Thursday, August 06, 2009

Buddhism in Asia

One year ago, three students started planning a trip to overseas to study about religions. After much discussions and research, they came to form a plan for a research trip to Thailand and Taiwan to study about Buddhism in Asia. This trip is then proposed under the University Scholars Program Global Program, thus USP will subsidize the trip to allow the students to learn and share their knowledge to the world.

On April 2009, a team of 11 undergraduate students, one Masters graduate, and one Professor was formed. The team is to go on a trip consisting of three legs of journey, from Singapore 13th-14th May, to Thailand 16th-22nd May and finally Taiwan 22nd-30th May. This is in order to study the Theravadan Tradition in Thailand, the Mahayana Tradition in Taiwan, and its mixture in Singapore.
On the Singapore leg, we learned that even the monastics can be involved in Buddhist research. There are many areas to look upon, from the Vinaya to Politics, from Textual Studies to Modernization of Buddhism, from History to Transnational spreading of Buddhism. There is even a Buddhist College in Singapore! There’s also the Singapore Buddhist Federation that serves to unify all Buddhist institutions and Buddhists in Singapore.

There are three examples of Buddhism in Singapore; Tzu Chi Foundation in Singapore represents the import of Taiwanese Buddhism in Singapore complete with the same architecture as the original building in Taiwan and the same functions of Jing Si bookstore静思书轩, along with the same activities, and ideas. The same goes for Wat Ananda and Wat Palelai, reflecting the Theravadan Tradition from Thailand. Guang Ming Shan Temple however sees the unique combination of both Theravadan and Mahayana tradition in its architecture and also local Chinese influences.

In Thailand where more than 90% of the population is Buddhist, we learned that the Buddhist temple in Phuket practices monk worshipping. The people pray and ask for fortune, health, and success. The temple also serves as a tourist attraction area. In Surat Thani, Suanmok, we have the chance to learn about a renewal of forest tradition based on the Tripitaka by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa due to the corruption of the true dharma mentioned earlier. Suanmok forest tradition, which is a short distance away from the city, provides exposure camps to school children, opportunity for the lay and monastics to undergo silent retreat (no talking) for 6 months straight, and a place where one can renounce and become a monk.

In Nakhon Si Thammarat, the stupa that contained the Buddha’s relics is “guarded” by demons, animals, decorated with influences by Hinduism. This reflects the belief that the Buddha is regarded as one of the reincarnation of the God Vishnu in Hinduism. In fact there are many local influences in Thailand; the people still pay respect to the city pillar, the heart of the city, and in hotels and supermarkets, there are altars set up to worship the local spirit in the place. Besides that, the people in Thailand wear all kinds of amulets for protection, health and blessings. In fact, the amulet market in Bangkok is a multi-million dollar business.

Talking about Bangkok, Wat Pho is located next to the Grand Palace, both huge and luxurious; this is a good strategy to instate Bangkok as the centre of Thailand. Monastics in Thailand receive government supplies and help and in return, the king of Thailand is supported by Buddhism. The existence of Universities in Bangkok also establishes it as the centre for monastic education. Being a monastic also guarantees a free education up to University, this is sometimes used for climbing up the social ladder in Thailand, as some monks disrobes and takes up jobs after graduating.

According to our Guide, the people in Thailand know basic Buddhism along with many Traditional beliefs. There are many ways to practise Buddhism including the strict forest tradition by Ajahn Chah in Ubon Ratchathani. Our group has the priceless experience of staying overnight in Wat Pah Nanachat, international forest monastery. The monastic there wakes up at 3 a.m. for the morning puja, gone for alms round at 5:30a.m. and take their one meal per day at 8a.m. After noon time, they go for meditation, have tea at 4p.m. and come back only at 6p.m. for the evening puja.
After a tiring journey across Thailand, we flew to Taipei, Taiwan. There we are fortunate to visit Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) 法鼓山 and received a warm welcome. Its founder, the late Master Sheng Yen empathises on education, protection of the spiritual environment, and balance between understanding and practise of the Dharma. In line with this effort, DDM Sangha University, Chung Hua Institute of Buddhist Studies, DDM Buddhist College and the upcoming DDM University are built to spread the seed of Dharma to everyone. They have outreach activities supported by the donations and an impressive temple ground complete with bell for the visitors to ring. They present traditional Buddhism in a modern way using wisdom and original intensions of the Buddha to stay true to Buddhism.

In general the Buddhist movement in Taiwan is of Humanistic Buddhism 人间佛教 which started from Master Tai Xu’s effort to change Buddhism from the religion of funerals during the late Ching清 dynasty to a religion that actively involves in the human activities. This is most clearly seen from Tzu Chi’s慈濟effort around the world. In accordance with their four main mission of Education, Medicine, Charity and Culture, many schools, hospitals, relief aid teams are deployed in helping the needy. There are also classes of flower arrangement, tea making in the Hua Lien Tzu Chi University. The medical students use the body of willing deceased donors as their silent teacher in anatomy classes, learning respect and gratitude towards their silent teachers. The Tzu Chi Hospital in Hua Lien, there are even places where the terminally sick patients of different religion can see their religious symbols just before they die. This clearly shows that Tzu Chi belief in Buddhism in Action, and the nuns under Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, support themselves by working in the farms. With the spirit of Buddhism reflected through their actions rather than speech, Tzu Chi managed to pull in 10 million members worldwide making monthly donations to support the various activities. Amongst the members are non-Buddhist too and the halls and functions of Tzu Chi are always careful to be sensitive towards people with other religions.

Finally, Buddha Light Mountain佛光山 founded by Master Hsing Yun in Kaohsiung is our last stop in Taiwan’s mega temples. With holy water, Buddhist hymns singing, Big Buddha statue, pure land cave exhibit, and museums, it is clear that Buddha Light Mountain incorporates modern elements to spread Buddhism too. With millions of members in Buddha Light International Associations, it is also not negligent in education as there is Buddha Light University in Yilan and Buddhist College in the temple itself for all to live and learn the way of the Sangha. In short, the trip was enlightening, with many details unaccounted for here, but the most important lesson is to practise the dharma even when researching Buddhism.

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