BUDDHISM IN MALAYSIA
By Yeap Tor Hor and Kerry Trembath
The early history of Buddhism in Malaysia
The sphere of influence of the early Indian civilisations extended well
beyond the sub-continent to include most of what is now called South East Asia. That trade was the motivating force in
this is clear from the Sanskrit names given to South East Asian ports such as
Takkolo (market of cardamom), Karpuradvipa (island of camphor) and Suvarnabhumi
(land of gold).
Colonists from India
established a number of independent States in the Malay
Peninsula during the first five centuries CE. Buddhism (along with
Hinduism) may therefore have entered the Malay Peninsula
at a very early period, in association with Indian trading and colonising
activities in the region. There is evidence for this early contact in the
mention of several place names from the peninsula in Pali canonical works such
as the Niddesa and the Milindapanha.
Buddhist missionary activities in Malaysia might have occurred as
early as the 3rd century CE. A Buddhist text describes how two Indian Buddhist
monks, Sona and Uttara, came to South East Asia after the Third Buddhist
Council in India.
A Tibetan text also mentions that Dharmapala visited the Malay
Peninsula, followed by Dipankara Atisa around the same period. The
journals of Fa-Hsi&127;en, a Chinese monk, record that he stopped over Java
and Malaysia on his voyage back from Sri Lanka to China in 413 CE.
From the 8th to the 13th centuries CE, the entire region was under the
influence of the powerful Sailendra dynasty from central Java and the maritime
empire of Sri Vijaya that they founded. The rulers of this dynasty built many
Buddhist monuments, including the famous temple of Borobodur
in central Java. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim I-Tsing in 671 CE described the
Sri Vijayan capital at Bukit Seguntang as an important centre of Buddhist
learning, with more than a thousand monks devoting their days to study and good
works. I-Tsing used Chien-Ch’a (Kedah) and Lang-Chia-Shu (Langkasuka) as
stopping points on his pilgrimage to India. It is generally believed
that the earliest form of Buddhism practised in South East
Asia was the so-called Hinayana (present-day Theravada) but with
the rise of Sri Vijaya, Mahayana Buddhism became more important.
Even after the kingdom of Sri Vijaya fell, Buddhist ideas and practice could
have continued to enter the Malay Peninsula as
the northern Malayan States fell under the influence of the Thais, and the
southern Malayan States fell under the control of the Javanese empire of Majapahit.
1.1 The archaeological and historical evidence
Archaeologists have found evidence of this early Buddhist influence in finds
of Buddhist sculptures from the Amaravati school (2nd to 4th century CE) in the
present day Malaysian State of Kedah, in the north west of the peninsula. Unfortunately,
these finds have not so far included any written evidence, such as inscriptions
on stone, from this very early period.
Written evidence is however available from Chinese sources that Buddhism was
well established in the Malayan States by the 6th century CE. The Chinese
Annals record, for instance, that the ruler of a Malayan State described as
P’an P’an sent envoys to the Chinese court in 527, 530 and 536 CE with gifts
including Buddhist relics, miniature painted stupas and leaves of the Bodhi
Tree. Other Malayan States recorded in the Annals as having despatched envoys
and gifts at this time were described as Tan-Tan, Ch’ip-tu and Fo-Lo-An. It was
recorded that the Buddha’s birthday was celebrated every year on the full moon
of the sixth month with processions and music, and that foreign merchants
participated in the celebrations. The Buddhist priests were named in the
Chinese records as Pi-ch’iu (bhikkhu).
Chinese trading contact with South East Asia can be traced to as early as
the 3rd century CE, when the Southern kingdom of Wu sent a mission to South
East Asia to report on the political situation there. They wrote of more than a
hundred kingdoms in what they referred to as the ‘Southern Seas’. The mission
had important consequences. It encouraged many more South East Asian states to
open official relations with China.
