by Samaneri Sumangala
This article is written by Samaneri Sumangala in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
Gotama Buddha is an exemplary Teacher (AN3.65), the shower of the way (MN107) and a spiritual friend (SN45.2). In order to ensure that the Buddha’s teaching and the Buddha sāsana would spread far and wide and thrive for a long time, the Buddha firmly established the Four-fold Sańgha: bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika – to provide equal and conducive platform for the attainment and propagation of the Buddha-Dharma that leads to happiness here and now, hereafter and the ultimate bliss of Nibbana. After the Buddha’s Parinibbana, the Dhamma-Vinaya is taken as the Teacher.
It was the Buddha who showed the world that the Truth – the Dhamma/ Nibbana goes beyond caste, race, religion, tradition, custom, beliefs, region, society, status, age and gender. The establishment of the bhikkhuni sasana by the Buddha, with the remarkable courage of the first bhikkhuni and the first group of five hundred bhikkhunis lead by Mahapajapati have shattered the belief of the lower status, incapability and discrimination against women. Indeed, the Buddha is an incomparable teacher of gods and human.
Development of Buddhasasana and Dhamma Education in Malaysia over the Last Few Decades
Buddhism was re-introduced to Malaysia by the Chinese immigrants, particularly during the British rule in the late 19th century. The Dhamma education which is Buddhistic only evolved in the 1950’s with the arrival of some outstanding missionary monks and nuns to Malaysia. Mahayana Buddhism as practiced by Chinese monks and nuns spread mostly to the Chinese speaking community. Theravada Buddhism, made significant inroads in the English educated Buddhist community e.g. Chinese, Sri Lankan, and also practice by the Siamese and Burmese.
Immigrant monks and nuns subsequently inspired some local laity who later became local bhikkhus and bhikkunis and became Buddhist leaders, Dhamma teachers and organizers. The 2010 census (Malaysia Statistical Department) showed that of the total population of 28 million people in Malaysia, about 5.4 million were Buddhists, mostly nominal Buddhist. However, the Malaysian Buddhist Association registered around 3,000 ordained bhikkhus and bhikkhunis – Mahayana and Theravada and there is a need to groom more monastics to teach and serve the Buddhists at large.
Contributions of Bhikkhunis and Female Laity in Malaysia and their Motivation
Miracles of Education – Preservation of Buddha Dhamma
1930 – Ven Fung Lian came from Xie Men, China to propagate Buddhism in Penang
As early as 1935, one prominent Mahayana nun, Bhikkhuni Fong Lian founded the Phor Tay (Bodhi) Buddhist Institute in Penang with the noble objectives of disseminating Buddhism through education and orphanage services. Unfortunately she passed away in 1937, at the age of 36.
Her legacy is continued by her female disciples and supporters e.g. Bhikkhuni Kuan Chung and female laity such as Ong Dong Su, Chan Sau Yeen, Pitt Chin Hui, Cheah Tat Wan and many others. Their strong determination, dedication and diligence manifested in the establishment of the Phor Tay Buddhist Institute in 1940, Phor Tay Chinese Primary School in 1945 and Phor Tay Secondary School in 1954 – to provide new buildings and facilities for education and to mold better Buddhists.
Later Chan Sau Yeen (1969-1984), supported by Malaysian Buddhist Association, became the co-founder, deputy principal and lecturer of Malaysian Buddhist Institute (MBI). Currently this Institute offers Certificate in Buddhism (Buddhist studies in Chinese and Basic Organizational Skills) and is recognized by the Malaysian Education Ministry, Sri Lanka, China and Hong Kong for further studies.
Presently, Venerable Ji Zun (1991- ), a former student of MBI, is the Head of Education Administrator and MBI Correspondence Course. Together with other ex-graduates, they continued to produce Buddhist leaders, teachers, organizers and volunteers to help the community at large. More than 50 graduates became monks and nuns. Presently, most Mahayana abbesses in Malaysian temples received their education at the MBI. From 1990s onwards some MBI students furthered their studies in Taiwan, became ordained and remained there to serve the international Buddhist community. Fo Guang Shan and Dharma Drum actively recruited Malaysian women potentials.
Venerable Sing Kan (1957 – )
At the age of 25, Venerable became a nun at Sin Fook Tong temple, Kuala Lumpur under the guidance of her great grand master Sin Pooi and teacher Venerable Ku Chung. She took her higher ordination as a bhikkhuni in Penang in 1987 under the preceptorship of Master Tai Sheng from Taiwan.
Ven studied Buddhism under Uncle Fam and the late Ven Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Nayaka Thera in Buddhist Mahavihara in 1993. She later taught Buddhism in its Sunday school (BISDS) for 2 years.
