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Chinese Year of the Dragon begins on note of prosperity

Rainy skies are deemed to be good luck on the lunar new year as families visit the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights.

January 24, 2012|By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times
  • Felix Li , 3, of Gardena places a candle with the help of his mother during a celebration for the Year of the Dragon.
Felix Li , 3, of Gardena places a candle with the help of his mother during… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

The rain poured steadily and the sky was gray. But that didn't stop thousands of visitors from hiking up the steps of the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights to welcome the lunar new year.

"Prosperity flows with water," said Liang Zhu of El Monte, quoting a Chinese proverb. "It's so rare that it rains on the first of the new year. It's lucky."

Zhu, along with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, pushed up against a stone railing in a sculpture garden where people cheerfully threw coins over the edge, trying to hit a small bell. A cheer erupted whenever a coin clanged against the bronze, assuring a year of prosperity was to come.

Throughout the day, families — from faithful Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists to the merely curious — descended on one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere. They filled an overflow parking lot half a mile from the temple, patiently waited for a shuttle and weathered the rain in red outerwear and colorful umbrellas.

Strangers smiled and wished one another good health and peace. Volunteers handed out candy, symbolizing a year of sweetness. Monks gently reminded visitors to uncross their legs while sitting in the shrine, a gesture of respect to the Buddha. Parents clasped their toddlers' hands together, teaching them how to pray and bow with their palms open.

It's the Year of the Dragon, viewed by many as a auspicious and powerful year. The Year of the Rabbit brought wisdom last year, and the dragon will now provide protection and heavenly blessings. But at the temple Monday, these Feng Shui and zodiac beliefs were secondary to paying homage to family, Buddha, and pausing to reflect.

The Chinese believe that one must go to temple on Day 1 to light the first incense of the new year, said the Venerable Jue Huang, who has practiced at the temple for more than a decade. "We can see everything, and our future, more clearly," Huang said of the ritual.

Across an outdoor plaza, Julius Darmali of Temple City waited patiently with his family and friends to ring a large bronze bell. One strike is said to release suffering and worry, with the resonating sound heard by both heaven and Earth.

"It's custom," Darmali said. "Ring in the new year with a big bang to scare the evil away."

He held his 4-year-old son, dressed head to toe in red, and held his small hands with the hammer and gave the bell a sturdy thump. Darmali then held the hammer himself, bowed toward the main shrine and hit the bell.

"I want them to understand and appreciate the culture," he said of his two children. Darmali is of Chinese descent and has come to the temple each year since emigrating from Indonesia in 1994.

The Thousand Buddha Dharma Function began mid-morning in the temple's main shrine, an open room lined with more than 10,000 gold Buddhas. Visitors, crowding in the alcoves outside to avoid the rain, quietly entered and joined the masses bowing, swaying and chanting Buddha's name to the melodic bells and muffled drumbeats.

Jullie McCurdy of Claremont, who's half-Vietnamese and a Christian, burned incense with her mother and a friend outside the main shrine. McCurdy said she has gone to temple every lunar new year for 15 years, mainly to enjoy the atmosphere.

"We don't have family here, so we come to temple," said McCurdy, Her mother, Kim, said the celebrations reminded her of the culture she knew as a child in Vietnam.

"It's nice just to be surrounded by all these people also here for the same thing," she said.

Loud drums and crashing cymbals reverberated through the main shrine, beginning an afternoon of cultural performances by local community groups. Families gathered inside to watch the dragon and lion dances, taking pictures and clapping just as enthusiastically as the children.

Outside, the rain had stopped, giving way to blue skies. Visitors left the safety of the alcoves and streamed into the plaza, admiring the colorful decorations in the sunlight. Crowding around a gold-foiled wishing tree, Terry Ly handed out red ribbons to her six family members.

Participants throw the ribbons, each attached to a heavy bronze coin, as high into the tree as possible, praying that their wishes will come true in the new year.

"Throw one for daddy," Ly told her husband. She laughed, worried that she did not throw hers quite high enough.

"The rain was prosperous, but everything looks so different now that the sun is out," she said. "The day turned out beautiful."

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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