The rich markets of China
became even more important to South East Asian states as the Chinese became
more ardent in their new Buddhist faith. Because of Buddhism, the Chinese began
to use incense, and the best incense was made from the aromatic woods found in South East Asia. The Chinese also valued some of the
objects of worship to be found in the Buddhist centres of the region, both in India and Sri
Excavations of sites in Kedah and in the neighbouring State of Penang have brought to
light a large number of buildings which appear to have been temples,
sanctuaries or other kinds of Buddhist settlements and in which were found
stupas and mutilated sculptures. These sites have been dated to as early as the
4th or 5th century CE from inscriptions in Sanskrit inscribed on stone or slate
slabs. One of these inscriptions, found on a stone slab under a ruined house in
Kedah near Bukit Merian, contained the Buddhist formula "Ye dharma
hetuprabhava…." as well as verses which have been translated as
"Karma is accumulated through Ajnana, Karma is the cause of birth. Jnana
leads to desistance from Karma, and in the absence of Karma, there is no
Another important find is a clay tablet found in Kedah on which is inscribed
three Sanskrit verses in a 6th century South Indian script. The verses may be
the earliest Mahayana inscriptions yet found in South East
Asia. Further evidence of the prevalence of Mahayana Buddhism can
also be seen in the large number of clay tablets of somewhat later date (around
10th century CE) also found in Kedah that bear Mahayana texts. Also of interest
are two miniature paintings of Avalokitesvara described as "Avalokitesvara
of the Valavati Hill in Kataha-dvipa" (this being the ancient name for
Buddhist inscriptions dating back to the 4th century CE have been found in
other parts of Peninsular Malaysia, especially in Cheruk Tekun opposite Penang and other parts of Province Wellesley. Buddha
images and other articles were found at Kuala Selinsing, Kinta
Valley, Tanjung Rambutan, Bidor and
Sungei Siput, all in Perak
State. Buddhist images
were also discovered as far into the interior as in the State of Pahang, located in the
central region of the country.
There is also historical evidence that in 1006 CE, Chulamanivarmadeva,
described in inscriptions as "the king of Kataha (Kedah) and Srivishaya
(Sri Vijaya)", built a Buddhist temple at Negapatam. The Chola King
Rajaraja I (present day Coromandel in India) gave the revenue of a large
village to support the temple.
Ruins of ancient Buddhist temples have also been excavated on the eastern
coast of the Malay Peninsula, although some of these sites are in what is now Thailand. Stone
and bronze images of the Buddha and of the Buddha in his aspect as Lokesvara
(Lord of the World) have been found at these sites. These have been dated to as
late as the 13th century CE. As some of these sites were located in the State
known as P’an P’an, which as already mentioned was known to the authors of the
Chinese Annals from as early as the 6th century CE, it appears that Buddhist
influence in the area spread over 700 years.
Much of the archaeological work referred to above was carried out in the
early 1900s, during the British colonial period in Malaya.
More recent work has been done from the 1970s in Kedah as part of the Bujang Valley
archaeological project. This has established that the Bujang
Valley was once a prosperous centre
for settlement and trade, situated as it was on one of the main transit routes
connecting the east and west coasts of the Peninsula.
Numerous temple sites have been found in the Bujang Valley
and Merbok Estuary in Kedah, providing further proof of the existence of a Hindu-Buddhist
period in Malaysian history from the 4th to the 14th century CE. The site
museum is situated at the foot of Bukit Batu Pahat. Visitors can view some of
the Bujang Valley excavation area finds, and can
inspect some of the excavated ruins in the vicinity.
1.2 The coming of Islam to Malaysia
With the conversion of the Melaka Sultanate (the Malay kingdom which ruled
both side of the Straits of Melaka for over a hundred years), Islam was
established as the religion of the Malays, and had profound effect on Malay
The early period of Buddhist influence in the peninsula had begun to wane
due to the revival of Hinduism, and then was brought to a close by the growing
prevalence of Islam as a commercial and political force in the region. The spread
of Islam, introduced by Arab and Indian traders, brought the Hindu-Buddhist era
in the Malay Peninsula to an end by the turn
of the 14th century. Around the beginning of the 15th century CE, the
Malay-Hindu rulers of the kingdom of Malacca were converted to Islam and Malacca became a
centre for the further spread of Islam throughout the Malay
Though Buddhism largely disappeared from the Malay
Peninsula at this time, traces of its influence remained in the
cultures of the local people. The performing arts in the States of Kedah,
Perlis and Kelantan have been strongly influenced by Buddhist legends and
stories. The shadow play or wayang kulit and dance forms such as menora and
makyung are all testimonies that Buddhism was once a powerful religious and
cultural influence in Malaysia.
Contact with China
We know from the accounts of Fa-Hsien and I-Tsing that Chinese pilgrims used
various points on the Malay Peninsula as stopovers on their way to and from India. We also
know from Chinese records that there was diplomatic contact between China and the Malay States
from very early times. Perhaps the most significant official contacts between China took
place during the period of the burgeoning influence of Islam in the region. It
was during this time that the Chinese admiral, explorer, and diplomat Zheng He
(Cheng Ho) made his seven voyages to South East Asia and beyond to India, the
Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Egypt. His seven voyages between 1405 and 1431
CE opened trade and diplomatic ties for China
with at least 35 countries, and encouraged the emigration that was the basis of
Chinese colonisation in South East Asia. The
scale of these expeditions can be gauged from the Chinese records, which show
that Zheng’s first expedition alone comprised 62 large ships and 27,800 crew.
