Buddhism in Vietnam
But Thap Pagoda
Written by Thuy Duong and Nguyen Van Nghe
25/03/2010 01:30 (GMT+7)
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The pagoda was built under the dynasty of King Tran Thanh Tong (1258-1278) and rebuilt in 1647 in the Le Dynasty by Chinese Zen Buddhist priest Zhus Zhus, known as Chuyet Chuyet in Vietnamese. Legend has it that when leaving his former pagoda on the northern bank of the Duong River, priest Chuyet Chuyet saw a flock of flying swallows suddenly swooping down and perching on the ground on the southern bank, he decided to rebuild the pagoda there and named it Ninh Phuc Tu, which means peace and bless.

The pagoda's history is also connected with Queen Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc, a daughter of Lord Trinh Trang. After her husband died, her father forced her to marry King Le Than Tong (1619-1643). The Queen then devoted herself to the Buddhism religion and raised money to restore the Ninh Phuc Tu. During this time she wrote Ngoc Am Chi Nam, considered as Vietnam's first Han-Nom (Chinese-Vietnamese) dictionary.The pagoda was built according to Noi Cong Ngoai Quoc (Nei Kung Wai Kwo) architectural style, that means it has the shape of the Chinese script Kung inside and the script Kwo outside. With more than 100 compartments, But Thap is larger than many other pagodas in the north. Passing through its three-entrance gate, then a bell tower with eight roofs, visitors reach the main temple complex. The main entrance of the temple is open on big holidays only while on normal days visitors have to enter the temple through the small side entrances.

Inside the temple are more than 50 statues of different sizes including the Triad Buddha, Manjusri (Van Thu) on a blue lion and Samantabhadra (Pho Hien) on a white elephant. The most remarkable is a thousand-handed and thousand-eyed Guanyin, which is described as a sculptural masterpiece of Vietnam. Work on the statue began in 1656 and took several years for completion. The statue is 2.5 meters tall, excluding its pedestal, with 11 heads and 14 layers of 789 arms with an eye in each palm forming a circle 2.2 m in diameter. Forty-two more arms encircle the waist, making various gestures of the hands. The goddess is sitting on a lotus lifted up by dragons. Passing through a small stone bridge visitor reach Am Tich Duc (accumulated good deeds sanctum), then the Middle Hall (nha trung), followed by the Worship Palace (phu tho) where statues of Queen Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc and her children can be found. Behind the backyard garden stand two stone stupas, both some 20 meters tall, used to contain remains of priest Chuyet Chuyet and the pagoda's second priest Minh Hanh.The name But Thap was given by King Tu Duc in 1876 when, on a field research tour of Kinh Bac, or the former northern citadel, he saw the beautiful stone stupa shaped like a pen at this pagoda. The literary name of the stupa was Bao Nghiem, which means to pay a debt of gratitude to the master for his strict teaching.

Being recognized as the country's cultural historic relic, But Thap Pagoda is not only an important place for pilgrims but also a tourist attraction.  From Hanoi downtown, drive along National Highway 5 some 15 kilometers to Sui region, then turn left and go straight around five kilometers you will reach But Thap Pagoda. Or you can take a boat ride up the Red River. Where the Red River meets the Duong River, the boat turns on the latter going downstream some 20 kilometers to reach But Thap Pagoda.


