“Pay respects to the Buddha first, then to me,” advised my preceptor once, when we visited him at his monastery, Guan Yin Temple. “Because we take Refuge in the Buddha first, then in the Dharma, then in the Sangha.” He was implying that compared to the Buddha images of our temple, he was actually a secondary priority. In a world where people scramble over each other to obsequiously bootlick a popular teacher or flatter and fawn on a celebrity teacher, a master who knows he is a flawed mortal creature is the real kind of teacher that should be revered.
Guan Yin Temple is a medium-sized Buddhist complex on Lantau Island, in Hong Kong. Only recently did I discover that its name has been Anglicized to the utterly awful-sounding “Kwun Yam Temple.” Still, it’s a beautiful mountain sanctuary consisting of several large buildings, one of which has been around since the twilight years of the Qing dynasty. I have a particular karmic affinity for this temple as it was the place where I became a lay Buddhist practitioner and undertook the lay precepts. The old main hall’s central shrine features an image of the cosmic Buddha Vairochana. He is the protagonist of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Mahayana scripture that convinced me of the truth of Buddhism. But these days it is the Guan Yin Hall in the pagoda complex nearby that is better known: a spacious place of worship with a tall, majestic statue of the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara.
In the tall pagoda hall, the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara takes center stage, but go a few floors upstairs in this pagoda, up to the very top floor, and you will find that this newer structure has not lost its Avatamsaka roots. For at the highest level is a beautiful “Ten Thousand Buddhas” sanctum, a holy of holies, if you will, of a multitude of golden Buddha statues decking the ceiling in a circular fashion like the stars blanketing the semi-spherical night sky. In the middle of the hall are the Buddhas of the Five Elements, with the Vairochana top center and the others taking their respective places in the north, south, east, and west (unfortunately, photo-taking is forbidden up there).
Below the top level, the pagoda also has a large library with copious reference material in Chinese, and there is enough space around the complex to host large-scale festivals and retreats. It’s quite secluded and nowhere near as accessible as some of Hong Kong’s famous temples like Chi Lin Nunnery or Po Lin Monastery. Usually, groups share a taxi costing a couple hundred Hong Kong dollars to get here.
I’ve been to many pilgrimage sites over the past decade, including the four holy sites of the Buddha’s life. I’ve been to Hiroshima Peace Park, where the spiritual energy was at an extraordinarily high level. I’ve also visited the Buddhist grottoes of India and Dunhuang, perhaps the best surviving examples of the ancient Buddhist structures that existed in the early days of the Buddhist order. At all those places, I’ve never had any religious experiences, nor at Guan Yin Temple. However, I’ve never cared to have any such experiences (see why I don’t see why spiritual experiences are a big deal here). What I feel matters is the sense of beauty and infinite preciousness that one feels when visiting these sacred spots. There is some kind of presence that makes itself felt when you are there: regardless of what tradition you follow (or none), you only need to stand still and be mindful to sense it. Perhaps it is nothing less than the omnipresent Avalokiteshvara, Vairochana, and Amitabha whispering to your heart.