Zheng’s journeys, including the very first, usually included Malacca. As
Buddhism by that time was well established in China, it is interesting to
speculate whether this contact provided any opportunity for the locals to be
exposed to Chinese Buddhist philosophy and practice. In the Sejarah Melayu or
Malay Annals, a very early history of the Malay kingdoms, it is recorded that a
princess from the Chinese imperial court named Hang Liu (Hang Li Po) was given
in marriage to Mansur, the Sultan of Malacca from 1456 to 1477. The princess
was said to be the daughter of the Chinese Emperor.
The Sejarah Melayu also records that the princess was accompanied by five
hundred young men of high rank (sons of Chinese ministers) and a number of
maidservants. The Chinese who accompanied the princess settled in Malacca on
and around the hill known even to this day as Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill). It can
be assumed that many of the Chinese men took local wives and that many of the
maidservants became wives or consorts to local men. Such domestic alliances
would have provided other channels through which Chinese influence could be
transmitted to supplement the mercantile, military and colonial channels that
are usually the focus of our history books!
The contemporary period
The arrival of significant numbers of Chinese immigrants in the Malay
Peninsula after the 17th century marked the beginning of a new wave of Buddhist
influence in Malaysia. This grew stronger in the 19th century during the
British colonial period in Malaya, when a much larger influx of Chinese
immigrants came to work in the tin mines and in other occupations. This was a
time favourable to the growth of Buddhism, as well as other religions, because
the official British policy was one of non-interference in the religions of the
The Chinese were strongly influenced by Confucianism and Taoism but they
also believed in Buddhism. Therefore, the Buddhism practised by the Chinese in
Malaysia was a combination of Confucian values, Taoist beliefs, indigenous
Chinese folk practices and mainly Mahayana (predominantly Pure Land) Buddhism.
The population census conducted by the Malaysian Government in 1991 listed
3.2 million Malaysians as Buddhists and 0.9 million as Confucianists/Taoists
out of a total population of 17.6 million. On these figures, it would appear
that Buddhists accounted for 18 percent of the total population in 1991, but
since many of those categorised as ‘Confucianists/Taoists’ in the Census also
followed Buddhist practices, the total number of Malaysians following Buddhism
would be closer to 24 percent. Most of the Chinese in Malaysia are Mahayana
Buddhists, though a smaller number, especially among the English-educated,
follow the Theravada tradition.
3.1 Mahayana Buddhism in Malaysia
Some of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist temples were set up in Penang. The
Kuan Imm Teng Temple in Pitt Street traces its origin to the early 1800s. The
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple built even earlier in Malacca is also dedicated to
Avalokitesvara&127; Bodhisattva. These two temples are reputedly the oldest
Buddhist temples in the country. However, both temples today are perhaps better
known as tourist spots rather than as dhamma centres, though it is common to
see thousands of devotees during various Mahayana Buddhist festivals.
In 1887, Venerable Miao Lian from Fuchow in China came to Penang and started
the construction of the Kek Lok Si Monastery, which was officially opened in
1905. The architecture reflects the influence of Thai, Burmese and Chinese
Buddhism as can be seen in its multi-tiered pagoda. The words "Kek
Lok" in the temple’s name are the Chinese equivalent of the Sanskrit term
"Sukhavati", meaning `pure land’. In the 1980s the monastery was also
used as a retreat centre and for the ordination of monks and nuns following the
Mahayana tradition. The temple was for a time considered to be the largest
Buddhist temple in South East Asia. It has continued to expand and refurbish
its buildings, and is still today a very popular tourist destination.
The Penang Buddhist Association was founded in 1925 and its temple in Anson
Road was completed in 1931. It is clear from the stated aim of the Association,
which was to propagate the correct teachings of Buddhism, that many considered
that Buddhism was not being properly disseminated in the country at that time.
The Penang Buddhist Association became one of the earliest Buddhist temples to
realise that much of the Buddhism that was practised in the country had become
a distorted version of the true teaching under the influence of local
superstitions and non-Buddhist traditional practices.
