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Reflections on Buddhist Sites in Malaysia

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.   — Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The Mahindarama Buddhist Temple is located in the beautiful city of Penang in Malaysia where people worship the Buddha and perform religious and philanthropic services. Those who come to Mahindarama Temple seeking religious services immediately head for the temple’s library, the home for the elderly or free medical services.

In addition to these excellent services, the temple hosted a novitiate retreat in December 2013 for ten days in which I participated. The wake-up bell rang at 4.30 am each morning. Around the Sri Lankan style Buddhist temple, trees gave off an earthy smell and the fog crept all around us. We sat in contemplation, breathing fresh air in and out. After meditation all monks queued up, surrounded by the morning flowers and the strong perfume from the blooming plants.

Crowds of people followed monks to the shrine hall where giant Buddha statues with disciples illuminate compassion. Venerable E. Indaratana led the Pali chanting while paying respect to the oversized Bo tree situated at one corner of the temple. At the end of the retreat, there was an excited anticipation in the opportunity to interview 80 year old Karma Yeshe Losel (Dhamma name Gumeda) who follows Tibetan Buddhism. He spent long hours in deep meditation during the 10 day retreat.

In the interview, he positively said, ‘The retreat was so profound and I spent valuable days in the path taught by the Buddha.’ Encouraged by this positive remark I asked about his family, and his mysterious answer was so passionate. He said, ‘My father was a Chinese Taoist and mother an Indonesian Christian. Now I have four children and the youngest one follows me as a Buddhist, two follow Taoism and Islam, and the other one doesn’t follow any religion, and the most important issue is that we do not have any difficulty in our family.’ From him I have learnt how a family lives pleasantly without violating other faiths.

As my main job during my stay in Malaysia was learning different types of Buddhist culture and practice, I spent substantial time travelling around Penang city. The city is better known to travelers for its excellent Buddhist sites than supermarkets, shopping malls, etc. It is known also as a place for tourists seeking a life of relaxation for a few days.

I went with my friend Bob Cheah to a snake temple situated in Sungai Kluang which is one of the most attractive places in the world. The temple is famous for its numerous poisonous snakes. It is an old temple dedicated to the Buddhist monk Choo Sor Kong who gave shelter to the snakes of the jungle which are now regarded as holy and harmless. A photographer in the temple is on hand to charge for photos of people holding the snakes.

We walked to another Buddhist temple where a giant Guanyin (Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva) statue was situated. While at the temple, I observed closely the practices and activities that were being held. Next to the Buddhist temple were a Christian Church and Hindu Temple where people crowded very politely, sharing their religious knowledge. I followed a person to both the Church and Hindu Temple and from what I observed at these three adjacent diverse religious places of worship really impressed me. An even more delightful experience can be obtained when Muslims are praying in a mosque and Hindus are performing ritual activities in temples decorated with uncountable astonishing sculptures.

My vision was enlarged to a new frontier of knowledge by no longer making a distinction between a temple being Theravada or Mahayana. Penang Buddhist Association is a wonderful place which has a senior citizens’ home to care for disadvantaged elderly people. It is a large temple ornately decorated with various Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. They organize a Sunday Dhamma School where a number of young Buddhists attend.

It was an eye-catching scene when I entered the Kek Lok Si temple. It is known as Temple of Supreme Bliss which is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and one of the most famous temples in Penang. It is on the mountain slope where people can easily enjoy the natural beauty surrounding them. When I came closer to the temple my heart became more generous after looking at the biggest Guanyin statue which impresses people with its loveable and compassionate face. With exquisite decorations and wonderful structure the temple can be defined as a complex of inner chambers with unique functions. A number of people from different faiths visit the temple to discover the lessons of peace, purity, harmony, simplicity, hope and glory of Buddhism.

The Dhammaikarama Burmese Buddhist temple is located in the heart of Penang city, just opposite the famous reclining Buddha statue in Wat Chayamangkalarama, a Thai temple. The attraction of this temple is the huge marble Buddha statue from which we may gain a source of eternal happiness and wisdom. The huge standing Buddha statue and 33 meter gold plated reclining Buddha statue of the Thai temple show the serenity and joy from which we can learn the lesson to respect other nations’ culture and tradition.

