Chùa Thiên Mụ Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

thien mu pagodaChùa Thiên Mụ, or Thiên Mụ Pagoda, is a Buddhist temple in the city of Hue. It sits atop the Hà Khê hill and overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda is seven stories tall and is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Moreover, it is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital. (Interesting note: you can see Laos from across the river).

The name of the pagoda comes from the local legend about an old lady, Thiên Mụ (“celestial lady”),  dressed in red and blue. She sat at the site rubbing her cheeks, and foretold that a lord would come and erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country’s prosperty. Nguyen Hoang, the first Nguyen lord, overheard this tale while touring the area, and immediately ordered the construction of a temple after his visit.

Beginning in the summer of 1963, the Thiên Mụ Pagoda became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority felt discriminated against under the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who showed strong favouritism towards Catholics. Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages, and discontent turned into outrage when nine Buddhists died at the hand of Diem’s army on the birthday of Gautama Buddha.

banks of perfume river

A protest march was ended when government forces opened fire — this sparked a series of Buddhist protests across the country, and Thiên Mụ Pagoda was a major organizing point for the Buddhist movement.


prayer session

The pagoda once again became the focal point of discontent when a person was murdered near Thiên Mụ, and anti-communist protests closed traffic around the Phú Xuân Bridge. The communist government responded by arresting monks for disturbing traffic flow and public order.

the car

The Austin motor vehicle pictured was driven by Thích Quảng Đức, a Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at an intersection in protest of the persecution of Buddhists. Wang told us that Duc’s heart remained intact and did not burn. As a result, the heart is considered to be holy and is now protected in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda.

Quick aside:In Buddhism, a relic is called 舍利子 [se li zi], or Sarira. It refers to a pearl or crystal-like bead purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters. The Sarira are believed to embody the spiritual knowledge, teachings, and living essence of the masters.

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