While I write this post the Chinese Lantern Festival is just winding down. On this evening – part of the celebration of the annual Spring Festival – Chinese families come out to decorate Chinatown’s streets and plaza with all varieties of luminous lanterns. One famous event has participants release lit up paper lanterns into the sky as a symbolic gesture of well wishes for families and for the entire world (those worried about the environmental impact should note the quantity released here is modest).
Chinatown is still a good, but not only spot in Los Angeles to observe the cultural practices of Lunar New Year. Hsi Lai temple is a Chinese Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, and a very authentic destination for observing the celebration of the Lantern Festival. Originally a Buddhist celebration dating back to 2,000 years ago, monks of the Han Dynasty lit up lanterns to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the new lunar-solar calendar year. Fast forward to the present and participants now continue the tradition from a small hill located in the city of Hacienda Heights, now part of LA’s Chinese Buddhism landscape.
Apart from the Asian “foodscape “germinated from the multicultural context of Los Angeles, the religious landscape also plays a significant role in representing the diverse cultural heritages of each region of the city. However, instead of an elaborate essay about this rich and deep topic, I prefer to offer a brief glimpse into the Hsi Lai Temple as a focus. As the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in the Western Hemisphere, Hsi Lai Temple is a notable and fascinating example of the Chinese religious landscape here in Southern California.
While researching about the history of Hsi Lai Temple, I discovered that the temple’s specific location – on top of a hill overlooking the suburban community – was once resisted by the locals before its completion in 1988. The concern was that the Buddhist temple complex was too large in scale and would supposedly detract from the existing landscape. To this point, I personally do not believe Hsi Lai Temple does not blend into its surrounding landscape as well as other Chinese monasteries. However, just like Los Angeles itself, the temple can be appreciated for its unique architecture.
Unlike Gothic cathedral marked by a tall spire representing the divine form reaching to heaven, or the circular geometry symbolizing the Mandala integral to Indian temples architecture, Chinese temples in both their Buddhist or Taoist iterations are usually built upon a mountain. These geographic features are believed to be inhabited by sacred spirits, and a mountain or hill also adds a level of grandiosity for a religious site. This “borrowing” from the natural landscape is a very substantial methodology in designing for the traditional Chinese landscape.
If one looks carefully, they might note the front of the first shrine of Hsi Lai Temple has many steps, too many steps to meet the ADA standards (but there is a ramp access). The stairs symbolize the journey practitioners must take symbolically in hopes of ascending to the Pure Land from the mundane world. Climbing as a physical act is also an enduring Buddhism Practice. Traditionally, the number of steps would coincide with the number “108”, either exactly or in some symbolic relationship, a sacred number in both Buddhism and Hinduism.
With its gleaming golden roof tiles illuminated by the beautiful California sunshine, it’s hard not to notice this temple even from afar. The Hsi Lai Temple complex reveals a strong relation to Ming Qing (1368-1911 C.E.) architectural style, therefore it has earned the nickname, the “Little Forbidden City”. It has a symmetrical layout, with an axis crossing the Mountain Gate, the Bodhisattva Hall, the Main Shrine and Meditation Hall, with two courtyards in between, and the Requiem Pagoda at the end honoring the dead. Additionally two theme gardens balance the temple complex.
This style of Buddhist architecture and landscape is an adaptation from an originally more spiritual-focused and austere style, adding more ornate and grand imperial design elements. Buddhism played prominent in the Chinese political realm throughout history, and temples designed in the Buddhist-Imperial style emphasized the power and dignity of the deities alongside the grandiosity of the temple itself compared to the more serene focus upon individual meditation. But as far as I know, Hsi Lai Temple’s heritage is only connected historically and culturally to this ubiquitous Chinese religious style, without any affiliation to politics.
One last important dimension while experiencing the religious landscape any Chinese temple is the smell of incense and the sound of chanting sutra. Unlike many Buddhist temples in China, where Buddhist music is performed loudly with groups of monks or nuns chanting together, Hsi Lai Temple is relatively tranquil. This makes the temple feel less touristy and permitting an air of authentic religiosity to permeate its grounds. Still, in front of the Main Shrine there is an incense burner where people pray to the Buddha and offer their incense*. People buy incense to represent high(er) esteem, therefore, the number of incense in the burner or the smoke emanating from it can represent if the temple is really efficacious and popular. Hsi Lai Temple invites anyone and everyone to participate, offering up to three incense sticks for free. Also, every day between 11:30am till 1:30pm (2:30pm on weekends) is a $7 donation vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet for visitors. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s yet another reason to visit.
Hsi Lai Temple is definitely worth visiting and exploring, alongside other religious landscape in Los Angeles, such as the Hindu Temple in Malibu, the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood , and the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. I highly recommend taking advantage of this aspect of the Los Angeles landscape, whether to begin a spiritual journey or to simply appreciate the enchanting landscape surrounding it.
*Side note: An interesting fact about the incense is that Indian people used this burnt sticks made of herbs and spices and etc. to repel insects like mosquito.
Hsi Lai Temple
Location: 3456 Glenmark Dr, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745