In 1996 she took the Diploma in Buddhism (BAPU program) for 1 year and in 1997-1999, Diploma in Buddhism at the Kelaniya University, Sri Lanka. She then completed a degree course in Buddhism organised by International Buddhist College in 2001-2004 and became the Vice Principal and teacher of Siang Lin Chiao Yuen kindergarten, Malacca.
Role as an Abbess
In 2007, Venerable gave up her aspiration to be an academic in Buddhist studies to become the abbess of Sam Poh Thong in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. She is active in propagating Buddhist education and meditation practice especially with the young. She started the ‘Smart Readership Programme’ to improve the standard of English of the under-privileged children in the neighbourhood. She started with twenty students, providing them with free breakfast and lunch every Sunday but the number has now grown to more than a hundred. Presently, Ven is expanding the temple to meet the needs of increasing number of students and devotees.
Prior to the formation of Gotami Vihara, Ven Sing Kan had kindly provided accommodation to our local or visiting Theravada nuns. We are most grateful to her for her kind support.
Mission in Inter-faith Understanding
Ven is actively involved in interfaith discussions and dialogue to promote peace and harmony in a multi-racial and multi-religious society. She is one of the Vice Presidents of the Malaysian Consultative Committee of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST). She travels extensively to network with other Buddhist societies in the propagation of Buddhism. She was in the Netherlands recently to assist the families of MH17 tragedy.
Compassion in Action
Venerable Chang Heng
A young orphan, Venerable Chang Heng came in contact with Buddhism at Sau Seng Lum (SSL) Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Ordained at the age of 18, she went to Taiwan to further her studies in Buddhism. In 1978 she became the 3rd abbess of SSL. Under her able leadership with the motto “May human beings be free from suffering and may the world be peaceful”, SSL diversified from a Buddhist temple to a compassionate community and extended its services to helping the less unfortunate in the areas of healthcare, culture and education.
She set up the Petaling Jaya SSL Haemodialysis Center (1994) to provide affordable and quality dialysis services to poor kidney patients of all creeds. Starting with 6 units of dialysis machines and 4 patients, the center now has 100 units and over 200 patients. In 2003, SSL Haemodialysis Center was one of the first NGOs to be awarded the ISO 900:2000 Quality Management System and Healthmark Certification. The SSL Haemodialysis Center later became the Dialysis and Stroke Rehabilitation Center. In 2004 its health services expanded to a new center at SSL Puchong. The innovative design of the 500 Arahat images in this new center is recorded in the Malaysia Book of Records and has become a tourist destination. Ven Chang Heng teaches Buddhism as “life education for the family and community.”
Sau Seng Lum Dialysis and Stroke Rehabilitation Centre in Puchong
In 2001, Ven Chang Heng was awarded the 2001 Outstanding Young Malaysian Award for Humanitarian and Volunteer Service by the International Junior Chamber Association Malaysia. In 2007, she received the prestigious Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards Committee by the United Nations in Bangkok for her contribution to Buddhism and the community. In 2008, in recognition of Ven Chang Heng’s selfless and devoted service, the Malaysian Medical Association honored her with the 2008 Healthcare Service Award for 15 years of selfless and devoted service to the local and international communities.
Bridging Individual to Group, Local to International
Venerable Jue Cheng
Venerable Jue Cheng was born in Johor in 1960. In 1989 she left her nursery school and her career as a teacher to study at Fo Guang Shan Tsung Lin University. In 1990, she suddenly awakened while contemplating human suffering during her monastic training in Fo Guang Shan (FGS). This experience led her to ordain as a bhikkhuni, to “purify her mind.” In 2007, she came back to Malaysia after 15 years of teaching humanistic Buddhism in Brazil where she became known as “the sincere monk – Rev. Sinceridade.”
Despite being held at gunpoint no less than five times, she has this thought in her mind – “I may not be able to change you (the mafias) but I shall change the mind of your children.” With her bravery, determination, nurturing skills and kindness, she helped built a FGS temple (Zu Lai) and a Buddhist community in Brazil. In 2003, she was awarded the Civilian Honor by Cotia City, Brazil. She also served as an abbess in FGS Argentina.
Venerable is currently, the Chief Abbess of FSG Malaysia and Singapore, principal of Dong Zen Institute of Buddhist Studies and CEO of Fo Guang Publications. She oversees more than fifteen Chapters of FGS in Malaysia and Singapore, including six foreign and twenty-four Malaysian nuns who teach Buddhism. Many Malaysian nuns stay at FGS headquarters in Taiwan and some have become abbesses of FGS temples in countries around the world.
