity I had once dreamed was a part of Chinese culture. Sadly that’s all a thing of the past in the People’s Republic.
I am a fan of dragons (half of the Chinese name I gave myself means dragon – 龍), so I liked the dragons that popped up around the complex.
On the roof was a long plaster depiction of nine dragons. With their fierce expressions, it’s hard to imagine that they are seen in a positive light in Chinese culture. Perhaps that says something about some characteristics admired by Chinese – strength, power, superiority. They’re a far cry from the more gentle saints and gods seen in more typical Vietnamese temples.
Dragons were not the only mythical creatures to be seen. My favourite was the six-tusked elephant which one of the large buddhas was riding.
The other large buddha to the right of the main one in the largest room was riding a different creature that is also commonly seen in Chinese temples and traditional religious art.
The largest buddha in the main complex was illuminated by natural light that flooded in through the windows of a hollow pagoda directly above it. On the inside walls of the pagoda as a relief of various heavenly characters.
Illuminated by the light that flooded into the room through the doors opposite the largest buddha was a smaller statue, beside which had been placed food offerings.
I couldn’t help thinking it looked like a parent saying to their kids “Take a pear, but don’t be greedy. Just take one”.
After a while, I made my way down to the third floor. The first thing I saw was an area where candles were burning to commemorate people who had recently passed into the next life.
Beyond that was an area that held books on Buddhism and some more mythical statues, including this one obviously influenced by Hinduism…
There were also a couple of rooms that were off limits to the public that lay behind two closed doors. As I was exploring the area, a monk emerged from behind one of those doors. To my shock, he had a cigarette in his hand! He went to the door, leant out and took a couple more puffs, then butted it out in the altar for burning incense that stood on the balcony. Unfortunately the door itself obstructed the cigarette so I was unable to capture a clear image of the smoking monk. I didn’t want to race to where I would have a better angle and draw attention to myself, as it seems he did not realise I was there.
Here’s the hand that was holding the cigarette a little closer up. You can just make out the smoke coming off it, the middle of the cigarette and a tiny bit of the ash at the tip.
Still amused at having caught a monk red-handed, I continued down to the second floor. There were thousands of tiny shrines commemorating the dead, with their photos and wishes for the afterlife, along with food offerings that had been made by families or temple staff. It seemed to me the temple staff would see me photographing these as disrespectful, so I refrained from capturing those scenes for now. I am not in the habit of offending people and bringing a bad name to photographers.
I did take a picture of the main buddha on the floor, however. It was another that showed similarities to Hindu deities.
I was amazed that in the backstreets of District 5 in Saigon there could be such a wealth of culture and artistry, especially considering that this temple was one with such an unasuming facade that one could walk right past and not even notice it. I continued to snap away, trying to capture some of the details of what I saw.
Finally, as I was about to leave, I spotted a small storage area behind the stairs that took me back down to the ground floor. I’m the kind of curious person that likes to see not just the shiny facades and what is projected to the public, but also what things are like behind the scenes. I took a shot of that…
… and headed back out of the temple feeling glad the monsoon rains had kept me there long enough to really appreciate things that I may have otherwise just rushed past. Had the downpour not happened I also would have missed the chance to see my first smoking monk, although I’m still kicking myself for not getting a better shot of him!