Asia 2019 Travelogue – Part 1

Singapore and Malaysia

by Ven. Thubten Damcho

Ven. Chodron made her annual Asian teaching tour in November and December, giving talks and courses in Singapore and Malaysia before heading to India to attend the International Conference on Je Tsongkhapa commemorating the 600th anniversary of the parinirvana of one of Tibet’s greatest scholar-yogis. Vens. Chonyi and Damcho supported Ven. Chodron on the first part of the tour. Ven. Damcho shares her first-person account of the Singapore and Malaysia legs of the journey. See photos here.


Seattle to Singapore – Week 1

We started in Seattle on November 23 where Ven. Chodron spoke at East West Bookshop. Co-organized by Dharma Friendship Foundation, the talk on Awaken Every Day was very well attended (listen to the talk here), and Pam & Steve Cowan took good care of us before we boarded the nonstop flight to Singapore. On arrival, many kind Friends of Sravasti Abbey gathered at the airport to greet us.

On our first day we connected with Tern Hwee Seng and Sherin Lew from Pureland Marketing and blessed their new apartment. The second day we met with about 50  people at the home of Dr. Ang Beng Choo, a lay Dharma teacher whom Ven. Chodron has known for decades.

That evening Ven. Chodron spoke to young people and parents from the Buddhist Youth Network whose questions included, “How to practice Dharma as a teenager?” We’ve heard about the rise in youth suicides as life in Singapore continues to be highly competitive and stressful, which is sad. Listen to the talk here.

The third day we had lunch with William Chua and his friends who shared about their various civic engagement projects, ranging from prison rehabilitation to running a center for interfaith engagement. It was inspiring to hear about all their good work.

Later that evening Ven. Chodron launched her book, The Compassionate Kitchenat Poh Ming Tse temple. Listen to the talk here. William sponsored the rebuilding and modernization of the temple, which is now managed by Ven. Miao Quan, a Chinese nun from Singapore. Three concurrent Poh Ming Tse programs that night were all led by nuns, which was awesome!

The fourth day we had lunch with Singapore’s lam rim class students. Hosted by Joline and Richard Lee, this group tunes in to Ven. Chodron’s weekly Friday Livestream teaching, and then discusses the Dharma together.

We also stopped by a nunnery, Pu Ti Buddhist Temple, for a short visit. That night, Ven. Chodron spoke to a good-sized crowd at Vimalakirti Buddhist Centre on bringing our spiritual practice into the workplace. Listen to the talk here. 

Over the weekend (days five and six), Ven. Chodron led a workshop at Amitabha Buddhist Centre (ABC) on the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma—precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, karma, and the disadvantages of cyclic existence.

She continued with that topic at the public talk later in the week, also at ABC. She only completed 2.25 of the four thoughts, so she may continue these teachings next year! Listen to the series of talks here.

Sunday was a full day! In addition to the morning teaching at ABC, Ven. Chodron took the lunch break to give an introduction to Vajrayana teachings to 70 students from the Pali College of Singapore.

Sunday evening we went to a dinner gathering with about 40 women professionals—many not Buddhist—that was really fun. Organized by Saw Phaik Hwa, the group included women leaders in their fields and also young women who are part of a mentoring network. They asked many questions about juggling roles and responsibilities, and also about preparing for death.

Still in Singapore  – Week 2

On day seven, we went to The Lens Men, the optician who kindly helps with Ven. Chodron’s glasses, then joined Geshe Yonten and the committee from Tibetan Buddhist Centre for lunch.

That evening and the next, Ven. Chodron started teaching on Chapter 8 of Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Deeds—the chapter on meditative stability— at Pureland Marketing.

The chapter starts with working on our attachment to the appearances of this life in order to cultivate concentration. Boy, was it hard for people to hear those teachings! Listen to the first talk here and the second talk here.

On day eight Tan Hup Cheng, president of ABC, gave us a tour of their holy objects, including a detailed description of their Chenrezig statue. It’s exquisite and was made by the same sculptor team that will make our Buddha images for the new Buddha Hall—Peter and Denise Griffin. We asked lots of questions!

Day nine was our “rest day,” although there was little resting as we had a quiet lunch, meetings, and caught up with our Abbey work. In addition, I went to tell stories about Buddhas and bodhisattvas at My Little Gems, a Buddhist preschool, which was fun.

Then Ven. Chonyi and I went to give refuge to an elderly man at a hospital before returning to Pureland Marketing for a long session to record chants. We intend to share them with the nuns attending an international bhikshuni varsa next summer in Sravasti, India. It took us something like 12 hours over three days to record five chants. I had no idea that recording music took so much effort!

The next day, we had many meetings with Dharma friends old and new, and Ven. Chodron continued teachings on the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma at ABC.

On Friday, day 11, Ven. Chodron taught on the four establishments of mindfulness at the Buddhist Fellowship. There was a good discussion about how to balance work life with Dharma practice, which is very much on the minds of people in Singapore and also in Malaysia, as we later learned. Listen to the talk here. 

In the daytime, Ven. Chonyi and I went to Fo Guang Shan, the Singapore branch of one of Taiwan’s largest temples, where we made a nice connection with the nuns.

Upon hearing about our Buddha Hall project, the nuns told us they had held a golf tournament with a dinner auction to invite generosity to build their beautiful facility. They also sold durians—a love-it-or-hate-it Southeast Asian fruit with a strong (some say horrible) smell—for $88 a piece! I believe we won’t use that approach for the Buddha Hall!

