Earlier in March, Tung Lin Kok Yuen (東蓮覺苑, TLKY), an historic Buddhist nunnery and educational institution located in Hong Kong’s leafy Happy Valley neighborhood, hosted an informal gathering of 18 visitors from the esteemed Centre of Buddhist Studies (CBS) at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). The guests included 15 recipients of postgraduate scholarships in Buddhist studies awarded by Tung Lin Kok Yuen, who were accompanied by Dr Tsui, Chung-hui, Tung Lin Lok Yuen Scholar in Buddhist Art and Culture, and Honorary Assistant Professor, Centre of Buddhist Studies, along with CBS staff Charlie Choi and Carol Li.
The guests were honored with a presentation on the history and legacy of TLKY, from its founding in the early 20th century and its subsequent flourishing into the present day, along with a guided tour of the hallowed temple premises, notable for their unique and striking marriage of Chinese and Western architectural motifs. One of Hong Kong’s most famous Buddhist landmarks, TLKY has long been an essential stop for visiting Buddhist practitioners and students, and is particularly renowned as the only seminary in the city for Buddhist nuns, offering a comprehensive eight-year program in the Mahayana tradition.
Tung Lin Kok Yuen was established in 1935 by Lady Clara Ho Tung (1875–1938), who named this manifestation of her aspiration to share the Buddhist teachings with the world for her husband, Sir Robert Ho Tung (Tung), and her own names (Lin Kok). Since its founding, the monastery has grown to become a respected center of monastic education and a focal point for Hong Kong’s Buddhist community.
Lady Clara’s grandson, Robert H. N. Ho, established the first overseas branch of TLKY in Vancouver in 1994, expanding the reach of the temple and its teachings internationally, and enabling Robert Ho to realize Lady Clara’s vision of promoting the Buddhist teachings globally. In 2004, the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation was established with the aspiration of promoting Buddhist education at the tertiary level.
The extent of this commitment and largesse has been far-reaching, benefitting numerous institutions and scholars working within the specialized field of Buddhist studies. Prominent among these is the Master in Buddhist Studies (MBS) program at HKU’s celebrated Centre of Buddhist Studies.
This in-depth English-language program offers a comprehensive and meticulous curriculum that explores Buddhist history, philosophy, texts, and rituals, as well as Buddhism as a philosophy and Buddhist practices as an inclusive and systematic path for spiritual development. Graduates of the program are thereby well-equipped to pursue further academic study at the research post-graduate level (MPhil, PhD).
Amid the tranquil surrounds of TLKY and the echoes of an historic legacy, Buddhistdoor Global sat down to talk with two recent recipients of Tung Lin Kok Yuen’s postgraduate scholarship, scholars from HKU’s Centre of Buddhist Studies Ms. Megan Lee and Mr. Pazu Kong, to find out more.
Buddhistdoor Global: Can you share with us what first drew you to the field of Buddhist studies?
Pazu Kong: Although I’m a resident of Hong Kong, I have spent about 12 years in Tibet—not continuously, but usually spending about half of each year in Lhasa—and I have grown to become very interested in all aspects of the culture there. However, I found studying Buddhism to be very difficult because there are some concepts that actually seemed to me to be contradictory among different schools of Buddhism. I found it very difficult to study by myself, just through personal readings, so that’s why I decided to join this MBS program—to study in a more systematic way. I don’t necessarily expect to become a Buddhist scholar, but I do think that this course has given me a very solid overview, a bird’s-eye view, of Buddhism. And this has enabled me to choose which areas and what kind of topics of study and practice that I’m most interested in.
Megan Lee: My own interest in Buddhist studies is rooted in my personal meditation practice, which began 10 years ago—although I was often a really lazy meditator over those 10 years! At that time, my school’s Goenka meditation center was my only source of teachings in terms of Buddhism and the Dharma.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself spending more time at home, so I took an online course offered by Harvard University on the Buddhists scriptures. This was actually the first time that I had properly read Buddhist texts, and it opened my mind completely because it helped to connect so many dots for me—what I had observed and what I had learned from my meditation practice was all written there, from thousands of years ago, in various scriptures. I was so amazed that it gave me the idea that actually studying Buddhism academically, in a systematic way, could help me to deepen my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.
