Buddhism and Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll—Part 1

Guan Her Ng

He Hua Temple. From Guan Her Ng

He Hua Temple, a branch of Master Hsing Yun’s influential Fo Guang Shan, stands in the heart of Amsterdam’s humble Chinatown. It also happens to be next to the infamous Red Light District. Most of the people around here are searching for good food, good leisure, and good company. You’ll find all kinds of restaurants, pubs, and bars, but as the famous warning goes, do not confuse coffee shops with cafés, as one is meant for a nice cappuccino and the other for certain unwholesome deeds. Apart from the food and beverage you will also find art galleries and traditional handicraft shops. You’ll spot many tourists from around the world along the narrow canals that have helped to protect the inner city and control the flow of water underneath Amsterdam over the centuries.

The Red Light District by night. From Guan Her Ng

Back in the 80s, this neighborhood was the area of Amsterdam famously littered with junkies, sex tourists, and hippies. It was a fairly dark time despite the romantic allure: the unemployment rate in the area had hit a staggering 70 per cent and it was felt that it was a source of social problems for city residents. Buildings and monuments had been daubed with graffiti; few were left untouched. Crime rates soared. Then at the turn of the millennium, the municipal authorities decided to clean up the area. No longer was Amsterdam to be saddled with the perpetual stereotype of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. One of the initiatives was to renovate Chinatown. Chinatowns around the world usually have a symbolic structure, such as a gate. The project of building a Chinese Buddhist temple as a landmark for Chinatown suited the municipality’s reformist policy well. A group of Chinese businessmen and lay disciples came into contact with Master Hsing Yun, and through much hardship and dedication, the temple was opened to great fanfare by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix on 15 September 2000.

Derelict, vanadalized buildings in Amsterdam. From Guan Her Ng

Since the founding of this Buddhist temple, Chinatown and the Red Light District have evolved into rather touristy areas. He Hua Temple is now an ideal location for tourists from around the world to enjoy a glimpse of Buddhism in the Netherlands. Visitors that enter the building will ask where the restaurant is, only to be surprised by the fact that they are on sacred ground. Speaking of holy locations, the temple was initially projected to be completed by 1999. But construction was delayed when construction workers stumbled on the monastic remains of an old Christian church.

To find Christian ruins underneath the city’s modern buildings is actually not a surprise at all. Nor is it a shock to find the sacred among the so-called profane. The Old Church (Oude Kerk in Dutch), Amsterdam’s oldest building (it was built sometime around 1213 and consecrated in 1306), stands, like He Hua Temple, in the middle of the Red Light District. Incredibly, the whole area, ostensibly for sex tourists, is built on sacred archaeological foundations. Sometimes, phenomena that seem unwholesome are actually wholesome after all. Could this be the beauty that emptiness points to?

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