Guandu Temple

Thousand-armed Guanyin (千手觀音)

A few weeks ago I went on a photowalk around Guandu (關渡) with some photographer friends and it led me back to Guandu Temple (關渡宮), one of my favourite temples in Taipei. I've already blogged about the temple before, so today being that it just so happens that it is Guanyin's birthday - I'm going to share a few photos of my favourite shrine in the temple and explain it a little bit as well as a funny experience that happened while at the temple.

The day of our photowalk it was forecast to rain, it had already rained for the entire of month of March and the weather was having a major effect on people's moods. Billy, the leader of the photowalk group thought about cancelling it the day before, but we all decided that we shouldn't let the weather get the best of us and we went anyway.

When we arrived at the temple, it hadn't started to rain, so I helped to lead people around the temple showing them the highlights and discussing random things about its construction. When we got to the Guanyin shrine, one of my favourite Buddhist shrines in all of Taiwan, one of the photowalkers asked me why there were two stone elephants guarding the door rather than the lions that most temples have. Truthfully I couldn't answer the question and I thought it was a bit strange myself as I had noticed earlier that they were designed in the Thai-style.

So instead of standing around and thinking about it, I walked into the shrine room and approached the attendant to ask her if she knew. She replied to me: "I don't understand your Chinese" (我聽不懂你的中文), so I repeated myself more slowly thinking that my Beijing accent and pace of speaking were too much for her.

After repeating my question in a very slow and clear manner she replied to me in broken Mandarin that she couldn't understand and asked if I could speak Taiwanese. I expect this kind of thing is common in the south of Taiwan, but in Taipei it's quite rare to find a local that can't speak Mandarin. 

She eventually found a young woman who could speak Taiwanese and I asked her the question and she translated it for me.

The reply was: "I've no idea, ask someone else." Mystery unsolved. 

The Guanyin shrine room at Guandu temple is one of my favourite for a few reasons - The first is because it is connected to a long cave which is inside of a mountain. The cave has murals along the walls telling different Buddhist stories. The shrine is at the end of the cave and there is a balcony that takes you out to the side of the mountain overlooking the Danshui river.

The shrine itself is of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin (千手觀音菩薩) and to me is expertly crafted and the lighting in the room makes it look amazing. I can see however that it might come across as scary to some (she's holding various weapons) but if you really understand the purpose and story behind this depiction you might really appreciate the beauty of it -  

The topic of "Guanyin" can be a bit confusing to some, because in countries that practice Buddhism, this specific "Buddha" is depicted in a lot of different ways and you might not ever know who you're looking at. The name "Guanyin" (觀自在) comes from the original"Avalokiteśvara" (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་) who is referred to as the "Buddha of Compassion" and literally means "the lord who looks down on sound" (those who are suffering). The purpose of this specifc Buddha is to show compassion and remain on Earth and work to alleviate the suffering of human-kind. Today, it is said that the 'Buddha of Compassion' walks around in human form and is the nobel peace prize laureat known around the world as the Dalai Lama. 

As for the differentiation in iconography between different traditions, the best explanation is that over history, the Buddha of Compassion having returned so many times reappeared as a male and a female. This is why you will find that this specific Buddha appears in different forms in different countries and in some cases may even appear androgynous. Here in East Asia, Avalokiteśvara is typically depicted in the form of Guanyin (觀世音菩薩) and for Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese Buddhists she is a popular figure of worship.

The story behind this specific statue of Guanyin comes from a popular Buddhist myth (南海觀音全撰) that tells of a conversation between Guanyin and Amitābha Buddha (阿彌陀佛) - two of the most important Buddhas - where the Buddha of Compassion complained about the never-ending mission that he/she was on. Despite all the hard work that was done over countless lifetimes, humans were still miserable and suffering. Amitābha hearing this transformed Guanyin's body into one with eleven heads (to hear the cries of humanity) and one thousand arms which would help to aid in helping to alleviate the suffering of humanity.

I'm neither a Buddhist, nor am I religious, but the story of the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteśvara stands out to me as a westerner for a few reasons. The first being that I come from a culture that believes in a God that demands worship, adoration and adherence to a set of rules. In the other case we have a god-like figure (Buddha's are not actually gods) whose entire purpose is to help humanity realize it's full potential and live a happy life free of suffering. To me they seem almost the polar opposite of each other - one demands adherence and love while the other asks for nothing and works tirelessly to improve your life. If I were looking a religion (I'm not, no knocks on my door please) I might actually lean more to the latter as it seems a bit more genuine. 

The next reason is that in Buddhism, gender is not an obstacle in attaining enlightenment or for becoming a Buddha. It does not matter to Buddhists if a female becomes one of the most prominent figures in the religion. I can appreciate a system of beliefs that does not limit a person's individual potential based solely on their gender or their sexuality. The world would be an infinitely better place today if women were given equal opportunity to include themselves and lead in all facets of life as well as in philosophical debates rather than the age-old system of patriarchy that has been in place. 