My meditation practice is much better, since I’ve been taking this MBS program! Learning about different schools of Buddhism and reading so many different texts has helped me in so many ways. Nowadays, I find it rather easy to meditate 4–5 hours per week. In the Goenka style of teaching meditation, you have to explore your inner world by yourself, but I have realized that without the guidance of the sutras, I didn’t know what I was doing—until now: I actually see emptiness, I actually see the whole Dharma experientially, and this has been very profound.
BDG: Is there a reason you chose this particular MBS program? What do you consider to be its strengths?
ML: I actually looked around the world at several different Buddhist studies programs, and I found that the HKU program has more choice: there’s more applied Buddhism, there’s counseling, there’s meditation, and other kinds of practical content. I think it’s important to remember that studying Buddhism isn’t just about intellectual understanding—although academic study is very important—but how to apply the teachings in daily life, how to use them to help people, and even spreading the teaching . . . that’s my personal interest, and so I chose HKU.
PK: For me, one of the things I appreciate about this program is that it gives an comprehensive overview of everything, and then you’re free to choose which areas you want to focus on, alongside the compulsory subjects such as the various schools of Buddhism. For my dissertation, I focused on tummo (Tibetan inner-fire meditation) and conducted a scientific study in collaboration with a scholar from the engineering department. We were able to us an EEG (electroencephalogram) and other parameters to measure the effects of tummo meditation on brainwave activity, which was quite a unique opportunity. I think there are very few places in the world, let alone Hong Kong, where it’s possible to do this. And I think it was this openness at HKU to explore these kinds of avenues that helped to motivate and inspire me in my studies here.
BDG: Can you speak to your particular area or areas of interest within the discipline?
ML: For me it’s understanding the Dharma from different perspectives. I’m actually not very interested in “Tibetan” Buddhism or “Japanese” Buddhism or these kinds of categorization, I’m absolutely not interested (which is why I didn’t choose any of those courses!). I’m more keen to explore the pure Dharma than to restrict myself to a single viewpoint, with a view to understanding that more deeply—both for the sake of myself and from the perspective of benefitting all sentient beings.
After meditating for 10 years, I found that a great compassion arose within me which was for all sentient beings. So my main motivation is to learn more about the pure Dharma so that eventually I can liberate myself and join the bodhisattvas!
At HKU, I found that different professors have their own affiliations and lineages, of course, and that’s a great way to learn. It doesn’t matter which lineage your from, we’re still studying and practicing the one Dharma, so I think I’m learning so much from all these different people.
PK: Of course, different professors can have different ideas and perspectives about Buddhism, but at the same time they have a strong mutual respect. For example, I remember in one class, a student spoke about the Mahayana perspective on incompatibilities with the Theravada tradition. But I think it’s very important to acknowledge the existence of different traditions with a view of mutual respect. It’s very easy to point to differences between traditions instead of recognizing the important commonalities and similarities.
I’m glad that most teachers in this program emphasized the similarities and compatibilities common to all traditions. Most of our teachers also mentioned that the foundations of all Buddhist traditions are the same—even among the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the basic ideas are the same, only certain practices differ.
BDG: What has been the most challenging aspect of this program?
PK: I think I’m happy that I don’t have to repeat the experience! Especially because of COVID-19 and Zoom classes and lectures. I hate Zoom! I remember the first time we used Zoom. At the time, we were excited and thought, “Oh, maybe this is the future of education, we can meet and talk without having to be there in person.” But after one or two sessions, I realized that this way was a bit boring, and I realized that the most important aspect of going to school is not merely to attend lectures, but to connect and build relationships with your fellow students. Sometimes you might not have a particular question in class, but you overhear a question or a discussion between other students or with the lecturers, which can feed your own studies. I think this is very important.
I remember on the last day of the first semester last year, we could finally all go for a real dinner together. I was so excited that we could have a shared experience like this. So missing the human connection was definitely the most difficult part for me.