A Youth Circle of the Penang Buddhist Association to cater to both the
Chinese and English speaking membership was set up in 1955 by the American
Buddhist monk, Venerable Sumangalo, who was a resident monk at the temple from
1955 until his death in 1963. Some of the innovations introduced by Venerable
Sumangalo were the singing of Buddhist hymns, and a Dharma Sunday School. The
youth organisation he established became the forerunner of many similar
Buddhist youth groups throughout the country such as the Malayan Buddhist Youth
Fellowship and the Federation of Malayan Buddhist Youth Fellowships. Venerable
Sumangalo visited Australia for a few weeks in 1956, attracting large audiences
to the series of Dharma talks he gave in Melbourne and Sydney, and giving a
considerable impetus to the fledgling Buddhist movement in Australia at that
Although the Penang Buddhist Association was a Mahayana temple, it adopted a
non-sectarian approach by inviting Theravada monks such as the late Venerable
K. Gunaratana Maha Nayaka Thera and Venerable P. Pemaratana Maha Nayaka Thera from
the nearby Sinhalese Mahindarama Temple to give religious talks. Venerable
Sumangalo himself has been quoted as saying, "I do not call myself a
Theravadin or a Mahayanist. I am simply a follower of Lord Buddha".
A Buddhist nun of the Mahayana tradition, Venerable Fang Lian (or Hong Lien)
established the Phor Th&127;ay Institute (or Nunnery) in 1936. Within a few
years, this institution also set up an orphanage and a school, the Phor Thay
Chinese Primary School, to cater for the needs of Chinese Buddhist children by
teaching the Buddha Dhamma as well as the usual subjects. Later, the Phor Thay
(National Type) Chinese High School and the Phor Thay (Private) Chinese High
School were added to cater for the secondary education of Buddhist students.
These three schools now cater for over 3,000 students from Penang and the
northern states of Malaysia.
In 1950, a group of 14 Buddhists from Malaya, which at that time included
Singapore, went to Colombo, Sri Lanka to attend the Inaugural General
Conference of The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB). On their return, the
Buddhists in Penang formed The World Fellowship of Buddhists Penang Regional
Centre in 1951. Later, WFB Regional Centres were also established in Selangor
The Malaysian Buddhist Association was formed on April 19, 1959. Its first
President was Venerable Chuk Mor. The Association is the umbrella body for
Chinese Mahayana monks and numerous temples in Malaysia. Its building at 182
Burmah Road in Penang also houses the independently managed Buddhist Free
School and the Malaysian Buddhist Institute. The Buddhist Free School has for
many years been providing adult education for Chinese Buddhists, giving them an
opportunity to learn languages such as Chinese, English and Bahasa Malaysia, as
well as other useful subjects. The Malaysian Buddhist Institute is an
organisation that trains Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns, while giving other
Buddhists an opportunity for more in-depth study of Buddhism.
Venerable Chuk Mor, a well-known scholar monk of the Mahayana tradition, was
born on August 13,1913 in China. He was ordained a monk at age 12 in 1924 and
came to Penang on May 4,1954. In July 1962, Venerable Chuk Mor founded the
Triple Wisdom Hall to teach Ch'an (Chinese Zen) meditation to devotees. This
became the first Chinese Buddhist temple in Malaysia where systematic Ch'an
meditation was taught. He was a prime mover in establishing the Malaysian
Buddhist Institute in 1969 to provide a more comprehensive training to Chinese
Mahayana monks and nuns.
One of his many disciples, Venerable Sik Chi Chern, became the president of
the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM) for three terms, from
1990-1996, becoming the first monk to head a major lay Buddhist organisation
with over 200 affiliate members throughout the country.
For his contribution to Buddhism, Venerable Chuk Mor was conferred one of
the highest awards of the State of Penang, the Darjah Setia Pangkuan Negeri
(DSPN). The award carries the title of Datuk, the nearest English equivalent to
which might be the title of Sir. He is the first Buddhist monk to be conferred
this prestigious award.
The second president of YBAM was Venerable Kim Beng, who was also the Chief
Abbot of Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca. He headed the organisation for many
years, before he gave up the post due to his advanced age. He played an active
role in the propagation of Buddhism in Malaysia and was also a prolific writer.
The Malaysian Government honoured him with the Jasa Setia Mahkota (JSM) award
for his contributions to Buddhism.
Venerable Chip Hong, the current President of the Malaysian Buddhist
Association is also the Chief Abbot of a Buddhist temple in Seremban, Negri
Sembilan. He is a well-known Chinese physician.
The Than Hsiang Temple in Bayan Lepas, Penang, should also be mentioned for
its contribution to Buddhism in Malaysia. Established by Venerable Wei Wu, a
Malaysian Chinese who had formerly been an engineer, the temple has become well
known for its charitable and welfare activities, including counselling. In the
field of education, it runs a kindergarten school and has also started a
Diploma in Buddhist Studies course in association with the Pali and Buddhist
University of Sri Lanka. Though Venerable Wei Wu was ordained in the Chinese
Mahayana tradition, he is very open to Theravada teachings, as can be seen in
the Sri Lanka-based diploma program he initiated.
Other major Chinese Mahayana temples are found in the Kuala Lumpur area.