She recalled her Master’s words: “Malaysians are the treasury of talents and the monastic are of good use”. Ven Jue Cheng is keen to propagate Dharma through cultural and educational activities – ensuring that Buddhism can be developed into a systematic, modern, humanized, progressive and in an international environment to promote the concepts of oneness and co-existence, joy and harmony, respect, tolerance, peace and equality. This is to educate not only the Buddhists but also multi-cultural society, religion and race. She said when “the robe is put on, it is genderless. Work is life when one serves selflessly for the wellbeing and happiness of all.”
Maintaining the Buddha’s Early Teaching and Mind Training
Unlike the Mahayana, Theravada temples and centers in Malaysia have yet to have Theravada bhikkhuni teachers to lead the devotees. Only around late 1980s, some female Buddhists mostly meditators, went forth as “shaven ones with pink, white or brown robe” and were given the name as sayalay or silasin (Myanmar), maechee (Thailand) or dasa sil mata (Sri Lanka) but the Theravada ordination as samaneri (a novice) and bhikkhuni according to the Buddha’s Four-fold Sangha were not available .
However, in the beginning of 21st century, with the understanding that bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are ordained by the vinaya, there are Malaysian women who have received proper ordination in the Theravada and/or Dharmaguptaka vinaya lineage as samaneris and bhikkhunis.
Earliest Theravada Bhikkhuni from Malaysia
Venerable Hasapanna was born in 1960, and is from Ipoh. She was ordained as a trainee nun (Anagarika) for 2 years and a ten precept nun for 4 years following the Theravada tradition. In 2009, she was one of the earliest Malaysians to take the full-pledge ordination as a Theravada Bhikkhuni (with Ayya Tathaaloka as Pavattini) for 2 years at Dhammasara Buddhist Nuns Monastery, Western Australia.
She is currently the Co-Abbess of Dhammasara Nuns Monastery and also the Assistant Spiritual Director of Buddhist Society of WA. Since then the numbers of bhikkhuni in Dhammasara is growing gradually, from three to seven and with four samaneris. Dhammasara is planning an expansion of their residential capacity and welcoming requests from women all over the world who would like to walk the path as nuns.
Venerable Hasapanna explains about the stages of becoming a Theravada nun. This process takes years of careful spiritual development and practice. Candidate will go through three months observation or acclamation as lay person – with duties and responsibilities living, practicing and working together with the nuns.
If she is found to be suitable, she will be committed to another stage of development as anagarika – while practicing, be of service and stay in for one year. When she feels more adapted and committed as an anagarika, she can then request for novice / samaneri ordination. As a samaneri, she will go through training for another two years. Then she may request for bhikkhuni ordination as a full-pledge nun.
These stages of development entail the good practice of the candidate and the guidance and evaluation of their preceptor teacher and the community of senior nuns. After receiving the training, the nuns’ role are to give Dhamma talks, sutta study, meditation and conduct retreats to inspire others to develop virtues and a healthy and happy life.
Venerable Hasapanna travels locally and oversea e.g. Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong to give Dhamma talks and inspire people to walk the path. This year, with the support of some Buddhist societies she will be conducting one of the earliest Theravada temporary samaneri novitiate program in Malaysia to inspire potential candidates.
The First Stupa – Connecting the three traditions
Venerable Dhammika was attracted to Buddhism through meditation and has been organizing and leading Dhamma activities in the Kuching Buddhist Society (KBS) of Sarawak (East Malaysia) since 1994. In Venerable Dhammika’s circle, it is often said that Theravada is like the roots of the tree, Mahayana the branches and Vajrayana the leaves”. She often smiles as she says, “I would rather be the string that ties all the beads of a mala together.”
In 2004, the truth of aging, sickness and death dawn on her as her teacher, the late Ven K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera Nayaka aged and became physically weak. That awakening gave her the confidence to carry on her teacher’s mission to spread Dhamma and to build a Theravada Buddhist center and a first stupa in Sarawak. With her sincere intention, within a short time the stupa and the Kuching Dhamma Vijaya Buddhist Center came into being in 2008. She took her bhikkhuni ordination following the Dharmaguptaka lineage in 2012. She is the Founder and Chairman of Dhamma Vijaya Foundation and President of Kuching Dhamma Vijaya Buddhist Association. She sees a good leader or teacher as an influential role model for the development of the Buddha Dhamma. She believes that “if one has a will, there is always a way.”
