Chinese Buddhism in Penang – Buddhistdoor Global

Penang State in Malaysia is probably the most religiously diverse place I have ever visited. As I walked through George Town, the capital of Penang, I was completely enchanted by the density of the different religious architectures. In the morning, the Hindu deities of the Sri Mahamariamman temple are awakened in a puja ritual. Throughout the day the sound of adhan, the call to prayer, is heard from the minaret of the Kapitan Keling Mosque. In the afternoon, I overlook the awe-inspiring view of the sea from Kek Lok Si (極樂寺) on the hill of Penang, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.

From the start of the Common Era, Buddhism was introduced to the Malay Archipelago through Indian influence. However, Chinese Buddhism did not arrive until the second half of the 17th century, long after Islam had become the majority religion. When Chinese immigrants, mainly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces in southeast China, came to seek work and business opportunities, they also brought their beliefs and practices. The Kong Hock Keong (Guang Fu Gong, 廣 福 å®®) temple in central George Town is a prime example. The name “Guang” refers to immigrants from Guangdong, while “Fu” refers to those from Fujian because the temple was funded by 454 individuals and companies from both Chinese communities. Since its construction in 1800, Kong Hock Keong has been one of the most important places in Penang for worshipers of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which is why the temple is better known as Kuan Yin Teng (Guanyin Ting, 觀音 亭).

The entrance to Kong Hock Keong. Author’s photo

For me, this temple reflects several characteristics of Chinese Buddhism in Penang. First, it is a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist and folk beliefs popular in Southeast China. In the main room, Mazu, tutelary goddess of sailors, is worshiped alongside Guanyin. Another room houses a collection of various statues, such as Guan Yu (god of martial arts), Wenchang Gong (god of culture), Zhusheng Niangniang (goddess of fertility), Jade Emperor, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha and even Confucius. This is directly related to the second characteristic: Orthodoxy is here of secondary importance in the Chinese Buddhist community. Indeed, many temples around Penang are ruled by lay Buddhists. As immigrants and as an ethnic minority their main concern is survival, and rites that grant protection have received much more prominence than scriptural texts. Third, Buddhist temples bring together Chinese people from different parts of China. Chinese from the same local and dialect group often build guild halls, called Huiguan (會館), where they organize business among themselves. However, when a conflict arises between groups of different origins, Buddhist temples provide a neutral place where goodwill and sacred witness are present. To this day, Kong Hock Keong has been led by representatives from the origins of Guangdong and Fujian.

However, these factors are only what was obvious to me as a tourist. To look beneath the surface, I contacted the Malaysian Buddhist Association (MBA) located at 182 Burmah Road in Penang, where I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Loo Keat Seng, the associate secretary. The MBA was founded in 1959. Its headquarters in Penang was built in 1971, consisting of a Buddha hall, offices, libraries, a kindergarten and a free clinic. Loo explained to me that the MBA serves as a bridge between Buddhist temples, organizations, individuals, and the Malaysian government. While the government does not interfere with Buddhist activities, the association helps ensure that their religious needs are understood and met in this Muslim country. For example, the Vesak, a most important festival for Buddhists of all traditions as it commemorates the birth of the Buddha, has been declared a public holiday in Malaysia thanks to the efforts of the MBA.

The Buddha Hall of the Malaysian Buddhist Association.  Photo by Miaochuan.  From fo.ifeng.com
The Buddha Hall of the Malaysian Buddhist Association. Photo by Miaochuan. From fo.ifeng.com

According to Loo, more than 20% of the Malaysian population is of Chinese descent, or around 6 million people. About 30 percent of Malaysian Chinese identify as Christians, while the rest identify as Buddhists and Taoists, with a very small number of Muslims and other religious affiliations. However, Loo observed, the number of Buddhists who have formally taken refuge in the Three Jewels is much smaller. The MBA has approximately 30,000 registered members. In terms of monastic sangha, a 2016 survey showed that there were 562 bhikkhunis and 372 bhikkhus in the Chinese Buddhist community. Loo added that since he first became interested in Buddhism decades ago, the number of female monastics has consistently exceeded that of men. They receive full ordination either at the aforementioned Kek Lok Si or in monasteries in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Kek Lok Si. Photo © Arne Müseler
Kek Lok Si. Photo © Arne Müseler

We talked about how Chinese Buddhism was first introduced to what is now Malaysia and Singapore by immigrants from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. However, after settling down and achieving great commercial success, Buddhist monks from the same regions followed, seeking to raise funds to build monasteries in their hometowns. Some of these monks returned to China, while others stayed. Their role has also shifted from simply performing rites to teaching Dharma to local residents. For example, Ven. Miaolian (妙蓮, 1824-1907), a highly respected Chan master from Fujian, was persuaded by his followers in Penang to stay during his visit. He later founded Kek Lok Si. Master Zhumo (竺 摩, 1913-1983), widely regarded as the “father of Chinese Buddhism in Malaysia”, was originally from Zhejiang province. It established the Triple Wisdom Hall in 1965 as the main center for the teaching of Chinese Buddhism. The stories of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who contributed to the development of Chinese Buddhism in Malaysia and Singapore are brought together in a four-volume publication The archives of Chinese Buddhist missionaries in the south (南 遊 雲 水情), edited by Ven. Kai Ti (开 谛). *

The first congress of the Chinese Buddhist Association
in Penang, 1959. Image courtesy of the Malaysian
Buddhist Association

What is exciting about Chinese Buddhism in Malaysia is that it is always evolving. The monastic sangha is developing, albeit slowly, and interest in Buddhism has grown more and more serious over the years. In 1969, the Malaysian Buddhist Institute was founded under the auspices of the MBA, offering a study program lasting 4 to 5 years. Students are to learn traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink painting, as well as Dharma. Today, the institute has a staff of 200 students, made up of both monks and lay Buddhists, some of whom continue their studies in other Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka. Other established orders also established centers in Penang, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Taiwan’s Fo Guang Shan.

However, this does not mean that there are no challenges for Buddhism in Malaysia. Indeed, some might say that there are simply too many religious groups in Malaysia. Loo himself was recently elected chairman of the Malaysian Advisory Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST). Within the Buddhist community are the Theravada Buddhist Association, the Tibetan Buddhist Association, the Malaysian Buddhist Youth Association and a myriad of small groups. Although the phenomenon itself is positive, such a division has potential problems. Management is not always efficient and the unity can sometimes be overshadowed by different voices. Since all Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha, Loo believes they could best help Buddhists and contribute to Malaysian society by joining hands. In the years to come, he hopes for more exchanges and greater mutual support between different Buddhist groups.

* The archives of Chinese Buddhist missionaries in the south (南 遊 雲 水情) (Malaysian Buddhist Association)

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