Since its establishment in 1934, successive abbots and abbesses of Chi Lin Nunnery have always aspired to build a monastery ideal for Buddhist monastics' religious practice. But for several decades, constrained by the state of the country and social conditions, they have not been able to spend much time and effort in it. Instead, Chi Lin has concentrated on the more urgent needs of social services, cultural and educational works. In 1989, the Tate's Cairn Tunnel that links Hong Kong and Kowloon to the New Territories was completed. The Hong Kong Government launched a town renewal plan. Seizing this opportunity, Chi Lin decided to build a Buddhist “conglin” to fulfill the wish of the predecessors and to carry on the Buddhist tradition of preaching and work on benefits of all sentient beings.
The re-emergence of a Tang monastic complex
Monasteries are set up for Buddhist monks and nuns so that they can pursue their religious practice, preach the Buddha's teachings and enlighten the sentient beings. For Buddhism to thrive, monasteries must be built.
Buddhism was founded in India by Sakyamuni Buddha and spread to China more than two thousand years ago. With the passage of time, it has developed, evolved and taken roots in China into what is now called Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese have always been known for their broad-mindedness in accepting and absorbing foreign ideas and cultures. Buddhist teachings were absorbed within the context of Chinese culture. The spirit and teachings of Buddhism were integrated into people's livelihood such as architecture, sculpture and other art forms. By the Tang dynasty, Chinese Buddhism had reached its heyday and merged completely with Chinese culture, forming an important component of traditional culture.
Mahayana Buddhism originated in India and has flourished in many Asian countries. But it gradually declined or even vanished through changes in the history of time. Mahayana Buddhism had taken roots in China and from where it was spread east to Japan, Korea and then to Europe and America nowadays. The reasons behind this phenomenon may be attributed to the establishment of the “conglin” and “monastic rules of living” systems in Chinese Buddhism, the success of which owed much to Chinese architecture.
The reasons behind the redevelopment of Chi Lin Nunnery into a group of Tang style timber complex can be traced back to the heroic event over 1,200 years ago when Master Jianzhen of the Tang dynasty sailed east to Japan for the propagation of Buddhism.
The Japanese people hold Master Jianzhen in high esteem, calling him “Father of Culture”, “Founder of Vinaya”, and “Dream of the Tenpyo Era”. Besides being grateful for his cultural gifts, they are also moved by his unyielding spirit in keeping his words. The Toshodai Temple and the Buddhist statues inside are all national treasures. These treasures of the cream of Tang dynasty culture are well preserved there to the present day.
The return of the statue of Master Jianzhen to his homeland was the first home visit made since Master Jianzhen sailed east to Japan 1,200 years ago. This was a major historical event in the diplomatic relationship between China and Japan. The idea was brewing since 1963 and took 17 years to materialize in 1980. It was the time when China was experiencing her internal and international political ups and downs. On 25 October 1971, the United Nations passed a resolution to restore the legitimate rights of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations. Through China's “pingpong diplomacy”, Sino-America relationship began to thaw in February 1972. The visit of US President Richard Nixon to China marked the normalization of relationship between the two countries. Japan also began making her efforts. In September 1972, Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei paid a visit to China. The two countries issued a joint declaration ending the hostile state and realizing a harmonious diplomatic relationship. At this important historical moment, the return of Master Jianzhen to his homeland was as significant as the “pingpong diplomacy”. It was not only an important catalyst for the improvement of Sino-Japanese relationship, but has also opened formally the door for the cultural exchanges between the two countries.
Under the leadership of Mr. Zhao Pochu and the untiring efforts of the Chinese Buddhist community, the four Buddhist pilgrimage mountains in China and important historical conglins and monasteries were renovated and opened in the wake of China's reform and open policy. Chinese Buddhism that had been devastated during the Cultural Revolution underwent a complete revival within 30 years.
Looking at this remarkable event, Chi Lin clearly understood the special role and function of Buddhism in the progress of history. She also realized that apart from its functions, a building could possess great spiritual power, and exert a silent influence. These sentiments have deeply affected the monastics in Chi Lin and became the decisive ideology behind the redevelopment of Chi Lin.
Through learning about the historical event of Master Jianzhen's return to his homeland, Chi Lin first came to know the architect expert Mr. Liang Sicheng who designed the Jianzhen Memorial Hall. Through extensive reading of his works, and following in that direction of research, Chi Lin began to explore classical Chinese architecture in the hope of gaining more insights into the monastic buildings in Tang dynasty. It provided an increasingly clear path for her future redevelopment.
The works by Mr. Liang Sicheng, “master of classical Chinese architecture” were the main source of inspiration for Chi Lin's redevelopment.
