On a recent visit to the scenic Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, we detoured on our way back through Puli so that we could visit Chungtai Temple (中台山). The Chungtai Chan Monastery vies with Foguangshan (near Kaohsiung) as one of the largest temples in Asia. Standing at 136 metres it is one of the tallest (and largest) temples in Taiwan and the world. Built on the side of a mountain, the temple was designed to resemble a person in meditation (I had to stretch my imagination a bit to visualise this). It is almost impossible not to notice it rising from the hillside as you drive towards it from Puli. The architectural design has spiritual significance. As their website describes is:
The entire structure is an embodiment of the Dharma, unifying sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation. The three central Buddha halls rise vertically to the golden dome on top, symbolizing sudden enlightenment to the ultimate truth—”awaken the mind and see the true nature; seeing the true nature one becomes a buddha.” The pilgrimage stairways on both sides of the monastery represent the gradual bodhisattva path (a bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, one with infinite compassion for all beings), each step leading to the attainment of buddhahood not just for oneself but for all beings.
As we were only making a brief stopover on our way back home, we bypassed the museum and headed straight for the main worship hall. The outer altar was dedicated to a fat, jolly statute of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future (in Chinese, 彌勒佛 pronounced Mílè fo) all in gold. He was flanked on either side by two red lions.
After paying our respects to Maitreya, we walked into the large hall and were immediately struck by the giant stone pillars shaped like temple gods, guarding the way to the temple. They were very imposing; even though clearly made of stone I was almost scared just looking at them.
And the pillars were not the only thing attracting people’s eyes upwards. I was distracted by the ornate ceiling fixtures, including this purple and gold design featuring the lotus flower, dharma wheel and other Buddhist symbols. The photo does not really capture the size of the large and impressive fixtures.
Flanking the main hall was a corridor with life-sized statues of 18 arhats — Buddhist saints — including descriptions of who they were. Taiwanxifu Toddler had lots of fun running around the hallway and admiring the arhats.
The main hall was built from large concrete bricks. Although modern, it had somewhat of an empty feel that reminded me of the art deco influenced Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Still, the hollowness of the giant hall was more than compensated by the warmth of the nuns (sangha). One nun went out of the way to show us where we could use the VIP lift to transport our pram to the second floor and later gave Taiwanxifu Toddler several handmade paper cranes. He had a wonderful time making their wings flap.
After leaving the main shrine, we took a detour to explore some of the surrounding gardens to one side of the main shrine. We walked past several statues of animals such as deer, and paused at a Japanese-style outdoors temple dedicated to Avalokitesvara (known in Chinese as Guanyin – 觀音). (Actually, I later discovered there were around three similar temples dotted around these gardens — did I mention the monastery is one of the largest in Asia?) Being early autumn, a few stray leaves fluttered down over the temple as I watched. Oh, to spend an eternity contemplating this view!
By now, we seemed to have lost the main crowds. The only people on this side of the shrine were sangha (monks and nuns) who appeared to be heading to lunch. Yes, it was that time of day and Taiwanxifu Toddler was started to show early signs of hunger. We went into the side entrance of the Monastery looking for the cafeteria. We didn’t find it, and instead ventured into a small gift store where a friendly nun recommended we bypass the Western style cafe serving vegetarian burgers most tourists visit in favour of one of her favourite places. And noticing he was hungry, she generously gave Taiwanxifu Toddler a banana.
Following the nun’s directions, we headed in the opposite direction to the car park — past a sign that set out the four tenants of Chungtai.
We walked a few metres down the hill from the sign, through the back entrance to the monastery and before too long stumbled across the restaurant the nun from the giftshop recommended. Shangyuan Convenience Store (尚元便利商店) sounded like a 7-Eleven but was actually a homely vegetarian restaurant. Inside were a few tourists, but most customers were senior nuns enjoying a lunch out with each other. Several seemed to be lost in discussion on theoretical issues — could it be they were deliberating the meaning of life?
Mr Taiwanxifu ordered some Japanese-style noodles, which he declared were the best noodles he had ever eaten. Dressed simply with seaweed, sesame and cucumber they had an unusual slippery yet chewy texture. The restaurant staff were a little cagey about revealing the noodle’s secret, but we gleaned that they were specially made from ingredients other than the more usual wheat.
On the advice of the friendly gift store nun, I ordered a serving of wonton soup. I had hoped Taiwanxifu Toddler would be able to enjoy some of the wontons, but he seemed to now be too full from the banana. All the more soup for me — it was delicious.
Then came my order: simple boiled wheat noodles dressed with vegetarian style braised beef. This was nice, but I had to admit that Mr Taiwanxifu’s noodle choice was sublime and nothing could compare.
But more was to come. Thinking that we needed to feed Taiwanxifu Toddler as well, we made the cardinal sin in a vegetarian restaurant by over ordering. (Buddhists preach frugality and discourage waste. It is bad manners not to finish everything on your plate; in some temples they only dish up small serves at first and offer seconds only when you have finished with gratitude what you were initially served.) But still somehow we managed to finish our spicy cabbage pickles (similar to kim chi) and deep fried tofu. The tofu was meltingly good. I usually dislike fried food, but this was crispy on the outside and pillowy soft inside. I also loved the sauce, which tasted like oyster sauce but which must have been a vegetarian alternative.
A colleague who plans to vacation in Puli over the Chinese New Year next week said that Chungtai Monastery is magical on holidays as they light up the main tower. People in surrounding areas can see the light from the tower shoot out for miles. Sounds like a good place to visit over the Chinese New Year break.