Tracing the Paths of Buddhism in Malaysia

DESPITE BEING OSTENSIBLY an academic book Buddhist Revitalization and Chinese Religions in Malaysia by Penang-born academic Tan Lee Ooi is written in a very readable style. He explores how and why Malaysia’s disparate Chinese community, with its rich and complicated tapestry woven of threads of linguistic and cultural diversity is forging a new sense of identity (this is not to suggest that Tan skimps on any scholarly rigour – the bibliography alone takes up 13 full pages, and shows how meticulous and wide-ranging the author has been in his reading and research).

More specifically, Tan focuses on the gradual shift from the different traditional Daoist practices originally brought to Nanyang and practised by previous generations, towards a more cohesive and reformist Buddhist identity. This shift can be seen as analogous to the way Mandarin is increasing its linguistic dominance, supplanting other Chinese languages traditionally spoken in Malaysia.

Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple. Photo: Nic Lee

Confluence and Homogenisation

A common thread of unification highlighted in both phenomena is at least in part a reaction to the minority status of Chinese Malaysians in the country. Linguistically, the main driver behind these ongoing changes is the local Mandarin-medium Chinese education system while on a religious level, the influence comes from reformist Buddhist movements, particularly from those based in Taiwan.

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But before getting into the details and mechanics of that, Tan spends a good deal of time laying out the historical background of Buddhism in Malaya and later Malaysia, centring most of his focus on the Peninsula, and later on Penang in particular.

Archaeological digs in Kedah unearthed statues of Buddha, Avalokiteśvara and other Bodhisattvas, as well as inscriptions in Pali and Sanskrit. Along with stupas and structures from the 5-8th centuries (some of which were subsequently demolished), these artefacts are (or were, as the case may be) irrefutable evidence of the presence and importance of Buddhism in pre-Islamic Malaya.

Most Malaysian readers will implicitly understand why Tan discreetly leaves largely unstated the reasons why Malaysia’s Hindu-Buddhist past does not currently feature strongly “in the writing of Malaysia’s mainstream national history”. Whether the nuance of his elisions will be fully understood by readers unfamiliar with local dynamics is questionable, as indeed is the notion of pure academic freedom in Malaysia. If history is not written by those in power, it must be written between the lines.

Apart from the archaeological past, Malaya’s Buddhism was largely fed by two streams: the Mahayana Buddhism brought by missionaries from China, and the Theravada Buddhism traditionally practised in South and Southeast Asia. Malaya became something of a crossroads, where influences from Thailand, Burma, China and Sri Lanka, among others, went on to give Malayan Buddhism its own particular colour.

Prior to 1860, Chinese subjects were prohibited from going overseas. Those who voluntarily expatriated themselves would have been very aware that there would be no return journey. They arrived in Malaya seeking better lives, but often bumped up against a reality that was trying and miserable. In this context, religion played a supportive psychological role.

Buddhist monks and nuns chanted and performed rituals, a balm to the weary, with a promise of improved circumstances ahead, whether in this life or another, but with relatively little focus on more transcendent or philosophical concerns. Buddhism also offered a sense of community for those far from home, playing a role in social cohesion, while providing a more wholesome alternative to some of the potential temptations, moral hazards and vices that might otherwise have engaged a weary labourer’s attentions.

Pre-pandemic, monks of different Buddhism streams leading the Wesak Day procession around George Town. Photo: Nic Lee

The British encouraged Burmese migrants to come to Malaya, but despite Dhammikarama, the oldest Burmese temple in Malaysia, being built in Penang in 1828, the Burmese population was always much smaller than the Thai community and had less of an influence on Buddhist practices.

Until the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, Malaya’s northernmost states fell under the remit of Siam. Due to its long historical presence, Thai Buddhist temples and Theravada practices have long been a feature of the cultural and physical landscape. Penang’s oldest Thai temple, Wat Chaiyamangalaram, was built in 1845, initially chiefly to serve the Thai migrant community.

Chinese influences on the architecture of the temple buildings came later, reflecting funding provided by wealthy Chinese sponsors. Some of the Thai monks were able to communicate in Hokkien and English, but the temple primarily played the role of prayer site for the Island’s Chinese devotees, rather than for proselytising non-Buddhists. Later, in the 19th century the Penang Buddhist Association invited Sinhalese monks to deliver dharma talks.

The first Buddhist society established by Sinhalese in Malaya was in KL’s Brickfields in 1894, followed later by the founding of the Sinhala Mahindarama Temple in Penang in 1918. Sinhalese immigrants often came with the colonial British, typically occupying clerical and administrative roles. Many were educated, spoke English and formed a very different stratum of society than the Chinese labourers working in the tin mines.

But there were English-educated Chinese too, and these Sinhalese Buddhist temples were important sites for the teaching of Buddhism, with “charismatic monks who could convincingly address English-educated Chinese” facilitating interactions between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism in Malaya.

Tan goes on to outline some of the history of Penang’s Kek Lok Si Temple, including its unique status as the only temple outside China to receive Emperor Kuang Hsü’s Imperial Sanction.

Having laid this extensive groundwork and historical overview, the reformation and reformulation of Buddhist practices and beliefs are explored. The author examines some of the more modern currents in Buddhism in Malaysia, including the proselytisation in Chinese-medium schools, intended to counteract the Confucian filial duty to continue the bloodline which tends to limit the number of monks taking vocations.

The role of the prominent monk Chi Chern is discussed, as is the not inconsiderable influence of Taiwan’s Tzu Chi and Fo Guang Shan organisations and the socially engaged roles its members play in modern Malaysia.

But the book becomes more poignant and personal towards its end, where the author discusses his father’s death, and the manner in which the desire for an austere Buddhist funeral was at odds with some of the more traditional Daoist rituals. This section is less formal, but also more anthropological, yet subjective, based on the author’s personal observations.

He narrates how his mother’s grieving was undermined (or perhaps bolstered) by the insistence and exhortations of well-meaning relatives and well-wishers who provided unsolicited advice on which traditions should be respected and which paper offerings should be burned, lest the father find himself sharing a dormitory in the afterlife, rather than having a house of his own.

This section also serves to underline that despite Buddhist reformation making a significant impact on Malaysia’s Chinese population, it has yet to fully supplant or replace the ancestral beliefs originally brought from pre-Maoist China, and shows that this unique traditional spiritual heritage is, despite ongoing changes, still very much a part of the Malaysian Chinese cultural landscape.

Marc de Faoite is a freelance writer and editor based in Penang. Originally from Dublin, he has lived in Malaysia since 2007.
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