Seng Guan Temple: Beautiful Place of Worship

Last Saturday, it was Nina’s turn to show our PhD class a communication environment that none of us had ever been in. Her choice: The Seng Guan Temple in Binondo.

Frankly, my mind had been so used to Hollywood depictions of Kung Fu monks that I thought we’d find ourselves in a huge castle-like building that had a ginormous open area for practicing martial arts. That was really a silly thought, for I quickly realized that though Seng Guan Temple is a gargantuan place, it is nothing like its Hollywood counterparts.

It was breathtakingly exquisite, nonetheless.

But first I had a problem with my camera settings, not because Shin-Chan2 is inadequate, but because everything inside the temple was gilded in gold. That means, everything will bounce off all available light. That means, I, as a photographer was inadequate. (I still resisted the urge to use flash.)

Above photo: These were the first three Buddhas that greeted us. The security guard warned us not to take photos of the people, which made me wonder if it had anything to do with the belief about souls being trapped in pictures. In any case, I tried my best to keep people out of my camera except for my classmates.

Our tour guide, Carlos Tan, was very accommodating. Here he explains the Law of Karma and how they don’t really have a concept of everlasting life after death. Your souls reincarnate after ten thousand years but only after you have paid your dues in Karma. He gave us a funny example about a man who would sweep his house’s filth towards that of his neighbors instead of simply cleaning up. That man’s soul, he said, would end up in the sewers so he could make up for his life of unabashed filthiness.

Here Mr. Tan demonstrates how people’s prayers are granted. The shells above show that the deity or ancestor says, “You may try again.” If both shells face down, the deity says, “No.” If one shell faces up and the other faces down, that means, “Yes.”

Each of these golden totems represents the departed. Many of the totems here are paired, meaning that many of them were married. Photographs of the departed are inserted into the circular picture frames. If their spouses are still alive, the frames that represent the spouses would be painted red and these would hold no photos.

Living relatives usually come here to pray for their dead, bringing with them food. Meat are not allowed into the sanctuary as the departed are considered vegetarians.

I also learned something about their dietary beliefs. Apparently, not everyone is required to become vegetarians. It’s just that there are certain conditions for meat to become forbidden: (1) If that animal was slaughtered in your name; (2) if you see that animal being slaughtered; and (3) if you heard the cries of that animal while it was being killed. I think I could live with that, since I don’t want to eat anything that I have seen while it was alive. (That’s why I never eat meat, fish or chicken that came from our Tagaytay farm.)

This gorgeous sight greeted me upon climbing up the second floor of the building. I never really noticed how detail-oriented Eastern art is until I saw the carvings on the ceiling and the walls. I guess I was literally blinded by all the gold on the first floor.

These etchings tell a beautiful story, as do all the other carvings and sculptures surrounding the entire temple.

Mr. Tan’s earlier tale of Ten Thousand Buddhas quickly came to mind. My classmates and I tried to come up with a theory as to how someone (err, not Mr. Tan), who came back to life, could list down the names of 10,000 Buddhas he had met while in the afterlife…

When we got there, the Buddhists were having mass, headed by monks. (It was actually the first time I have ever seen Buddhist monks in the Philippines.)

Seng Guan Temple has recently been holding masses for the victims of the recent hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand. Their practices are no less solemn than their Christian counterparts.

See the intricacy of the artworks on the walls and ceilings? Magnificent! I stayed the longest in this room. I couldn’t get over the architectural details.

Can you imagine that this temple started out pretty small? It was almost just a room and then it expanded over the years until it grew to these proportions. Chitchat talked about how rich Eastern culture is, how their arts flourished just as much as their sciences. Beholding these lovely panels, I couldn’t agree more.

And this great hall is where the largest Buddha rests. It almost resembles a banquet hall. It was that huge.

Thing is, the grandeur of this hall does not stop right in front of you. You need to look at the sides, at the floor and up the ceiling to appreciate all of it. And maybe, even that wouldn’t be enough.

I had to take a photo of that ceiling in proportion to the giant Buddha. That area where the light pours in? A closer look would reveal yet another artwork. You need zoom lens to capture it, though.

This is how the center of the ceiling looks like. My naked eye couldn’t exactly see its textures as the sun was blindingly powerful that day. I had to rely on Shin-Chan2’s zooming prowess to see what IĀ  physically could not.

Here’s a closer inspection. Mr. Tan said that the material used for this was something similar to the capiz. It’s what gives this colorful symbol its grainy texture.

This actually reminds me of the stained glass panels usually found in Catholic churches. It’s fascinating to see that a Buddhist temple could also have something similar to those.

Up next is the area where most of the charitable projects take place. Mr. Tan talked about feeding and education programs for young children.

Above photo: I asked about what kind of Buddha this statue represented and I was told that this isn’t Buddha. It’s a female deity, whose name I wasn’t able to catch. That’s a lot of hands and I only know of a female deity with ten hands at most, but she had three faces: Pratishara. This is not her.

This is where most of the cooking takes place. As you can see, they store so much firewood. Mr. Tan said this is used for feeding programs as well as festivals. In fact, there’s an up and coming festival in October. I really would like to drop by, but the Christmas human traffic sounds a bit too scary…so we’ll see.

On our way out, I noticed more of the Chinese artwork on the front door. (I can’t believe I actually missed seeing these on my way in.) I wondered how long it took for these stone carvings to take shape. The process must be similar to printmaking, and goodness knows how tedious and painful that is.

Notice the dates on that post? It’s commemorative of the Japanese occupation during World War II. This temple has been through a lot and it’s been up for decades. I am truly relieved that it had survived, especially since so many of our historical landmarks did not live to see this day.

Last but not least, the infamous dragon and his ball. I’m not particularly fond of this photo as I think I could have taken a better one, but the dragon (dog?) shouldn’t be left out of this story. Rod and Jenny discussed the magical essence of that ball and how it could help us pass our comprehensive exams. I don’t really know if that’s true or they were just pulling my leg. In any case, that ball looked like it didn’t belong to that mouth. Hehe.

Class photo, from left: Me, Julienne, Chitchat, Rod, Doc Joey, Mr. Carlos Tan, Nina. Jenny was not in the picture because she was the one who took this. I actually just grabbed this from her Facebook site because Shin-Chan2’s version was much too small (the giant Buddha overpowered us).

And because Jenny was not in the class pic, I took this especially for her. This was taken while we were on our way to Hap Chan for lunch. Yum. But I’m leaving that treat for another blog entry. Hehe.

Oh, and here’s a map for the readers who have expressed interest in visiting the place. Click the image for a larger view.


  1. bleubug

    September 13, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Truly an amazing place! When confronted with so much to see I always wonder how long it would take me to examine everything closely that deserves it. A month of 8 hour days? 6 months?

    But as in a great art collection places like this give me sensory overload. A version of that is what I call museum fatigue. After a few hours you say “Oh, look another wonderful work or art…and another…yep, there's one more. Are you hungry?” I feel terrible about myself when I can't keep up the intense awe and close observation of such lovely things over the hours. Add all the gold ornament as you saw here and in short order I'd just be standing and staring mumbling words like “Pretty. Is pretty.”

  2. elmot

    September 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    At last, had accessed your comment box, ehehehe!

    I must say that you are one good photographer, great shots!

    I love places like this one coz the structure is already telling many historical footnotes not only about religion but of people.

    Can't wait to know what you had for lunch after a great tour of Seng Guan Temple, ehehehehe!

  3. skysenshi

    September 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I know what you mean about sensory overload. I actually experienced that when I went to Manila Art:

    The good thing about this trip, though, was that I seem to have filtered a lot of things already (overexposure to art responsible for it, I guess?). I get shocked at myself for not noticing some of the details earlier. Like that front door, which I only noticed at the end of the trip.

    I had to take out a lot of the photos, actually, because of the overabundance of gold. And I think…yeah, hunger was the reason why I couldn't take a decent photo of the dog-dragon. LOL!

  4. skysenshi

    September 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Ei, welcome aboard! It's great seeing you here. Yay!

    It's true what you said about the historical value of the photos. I really loved Mr. Tan's stories about Karmic cycles and vegetarian souls. Seriously, it makes me wanna go vegan.

    Well…the lunch may have to wait since I'm covering the first Game Development Convention in the Philippines tomorrow (it only lasts till Saturday, I think). But I love Hap Chan! Can't wait to post about it.

    Thanks for dropping by!! And thanks for the compliment (about my photography).

  5. jean lapa

    September 14, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I agree, you have become a good photographer (if i am good enough a judge) – with an eye for details. The photos seem to say “you need to see us” – where is this, by the way?

  6. skysenshi

    September 14, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Right at the heart of Binondo. Getting there is kind of confusing but it is worth it. The stories that support these photos — as told by Mr. Tan — are wondrous.

    Re: photography…the irony is, I'm more enthusiastic about it now that I've sold my dSLR. There are still some certain types of lens I want to use. I miss Shin-chan1's blow-up capabilities. It's also only now that I've managed to tweak my cam the way I used to tweak a traditional manual SLR. I couldn't do it with my dSLR.

  7. *MrsMartinez*

    September 15, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Grabe Bea!
    This is so near my school! and I remember accompanying my grandmother whenever there is an occasion to this exact same temple. It has been awhile since my last visit ; (

  8. Dwan Mei

    September 16, 2010 at 8:04 am

    Hi! great post. may i know how do i get to seng guan temple? i was thinking of going there this saturday but i don't know how to commute.

    Love the blog and the site! šŸ™‚

  9. skysenshi

    September 16, 2010 at 11:31 am

    @Dwan Mei
    Oh, wow. That's a difficult question since we were taken there by my classmate Nina (in a car). It is in Narra street though.

    I've read somewhere that you can take a calesa tour and you can rely on this to take you there. šŸ™‚

  10. skysenshi

    September 16, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    As requested, I edited this blog entry and added a map at the bottom of the post. Hope it helps. šŸ˜€

  11. *MrsMartinez*

    September 28, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Grabe Bea!
    This is so near my school! and I remember accompanying my grandmother whenever there is an occasion to this exact same temple. It has been awhile since my last visit ; (

  12. Dwan

    November 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I just saw your reply. We were able to find the temple. It was an adventure just finding it but nevertheless it was worth it! Thank you! šŸ™‚ Hoping to read more of your thoughts. Got inspired to write again. hihi

  13. Gina

    April 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Be advised that this temple is not representative of all Buddhism. Many Buddhists don't believe in gods, or even getting prayers answered. Buddhism is very different in different countries.

  14. skysenshi

    April 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    That is understandable, as with every other system of beliefs. It is the same with Christianity, different in each country.

  15. IamSuperBloo

    February 1, 2014 at 9:26 am

    you should not have taken a photo of those people praying. They were wearing white. They were praying for their recently dead relative that was probably buried that day. That was rude.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.