Hong Kong is a land of temples; more than 600 crowd its diminutive land mass. Walking around any district, you will encounter at least one or two Chinese folk temples. Once you get into the hills and mountains of the New Territories, you start to see large Buddhist monasteries. These islands of calm rest just beyond the fringe of urban encroachment, in the green areas that overlook the relentless development. Some have been around for a lot longer than the residents of Hong Kong, such as the 1,500-year-old Tsing Shan Monastery in Tuen Mun. Several are more modern, including the unique Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin, which carries a sense of timelessness that belies its relatively young age.
The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery — also known as Man Fat Tsz (Maan6 Fat6 Zi6 萬佛寺) — is a little hard to find at first, but once you pick up the trail, you will know that you have found it. Part of the reason it’s hard to find is where it is located in Hong Kong – just behind the Home Square shopping mall in Sha Tin, a short and crowded walk from the MTR or the parking nearby. Welcome to Hong Kong, the land of contrasts.
Once you make your way past the mall, you can already see all sorts of Buddhist temple buildings dotting the green hills. There’s the Sam Lam Temple, the Wai Chuen Monastery, To Wing Yuen and the Dao Hop Monastery. The path from the road is somewhat hard to find. It directs you first to Sam Lam Temple, where you need to continue along the path to the left, up into the mountainside. Passing between two overgrown and threatening chainlink fences, you enter into a nondescript pathway that has been taken over by weeds and undergrowth. It may seem you are intruding on someone’s property, and you may expect to be barked away by a fierce guardian dog, but suddenly, golden human-sized figures appear, dispelling your uncertainty.
Lining both sides of the increasingly steep walkway, the bright welcoming gold-painted statues are mostly arhats — Buddhist saints — with a few Taoist deities further up the mountain. Arhats (lo4 hon3 羅漢) are perfected people who have attained nirvana, and have thereby been released from the cycle of rebirth, but have not become Buddhas. The gaudy statues that cut like a stream of gold through the forest are a taste of what is to come. Their distinct and individual facial expressions guide you up the mountain. There are 500 of them, each made of fibreglass and then painted gold. In East Asian tradition, 500 is one of the commonly used numbers for quantifying arhats. The upkeep of these figures is a continual process and you encounter volunteers working on them throughout the year.
The unique statues are part of the greater vision of the founder of Man Fat Tsz. The Venerable Yuet Kai (Jyut6 Kai1 Faat3 Si1 月溪法師) was a devoted lay Buddhist teacher who arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1933. He began work with his disciples on the temple in 1949 and completed it within eight years. Despite the master’s old age, he personally carried the building materials by hand up the mountain. The temple had additional work done to it in the 1980s and, following a 1997 landslide, continues to be worked on to this day.
Once you get to the top of the 431 steep steps, exhausted yet relieved, you enter into the main compound, the “lower level” of the temple, where the main hall and the pagoda await the intrigued visitor or hopeful devotee. You will first find yourself in the outlandish central courtyard of Man Fat Tsz. If the 500 arhats along the path were a river, this would be the sea it flowed into. You find yourself dazzled by a space filled with garish golden figures in a myriad of poses. The courtyard contains some of the most impressive statues of the temple, including the 18 principle arhats (saap6 baat3 lo4 hon3 十八羅漢) demonstrating their various powers. In the Chinese tradition, these are 18 arhats of particular importance. These 18 arhats share the platform with bodhisattvas.
Bodhisattvas are people who have attained enlightenment, but have not passed into nirvana, so as to help others. They are essentially Buddhas in waiting. The later Mahayana school of Buddhism, which is most prevalent in the Chinese diaspora, favours the bodhisattva path, focusing on helping others reach nirvana and Buddhahood first. Mahayana Buddhism asserts that everyone can become a Buddha, whereas the older Theravada Buddhist school believes that arhat is the highest level that can be achieved. The Theravada school sees arhats as having attained nirvana, while the Mahayana school sees arhats as high level beings that have not become Buddhas. In the Mahayana school, bodhisattvas are higher status than arhats.
There awaits you the most iconic Chinese bodhisattva. The large statue of Kwun Yum (Gun1 Jam1 觀音), the bodhisattva of compassion, is white and surrounded by water. She sits under a canopy in a pavilion in the centre of the courtyard facing the pagoda, waiting for the visitor to sooth his pains and listen to his prayers. Behind her Wai Tor (Wai4 To4 韋馱), a warrior who protects Buddhist monasteries, guards the holy premises.
