The Buddha in Malaysia

Chief Venerable of Malaysia
Ven. Dr K Sri Dhammananda Maha Nayaka Thera

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — There is an uniquely favourite dish in Malaysia called « rojak ». This local delight is basically a mix of salad and fruits, topped up with some blackish sauce that is a tinge spicy. The types of ingredients that goes into the making of « rojak » is a mishmash of cut-up cucumber, papaya, yam bean (sengkuang), raw mango and crushed peanuts. What makes the « rojak » complete however, is how you must eat all these fruits and vegetables together with the sauce. It is highly unlikely that you’ll eat one kind of fruit without tasting another.

In many ways, the country that we call Malaysia is somewhat akin to « rojak ». It is a mishmash of culture, religion, customs, people and language all rolled in one. Billed in its tourism campaign as « Truly Asia », Malaysia indeed is one of the few countries in the world where the major cultures and religions meet in one huge melting pot. You just simply cannot taste one aspect of it without experiencing the other.

Like wise, the development of Buddhism in the country reflects its multi-facet outlook. It is one of the very few countries in the world where all the major Buddhist traditions are embraced in equal amount by its devotees. The major streams, represented by the mainstream Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana schools are all members of the Malaysian Buddhist Consultative Council (MBCC), a key umbrella body which governs policy issues.

It can be confusing at times, especially for foreigners and new comers to the religion. The sheer variety of temples and viharas which dot the urban landscape by themselves make for good tourist destinations. Up north in the state of Kelantan, the majority of the Buddhists there are mainly of Thai origin. It is not surprising that the temples there – called « wat » – resembles much of the typical Thai architecture. They are also manned by Malaysian of Siamese descent.

Towards the west coast, in the island of Penang, the « rojak » of different Buddhist traditions become even more interesting, as traditional Straits Chinese lace their temples side by side with Burmese stupas, Thai wats, Sinhalese viharas and Tibetan centres. It is here, in Penang, that Malaysian Buddhism pays its true homage to the vibrant diversity of the various schools that dot sacred places throughout Asia.

One could well learn to chant the parittas – Thai style at Wat Chayamangkalaram, or Burmese style at Dhammikarama Vihara, or devote yourself to the cause of Guanyin or Amitabha at the Malaysian Buddhist Association (MBA) or Than Hsiang temple.

If chanting is not your cup of tea, then why not learn Pali at the Sinhalese influenced Mahindarama Pali School, or meditate at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre which is famed for its Vipassana methods. If practice is not what you fancy, then just hang around and simply gaze at the many temples’ architecture and craftsmanship, the most significant icon which you must not miss is the Kek Lok Si temple.

In terms of mega complexes, the bigger temples and shrines are located in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Being more established, many of these centres span decades of history, the oldest being the Buddhist Maha Vihara at Brickfields. Formed in the late 19th century, it houses the country’s Chief Venerable, the renowned Dr. K Sri Dhammananda Maha Nayaka Thera. This venerable is made famous for his teaching that the « Buddha taught not Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, just Dhamma-Vinaya ». It is through the posit of such a general representation of the Buddha Dhamma that Buddhist growth in the country had taken a non-sectarian slant.

It is interesting to note that Buddhism in Malaysia is less about the type of school one embrace, but how each school is delineated according to language. For instance, it is highly likely that a Theravada Buddhist will be mainly English speaking, while a Mahayanist generally Chinese speaking. Such development is not surprising as the Theravada tradition were (and still is) helmed by English speaking Sinhalese missionaries which nurtured early Buddhist development during the British colonial days, while the Mahayana Sangha were mostly Chinese trained.

One thing that is most clearly noticeable about Buddhist development in Malaysia is the small number of monks involved in managing the various temples and centres. According to official statistics, there are close to about 1,200 registered monks and nuns representing all schools in the country. Given such a grave shortage of the clerics, it is the lay movement that has become the prime mover of Buddhist development in the country. Many of these lay Buddhists contribute by building and managing temples, conducting Dhamma classes and giving Dhamma talks.

Given the lack of a traditional root, the younger generation comparatively have greater freedom to experiment, in contrast to their Thai and Sinhalese counterparts. This have resulted in a rash of innovative propagation methods, which in some way helped to fuel Buddhist interest in the west. Efforts such as Buddhist hymns, internet based initiatives such as the BNN, adaptation of Buddhist plainchant, content delivery via electronic means such as suttas and Dhamma talks in CD-ROMS are somewhat methods that seem to appeal to the younger set of Buddhists. It is not surprising that such « modernizing » efforts helped somewhat to spur the adoption of a more spiritual lifestyle by local youths.

Alex Tan, in a letter to the BNN observed that « the government (and the country) as a whole encourages and supports individual pursuits for spiritual development. » He further adds that though it may seem trivial, he believes that « the cultivation of mutual respect amongst those with different religious background carries a lot of weight into shaping who we are today. »

« Some of my best friends », he says « are from different races and religion, yet we are able to live in harmony, unlike some other countries. »

That probably best sums up about the « rojak » situation that is Malaysian Buddhism. It is neither Thai or Burmese or Tibetan or Chinese or Sinhalese, rather it is more of a mishmash of a bit of everything. You can stay rooted in a tradition as a base, but you may find yourself taking part in a devotional act from another school. The ease of switching from a school to another without feeling out of place is central to the making of a Malaysian Buddhist identity.

And so if you wish to take a sniff at what colors the different shades that make out the diversity of Buddhist traditions, look no further and come to Malaysia. The « rojak » of the spiritual life begins here.