February 04, 2014

Photo Essay: The Decorations, Wishes, and Faces of Chinese New Year

Photograph by Venerable Abbot Hui Dong
Hsi Lai Temple, At Night. Photograph by Venerable Abbot Hui Dong (Hsi Lai Temple)

I think the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year, it was at some late night party at Asia House in college, and there wasn't much to distinguish that party from any of the frat parties that I also frequented.

I never went to Chinatown much in New York City, save for an occasional visit to a speakeasy that said it was in Little Italy, but the two communities have bled so much into each other, they're nearly indistinguishable from one another now.

In LA, Chinatown is a great place to spot some neon, ride your bike, or admire some velvet paintings. But LA's Chinese culture isn't limited just to its Chinatown: especially during Chinese New Year, you can find Chinese cultural events (and that of other Buddhist Asians, like Vietnamese and Tibetan) throughout Los Angeles County, and into the San Gabriel Valley.

To celebrate the coming of the Year of the Horse, a group of us visited one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the West: Hsi Lai Temple, in Hacienda Heights. Translated as "coming west," Hsi Lai was built 20 miles east of Los Angeles on a 15-acre parcel of land, after much controversy and debate amongst the non-Buddhist neighboring residents.

To enter, you walk through a symbolic gate...

...surrounded by silk flowers and Chinese lanterns...

...through the Bodhisattva Hall into the main courtyard.

This year, you see a lot of horses - of all different colors.

There are also cute baby Buddhas everywhere.

There are also guardian lions everywhere, in all different materials, colors and glazes.

The temple gets really decked out for the New Year's celebration...

...and transforms from a quiet monastery to somewhat of an amusement park.

You can find quiet places to get away from the celebrating crowds (including lots of kids dressed up in both modern and traditional garb), but you can't avoid the chatter, the sound of drums and gongs, the smell of stinky tofu...

...or the faces.

Everywhere, there are the faces of those wannabe Buddhas (the bodhisattvas)...

...and the buddhas themselves.

They are carved in stone and cast in porcelain, ceramic.

They are grouped in gardens, and alone.

They are great and they are small.

They all seem so happy.

Upon the Lunar New Year, practicing Buddhists come to Hsi Lai for a celebration, but during the rest of the year...

...they visit areas like the Avalokitesvara Garden to purify their minds...

...and to let the Deva Kings - like Dhrtarastra of the Eastern Kingdom (holding a sitar) protect them from being harmed by unwholesome elements.

Anybody (even non-Buddhists like me) can throw pennies in the pond, too, making a wish (as well as in many other fountains and wishing wells on the property).

Some offer lit incense to Buddha, and honor their ancestors.

Others buy candles in pineapple-shaped votive holders, lighting them in hopes of prosperity.

Many throw gold and red ribbons weighted by Chinese coins as high as they can atop the wishing tree, in hopes that it sticks (and therefore their wish will come true). Fortunately, if the ribbon misses, or falls off, they can pick it back up and try again.

Since the spirits of ancestors are called upon to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families, it seemed appropriate to visit the Buddhist Columbarium at Rose Hills Memorial Park, one of the places in the San Gabriel Valley where Buddhists are laid to rest (usually, cremated and either interred in a cemetery plot, or housed in the columbarium, a kind of mausoleum for urns of cremated remains).

It is the largest Buddhist pagoda in the U.S., situated on the top of a hill in the largest cemetery in the U.S.

It, too, is surrounded by happy baby Buddhas.

The three levels of niches (for the urns) are well-protected by plenty of figures cast in bronze...

...which surround the pagoda on the outside at the top level...

...and guard the niches on the inside.

Climbing to the top reveals spectacular views of the San Gabriel Valley and mountains...

...and provides a much quieter place for meditation, spiritual awareness, and maybe some ancestor worship, without all the decorations, noise, and stinky tofu smell of the nearby temple.

You can visit the columbarium at Rose Hills anytime, but you only have until February 14 to see the Hsi Lai Temple all decked out with its horses and lanterns for the New Year.

Although it's mostly Buddhists who go, anyone of any faith or cultural and ethnic background is welcomed to take a self-guided tour (or a guided tour in the off-season), take an incense stick, buy a candle and make a wish.

Happy New Year!

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