If you go across the Doung bridge and the along the dyke on the left bank of the river or take a left turn at Phu Thuy railway station on the way to Hai - Phong and then go on for about 15 km you will arrive at Dinh To village, Thuan Thanh district, Ha Bac province - formerly A Lu hamlet, Nhan Thanp village, Sieu Loai district - where But Thap Pagoda can be seen in the middle of the field, facing south. The pagoda has another name - Ninh Phuc Tu (´ ) . When Ch'an Master Huyen Quang first came to stay here, he began to build a nine-storeyed stone tower decorated with lotus flower patterns. But this tower no longer exists today. The present Bao Nghiem tower in shape of a huge writing brush rising high up in the sky as it is seen now, was built in 1547 by Ch'an Master Minh-Hanh(1596-1659). In 1876, this tower was renamed But Thap by King Tu Duc. Since then the pagoda was called But Thap pagoda. The tower was built with adjoined stone, with 5 storeys, in octagonal shape, 113.05 m in height. The top has the shape of a wint decanter, Between storeys are bent-up-edged roofs. The base storey is 3m wide each side, surrounded by two walls. Inside the base storey is the statue of Ch'an Master Chuyet Cong (1590-1644), a Chinese bonze from Phuc Kien province who came to Vietnam in 1633 and stayed as Head monk of the pagoda. Before passing away, in is last minutes he read to his disciples his last poem as follows:

Thin bamboos and high pines are dropping fragrant dew
While fresh breezes and young moon cool the night
Who are the West High Land dwellers ? Anyone knew ?
Every sunset the bell resounds, chasing off twilight.

(Translated by Thuy Duong)

King Le Chan Tong then bestowed on Most Venerable Chuyet Cong the title "Minh Viet Pho Giac Quang Te Dai Duc Thien Su".

Later on, the Queen Mother Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc, of Buddist name Phap Tanh, from A Lu village, requested her father Lord Thanh Do vuong Trinh Trang to have But Thap Pagoda in their native village renovated. She herself worked together with Ch'an Master Minh Hanh in the renovation of the pagoda and after King Le Than Tong's decease, she withdrew to stay and practice here religious beliefs as a nun in the pagoda.

The architectural style of the posterior Le period is manifested clearly in the structure of But Thap pagoda. Built on the the " shaped interior, shaped (2) exterior model like Dau Pagoda, But Thap Pagoda is an architectural complex comprising the three-entrance gate, the bell tower, the front hall, the incense burning house, the upper shrine, the stone bridge, the nine-staged lotus flower shrine (Tich Thien Am), the middle hall, the worship hall and the rear hall. All of those ten buildings are arranged along an axis of over 100m in length. On the left side of the pagoda are the Patriarch house and the Bao Nghiem tower. Further in the back stands the Ton Duc tower. Surrounding the upper shrine hall is the stone balcony consisting of 36 stone slabs resignedly carved with beautiful landscapes of nature, with images of flying cranes over lotus ponds, swimming fishes, water-buffalo tenders and other mythical creatures and legends such as dragon-fish, the four sacred animals (dragon, unicorn, tortoise, phoenix), the journey to India by the Tang Bonze in request for the Conan books.

Inside the Upper Shrine Hall, one could feel a strong impression of a marvellous workmanship while standing before the famous sculptural masterpiece: the statue of one-thousand-arm and one-thousand-eye Avalokitesvara. This statue is 3.70m high, made of excellent wood covered with paint, carved by an artist named Truong in 1656. The statue has 11 faces, 994 arms with 994 eyes - each eye resting on the palm of a hand. Under the lotus flower hat, the main front face looks sedate and mild, on both cheeks are still two other faces. In addition, on the top eight other small heads are piled up in a tower shape with 3 storeys, on top of which is a small statue. In front of the chest, two arms are joined; on the back 40 other arms are extending harmoniously like a lotus leaf. Outer are 952 other arms carrying 952 eyes forming a halo circle. On top of the statue stands a pair of mythical birds with human heads, spreading their broad wings pressing against each other. The statue is sitting on a lotus pedestal supported by the head of a dragon rising from the water surface. In the 4 corners are 4 statue of athletes with strong bodies trying to support the statue pedestal.

Through centuries, Avalokitesvara has been sitting here, with her thousand eyes perceiving every misfortune of the world, and her thousand arms always ready to save poor living creatures.

Contemplating the statue with reverence, on had the feeling that Avalokitesvara Boddhisatva can hear all the living world's echoes and is transmitting to man her compassion and leniency as well as peace in soul.

Translated by Thuy Duong and Nguyen Van Nghe

Source: huongdaoonline.com.au

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