Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era – Compassion in Action/Engaged Buddhism – Buddhism Beyond Borders

by Barbara Yen


Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era

In conjunction with International Bhikkhuni Day, 2014, Gotama Vihara Society Malaysia has decided to honour outstanding Asian Buddhist women, both monastic and lay, who had made an impact to Buddhism in the modern times. Many of them have not received the due recognition nor had their stories written by scholars. For a start, we are focusing on Asian women as they have a long way to go to achieve recognition and support.

Objectives of this Exercise 

  • honour and acknowledge the achievement of Eminent Asian Buddhist Nuns and Lay Buddhist Women
  • show-case their expertise, experience, skills and talents
  • give them a voice and a face because very often, they are faceless, voiceless and invisible
  • be a role model to inspire other Buddhist Women in their work
  • recognise Malaysian renunciants for taking the lead to inspire others who wish to go on this Path

Summaries of the Biographies

Below are summaries of these extraordinary women. Most of the information are obtained from a combination of either one of these sources – personal interviews, the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women publication: Eminent Buddhist Women, Vietnam, 2010, personal blogs and world-wide web pages.

Full write-ups of some of their stories will subsequently be posted on our Blog in different stages.


III   Compassion in Action/Engaged Buddhism – Buddhism Beyond Borders

1.      Taiwan – Venerable Master Cheng Yan                                                

VenChengYanMaster Cheng Yen was born in Taiwan and was raised by her aunt and uncle. She experienced the devastating effects of war, which taught her the truth about impermanence and suffering. At the age of 8, she also looked after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months. When she was 23, Master first came into contact with Buddhism when her father passed away and she was in search for a burial place for him.  It made her aspire to be a nun.

She ran away from home three times, due to objections by her mother to be a nun. She followed a nun and after experiencing difficulty in getting a master to ordain her, she shaved her own head. Subsequently, Venerable Master Yin-shun accepted her request and she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the “Path of the Bodhisattvas.” It was also the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness, which dealt with human problems, psychological, spiritual and ecological issues.

After a discussion in 1966 with three Catholic nuns who pointed out that Buddhists had not helped society unlike the Church in building schools and hospitals, Master Cheng Yen realised that Buddhism had to do more than just encouraging private cultivation. After all, the Buddha did send out His disciples to spread the Dhamma, which is the greatest gift to humanity.

Founding of Tzu Chi

That same year, while visiting a hospital in Fenglin, she saw blood on the hospital floor and learned that an aboriginal woman suffered a miscarriage but was not attended to as she could not pay a deposit. These events led Master to establish the Tzu Chi (Compassionate Relief) Foundation in April 1966.

She and her five disciples supported themselves and operated their services by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers, baby shoes and electrical circuit breakers. Her thirty followers saved fifty cents from their grocery money every day.

Medical Mission

The Master started the following:

  • 1972 – first medical outreach free clinic in Hualien which has done more than 140,000 consultations.
  • 1986 – 600-bed general hospital at the underserved eastern Taiwan. Tzu Chi has since built six hospitals in different parts of the country.
  • 1989 – College of Nursing in Hualien. It is the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses.
  • 1992 – bone marrow registry now under the Stem Cell Research Centre. By 2005, it had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and matched almost 1000 recipients with compatible donors around the world.
  • 1994 – College of Medicine which became a University in 2000. She also appealed for the donation of bodies for medical training which resulted in one body for every four students. She stressed to them that the bodies were their teachers, and thus should be handled with great respect. In all the courses offered, students are imbued with the spirit of loving kindness, compassion and humanitarian outlook.
  • 1996 – Athletic Drug Testing Center

International Relief Work

In 1991, Tzu Chi began its first flood relief work in central and eastern China. This was followed by other disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and refugee assistance in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, Myanmar, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, USA, Brazil, Argentina, and Taiwan.

Help was in form of meals, drinking water, financial assistance, and rebuilding of homes and schools. Volunteers were not to discuss business, politics or religion. Master’s philosophy was that those who received assistance and those who delivered the aid were rewarded, one materially and the other spiritually.

This relief work has earned them the reputation of being the ‘first to arrive and the last to leave.’  Tzu Chi International Medical Association has now more than 5,000 medical professionals worldwide. Tzu Chi also set up homes in North America, Europe and Australia for alcohol dependents, homeless and people living with AIDS. The organisation now has about 5 million members in 45 countries.

