The History Of The Thien Mu Pagoda, The Temple Of Literature, And Spending A Rainy Afternoon In A Traditional Tea House, Hue, Vietnam

The History Of The Thien Mu Pagoda, The Temple Of Literature, And Spending A Rainy Afternoon In A Traditional Tea House, Hue, Vietnam

We woke up to a rainy day.
Up until now, we’ve had a stretch of very good weather, but from now on, it looks like we will be having a week or more of rain.

After a leisurely breakfast, we got on our rusty bicycles and cycled towards the Perfume River.
Our plan for the day was to just have a relaxed easy day, in case the rain intensified.

We cycled on the pedestrian and cycle route along the river, which was flat, easy and without traffic.
On the river, we noticed that even at a leisurely pace, we cycled much faster than the dragon boats.
The dragon boats are tourist boats that are shaped like a dragon in the front.
They take tourists to visit the pagoda, the market and to spend a few hours on the Perfume River.

Our first stop was the Thien Mu pagoda and temple.
Built in 1601 on the order of the first Nguyen lord who was also the ruler of Hue.

Legends say that an old lady, known as Thiên Mụ (literally “A Celestial Lady”), dressed in red and blue, sat at the site of the pagoda, rubbing her cheeks.
She foretold that a lord would come and erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country’s prosperity.
She then vanished after making her prophecy.
Upon hearing this, Hoang ordered the construction of a temple at the site, thus the beginning of Thiên Mụ Tự.

The original temple was simply constructed, then later expanded and refurbished.
In 1665, major construction was undertaken by the Nguyễn Lord Phuc Tan.

In 1695, the Zen Master Shi Da Shan, a noted Buddhist scholar of the Qing Dynasty, arrived from China.
He had been invited to come to Huế by the Nguyễn Lords to start a Buddhist congregation and oversee its development.

He was appointed as the abbot of the pagoda.
In the seventh month of 1696, he returned to China, but bestowed Bodhisattva vows on his replacement, a monk named Chu.

In 1710, Chu funded the casting of a giant bell, which weighs 3,285 kg, (more than 3 tons) and was regarded as one of the most prized cultural relics of its time in the whole of Vietnam.
The bell is said to be heard from 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) away, and has been the subject of many poems and songs.

In 1714, Chu oversaw another series of major expansions and construction projects, the largest expansion phase in the pagoda’s history.

A set of triple gates was erected, in addition to different shrines to the heavenly realms, halls for preaching the Dharma, a tower for storing the sutras, a drum tower, meditation halls and halls to venerate Avalokiteshvara the healing Buddha, and the living quarters for the sangha.

Chu also started a Vassa retreat in the temple.
Vassa is a Buddhist yearly retreat coinciding with the rainy season.
During this time, monks stay in one place and pursue their spiritual activities, rather than wandering around and expounding the dharma.
Some spend many hours in meditation and isolation.

The number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of vassas (or rains) since his ordination.

Chu also organised an expedition to China to bring back copies of the Tripitaka and the Mahayana Sutras.
They comprised more than one thousand volumes, and are kept in the temple.

Emperor Thieu Tri, who was also a poet, erected the Pagoda in 1844.
The brick pagoda stands 21 meters high and is of octagonal shape with seven stories, each of which is dedicated to a different Buddha.

The pagoda has stood there since, overlooking the Perfume River, and has become the symbol of Huế and the Perfume River.

The temple and its buildings were severely damaged in a cyclone in 1904.
Reconstruction started in 1907 and has continued to the current day, although it is still substantially less grand and expansive than it was before the storm.

Today, many tourists visit the pagoda and its gardens and grounds.

During the summer of 1963, Thiên Mụ Temple, like many in South Vietnam, became a hotbed of anti-government protest.
President Ngo Dinh Diem rose to power in 1955.
Diem had shown strong favouritism towards Catholics and discrimination against Buddhists.

In the countryside, Catholics were de facto exempt from performing forced labor and in some rural areas, Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages.

Discontent with Diem gave birth to a mass protest in Huế during the summer of 1963, when nine Buddhists died at the hands of Diệm’s army and police on Vesak, the celebration of the birthday of Gautama Buddha.

In May 1963, a law against the flying of religious flags was selectively enforced.
Buddhist flags were banned from display on Vesak, while the Catholic 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 protested by a mass march and demonstration.
It ended when government forces opened fire.
As a result, Buddhist protests were held across the country and steadily grew in size.

They demanded the end of 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.

In the early 1980s, a person was murdered near the pagoda and the site became a place in which those who were against the communist government came to protest, closing traffic around the city’s bridges.

The communist government responded by arresting monks on charges of disturbing traffic and public disorder.

The temple today houses the Austin automobile in which the monk Thich Quang Duc was driven to his self-immolation in Saigon.

He got out of this car in a busy square in Saigon, sat in mediation posture and burnt himself to death.
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.

It was raining hard when we left the pagoda, so we took shelter in one of the small stalls selling hats, clothing, snacks and souvenirs by the river.
We had a delicious warm tofu served with ginger and pomelo syrup.

When the rain became just a drizzle, we continued cycling to the nearby Temple Of Literature.
It houses a series of gates and roof-covered corridors with marble turtles, engraved with the many names of scholars who passed their exams and became doctors at the time.

On our return to the old city of Hue, we took shelter from the rain in a traditional tea house.
Both Jules and I LOVE drinking green, white and flowering teas, and beside buying different kinds of teas, we do not pass up an opportunity to sit and enjoy pots of tea in tea houses when we travel.

The Traditional Vietnamese Tea house experience is a bit different from tea houses in Taiwan, Hong Kong with their tiny dumplings, China or Japan.

The tea is served on a bamboo tray, accompanied by many bamboo instruments, a tea strainer, a very small teapot to brew the tea concentrate, two tiny tea cups, a thermos full of boiling water and a selection of snacks.
The snacks included roasted lotus seeds, ginkgo seeds, two different kinds of Pomelo rind sweets, and a lotus powder and bean cake.

After gracefully showing us how to use the instruments to brew and serve the tea correctly, we were left to spend a few hours listening to the rain, reading, resting and sipping delicious tea from the nearby tea fields.

From Hue with love,

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