Rest and Reflection

The wall of a thousand Buddhas
Buddha and the bodhisattvas
Part of the depiction of Nirvana
Elaborate ceiling moulding focused around a group of golden koi
Servants and essentials for the afterlife
An ornate temple table leg
A lion statue on guard
A bridge over a stream
Guanyin overloooks the courtyard and gardens
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Buddhas

Lung Shan Temple is an ideal location for rest and reflection. Situated in Hong Kong’s North District in Fanling, the temple has been a place of worship and reflection for over 600 years. Known initially as Lung Kai Nunnery, this once-popular site faced a period of neglect. It could have been the end – if not for faithful locals. Through collective efforts and fundraising, the temple underwent years of reconstruction. When it was reopened, the temple was given a new name, Lang Shan Temple. Today, it stands as a humble resting place and a fine site to worship ancestors and Buddhas alike.

Feng Shui

It takes an hour from Central to reach Fanling proper via train. Once there, there is still a way to go. After hopping into a taxi, the town is quickly taken over by the trees. The further we go, the fewer buildings we see and the more corrugated steel structures take their place. Mountains spring up from nowhere. As we draw closer, houses are spread farther apart. Set in a valley, Lung Shan Temple harmonises with the surrounding environment, enjoying a hill at its back, and mountains on either side. In accordance with Feng Shui principles, the eastern mountain represents the green dragon, a figure of power and yang energy. By comparison, the western mountain symbolises the white tiger, a being of health and yin energy.

Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara, Samantabhadra, Manjushri and Ksitigarbha

Upon initial inspection, visitors may be surprised at the temple’s unassuming nature. As vehicles enter from the back of the building, they’re met with a basic structure that could house anything. But looks can be deceiving. After passing through the entryway and by the washrooms, Lung Shan Temple’s splendour is revealed. Gold casts its brilliance in all forms – from statues to lanterns, ceiling traceries to furniture flourishes, it gleams throughout the space. Dedicated to the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara, Samantabhadra, Manjushri, and Ksitigarbha, beings that help others reach enlightenment, we fall silent as we admire the innumerable details.

Waterlilies

Blue-and-yellow bracket sets sit beneath false red rafters and green embellishments that mimic a temple’s traditional tiled roofing. An extensive landscape of nirvana envisions all the enlightened figures in gold. Dragons are a common motif and can be found wrapped around columns, poised to pounce above false rooftops, and smiling down at us from the clouds. Waterlilies appear throughout as lanterns or plaster embellishments. A grand offering table stands in front of the four golden bodhisattvas, bearing fresh-cut lilies, lit candles, and fruits (two bundles of oranges, one of red apples, and one of green).

Thin trails of smoke drift about as visitors burn joss sticks and say prayers. To the right of the room lies a conspicuous pile of paper offerings. Classic and modern tastes are reflected in the papier-mache creations – larger-than-life gold ingots, a three-storey house with a pond and balconies, a male and female attendant, and a blue convertible are part of the spoils a lucky relative will enjoy in the afterlife. As two temple attendants haul the blue convertible out to the gigantic outdoor furnace, they cheerily encourage me to photograph the offerings while I can, as the actual burning is a private affair.

Paper Offerings

Drawing closer to the paper offerings, I quietly admire the craft. As a child, I naively believed that the paper houses displayed at offering shops were three-dimensional versions of the paper dolls I loved. When I understood what these papers meant, I grew a new appreciation of these shopfronts that were bursting with anything and everything a loved one would need in the afterlife. For a moment, I wonder if I’m watching the slow decline of tradition. The more that is burned, the greater the air pollution in the local area. As environmental concerns rise, some people have cut down on (or completely cut out) their paper offerings, preferring instead to provide their ancestors with food and prayers. But that is a worry for another day. I set it aside and enjoy listening to temple workers as they banter and joke, teasingly calling each other slow or lazy. They’re all anything but, as the huge pile of offerings is brought to the furnace in under ten minutes. The crackle of the fires is drowned out by rhythmic chanting as a funeral rite is held in one of the indoor pavilions.

Buddhists Funeral Rites

We can hear the chanting from the courtyard. The funeral prayers are hypnotic in rhythm, following the steady beat of a drum. It gets louder and louder the farther up we go – but we don’t dare to peek in on this very private ceremony, where most visitors have disappeared. While western funeral rites are typically a one-and-done deal, Buddhists usually hold four services – marking the third, seventh, forty-ninth, and one-hundredth day following the death of a loved one. Returning to the lower levels, we sneak a look into a few of the rooms. Each floor has a room dedicated to specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as burial chambers housing dozens in one space – a tight fit but manageable since the deceased are cremated after initial funerary rites are held.

Guanyin

Exiting into the courtyard, a fifteen-metre-tall relief statue of Guanyin – the bodhisattva associated with compassion – gazes upon visitors with an understanding look. For livelier views, we head over to the ponds. Vibrant koi dart between hordes of common carp, and a handful of tortoises paddle at the surface. Most impressive was the line-up of zodiac animals. At the foot of the steep valley drop, visitors can identify stone likenesses of the twelve animals that raced and won their place in the Chinese calendar. Naturally, I went to admire my zodiac animal – the clever mouse – before considering all the other resilient creatures that braved the distance between heaven and earth. I take the time to admire the old bridges, long since cordoned off, but still calming to the eye.

Lung Yeuk Tau Trail

While it doesn’t attract tourists en masse, the seven-level pagoda evokes a quiet dignity in keeping with its services. To fully immerse yourself in local history, I recommend heading to the temple via the Lung Yeuk Tau trail. Caught in the rain as we were, we could only save the hike for a sunnier day. But we weren’t stranded. To keep the worshippers rolling in, Lung Shan Temple provides a free shuttle bus to and from Fanling’s MTR station.

Text & photos by Victoria Mae Martyn