During years of war and hardship, Mr. Liang Sicheng published 18 articles on surveys of famous Chinese classical buildings, and the History of Chinese Architecture, the first of its kind in China. He stated that timber has remained the chief building material for Chinese buildings. The structures make full utilization of what a piece of wood can do and achieve a perfect form that is also practical. The Song style of building is bold and pleasant; the Qing style is compact and cramped; the Tang style is not only robust, but also known for its softness and exquisiteness. It looks dignified. From rare extant examples of Tang and Song buildings, one can see the highest artistic style achieved through over a thousand years' practical experience.
Mr. Liang Sicheng's insight into traditional Chinese architecture, in particular Tang dynasty architecture, and his determination to protect ancient buildings greatly impressed and inspired Chi Lin Nunnery. They became a driving force behind Chi Lin's wish to build a Tang style timber monastic complex. Mr. Liang's academic achievements were also important references for the redevelopment.
Based on the survey material of Mr. Liang Sicheng, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage continued the site survey of two individual buildings extant in China, the Foguang Temple and the Nanchan Temple. The data became a very useful basis for the design of the Chi Lin monastic complex. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage fully supported the Chi Lin project and took up the design tasks for timber structures and technical works.
Mr. Liang Sicheng emphasied repeatedly on the value of the Dunhuang frescos in his writings.
“The wall paintings of Dunhuang, apart from several Tang style buildings in Japan during the Asuka period (AD 593-710), Nara period (AD 710-794) and early Heian period (AD 794-950), are the only source of knowledge of timber architecture before the Tang dynasty.”
“Most of the Chinese architectures built before mid-Tang that exist now are brick or stone Buddhist pagodas. Our knowledge of timber halls and houses is very limited indeed.” “Apart from historical records, luckily there are the Dunhuang frescos, which provide very important information.”
“In the Dunhuang frescos, there are thousands of large and small drawings of various forms and shapes of buildings from the Northern Wei time to the Yuan dynasty. They fill an empty chapter in the history of Chinese architecture.”
“The Dunhuang frescos provide many images of Buddhist monasteries. Although they are not actual structures, they are pictorial information for the history of architecture.” “Dunhuang is the best, most faithful and valuable information next to actual buildings.”
With the guidance of the works of Mr. Liang Sicheng, Chi Lin learned about the importance of the Dunhuang frescos to the research on classical Chinese architecture. Since the 1980s, a number of visits were made to the Dunhuang caves to collect information.
Architecture is a complex art form. The monastery is a place for spiritual practice and purification of mind. The Pure Land school's practice emphasizes on meditation and the adornment of the pure land of the Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. The monastic architecture can be viewed as part of the adornment meditation. Turning the adornment into concrete objects can help people to view the buildings as a perfect aesthetic pure land, which in turn helps to purify the mind.
Foguang Temple is situated at the Foguang Village, Doucun Town, Wutai County, Shanxi Province, China. It is believed to be built by Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (AD 471-499). In the Wutai Mountain diagram, which is a Song painting in Cave 61, the large Foguang Temple was marked clearly. This is an evidence of its prominent position among the famous Wutai monasteries in the Tang dynasty.
East Main Hall of Foguang Temple is the original Tang structure built in the 11th year of Dazhong reign of Emperor Xuanzong (AD 857). It is the third earliest preserved timber Buddhist hall in China.
The East Main Hall of Foguang Temple was built on a high platform of a slope. It faces east and is surrounded by old pines. Mr. Liang Sicheng made detailed remarks of this survey and gave a detailed account of the discovery in his essays.
“The Main Hall is grand and can be dated to the Dazhong period of Tang dynasty. Apart from structural evidence, there are inscriptions in ink from the Tang dynasty on the beams.”
“We suddenly found the use of the ancient ‘cha shou’ structure on the beam frame. It is the only example of timber construction found in China.” “When we climbed to the dark space in the ceiling, I was greatly surprised. I found that the truss of the roof was constructed in a way that has only been seen in Tang dynasty paintings.”
“We looked up at the Main Hall in surprise and admiration. Our belief that there must be Tang structures in China was proven here.”
After detailed studies, the dougong, beam and fang, the chess board ceiling and column base with carved lotus petals of the East Main Hall display distinct characteristics of the Tang dynasty. The statues, wall paintings and ink inscriptions are originals from the Tang time. In China where Tang buildings are nearly extinct, this timber structure that was clearly marked as built in the 11th year of Dazhong (AD 857) is undoubtedly a unique national treasure of China.
Chi Lin used the construction techniques of Tang timber buildings to build a monastic complex and landscaped garden in the Tang style and scale in the hope to revive the bygone memories of the nation's glorious past in the land of China. The project has received ardent support from various departments concerned in China, in particular the recognition and support of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. The project was recognized as a special task in the Administration's cultural work as it revived the Tang classical architecture.
