An Ascent of Hsi Lai Temple: Guide

A Pilgrimage

Exploring a Temple--Devotionally

Preparation, Approach, and Arrival

Ascent #1: From the Street to the Gate of the Universal Vows

The Gate of the Universal Vows

Ascent #2: From the Gate of the Universal Vows to the Bodhisattva Hall

The Temple Guardians: Wei Tuo and Chien Lun (Kuan Ti) (Weituo and Jielan/Guandi)

In the Hall of the Bodhisattvas

    • Maitreya, the Bodhisattva of the Great Benevolence (Milefo)
    • Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of the Great Wisdom (Wenshu)

The Garden of Wisdom (The Arhat Garden) (Shiba Luohan)

The Garden of Compassion (The Kuan Yin/Avalokitesvara Garden)

  • The Four Heavenly Kings: Virudhaka (Mo-Li Hung, Zeng Zhang), Dhrtarastra (Mo-Li Ching, Chi Guo), Vaisravana (Mo-Li Shou, Duo Wen), and Virupaksa (Mo-Li Hai, Guang Mu)  (Si Da Tianwang)

Ascent #3: From the Courtyard to the Hall of the Buddhas

In the Hall of the Buddhas (Amito Fo, Shijiamouni Fo, Yaoshi Fo)

Mantras and Intentions for use on the Pilgrimage path 

An Introduction to These Pages

How to Use "The Ascent"

After five years in Japan, two years in a Buddhist college, and a few months in China [2023: now five, two, and eleven years, respectively], there is one thing this Barefoot Fool of a Laughing Buddha knows for sure: you can't learn much about Buddhism by just reading. Yet millions of words have been written, and--used correctly--they can function like "fingers pointing at the moon," as long as we don't mistake them for the Moon itself.

Even so, one of the best ways to learn about Buddhism (or anything) is to be there. So instead of telling you about Buddhism, I am going to take you on an extended tour of Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California. Hsi Lai has its own tour on line, with an excellent clickable map [2023: not anymore]. I highly recommend that you visit it for a "bird's eye view" (and, what's more, if you're in SoCal I recommend an in-person visit). But what I offer here is background and stories from my personal studies. (This material originated as a paper written for an "independent study" class at Hsi Lai University, under the supervision of Dr. J. Bruce Long.)

Each page in this pilgrimage offers two kinds of information. The first is background and stories about the area and the figures found there; the second provides support for those who would like to perform a pilgrimage at the temple (or perform devotional activities at home).

You may choose to start at the beginning, and follow the "path" all the way through.

Or you may use the list above to visit selected areas on the path. The choice is yours. Either way, I hope you will find this an enriching experience. 

I have also provided a one-page version of the devotional section for those who are planning to visit the Temple in person.


How It Happened; Limitations

This project began as a self-directed study for a class under the late Dr. J. Bruce Long at what was then Hsi Lai University (now the University of the West). It was first posted to a website,, which no longer exists.

So in 2023, I'm reposting it here. It is sorely tempting to re-write it from top to bottom. When I wrote it, I had never been to China (I have still never been to Taiwan), and it uses the Taiwanese (generally Wade-Giles) transliteration of names.

There are also "facts" that I just plain got wrong.

I have since then been to hundreds of temples in mainland China, and none of them is built anything like Hsi Lai. A few major differences:

  • there is no true "mountain gate," just a sort of paifang, thus no Heng and Ha;
  • Qielan (Guan Yu) and Weituo stand outside the Bodhisattva Hall to serve as temple guardians;
  • the Bodhisattva Hall itself is like nothing I ever saw in China; there, the "Laughing Buddha" is usually surrounded by the Four Heavenly Kings in a hall named for them;
  • here, the Four Heavenly Kings have been relegated to a small garden;
  • likewise, the Eighteen Arhats, who are usually found on either side of the Buddha Hall, are found here in another small garden (and their names and iconography sometimes deviate from the usual ones);
  • the pagoda stands at the top of, and behind, the main compound, instead of in a "Western garden";

and so on.

Nevertheless, I have restrained myself, only linking to better information and adding the occasional note when absolutely necessary. And the "devotional" aspects? They still apply, and I have prepared a "prayer book" for those visiting the more common layout of mainland temples, which I'll try to post... someday...

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