Thien Mu Pagoda


Posted On 8:50 am August 17, 2011 | by Vietnam Cambodia Travel | under Vietnam Travel Guides

The temple was built in 1601 at the direction of Nguyễn Hoàng, the head of the Nguyễn Lords. At the time, Hoang was the governor of the province of Thuận Hóa (now known as Huế) and although he nominally swore loyalty to the Lê Dynasty in Hanoi, he effectively ruled an independent state in modern day central Vietnam. According to the royal annals, Hoang was on a sightseeing trip and holiday to see the seas and mountains of the local area when he passed by the hill which is now the site of the Thien Mu Pagoda. He heard of a local legend, in which an old lady, known as Thiên Mụ (literally “fairy woman”), wearing a red shirt and blue trousers, sat at the site, rubbing her cheeks. She said that a lord would come to the hill and erect a pagoda to pray for the country’ prosperity. According to the local legend, the lady vanished after making her prophecy. When Hoang heard this, he ordered the construction of a temple at the site and it was called Thiên Mụ Tự.[1][2]

The initial temple was very simply constructed, but over time it was redeveloped and expanded with more intricate features. In 1665, an expansion was undertaken under the reign of the Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Phúc Tần.[1]

In 1695, the Zen Master Thích Đại Sán, a member of the Tào Động sect, arrived from China. He had been invited to come to Huế as a guest of the Nguyễn Lords to start a Buddhist congregation and oversee its development. He was a noted Buddhist scholar of the Qing Dynasty and was patronised by the ruling Lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu and was appointed as the abbot of the pagoda. In the seventh month of 1696, he returned to China, but conferred bodhisattva vows on Chu.[1]

In 1710, Chu funded the casting of a giant bell, which weighs 3285 kg, and was regarded as one of the most prized cultural relics of its time in Vietnam. The bell is said to be audible 10 km away and has been the subject of many poems and songs, including one by Emperor Thiệu Trị of the Nguyễn Dynasty who ruled in the 1840s.[1]

In 1714, Chu oversaw another series of major expansions and construction projects, the largest expansion phase in the pagoda’s history. The main set of triple gates were erected, in addition to different shrines to the heavenly realms, the Jade Emperor, the Ten Kings, halls for preaching dharma, towers for storing sutras, bell towers, drum towers, meditation halls and halls to venerate Avalokiteshvara and the Medicine Buddha and living quarters for the sangha.[1]

Chu also organised for the staging of the vassana retreat which occurs annually between the full moon of the fourth and the seventh lunar month. The tradition had been inaugurated in the time of Gautama Buddha in ancient India to coincide in the rainy season. During this time, monks would stay in one place and pursue their spiritual activities, rather than wandering around and expounding the dharma to the populace, since they were prone to step on living beings during this time due to the water covering their paths. He also organised an expedition to China to bring back copies of the Tripitaka Canon and the Mahayana sutras, which comprised more than one thousand volumes, and interred them in the pagoda.[1]

During the 19th century, the pagoda was patronised by the emperors of the Nguyễn Dynasty, which was founded in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long after his unification of modern Vietnam. His successor Minh Mạng funded further expansion and renovation of the temple.[1]

The stone turtle with a stele on its back

Emperor Thiệu Trị, who succeeded Minh Mạng, erected the Từ Nhân Tower in 1844, which is now known as the Phước Duyên tower. The brick tower stands 21 m and is of octagonal shape and has seven stories, each of which is dedicated to a different Buddha. The tower has stood there since, overlooking the Perfume River, and has become synonymous with the landscape of Huế and the Perfume River. Its impact is such that it has become the unofficial symbol of the city.[1]

The temple also contains a statue of a large marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. Beside the tower on either side are structures that record the architectural history of the tower, as well as various poems composed by Thiệu Trị.[1]

The pagoda and its buildings were severely damaged in a cyclone in 1904. Emperor Thanh Thai authorised reconstructions in 1907 and it has continued to the current day, although it was still substantially less grand and expansive as its halcyon days of the Nguyễn Dynasty before the storm. Today, a tourist facility is also present among the gardens and grounds of the temple, and a stupa has been erected in honour of Hòa Thượng Thích Ðôn Hậu, the abbot the pagoda during its resconstruction phase in the 20th century. His holy body is entombed in the stupa, which is a garden of pine trees.[1][2]

In the main hall, there is a statues of Gautama Buddha, flanked by Bồ Tát Văn Thù Sư Lợi and Bồ Tát Phổ Hiền.[1]

During the summer of 1963, Thien Mu Pagoda, like many in South Vietnam, became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority had long been discontented with the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem since his rise to power in 1955. Diem had shown strong favouritism towards Catholics and discrimination against Buddhists in the army, public service and distribution of government aid. In the countryside, Catholics were de facto exempt from performing corvée labour and in some rural areas, Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages. Discontent with Diem exploded into mass protest in Huế during the summer of 1963 when nine Buddhists died at the hand of Diem’s army and police on Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. In May 1963, a law against the flying of religious flags was selectively invoked; the Buddhist flag was banned from display on Vesak while the Vatican flag was displayed to celebrate the anniversary of the consecration of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, Diem’s brother. The Buddhists defied the ban and a protest that began with a march starting from Tu Dam Pagoda to the government broadcasting station was ended when government forces opened fire. As a result, Buddhist protests were held across the country and steadily grew in size, asking for the signing of a Joint Communique to end religious inequality. Thien Mu Pagoda was a major organising point for the Buddhist movement and was often the location of hunger strikes, barricades and protests.[2][3][4]

In the early 1980s, a person was murdered near the pagoda and the site became the focal point of anti-communist protests, closing traffics around the Phú Xuân Bridge. The communist government responded by arresting monks on the charge of disturbing traffic flow and public order.[2]

The temple also houses the Austin motor vehicle in which Thich Quang Duc was driven to his self-immolation in Saigon in 1963 against the Diem regime. It was the first of a series of self-immolations by members of the Buddhist clergy, which brought the plight of Buddhists to the attention of the international community.