If you have a chance to visit Guandu temple, make sure to check out this shrine and take a few minutes to enjoy the craftsmanship that was put into constructing this giant statue. No matter what your opinion of religion, you have to appreciate the human intellect and skill that went into constructing it and that's basically the attitude I take with me when I visit temples with my camera in hand. I respect the human ingenuity, skill and care that was taken to make these giant museums of Taiwanese art.

If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please feel free to comment below or send an email through the contact section. 

Guandu Temple (關渡宮)

I have had the photos for this blog uploaded and ready to go for well over nine months, but I sat on it and kept pushing the it back in order to stay on top of other stuff. I suppose though that I might have just been leaving it for just the right time as over the next few weeks I plan on posting about a few really cool Taiwanese temples that have a lot of historical significance. 

The first temple I'll be introducing is Taipei’s Guandu Temple (關渡宮) which like a lot of Taiwanese temples is dedicated to several gods with a main shrine dedicated to the goddess Matsu (or Mazu 媽祖.)  

The temple is situated in Taipei's Beitou district (北投區) which is more famously known for its geo-thermal hot-springs. The temple is easily accessible by Taipei’s MRT system via Guandu Station (關渡站) on the Tamsui line (淡水線) and a short walk from the station on a road lined with lanterns guiding your way. 

Thousand-Arm Guanyin

Thousand-Arm Guanyin

Thousand-Arm Guanyin

Guandu is popular with Taipei residents as it is along the Danshui River and has not only the popular temple, but also the Riverside bicycle path and the Guandu Nature Park (關渡自然公園) which is quite popular with nature lovers and wildlife photographers. 

The temple itself, originally named Lingshen Temple (靈山廟) has a history dating back to 1661, although the temple didn’t actually begin construction until somewhere around 1712 when a Buddhist monk traveled from China bringing with him a golden statue of the goddess Matzu.

The original temple was quite modest compared to what you see today, but due to the wealth of the immigrants who lived in the area, and because most of their income came from transporting goods by sea, it made sense to pool some of their wealth and build a more spectacular temple along the banks of the Danshui River dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea.

Walking around the temple grounds. 

Walking around the temple grounds. 

Since then, the temple has been renovated and expanded upon several times over its over 350 year history making it currently the one of the largest and oldest Matsu temples in the northern area of the country. 

As mentioned above, the main shrine of the temple is dedicated to the goddess Matsu, which is a folk-religion deity, but the temple was originally founded by a Buddhist monk. The temple has several shrines and there are several floors and buildings that surround the main temple which are dedicated to other folk-religion deities as well as different Buddha’s including Guanyin (觀音), Ksitigarbha (藥師佛) and Shakyamuni (釋迦佛.) 

Guanyin Shrine. 

Buddha Shrine

One of the interesting things about the temple is that it is built into the side of a small mountain. The mountain has a cave which has been converted into a pathway that brings you to another beautiful shrine. The walkway is eighty meters long and has statues against the walls which depict the 28 heavenly emperors. The walk through the cave is really cool and whenever I visit the temple, I find that I spend quite a bit of time walking through it looking at the murals on the wall. 

At the end of the hallway there is another shrine room which I think is probably one of my favourite shrines in all of Taiwan which has a giant shiny bronze statue of the thousand armed Guanyin that has incredible detail. The room set up around the statue is small and the detail on the walls is spectacular. There is a small balcony on a cliff in front of the shrine that overlooks the river and is a nice place to relax for a few minutes.  


Murals on the wall of the cave

If you climb the stairs behind the temple, there is a park on Mount Ling that has a cool overlook of the the river and a view of the back of the very large temple that looks towards Taipei city with Taipei 101 in the distance. The park has Sakura trees that are in bloom in winter and if you show up at the right time, you'll be able to see the temple as well as the sakura. 

I’m not going to go into great detail about all the shrines at the temple or the superstition and miracles that people believe makes it such an important place. If you visit the temple there is an excellent information brochure (in English, Japanese and Chinese) which introduces the temple, it's history and all the shrines inside. I recommend picking it up when you visit and checking it out. 

I love Taiwanese temples and the art and craftsmanship that goes into building them – but I'm not a fan of perpetuating stories of superstition and miracles. So even though other blogs might tell some spectacular stories about things that have happened in the past, I'll let you get that information from them. 

Guandu Temple is really one of the best examples of temple architecture in Taipei and it has a long history making it one of the most important religious structures in northern Taiwan. If you are visiting for a short time, I know all the guide books recommend visiting Longshan Temple (龍山寺) but I highly recommend you make time to visit this one as it is just a important historically and if you are interested in the craftsmanship and artistic side of things, this one is going to appeal to you more than the massive crowds at other popular temples.