The Vietnamese Buddhist Center (VNBC) is a smashing Buddhist complex in Sugar Land, TX. As a TA attraction, the #1 reason to go is their statue of the Goddess of Mercy. I’ll discuss the statue first, then the Goddess herself, a few other sights in the complex, and finish the review with an amazing occurrence at the VNBC five years ago, which is still casting a long shadow over the place.
On arrival: the first thing to strike your eye will be a grey tripod backed by a row of ornamental pillars (see Tripod and Pillars photo). Beyond the pillars, a walkway leads towards the Main Temple, with a slightly arched red bridge taking you over a pond. (see Bridge Over Untroubled Waters photo). On the north side of the pond is a “white marble” barge with an avian bow and a haloed deity aboard. No oars, sails or outboard motors will ever move that boat an inch, which is just as well: if it ever did get out into open waters, it would sink like a slab of concrete (which is what I suspect it is; see Celestial Barge photo). But dominating both bridge and barge is the statue of a beautiful and serene Goddess of Mercy: Quan Am (see Quan Am 1 photo).
Statues Standing Tall: The Goddess is the tallest free-standing statue in the entire the state of Texas, being a good five feet taller than the statue of Sam Houston over in Huntsville: no brag, just fact. She’s 22 meters tall—about 72 feet. She is the 5th, 6th or 7th tallest statue in the United States, depending on how you count. Not every upright artistic creation is a statue; I don’t consider totem poles, Egyptian obelisks or the Seattle Space Needle to be statues. Based on that, the “Tree of Utah” (a single metallic column with giant pawn shop balls on top) isn’t really a statue at all, making our Quan Am the 6th tallest. The five taller ones include four with human figures and one of mythical beasts, but the tallest of all in Puerto Rico: which means that our Sugar Land Goddess is the 5th tallest statue in any of the 50 states in the USA.
Local Buddhists are proud that this is the tallest Goddess of Mercy in the Western Hemisphere. By that, they may mean “the Americas.” But the Western Hemisphere is everything west of the prime meridian and east of the international dateline. Unless there’s a taller Quan Am in the UK between Greenwich and Cornwall, this Goddess of Mercy is literally the tallest in our entire half of the planet, from pole to pole. I also believe that she is the largest Buddhist statue of any sort in the western hemisphere; the tallest Buddha in North America, in British Columbia, is less than half her height; and the USA and Canada are the only two countries in the Americas with substantial Buddhist populations.
In Asian culture, having the tallest Goddess of Mercy in your hemisphere is a tremendous coup. Though you may never have heard of her, 9 of the 20 tallest statues on Earth are of this Goddess of Mercy! The other 11 are six Buddhas, a Buddhist “Bodhisattva”, one Vishnu, one Confucius, one Mother Russia, and the Indian statesman Sardar Patel (the only secular figure in the lot, if we consider Confucianism a religion, and Mother Russia to be as close to a goddess as the CP-USSR could get in the immediate post-Stalin era). Mother Russia’s statue is well east of the Don River (since antiquity the dividing line between Europe and Asia), so arguably all 20 of the 20 tallest statues are in Asia. Asia dominates the giant statue market: in Rangoon you can go see three giant Buddhas in a single morning. Even four of the world’s tallest statues of Jesus are in Asia (Vietnam and East Timor each have one, and Indonesia has two). Asians have been making monumental religious statues for a long, long time: a 5.3 meter (17.4 ft) preserved wooden idol from Shigir, Siberia was carved by hunter-gatherers 11,600 years ago: before the last Ice Age was over, and 8,000 years before the Bronze Age!
The VNBC Statue: The VNBC Quan Am is standing on a lotus flower (the sacred flower of Buddhism as well as the national flower of Vietnam), with a vase of pure water in her left hand, and a small willow twig or leaf in her right hand: these are used to sprinkle the Dew of Compassion upon all beings. She is veiled and wears a flowing robe, with a curious crown underneath her veil: a visual connection to the crown worn by the celestial Buddha Amitabha, a central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, the branch of Mahayana (Great Raft) Buddhism which Vietnamese follow. The 19th tallest statue on Earth is a Quan Am in Da Nang, Vietnam. I’ve seen her, and the two statues are quite similar. Da Nang’s wears a more ornamental gown, is three times taller, and stands on a towering bluff overlooking the South China Sea, so she’s much more spectacular. On the other hand, the Sugar Land statue is a bit slimmer than Da Nang’s, and hence more beautiful, at least in the eyes of this beholder. I do wonder whether our statue’s artist, Mai Chi Kim, used Da Nang’s Goddess as her model, but it is a classic pose, one that you can find all over the Far East: I saw one Quan Am as far afield as northern Sumatra (and a northern Sumatran could say “Heck, I saw one as far afield as south Texas.”) You’ll note that offerings of food and flowers are always abundant at the statue. Unfortunately, you’ll also see that the base of the statue has been vandalized by hooligans, an outrage that Houstonians of any faith must deplore. Hopefully the damage will be repaired before you go there (see Quan Am 2, 3, 4 and 5 photos.)