Over the weekend Ven. Chodron taught a retreat on the Medicine Buddha practice at Pureland Marketing. She went through the sadhana step by step and taught people how to think—very different from a “typical” Medicine Buddha retreat in Asia where you might spend the entire time chanting but not receive teachings on the motivation and psychology of the practice. Listen to the workshop talks here.

After the Sunday teaching we connected with volunteers from Friends of Sravasti Abbey and Pureland Marketing, including my parents. All of them contribute so much to make these teachings happen each year. Their dedication, effort, and skill are indescribable, and we are grateful for and heartened by their support

Ironically, after a whirlwind schedule, the final Singapore talk at the Buddhist Library was on how a Buddhist deals with burnout. Ven. Chodron spoke on developing the four aspects of joyous effort — aspiration, steadfastness, joy, and rest — to prevent burnout. Easy to hear, hard to practice!

Keep an eye on ThubtenChodron.org as our kind volunteer, Jack Weinberg, continues to edit and post the recordings of talks from the teaching tour.

Malaysia – Week 3

After a welcome rest day, we arrived in Penang on December 10 and were warmly received at the airport by the organizing team from Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM) and the family of Kenryuu Ong, our longtime Dharma friend.

Ven. Chodron taught on Following in the Buddha’s Footstepsthat night at Than Hsiang Temple. It was a concise summary of the four truths and how the Buddhist worldview and refuge shape our practice as Buddhists.

On day two in Malaysia, we had lunch with Kenryuu and his primary school English teacher Ms. Chew. It was touching to see how he cares for her and expresses his gratitude to his teachers. See his post about this here.

We also visited the World Buddhist Stamp Gallery and Mahindarama Buddhist Temple, the oldest Sri Lankan temple in Penang. To our surprise, many of the beautiful stamps were issued from non-Buddhist countries like Rwanda, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Seems these stamps attract collectors and thus earn their countries some foreign currency!

Ven. Chodron then spoke on creating habits for happiness in our daily lives at Pu Ai Community Service Centre. The center started in a “rough” part of town to provide services for the young people and the surrounding community, and has grown over 36 years into a four-story building. I helped with simultaneous translation into Mandarin Chinese for this talk and others for the rest of the tour in Penang.

On Thursday we took a 90-minute drive to the next state, Kedah. Along the way, we visited an archaeological museum and some Hindu and Buddhist ruins. One site along the highway, discovered in 2008, dates the Buddhist history of the region to further back than researchers have thought. The highway is built right over other ruins that will never be uncovered.

At the evening talk at the Central Kedah Association, Ven. Chodron focused on working with anger. We learned that there is the misperception in Kedah that Tibetan Buddhism is just about empowerments and tantric sex. That explains why in the Q&A session some audience members “tested” Ven. Chodron’s Dharma knowledge! Of course, she passed with flying colors (and ribbed the audience for testing her!)

​Retreat

On Friday December 13 we moved to the Butterworth Lay Buddhist Society where Ven. Chodron gave a public talk and led a retreat all weekend on “Being Your Own Best Friend.” (See the video here.)

The Butterworth Lay Buddhist Society building complex is interesting. They have a Theravada meditation space on the ground floor, a Chinese Mahayana space for chanting and bowing on the second floor, and a Tibetan Buddhist space on the third floor where the weekend retreat was held.

The society has an active youth team that did a good job supporting the retreat. In a Dharma discussion with the young people after the retreat, they said having the three traditions in one space has genuinely helped them to deepen their understanding and overcome some of the misconceptions and prejudices between Buddhist traditions held by the previous generation.

About 30 people, many of whom were beginners, attended the full retreat and listened very well to the teachings. Ven. Chodron taught on the two methods for generating bodhicitta and both she and Ven. Chonyi led many guided meditations. The retreat gave good exposure to the Shakyamuni Buddha practice and analytic meditation for participants who were primarily familiar with shamatha and vipassana as taught in the Theravada and Chinese Chan traditions.

Kenryuu’s family—which was very involved in the whole Malaysia visit—offered a lovely lunch to us and the organizing team from YBAM and the Butterworth Lay Buddhist Society. Then they sent Ven. Chonyi off to the airport for a brief return to Singapore before heading home. It was a great help having her in Asia with us to share about the Buddha Hall and lead meditations and discussion groups.

The next day Ven. Chodron and I were up at 3 am to catch our flight to Bangalore and then on to Mundgod, India and the International Conference on Je Tsongkhapa. Still in Singapore,

Meanwhile, Ven. Chonyi led a Dharma Q&A with the Singapore lam rim class and had several private meetings, including a “tourist trip” with FOSA-S friends at Gardens by the Bay before heading back to Seattle and then to the Abbey.

Read about the India experience here.

On the Way Back

After an amazing but brief time in India (see Travelogue Part 2 here), Ven. Chodron and I stopped in Singapore again for two short days on the way home. We had several meetings with Dharma friends, including a meeting with the abbot of Bright Hill Temple (Kong Meng San Phor Kark See), the biggest temple in Singapore. Ven. Kwang Sheng showed us their new four-story meditation center that opens in February.

That night, Ven. Chodron gave an engaging talk to 700+ people at Bright Hill Temple on the Pure Land practice. We’ll let you know when this and all the un-posted talks appear on ThubtenChodron.org.

We were up early the next morning for our long flight, happy to return to Sravasti Abbey.