2013 / 12月
Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams
By perfectly integrating architectural form and religious function, Taiwanese architects are giving recent religious structures a visual charm that their predecessors lacked.
The new Water-Moon Dharma Center at Dharma Drum Mountain’s Nung Chan Monastery is a case in point. The buildings reflected on the pool’s surface evoke “the moon on the water and flowers in the sky,” beautifully juxtapositing the real and its image. The center won a 2013 Taiwan Architecture Award for its brilliant use of the architectural vocabulary to express the “inexpressible” dharma.
Opened in 2005 in New Taipei City’s Jinshan District, the Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) compound is one of the most important Chan Buddhist facilities in Taiwan. The DDM organization itself was founded by the Venerable Master Sheng Yen, who passed away in 2009. Renowned for its teaching of Buddhism in the Chinese tradition, DDM has branches and schools throughout Taiwan, as well as a number of chapters in the US.
But DDM’s origins go back much further, to Beitou’s Nung Chan Monastery and its founder, Venerable Master Dongchu. A native of Taixian, Jiangsu Province, Master Dongchu came to Taiwan in 1949, establishing a Buddhist cultural center in Beitou and beginning the publication of a Buddhist magazine.
In 1965, Master Dongchu bought a piece of land on the Guandu Plain and began work on the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Culture. When he opened the Nung Chan Monastery in a two-story farmhouse in 1975, he introduced adherents to the Tang-Dynasty Master Baizhang’s ethos of “no work, no food.”
When Master Dongchu passed away in 1977, Master Sheng Yen returned to Taiwan from the US and took over management of the institute and monastery, making them the base of his efforts to spread the Dharma until his own death in 2009.
With the monastery attracting ever greater numbers of disciples, it quickly outgrew the original farmhouse. Expansions and the addition of a number of corrugated metal outbuildings gave the Nung Chan of the day a haphazard look, causing Master Sheng Yen to frequently mull the construction of a more stately main hall.
When the Taipei City Government announced the creation of the Guandu Nature Reserve in 1986, the monastery began facing repeated threats of removal that made the construction of a new main hall seem unlikely.
Fortunately, disciples were able to persuade the city government to declare Nung Chan a historic site in 2004. The designation preserved both the original farmhouse and the “Way to Compassion” gateway at the entrance to the site, and permitted the replacement of the metal-clad outbuildings. The change of fortune revived the plans for a new main hall.
In his waning years, Master Sheng Yen placed the main hall project in the hands of Kris Yao. In addition to being an award-winning architect, Yao also happened to be longtime follower of Tibetan Buddhism who had translated Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s book What Makes You Not a Buddhist.
A Tunghai University graduate with a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, Yao founded Artech Architects in 1985. Prior to the 2013 award, he had already won the Taiwan Architecture Award four times, and was best known for his design of Taiwan High Speed Rail’s Hsinchu Station.
The Taiwan Architecture Awards (TWA) are organized by the National Association of Architects, ROC, managed by the NAA’s Taiwan Architect Magazine, and awarded annually to projects judged to have contributed to Taiwanese society and the art of architecture. Yao’s numerous TWAs and his 2007 National Award for Arts in the architecture category mark him as one of the most important Taiwanese architects of the last decade.
Yao found the Nung Chan main hall project to be a test of both his professional skill and his Buddhist understanding. As he joked in a recent interview: “My brief for the project consisted of just six Chinese characters!”
Many of Taiwan’s Buddhist temples are little more than spaces in which to conduct religious rituals. Their designs rarely take their surroundings into account and typically lack any sense of spirituality. Before Master Sheng Yen passed away, he said he wanted something different: he wanted them to build a “landscape hall.”
Hearing that, Yao thought of Kyoto’s Ryōan-ji, a Zen temple renowned for its rock garden and Kyoyochi Pond. When he inquired as to what Master Sheng Yen thought would be the ideal style for the DDM hall, the master said he had been meditating on a structure that looked like “the moon in the water and flowers in the sky,” and that he’d named it the “Water-Moon Dharma Center.” Yao had his architectural brief.
To Yao, the moon in water and flowers in the air represented an intertwining of the real and its image. He saw it as something that could not be put into words, that had to be intuited. But he worried that he might not be up to the task of bringing the building they were speaking of into being.
Yao told Master Sheng Yen: “I can’t see the design when I meditate; I only see it in my dreams.” Yao then asked the master for his opinion on some sketched ideas.
Yao’s sketches showed a reflecting pool in front of the main hall. He had also surrounded the hall with columns, and hung golden curtains between them. Any wind would cause the curtains to undulate, making the reflection in the pool shimmer and blurring the line between the real and the image.
“‘The moon in the water and flowers in the sky’ sounded very abstract at first, but it gave me a strong sense of direction.” Yao grasped the essence of Master Sheng Yen’s vision. “Buildings are real things, but the Master was speaking about illusion. From the standpoint of Chan Buddhism, everything is illusion. We just don’t realize it.”
After completing the initial drafts of the design, Yao had another inspiration: putting sutras on an open fretwork façade so that the light passing through would illuminate the text. He told Master Sheng Yen that this would be the “light of the Buddha,” that the light passing through the words would enhance the moon-water, sky-flower illusion.
Yao added a Heart Sutra façade to the west side of the main hall so that the changing light shining through it into the interior would cast images of the text onto the other three walls, creating a sense of impermanence to contrast with the building’s physical solidity.
Construction of the center began in May 2010 and was completed in December 2012. The finished complex highlights the impermanence of both the real world and of illusion, showing people that the “real” and the illusory are as ephemeral as flowers in the sky and the moon in water, and that there is no point in clinging to either. Unfortunately, the Venerable Master passed away in February 2009 and was unable to see his vision come to fruition.
Yao built a new entrance to the monastery complex as well. On entering the site from Guandu’s Dadu Road, visitors see the 80-meter-long, 40-meter-wide Water-Moon Pool, the columned main hall itself, and then Mt. Datun rising behind it. This three-step progression from foreground to background, from near to far and from low to high gives visual form to Master Sheng Yen’s “landscape hall.”
An L-shaped structure containing the complex’s Chan and Dharma Halls links to the back of the main hall. The building’s exterior façade incorporates the Diamond Sutra to echo the main building’s Heart Sutra façade and guide visitors to a better understanding of Chan Buddhism.
The juxtaposition of the new buildings with the original monastery building, the “Way to Compassion” gateway, and the surrounding grounds gives rise to what Yao describes as “orderless order,” “appealing chaos,” and “poetic language.”
“The original Nung Chan Monastery was simply a tiny house and a plot of farmland,” says Yao. “The Water-Moon Dharma Center retains and integrates these elements.”
Architecture can transcend the limitations of space in ways that enable it to contain the universe within itself. The moon in the water is both the moon and not the moon. Flowers in the sky are both flowers and not flowers. With the Water-Moon Dharma Center, Yao has achieved an architectural version of spiritual enlightenment and fulfilled the mission that Venerable Master Sheng Yen entrusted to him.