Kwun Yum faces a nine-level pagoda made of red bricks. You can walk up the pagoda’s internal steps, which lead you to a good view over the mountains through its niches. It was featured on the 1991 HSBC HK$100 bank note. In front of the pagoda, a shrine to the Thai Hindu-Buddhist deity with four faces, Phra Phrom, stands out. The 1980s saw a rise in his cult in Hong Kong and he made the transition into Chinese Buddhism as the Four-Faced Buddha (Sei3 Min6 Fat6 四面佛). This religious syncretism is not uncommon in Chinese culture and in Hong Kong there are many examples of foreign deities finding their way into folk religion. More bodhisattvas as well as some Taoist immortals and Chinese gods line the back of the courtyard, making a complete circuit around the open space. After overwhelming your senses with the colours, poses and impossible characters outside, the main hall is your next port of call.
The main building of the temple complex is the focal point. It is where all of the statues and imagery lead you. The deceptively simple block-shaped red building makes up for its plain design with unique decoration. The side of the building has a big relief of Budai (Bou3 Doi6 布袋), commonly referred to as the laughing Buddha (Siu3 Fat6 笑佛). This is a misconception, as the rotund figure is actually an arhat. On the front of the building, a pair of golden dragons fly towards the Chinese characters “Ten Thousand Buddhas” (Maan6 Fat6 萬佛). While the building is unremarkable architecturally, it is spiritually potent.
Upon entering the hall, you are taken aback by the walls covered with thousands of small Buddha statues in niches. Lines and lines of them surround the visitor. Despite being called the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, there are almost 13,000 unique Buddha statues in this hall. 10,000 is simply figurative in Cantonese, meaning “a great number.” Three principle statues stand in and guard the hall: Ksitigarbha (Dei6 Zong6 Wong4 地藏王), the bodhisattva responsible for liberating those who are already dead; the Medicine Buddha (Siu1 Zoi1 Jin4 Sau6 消災延壽), who cures human suffering, and Kwun Yum again, with her compassionate composure. One more statue awaits you, and though humble in its size it is the most remarkable one: the gold covered body of Yuet Kai.
Yuet Kai died aged 87 in 1965. His final wish was to be buried and exhumed after eight years. Following his instructions, his disciples raised his body out of the ground only to discover that it had not decayed. They covered the master’s body in lacquer and gold leaf and placed him on the altar, where his perfectly preserved “diamond body” remains in its golden cover. This temple’s most potent treasure, doted with a life-like face, smiles out at all who come to visit the master.
Mummified remains of monks and Buddhist adepts have been encased like this, in the lotus position, for several hundred years in China, but they are still a rarity. Yuet Kai is the only one in Hong Kong and the signs describe it as the Diamond Indestructible Body of Yuet Kai. As there is a real human body inside, it stands out from the other otherworldly statues as being relatively humble and down-to-earth, despite being covered in real gold. This part in the main hall is the only place in the complex where photos are forbidden, as it is the sanctum sanctorum, the holiest part of the monastery.
There are five temples in the monastery. The principle one is the main hall: the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple. Four further temples rest on the upper slopes: the Temple of the God of Heavens, The Candi Buddha Temple, Kwun Yum Temple and the Temple of Amitabha Buddha. The most impressive of these in terms of atmosphere and grandeur is the last. As you enter this more modern addition to the monastery, the quietness of the space hits you. It contrasts vividly with the over-the-top nature of the rest of the place. Though not exactly understated, the room has a calm about it.
Perhaps that is because you have entered the temple of the dead. The Temple of Amitabha Buddha is actually a columbarium, a building that houses the ashes of the dead. Surrounded by memorial Buddha images that cover the ash repositories, the large statue of Amitabha is two storeys high. Amitabha (O1 Nei4 To4 Fat6 阿彌陀佛) is a celestial Buddha, particularly popular in the Pure Land Buddhist sect. He presides over the Western Pure Land, a Buddhist heaven, and devotees believe that chanting his name continually will lead to rebirth in his realm. The large statue is by far the biggest in the monastery and in many ways steals the thunder from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple.
Left humbled by the huge statue, you eventually move on to the home of the mother bodhisattva who will embrace you in her quiet and peaceful strength atop a waterfall at the furthest point of the temple. Smaller statues of arhats are dotted throughout the waterfall scenery. This peaceful terminus is a place to sit and reflect. It is a contrast to the showy main area of the monastery that can seem like a sensory overload. A few moments in the presence of the bodhisattva of mercy gives you time to gather your thoughts and prepare yourself for the inevitable descent. Having made it this far, the only way to go is back down the mountain.
A journey to Man Fat Tsz is a unique experience; a truly Hong Kong encounter. There is nowhere else quite like it anywhere in the world, with its dense overload of outlandish imagery contrasted by the serene setting of the verdant mountainside. It is a place that seems to be both a departure from Hong Kong but also a reflection of it.
Entry to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery is free. It is open from 9:00-15:00 every day. The address is 221 Pai Tau Village, Sha Tin, New Territories, but this is only somewhat helpful – the best thing to do is go to the HomeSquare shopping centre and follow signs to Sam Lam Temple. Take the small forested path until you make it to the first statues.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.