As Beautiful as a Lotus Blossom: the Chi Lin Nunnery

Diamond Hill has a checkered past. It was once a collection of shantytowns and villages home to people fleeing China from the 1930s to the 1960s. Within it lay a spiritual gem: a Buddhist temple that outlived the shanties and continued to prosper. In Buddhism, a lotus represents the reaching for enlightenment, as it grows up from the turbid depths of muddy pools and blooms beautifully as it escapes its murky existence. This particular lotus bud blossomed into the beautiful Chi Lin Nunnery – which is fitting, as Chi Lin means “lotus aspiration.”

Founded in 1934, the Chi Lin Nunnery (Zi3 Lin4 Zing6 Jyun2 志蓮淨苑) was primarily a retreat for Buddhist nuns, but with the influx of migrants and refugees from mainland China, it took on the responsibility of caring for the wellbeing of the new community. The original plan was to build a large traditional temple, but the idea was shelved so the money was put into education and welfare programmes in Diamond Hill. In the 1980s, the government made plans to redevelop the area, opening the door for the renovation of the nunnery. The temple went through its final transformation in the 1990s, becoming one of the most strikingly beautiful sets of buildings in the world.

Stepping off the MTR at Diamond Hill can be a little disorientating, but after deciphering the way out of the Hollywood Plaza shopping mall, take a five minute walk up the road until you see a strange concrete bridge spanning the traffic. The steps on the side take you up out of the humdrum world of cars and smog and into a suddenly celestial realm. Standing on the bridge, you find yourself surrounded by rows of bonsai trees and facing an elegant wooden gate building. It is hard to believe that a few short steps brought you to this other world.

Lush garden – Chi Lin Nunnery – Courtesy Tom Billinge

Mountain Gate (Saan1 Mun4 山門), topped with heavy black roof tiles, perfectly melds with the green hill in the background. The name is commonly used for the entrance to Chinese Buddhist temples as it indicates that you have entered into the mountains and left the distractions of secular life behind. Passing through the gate, the enormity of the complex hits home. Built in an area of 33,000 square metres, it is a surprisingly large space that is almost hidden from below. It feels as if you has ascended to a heavenly world.

The nunnery is built in the style of a Tang dynasty (618-907) temple, with inspiration drawn from a fresco in the remarkable Mogao Caves in western China. The fresco depicts the Western Paradise (Sai1 Tin1 西天), a Buddhist “pure land.” Standing in the first courtyard of the nunnery, you can feel the heavenly connection. The dark wooden structures, which include a library, pagodas bell and drum towers, a school, and 16 halls form the largest traditionally-built wooden structure in the world. Not one nail was used and the cedar structures are made with interlocking wooden pieces and dowels, taking an army of traditional builders from China and Japan to complete the task.

This first court is known as the Lotus Pond Garden, and the eponymous flowers rise up from manicured ponds. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in Japan, surrounded by bonsai and rockeries. The first successful Buddhist missionaries went to Japan from Korea and China during the Sui and Tang periods, taking with them the architecture of that time. The Chinese style changed over the centuries, but the Japanese retained the original Tang design that was used at Chi Lin. At the northern end of the courtyard, the Hall of the Heavenly Kings (Tin1 Wong4 Din6 天王殿) is one of the standout structures of the nunnery. Flanked by the drum and bell towers, the double-eaved hall has two golden roof horns, much like those more often seen in Japan. The large building houses the four giant statues of the Heavenly Kings, sentinel deities who guard the four directions and protect Buddhism.

On the other side of the hall is the second courtyard, filled with grass mounds and more bonsai trees. In the centre, the ornate bronze Lamp of Wisdom takes centre stage with its intricate scrollwork and lotus petals. The space puts you at ease with its harmonious melding of soft green forms and dark wooden halls. At the far end of the courtyard is the Hall of the Great Hero (Daai6 Hung4 Din6 大雄殿), once agin topped with golden horns. These are actually representative of chiwen (ci1 man5 螭吻), a fishlike dragon that protects temples from fire that are placed on the most important buildings. The main hall enshrines golden statues of the historical Buddha (Sik1 Gaa1 Mau4 Nei4 释迦牟尼), attended on either side by two of his disciples Mahakasyapa (Mo1 Ho1 Gaa1 Jip6 摩訶迦葉) and Ananda (Aa3 Naan4 阿難). On either side of these three are Manjusri (Man4 Syu4 Si1 Lei6 Pou4 Saat3 文殊師利菩薩) and Samantabhadra (Pou2 Jin4 Pou4 Saat3 普賢菩薩). They are bodhisattvas (Pou4 Saat3 菩薩), enlightened beings who have not yet passed into nirvana in order to help others escape the cycle of rebirth first.

chi lin hong kong

The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection – Nan Lian Garden – Courtesy Tom Billinge

The main hall marks the furthest point that laypeople can penetrate into the nunnery. Turning back, you zig-zig between different side halls, until you arrive back at the bridge. Rather than descending back to the mortal realm, you go to the far side of the crossing and look out over Nan Lian Garden (Naam4 Lin4 Jyun4 Ci4 南蓮園池). If Chi Lin Nunnery is the Western Paradise, then Nan Lian Garden is the Chinese Eden. Co-funded by the nunnery and the Hong Kong government, the stunning classical garden is the only Tang-style garden in existence. It was opened in 2006, and encompasses a 3.5 hectare green lung in the middle of the city.

The first thing that catches your eye is the iconic golden building in the centre of the park. Separated from the rest of the space by a moat and two red wooden bridges, the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection (Jyun4 Mun5 Gok3 圓滿閣) is a show-stopping piece of classical architecture. As you drop down into the garden, you feel a sense of awe and peaceful shroud you. Rivalling any of the classical gardens in Japan and China, Nan Lian is full yet empty at the same time. Wandering through its rock and water features, you become contemplative. The garden seems to urge you to look into yourself while also looking outward at the beauty that has been so painstakingly manicured.  The traditional Chinese timber architecture punctuates the foliage and rests pristinely next to the ponds. The teahouse and vegetarian restaurant seamlessly forms part of the waterfall, so that diners can eat while looking out over the paradisiacal space.

Lost in your thoughts, you slowly explore the garden until you find yourself at the lower gate that leads out to the street and the nearby MTR station. Even though you are back in the mundane world, heavenly clarity remains in your mind. The nunnery and the garden are such powerful spaces, they seem to transcend the city. Visiting them is like leaving Hong Kong behind for a short while. When you finally tear yourself away from the otherworldly places, you take a little bit of them with you as you re-enter into the daily rhythm of Hong Kong.

To visit the Chi Lin Nunnery, take the MTR’s Kwun Tong line to Diamond Hill station, then walk for five minutes. The nunnery opens daily from 7:00-19:00, and the halls are open to visitors from 9:00-16:30. Entry is free but photography is strictly prohibited in the halls.

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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