A Portal Into an Ever-Present Spiritual Realm: Chin Lin Nunnery and the Nian Lin Garden

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages

The Hall of the Celestial Kings adopts an architectural layout from the Tang Dynasty, with one central hall balanced by a drum tower and bell tower, one on either side. These two side pavilions reach forward as if arms outstretched to welcome guests. (sharppy/Shutterstock)
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By James Howard Smith

The 1998 construction of the Chin Lin Nunnery and the Nian Lin Garden of Hong Kong are remarkable representations of China’s ancient culture, which sought to bring harmony between Heaven and Earth. Grand Tang Dynasty temples stand overlooking broad courtyards that seemingly float upon lotus ponds and open to the heavens. Pavilions rise above the mystifying garden ponds arousing wonderment and joy.

Passing through the Shenmen (main entrance) symbolizes the passage from one shore to the other. The most captivating scene then appears: A courtyard richly ornamented with bonsai trees and the Lotus Pond Garden lies in the foreground of the Hall of the Celestial Kings. 

This scene was inspired by and hence is the physical manifestation of a monk’s mural that depicts his meditation journey into Buddha Amitabha’s Paradise, “The Pure Land.” The mural is one of the High Tang Dynasty’s paintings of 705–781 A.D. found in the Mogao Caves in the far northwest of China.

The courtyard seems to be a portal into an ancient, but ever-present spiritual realm, where the mural depicts Buddhas residing there and in the temples beyond. The courtyard’s walkways are arranged around four lotus ponds; yet, in walking along them, it’s as though you are crossing over bridges and floating above one larger pond. 

Nian Lin Garden

After passing back through the Shenmen, a vermilion arched bridge draws the eye to and offers a direct connection to the main focus of the Nian Lin Garden: the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection. Exuding a golden glow, the pavilion rises amid the vibrant green landscape from an island in the lotus pond.

The unique Black Pines bonsai combined with weathered rock formations establish the ancient Eastern setting. They also set the miniature scale that is supported by the small hills and water bodies. Together they create an illusion of a journey through a remote, mountainous landscape. 

This technique of essentially creating a microcosm of grand remote landscapes is typical of Chinese classical gardens. It provides those without an opportunity to travel the experience of an uplifting atmosphere within an urban setting.


The large overhanging roof and supporting brackets (Dou Gong) are key features of traditional Chinese architecture. The overhanging roofs create exterior shelter and protect the main wood structure from the elements, helping to preserve the building. The roof form stretches outward, creating an expressive, uplifting gesture. (Richard Mortel/CC BY-SA 2.0)


The main entrance (Shen Men) introduces the Tang architectural style of timber post and beam joinery, an ancient technique using no nails, that is carried on throughout the temple complex. (Alexandre Tziripouloff/Shutterstock)


The Lotus Pond Garden where water flows from dragon-headed spouts into the ponds, graced with water lilies. (Richard Mortel/CC BY-SA 2.0)


The Pavillion Bridge with its three roofs resembles a Roc, a gigantic mythical bird, with its majestic wings spread wide. It connects the two shores and is a focal point that draws people toward the east end of the garden. (TungCheung/Shutterstock)


Black Pine bonsais establish the setting for the main hall. (Richard Mortel/ CC BY-SA 2.0)


The temple halls hold statues of Sakyamuni Buddha; the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Guanyin; and other bodhisattvas. (Richard Mortel/ CC BY-SA 2.0)


One of two vermilion arched bridges, amid the vibrant green landscape, draws the eye to the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection. (TINNAKON BOONJAD/Shutterstock)


This aerial photo shows the relationship of the Nunnery, the main temple complex, and the Nian lin Garden. (leungchopan/Shutterstock)


The monastic complex is arranged in a typical ancient Chinese format, where a sequence of buildings and courtyards align symmetrically on a central North-South axis. This way, as the sun passes from East to West throughout the year and will always illuminate and warm the front facades of the temples. (Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Shutterstock)


The large traditional lantern stands in the middle of the courtyard, with unglazed ceramic roof tiles visible in the background. (Lee Yiu Tung/Shutterstock)


The Pavilion of Absolute Perfection exudes a vibrant golden glow. (Gina Smith /Shutterstock)


Viewed from a pavilion on the south shore, the Song Cha Xia (Tea house) appears with a covered walkway that overlooks the pond. (WR studio/Shutterstock)


A spring cascades over three layers of weathered, ancient-looking rocks and then fills the Lotus Pond.(Parmna/Shutterstock)

James Howard Smith, an architectural photographer, designer, and founder of Cartio, aims to inspire an appreciation of classic architecture.

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