S ituated in Tai Po’s hills of Pat Sin Leng, the tranquility of the Tsz Shan Monastery presents a striking contrast to the frenetic pace of other parts of Hong Kong, and offers a rare place for reflection resonant with Buddhist teachings. At the complex, visitors may wander through an expansive courtyard surrounded by four Bodhi trees, marvel at the Grand Buddha Hall, and walk the Compassion Path that leads to a towering 76-meter statue of Guan Yin as she pours water to wash away the impurities of the world. The structures of the monastery halls house Buddhist artefacts and incorporate Tang-dynasty elements in their design, including replicas of the delicate murals in Dunhuang.
Conceived as a gift to the public, the idea for such a modern-day monastery fittingly came from philanthropist Mr. Li Ka-shing, who from a young age has cultivated a life-long affinity with Buddhism and since 1980 established a foundation to foster a culture of giving. Planning and construction of the Tsz Shan Monastery lasted more than a decade, and the Monastery opened its gates in 2015.
Last month, a group of Sotheby’s preferred clients enjoyed an exclusive guided experience throughout the complex. Secretary General of Tsz Shan Monastery Walter Ngai sat down with Sotheby’s to share the story of the monastery, its mission, and the extraordinary undertaking to realise the Mr. Li's vision.
What is the story for the Dunhuang Murals at the Monastery?
At the back of the Grand Buddha Hall, there are replicas of murals of the Yulin Grottoes in Dunhuang. The central panel features an illustration of the Sutra of the Descending of Maitreya, where Maitreya, the Future Buddha, returns to the earth from the Tusita Heaven and spreads the Dharma to all sentient beings. The original mural is located at Cave 25, dated to the mid-8th century. The two side panels are replicas of murals in Cave 3, dated to the 12th century, respectively depicting Samantabhadra, bodhisattva of action, on an elephant, and Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, mounted on a lion.
What is the goal of the Monastery? Is it to spread Buddhism?
Tsz Shan Monastery is a Chinese Buddhist monastery dedicated to promoting the Buddhist teachings of Clarity, Compassion and Action. The monastery serves not only as a place for learning about Buddhism, but also as a spiritual sanctuary in the bustle of Hong Kong. Mr. Li believes that everyone has a “bright pearl, long obscured by dust and toil, and when the dust is gone and its light shines forth, a myriad of illuminations blossom across our mountains and rivers.” For Mr. Li, Buddhism has informed his life in many ways and guided him through numerous apprehensions, fears and vicissitudes. Mr. Li built the Tsz Shan Monastery as a space for people to contemplate and seek answers for themselves, wishing that we all live a life of infinite hope, boundless compassion, and profound enlightenment.
What was the most difficult object to be installed at the Monastery Museum?
In fact, the instalment that required most efforts was not for a specific object, but for the consecration chambers of the Guan Yin statue, which are located at the centre of the museum. A wide range of Buddhist treasures, including scriptures, images, and relics were assembled from three main Buddhist traditions: Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism. For instance, we had the great honour to hold a very rare set of “Qianlong Tripitaka”, or “Dragon Cannon”, while the Tibetan cannon is printed by the Derge Parkhang, an acclaimed publishing house in Tibetan cultural history. At the heart position of the Guan Yin statue, cherished is a piece of bone relic of the Shakyamuni Buddha from Sri Lanka. The consecration ceremonies took place between September 2018 and January 2019, led by Buddhist masters from the three traditions, which further testifies to the inclusiveness of Buddhism.
How long did it take to construct the monastery?
The planning and construction of the monastery took more than ten years. The monastery has been open to the public with free general admissions since 2015. The Buddhist Art Museum took another three years to complete. Finally, on 27 March 2019, we had the monastery grand opening ceremony cum inauguration of its Buddhist Art Museum.
In your perspective how would one embrace freedom and spiritual awareness in modern age?
One can always learn from the past. Apart from acquiring knowledge, we can benefit more from translating ancient wisdom into solutions to our modern day challenges. For instance, metta is a very important concept in Buddhism, meaning “loving-kindness”. Tsz Shan Institute, research and training division of Tsz Shan Monastery, has been promoting Metta Meditation in local schools. Moreover, the institute also developed a unique curriculum for “Spiritual Care Training” in collaboration with the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. Combining ancient Buddha-Dharma and cutting-edge science, the evidence-based approach is to enhance people’s social and emotional well-being, and to empower people to live with happiness, gratefulness, satisfaction and connection in life.
Which museum piece would speak to you the most?
One of my favourite pieces is a statue of standing Shakyamuni Buddha dated to the 2nd and 3rd century, from the ancient region of Gandhara, present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. While the subject is Buddhist, introduced from India, the style reflects Hellenistic influence. The statue shows auspicious marks of the Buddha, such as urna (raised circle on the forehead) and ushnisha (topknot of hair), but the facial features and strong physique is more reminiscent of those of Apollo. A fusion of different cultures, this piece of Gandhara art is a great example of internationalism in human civilisations.