From inside the complex, it’s hard to remember that I’m less than a half hour from downtown Los Angeles. The Ming Dynasty style pagodas and shrines of the Hsi Lai Temple gleam in the sun. The gardens, ornate and calming, stand in contrast to the literally dozens of statues lining almost every passageway. Brown clothed monks and worshippers move slowly around, and I seem to be the only tourist here to visit. For that, I’m grateful.

The stunning Hsi Lai Temple

Hacienda Heights isn’t exactly the place one would expect to find a huge Chinese Buddhist temple complex. But when the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order was looking for a place to build, fifteen hilltop acres here were available. Fo Guang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain) is a relatively new order for a relatively old religion, having been founded in Taiwan in 1967. The order has as one of its core missions the spreading of Buddhist teachings to the western hemisphere, so Hsi Lai, meaning Going West, is a very appropriate name.

The temple was built in the Ming and Qing Dynasty styles, and opened its 102,000 square feet of space in 1988. It is open to worshippers and visitors, although there is a dress code (no shorts, hats, or sleeveless shirts). Signage speaks as to what various buildings, statues, gardens, or other features signify, though my near total lack of prior education in Buddhist practice made them a bit difficult to understand. I am, however, greatly appreciative that they are there for novices like me.

The passageways

A visit begins with a gate that sits between the parking lot and the street below. Chinese characters on it list the four universal vows of Buddhism, which my English language brochure I pick up tells me are: to save all sentient beings, to study the Dharma, to eradicate delusion and stress, and to attain supreme enlightenment. Gazing through the gate from the complex itself also highlights the hills of this part of Los Angeles.

The front gate

From the parking lot, the Bodhisattva Hall is the first building one will enter. A Bodhisattva, as I understand from the signage, is basically a Buddha in training, a sage who has yet to achieve a full Buddha rank, but is still worthy of veneration. It is here that the ranks of statues begin, some depicting these men, others the full Buddhas, and yet others characters from mythological tales. Overall, the Hsi Lai Temple complex has hundreds of statues, most with a sign at least giving a name.

Bodhisattva Hall

Inside (no photos are allowed inside any building in the complex) worshippers can purchase offerings for use in their prayer. Offerings range from incense to food and clothing, with each symbolizing something different. It is at this moment that I am overwhelmed by just how little I know of this hugely important world religion. While I am aware of some of the Buddha’s teachings and basic tenets, actual practice is a mystery to me. Fortunately, the Hsi Lai Temple, consistent with its mission of bringing Buddhism to the West, offers English language services and activities, so I make a note to return to fill in this gap at a later date. For now, everyone seems to be speaking solely in Chinese (though I don’t know which dialect).

While no photos are allowed inside, I take this one through the open doors

Behind the hall is a courtyard flanked by lovely gardens and outbuildings, the passages lined with statuary. I wander through an art gallery filled with artifacts like Buddha statues made of gold and amber, and peek into the temple’s dining hall, which offers vegetarian fare for a couple hours a day.

Each side of the courtyard has a different garden

But the main attraction is the aptly named Main Shrine, sitting atop stairs from the courtyard. This main shrine is dedicated to Siddhartha Gautama, who is also known as Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism in the 5th Century BCE in India. His is the central statue in the shrine, flanked by two other Buddhas. Flowers adorn the shrine, and a stunning chandelier hangs over the main area. Incense is lit outside in a square glass structure.

The Main Shrine from below

Hsi Lai also includes a library, meditation hall, various classrooms, and at the very top of the hill, the Memorial Pagoda.

Hsi Lai’s Memorial Pagoda

In total, I spend about an hour wandering through each passageway, room, and garden in the complex. I leave both excited that my hometown has such an incredible place, and embarrassed at my lack of knowledge. But my overarching feeling is one of wonder and gratitude at simply being allowed to experience someplace so peaceful and beautiful. Now I am off to supplement my learning of basic Buddhist teachings!

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