Hue is home to many famous ancient Buddhist temples in Vietnam, and Thien Mu Pagoda is likely one of the most well-known and respected temples here.
Thien Mu Pagoda was an important spiritual place in the inception of Dang Trong, which is known as Southern Vietnam today. Legend has it that when Nguyen Hoang came to be the Governor of Thuan Hoa as the first lord of the Nguyen Dynasty, he carefully examined the terrain here in preparation to expand the nation and build heritages for the dynasty. During a horse trail to the upstream of the Huong River, he came across a small hill along the meandering blue water. The landscape resembled a dragon looking around to its back. After conversing with local people, he learned the name of the hill -- Ha Khe hill, and that there was often an old lady in a red shirt and green pants appearing on the hill at night. This lady told people:
"Soon, there will be a lord who comes here to build a pagoda to gather spiritual energy and pray for the prosperity of our country. "
The great thought of Lord Nguyen Hoang seemed to align with the wishes of the people. He then erected a pagoda on this hill in 1601, facing the Huong River, and named it Chua Thien Mu (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady).
That’s a unique tale about the inception of the Pagoda, but there are also many more exciting stories about it. One of them is about the name of the pagoda. You wonder, why do some people call it Thien Mu pagoda while others call it Linh Mu Pagoda? Well, this story dates back to emperor Tu Duc, the 4th king of the Nguyen Dynasty. This emperor had 103 wives but could not have any children because he had smallpox when he was young. He attributed his sexual underperformance to the name of the pagoda, as the word “Thien” in Thien Mu meant God, and he was afraid that could be bad luck. So in 1682, the emperor changed the pagoda’s name to Linh Mu (Celestial Lady). Even then, 7 years later, in 1689, the emperor still had no children, but the pagoda has kept its two names since then.
In addition, The local people believe in a curse that:
"The couple who visit Thien Mu Pagoda together will break up."
Hmm, that sounds like a myth, do you believe in it? The story goes that, when Lord Nguyen was still in control of the Dang Trong area, arranged marriage was very common. There was an honorable and beautiful daughter of a noble official who fell in love with a poor orphan boy. The girl’s family strictly prohibited their love, so needless to say, their love story was full of anguish. So miserable, the couple went to the Huong River with the thought that if they were not able to live together, they would both commit suicide to be together in another life. So they jumped into the river. But ironically, when the boy's heart stopped beating at the bottom of the deep Huong River, the girl was lucky to drift ashore and be saved by kind local people. The girl's family was enraged, now setting her up to marry the highest official in the court, the guy that they had been aiming for before. As time went by and the misery of losing her ex-lover subsided, the girl eventually got married and lived a glorious life. Now the boy, his soul was awaiting his girlfriend who never came around. Now full of jealousy and despair for his unfortunate fate, his spirit wandered into Thien Mu Pagoda in front of the Huong River, vowing to disturb the couples who came here to visit the pagoda. So perhaps because of that mythical story, the local people believed that faithful visitors will be rewarded with love if they were single, however, the coupl who visited the pagoda will definitely split up.
Sightseeing of Pagoda
Now let’s go explore the architecture of this majestic pagoda. Take a deep breath with me, breathe out your worries, and imagine you are entering a serene and sacred space of hundreds of years past.
As you step up the steep stairs leading into the pagoda, you will be greeted by an ancient and mighty tower - This is Phuoc Duyen tower. It is said that emperor Minh Mang - the second king of the Nguyen Dynasty - directed the construction of a tower at Thien Mu pagoda to wish for a prosperous country. But before the construction finished, he, unfortunately, passed away and handed down this legacy to his successor. Inside the tower, each floor has a statue of Buddha, an altar of the image of a Buddha, a horizontal lacquered board, and parallel phrases praising Buddha and the common good. These decorations are made of vitreous enamel - a special material made by firing hot glass powder, usually between 750 and 850 °C (which is between 1,380 and 1,560 °F). The powder melts and then hardens to a smooth, durable, and translucent coating.