They include the Kuan Imm Teng in Petaling Jaya established by Venerable Keng
Aun, Hoeh Beng Temple, Tham Wah Wan and Wisma Buddhist. There are also large
Chinese Buddhist temples and monasteries in all the state capitals of the
Buddhism from China has traditionally influenced Chinese Buddhism in
Malaysia. For instance, most of the senior Chinese Buddhist monks in Malaysia
were born in China and migrated to the country during the British period or
after mainland China became a Communist country in 1949.
More recently, Buddhist teachers from Taiwan have started centres in
Malaysia. The most significant is the Fo Kuang Shan group under Venerable Hsing
Yun. They started the Buddha’s Light Vihara in Kuala Lumpur, which was headed
by a local monk, Venerable Hui Hai, until recently. The temple conducts dhamma
classes and other religious activities and has a growing number of
well-educated supporters. In 1998 Venerable Hsing Yun was invited to Malaysia
to give a series of Buddhist talks to the public, in a joint effort between the
Buddha’s Light Vihara and the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Chinese
political party in the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Dr Mahathir
Mohamed. This is the first time in Malaysia that a political party has jointly
organised a series of public lectures on Buddhism with a Buddhist organisation.
The other influence from Taiwan is the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Society
started by Venerable Zheng Yen in Hualien in 1966. In Malaysia, Tzu Chi
activities in charity and welfare started in 1990. In 1993 the first official
Tzu Chi centre was established in Kuala Lumpur, and was soon followed by
similar centres in Penang, Melaka and Ipoh.
The late Venerable Hsuan Hua with many of his Chinese and American disciples
visited Malaysia during the 1980s and 1990s to give dhamma teachings. The local
disciples of Venerable Hsuan Hua have since started a monastery in Kuala Lumpur
where visiting monks from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California, USA,
can reside during their dhamma visits to Malaysia.
3.2 Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia
While those of Chinese descent form the majority of the Buddhist population
in Malaysia, a smaller number of Thais, Burmese and Sinhalese in the country
also practise Buddhism. The Chinese tend to follow the Mahayana tradition,
whereas the Thai, Burmese and Sinhalese communities generally follow the
The Thai community is found mainly in the northern states of Perlis, Kedah
and Kelantan, which were once Thai territory until it was ceded to the British
in 1909 to become part of the Unfederated Malay States of British Malaya. Some
Thais have also moved to Penang and Kuala Lumpur. It is estimated that there
are about 200 Thai temples, including small village wats, in the country. Most
are located in the northern part of Malaysia.
The Thai temples also attract many local Chinese devotees. Although some of
the monks at these temples are Malaysian born, there are few of them who are
fluent enough in the national language, Malay, or in the other widely spoken
languages of Chinese or English, to give teachings on Buddhism. Therefore, the
activities at these temples are mostly limited to Pali chanting, blessing
services, and offering of food (sanghika dana) to the monks.
An exception is the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre in Green Lane,
Penang. It is a Thai temple established in 1918 and historically known as Wat
Candaram. As the name by which it is now known implies, it is a meditation
temple. During the 1970s the abbot of the temple was Phra Khru Dhammabanchanvud
(or Abhidhammapalanana Maha Thero), a learned Thai monk trained in the Mahasi
Sayadaw form of vipassana meditation at Wat Mahathat (Section 5) in Bangkok.
When he was the abbot, he gave teachings on Buddhism, including the abhidhamma,
and perhaps for the first time in Malaysia, introduced vipassana meditation to
the devotees. His dhamma activities attracted many young Malaysians, including
high school students and undergraduates from the nearby Universiti Sains
Malaysia. This was quite a contrast to other Thai temples that attracted the
less educated and generally older Chinese devotees who came mainly for the
ceremonies and rituals.
However, Phra Khru Dhammabanchanvud's religious ministry had to be cut short
and he had to return to Thailand because his visa to Malaysia could not be renewed.
Nevertheless, his efforts had borne fruits. Some of his students, including
Venerable Sujivo, a Malaysian Chinese monk, followed up his noble work by
continuing to teach vipassana meditation at the Centre and later in other parts
of the country. Lately, Burmese monks of the Mahasi tradition have been
visiting the Centre and also other parts of Malaysia to teach vipassana
meditation to Malaysians.
The other Thai monk who has contributed to spreading Buddhism in Malaysia is
Venerable Phra Silananda, during the time he was residing at Wat Pin Bang Onn
(founded in 1889) in Penang. The temple is situated next to the Malaysian
Buddhist Meditation Centre in Green Lane and had an active Sunday School when
the venerable monk was its teacher. However, when he left the country for
England, its Sunday School and many other religious activities ceased. Today
Venerable Phra (now Chao Khun) Silananda continues his dhamma work at the
Buddhapadipa Temple in London.
