You may be forgiven for thinking you've travelled into another dynasty. Though the busy Botany Town Centre is only minutes away, the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple that stands tall at Flat Bush, has changed the skyline of the suburb.
We've always been keen to discover what lies beyond the magnificent structure that overlooks the vast expanse of Sir Barry Curtis Park. Finally the moment has arrived.
As we drive into the gates of the biggest Buddhist temple in New Zealand, set over 3.65ha of spiritually cultivated land, we are greeted by the most enchanting sight of a group of women gracefully doing the fan dance.
My 9-year-old niece, Zeenia, finds her instant calling as she runs across to join the fan club. The women in white are dancing to a rhythmic beat, opening and shutting their colourful fans with a sharp click.
Watching them dressed in traditional regalia against the silhouette of the temple feels like a page out of another era. We're told the dance practice is for the big performance at tomorrow's Buddha's Day.
A flight of steps leads to the huge foyer of the temple that propagates the ideals of humanistic Buddhism and education through art and culture.
The larger-than-life shrine of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, who embodies compassion, smiles back at the assortment of tourists, women's groups, young families and volunteers strolling into the precincts of the beautifully designed temple. The energy is positively vibrant and relaxed.
On the left of the foyer is the inviting spiritual shop with its exquisite collection of artefacts, jade statues, jewellery, incense sticks, books, diaries and lucky charms. The spiritual shop further leads to the Water Drop Vegetarian Cafe. Though the aroma of the food is tempting, it's perhaps one of those enlightened moments that make us opt for nourishment of the soul over gluttony at this point of the day.
Instead, we walk towards the wooden doorway that opens up to a jaw-droppingly beautiful backdrop of the palatial temple itself, which is designed in the style of the Tang Dynasty.
The manicured courtyard, lined with Zen gardens, elevated cherry blossom pathways, hexagonal-shaped stone lanterns, a wishing bell and statues of novice monks is a sight to behold. All the elements of design in the courtyard have a much deeper significance. The sprawling courtyard of little concrete blocks and mondo grass, signifies a "field of merit".
According to one of the Buddhist nuns we meet, venerable Man Wang who joins us on our stroll through the gardens, the design recalls the old Chinese fields where the philosophy of sowing good deeds to reap good karma works.
The stone lanterns with bell chimes represent the light bearers in the chain of existence; while the trees and the rocks from different rivers around the world tell stories of a bygone era to the next generation, representing spiritual strength in life.
We take a quick stroll to the art gallery to see the exhibition of Estuary Artworks. Zeenia is inspired by an idea for a school project. I'm more drawn to the Zen calligraphy next-door, by a Melbourne-based calligrapher, Kim Hoa Tram. My other half prefers the Way of Life photography exhibition displaying stunning visuals of the Fo Guang Shan temple in the North Island and the more modern structure in the South Island.
The 9-year-old is keen to watch the novice monks. And there is a story in there, says venerable Man Wang.
She explains that the concept behind it is for children to learn from novice monks how to have a balance between work and play. The novice monks also signify innocence and a sense of being carefree. Zeenia is inspired by the little monk meditating and decides to mirror his actions for the camera- which is a good beginning.
The wishing bell in the courtyard is a magnet for adults and kids alike. However, the real point of illumination is the ringing of the cast iron bell that weighs 3000kg. It's rung 108 times, twice a day at 6.45am and 4.30pm.
Spending the day at the Fo Guang Shan temple is about getting away from the hubbub of city life and soaking in the culture and the serenity. A definite sense of calm envelops us as we enter the main shrine where Buddha has been carved from a single block of white jade. The holographic images all around the main shrine symbolise the future Buddha in everyone. Animals included.
This explains why the Tea House with its rustic decor serves vegetarian food. Finally, at the Water Drop Cafe, the 9-year-old opts for nuggets, only to realise later that they were the healthiest soy bean nuggets she's ever had.
We relish the delicately flavoured Good Wish rice served with crispy tempura vegetables and a plate of scrumptious spring rolls, washed down by lemon ginger tea. The cafe is packed and it is only the steady stream of people coming in that prompts our exit. And this is only because we know we are going to be back soon for the Buddha's Day food jamboree.
The Buddha's Day multicultural festival is on tomorrow. The opening prayer ceremony is at 9.40pm followed by Bathing of the Buddha, with multicultural dance performances from noon to 4pm. Entertainment includes Children's Wonderland, games, calligraphy and more. There's a Baby Blessing ceremony at 1.30pm, where newborn to 5-year-olds will be blessed with love, wisdom and good fortune, and here will be food stalls selling Asian cuisine as well as gift items and souvenirs.
On Saturday mornings at 9.30pm there is free meditation and tai chi for the public. On Thursdays from 7.30pm to 9pm, venerable Miaoyu leads a meditation class that involves walking meditation in the courtyard and learning to focus on your breath and every movement you make. School and university groups can book a cultural experience of calligraphy, tai chi, tea ceremony, principles of Buddhism, chanting and meditation.
Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple is at 16 Stancombe Rd, Flat Bush, Manukau. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am-5pm. See fgs.org.nz for information or bookings. Ph (09) 274 4880.