Who Quan Am Is: The Buddhist Goddess of Mercy is worshipped in many countries and hence has many names. The Chinese call her Guanyin or Kwan Yin; the Japanese, Kannon. One out of every five people on Earth worships Quan Am. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists disagree fundamentally about many things, but they all worship Quan Am. Technically, she is a Bodhisattva, not a goddess. A Bodhisattva is someone who after mastering the dharmic arts and being on the cusp of attaining Nirvana, refrains from taking that last step, and remains within our world out of a desire to assist other humans. “Bodhisattva of Compassion” would be a more accurate title for her. Buddhists will tell you that Quan Am took vows to listen to the cries of the world; to deliver all beings from affliction, bondage and suffering; and to save them. Bottom line: if danger threatens you or your family, she comes to your aid. Quan Am is also strongly associated with the sea: she dwells eternally in the Southern Sea, and she steers the Ship of Salvation through the sea of sorrows in order to convey all beings to deliverance. If you’re offshore and a full gale is brewing, or inshore being driven relentlessly toward a deadly reef by a powerful current, she’s the one you’ll be praying to for deliverance. Just as children, when injured or terrified, instinctively call for their mothers, terrified seamen in Asian waters and their worried families ashore, will pray to Quan Am for their safe return.
To put that in perspective, here’s a curious twist: during the Age of Discovery, when the Portuguese reached East Asia, both Christians and Buddhists experienced a shock of recognition is each others’ “goddesses of Mercy” (neither is a goddess per se). The Catholics’ Madonna, like Quan Am, is particularly associated with the sea. Our Lady, Star of the Sea (Stella Maris”) is an ancient Christian title for her; under that name, the Virgin Mary is believed to protect and guide seafarers in peril. Churches dedicated to her can be found along the coasts of southern Europe and beyond. For example, in the former capital of the Portuguese Indies, Goa, there’s a Chapel of Stella Maris overlooking the Arabian Sea (although a new Marriott beach resort is now smack-dab in-between the chapel and the sea). Once the Portuguese got to Macau and the Pearl River, the Chinese were particularly delighted with the Christian concept of the Madonna and Child, and began copying it but substituting Kwan Yin (aka Quan Am). That the Madonna always held an infant boy was particularly noted, and such statues were venerated both by childless wives, and those who had only borne girls and desperately wanted to deliver a “number one son.” You can find small statues of both the “Madonna and Child” and “Kwan Yin holding Infant”, for sale on Western and Asian websites, each quoting a price that is also virtually identical: $16 and change!
Other Notable Features: Elsewhere at the VNBC, I rather like the temple bell. and the three-story pagoda that towers above it. The pagoda walls are made of bricks; its architectural style is—err, ah---Vietnamese-American. The huge bell itself is strictly Asian—ornate from yoke to lip—and the external clapper is a beauty! (See Pagoda 1, Pagoda 2, Bell, and Bell Clapper photos.) Nearby you’ll see a life-sized reclining Buddha, about to end his life here and attain Nirvana, and a plaque relates his last words (see The Buddha photo). The garden between the main temple and the Dharma Hall is small but aesthetically pleasing, with some Buddhas and nice bonsai. (see Garden 1, Garden 2. and Bonsai photos.) The Dharma Hall’s exterior is pleasant and balanced (see Dharma 1 and Dharma 2 photos) but the interior is functional rather than aesthetic. If you care to meditate, you can go inside and do so (see Dharma Interior photos.) It’s nothing to write home about, but it will have to do until the new Main Temple work is completed. And that brings us to a remarkable tale.
Bringing Down the House: I started the review by stating that the Vietnamese Buddhist Center is a “smashing” Buddhist complex. Unfortunately, that was literally true. Here was the daily temple drill: the resident monks would get up at 5am and promptly head over to the temple to meditate. The general public would go into the temple to pray and meditate from early morning until quite late at night, when the temple would be closed again until dawn. The Temple was often packed, particularly on Buddhist holidays, and above all during the annual Quan Am Festival. (That festival, by the way, might be an excellent time to be here.) In 2014, the day before Halloween (when witches and demons are said to particularly dangerous), the entire roof of the main temple collapsed. I don’t know why or how: it had been there for twenty years, and had given no warning signs of a structural flaw. It goes without saying that in such a catastrophe, most of the folks below would be killed, and anyone who survived under the debris would be terribly injured. But not a soul was even scratched. The collapse occurred at 0145, one of the very rare times where no one—absolutely no one—would be inside. That timing saved dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of lives. A grand new temple is rising from the ashes; the roof is up, but work is still being done on the interior (see Work in Progress 1 and 2 photos.) It’s taken a long time just to complete the exterior; understandably the architects, engineers, contractors, and Vietnamese Buddhist community want the new temple to be as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, while also being a thing of inspirational beauty. They’re eagerly looking forward to the new, improved, temple. I do recommend visiting the Vietnamese Buddhist Center now—I went three times in the same week—but there’s still construction going on, and you won’t be permitted inside the main temple. You could wait until the job is finished, but when will that be? I asked the abbot, and he said: “Six months … perhaps nine months … we hope.”
I highly recommend the VNBC now, and am confident it will be even better a year from now, when the new temple opens. At the end of my final visit, I sat in the garden in front of the Dharma Hall for a bit, trying to absorb it all, and then I slowly drove back toward the entrance, thinking about some of the last words of the Buddha: “All phenomena are imperfect and subject to decay and death.” When I got to the pond, I stopped my care], took one last look at the Goddess of Mercy, and thought about the dire threat that had would up not injured not a single soul. I gave her a thumbs-up and said “Good job!”