The Burmese and Sinhalese communities are much smaller than the Thai
community. The Burmese are mainly concentrated in Penang, and their
Dhammikarama Temple in Burmah Lane (popularly regarded as having been founded
in 1803 but perhaps more accurately dating to around 1828) is the only Burmese
temple in Malaysia. The Dhammikarama Burmese Temple in Burmah Lane was active
with religious activities when Venerable U Pannavamsa was residing there. A
learned scholar, he taught abhidhamma and meditation to the devotees. He also
supported the Sunday School at the temple. However, religious talks and
meditation classes are now organised on a less regular basis due to lack of
monks with the necessary experience and skills.
However, it is interesting to note that the Burmese contribution to
Malaysian Buddhism has extended well beyond their only temple in Penang. Thanks
to the connection Venerable Phra Khru Dhammabanchanvud has made with the Mahasi
Sayadaw tradition, many Burmese monks are now teaching vipassana meditation in
Malaysia. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw himself visited Malaysia in 1980 to give
teachings and introduce vipassana meditation classes. Regular vipassana
meditation retreats are now held at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre,
Santisukarama Buddhist Centre in Kota Tinggi (Johor), Taiping Buddhist Society (Perak),
Buddhaganu Sasana Centre (Malacca), Selangor Vipassana Centre (Petaling Jaya),
Subang Jaya Buddhist Association (Selangor) and also in East Malaysia. Some of
the Burmese monks who have been regularly teaching vipassana meditation to
Malaysians include Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita, Venerable Sayadaw U Pannathami
and Venerable Sayadaw U Rewatta. Another Burmese teacher, Venerable Sayadaw U
Janaka, though from a different Burmese meditation tradition, has also taught
meditation in Malaysia.
The other major contribution to Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia comes from
the Sinhalese monks. They are generally English-speaking and have been formally
trained in Buddhism. The Sinhalese have a temple in each of Penang and Taiping
and two in Kuala Lumpur, and these temples attract a largely English-educated
group of devotees.
A leading Theravada Buddhist centre in Penang is the Mahindarama Temple in
Kampar Road, Penang. Founded in 1918 by Venerable A. Pemaratana, the
Mahindarama Temple was very active in dhamma propagation activities under
Venerable K. Gunaratana Maha Nayaka Thera (1933-1964). An eloquent preacher,
Venerable Gunaratana was able to attract a large number of young and educated
Buddhists to the temple. He also gave dhamma talks in other parts of the country.
He organised regular dhamma activities and a Sunday School for children. After
his death, Venerable P. Pemaratana Maha Nayaka Thera continued with many
religious activities at the temple.
Compared to Thai monks in Malaysia, the Sinhalese monks are generally more
missionary minded. This could be because they had received a more formal
training in Buddhism at the monastic colleges in Sri Lanka, and are able to
communicate in English, the language of the educated during that time. Also,
there was an on-going Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka following the conversion of
Col. H.S. Olcott and the missionary zeal of Buddhist reformers such as
Venerable Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-I933).
The other major Sinhalese Buddhist centre is at the Buddhist Maha Vihara in
Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. The temple was founded by the Sasana Abhiwurdhi
Wardhana Society in 1895. Originally set up to cater to the religious needs of
the Sinhalese community in the Kuala Lumpur area, the temple today caters to
Buddhists of all ethnic groups, including the Chinese who undoubtedly form the
largest group of devotees. It has a very well organised Sunday School that has
an enrolment of over 200 students from pre-school to junior high school. There
are also regular religious talks on Sunday mornings and Friday evenings,
counselling sessions and meditation classes on other days. The temple also
houses an active Youth Section and a Ladies Section.
Much of the success of the Buddhist Maha Vihara must be attributed to the
Venerable Dr K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Nayaka Thera. Born on March 18,1919, he
first arrived in Malaysia on January 2, 1952 and has since then embarked on a
comprehensive missionary program for the Malaysian Buddhist community. He
started the Buddhist Missionary Society in 1963 to propagate Buddhism to the
masses. Through the Society, he gave public talks and organised seminars on
Buddhism throughout the country. He also wrote and published numerous books on
Buddhism, especially with the objective of clearing misconceptions about Buddhism
in Malaysia. Many of these books, including "What Buddhists Believe"
and "Treasures of the Dhamma" are classic texts for any class on
Buddhist studies. Buddhist groups in other countries have also translated a
number of his books into foreign languages.
One of Venerable Dhammananda's disciples is Venerable Mahinda from Malacca.
