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Tang dynasty-inspired in design, the large Buddhist complex is an architectural and religious marvel

A pure lily amidst a pond of contemporary housing and highways, Chi Lin Nunnery is a testament to classical Chinese architecture, an oasis for the spiritual-minded and a sanctuary for the elderly.

Founded in 1934, the monastic complex was designed as a retreat for Buddhist nuns—a purpose it continues to uphold. Built-in the district of Diamond Hill in Kowloon. Auspiciously positioned, the compound faces the sea to welcome abundance. Lion Rock, so named for its famous boulder that looks like a crouching lion, is situated above the nunnery. Rolling mountains behind the institution provide strength and positive energy.

Feng Shui principles held significant importance throughout its development. Talented designers, architects and traditional craftsmen from Japan, mainland China and Hong Kong came together to breathe new life into the nunnery. Modelled after Tang dynasty architecture, Chi Lin Nunnery is the only building of this style that remains in Hong Kong. Renovation works for the compound began in 1989. Spanning more than 33,000 square metres, amazingly, not a single nail was used in its construction. Builders wholly relied on traditional Chinese techniques. Over 200,000 pieces of cypress wood made up the building’s many wooden dowels and bracket work, intricately held together through interlocking systems cut into the wood. Unsurprisingly, the nunnery is the world’s largest handmade wooden building to date. With an expected usage period of five centuries, Chi Lin is proof that tried and true methods can stand the test of time and look great doing it.

In all, the nunnery comprises sixteen halls of worship, a library, a school, a pagoda, three courtyards, a bell tower, and a drum tower. Renovations were completed in 1998, and in the early-mid 2000s, Chi Lin Nunnery was opened to the public.

The entryway is a lengthy, open space. Pristine bonsai trees line the route to the main gate, the “Mountain Gate”, the largest of three gates set at the entrance. Two smaller gates are situated on either side. The three entry points represent compassion, wisdom, and the skills of the people. Cascading and stunningly tall bougainvillaeas stand near the staircase on either side. Inside the nunnery are three distinct sections: the main courtyard, the inner courtyard, and the ancestral prayer hall. Within these separate areas, their respective main worship halls are all oriented on a north-south axis, and minor halls are oriented to the east and west.

Heading inside, visitors enter the main courtyard. Named the Maitreya Hall, its title is derived from the fifth and final iteration of Buddha that is promised to bring Dharma back to the forefront of society. A covered walkway with clay-tiled roofing wraps around the open courtyard, providing respite from the heat.

Lily motifs are found throughout the compound, acting as accents for the clay tiles (with a total weight of 176 tonnes), etched on the lamps hanging overhead and carved into the low stone walls that wrap around the ponds. Their waters are planted with lily pads, flower buds not yet matured. Smooth, decorative Yantan stones and petrified wood are on display. Often, they are paired with sage Buddhist quotes, insightful artistic expressions and statements from scholars and leaders of dynasties past.

Four lotus ponds are situated in the courtyard. In each, carved stones in the shape of dragon heads, representing earthly and celestial power, spout water. Bonsai trees punctuate the corner of each pond. Between the covered walkway and the open area, a neat line of flora loops around the inner perimeter. They bear romantic names including orange jessamine, firethorn, Buddhist pine, ash and Chinese juniper. The shape of many has been manipulated over the years through careful usage of wiring to create stunning configurations.

Inspired by a Sukhavati drawing found in the Mogao caves in China’s Jiuqian province, the design of Chi Lin Nunnery is humbly distinct. Described as a “cong lin” (Cantonese for “forest”), it is so named for its large congregation of nuns, resembling clustered trees when they gather. While the architecture is a physical representation of people in harmony with nature, the nuns’ active work in the community represents harmony with others. Expanding their religious duties to serve the community, besides housing sixty nuns, the compound is also a residence for the elderly. That aside, the foremost aim of Chi Lin Nunnery is to actively promote Chinese culture and an understanding of Buddhism’s ethos to all visitors.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn