Following Buddha Through San Francisco

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A BLOCK off Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown -- beyond the well-worn path tourists take past souvenir shops, restaurants and a dive saloon called the Buddha Bar -- begins a historical tour of a more spiritual nature.

Duck into a nondescript doorway at 125 Waverly Place, ascend five narrow flights and step into the first and oldest Buddhist temple in the United States.

At the Tien Hau Temple, before an intricately carved gilded wooden shrine and ornate Buddha statues, under dozens of paper lanterns, Buddhists in the Chinese tradition still burn pungent incense and leave offerings to the goddess Tien Hau in return for the promise of happiness and a long life.

Established in 1852 by Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush and named for a 10th-century provincial woman who protected people at sea, the original temple burned down in the fire set off by the 1906 earthquake but eventually found its new home in this three-block-long alley.

Over the next 150 years, San Francisco would continue to water those early seeds of Buddhism planted in America, as geography, social history and waves of immigrants made it fertile ground for a once esoteric tradition now grown so popular that the Dalai Lama regularly fills football stadiums.

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