I’m writing this quarter’s Hakujin Perspective in Singapore. I’m here on business and decided to wait until I had experienced the island a little before writing this piece. I must say that Singapore is a beautiful country! Not only have the people here been wonderful to me, but the city is clean, safe, fun, exciting, and educational.
While my purpose here is not related to Buddhism, there is clearly an opportunity here to explore a different aspect of our religion. It was recommended to me that I visit the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple so that was my main religious goal coming here. I was worried that I’d have a hard time finding the temple, being in a foreign country and all, but as it turns out, the very first day I was here, I accidentally found it in Chinatown! A friend of mine and I were walking through the hawker plaza in Chinatown, we turned a corner, and BAM… there was a huge temple with monks in bright orange robes wandering about. We were fortunate enough to go into the temple during a ceremony of some sort. We stayed and took pictures.
I’ve been back to the Tooth Relic Temple 3 times since I’ve been here and each day there has been a different experience, but today was the best of all. I learned that there are many Buddha’s you can pay respects to at the temple. There is a hall with dozens of statuettes, each with a placard stating the name of the Buddha. And in front of these small altars, men and women are bowing and chanting and making offerings. I quickly found Amida Buddha (although here he was called Amitabah) and discovered that Amida is considered the protector for those born in the year of the Dog. So after a quick search of the table listings, I found out that I was born in the year of the Dog! What an awesome coincidence that Amida ended up being my Buddha of Protection!
The main altar on the first floor is where the major ceremonies are held, and the Buddha statue there is HUGE! The sangha there kneel on pillows in order to perform religious acts, so it was a bit awkward for me, but I found a pillow and kneeled down in front of the altar and chanted the Juseige. I got a few strange looks, and I think a few people took a picture of me, but I could tell that the only people who took interest were the tourists. The monks were completely at ease with me chanting there, and I could almost feel that Buddha knew what I was doing.
Then I went upstairs to where the actual Tooth Relic is displayed. It is in an amazingly ornate altar behind glass. You can’t take pictures and you can only get so close. In this room, people sit and meditate and make offerings. There were also two monks there that were giving blessings to the sangha. Basically, if you gave them a red envelope with money in it, they would say a blessing for you! So I gave them my envelope and kneeled before the monk in gassho. He placed an object on my head and chanted in Chinese, then we bowed to each other and I moved to the next monk. I kneeled in front of him and he splashed some liquid on my head and shoulders, then held beads to my forehead and chanted in Chinese again. I have no idea what happened… but it was AMAZING! Definitely a once in a lifetime experience!
Being in Singapore during the Chinese New Year has been an incredible learning opportunity for me! I’ve seen many ceremonies and performances, and whether they be of a religious nature or cultural one, everyone seems to be unified in the spirit of being renewed. I watched a large group of people start a blazing bonfire one night in the middle of an open field. Once the fire had started they all bowed in unison over and over again. Then after about 10 minutes, they all stood up and walked away without looking back! They just left the fire there. When I asked someone, I was told that normally that sort of thing would not be allowed, but because it is part of their religious practice, the police allow them to leave the fire.
The people of Singapore are mostly of Chinese decent, but there are also Malaysians, Indians, and many other Asian minorities. Despite the stark language and cultural differences, the people here do not see each other as anything other than Singaporean. I wouldn’t say that this perspective would go so far as an “Ang Mo” like me, but I’ve definitely felt welcomed here, and I will always remember my time in this foreign place.