Culture By Justin Gibson

Found in Translation: Experience Buddhism in Four East Asia Countries

Originating in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia was gradual, yet vast. Flowing like water, the religion crossed borders, swept up converts and adapted to each region it landed in, melding the teachings and wisdom of Siddh?rtha Gautama (Buddha, for the unfamiliar) with the interpretations and traditions of the locale.

No matter your own religion, a visit to the following nations' historic temples, shrines and festivals is not only enlightening, but also remarkably fulfilling. There's no promise that you'll find nirvana (some people spend their entire lives looking for it, after all), but it is increasingly likely you'll find the next best thing: serene experiences, dazzling sights and a breath of fresh perspective.


Buddhism came to Japan by way of China sometime around the year 467, with five monks eager to spread the doctrine. A millennium and a half later, roughly 75% of the nation practices Buddhism to some degree - no doubt thanks in part to the historic temples distributed across the country. Several factors make Japan's temples unique from other nations' counterparts, however: traditional Japanese architecture for one, but more importantly, the co-existence of Shinto shrines - structures housing holy spirits and powers in the Shinto religion.

While you're likely never more than a stone's throw from a temple or shrine when in Japan - there are 77,000 Buddhist temples today, and an estimated 100,000 Shinto shrines - Kyoto may just be the place to head if you're looking to make a day of it. The city is legendary for countless temples and shrines, each somehow more breathtaking than the last. Tofukuji Temple houses a medley of Imperial Japanese styles scattered among its buildings and grounds. Saiho-Ji Temple is a sanctuary of solitude with a world-famous moss garden. Nanzen-ji Temple isn't just one of the biggest in the city; it also sports dozens of immaculately groomed gardens - a hidden grotto behind a waterfall being just one of the highlights. Shrine-wise, the options are just as bountiful: Kifune Jinja Shrine is tucked away on an ancient cedar-covered mountainside, Yasaka Jinja Shrine has historic ties to the Kyoto geisha community and the fabled Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is famous for its seemingly endless array of torii gates adorning over two miles of mountain path. A day spent hopping among all of the above proves to be the apex of wanderlust serenity.

Floating gate of Itsukushima Shrine


As a geographical melting pot throughout time for Northern (Chinese) and Western (Indian) influences regarding religion, the specifics of Buddhism in Vietnam might be difficult to pin down for an outsider looking in. Certain elements of Taoism and Chinese spirituality have merged with Vietnamese folk religion, making for a remarkably syncretic doctrine.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda serves as a quintessential example. Located in Ho Chi Minh City, this temple was constructed to honor the supreme Taoist god (The King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), but boasts papier-m?ch? statues from both Buddhist and Taoist lore all the same. A visit here sees you shoulder-to-shoulder in incense-clouded corridors with active worshippers for either and both - like the deities on display, the religions intermingle. Outside, a pond swarming with turtles caps off the atmospheric experience - or potentially inspires you to visit the Suoi Tien Cultural Theme Park. Also located in Ho Chi Minh City, the world's first Buddhist water park proves a refreshing way to dive into the religion beyond temples and shrines.

To the north, outside the city of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda offers another sensory experience. A series of Buddhist temples carved into the limestone rock of the Huong Tich mountains, the resulting maze of alleyways is interspersed with caves, forests, serene streams and tropical foliage - the picture-perfect setting for reflection and discovery. If you time your visit right, it can coincide with the Huong Pagoda festival. Lasting from mid-January to mid-March, ceremonies, performances and activities unite to provide divine revelry.

Wat Phra Kaew in Thailand


Buddhism in Thailand is a departure from the previous two countries. While they were one form or another of Mahayana Buddhism (derived from Chinese Buddhist traditions focused on the "Great Vehicle"), Buddhism in Thailand centers around Theravada - "The Teachings of the Elders." As a whole, the country is awash in the religion: Over 95% of Thailand practices Buddhism, and some 300,000 of those individuals are monks. There are over 41,000 temples in the country: You could venture anywhere and find a stunning architectural sanctuary worth visiting.

While all of Thailand sports Buddhist temples and teachings, Bangkok proves to be the prime place for perusing it. The oldest (and largest) of the temples is Wat Pho. Housed on Rattanakosin Island, existing before Bangkok was established, the towering spires of the complex are the first of many awe-inspiring sights: Every building has stunning displays of art, with the 46-meter-long, gold-leaf-covered reclining Buddha being the centerpiece. The fact that this is also the best place to experience a traditional Thai massage makes it a mind-and-body experience.

Perhaps the only temple that can surpass the experience of Wat Pho is Wat Phra Kaew. While not the largest or the oldest, it is the most sacred temple in the country - and therefore the most visited. At the center of the fervor sits The Emerald Buddha - a striking figure standing 26 inches tall and carved from one single piece of jade. The legend around this piece is only matched by the mystery - making a visit to it the sort of experience to stay with you well after your trip has concluded.

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Temple


While Buddhism has been one of the major religions of Taiwan since the 1600s, the island nation has been brewing its own strain since 1895. Back then, Taiwan was under Japanese rule - and differentiating from Japanese Buddhism became a means of protest. Fast forward a few decades, and the Chinese Civil War brings with it the standoff between mainland China and independent Taiwan as we know it today, as well as the fantastic rise of Humanistic Buddhism. Now, in the modern day, Taiwanese Buddhism is the sum of the previous century's lessons and values, with a renowned focus on helping community and society. It's this, in tandem with the blurring of Taoist traditions and Confucian teachings, that you can expect to discover perusing the country's places of worship.

Large centralized Buddhist organizations are a mainstay of modern Taiwan, and of the "Four Great Mountains," Fo Guang Shan is the largest. Subsequently, the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum is the largest can't-miss experience of the country: An all-in-one monastery, memorial and museum, there are few experiences that provide as thorough an introduction to the religion. That, and the sight of the tallest sitting bronze Buddha statue in the world is certainly a larger-than-life moment.

On the near-opposite side of the island, in the capital of Taipei, is the country's most popular temple - Longshan Temple. Longshan isn't famous for showcasing elegant aesthetics (like counterpart Bao'an Temple down the street), but rather for being the soul of the community, and encapsulating the religious demographics in the process. This temple is the embodiment of inclusivity: Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian faiths are all represented with over 100 gods and goddesses worshipped here. Don't let the crowds deter you from visiting - the community has rebuilt this 300-year-old temple numerous times after earthquakes and fires, and as a result, they're quite proud to show it off.

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