An Unexpected Monastery: The Birthplace of Hong Kong Buddhism

Tuen Mun seems a little lifeless at first glance. The New Territories suburb appears to be just another overbuilt mass of apartment blocks, until you penetrate a little deeper under the surface and discover the remnants of an older version of the settlement. Like an archaeologist removing the layers to see what lies below, a visitor to Tuen Mun can find some real gems, such as the Jockey Club’s stunning Public Riding School or the incredible Taoist Monastery Ching Chung Koon.

Tuen Mun is also home to a much older temple; the oldest in Hong Kong if the legends are to be believed. Located on Castle Peak, Tsing Shan Monastery is a Buddhist site with an enigmatic past. The sprawling site is a wildly varied collection of buildings, each with its own personality.

Legend has it that the earliest incarnation of Tsing Shan Monastery (Cing1 Saan1 Zi6 青山寺) was founded during the Liu Song dynasty (420-479) by a travelling Indian monk called Pui To (Bui1 Dou6 杯渡). The monk travelled in a wooden cup across the ocean until he stopped in a cave on Castle Peak to rest. Tuen Mun was the location of a garrison of soldiers who guarded a checkpoint for foreigners entering China and Pui To ended up staying in the cave to teach the soldiers. Pui To felt that the men required some spiritual instruction to help them balance the negative karma accrued from soldiering.

The grotto that started it all. A shrine is housing a statue of Pui To, the travelling Indian monk – Courtesy Tom Billinge

After several years in the grotto, Pui To eventually returned to where he came from. To honour him, his disciples built a small nunnery outside the cave, calling it Cup Crossing Nunnery (Bui1 Dou6 Am1 杯渡庵). The reason for deciding that a nun attend the rituals at the cave is unknown, but the small nunnery was renovated several times over the centuries, before being abandoned in favour of newer buildings in the early part of the 20th century. Regardless of the legend’s veracity, the temple’s foundation is certainly one of the oldest in Hong Kong, with documented record of its existence in 1464. It is considered to be the birthplace of Buddhism in the region.

The best way to visit is to take the Light Rail after arriving at Tuen Mun MTR. Get off the train at Tsing Shan Tsuen and head west, following signs to the temple, before coming to a path that leads up the hill for a 30 minute hike. While the distance is a mere 500 metres, the steep incline makes it a bit of a challenge. There are a few packs of stray dogs on the way too, but they appear to have absorbed the peace of the place and seem fairly sedate, but curious. The first sign that you are heading towards a temple is a set of makeshift Chinese shrines and a rest pavilion. Donated in 1922 by Sir Robert Ho Tung, an influential businessman and philanthropist known as “the grand old man of Hong Kong,” the pavilion is well-placed. Quietly thank Sir Robert as you make good use of it before the gruelling climb ahead.

A little further up the path, you encounter another small group of dogs lazing around a large ceremonial gate, a pailou (paai4 lau4 牌樓) that marks both the entrance of the monastery and the pack’s territory. Built in 1929, it is the oldest in Hong Kong. Particularly notable are two inscriptions carved in stone. The one of the front reads “Fragrant Sea and Precious Mountain” (hoeng1 hoi2 ming4 saan1 香海名山) and was inscribed by former Governor Sir Cecil Clementi in 1928. The reverse has an inscription by an important monk named Reverend Tit Xim that states “Repentance is Salvation” (wui4 tau4 si6 ngon6 回頭是岸). The dogs idly watch you continue up the increasingly steepening path for another couple of hundred metres before you catch your breath at the steps of the colourful Mountain Gate (Saan1 Mun4 山門).

Mountain Gate is a common name for the main entrance to Buddhist compounds. Its name is a pun in Cantonese, as it sounds similar to “Three Gates” (Saam1 Mun4 三門), an allusion to the Buddhist concept of the Three Gateways to Liberation (emptiness, absence of attributes and absence of expectancy). The gate lies at the top of a sheer flight of stairs and was built in 1918, when the main bulk of the current temple came into existence. While the old core of the Buddhist monastery has ancient roots, the story of the main complex starts in 1829 when the local To clan built a Taoist monastery called Ching Wan Koon (Ceng1 Wan4 Gun3 青雲觀) below the small Buddhist nunnery. The resident nun at Cup Crossing Nunnery moved down the hill into the Taoist monastery, but continued to venerate Pui To at the grotto.

In 1914, the Taoist monastery appointed an abbot called Chan Chun Ting (Can4 Ceon1 Ting4 陳春亭). He started to purchase land next to the monastery in order to expand, but in 1918, he converted to Buddhism and took the monastic name Master Hin Ki (Hin2 Gei1 Faat3 Si1 顯奇法師). Master Hin Ki changed his plans and between 1918 and 1930, he built the large Tsing Shan Buddhist Temple (Cing1 Saan1 Sim4 Jyun2 青山禪院) next to the Taoist temple on the lower slopes below the older nunnery, which was abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin.

