Lama Temple is a Buddhist Temple of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism in the suburbs of Beijing. Lama Temple is the largest temple for lamas in China and one of the largest and most important Buddhist monasteries in the world.
While walking through the grounds of Lama Temple you will see extraordinary examples of centuries old architecture and the active practice of an ancient and fascinating religion. Though not in the same class as the more famous sites like the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, the Lama Temple is a great travel spot to visit and I really enjoyed wandering the temple grounds and experiencing the practice of Buddhism there.
The original temple structures were built in 1694 as the residence of crown prince Yong of the Qing Dynasty. After ascending to the throne in 1722, Emperor Yong changed the status of his old residence to a temporary palace called Yonghegong which means palace of harmony and peace. Emperor Yong’s successor Emperor Qianlong made the palace into a lama temple in 1744.
Large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks from both Tibet and Mongolia resided in the temple which became the national center for lama administration in China. The temple was closed during the cultural revolution but not destroyed. Apparently prime minister Zhou Enlai who was responsible for saving many of China’s religious sites from destruction by the Red Guard during that period also saved the Lama Temple. The temple was later reopened to the public in 1981.
Grounds and Layout
The temple was built along a central north-south axis and holds at least 32 major halls and buildings spread out over four main areas. The halls and buildings of the temple contain man Buddha statues, Tang-ga (scrolled paintings) and precious cultural relics that are all on display. The three most famous relics are the Niche of Buddha, the 500 Arhat Mountain and the 18 meter high Buddha.
There are way too many buildings and halls too go over them all so I have described below the main buildings and the ones you are most likely to see when you visit the temple. The four main areas of the temple are listed according to their position along the temple’s north south axis
First area includes the Yonghe Gate Hall, West Pavilion and East Pavilion
Yonghe Gate Hall – This hall was originally the main entrance to the temple and holds a statue of a seated Buddha called the big belly Maitreya. The hall also holds four statues of heavenly kings, two on the left and two on the right so it is also called the Hall of Heavenly Kings.
East & West Pavilions – Were both built in 1744 and contain a stela of white marble with inscriptions in Mongolian and Tibetan explaining why Yonghegong was made into a lamasery.
The second area includes the Four Language Stele Pavilion, Yonghegong Hall and an ancient copper cooking vessel.
Cooking Vessel – After you step through the Yonghe Gate Hall into the second area, the first structure you’ll see is a 1747 Qing Dynasty black copper cooking vessel mounted on a white marble stone that is decorated with dragons and lions and has six doorways in the upper part. Apparently this cooking vessel can bring good fortune and there is a constant stream of Chinese tourists who are trying to throw coins and notes through the cracks in the vessel and the 6 doors that are covered by a wire mesh.
Four Language Stele – This is a small building containing stele with the words of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty describing the origin and mean of the Buddhist lamas in four languages.
Yonghegong Hall – This is supposed to be the main hall of Lama Temple but personally I think the Falun Hall is more deserving of this title. This hall contains three bronze statues that are the three aspects of Buddha, Kasyapa-matanga on the right, Sakyamuni in the middle and Maitreya on the left. The left and right sides of the hall each hold 9 sitting statues of Buddha’s disciples called Arhats.
Third Main Area has only one major building, the Falun Hall
Falun Hall – The focus of this building is a large seated statue of Tsong Kha Pa who was a founder of the Buddhist lama beliefs. This hall is used for reading scriptures and holds rows and rows of reading desks and electric lamps.
Fourth Main Area has one main building, the Wangfuge Pavilion that is linked by bridges to two smaller buildings on either side of it.
Wanfuge Pavilion – This building is just incredible and easily my favourite of all the buildings in Lama Temple. The building has three floors and is basically an empty shell with the core or atrium built around a 26 meter statue of the Maitreya Buddha. 8 meters of the statue is sunk into the ground with 18 meters above the ground. The actual building was built around the statue and galleries on the second and third floor on the inside of the building completely encircle the statue. Apart from the statue and a large area for prayer in front on the statue, the building is empty. It is very easy to imagine all the galleries and the prayer area full of monks in prayer and chanting sutras to Maitreya.
The statue itself is carved out of a single piece of white sandal wood that was donated to Emperor Qianlong by the Seventh Dalai Lama to express thanks for the services that the emperor had rendered to Tibet. Shipping the wood took three years from the Yangtze River up the Grand Canal to Beijing and another three years for the carving and erection. Lama Temple was converted to a lamasery in 1744 but the Wanfuge Pavilion was not finished until 1750 when the carving of the statue was complete.
Just walking into the pavilion and looking up at the head of the statue as it towers over you and seeing the galleries that circle around the statue is a breathtaking experience. Seeing the Wanfuge Pavilion alone makes a trip to the Lama Temple an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
Yansui and Yongkang Pavilions – These are small pavilions on the left and right of Wanfuge Pavilion and are connected to Wanfuge Pavilion by bridges on the second floor. The architecture on all thee pavilions and the connecting bridges excellent.
Take the subway to Yonghegong which is at the intersection of subway lines 5 and lines 2. Leave the station using the C exit, turn left and the entrance to the temple will be several hundred meters south down the road.
Both sides of the road are filled with shops selling Buddhist goods such as incense for visitors to the temple so you will know when you are getting close to the temple entrance.
Tickets & Times
Tickets are 25rmb and the temple is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm
Try to be at the temple by12 at the latest and leave yourself two hours to enjoy wandering through the temple grounds and admiring the buildings. Tour buses start to pour in in large numbers at around 2:30pm so best to be out of the temple by then.