The Buddha Hall

The Pinnacle of the Ascent: The Buddhas

At long last, you have attained the Buddha Hall. This is the central point of any Buddhist temple or monastery, and the place where the Shakyamuni Buddha is seated corresponds to the World Axis or Unmovable Spot. The great historian of religions Mircea Eliade wrote, in The Myth of the Eternal Return, that: "Every temple or a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center." Furthermore, as you may know by now, "The road leading to the center is a 'difficult road' is, in fact, a rite of passage from the profane to the sacred...Attaining the center is equivalent to a consecration, an initiation..."

And so you have arrived at the "Place of Initiation." You are ready to dedicate yourself to the Buddhas in a new and deeper way. As you enter the Hall, look around you; the 10,000 Buddhas on the walls remind you that the universe of 10,000 things is filled with Buddhas, that everything has a Buddha Nature--including you. The Three Great Buddhas in the front have names and attributes, but their real purpose is to remind us of the Buddha Nature in everything. Thus they are "special" in their function, but their nature is no more special than that of all things; it is just that they have realized (made real) that Nature.


Let's start our examination of the Three Buddhas with the figure on the right. This is Bhaishajyaguru, better known as "The Medicine Buddha" (and it's easier to say!). He is holding a pagoda, symbol of the Buddha's body. Pagodas developed from Indian stupas, which in turn developed from mounds of earth piled over a human being's earthly remains. So the pagoda is a kind of reliquary wherein the Buddha's remains are deposited; one room in Hsi Lai Temple's Museum holds such a relic, and is therefore designated as a stupa.

The association between the Buddha's body and the Medicine Buddha's Vows to help us attain health are clear. Many devotees visit this figure to pray for healing. Thus in the Intention section I have made him the Buddha of "Body."


The Three Buddhas may also symbolize a complicated idea, that of the Trikaya or Three Bodies of the Buddha. You may have noticed that, except for the items held in their hands, the Three Buddhas are almost identical, as though they were three aspects of the same person. This is not accidental. The Trikaya is the idea that the One Buddha has Three Bodies--a kind of Buddhist Trinity. The first is the Dharmakaya, the "true nature" of the Buddha that pre-exists any earthly appearance. It is the bond between the Buddha and all existence. The word "Dharmakaya" may be translated "Law Body," but it signifies his oneness with the cosmic order. The second is the Sambhogakaya, the "Body of Delight" in which a Buddha dwells when he is resident in a Paradise or Pure Land. This would be the body out of which a Buddha descends to Earth, and into which he returns after "death." Finally, when out of compassion a Buddha does come to Earth to teach sentient beings, he dwells in a Nirmanakaya, or "Body of Transformation."

When we see a Buddhist Triad, it sometimes signifies the Trikaya. In the Triad at Hsi Lai, the Shakyamuni Buddha who came to Earth to teach is the Nirmanakaya; and the Amitabha Buddha of the Western Pure Land is the Sambhogakaya. But what about the Dharmakaya? This is usually represented by Vairocana, the Great Sun Buddha sometimes identified with the AdiBuddha or First Buddha. Why is Bhaishajyaguru here instead? As it turns out, Bhaishajyaguru and Vairocana are somewhat interchangeable in art. There are mandalas, for example, in which the place usually occupied by Vairocana is held by Bhaishajyaguru instead--and vice versa.


So the Medicine Buddha, the least discussed of the Three Buddhas at Hsi Lai, is standing in for the ineffable cosmic order, and represents the Buddha's Dharmakaya or "Body of the Great Order." His history as Bhaishajyaguru hints at this possibility. While still a Bodhisattva, he made Twelve Vows which were extraordinary in their depth. The Vows are lengthy, but can be summarized as: (1) to radiate light to all beings; (2) to proclaim his healing power; (3) to fulfill the desires of all beings; (4) to lead all by the Mahayana way; (5) to reinforce all in observing ethics; (6) to heal; (7) to lead all to Enlightenment; (8) to change women into men in their next appearance [so they can gain Enlightenment]; (9) to ward off false teaching and endorse the truth; (10) to save all beings from a bad rebirth; (11) to feed the hungry; and (12) to clothe the naked. He also resides over the Pure Land of the East. Note that several of the Vows focus on healing both the bodies and the minds of devotees; thus, when he attained Buddhahood, he was called the Medicine Buddha.


Next we will discuss the Amitabha Buddha, who is one of the most popular figures at Hsi Lai Temple. The tradition at Hsi Lai (as at many Chinese temples) is a combination of Pure Land and Ch'an (Zen) practice. There is in fact a Ch'an Meditation Hall on the property, and there are meditation classes held there Sundays at 11:00. But by far the most popular practice is the Pure Land practice of chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha. Through meditation, one can attain one's own Enlightenment; but, since most of us don't have time to do this, we can attain the Western Pure Land through chanting. There we will have time to meditate, and so can achieve Buddhahood.

In Chinese, "Amitabha Buddha" is pronounced "O-Mi-To-Fo" or "A-Mi-To-Fo." This is used as a greeting and farewell, as a thanks and a blessing, by monastics and laity at the Temple. It is also, of course, chanted in the Buddha Hall (also called the "Main Shrine").