Around Phuoc Duyen tower, you will see five ancient stone monuments. Most of these monuments are carved with poems praising the landscape, the beauty of the temple, and the Buddha. The most prominent one is the stone monument called Ngu Kien Thien Mu Tu that was built in 1715 by lord Nguyen Phuc Chu - who spearheaded the expansion of the land, forming the S-shaped Vietnam of today. This oldest monument has many meanings and has been recognized as a National Treasure. The marble stele monument is placed on the back of a tortoise statue made out of stone. The stele is exquisitely decorated with a dragon, which is a symbol for the emperor, as well as patterns of aquatic waves and fire clouds. The engravings on the stele is 1,260-word long prose, which is still largely legible today, praising Buddhism, the development and flourishing of the nation, along with describing the beauty of Thien Mu Pagoda.
Along with the stone monuments and Phuoc Duyen tower, Dai Hong Chung is one of the important treasures of Thien Mu Pagoda. This is the bell that was cast by Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu in 1710, then gifted to the Pagoda as an offering to Buddha. It was recognized as a national treasure in 2013. Dai Hong Chung Bell is 2.5m high, 1.4m diameter mouth is located in the Thien Mu pagoda campus. On the bell, it is marked that Dai Hong Chung has a weight of 3,285 pounds and has the inscription of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu "praying for good rain, peaceful nation, peaceful people, where all people can become Buddhas." Currently, although the bell is no longer in use by the pagoda, its presence is still recognized in many folk songs and poems of Hue and has been a beautiful legend of the ancient capital.
Just behind Phuoc Duyen tower, you will now walk through Tam Quan gate - The main gate leading to the pagoda. On both sides of the gate, guardian statues are keeping the pagoda peaceful and safe.
Located in the center of the pagoda is the Dai Hung Palace - The main hall of the temple and the place of Maitreya worship. Maitreya is a Buddha with huge ears, as if to listen to the misery of sentient beings, and has a big stomach as if to tolerate the sins and misdeeds of the people. The palace has a double-eaved roof architecture that was restored in 1959. The columns were concreted, covered with a layer of imitation wood paint. Inside the palace, you can find a copper bell with intricate embellishments of solar and lunar patterns.
The story of the Venerable set himself on fire
Now, just behind Dai Hung Palace, you will stumble across a blue antique car, which tells quite a brave but tragic story. This is the car of Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire at a busy intersection in the old Saigon on June 11, 1963. His self-immolation was an act of protest against the war and the cruel persecution towards Buddhists by the Southern Vietnam government at that time. According to many accounts, on that day, Venerable Thich Quang Duc wore many layers of robes inside the Buddhist traditional coat, covered with ordinary robes outside to hide the attention of the police of Saigon. Thich Quang Duc got off the car, prayed in four directions, then sat cross-legged on the road, while reciting Buddhist chants. Then he dropped a match, the fire flared up like a giant bundle of torches surrounding him. In this fire, he remained cross-legged, showing no trace of pain or torture. Soon enough, he was surrounded by a crowd of monks, nuns, and spectators. Some people recited Buddhist chants and prayed; others shouted propaganda slogans against the government. Many people, including some anti-protest police, collapsed and cried themselves for this bodhisattva. This image shook the world at that time, and his car is kept at Thien Mu Pagoda as a tribute to his bravery and legacy.
David Halberstam, a correspondent reporter for the New York Times covering the war in Vietnam at the time, gave the following account:
"I wanted to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me, I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him."
Now, the most whimsical fact about this story is that as the body of Venerable Thich Quang Duc cremated in the fire, his heart remained intact and did not burn. It was considered to be holy and is placed in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda. The intact heart relic is regarded as a symbol of compassion. Thich Quang Duc is revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a bodhisattva.
Now, around the car, you can see three photos: A picture of the Venerable Thich Quang Duc wearing a yellow robe sitting cross-legged, with a flame engulfing his whole body. The remaining two pictures are of the immortal hearts and of the Venerable writing prayers and blessings for the rest of the world. To this day, the story of the car, of Venerable Thich Quang Duc and his immortal heart circulates in the Thien Mu pagoda, as a symbol of bravery and selflessness.
At the very end of the temple grounds is the tomb of Venerable Thich Don Hau - the monk who presided over Thien Mu Pagoda and devoted his life to philanthropic activities. This tomb is also a 7-storey tower, but much smaller than the Phuoc Duyen tower, nestled in a verdant green pine forest.
That’s an overview of Thien Mu Pagoda. Would you like to visit Thien Mu Pagoda in the next time?. Download Virelic to read and listen more another interesting stories. Tam Biet!