Between 1994 and 1996, Chi Lin requested the support and assistance of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage for its redevelopment project. The Administration then commissioned the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage to help Chi Lin to redevelop the monastic complex in Tang style. The Classical Architecture and Monuments Protection Centre under the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage had been engaged in the investigation, survey, research, protection and preservation of classical Chinese architecture for a long time. It had participated in a series of state level technical research and engineering work. Experience accumulated through surveys and actual repair work enabled them to have a thorough understanding of the structure of classical timber buildings. It also helped them to prepare precise and meticulous drawing plans. The overall design and layout of the timber complex and individual buildings were of high standard and high quality. This ensured the construction could be carried out accurately without error.
During the process of data collection for timber architecture, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage had provided Chi Lin with the survey data of the only two extant Tang single buildings in China, which were originally surveyed by Mr. Liang Sicheng and followed up by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. These data provided an important basis for Chi Lin’s redevelopment and enabled Chi Lin’s monastic complex to be redeveloped in strict accordance with the construction rules of Tang dynasty.
The Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage marshalled all staff to study and research on the format, structural characteristics and construction methods of Tang buildings. They took the East Main Hall of Foguang Temple in Wutai Mountain, the only extant large Tang timber monastic hall as blueprint for the redevelopment. Together they started to prepare the technical design and shop drawings for the Chi Lin redevelopment. They shared with Chi Lin in the pursuit of the craftsmanship of the highest standard. The whole project was meticulously designed. The hidden beam frame above the ceiling was also completed with genuine Tang timber structural techniques. The buildings are physical manifestations of the Tang culture.
From the start to the end, the redevelopment project received continuous support of experts from various disciplines.
During the construction period, the Ancient Architecture Unit under the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage sent Mr. Zhang Shengtong, an experienced expert in classical architectural structures, to help solve any structural problems on-site.
During the two hundred years reign of the Tang dynasty, China had been embracing various foreign cultures. China had evolved into a unique and powerful cultural force that exerted huge influences around the world, particularly in East Asia. The Tang dynasty was famous for its city development, temple buildings and landscape gardens. These knowledge and expertise was introduced to Japan. The Tang style had a major influence on Japanese architecture, as seen by the design of buildings in the Asuka period and Nara period. Up to the present time, Kyoto and Nara still preserve a large number of Tang style temples and landscaped gardens. One of the famous examples is the Toshodai Temple built by the Tang monk Master Jianzhen (AD 687-763) after he came to Japan. The main hall of the Toshodai Temple is recognized as the “ancient timber building that the world should be proud of today” in Japan. Mr. Suzuki Kakichi, a Japanese architectural expert, chairman of the Toshodai Temple Main Hall Maintenance Committee and former director of Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, commented that the Toshodai Temple is “the largest in scale and highest in standard among the buildings in the Nara period that exist today”. It is the fruit of the cultural exchange between China and Japan in the Tang dynasty.
Japan has accumulated ample knowledge and experience in the study of the style of ancient timber structures and their maintenance. Chi Lin Nunnery's project of reviving Tang style timber structures has been highly appreciated by the Japanese experts. They took part in the project with enthusiasm. They were grateful that Japanese culture owed much to China. During the entire redevelopment, they actively shared the construction and repair techniques learned by their ancestors from the Tang dynasty, providing constructive ideas and reference materials.
In order to ensure the long life span of the timber structures, Mr. Takigawa Akio had drawn on the experience of restoring and maintaining the Suzaku Gate of Heijokyo, Nara and the Baekje Avalokitesvara Hall in Horyu Temple. He gave valuable suggestions for the necessary reinforcement measures of Chi Lin's timber monastic buildings. The measures were taken to prevent possible distortions after several hundred years. Japan and Hong Kong shared similar climatic conditions. Experience of the Japanese experts in structural reinforcement, damp-proof and pest control also provided valuable references for the Chi Lin redevelopment project.
The re-emergence of a Tang monastic complex in Chi Lin Nunnery was the fruit of the wisdom, enthusiasm, ideals and aspirations of many people. With the ardent support of Buddhist followers, prominent community members, and Chinese and Japanese experts on classical architecture, all conditions were favourable for the redevelopment. So eventually a Tang style timber monastic complex emerged on the soil of Hong Kong.
The construction of the Tiantan Buddha of Hong Kong was supported by the Ministry of Astronautics Industry of China. This large and complicated project was unprecedented in scale and technology. A large number of technical staff in China had worked hard for several years and overcome numerous difficulties to accomplish the project. Today, the Tiantan Buddha has become a landmark sculpture in Hong Kong with a huge and far reaching impact on local development. It also marked a major milestone in the cooperation between China and Hong Kong before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. As artistic director of the Tiantan Buddha project, Ven. Wang Fun managed and coordinated the work and gained hands-on experience. She also had a better understanding of the great strength of China and the necessity for China-Hong Kong cooperation. This valuable experience was vital to Chi Lin's monastic complex redevelopment later, and became the basis of its realization.
The Chi Lin redevelopment project had appealed to many in the community. Apart from some Buddhist followers who donated generously, other members of society, including those from the grass-root level, also responded and supported the project.