Devout worshipers give Yong He Gong a special touch.[China.org.cn]
The Lama Temple is a very easily accessible introduction to Asian culture and religion. I really like this temple as compared to others around the city because this is still an active place of worship. Worshipers and visitors alike become part of the story as it happens, as opposed to simply imagining how it would have been. Since the Lama Temple is located in town and easily reached from the subway line, this is one of the best opportunities to experience current culture and history all at once.
Additionally, upon ticket purchase, visitors are given a mini disc in either English or Chinese to take home and learn more about the temple they are visiting. Although this disc provides only minimal English, this is big step in the way of technology and a personal first for me to find in China. I found this to be a pretty romantic gesture for a culture that is opening its doors to the world, especially in an active place of worship: where the past meets the here and now.
◇ What to know before you go?
Yong He Gong Lama Temple is also known as the "Palace of Peace and Harmony." It is considered the best Tibetan temple outside of Tibet. Originally constructed in 1694 as the private residence of Prince Yong Zheng in the Qing Dynasty, half of the palace was converted into a monastery in 1722. After the death of the prince, Yong He Gong was converted into a lamasery in 1744 and served as a residence for large amounts of monks from Tibet and Mongolia.
Yong He Gong's architectural styles are unique in the fact that it combines Manchurian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian aspects. Everywhere a visitor turns, expansive details and bold patterns can be found to tease and tantalize the senses.
Because Yong He Gong is still being used as an active place of worship, many monks inhabit her grounds. Their duties include chanting sutras in the morning and during certain intervals on the lunar calendar, also carrying out Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies. If they are lucky, visitors may catch a glimpse of a chant while wondering the grounds.
Yong He Gong is easily accessible from the Beijing subway line at a stop aptly named "Lama Temple". This is on line 5 (the pink line) at the intersection of line 5 and line 2 (dark blue). Since the subway easily carries visitors to the Lama Temple, it is very accessible to travelers, tourists, and worshipers.
◇ Navigating the temple:
Initially visitors are met with a long, tree-lined walkway that can be used to escape the heat of the ever-present Beijing sunshine. I feel that this walkway serves dual purposes though; the walkway allows a perfectly appropriate segway from the hustle-bustle commerce on the street (where shops are full of religious statuettes and incense) to place of active worship.
The temple is a series of easily navigable halls and courtyards, each with their own different Buddhas. Everywhere you turn the sweet smell of incense fills the senses and lends an extra layer to the experience not found at inactive temples around Beijing. The temple is bustling with enough worshipers to really make you get into the spirit of the temple and peek your curiosity about a religion most of the world doesn't get to experience.
The first hall, the Yong He Gate Hall is guarded by the most spectacular pair of guardian lions I have ever seen in my three months while traveling around China, the details are incredible. Following tradition, the male lion guards the right side of the doorway, standing on a ball to symbolize the unity of heaven and earth, while the female lion stands on a cub to represent the cycle of life. The gate has a tablet marking the doorway with inscriptions in four different languages: Manchurian, Han, Tibetan and Mongolian. The Han characters are alleged to be written by the hand of Emperor Qian Long himself. This marks the central entrance which was traditionally for Emperors only. Inside, visitors to the temple will see a Maitreya Buddha sandwiched between two sandalwood pagodas.
The Hall of Harmony and Peace is the main structure within Yong He Gong. Three massive Buddhas, adorned with blue hair, represent the three ages: Kasyapa Buddha (representing the past), Gautama Buddha (representing the here and now), and Maitreya Buddha (representing the future) [right to left respectively]. The sides of this hall are lined with 18 Arhats, which are considered to be the disciples of Sakyamuni who helped to diffuse Buddhism.
The Hall of Everlasting Protection was once Emperor Yong Zheng's living quarters as a prince and the final resting place of his coffin after his death. Currently this is home to a statue of Bhaisajya Guru, the healing Buddha.
The Hall of the Wheel of Law is the worshiping place of Tsong-Ka-Pa, the founder of the Yellow Hat school of Buddhism (Geluk Buddhism). This place is reserved for reading sculptures and conducting religious ceremonies. The thrones that accompany the Buddha are reserved for the teachings of the Dalai Lamas when they visit the temple. This is the hall that struck me as one of the most dramatic in decor; every inch is covered in elaborate pattern and luxurious fabrics. There are even beautiful chandelier type decorations hanging from the ceiling made of a variety of fabrics.
The Wanfu Pavilion (Tower of ten thousand happiness) is the "piece de resistance" of Yong He Gong and should be the last thing a visitor goes to within the temple walls. Inside, a massive 18 meter (60 feet) statue of the Maitreya Buddha (or Future Buddha) stands erect in the Tibetan style. To give readers an idea of his size, each toe is the same size as a bedroom pillow!
To the side of the Wanfu Pavilion is a collection of religious artifacts, relics and statuettes. Be sure to visit this hall before the Wanfu Pavilion or it will only be a letdown, though after a climax like the previous hall, anything else would only be a letdown anyway.
While exploring the five main halls of Yong He Gong and the many courtyards, one of the most important things to remember is that this is an active place of worship. The repainting of old patterns that usually come across as cheesy appear to be regular maintenance by faithful followers and take the "touristy aspect" away from the temple. Being able to become part of the story and witness it first hand is such a valuable insight into a culture that just observing the skeleton of what remains in most inactive temples cannot offer.
Admission to Yong He Gong is 25RMB and the temple is open daily from 9am-4pm.
(China.org.cn August 24, 2009)