ML: For me, I actually don’t find this program overly challenging—so far! But of all the different courses I’ve chosen, there’s one that I’m taking right now that has been more challenging than the others, and that’s on Chinese Buddhist texts. When I took the Harvard University online course, that was conducted in English, of course. I’ve come to realize that when I’ve tried to read certain Buddhist scriptures in Chinese, they are very difficult to understand because written Chinese is a very complex language—especially ancient Chinese. And then when I first read English translations of the texts, my first reaction was: “Oh my god! So this is what it’s about?” It kind of opened my mind. So now I’ve deliberately chosen a course on Chinese Buddhist texts because I really want to understand some of them as a native Chinese speaker. I think that I would really like to learn how to properly read Chinese scriptures because of my family: my mother and my grandparents they’re all Buddhists practitioners, but they don’t really read scriptures, although they sometimes ask me questions. So I think it would be great if I know how to answer them correctly in Chinese . . . but it’s really difficult!
PK: Jumping on to Megan’s point, I’ve found that learning Buddhism in English is actually a bit easier, especially because I’m a native speaker of Cantonese. When I read a Chinese text, I have some preconceived understanding or impressions of particular words already, and it creates a lot of the “false friends” that we can see in English and French—but even more so in modern Chinese and ancient Chinese. If I study Buddhism in English, there are some terms that are difficult to translate and so they reference the Sanskrit or the Pali terms directly. The Pali word sankara (Skt: samskara) is an obvious example: when you read the ancient Chinese term, you might think that perhaps this refers to a kind of behavior or walking, or whatever, I have no idea! Somehow I have all these preconceptions or prior understandings of this single word, and it interferes with my understanding of the real Dharma. But then when I read the same text in English, they usually don’t translate it but use the original Pali word and I immediately understand that this is a new concept that I have to investigate more deeply. So it makes things much easier.
BDG: Are there any particular highlights or standout memories from the program that you’d like to share?
PK: For my dissertation, because we were still in the middle of COVID restrictions, the school actually arranged a room for me to conduct these experiments for my scientific study of tummo meditation. And so I was able to spend almost two months on this research. I would spend my daytimes at school, studying, and then follow up on my research at night—sometimes until 2am! And I really enjoyed this kind of atmosphere. And I think very kindly of the school for organizing this opportunity for me, which seems very rare and special.
ML: For me, I think it’s probably the feeling I have when I read and learn from the sutras. I always have this feeling that I’m learning directly from the Buddha himself. And also, of course, not only the Buddha: I have read, for example, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and I feel so grateful to these great masters from thousands of years ago until now—the Buddha rediscovered the Dharma and then these other great teachers helped to spread the teachings. And that’s why, 2,600 years later, we can learn from them today. And because they often present these texts as dialogues, I feel like I’m sitting in front of these masters and listening to the discourses. There’s a feeling of being beyond time and space that’s actually very special; I feel like I have all these masters from thousands of years ago from whom I can learn, and I’m really grateful for that.
BDG: Based on your experiences, do you have any advice to offer aspiring Buddhist studies students?
PK: I think that, other than the program itself, there are many technical resources that can help student with their progress. I think many students are more focused on their academic studies, but I think the school offers many more resources than they might realize. The library is one example, and the electronic library is another. And also there are a range of workshops organized by the HKU library, such as how to use EndNote, a reference and citation management tool, for example. I think that most people miss things like this, which is unfortunate as it’s such a useful tool for making your dissertation citations perfect!
ML: For me, I think I’d strong urge people who come to Buddhist studies that they also try out meditation. I think it’s a parallel path. In the first class on Early Buddhism, for instance, when the professor talk about emptiness (Skt. shunyata), I can sense the thinking process of the other students and I can feel that they have an intellectual understanding of the concept, but ultimately it’s not something to discuss but something that one must experience. And without that experience you can’t truly understand emptiness. As I’ve heard from other students who come with no meditation experience, they find it really hard to understand, even after one semester. I think this parallel path really is a must if you truly want to understand what the Buddha is teaching. Of course, it can be difficult: you have to find a good teacher, you have to spend time learning the techniques and practicing them—and not just use apps such as Calm or Headspace—it’s a completely different experience.
PK: I think Megan’s Vipassana experience is a very good doorway to enter the meditation practice. Not only because of what it teaches you—the basic principles—but there are specific requirements: no smartphones for nine-and-a-half days, no talking, no internet. At the very beginning it can seem quite daunting, but for me I think this is probably the most important reason why I could experience the essence of meditation.
ML: My final piece of advice for new students would be just to let go of your previous understanding of everything you know or think you know about Buddhism. Just be empty so you can learn, experience, and absorb new things!