A 15-day Dharma Tour from Butterworth to Malacca
Text: Venerable Shan Ci, Si Hong
Photos: Si Xin
Translated by: Andrew Yang
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, and the ethnic Chinese account for over 20% of its population, with most of them retaining some fine traditions of the Chinese people. In addition to English, they speak various dialects of the Chinese language, including Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien.
Meanwhile, in terms of religion, more than 20% of Malaysians are Buddhists. Over a decade ago, for example, Buddhist canons such as Venerable Chyun Wai and Venerable Sing Yat from Hong Kong visited the country to propagate the Dharma. In recent years, the International Buddhist Temple in Canada has received many messages from Buddhists in Malaysia that they enjoy watching video teachings of its abbot, Venerable Guan Cheng, and hope to meet and hear him teach in person. At the invitation of Malaysian Buddhist Association, the Venerable toured five cities in Malaysia in November to deliver Dharma lectures. Over a 15-day period, he gave seven lectures which were attended by a total of over 2,000 people. We were honored to follow the master and personally experience this extraordinary trip. We not only heard the master’s lectures live, but also visited some of Malaysia’s well-known Buddhist temples and learnt about interesting local customs. Below, let us share with you a few of the tour’s highlights.
Penang, the birthplace of Malaysian Buddhism
Our fifteen-day trip kicked off in the state of Penang. The first public lecture was given in Mandarin in one of its major cities, Butterworth, on the theme of “Eliminating Mental Suffering through Samatha and Vipassana”. The audience learnt what the source of suffering is, how to use Buddhist practice approaches to remove it and improve the overall health of mind and body through meditation and chanting sutras and mantras. When chanting mantras become a habit, one will experience its incredible impact.
The second lecture, also in Mandarin, was on “Verses Delineating Eight Types of Consciousness: A cursory look at the Conscious-only Theory”. It was divided into two sessions given at the Malaysian Buddhist Association headquarters in Penang. Buddhism is not only a system of faith, but also a profound philosophy. But what kind of philosophy is it? The master pointed out that Buddhist doctrine is expounded in three aspects: circumstance, action and effect. Circumstance is something that is observed, perceived and studied. Action is practice, the acting out of philosophical principles in day-to-day life. And effect is the result of practice, enabling one to leave suffering for relief and joy, and for ultimate liberation.
The school of “Consciousness Only” is viewed as an advanced philosophical component within Buddhism, and at the same time a unique type of psychology. The view on space and time in this school is even more encompassing than that in social psychology. It is not only a study of the present life, but also of the past and future lives. It considers the realms of mortals and the saints, and the approaches to transcending mortal life into sainthood. In the lecture, the master talked about how to recognize one’s mental activity functions and taught us practice methods on observing our mind.
In Penang, we visited the 130-year-old Kek Lok Si Temple, a Buddhist landmark in Malaysia. Master Miao Lien, its founding abbot, was a native of Fujian, China. He travelled to Malaysia during the late Qing dynasty and was moved by the sincerity and honesty of the local Chinese, but seeing that no sizeable Buddhist temple of Chinese descent existed, he set out to build one, leading followers to raise funds from more than 100 cities in and out of Malaysia. Actual construction work began on the temple hall in 1891 and the entire Kek Lok Si buildings were completed in 1904. In the same year, Master Miao Lien returned to China to receive from Emperor Guangxu the complete Long Zang Scriptures and a kasaya. This set of Long Zang Scriptures is still kept in the Scripture Hall at Kek Lok Si Temple. Before his death, the master left his final teaching, “If you don’t go into the mortal world, you can do nothing. If you don’t leave the mortal world, your mental suffering grows. A haggling mind brings on suffering, but a Buddhist mind quells it”. This, I believe, crystalizes the master’s wisdom from decades spent in promoting the Dharma and is well worth remembering.
While in Penang, we took the opportunity to visit the Triple Wisdom Hall and Chuk Mor Museum. The Hall was built in 1965 by Venerable Chuk Mor, at a time when he saw that there were many Buddhists in Malaysia, but few had studied Buddhism. Named Triple Wisdom, the hall’s mission is to promote the Dharma through learning, contemplation and practice, to help followers leave delusion for enlightenment.
Venerable Chuk Mor began preaching the Dharma in Hong Kong and Macau in the 1930s. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was Deputy Dean of Hong Kong Chai Ha Buddhist College and Director of Dharma Promotion at Hong Kong Buddhist Federation. Following that, he founded Malaysian Buddhist Association and Malaysian Buddhist Institute and headed both institutions. Actively involved in promoting and teaching the Dharma, he frequently toured Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and other places, and spared no effort in cultivating Buddhist teachers from among monastic members and lay Buddhists. The venerable was a prominent icon in South East Asia, on top of being an accomplished teacher, poet, painter, and calligrapher. He worked tirelessly for the growth of Buddhism and spread of Chinese culture throughout his life.