Venerable Mahinda was influenced by Buddhism during his younger days at the
Malacca Buddhist Association (Seck Kia Eenh) and his interest in the Buddha's
teachings deepened when he was studying at university in New Zealand. He later
became a monk under Venerable Dhammananda and since then has assisted in
numerous missionary activities in both Malaysia and Singapore. He now heads the
Australian Buddhist Mission in Sydney but returns regularly to Malaysia to
assist in dhamma activities, especially during the annual Novitiate Program
held at the Buddhist Maha Vihara.
3.3 Japanese Buddhism in Malaysia
Japanese Buddhism, including Zen, has not made a significant impact on
Malaysian Buddhism so far. The only form of Japanese Buddhism that has spread
to Malaysia is Nichiren Shoshu, sometime during the early 1960s. It was brought
to Malaysia by Japanese businessmen working in Malaysia as well as by
Malaysians who had studied in Japan.
During the 1980s, when the Malaysian Government was emphasising the
"Look East Policy" of emulating Japan in industrialisation,
management styles and work ethics, other things "Japanese" also
became in vogue. Japanese Buddhism was one of them. Today there are Nichiren
Shoshu centres in most major towns in the country, including Kuala Lumpur,
Penang, Ipoh, Malacca and Kuantan. The fellowship among the followers is strong
but they seldom have contacts with other Buddhist groups within Malaysia.
3.4 Tibetan Buddhism in Malaysia
Tibetan Buddhism is the latest to enter Malaysia but is perhaps the most
widely known form of Buddhism in some circles because of the considerable
publicity it attracts. The publicity over His Holiness the Dalai Lama winning
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, the publication of Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan
Book of Living and Dying, the Free Tibet Movement led by movie stars and rock
singers and the Hollywood portrayal of Tibet in "Seven Years in
Tibet" and "Kundun", have aroused the interest and imagination
of many in Malaysia, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, in Tibetan Buddhism.
Historically, the visit of the Venerable Gwalya Karmapa of the Kagyu school
in December 1980 marked the first official introduction of Tibetan Buddhism to
Malaysia. Subsequently, other Tibetan lamas, including Venerable Tai Situpa
Rinpoche, have visited Malaysia for both teachings and initiations. Today, the
Karma Kagyu school has numerous centres in the country but they work closely
with Buddhist organisations of both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama also visited Malaysia in 1981 and was accorded a
warm welcome by Buddhists of both the Theravada and Chinese Mahayana
traditions. Other Tibetan teachers have continued to visit Malaysia, usually at
the request of their devotees in the country. The most celebrated teachers have
included Lama Yeshe's incarnation Osel Tenzin and Lama Yeshe's successor Lama
Zopa Rinpoche. In 1996 Lama Zopa's followers started the Losang Drapga Centre
in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, where regular teachings on Tibetan Buddhism are
provided. Many of Lama Zopa's Western disciples, including Venerable Sangye
Khadro, Venerable Thubten Chodron and Venerable Thubten Tsultrim have given
talks and conducted seminars in Malaysia.
The establishment of lay associations
Associations of Buddhist lay people have played a vital role in sustaining
and developing Buddhism in Malaysia, not only in the traditional area of
support for temples and for the Sangha, but also in the fields of education and
4.1 The Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia
The Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM) was established in 1970.
It is a federation of 243 Buddhist youth organisations throughout the country,
with a total membership of over 100,000. The YBAM also has an associate
membership of over 3,000 members. The YBAM was established to unite Buddhist
groups throughout the country, especially the youth, under one umbrella
It runs a range of activities, from religious talks and meditation camps to
social welfare activities for its members. Together with the Malaysian Buddhist
Association, it conducts the annual Malaysian Buddhist Examinations for
students at various levels. TheYBAM has also received recognition from the
Government and is represented at the Malaysian Youth Council.
Closely associated with the YBAM is the Young Buddhist Foundation that was
established in 1976 to provide funding support to the YBAM for its activities.
Through the Foundation, the YBAM has taken up a significant stake in a
Vegetarian Restaurant and also started a typesetting business, both in Penang.
The Foundation is involved in various religious as well as welfare activities,
including awarding scholarships to needy but bright students, and supporting a
Sangha Fund for monks and nuns.
4.2 The Buddhist Gem Fellowship
Originally started as the Buddhist Graduates Fellowship (BGF) in 1980 by a
group of local university graduates, the BGF has grown to become a prominent
group of Buddhist leaders providing training and leadership support to college
students in local universities. Through the Inter-College and Varsity (INCOVAR)
Camps, the BGF has been successful in providing support and training to the
students in managing the Buddhist societies at the various universities in
Malaysia. Many of these students subsequently become members of the BGF when
they graduate, and then in turn help their juniors back on campus.