The Amitabha Buddha is seated at the left side of the Hall. He holds a lotus, which, among its many meanings, symbolizes potential. The lotus is rooted in mud, grows up through water, and blossoms out into the air. So we are born in this world and, through successive stages, reach our full potential. Look above the Buddhas and notice the lotus motif in the architecture; this is continued throughout the Temple's corridors, etc.

Legend says that Amitabha was ages ago a king who heard the preaching of the Buddha of his age. He renounced the throne and became a monk named Dharmakara. He received instruction from the Buddha Lokeshvararaja, and resolved through forty-eight vows to found a Buddha-land. Exploring many lands to assess their perfections, he then brought together the best traits of all to create Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land, where he now rules. Any who chant his name with sincerity will be transported there upon their death.


Finally, we turn to the central figure in the Hall, and the Central Point of the Temple: the Shakyamuni Buddha, formerly Siddhartha Gautama. His story is well known. Born a prince in a small kingdom of northern India, he was protected from the less pleasant aspects of life. After beholding an old man, a sick man, and a dead man (as well as a monk), he left the palace at age 29 and spent six years searching for The Answer. Finally, sitting under a fig tree, he resolved to remain Unmoved until he attained Enlightenment. And so he did, through his understanding of Dependent Origination, the idea that everything arises in connection to everything else, and thus all things in this world are impermanent. He returned to society and taught until his death (or "final Nirvana") at age 80. He left behind a great body of teachings ("The Dharma") and a well-established monastic order ("The Sangha"). His teachings have remained relevant to this day.


In the Pilgrimage section, I have used various aspects of the Buddhas to distinguish one Buddha from another. Briefly:

Bhaishajyaguru is the Dharmakaya, representing the Body
Amitabha is the Sambhogakaya, representing the Spirit
Shakyamuni is the Nirmanakaya, representing the Mind

Some might think that I have reversed the Bhaishajyaguru and Shakyamuni Buddhas. After all, as the "Body of the Cosmic Order" or Dharmakaya, shouldn't Bhaishajyaguru be the Mind? And as the Nirmanakaya, the physical manifestation of a Buddha, Shakyamuni should have been "Body," right? But I see the Medicine Buddha as intimately concerned with the health of our physical Bodies; and the Shakyamuni came to teach us Wisdom and the approach to Buddhahood through the Mind; and so I have made my designations. Amitabha, of course, as the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, accords well with the concept of Spirit.

* * * * * * * *

With your dedication to the Shakyamuni Buddha, your formal pilgrimage is over. You may be reluctant to leave, however, and you don't have to (unless it's past 5:00!). You may eat in the Dining Hall if it's still open; browse in the small Library located in the Tea Room as you have a cup of tea; stroll through the Museum, visiting old friends, experiencing the Universe of Interconnectedness, or kneeling before the relic of the Buddha in the Stupa Room (in front of the large "Sleeping Buddha"); relax in the Information Center; or purchase a memento of your pilgrimage in the Gift Shop downstairs.

In future days, you may choose to return to the Temple and repeat small parts of the pilgrimage, giving one or two elements your full attention. Once you've done this, you may wish to repeat the full experience with deeper understanding. Whatever you choose to do, I hope this site will have been of some benefit to you.



Focus for a moment on the Buddhas that surround you; contemplate the idea that Buddha Nature is found throughout the Universe.

Now approach the Great Buddha on the right. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Bhaishajyaguru, Great Buddha of the Healing of the Body!

I ask you to help me.

Through your Twelve Great Vows, you have promised to bring healing and comfort to all.

Through this Vow, you have shown us the importance of helping others.

Let me also, by emulating your Vows, attain this excellence.

Help me to be always attentive to the needs of others.

Help me to be strong and healthy in body,

that I may fulfill my Vows with great vigor.

O Medicine Buddha, hear my prayer!

O great Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, hear my prayer!


Now approach the Great Buddha on the left. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Amitabha, Great Buddha of the Progress of the Spirit!

I ask you to help me.

Through your establishing of the Western Pure Land, you have made it possible for all to share in its blessings.

Through this great endeavor, you have shown us the way to spiritual bliss.

Let me also, by chanting your name, attain this excellence.

Help me to be dedicated in making spiritual progress.

Help me to envision your Pure Land,

that I may dwell there someday, and lead others to it.

O Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, hear my prayer!

O great Amitabha Buddha, hear my prayer!


Now approach the Great Buddha in the center. After a moment of silent contemplation, say:

O Shakyamuni, Great Buddha of the Wisdom of the Mind!

I ask you to help me.

Through your teaching of the Dharma, you have opened the way to salvation for all.

Through this generosity, you have shown us the means of Enlightenment.

Let me also, by following your teachings, attain this excellence.

Help me to keep my mind fixed on you.

Help me to master all of the Dharma,

that I may teach others the way.

O Great Sage of the Shakya Clan, hear my prayer!

O great Shakyamuni Buddha, hear my prayer!

* * * * * * * *

Your pilgrimage is now completed. You may linger at the Temple, or return home in quietude. It is recommended that you not engage in other activities for the remainder of the day, allowing the experience you have had to take root until bedtime.

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