The Mind Training
Sayalay Susīlā was born in Pahang, Malaysia, in 1963 and in 1991, ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun in the Burmese tradition at the age of 28, in Malaysia. Sayalay began developing her keen interest in insight meditation while at the University of Science Malaysia, where she obtained a degree in mass communications in 1988.
After graduation, Sayalay worked as a high school teacher for a year and a half. But disenchanted with worldly matters and desiring to be dedicated to the practice more than ever, she resigned her post to take up meditation full time. Six months after her ordination in 1991, she went to Panditarama Monastery in Myanmar, where she practiced intensively for nearly three years under the guidance of the famous meditation master Venerable U Pandita Sayadaw.
In 1994, wishing to cultivate concentration meditation, Sayalay moved to Pa Auk Forest Monastery in Myanmar. She placed herself under the guidance of renowned monk, Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw and remained in the forest for 14 years. In addition to an assiduous program of meditation, she also learned the Abhidhamma, ancient discourses, and the Pāli language from Pak Auk Sayadaw. Meanwhile, she became his English-to-Chinese interpreter in Myanmar and abroad.
During her travels in Myanmar, she also practiced different meditation methods, such as those taught by Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, Mogok Sayadaw, and Sayagyi U Ba Khin. As a result Sayalay has become an unusually accomplished teacher, able to present the subtleties of the Buddha’s teachings in a simple and direct way. In particular, she presents the most profound division of the teaching, the Abhidhamma, in a lucid manner grounded not in pedantic philosophy, but in actual meditation experience.
Sayalay has traveled extensively as a meditation and Dhamma teacher, presenting the Abhidhamma and Sutta expositions in formal lectures and talks, and has conducted meditation retreats throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Latvia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. She speaks fluent Chinese, English, Burmese, Hokkien and Malay. Her publications include Unravelling the Mystery of Mind and Body through Abhidhamma (second edition), published in both English and Chinese, Mindfulness of Breathing (English), The Practical Manual of Abhidhamma (Chinese), and The Nine Virtues of the Buddha (Chinese).
How to Encouraged more Women to Become Dedicated Theravada Bhikkhuni and Dhamma Teachers
- Be understanding, heedful and sincere in your Aspiration and Mission!
- Encourage and Provide Opportunity to the Potentials e.g. Committed Bhikkhuni Training Program or Speaker Training Program.
- Provide and Support a Center for the community of Bhikkhuni, samaneri and upasika to dwell, learn, practice, realise and share.
- The training is not just to become a teacher but as a Practitioner, Model, Coach, Facilitator, Counselor and Friend
- Set up an Educational Fund as one of the priorities for Bhikkhuni Teacher Development.
Although the development of Buddhism in Malaysia is still quite young (about 60 years), the good work of charismatic immigrant teachers (monks and nuns) have led local Buddhist, individually and collectively, to continue promoting peace and wisdom through “the teaching of the Buddha.” Female Buddhist nuns and lay teachers have shouldered many responsibilities – as founders, organizers, fund-raisers, leaders, teachers, CEOs, administrators, counsellors, workers and practitioners – with great zeal and effort, displaying capability and endurance. They have done great work in spreading Buddhism from the temple to the communities. These bhikkhunis and female laities inspire others by embodying the Buddha’s virtues.
The continued growth of Buddhism depends on nurturing the potential of all human beings, lay or ordained – to bring forth the teaching of the Buddha and uphold and support the Fourfold Sangha, and work for the well being of the world. This will set a new milestone in the development of Buddhism in Malaysia.
Writen by Samaneri Sumangala
Spiritual Advisor, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia
 Prof. Dr. M. Kamal Hassan & Dr. Ghazali bin Basri (Vol. Ed.). Religions and Beliefs. 2005. Archipelago Press, Malaysian. P 62.
 The Buddha’s word. Chief’s 75 felicitation.
 Religions and Beliefs, p.68.
 Seet Lee Terk. Buddhist Nuns in Malaysia, p122-128. and http://www.PhorTay.org and personal interview with Ms. Cheah Tat Wan on 5th Aug 2009.
 Interview with Ms. Cheah Tat Wan, Living Testimony Aug 09 and MBI Historical Record in Chinese.
 Seet Lee Terk. P 124.
 Seet Lee Terk. p123.
 Interview with Fo Guang Shan Abbess, Rev. Jue Cheng Living Testimony Jul 09. Seet Lee Terk. p123.
 www. Sau Seng Lum Buddhist Temple & 500 Arahats. Google: Sau Seng Lum Haemodylasis Center. Also see Seet Lee Terk. p125.
 She received the abbesseship from Rev. Ji Xian, the 2nd abbess. The temple is 107 years old.
 www. Sau Seng Lum. And Seet Lee Terk. p125.