Just a few kilometres north of Puli, the Chung Tai Chan Monastery (中台禪寺; zhōngtái chán sì) is one of the world’s most lavish modern monuments to Chan Buddhism, fusing ancient tradition with contemporary building techniques. Designed by C.Y. Lee (the architect of Taipei 101), at an estimated cost of US$110m, the monastery is worth half a day of exploring.
Chan is better known as “Zen” in the West, though you’ll see few signs of the more austere Japanese version of the practice here. Chung Tai founder Grand Master Wei Chueh began a life of simple meditation in the 1970s in the mountains of Taipei County, and established Chung Tai Chan Monastery in 1987. Today he is head of Chung Tai World, a Buddhist order that includes several monasteries and over eighty meditation centres located throughout Taiwan and the world.
The monastery complex is dominated by the massive central building with its 37 floors, and surrounded by a series of ancillary halls and statues. The 150m central tower is its most distinctive feature, flanked by two sloping dormitory wings and topped by an ornate gold pearl, set on gilded lotus leaves. From the entrance, it’s a short walk to the main building and the Hall of Heavenly Kings, with its impressive 12m-high guardians and colourful Milefo (the chubby, smiling incarnaton of Buddha). They protect the Great Majesty Hall where Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined – this incarnation represents the historical Buddha and the virtue of liberation, carved from Indian red granite. To the right is Sangharana Hall, where in typically eclectic Taiwan style, Taoist deity Guan Di is enshrined as temple protector, while to the left you’ll find a statue of Indian monk Bodhidharma (or Damo, the 28th Buddhist patriarch and founder of the Chan school) in the Patriarch Hall, along with the inscribed religious lineage of the temple’s founder, Wei Chueh. To go further you’ll need to have arranged a guide in advance – this is highly recommended.
The fifth floor contains the Great Magnificence Hall, housing a graceful statue of the Rocana Buddha, crafted from white jade and positioned on a gold-covered thousand lotus platform. This incarnation represents the virtue of wisdom. From here it’s customary to walk up to the ninth floor via a series of inclined corridors, eventually leading to the Great Enlightenment Hall. Everything here is brilliant white: the ceramic glass walls and floor, the doors, ceiling and even the statue of the Vairocana Buddha, which represents the spiritual or “dharma” body.
The sixteenth floor is usually as far as most tours go: the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas contains a seven-storey teak wood pagoda, facing Puli through two giant windows. The walls of the hall are decorated with twenty thousand tiny copper Buddha statues. From here you can descend down the pilgrims’ staircase, or if you’re lucky, continue up into the sacred higher levels of the monastery – this will depend on the mood of your guide. The 31st floor is the Sutra Treasury Pavilion, containing the monastery’s most valuable texts and decorated with soft jade carvings, while the very top, the 37th floor, is known as the Mani Pearl. The shell is made of titanium, but the interior of the ball is a simple shrine finished in wood containing a small Buddha statue and is rarely open to visitors.