At the end of the tour in Penang, my destination was to a forest temple near the Penang cemetery. When I entered the forest, I experienced the natural beauty as a joy forever touching the human heart. In a short meditation course I enjoyed an inexpressible and unforgettable inner joy. The meditation huts are surrounded by charming green hills on which the meditator can reflect on impermanence.

I also went to Kuala Lumpur with Chin Shey Kong. On the way we visited Thai cave temples close to Ipoh city. These caves have a more sophisticated natural design but they are inconspicuous and streamlined. These cave temples are decorated with Buddha and Bodhisattva statues as part of a monastic complex home to a mix of Theravada and Mahayana traditions. It is an easy day for visitors, just a short walking distance from Ipoh Highway.

In Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Buddhist Academy is an institution of higher education providing Buddhist studies. It is the first Buddhist institution affiliated with the Open University of Malaysia for Buddhist studies. It was quite strange that in spite of 25% of Malaysians being Buddhist, until recently there have been only monastic studies but no formal Buddhist studies at university level. Credit should go to the Malaysian Buddhist Academy for taking very important steps in promoting the Buddhist teachings.

There are many Buddhist temples which explore the great compassion of the Buddha by providing enormous benefits without distinction of race, nationality, gender and so on. Most of the temples are engaged in social work such as free medical service and homes for the elderly. Among the many temples two Sri Lankan temples, Buddhist Mahavihara and Sri Lanka Buddhist temple are praiseworthy for promoting Buddhism.

A renowned Buddhist monk, Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda, belonging to Buddhist Mahavihara Temple dedicated his entire life to Malaysian Buddhists. He was also a pioneer for Theravada Buddhism widely respected for his writings and teachings. The chief abbot of the Sri Lanka Buddhist temple, Venerable B. Sri Saranankar, and the local people have established two charitable organizations, namely Mahakaruna Buddhist Society and Yayasan MahaKaruna whose members provide free clinics, free tuition classes and so on regardless of race or religion. Apart from these bountiful services, they are promoting Buddhism by organizing Dhamma School for locals, publishing Buddhist books, etc. I was so pleased when Venerable B. Saranankar said he has awarded scholarships to two Bangladeshi monks studying at the University of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya in Thailand and donated a three-story building to the Bangladesh Buddhist Temple at Bodhgaya in India.

The Dhammapala Buddhist Lodge in Nilay is also a religious abode for local and international Buddhists. Buddhists who are working in this area from Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand go to Dhammapala Lodge for religious services. Venerable Dhammasakkaro, an eminent Theravada monk in Malaysia, provides all religious services to local Buddhists as well as for the rest of Malaysia.   

The teaching of the Buddha is always one of compassion and loving kindness towards all living beings. With these ambitions the Buddhists of Malaysia have engaged in philanthropic activities which have a positive impact both spiritually and charitably. As I had a noble aim of acquiring more knowledge from this trip, I tried to accumulate my experience and reflections from the Buddhist sites. I was motivated by their activities which have influenced me to be a social worker like them. From my journey I have learnt a lot about Malaysian courtesy, culture and tradition. Their generous spirit and activities have motivated me to serve people in a similar way to what they have been implementing.

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A novitiate congregation held in Penang for promoting Buddhism

Ven. BD Dipananda is a young Bangladeshi monk awarded BA (Hons) from Calcutta University, MA from Pune University in India and MBS (Master of Buddhist Studies) from the University of Hong Kong. Currently he is pursuing a MPhil degree from the University of Hong Kong and he is the News and Social Media Editor at BDI.

Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang,Guan Yin Statue. Photo: BD Dipananda
Christian Church and Hindu Temple. Photo: BD Dipananda
Penang Buddhist Association. Photo: BD Dipananda
Standing Buddha in Burmese Temple. Photo: BD Dipananda
Thai Cave Temple, Ipoh. Photo: BD Dipananda
Mahavihara Temple in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: BD Dipananda

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