Soul carvings

(No.1, Vol.5,Jan-Feb 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Virtue, wisdom and suffering are
encoded into Tay Phuong Pagoda

Tay Phuong Pagoda sits on the earthen hill Cau Lau, in Thach Xa Commune, Thach That District, Hanoi. At the time of its establishment, it was named Sung Phuc. The pagoda, known now by the name of Tay Phuong, underwent some major renovation during the Tay Son reign. The magnificent structures in the pagoda were built in 1794. But older times are still vivid in a stela from the 17th century, or in statues bearing the style of early 18th century. The stairs leading up to the pagoda used to be padded with stones, big and small, which mingled together in such a natural way as to make, some said, the Buddhists feel like they were walking in a flow of original thoughts, further and further away from the burdened world to enter the realm of eternity.
Buddhism entered Vietnam in the first centuries A.D. During the Ly-Tran era (11th-14th centuries), it was our dominant religion. During the early Le era (15th century), the feudal regime turned to Confucianism, because this religion contains much knowledge regarding social structure and functionality, and Buddhism went into to a decline. By the 16th century, when Confucianism was in crisis, people turned again to Buddhism. During the chaotic times of Le-Trinh, Buddhism alone was considered not enough to save human souls, and it was blended with Confucianism to become a remedy for Vietnamese spiritual life. And so, the Buddhist temples began to incorporate elements of Confucianism. A milestone of the phenomenon of Buddhism being mixed with Confucianism was the founding of two big temples in Hanoi, Kim Lien and Tay Phuong pagodas. They are almost identical in architecture, and one can say that they have been twins of religious architecture of our nation since the 18th century.
Tay Phuong pagoda has three main parts, which are three edifices standing in parallel. Each building has two layers of roofs. The roof corners are all of the form of curved boat prows of different length. They are not aligned, but make a much-improvised formation. The ancient masters, besides making each boat nose a masterpiece, also had to arrange the multitude of boats to look as if they are in constant movement. The three edifices represent the three forces that move the world: Heaven, the major one, is at the centre and taller than the others; Earth, which is the foundation, is at the rear; and Humanity, which is life itself, stands at the front. Entering the temple, one walks through it in the order of Humanity, from Heaven to Earth. One also feels the functioning of Ying and Yang through the scheme of the Eight Trigrams to give birth to everything alive. Each edifice is a symbol of The Single Extreme. The lower, heavier roof represents the Ying, and the top, lighter layer represents the Yang. Four roofs represent the Four Faces: the front roof the Excessive Yang, the rear roof the Excessive Ying, the left roof the Lesser Yang, the right roof the Lesser Ying. Two layers have eight roofs to represent the Eight Trigrams (Can, Kham, Can, Chan, Ton, Ly, Khon, Doai).
Talking about Tay Phuong pagoda means talking about a treasure of sculpture, an invaluable cultural and historical heritage. Each statue is a unique work of art expressing all the drama of mankind. Tay Phuong is considered a museum of Buddhist sculpture in Vietnam. The 18 Arhant statues are considered the most perfect ones. They express sorrow, suffering, anxiety, torment and lament. In 1960, poet Huy Can visited the temple and wrote the poem ‘The Arhants of Tay Phuong,’ describing them: ‘Some are glowering, their brows knit tight/ Waves of the sea of reincarnation on their forehead/ Sour crumpled lips of a withered soul/ Twisted hands, blood boiling inside…’ And he saw:
Each his own way, a face of mankind,
Torrents of sufferings under heaven.
Squirming and trembling as if for the last time
Tormenting themselves as people lament!

In early 2015, Buddhist
statues of the Tay Son reign (1788-1802) at the Tay Phuong Pagoda were recognized
as national treasures.

The biggest festival of the temple begins early in the second lunar month until the main events on the 6th of the third lunar month. On this day, a big altar is set at the foot of the hill next to the stairs that lead to the temple. On the altar, they put a large tray of sacrificial items for heaven and earth. Beside the altar, four elders in traditional dress sit in a red wooden dragon boat. They row the boat in rhythm with Heart Sutra chanting. This symbolizes the Boat of Enlightenment carrying people to the world of light. The pilgrims sink into a world of spiritual sensations. Afterwards, they come uphill and enjoy all the traditional fun activities and games such as tug-of-war, cock fights, puppet shows and songs of the West Bank.

Text by Anh Chi and photos by Nguyen Ba Ngoc
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