One Pillar Pagoda: A Buddhist Lotus Pedestal in Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda (Vietnamese spelling: Chùa Một Cột) is an iconic symbol of Buddhism in the center of Hanoi. It became a National Heritage Site in 1962 and used to appear on one side of the phased out 5000 VND coin.

There are also two replicas of the One Pillar Pagoda. One is outside the Hanoi-Moscow Complex in Moscow, and the other is Nam Thien Nhat Tru Pagoda (chùa Nam Thiên Nhất Trụ), or the One Pillar Under the Southern Heaven, built in 1958 in Thu Duc District of Ho Chi Minh City.

History and Architecture of the One Pillar Pagoda

The name One Pillar Pagoda has been around since forever but no one really knows when it came to be. The correct name is Lotus Pedestal (Liên Hoa Đài – 蓮花臺). It’s the best-known construction in Dien Huu Pagoda complex (chùa Diên Hựu – 延祐寺) meaning ‘long lasting blessings’.

One Pillar Pagoda During the Feudal Period

One Pillar Pagoda in 1885
One Pillar Pagoda in 1885
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

In 1010, Lý Thái Tổ— the first king of the Ly Dynasty— built the Thang Long Capital City which is the present-day Hanoi. Construction for Dien Huu started in 1049 by the second Ly King— Thai Tong (Lý Thái Tông). The story goes that King Ly Thai Tong, in a dream, met the Bodhisattva Guan Yin (Quan Âm Bồ Tát).

She invited him onto her lotus and gave him a child. The king then built a temple in the shape of the lotus that he had seen and placed a Guan Yin statue inside. It was to show gratitude towards Guan Yin’s blessing, hence the meaning of the name Dien Huu. Soon later, the king had his firstborn son.

In 1105, the succeeding King Lý Thánh Tông renovated the Lotus Pedestal and added the Linh Chieu Pond (ao Linh Chiểu), a bell, and a stupa. Following dynasties largely neglected the One Pillar Pagoda until the Nguyen Dynasty in the late 19th century.

Destroyed and Reconstructed

One Pillar Pagoda’s gate
One Pillar Pagoda’s gate
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

One Pillar Pagoda was destroyed out of spite by French colonialists in 1954 just before their exodus from North Vietnam. In 1955, the North Vietnamese Government reconstructed it along with the entire Dien Huu Pagoda based on the blueprints preserved from the Nguyen Dynasty.

Meaning and Importance of Guan Yin

Guan Yin altar in the yard
Guan Yin altar in the yard
[ by Andrew Jones Travel from Facebook ]

In East Asian countries, Guan Yin is the translation from the Sanskrit Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. On the 19th day of the 6th lunar month is the celebration for Guan Yin’s attainment of Buddhahood.

Guan Yin is associated with compassion and often known as the Goddess of Mercy. The Chinese name Guan Yin is short for Guan Shi Yin, which means ‘the one who perceives the sounds of the world’.

Some Buddhists believe when they depart from this world, Guan Yin will place them in the heart of a lotus and send them to the western Pure Land of Sukhāvatī (Tây Thiên) in Mahayana Buddhism. In order to earn that privilege, you have to make good merit in this life.

Another common figure is the Avalokitesvara with a Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes (Thiên Thủ Thiên Nhãn Quan Âm). According to a legend, Amitabha Buddha appointed her a thousand arms to let her reach out to those in need.

Another Vietnamese legend goes that the Bodhisattva Guan Yin manifested as Princess Dieu Thien (công chúa Diệu Thiện) in Huong Tich Cave (động Hương Tích) of the Perfume Pagoda (chùa Hương). This story is very similar to that of Princess Maoshian in Chinese Taoism.

In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her for safe voyages. The title Guanyin of the Southern Ocean (Quan Âm Nam Hải – 南海觀音) originates from this tradition.

Things to See at the One Pillar Pagoda

Things to See at the One Pillar Pagoda
[ by Marcus Lacey from Facebook ]

The entrance is the traditional triple-arch gate (cổng Tam Quan) which leads to the yard paved with red tiles. From a distance, the One Pillar Pagoda looks like one single lotus flower emerging from the water.

The main structure consists of one pillar supporting a wooden chamber with a roof in the center of Linh Chieu Pond. The pond has some carps and the lotuses here bloom during the Summer. Visitors can get to the chamber via a stone staircase.

The altar has a Guan Yin statue sitting on a lotus as per the tale. On the roof is a wooden carving of ‘Two Dragons Facing the Moon’ (lưỡng long chầu nguyệt) representing human virtues and aren’t therefore royal symbols.

Inside the yard is a Bodhi tree grafted from the original one in Bodh Gaya (bồ đề Đạo Tràng) where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. It was a gift from the former Indian President when former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh visited in 1958. There is also a similar Bodh Gaya Bodhi tree in Tran Quoc Pagoda.

One Pillar Pagoda Festival

Guan Yin altar inside the chamber
Guan Yin altar inside the chamber
[ by Marty Rolin from Facebook ]

Upon the completion of the Lotus Pedestal in 1049, King Ly Thai Tong held the Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday Ceremony on April 8th in the Lunar Calendar. From then on, the day became the One Pillar Pagoda Festival. It’s also a day to practice Life Release (phóng sinh) to free captured animals.

Visiting the One Pillar Pagoda

The Bodhi Tree One Pillar Pagoda
The Bodhi Tree
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

One Pillar Pagoda is in Ba Dinh District near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. It’s free to enter but keep in mind to wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.

Being popular as it is, it can get really crowded at times and there may be a waiting line. Nonetheless, visitors should help maintain the calm and quiet atmosphere here.

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