Find Inner Peace at Pao Fa Temple
Almost immediately upon arrival in Pao Fa Temple, I feel a deep peace wash over me. I see people moving about, and it’s not dormant by any means, but the collective mood within the space was content, focused and calm. The receptionist I spoke with was warm and welcoming, and I only had to wait briefly to be met with my guide for the day, Rupi Shih. We exchanged pleasantries and we walked together outside of the main entrance.
Construction of the temple was completed in 2002, and they’ve been a constant presence in the area ever since. While Irvine was much quieter back then, the area is now filled with people and the complementary traffic.
Taking up approximately two acres of land, Pao Fa is known as one of the largest amongst Buddhist monasteries and temples in the United States. Yes, even though it’s officially referred to as a temple, it’s also a monastery, meaning that nuns, monks and the like live, eat and work there on a daily basis, and they’re entirely supported by the laypeople who come to the temple on a regular basis.
This is not the only capacity in which donations have a role in the temple. In fact, the money to build Pao Fa was largely donated by devotees in Taiwan, specifically coming from a sister temple in the north. The purpose of this, of course, was to spread the Northern Buddhist tradition in the United States. As Rupi reflects, the monastics are constantly learning about the practice themselves, and they’re always willing to share what they’ve learned
While I thought we were to have a brief conversation about the programs the temple offers and the temple’s relationship with the people of Irvine, Rupi was kind enough to take time to walk me through the core teachings of Buddhism. I was already intrigued by what she was discussing, but her warmth in our interaction made me all the more willing to lend my ear.
While we covered many topics, there were a few points she made specifically. Starting off, she noted that attachment to worldly things and beings acts as the root of our suffering; having to be around people we don’t like, and having to be apart from those we love. She also explained to me that personality is rooted from our karma, arriving with us from the moment we’re born, and emphasized that the laws of cause and effect are paramount, stating simply, “what comes around, goes around.”
As she explained these concepts, she also pointed out the library, which contains more than 10,000 items, covering essentially every topic in the realm of Buddhism. Although most of the books are in Chinese, they have a sizeable English section as well, and borrowing the books is absolutely free. That’s not all they offer for free, either. In fact, on a daily basis, visitors can come and enjoy freshly cooked vegetarian meals, all donated and prepared by patrons and volunteers. The vegetarian aspect is key, too, since a no-kill policy is strongly emphasised in all of their cooking.
Speaking on the typical makeup of people in the temple, she says “The main ones are Buddhists and Chinese people…they come here to join the services and volunteer.” Other local people also pop in, and most of them don’t know about Buddhism, but they want to learn. Rupi and others provide regular free tours for these people, and they also offer classes on Buddhism taught in English, done twice a month. They also offer youth Chinese-language and Buddhism classes, the latter focusing on the basics of morality, along with their twice-monthly Chinese lessons for adults (beginner and level 2) and Chinese/English-language Buddhism courses.
The services at Pao Fa are similar to those you’d find in any Northern tradition Buddhist temple. In their specific tradition, Pure Land Buddhism, the services revolve around the chanting of the name of their principal Buddha, Amitabha Buddha. There are variations between different traditions, of course, but no matter the method of practice, she says the end goal of all Buddhist practices is calming down the mind.
When asked about whether the temple’s presence has helped the community grow, she explains, “The practice itself is different from any other religion. The practice is from your own mind. [It’s] how you work on your mind. That attracts a lot of people [here], and the people agree. It’s not a god — yes, we have Buddha and the Bodhisattva, but they provide us with tools, and they help us to achieve the practice and give us guidance. The work is put on ourselves.”
The temple is an ornate yet peaceful space. The walls are lined with more than 3,000 small statues of Buddha, and statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, and the bodhisattva’s Mahasthamaprapta and Guanshiyin grace the front. In this space, devotees walk, stand and sit while chanting and carrying out their meditation.
Bhaisajyaguru Tathagata, known as the Medicine Buddha, is the center of a small hall to the right of the main temple (when facing the temple), and people will regularly visit his statue to pray for good health. The one on the left is devoted to Ksitigarbharaja Bodhisattva, who is said to have vowed to not achieve Buddhahood until the realm of hell is completely empty. In that hall, people pray for their departed loved ones & ask that they too are saved.
Contrary to what I expected, she notes that the most practiced devotees don’t have to come to the temple at all. In fact, they’ll likely have a shrine set up at home. That, however, only becomes an option after years of devoted practice, and even then, she notes that some of those devotees still love practicing in the temple. The temple, she summarizes, is there for the majority of people, those who need a helping hand.
Ending things off, she wants the readers to know that “Buddhism is not really a religion. It’s a philosophy. It’s an education. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn Buddhism. We want to appreciate what we have as human beings. We can do a lot of things. To summarise Buddhism: Do good things. Stay away from bad things. Laws of cause and effect run through the universe. We need to have our own principles, and do things based off [those] principles. What comes around, goes around. Life just doesn’t end when our body gives up. It goes on forever, but we have to do good things for our society, try to appreciate it, and do what we can to help ourselves and others while we’re here.”