4.3 Meditation groups
During the past 20 years, meditation has become an increasing part of
Buddhist practice among devotees in Malaysia. In the Chinese Mahayana
tradition, temples that teach meditation include Hoe Beng Si in Kuala Lumpur,
Taiping Buddhist Society (Perak) and Triple Wisdom Hall and Malaysian Buddhist
Institute in Penang.
In the Theravada tradition, many meditation centres were established
recently. Those in the Kuala Lumpur area include the Selangor Vipassana Centre,
Wisdom Centre and the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association. Their teacher is
Venerable Sujivo, who teaches meditation based on the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition.
There are also other smaller meditation groups in Johor Bahru (Metta Lodge) and
in Kota Tinggi (Santisukarama Buddhist Centre), both in the southern state of Johor.
In the northern region, there are meditation centres in Lunas and Bukit
Perak in Kedah and at the Taiping Insight Meditation Centre in Taiping, Perak.
All these centres follow the Burmese method of meditation as taught by the late
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. In addition to Venerable Sujivo, two other well-known
local Theravada meditation monks, Venerable Suvanno and Venerable Visuddhacara,
are teaching vipassana meditation. Venerable Suvanno, who is now in his 70s,
has a meditation hermitage in Lunas (Kedah) and another centre in Penang Hill.
Venerable Vissudhacara, a prolific writer, used to reside at the Malaysian
Buddhist Meditation Centre but now has no specific place of residence.
Other Malaysian Theravada monks who teach meditation include Venerable
Chamriang in Kedah, Venerable Javanna in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, and Venerable
Dhammavuddho who used to be based in Penang but has recently moved to Perak
where he is setting up a Centre.
4.4 Dharma publications
A number of Malaysian Buddhist organisations are prominent in the
publication of Dharma books in English and Chinese, such as the Buddhist
Missionary Society and the Wisdom Audio Visual Exchange in Kuala Lumpur, and
Sukhi Hotu and the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre, both in Penang. These
publications, many of which are for free distribution, are of great value in
providing wider access to the Buddha’s teachings. As these books are often
available outside Malaysia, the influence of Malaysian Buddhism is being felt
throughout the region. This influence is also evident in the high esteem in
which prominent Malaysian monks such as Venerable Dhammananda and Venerable
Mahinda are held in other countries, including Australia.
Indications are that Buddhism is again on the rise in Malaysia. Although
Islam is the State religion of Malaysia and the religion of the Malay people
who constitute the majority of the population, Malaysian Buddhists have enjoyed
the freedom to practise their religion. The majority of Malaysian Buddhists are
of Chinese ethnic origin, with smaller numbers from other ethnic backgrounds
such as Thai, Burmese and Sinhalese. Unlike most other Asian countries, where
the form of Buddhism practised is predominantly either Mahayana or Theravada,
all the major traditions of Buddhism are thriving in happy coexistence in
The many Buddhist temples and organisations which have been established over
the past 20 years bear testimony to the fact that the Buddha's teaching is
alive and well. Many Malaysians have also become monks, and a number of them
have been in the monkhood for more than 10 years. Many young and educated
Malaysian Chinese are also rediscovering Buddhism, as can be seen in the
increasing enrolment in Buddhist classes at the major Buddhist centres in Kuala
Lumpur and other cities. They are interested in exploring the Buddha's teaching
rather than relying on traditional customs and beliefs practiced by the older
generation of their parents and grandparents.
The future of Buddhism in Malaysia is bright but, as is the case throughout
the world, much depends on the continuation and extension of the good work that
is being done in the area of Buddhist education. Much also depends on the
continued willingness of the major Buddhist organisations, whether Theravada,
Mahayana or Vajrayana, to work together with a common vision. May the Triple
Gem guide Malaysian Buddhists in the next millennium with the energy,
resourcefulness and innovation they have applied so successfully to their
efforts in the last years of the present millennium.
Dr Sukumar Sengupta, Buddhism in South-East Asia, Atisha Memorial Publishing
Society, Calcutta, 1994.
Benny Liow Woon Khin, Buddhist Temples and Associations in Penang,
1945-1948, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol
LXII Part 1, 1989.
Venerable Sumangalo – 40 Years of Appreciation, a collection of some of
Venerable Sumangalo’s Dharma talks with biographical notes by Dato’ Khoo Keat
Soo, a free distribution publication of the Penang Buddhist Association Dharma
Sunday School, undated.
Buddhism in Malaysia, Volume 2, Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia,
Buddhist Digest Publication Board, 1987
Paul Croucher, Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988, New South Wales University
Unpublished notes on the history and contemporary status of Buddhism in
Malaysia compiled by Mr Yeap Tor Hor of Penang, Malaysia.