To carry the Dharma afar, it is vital to foster a capable teaching staff. Out of that consideration, Malaysian Buddhist Association invited Venerable Guan Cheng to talk to the teachers and students at Malaysian Buddhist Institute, and help them tackle difficulties they encountered in their personal practice and in dharma teaching . On the morning just before he left Penang, once more the master took the time to talk to them and shared his teachings. After that, he penned a motto in brush calligraphy, “Abide by the precepts, observe the mind, follow the teachings from the scriptures, and aim for Pure Land as the final home”, and gave the art work as a gift to the host organization.
Ipoh, a town surrounded by mountains
The Chinese here speak Cantonese, and many among them practise Pure Land methods. Thus, Venerable Guan Cheng delivered a talk here in Cantonese titled “Chanting the Name of Buddha to Approach Pure Land: An Outline of The Sastra on Rebirth“. The master quoted from The Ten Step Sastra (i.e., Dasabhumika Vibhasa Sastra) written by the philosopher Nagarjuna, saying that in this world, there are a “difficult path” and an “easy path” for spiritual practice, and the Buddha name chanting approach is the “the easy path”, because all other approaches require cessation of delusion and attainment of the truth to transcend life and death, whereas chanting Buddha’s name allows rebirth in the Pure Land with karma. And The Great Collection Sutra (i.e., Mahavaipulya Mahasamghaṭa Sutra) has this to say, “In a Dharma-ending era billions practise Buddhism but hardly one attains enlightenment. However, nothing but chanting Buddha’s name gets one beyond life and death.” The “easy path” not only extends beyond the three realms, but also has ten kinds of benefits in the current life. Consequently, “one chant of Buddha’s name brings boundless blessings, while a single bow to Buddha eliminates sins as numerous as the particles of sand in a river”.
Here, the master introduced the five steps in Buddha name chanting and its virtues contained in The Sastra on Rebirth, to which the audience responded enthusiastically. Their attentive expression and frequent warm applause added to the joy felt throughout the lecture hall.
The next day, we visited Tong Lian Siao Chu, where we were warmly received by the abbot and Venerable Guang Chang, and made to feel at home. The temple has played a critical role in the spread of Chinese Buddhism in Southeast Asia. In the 1930s and 1940s, amidst turmoil and frequent wars, many monks from mainland China migrated to Hong Kong, Macao and Southeast Asia. In 1947 the temple was founded by Sheng Chin, a Buddhist monk from Fujian, China. The name “Siao Chu”, literally “small hut”, simply meant the original structure consisted of a small thatched shack only. However, during the following decades, under the leadership of Hua Kuo and others, it has gradually expanded into a group of simple yet elegant buildings today that stand solemnly amid fresh foliage.
While in the mountain-side Ipoh, we also tasted the famous local tender tofu pudding. It turned out that the quality of soy bean products in Malaysia is quite good and they are rich in bean flavour. Indeed, the standard of Cantonese cuisine here seems high enough to compete with that in Hong Kong!
Kuala Lumpur, where the first English lecture on Chinese Buddhism was given
Malaysian Buddhists tend to be more interested in the differences of meditation practice between Theravāda Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. Buddhists here, in general, believe that no clear order exists in the meditation practice as passed down in Chinese Buddhism, except for health enhancement, while the practice of Theravāda Buddhism follows a strict step-by-step regimen. With these issues in mind, Venerable Guan Cheng chose the Six Door Approach of the Tiantai School to explain how to attain samatha and vipassana.
On the evening of November 9th the Venerable gave an English lecture on “How to Overcome Emotional Challenges” at Wisma Buddhist Centre in Kuala Lumpur. With many people suffering nowadays from emotional distress, the master examined the causes of anguish in the Buddhist perspective, encouraged the audience not to be afraid to confront it, and taught them Buddhist principles and practical methods to soothe emotions and regain tranquillity.
At first, the organizers of this event had not been too optimistic about attendance for the English lecture. Unexpectedly, more than 300 people turned up for the evening, many of them young people following our channel on YouTube. They were absorbed in his words from start to finish. From this experience we learnt that one needs to move with the times in promoting the Dharma. Our venerable is truly in with it!
Our original Malaysian itinerary had included public lectures only in Butterworth, Penang, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, but when followers in Malacca heard about the tour, they repeatedly requested to have their city included. Therefore, the master stopped over in Malacca to give two lectures, one at Sakya Monastery and the other at Maha Bodhi Vihara. This told us how eager Buddhists in Malaysia are to learn the Dharma.
From Malacca, a tale of amazing karma
For many years, Venerable Guan Cheng’s teachings have been easily available on the Internet. On this journey, at all sorts of venues we ran into many of his followers who had met and heard him online. They were all overjoyed to meet him in person, among them a family of four from Medan, Indonesia attending a lecture in Penang. At the end of each gathering, worshippers scrambled to take pictures with the master, and when they left, they always felt reluctant and would invariably ask him to come back. And in the ancient city of Malacca, something happened that showed to us how amazing karma can be.
That day towards dusk, having finished the day’s itinerary, we were on our way back to the hotel. When our car was passing by a small antique shop, the venerable said to the driver, “Please stop here so we could go in to check it out”. Feeling that it was not particularly likely to find anything in the shop worth having, we nevertheless followed the master going in.
