Our Youth Spiritual Advisor, Venerable Bodhi is mentioned!
STRAITS TIMES SATURDAY VESAK SPECIAL
SERENE MESSAGE STRIKES A CHORD
IT IS REASON-BASED, ALLOWS QUESTIONING AND ENCOURAGES ONE TO THINK OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF ONE’S ACTIONS. THAT’S WHAT MANY YOUNG PEOPLE LIKE ABOUT BUDDHISM, WHICH IS ATTRACTING THE MOST NUMBER OF CONVERTS IN SINGAPORE.
BY WONG KIM HOH
UNTIL her late teens, Miss Lee Sea Ming’s understanding of Buddhism was coloured by a heavy diet of Chinese horror movies.
“Priests and monks in these movies always chant when they battle ghosts. For some reason, I associated monks and chants with Buddhism,” recalls the advertising sales executive, 24, with a laugh.
Things changed when she started reading a regular column on Buddhist wisdom in a Chinese newspaper and realised that the faith was about as far from her stereotype as you could get.
“They were sayings of peace, harmony and compassion by the Venerable Cheng Yen. I found them so beautiful and wise,” she says, referring to the Taiwanese Buddhist nun and philanthropist who founded the Tzu Chi Foundation.
Determined to learn more, she joined the National University of Singapore Buddhist Society when she became an undergraduate in 2004.
Today, the graduate in food science helps to spread the dhamma – Buddhist teachings – by volunteering at the Youth Ministry in Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery.
Miss Lee is one of the new breed of young, English-educated Buddhists helping to make the religion the fastest-growing in Singapore.
Census figures released last year showed that the number of people aged 15 and over who are Buddhists jumped from 31 percent of the population in 1990 to 43 percent, or 1.1 million people, 10 years later. It has surpassed Taoism as the main religion of the Chinese, with the percentage of Taoists falling from 22 percent to 9 per cent.
Christianity, meanwhile, registered a 2 per cent spike in the same period, from 13 per cent to 15 per cent. The proportion of Muslims and Hindus remained relatively unchanged at 15 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.
The figures also showed that between 1990 and 2000, there were a four-fold jump in the number of Buddhists who were graduates.
Anesthetist Kenneth Tan, 44, says the religion’s unique approach appeals particularly to the young.
“There is no pressure to confirm. It’s a reason-based philosophy and is logical. You can question and still be yourself. And the fact that you are responsible for your own actions is very appealing to many young people.
Dr Tan, a founder member of the 23-year-old Medical Dhamma Circle at the National University of Singapore, adds: “Young people don’t like things forced down their throats.”
Venerable Bodhi, 3, of the Pao Kwan Foh Tang in Thomson Road agrees. The nun – who has a doctorate in Buddhism from Kelaniya University in Sri Lanka – conducts a Bachelor of Arts in Buddhism programme at the Buddhist Library graduate School, and is also adviser to the Singapore Buddhist Mission Youth Group. “With teenagers, we show how Buddhist teachings on sexuality and relationships can apply to their life,” says Venerable Bodhi. “With working adults, we teach them how to incorporate Buddhism into their professional lives, staying competitive without being cruel and cold. And, for the rest, we teach them the meaning of the scriptures and how to practice it in everyday life. We try to be as relevant as possible.”
Many converts say that are drawn by Buddhism’s more modern take on worship and the user-friendly, Internet-age approaches used to teach the dhamma today.
In the past, many Singaporeans practised Buddhism like a folk religion with a heavy emphasis on rituals and customs. Older monks and nuns taught the dhamma in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.
But over the last two-decades, there has been a dramatic shift from rituals and customs to the study of the scriptures, as well as core Buddhist practices such as meditation.
And, as most people living here are now English-educated, a new breed of English-speaking Buddhist teachers conversant with PowerPoint presentations and Adobe has emerged. Bookstores now stock hundreds of Buddhists titles written in English.
“An American monk, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, has translated the sutras into English and they’re available online. His popular lecture series can also be downloaded from the Internet,” says Mrs Angie Monksfield, president of the Buddhist Fellowship (BF).
Many temples also have their own websites and youth divisions. For example, Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery’s Youth Ministry boasts 4,500 members today, a huge jump from just 950 in 2003. Activities range from lifestyle talks, movie screenings and music performances to dhamma courses.
These developments have attracted many professionals into the Buddhist fold.
The BF had a membershop of just 50 in 1999, but now boasts more than 3,000 members – many of whom are doctors, senior executives and company directors.
Besides conferences and retreats, it also organized talks by Western Buddhist monks such as Ajahn Brahm, an Englishman who took monastic vows after graduating with a physics degree from Cambridge University in the 1980s.
His talks – held at various locations, such as the Buddhist Lodge in Kim Yam Road and Kong Meng San in Thomson Road – attracted up to 2,000 people each time.
Buddhism’s emphasis on meditation and inner serenity also draws those increasingly stressed by modern living.
“Increasingly, Buddhists in Singapore are embracing core practices such as meditation instead of rituals, “ notes Mrs Monksfield.
A year ago, BF started conducting a meditation group at Fort Canning on the first Sunday morning of each month. It started with about five people and now has as many as 100 people attending.
Buddhist temples and nunneries all over the island have also reported more people attending their meditation classes and clinics.
THE ART OF JUST BEING
Venerable Chuan Ren, 47, started the Bodhi Meditation Centre earlier this year, where he conducts free classes for both beginners and advanced learners.
The monk, who also teaches meditation at BF and Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery says he has been seeing increasing numbers of people turning up at his classes.
He says that unlike other common forms of tranquility meditation offering temporary calmness, Vipassana – or insight meditation – is unqiue to Buddhism.
“Ultimately, its aim is to help us gain insight into ourselves – and get rid of defilements such a greed, anger and delusions,” he adds.
Sales manger Matthew Rickard, 36, is regular at BF’s Fort Canning meditation sessions.
“I try to meditate about five times week for at least 20 minutes. Meditation is about creating awareness of yourself and your body. It brings peace and helps me look at the bigger picture.”
Dr Tan agrees: “We often blame situations on external factors. But when you are clam and focused and meditate from within, you begin to understand why you see the world the way you do. And you learn to change your behaviour if it’s not right.”
However, it is Buddhism’s inherent flexibility that is striking a chord with the city-state’s new generation of converts.
Yoga teacher Lim Sin Mian, 30, took up Buddhism three years ago because it encouraged her to question and experience life on her own terms.
“Buddhism works for me because I make my own choices. I just need to understand that for every choice I make, there are consequences.”
Miss Lee agrees: “We don’t say we are right, and others are wrong. There are many ways to get to the same destination. And as long as our intentions are right, and we do things with kindness and compassion, everything will turn out okay.”
Business strategist Bita Seow, 37, says Buddhism has made her a much better business negotiator.
“If you go into a negotiation with peace, and the right intention and thought, you will succeed professionally.”
Mrs Monksfield says scores of people from a range of religions attend the talks BF organises.
One of them is Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, 59, chairman of the Singapore Exchange. The Christian has attended at least half a dozen talks organized by BF, especially those by Ajahn Brahm.
“I find Buddhist teachings non-doctrinal, it’s a way to teach oneself to use the mind to take a different look at life.
“It applies to anyone and can help anyone.”