Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism

Stone treasures found in Phat Tich Pagoda in Bac Ninh province put it among the most extraordinary and unique pagodas in Vietnam.

By THUY DUONG on November 07,2019 10:16 AM

Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism


Phat Tich Pagoda (with “Phat Tich” in Vietnamese meaning the legend of the Buddha), also known as Van Phuc Pagoda, is located in Phat Tich hamlet in Phat Tich commune, Tien Du district in northern Bac Ninh province, some 20km east of Hanoi. The pagoda was built on Phat Tich Mountain (also known as Lan Kha Mountain, Tien Du Mountain, or Nguyet Hang Mountain), with doors opening to the west and overlooking the Duong River.

Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism

According to the book “Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu”, or Dai Viet Historiography (written in the Chinese script by historian Ngo Si Lien and first published in 1479), Phat Tich Pagoda was built in 1057. But according to the book “Co Chau Van Phat” (a wooden book on Buddha written in the Chinese script and stored at Dau Pagoda in Bac Ninh province) and also folklore, Phat Tich Pagoda may have been built earlier, in the third century.

It’s agreed that the pagoda has played an important role in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism and still bears marks of Indian Buddhism originally brought to the country. Ancient books record that in the second century, an Indian monk named Khau Da La wandered into this land and established a religious site at Phat Tich Mountain, helping all living beings in the region by praying for peace and good crops.

From the 4th to the 6th century, Phat Tich Pagoda was recognized as a major Buddhist education center, with many different lines of Buddhism being born since then.

According to old historical records, during the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225), under the reign of Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054), there was a monk who practiced the Buddhism line of “Vo Ngon Thong Kho Hanh” (No speak, No pain), with a disciple named Cuu Chi, for six consecutive years at Phat Tich Pagoda and never went down the mountain. The story made its way to Thang Long Citadel in modern-day Hanoi, piquing the emperor’s interest and resulting in him visiting the pagoda regularly until his death. When his son, Emperor Ly Thanh Tong (1054-1072) was crowned, he decided to expand Phat Tich Pagoda. He built a 47-meter high stupa for the worshiping of the famous stone statute of Bodhisattva Kwan Yin Buddha. The 2.1-meter-high stone statue of Buddha sitting on a lotus throne is considered a national treasure. It is stored to this day at the National Museum of History, while the tower was destroyed by war.

Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism

During the reign of Emperor Ly Than Tong (1127-1138), 8,400 terracotta towers were built surrounding Phat Tich Pagoda, with many relics from the ruined towers still found today.

The pagoda is also home to the mummy of Chinese monk Chuyet Chuyet (1590-1644), who came to Vietnam to teach Buddhism in the 17th century and died while being the venerable monk presiding over the pagoda. He died in a meditative posture, and was then painted by his students to became a mummified statue.

The legend of the Dragon Well

Since its construction, the secrets hidden in Phat Tich Pagoda have continued to bring surprises over the centuries. A remarkable stone dragon head found in the pagoda in 2002 supports the notion that all legends have some basis in fact. The people of Phat Tich commune have long believed that beneath the pagoda lies a marvelous dragon. They say its body is hidden inside the mountain and its head is at the bottom of a well. The discovery by two farmers in March 2002 of a stone head under an old well in Phat Tich Pagoda perhaps gives credence to the legend.

Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism

Historians believe that Phat Tich Pagoda is the place saving the imprint of the Ly Dynasty more so than anywhere else, including Thang Long (Hanoi). The dragon head is the biggest and most valuable Ly Dynasty dragon figure yet discovered in Vietnam. Basically undamaged, it bears the typical Ly Dynasty characteristics of three upside down eyebrows, a twisting beard, and a dragon’s comb extending from the upper lip. It is 53-cm long with a wide-open mouth through which water once flowed; the likely basis of the story that local people used to retrieve water from the “Dragon Well”. Carved from a single large stone, the head is far more impressive than stone dragons found previously in Long Dao Pagoda in northern Ha Nam province and Chuong Son Tower in northern Nam Dinh province.