Once inside, the venerable heard a familiar voice. It turned out that the woman shopkeeper was playing on her mobile phone a segment of “Growing Seeds of Good Karma”, one of the venerable’s popular online Dharma programs. He went up to the lady and pointed to her phone saying, “And I’m the one who is talking in that show”. Stunned, the woman looked incredulous. She took quite a few minutes before realizing that the person in front of her was indeed none other than the master whose teachings she had been following online day after day, and overwhelmed, she jumped for joy.
The truth is that the woman, deeply fond of the venerable’s teachings, listened to his “Growing Seeds of Good Karma” all the time, and sometimes would even invite her friends to come and join her. That day, she had just started to play the program when the venerable entered her shop, and she simply could not believe her own eyes. How would the host of her favourite program she heard day in and day out, all of a sudden, appear right before her eyes out of nowhere?!
In excitement, she shared with the master that every day she reverently chanted The Great Compassion Mantra, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra and other scriptures and diligently kept working at her Buddhist practice. The master then helped her move a Buddha statue from a cabinet out onto the Buddha worshipping table. In fact, she had been wanting to do the move, but simply did not dare to do it herself. She thought it incredible that the venerable would come all the way from Canada to help her complete her wish. After that, the master led us all in chanting a mantra followed by a purification sprinkle, and proceeded to teach her The White Tara Mantra. In the end, she presented the venerable with a dzi bead saying, “Now that you are my mentor, let me offer this real single-eye dzi to you as a disciple should”.
The master later disclosed to us his thoughts on the encounter. The lady, he said, must have practised a lot with such a respectful and sincere mind that it led to this wonderful encounter. It proved a basic Buddhist principle that everything arises from the mind, and with mind power what is thousands of miles away could be brought close at hand. Let us not ignore the capacity of our own mind!
In Malacca we visited Cheng Hoon Teng Temple located in the city’s older neighbourhood. Built during the Ming dynasty, the temple has a history of over 300 years, ranking as the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia and all over Southeast Asia. Mainly worshipping Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, it is also called Guanyin Temple. When first constructed, the building materials and artisans were all imported from China. Its architectural style, carvings and drawing patterns all reflect colors of southern Fujian, hence a very rare architectural treasure house. Here, we enjoyed the abbot’s hospitality, and viewed the cultural relics and ancient scriptures housed at the temple, which gave us a glimpse of the religious and cultural endeavours put up by early Chinese Buddhist pioneers.
In addition, we called at Sakya Monastery, Brahmavihara Monastery & Retreat Centre and Chih Kuei Vihara. Sakya Monastery was founded by people of a Sino-Malay ethnic group called Baba Nyonya, and the monastery followers today are mainly their descendants. The abbot of Brahmavihara Monastery had been stationed in Hong Kong before returning to Malaysia to create the place of worship for training monks. At Chih Kuei Vihara, a Japanese monk spoke to us in fluent Mandarin, and he enjoyed collecting Wooden Fish (a musical instrument used in Buddhist rituals) of various ages, which was eye-opening to us. There, in the guest hall was a meaningful gatha hanging on the wall, in the form of a couplet penned by Venerable Yen P’ei, “Knowing your own mind is Buddha’s intention; Returning to the origin is nothing but Bodhi”. This is something we should remember in our practice.
These are all footprints left by early Buddhist trailblazers. Just imagine, centuries ago, what difficulties Chinese monks had to overcome before bringing the Dharma to the region, so that Buddhism is widely practised throughout Malaysia today. This fact should be well remembered by all descendants and for them to carry forward to future generations.
Furthermore, to better inform fellow North American Buddhists on Malaysian Buddhism, we did an exclusive interview with Malaysian Buddhist Association as well, which will be available soon on the various platforms of the International Buddhist Temple.
Home-bound, with joy
The 15-day tour of Malaysia soon came to an end. Not only did the many local followers receive the master’s teachings in person, we who followed him in this trip also learnt immensely from his words and deeds.
For each presentation during the journey, the master would always arrive at the site one day in advance to personally check things out. From sound effect, to stage setup, to the solemn Buddha altar, to seat placement, everything was double-checked and meticulously fine-tuned. In order to achieve the best sound effect alone, he would spend hours each time carefully working with the technicians. The master just wanted to create a most ideal environment, so that the attending audience could feel most at ease and prepared to receive his teachings with all their heart.
Besides, the trip also gave us a nice surprise. We found that there were many restaurants in Malaysia serving delicious vegetarian food, in both Chinese and traditional or new Malay styles. We encountered a new food–sugar cane flower, soft, glutinous and sweet, said to be rich in protein, and delicious yet healthy. Of course, there were also Malay curry laksa, popiah rolls, and eggless pumpkin vegan kaya. We cannot but recall how yummy they all were.
All in all, we are grateful for the opportunity to follow Venerable Guan Cheng on his Dharma tour in Malaysia. During the entire fifteen days, we not only heard his teachings live and studied different principles and approaches with him, more importantly, we learned humility, tolerance, compassion, open-mindedness and earnestness by witnessing his exemplary deeds. These are some of the qualities all Buddhists should have and are the most valuable things we were to bring home from this amazing tour. Finally, mission accomplished, we set off for home filled with joy.