Da Ai Television

Master Cheng Yen launched ‘Da Ai Satellite Television’ which is a 24-hour, commercial-free station in 1998. It broadcasts non-political news generally free of negativity and violence; serial programmes designed to extol good values and virtues; and inspirational teachings every week-day in “Morning at Dawn.” It is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort. She also encourages vegetarianism.


Master was honoured internationally with numerous awards, some of which are as follows:

  • 1991:  Ramon Magsaysay Award, Philippines for Community Leadership
  • 1993: Honorary Doctorate Degree by Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • 1998: International Human Rights Award by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
  • 2001: One of 26 “Heroes from Around the World” and featured on the “Wall of Honor” in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum.
  • 2002: “Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award” by World Buddhist University in Thailand
  • 2008: WFB Merit Medal from World Fellowship of Buddhists
  • 2011: named by the Times, New York as one of the world’s 100 most influential people
  • 2014: nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Harald zur Hausen, director of the German Cancer Research Center who was one of the former prize winners

“Doing all for Buddhism and for all beings” is the highest ideal for Master Cheng Yen in her belief, teaching, and practice.


2.      Malaysia – Venerable Bhikkhuni Chang Heng

VenChangHengOrphaned at a young age, Bhiksuni Chang Heng [1] came in contact with Buddhism at Sau Seng Lum (SSL) Petaling Jaya. 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 [2]. Under her able leadership 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 centre 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 Centre. 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. Bhiksuni Chang Heng teaches Buddhism as “life education for the family and community.”


In recognition of her selfless and devoted service to the community and contribution to Buddhism, Bhiksuni Chang Heng was honored with the following awards:

2001 The 2001 Outstanding Young Malaysian Award for Humanitarian and Volunteer Service by the International Junior Chamber Association Malaysia [3]

2007 – Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards, United Nations in Bangkok

2008 – Malaysian Medical Association’s 2008 Healthcare Service Award for 15 years of selfless and devoted service to the local and international communities.


[1]     www. Sau Seng Lum Buddhist Temple & 500 Arahats. Google: Sau Seng Lum Haemodylasis Center.  Also see Seet Lee Terk. p125.

[2]    She received the abbesseship from Rev. Ji Xian, the 2nd abbess. The temple is 107 years old.

[3]    www. Sau Seng Lum. And Seet Lee Terk. p125.


3.      Malaysia – Venerable Bhikkhuni Sing Kan

VenSingKanVenerable Sing Kan was born in 1957 and hails from Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor.  She became a novice nun in 1983 and received her higher ordination under the tutelage of the late Venerable Pai Sheng at Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang in 1985.

Inspired by the Dhamma and education, she became a teacher at Buddhist Institute Sunday Dhamma School and further pursued her Buddhist education.  In 1996, Venerable obtained her Diploma in Buddhist Studies from the Buddhist and Pali University, Sri Lanka. The following year she enrolled herself at Kelaniya University and graduated with a Diploma in Pali and Buddhist Studies. In 2002, Venerable obtained her B.A in Buddhist Studies from International Buddhist College based in Hatyai Thailand. Venerable also taught at Siang Lin, a Buddhist Kindergarten in Melaka.

She is the abbess of Sam Poh Thong Temple Ampang Selangor and currently heads the Dharma Propagation and Government Affairs Department of Malaysian Buddhist Association KL Selangor Branch. Venerable is also the Vice President (Buddhist) of Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).


4.      MalaysiaVenerable Hasapanna

VenHasapannaVenerable Hasapanna is the first Theravada Malaysian woman to receive full ordination in Perth in 2011. Bhikkhuni 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 3 to 7 and with 4 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.

Bhikkhuni 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.


5.      Malaysia – Sayalay Susīlā

VenSayalaySusilaSayalay Susīlā is born in Pahang, Malaysia. Sayalay studied at the University of Science Malaysia, where she obtained a degree in mass communications in 1988. As a student there, she developed a keen interest in insight meditation.

Upon 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, she resigned from her job to take up meditation full time.

Meditation Practice

In 1991, she was ordained in Malaysia as a Theravada Buddhist nun in the Burmese tradition at the age of 28. Six months after her ordination, 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.

Dhamma Teaching

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.

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). She speaks fluent Mandarin, English, Burmese, Hokkien and Bahasa Malaysia.     


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