While in Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, a “don’t miss” place to visit is the Thiên Tôn Cave-Pagoda . Believed to be one of the oldest temples in Vietnam, the pagoda is a place of worship for the Daoist God/Saint Thien Ton. As a sacred and revered figure in the spiritual life of the local people, Thien Ton is considered one of the four gods who guard the ancient capital of Hoa Lu.
The pagoda and cave are in the Dũng Đương mountains, whose name means “the mountain that blocks the strong water flowing from above”. Indeed, as an imposing natural bulwark to early southern Chinese invasions, it seems the a particularly apt metaphor.
As the Pagoda/Cave itself guards the ancient natural barrier from incursions from the East, Thien Ton is one of the four major “gateways” to the ancient city of Hoa Lu. ( Bái Đính is the western gateway, Tràng An to the south, and Đức Thánh Nguyễn Temple as the all-important gateway to the north)
Entering the Temple
The unique beauty of Thien Ton begins at the entrance gates which, like many pagodas and temples have the three arches of Vietnamese Buddhism. However, here they are made from wood, not stone. Painted red with curved roof tiles and hanging lanterns they give an almost festive feel to the place. Like many buildings of its age, over the years Thien Ton has been added to, repaired and renovated extensively. That said, the temple still retains some of its original artefacts such as the cave, the stele house and the stone lions of the Ly dynasty (1009-1225).
Thiên Tôn Cave-Pagoda is also a place for homage to the nature deities of Vietnamese folk religion and ancestral worship to the generations of monks who previously managed the pagoda. The extensive grounds are surrounded by an expansive garden area planted with many fruit trees and ancient trees that celibrate new life, good luck and prosperity. Unusually, the garden also incorporates a variety of vegetables and table foods. The Vietnamese are a practical people and the early designers thought to create a fresh atmosphere and a showcase for the richness of the area.
A Place of Peace
In late afternoon, the wind combines with the smoke of incense and blows through the wind chimes left hanging on ancient Longan trees. The cool winds and the tinkle of bells brings a sense of peaceful tranquility that remove the cares of day to day life. Sunlight breaking through the canopy of tall trees mixes with the sound of birds singing and the heady scent of flowers in bloom does what its creators intended, emphasizing the poetic and relaxing the mind.
Even without an interest or knowledge of the historical significance of the place, Thien Ton Pagoda is a beautiful and calming temple to visit.
Inside the pagoda’s main areas are 18 Arhats (statues of revered dignitaries) mounted against the living rock. There are numerous carving of dragons adoring the moon, Phoenix rising, flowers and motifs from the three religions of Vietnam – Confucius, Tao/Dao and Buddha. Suspended above all this is a large bronze temple bell from the 1700’s, with four protuberances at the sides that each ring with a different sound, depending on how it is struck.
Gods and Myths
Behind the altar is a statue of Thiên Tôn (aka Chân Vũ Đế Quân aka Xuanwu) as a god in Daoism, holding a sword while standing on a Tortoise’s back. Legend has it that there was a time when the local population was being harassed by evil spirits and back luck. The Jade Emperor (Supreme Lord) of Dao arranged for Thien Ton to be reincarnated as a human to defeat the monsters and thieves.
However fanciful this sounds, remember in Greek and other great civilizations the intertwining of the gods and mortals is also strong in ancient myth. Vietnam is no different, with religion and warcraft often intertwined and seen as necessary attributes for a truly powerful spiritual leader.
Another legend about Thien Ton cave has the young Đinh Bộ Lĩnh entering the Taoist grotto to pray for success in his long campaign to unify the 12 feudal warlords of ancient Vietnam. He was given the blessings of Thien Ton’s “Turtle and Snake generals” and in 968 successfully united the twelve warlords to found the Dinh Dynasty (968-980). This was the first time in a millenia the people of Hoa Lu/Văn Lang became an independent state, the Đại Cồ Việt nation.
With a mountainous terrain surrounded by fast flowing rivers, Thien Ton was a natural stronghold. The pragmatic new King remembered his debt and built the first Thien Ton pagoda in tribute to his success but also a place to welcome the envoys of the warlords and the Song dynasty for diplomatic receptions. The king also built a watchtower here to observe the various comings and goings and as a literal expression of the new kingdoms strenght.
Further past the statue Thien Ton there is a small passage into a second, smaller grotto. Here is an altar with a statue of the Mother Goddess of Vietnamese folk religions, wearing white clothes aside an underground water pond.
A Buddhist Nativity
To right of the god Thien Ton altar is a short corridor leading up to the original ancient pagoda where the diversity of Vietnam religious beliefs are more than apparent. In the center is a statue of the Sakyamuni (Infant Buddha), surrounded by nine mythical dragons while below are the natural spirits and gods of the ancient religions congratulating him on his birth.
Sculptures of the Three Pure Ones (aka Three Pure Pellucid Ones), the greatest gods and the pure embodiment of the Tao and the genesis of all sentient creatures, rise above this nativity scene. On the left of these is a statue of the Guan Yin aka Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, with figurines of Guan Yin’s parents to the right.
This ancient place was originally a Taoist grotto, constructed by the notorious governor Lord Cao Biền aka Gao Pian ( 821-887) of the Tang – Chinese dynasty. In Vietnamese folk oral tradition Cao Bien is considered a warlock, gifted in the feng shui and fortune-telling of Taoism but hardened against the local people. On his first visit to Thien Ton he saw the ”dragon vein of Feng Shui” was extremely abundant and capable of giving birth to Vietnamese leaders and artisans. A vindictive man, he put a curse on the land. The story continues that his magic failed in such a place, so he made the grotto to keep his magic strong. Fortunately, Thien Ton prefered the local populace and Vietnamese society survived the evil warlord.
There are many legends and myths in Vietnam, some more embellished than others and sometimes conflicting. However there has never been any doubt that Thien Ton Pagoda is indeed a special place that played an pivotal role in the development of Dai Co Viet, the precursor of modern Vietnam.
Over the centuries Thein Ton pagoda has undergone multiple renovations and refurbishments . The most recent was in 1936 but the various rebuilds and reconstructions date back to the 10th century when King Dinh added to expand on the original Taoist site. Throughout it all, the old pagoda has retained its inviting spirituality and ancient classical aspect.
Entry and parking at the pagoda is free. On Tet and other festivals, Thien Ton can be crowded with many visitors making the annual pilgramage to pray for good luck and prosperity and parking may incur a charge. On the 4-8 days of the third lunar month, a large festival is held here to celebrate Thien Ton’s birthday. While free, visitors are encouraged to user the donation boxes to help with the upkeep of this hallowed place and perhaps to pray for luck and peace in the future.