The Tao of Tom
Visited: November 2017
Entering Chinatown in Los Angeles, Thien Hau Temple beckoned me on a unique journey, where, unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eventually experience the “Tao of Tom.” Once again, this was a Southern California landmark chosen entirely at random with me not knowing exactly what would transpire. As so often is the case, it was the “unexpected” that highlighted my visit…or should I say, “visits.”
As it turned out, I would make two trips during the same week to find out as much as I could about this colorful Taoist temple operated by the Camau Association of America, a “local benevolent, cultural and religious association primarily directed at and associated with the local Vietnamese refugees from Camau Province of Vietnam.” It was once the location of a Christian church, which was purchased in the 1980s and transformed into a Taoist temple that was finished in 2005 and dedicated the following year.
I had learned before I visited that Thien Hau Temple (Chua Ba Thien Hau in Vietnamese and as Tian Hou Gong in Chinese) is dedicated to Mazu, the Taoist goddess of the sea. She was the patron saint to sailors, fishermen, and to those whose cultures are associated with the sea. There are a few other important gods that are also worshipped here, too. I’ll get to all of them.
As I approached, I saw a woman exiting the temple holding a bunch of sticks lit at one end (burning incense…no peppermints), and she walked to what I perceived to be a shrine at the front of the building. After a moment of reflection, she put the lighted end of the stick into the stand and moved on. I would learn later a little bit about what she was doing.
There was an interesting wall carving…
On either side of the front doors are two beautiful, painted doors.
Walking inside Thien Hau Temple is definitely a “Wow” experience. The colors consume you, while lanterns, candles, flowers and fruit overwhelm your senses at every turn.
Everywhere I turned…
…or spellbinding light fixtures.
I wandered aimlessly (a trait I have pretty much perfected) until a gentlemen came over and asked my name. With no outstanding warrants to my name I replied truthfully, and he identified himself as Michael and told me he was the docent, tour guide and ambassador of the temple. Michael told me to take as many photos as I liked. He said the temple is dedicated to Mazu (or “Mama” as she is affectionately called). He said one can feel gratitude and love as soon as they enter the temple. He added. “It is a cultural and spiritual place.”
As we gazed at the abundance of fruit and flowers that lay before us, Michael explained that these were gifts of gratitude for Mazu, whose shrine was up front along with a couple of others.
According to the website, Mazu’s “mortal name” was Lin Moniang. “According to the legend, Lin Moniang was born in 960 as the seventh daughter of Lin Yuan on Meizhou Island, Fujian. She did not cry when she was born, and hence her given name means “Silent Girl”. According to legend, Lin Moniang’s father and brothers were fisherman. She wore red garments while standing on the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in the most dangerous and harsh weather. After her death, the families of many fisherman and sailors began to pray in her honor of her acts of courage in trying to save those at sea.”
At the right of Mazu’s shrine is one for Guan Yu, a very important Chinese historical figure. He’s portrayed as a re-faced warrior with a long beard. “Guan Yu was a general under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Kingdom of Shu, of which Liu Bei was the first emperor.”
The website added he is “still being worshiped today among the Chinese people variedly as an indigenous Chinese deity, a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and a guardian deity in Taoism. Guan Yu is sometimes called the Taoist god of war as he is one of the most well-known military generals in Chinese History.”
On the left of Mazu is the shrine to Fu De (aka Tu Di Gong), a local earth god worshipped in China, who Michael equated to Santa Claus because of his importance for all things material. The website adds, “Worshipers make prayers to him for wealth and their well being.”
There are two of these stands with eight weapons apiece making for a total of 16 (sometimes that San Diego State Math 3 course pays off). Michael told me they have something to do with the martial arts and that there actually should be a total of 18. He didn’t know why each one was one short.
Ceilings both inside…
…and outside were colorful, as well.
Unfortunately I had to leave, but as I exited Michael invited me back for future visit. Knowing there was something I missed, two days later I was back at Thien Hau Temple, and so was Michael. I started to ask him questions, but he explained that instead of answering, I should experience the temple as it was meant to be. This meant praying at or meditating at each of the 11 altars (at that point I hadn’t known there were 11 altars).
To get my bearings straight, Michael took me on a quick tour of the 11 and then over to where I was literally going to “stop and smell the incense.” It was time for me to get my tau on.
Back outside in front of the temple, I found myself at the altar where I first spied the woman a couple of days earlier. The incense lit here is said to go “directly to the sky.” I said a quick prayer that I wouldn’t burn down the temple with my remaining sticks of incense.
The next two altars, located on opposite sides of the front entrance are appropriately named the “Guardians Of The Door.”
Altar #4 is the one for Mazu.
…and mini Guan Yu.
Directly underneath Mazu and her gifts is the seventh altar, which has a tiger. Michael told me tigers, elephants and dragons are important in the Asian culture.
I then moved to a room I hadn’t even seen on my first visit here, first passing by this smiling face.
The next altar is dedicated the god of compassion. Michael explained to me on our altar run-through that this altar and the following one were dedicated to Buddha, although this is not a Buddhist temple.
The last inside altar is dedicated to departed relatives and ancestors, while the final altar (outside) represents “unknown souls.”
Afterward, I chatted with Michael a bit more and he told me that people from all over the world come to experience Thien Hau Temple.
Although this is where numerous Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese people come to worship, Michael added that people from all denominations visit what he calls “this sacred space” and that “all are welcome.” He said people stop by and offer items such as fruit and flowers. Others stop by just to experience the beauty.
On both occasions that I stopped in, persons walked in to meditate and take in the peaceful aura that the temple provides.
Visiting the temple is free, however donations are appreciated. If you happen to be in Chinatown and need a peaceful respite, Thien Hau Temple just might be your perfect oasis to escape that hectic life for a little while, and hopefully you can keep your harmonious and positive consciousness as you attempt to navigate the Los Angeles traffic on your way back home.
Thien Hau Temple
756 Yale Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Cost: Free • Parking (lot free)