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Visits to pagodas have long been a religious custom in Vietnam and other Buddhist Asian countries. In this sacred ambience, mortals can find spiritual serenity in contrast with their weary, everyday endeavors. A journey to one of these revered places allows the visitor to pray for good things in the New Year. Here are some of the most famous sacred pagodas in the Far East.
Sparkling Golden Pavilion, Japan
Despite celebrating New Year’s Day according to the Gregorian calendar, visits to pagodas remain a beautiful Japanese tradition. People throughout the country eagerly flock to the famous Golden Pavilion (known as Kinkakuji in Japanese), a world heritage site in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. Built in 1397, the pagoda was the original residence of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who had a passion for the arts. He made a great contribution to Nogaku (known as Noh Drama – a major form of classical Japanese musical drama) in the 14th century.
In addition, the Academy of Fine Arts was founded at Shokoku-ji Temple by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu for training artisans to develop their talents in ceramics, painting and the performing arts. Golden Pavilion reveals his taste in architecture and art and provides us (and future generations) with an opportunity to view an entire period of artistic splendor.
In 1955, the pavilion was completely rebuilt after a fire destroyed it five years earlier. Golden Pavilion now has its second and third story gilded and the reconstruction is said to be close to the original. The name Kinkaku is derived from the gold leaf that covers the pavilion. Gold was used to mitigate and purify any pollution or negative thoughts and feelings towards death.
The gold gilded roofs rise proudly above sun beams and are reflected on the calm lake the pavilion overlooks.
When the hands of the clock strike midnight and the new year begins, the grand bell in the pavilion rings. Its deep bass sounds echo miles away for all to greet a new, prosperous year. After visits to the pagoda, the Japanese usually draw random fortunes (Omikuji) to request advice from Buddha. Depending on whether a good or bad situation is mentioned, the fortunes will either be brought home or hung on tree branches as prayers for a new year of wealth and serenity.
Xieng Thong Pagoda, Laos
A convergent destination of two great Asian civilizations, India and China, Laos embraces unique cultural heritage and religious customs. The world famous pagodas and lam-vong dances annually draw millions of tourists to this picturesque country.
Buddhism in Laos has long flourished and left the country a remarkable legacy of ancient pagodas. Xieng Thong is considered one of the finest. A representative of a unique ancient architecture characterized by bending roofs that sweep near the ground, Xieng Thong greatly impresses its visitors with its interior furniture including elaborate bas-reliefs based on ancient Buddhist legends.
On every Bunpimay holiday, officials and members of the National Buddhist Society take the Prabang Statue from the museum of Xieng Thong Pagoda to conduct Buddha bath rituals with Champa water. This is an integral religious custom practiced at the start of every new year. Down from the top of Phu Si Mount, the sun casts her tawny veil over the Mekong River, illuminating it with a glistening, gilded glow.
Haeinsa Pagoda, Korea
Buddhism grew deep roots in Korea. First promoted to the Korean peninsula in the 4th century AC, Buddhism thrived until its peak during the reign of Silla Kingdom. Buddhism was the national religion for many centuries until the fall of the Goryeo dynasty (912 – 1392).
Korea is home to many Buddhist pagodas constructed on mountain tops near lush forests. Built in 802, Haeinsa Pagoda is one of the most important Buddhist pagodas in Korea. At the start of every new year, Haeinsa attracts huge groups of Koreans on a pilgrimage and to sightsee. One of the crucial Three Jade Pagodas in Korea along with Tongdosa in Gyeongsangnam-do and Songgwangsa in Jeollanam-do, Haeinsa embodies Buddhism and Buddhist doctrines. Its most prized treasure is the Tripitaka Koreana – a string of large, well-preserved woodcuts of Buddhist scriptures from the 13th century. Part of the 81,258 scriptures that are still in existence, Tripitaka Koreana is one of the most comprehensive and valuable written Buddhist documents in the Far East.
Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thai people are known for their devotion to Buddha. No wonder pagodas with distinct bending roofs mushroom throughout the country. Situated in Chiang Mai, Phrathat Doi Suthep is the most sacred pagoda in Thailand and a traditional place for a variety of Buddhist pilgrims to gather in the first days of the new year. During these holidays, Thai Buddhist followers dedicate brown cakes made of glutinous rice to the pagoda. On the second day of the new year, they bring sand to its courtyards and pile it up into Chedi (stupas), then scatter it all over the courtyard. On the third day, followers pay their respects to lofty monks and use the sacred tower of Sompoi to bathe Buddhist statues. People here are enthusiastic to join the traditional water-throwing festival.
Those who wish to dedicate incense in the pagoda must ascend innumerable stairs. The mountain top offers a panoramic view of Chiang Mai City under floating gossamer clouds. Along the bending roof run little bells that ring with a sprightly sound whenever a carefree wind blows. Monks clad in yellow kasas sit on both sides of the corridors, bowing down and murmuring scriptures. Before going to the pagoda, Thai people usually buy bunches of white lotuses and put them on trays outside before lighting the incense to pray for good things to come.