/ The Amsterdam Guide
Amsterdam — By Marianne on March 28, 2010 at 7:23 am
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Enlightenment in Amsterdam’s Chinese Temple

The smell of incense wafted towards me. A shining statue of Guan Yin sat on an altar flanked by smaller statues of other Chinese deities. A row of candles burnt on a low shelf in front of the shrine.

Buddhist temples and monasteries are traditionally built on hills or mountains. The entrance to Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple is through the three-arched Mountain Gate but because there are not any mountains in the Netherlands, the Great Hall I climbed a wide staircase. Each step symbolizes practicing Buddhism. This gradual approach leads to bodhi – enlightenment or awakening. Enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has nothing to do with knowledge or intellect. It is an awakening to full realization of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings.

Wei Tuo Stood Guard

Since Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple was built in the traditional Chinese style, I expected four statues of the Heavenly Kings to greet me at the entrance. The kings, who lead armies of supernatural creatures, keep demons at bay. Instead, Wei Tuo, clad in full armour and holding a scepter-shaped weapon, stood guard at the back wall in the Great Hall, ready to fight off the demons bent on impugning the Faith and stealing the Book of Wisdom.

The main shrine in the Great Hall was dedicated to Kuan Yin, a sage and seer. She is a bodhisattva, a divine being who attained enlightenment and helps others to salvation. She is said to have one thousand hands, but I only counted twenty-three. These multiple hands symbolize her power to save all living beings. In her hands, she holds symbolic attributes – a Buddha statue on her upward turned hand palm, a vase pouring out water, just as Guan Yin pours out compassion, and a bell whose ebbing sound symbolizes wisdom. Seemingly entangled in Guan Yin’s hair is a tiny statue of Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land. This is the land where the toils and worries of everyday life do not interfere with the teachings of Buddha.

I am familiar with Buddhism as it is practiced in India, where it is believed that life on earth is full of suffering and an endless circle in which people are born, grow old and die only to be born again in other bodies. The way to break out of this circle is by attaining personal enlightenment – nirvana. This individualistic approach did not appeal to Chinese collectivism. The Chinese strand of Buddhism, the Mahayana School, teaches that perfection for the individual is only possible with perfection for all. Those who attained perfection became known as bodhisattvas. “Can I compare them to Roman Catholics Saints or angels?” I asked the Chinese attendant who sat in one corner eating a take-away Chinese meal. She did not speak enough Dutch or English to explain. Eager to help, she handed me a leaflet. But it did not answer my question.

Guan Yin

I continued my tour of the Great Hall. Two pagodas with illuminated niches containing hundreds of miniature Buddha statues stood next to Guan Yin. The repetition of the images symbolizes Buddha’s omnipresence. Plaques with reliefs of Guan Yin and the names of the donors who enabled the construction of the temple covered the walls.

I slipped a euro in the donation box. The money bought me a shiny red apple, not to eat but for an offering. I placed the apple on the altar in front of Guan Yin’s shrine. Fruit is nutritious and has a pleasant taste. As an offering, it symbolises the result of spiritual cultivation. I could have made an offering of flowers – beautiful and fragrant but not lasting forever, they symbolize transience. I preferred the apple symbolism. After lightening an incense stick, I took a moment of quiet reflection before descending the stairs and mingling with the crowd on Zeedijk.

QUICK FACTS:

The Fo Guang Shan He Hwa Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Europe and built in traditional Chinese style. It is part of the International Buddhist Progress Society, I.B.P.C. founded by Hsing Yun, a Buddhist monk. The mother temple, Fo Guang Shan is in Taiwan. The temple’s main activity is religious. Still, the temple also fulfils a cultural function for Amsterdam’s Chinese community.

The Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple is generally known as the Zeedijk Tempel. Zeedijk is the street where you can find the temple.
Sutras, Buddha’s sayings, are recited every Sunday from 10.30 am and visitors are welcome. The Amsterdam branch of I.B.P.C. also gives lectures and organizes courses on Buddhism and Chinese language.

WHAT: Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple
WHERE: Zeedijk 106 – 118 (map)
OPENING HOURS: Tues-Sat 12-5pm; Sun 10am-5pm; closed Mondays
ADMISSION: free

GUIDED TOUR: Saturdays at 2, 3 and 4pm for 30 minutes; no appointment needed. Tours give an introduction to Buddhism and may include tea ceremony and mediation. Price €5, extra €3 for both tea drinking and meditation.

photo credits: personal collection

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