Illawara 2016 — Day 3: Nan Tien Temple

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The Easter long week­end saw a return more to the norm of a wet­ter March after our recent spell of 21 days of no rain. While pre­vi­ous days cleared up, our last morn­ing saw a down­pour the pre­vi­ous night reduced only to a per­sist­ent drizzle for our vis­it to the Nan Tien Temple. Nan Tien (mean­ing ‘south­ern para­dise’ in Chinese) is a branch temple of the Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order, and one of the largest Buddhist temples in the south­ern hemisphere.

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Having checked out of our hotel by 10am, we arrived serendip­it­ously at Nan Tien Temple to plenty of park­ing spots. In stark con­trast, there were none left by the time we left and cars were resort­ing to double park­ing illeg­ally and park­ing on the grass all the way out to bey­ond the entrance gates.

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This golden statue of Buddha is situ­ated at the base of the car­park and faces the pagoda at the top of a long flight of stairs.

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After trekking up the large num­ber of steps, we reach the pagoda guarded by two marble lions. N sticks her hand inside the lion’s mouth the sati­ate her curi­os­ity about the sphere inside: it’s free mov­ing and prob­ably carved with­in the space of the lion’s mouth!

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Most of the trees on the temple grounds have their lower branches removed. This ground floor of the pagoda, which is a rect­an­gu­lar base for the pagoda itself, houses a shrine ded­ic­ated to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. It’s open free to the pub­lic with numer­ous entry con­di­tions includ­ing no pho­to­graphy, low cut cloth­ing, or footwear.

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None of the eight storeys of the pagoda are open to the pub­lic, prob­ably because it’s the rest­ing place for the cremated ashes of devotees and their rel­at­ives, accom­mod­at­ing up to 7,000 people. Unlike many of pago­das we’ve seen in Japan, which received the pagoda from China via Korea, the pagoda here is dis­tinctly Chinese, with fly­ing eaves and an angu­lar profile.

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We walk up the steep hill behind the pagoda to ring the Gratitude Bell.

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Sitting dir­ectly oppos­ite the Gratitude Bell is a statue of Buddha.

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From the Gratitude Bell plat­form we get expans­ive views out towards Mount Kembla (hid­den amongst the clouds) and the Illawarra Escarpment.

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The Nan Tien Temple com­plex occu­pies a semi-rur­al hill­side site sev­er­al square kilo­metres in size. I’m curi­ous wheth­er it’s claims to being ‘one of the largest Buddhist temples in the south­ern hemi­sphere’ con­siders the size of the temple con­text only, or includes also the ample land sur­round­ing it.

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As you can see, there are vast areas of undeveloped land.

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Rolling hills are a pretty view, though. The path leads from the Gratitude Bell to the Main Temple.

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But not before a pan­or­amic view of all of Wollongong from the pagoda in the north…

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… to the back of the Main Shrine…

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…and south of Wollongong. The orange build­ing in the middle being the Pilgrim Lodge.

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Down the hill, we pass through some trees just out­side Pilgrim Lodge.

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By now it’s star­ted to drizzle quite persistently.

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But we make it to the Main Shrine just in time through this roun­ded doorway.

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This is the Main Shrine, the most import­ant build­ing in the com­plex. Supposedly, ‘when we see the steps before the shrine, it reminds us of our aim to gain enlight­en­ment’. Photography and foot­wear is pro­hib­ited in the interi­or, which holds the five Buddhas of Confidence, Longevity, Wisdom, Inner Beauty and Peace, along with 10,000 smal­ler Buddha’s, show­ing that ‘every­one can achieve Buddhahood’.

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Outside the Main Shrine is large brass cauldron for incense (left). The Buddha statue on the right is at the base of the car­park dir­ectly facing the pagoda at the stop of the steps.

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These main temples incor­por­ate fea­tures of Tibetan mon­ast­ic archi­tec­ture, with multi-storey painted temple build­ings set atop high stone platforms.

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The detail­ing on the eaves are par­tic­u­larly impressive.

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From the Main Shrine, we can see the pagoda in the distance.

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A large spa­cious court­yard is situ­ated at the centre of the temple complex.

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One corner of the court­yard is a sculp­ture piece called the ‘Lumbini Garden’. The Lumbini is a garden loc­ated in the foot­hills of the Himalaya in Nepal where Queen Mayadevi took her ritu­al bath before Buddha’s birth and where he was first bathed.

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Stone sculp­tures abound in the Japanese style gar­dens in the courtyard.

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Stone lan­terns make a fair appear­ance too.

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At one corner of the court­yard is the Dining Hall where you can pur­chase plates of veget­ari­an food con­tain­ing 1 pan­cake and two buns for $10.

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The buns con­tain a filling of mush­room and water­cress that’s quite delicious.

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The fried pan­cake is much like a Chinese shal­lot pan­cake, but tastes a bit like raw dough.

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After find­ing a tea house with­in the temple grounds, we make our way past the Front Shrine (also called the Great Compassion Shrine). Inside is a prom­in­ent statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, or Buddha with a thou­sand help­ing hands.

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The Water Drop Teahouse is loc­ated dir­ectly beneath the Front Shrine. The queues are all the way through the door and onto the road by the time we leave.

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The interi­or is fit­ted out with wood and stone. You come in, grab a menu, find an empty table, take note of the assigned num­ber on the table, then tell the gen­tle­man at the cash register table num­ber before order­ing your items from the menu.

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D and I try the lotus tea ($6.50/pot) a beau­ti­ful bloom­ing tea. Describing this tea is quite a hoot. It smells, as T noted can­didly, like a hot chlor­in­ated pool. It’s not the most pleas­ant of smells, but it’s also not over­power­ing. So if you can get past that, you’re in for a golden liquor that tastes earthy with a nutty wal­nut-like taste.

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T has great fun flip­ping the lotus flower upside down after I’ve drained the tea.

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To go with the lotus D and I try the jas­mine jelly and ice cream ($6.50). I was only inter­ested in the jas­mine jelly, hon­estly. And that was tasty! It sweet enough with a fra­grant jas­mine taste through­out. It was firmer than jelly made with agar agar, but it seems unlikely gelat­in (being an anim­al product) was involved. I might try adding gelat­in to sweetened jas­mine tea at home!

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Near the Front Shrine is the Lotus Pond.

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Lotus seed heads are enough to trig­ger mild try­po­pho­bia for me.

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I prefer to focus on their giant umbrella like leaves.

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A large num­ber of koi occupy the pond. They’re not par­tic­u­larly pretty, though.

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This sculp­ture minds me of our Nara exper­i­ence, which is also home to Todaiji, the head temple of all pro­vin­cial Buddhist temples of Japan.

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Many of these cast con­crete plant pots are dot­ted around the grounds.

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As are these sculp­tures in count­less poses. One could make it an exer­cise to pho­to­graph each one!

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Between the Main Shrine and the Pagoda sits this sculp­ture, with the text on the wall the temple’s ori­gins. Mainly that 1) it was foun­ded in 1995 and con­struc­ted under the aus­pices of the Mahayana Buddhist sect known as Fo Guang Shan, 2) its site was chosen due to its prox­im­ity to Mount Kembla, which is said to have aus­pi­cious resemb­lance to a recum­bent lion, and 3) that the land was donated by the Australian government.

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Does he look fat and happy?

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Much like the stone ver­sion that greets you right after driv­ing through the gates. And with that, we’re headed back to Sydney…

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…but not before mak­ing an unplanned pit stop at the Royal National Park (we found it on our way to the Grand Pacific Drive) where we enjoyed the scenery with a few rounds of Mr Squiggle.