Hsi Lai Temple: Where West Meets East

The smell of burning incense permeated the autumn air in a light, pleasant way. From within a private courtyard, the banging of drums and chanting of monks masked the din of the valley below. Sunshine spilled into a sacred garden, illuminating a treasure trove of ornamental Buddhas. The place definitely had a sense of tranquility about it, removed from the city and seemingly isolated.

For the second time, I was inspired to visit a place after learning of it from the reality game show, The Amazing Race.* At the start of this season, the contestants gathered somewhere I’d never heard of before, even though it’s in the same county that I’ve lived in most of my life.

Driving through suburbia, passing ordinary tract houses and strip malls, I traveled into the hills of Hacienda Heights, about thirty minutes east of downtown Los Angeles. I had an idea of what to expect after seeing the TV program, but when I rounded the final bend into the driveway I was awestruck by the sight before my eyes. It was massive, resembling photos I’d seen of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. I felt like I’d been transported halfway around the world. I’d arrived at the Hsi Lai Temple, the second largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere.

On its lofty perch in the hills overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, the Hsi Lai Temple’s Ming- and Qing-Dynasty-inspired architecture is faithful to the traditional style of ancient Chinese monasteries. The buildings feature sweeping, gabled roofs with gold-colored tiles, ceramic figurines and up-turning corners—things I’d only expect to see at a palace or temple in Asia. Red lacquered pillars, Chinese calligraphy and monks dressed in saffron-colored robes added to the illusion. Built in terraces on the steep hillside, the compound features several buildings encircling a wide central courtyard. Past the Temple’s symbolic gate and up the first stairway is the Bodhisattva Hall. (Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have made the vow to selflessly serve others with kindness and compassion.) At the far end of the courtyard is yet another set of stairs, this one leading to the Main Shrine. The interior was spectacular—there are literally ten thousand golden Buddha figurines lining the walls. There were lots of steep stairs to climb, but the view from the top was well worth it. Guests are welcome to wander the temple grounds freely, but photography is not permitted inside any of the buildings.

Completed in 1988, Hsi Lai translates to “coming west” in English, signifying the dedication of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, headquartered in Taiwan, to spread its teachings of the Buddha to the Western Hemisphere.

The temple is open to the public year-round, serving as a bridge between East and West. Its goals are to integrate the Buddha’s teachings of kindness, compassion, joyfulness and equanimity that might be integrated into one’s daily life.

I’ve visited so many churches, cathedrals, and even mosques on my travels but this is the first Buddhist temple I’ve been inside (except for a very small one I saw in Macau many years ago.) The architecture was stunning and I really felt at peace while I was there. I plan on traveling to Asia in the next couple years and definitely look forward to visiting more.

Where: Hsi Lai Temple is located at 3456 Glenmark Drive in Hacienda Heights, California. (626) 961-9697.
When: The temple is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Self-guided audio tours are available for individuals or small groups at the information center.
For More Information: Visit their website by clicking HERE.


Here are more photos from my visit: 

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* Several seasons ago on The Amazing Race, the contestants went to Dubrovnik, Croatia—a place that I’d vaguely heard of but never really knew much about. After that episode I told myself I would go there someday…and I did last year. More on that another time!

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