Entering the gate, you pass statues of grimacing protection deities called the Four Heavenly Kings (Sei3 Daai6 Tin1 Wong4 四大天王), as well as a shrine to the Earth God (Tou2 Dei6 Gung1 土地公). Ahead of you a larger cluster of structures occupies the higher ground. At the bottom of a set of stairs, the Bodhisattva Hall (Pou4 Tai4 Saat3 Do2 Din6 菩提薩埵殿), features a Western-influenced façade and a fairly plain interior. At the top, the Protection of the Law Hall (Wu6 Faat3 Din6 護法殿), is garishly decorated with a mural of Budai (Bou3 Doi6 布袋), the rotund figure often mistaken as the Buddha. Amid the supportive pillars of the building is a magical “dragon bone relic” in a case. The vertebra was found in a nearby cave and is surrounded by money that people have thrown for good luck. A few dollars from your own pocket find their way into the case too.

The Precious Hall of the Great Hero – Courtesy Tom Billinge

The Precious Hall of the Great Hero (Daai6 Hung4 Bou2 Din6 大雄寶殿) is the largest traditional Chinese-style building in Hong Kong. It is an awesome sight and stepping in, full of expectation, you find three golden Buddha statues. The shining images seem to look deep into your soul and you take a moment of quiet self-reflection in their presence. To the left of this hall is an elaborate doorway that leads to the Merit and Virtue Hall (Gung1 Dak1 Tong4 功德堂) that enshrines the memorial tablets of past abbots of the temple from Master Tin Ki onwards. Before proceeding with the Buddhist path, you take a brief dip into Taoism.

Ching Wan Koon, lies immediately to the right of the main Buddhist hall. A beautiful piece of Chinese architecture, it was recently renovated and has a wonderful stone dragon carving in the first courtyard. The temple is dedicated primarily to Dau Mo (Dau2 Mou5 斗母), the Mother Monarch of the Big Dipper. The hall is a dark and enigmatic space, filled with incense smoke and the intense faces of Taoist deities. You feel lost in the complex simplicity of the mysterious Tao (Dou3 道) that Taoists believe pervades everything.

The Taoist complex feels more esoteric than the Buddhist buildings, particularly the next building, a modern glass columbarium with sliding glass doors. Highly polished stone seamlessly meets with glass engraved with a modern logo in the shape of Buddha. Inside the ashes of the dead are housed in a sleek futuristic space, comprised of a series of small halls that includes a glass balcony that overlooks the skyline of Tuen Mun. The new building, while totally different from the other structures, is still captivating and seems to encapsulate a new contemporary vision for Buddhist architecture in Hong Kong.

Back-tracking, your journey takes you past the Precious Hall of the Great Hero, the temple’s guest quarters and an outdoor dining area. Just before the path continues up into the hillside, you see a statue of Bodhidharma (Pou4 Dai2 Daat6 Mo1 菩提達摩) in a brightly-tiled pavilion. Known also as Damo Chanshi (Daat6 Mo1 Sim4 Si1 達摩禪師), he was an Indian monk who came to China in the 5th or 6th century. He is the founder of Chan Buddhism (Zen in Japan) and is said to have started the kung fu training at the famous Shaolin Temple. Local legend says that he visited the cave in the 7th century, making it an important pilgrimage site for local Buddhists.

The new Buddhist Space age columbarium Hall

Finally, passing a small pavilion and a brightly coloured pailou, you stand before the grotto that started it all; the Auspicious Answers to Prayer Cave (Seoi6 Jing3 Ngaam4 瑞應岩). Inside the niche is a shrine housing a statue of Pui To, the travelling Indian monk. There is a supernatural quiet surrounding the cave. It is as if the centuries of upkeep and mediation by nuns outside the grotto have imparted serenity to the area. Taking a moment of quietude, you reflect on the power of the place. Aside from the cave itself, another ancient element remains. On a rock to the side of the cave is a pagoda. The three-storey pagoda was first constructed in the 12th or 13th century and has maintained its original appearance despite centuries of repairs. Just behind the grotto is a small temple to Kwun Yum, the ubiquitous bodhisattva of mercy, the mother of all, that was built in the 1940s.

On your way back, you pass some ruined buildings. The trees and bamboo have begun to fully reclaim what was once Cup Crossing Nunnery. These crumbling brick walls were not built much before the British arrived in Hong Kong, but the place holds an eerie power. A large golden orb weaver spider has spun its enormous web in an old window frame and you watch it as it binds a freshly caught hornet. There is something spellbinding about the ruin.

Just beyond it, a nondescript spot amid some trees is possibly the most famous place in the entire complex. It is not due to any spiritual importance, but because it was immortalised on film in the 1970s. The monastery is better known to many as a location in the intro of the iconic Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon (Lung4 Zaang1 Fu2 Dau3 龍爭虎鬥). Just after the opening fight with Sammo Hung, Lee talks with a monk in the grounds of Tsing Shan before the opening credits. It is a short scene, but one that secured movie recognition for the monastery.

Even for a hardcore Bruce Lee fan, the spot is not quite worth the trek, but the temple absolutely is. It is an eclectic set of buildings that each hold their own charm. Despite their haphazard nature, they somehow gel together into a single complex. They are not a unified whole in stylistic terms, but that is what sets the monastery apart. There are few temple sites that are so diverse in terms of architecture anywhere in the world. Filled with surprise and wonder, you slowly return to the uniform blocks of concrete that pervade Tuen Mun.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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