Unique stone statues of sacred animals

It seems that Phat Tich has the most unique stone statues of sacred animals in Vietnam. This is testament to the strong influence of Indian Buddhism on the country and that Phat Tich Pagoda was located at the intersection of Indian Buddhism and Vietnamese indigenous beliefs.

The statues of sacred animals feature five pairs of horses, rhinos, buffaloes, elephants, and lions, arranged symmetrically in front of the corridor of the “Tam Bao” (Main Worshipping Hall). Each is about 1.2 meters tall and 1.5-1.8 meters long and are placed on a lotus pedestal 1.7 meters long, 80 cm wide, and 36 cm tall. The upper surface of the circular stone pedestal is decorated with stylized lotus petals, with one side having a carving of a performing orchestra.

These are original and unique artifacts made from monolithic sandstone (except for one buffalo). In particular, the ears, horns, and tails were carved separately then joined to the body of the animals. The bodies of some of the animals are exquisitely carved with cloud motifs or soft spirals.

All are noble animals according to Eastern Buddhist concepts. They are evenly sculpted in a kneeling position, simulating the admiration of all beings for Buddhism. In 2017, the ten animal statues were recognized as national treasures.

Elephants are considered a symbol of the power of the spirit. A white elephant implies that it is not infected with any disturbing emotions, which is a symbol of the noble race in Buddhism. Buddhism often takes the symbol “elephant king” to imply the Buddha’s gesture.

Buddhist scriptures record that Buddha’s mother saw a white elephant in a dream, right before she fell pregnant. The birth of Buddha was due to a white elephant touching the left hip of Queen Ma-Da, after which the Crown Prince was born from the right hip.

The lion is the king of animals, so Buddhism uses lion imagery to prove “Buddha is fearless and great”. The buffalo, meanwhile, symbolizes nobility, dignity, and virtue.

Buffaloes are also inherently industrious and non-aggressive but tardy. So, Mahayana Buddhists often take the buffaloes tardiness to mean mind training, as it takes a long time of elaborate practice to transform from ignorance to every step of enlightenment.

The horse, meanwhile, represents loyalty and agility. All the animals are, in Buddhist practice, symbols of the energy and strength of Buddhists.

Treasures of VietnameseBuddhism

The remaining animal of the ten sacred animal statues is the Rhino, which is a symbol for Buddhists who practice perseverance until the day of enlightenment.

“In 1952, French colonialists occupied the area, completely destroying the pagoda’s architecture. These ten sacred animal statues were lightly damaged. The elephant statue to the right of the Main Worshipping Hall has lost its ivory; the buffalo statue to the left has lost its horns and part of its face”, according to monk Thich Giac Tinh.

Due to the low ground, he went on, the stone statues were raised about 20 cm higher than before, but the placement of the statues did not change. Over thousands of years later, except for some damage during the French War, the animal statues are still relatively intact.

A rumor once circulated that when the French colonialists invaded Vietnam they suspected that the emperor had hidden gold in the buffalo statue to the left of the Main Worshipping Hall, and tried to split it open. However, after much study, archaeologists say that the reason one of the buffalo statues is different from the others is because it was made from two stone blocks joined together.

The sacred animal stone statues, the Bodhisattva Kwan Yin Buddha statue, and the Dragon sculptures in the Dragon Well behind the pagoda make Phat Tich Pagoda well worth a visit. One important thing to note, though, is that when visiting you should not explore up high, where a new giant Buddha statue has been erected. Valuable treasures worth discovering include the animal stone statues, the Main Worshipping Hall, the statue of Zen master Chuyet Chuyet placed in Bao Nghiem Tower, the Tower Garden, and the Dragon Well.

To discover Bao Nghiem Tower, the Tower Garden, and the Dragon Well, do not follow signs with instructions to turn right, as an older, much more beautiful path is on the left.

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