A Visit to Kuching, Sarawak

Venue: TIMS

Today, I will share with you my experiences during my visit to Kuching, Sarawak last week. There are 3 Buddhist societies in Kuching—the Kuching Buddhist Society (KBS), the Buddha Dhamma Fellowship Asso-ciation (BDFA) and the Kuching Bhagavan Buddhist Society (KBBS). Tan Guan Soon, our SBS representative in Sarawak informed me that attendance at talks usually peaked during weekends in Kuching. Since I arrived on a Sunday night, I decided it would be just as well for me to go for a retreat from Monday to Friday instead.

My Personal Retreat
The President of KBBS is a thirty-something year old man named Victor Teo who began practising Buddhism about 1-2 years ago. He has a beach house in Kampong Sampadi (a Malay village) about two hours’ drive from Kuching that he offered to me for my retreat. As the place is rather isolated and obtaining food would be rather inconvenient, I decided to undergo a vege-blend-fruit juice fast. I took vege-fruit blend in the morning and drank fruit juice in the evening and I meditated. Initially, probably as a result of the journey and change in diet, I was not so alert and faced sloth and torpor.

Victor also joined me in my meditation. When I asked whether he knew the 2 basic methods of medita-tion, he said that he only knew vipassana and according to him, vipassana is “rising and falling (of the abdo-men)”! I therefore had to correct that misunderstanding by explaining to him both samatha and vipassana medi-tations. He was very satisfied with the explanation. I also taught him how to meditate.

Tan Guan Soon acted as my kappiya. He was the one who prepared my daily vege-blends while the poor man survived on Maggi mee! Trying to be frugal, he mixed the residue of the fruit juice with soya bean and consumed it himself. As a result, he had a stomach upset. At the end of the retreat, he lost so much weight that his trousers no longer fitted him! He also took the opportunity to meditate in between preparing the vege-blends and fruit juices for me. When the retreat ended, I felt very clean and energetic, probably because of the diet, a dip in the sea on the eve of departure, the energy from the sun and meditation.

Buddha Dhamma Fellowship Association (BDFA)

After my short retreat by the seaside, I gave the first talk at BDFA’s premises, also popularly known as Buddha Dhamma Centre. In the past when I was there, this centre employed two Dhamma workers and was a hive of activity with frequent meditation sessions, yoga and qi gong classes, very much like our place here at TIMS. They are housed in the upper floors of 3 knocked-out units of shop houses. The rental had been kindly waived by the owner, a lawyer. The place is big and nice with an indoor garden in the air-well area. They also had an active committee with committed members.

This time round however, things have changed. Gone are the employed Dhamma workers, and even volunteers to upkeep the place are hard to come by. Regular meditation sessions seemed to be petering out. Yoga and qi gong classes are still regularly held but most of the participants are not Buddhists. During my 3-nights stay there, it did not even occur to them to pay their respects to a monk when they saw me. This is be-cause a Buddhist centre may be active but not in the right type of activity befitting its aims and objectives. Tan Guan Soon lamented about the lack of capable Theravada monks in Kuching. At present, there is not a single one there.

(I would just like to remind members of TIMS that adult Dhamma classes are very important to keep the members interested in their meditation practice. One cannot just leave a newly planted seedling to grow by itself—it needs to be nurtured with shade, water, fertilisers, pruning and weeding. Similarly, newcom-ers to the Dhamma need to be nurtured with relevant Dhamma talks and classes.)

On the first night when I gave a talk, there were a lot of people. However, many of them were from the other Buddhist centres. As the premises were originally offered to BDFA for Buddhist activities, it would not be at all surprising if the owner changed his mind, considering the present usage of the facilities.

Kuching Buddhist Society (KBS) 

On the other hand, the Kuching Buddhist Society (KBS) is a very active one. It is at present the largest Buddhist Society there. They have an active and influential president. He runs the society in the manner of a Taiwanese Buddhist corporation. They have a columbarium and crematorium a few acres in size at the outskirts of the city. Furthermore, they have some support of the Sarawak state government. They even have plans for a Buddhist hospital and an old folks’ home. At their centre in Kuching, they have a kindergarten, a nursery and a Sunday school. Their kindergarten is franchised and students in nursery and play school groups have to pay a few hundred ringgit each as their monthly fees. Thus their teachers are paid and full time administrative staff are employed. They are aggressive in their activities and are financially sound. There is no problem with funds.

They have no Theravada teachers. However, Alison, who attended Dhamma classes at Subang Jaya Buddhist Association when her husband was posted to West Malaysia some years ago, has started an adult Dhamma class on Theravada teachings there. The KBS (English Section) organises a biannual retreat during which they invite external meditation teachers to conduct the retreat. Recently they invited a Singaporean monk to teach them anapanasati meditation.

Q&A: How to help trapped spirits

During my Dhamma talk there, the turnout was not too bad. This was followed by a Q&A session. A couple approached to ask me how to deal with spirits. They are owners of a factory that is haunted by many spirits. It seems the wife has been able to see spirits since childhood. Even when she was small, she had been asked to become a medium but she declined.

Earlier on, they had employed the services of a bomoh to trap some of the spirits who were then “im-prisoned” in a bottle and thrown into a river so as not to bother them any more. However, since embracing Bud-dhism, they felt sorry for the trapped spirits and wished to know what they can do to help the spirits. I advised them to transfer merits to these spirits and to spread loving kindness to them whenever the opportunity arises.

Q&A: When does consciousness enter the womb?

A very interesting question asked by a teacher was “When does consciousness enter the womb? ” Ear-lier, I had explained to them about the Theravada concept of the absence of a “soul” and the belief that the re-birth consciousness arises immediately after death. In my research into the suttas, I discovered that in several places, the Buddha had alluded to an intermediate state after death and what happened to it before rebirth. There was, however, no direct mention about the time for this “crossover”. The Chinese believe in the 7 x 7 days, i.e. 49 days period, which is probably based on Tibetan beliefs.

In several suttas about the Bodhisatta’s last rebirth (DN 14, MN 123, AN 4:127, AN 8:70), the Buddha mentioned that he left the Tusita body and entered his mother’s womb “mindfully and fully aware”. In Sam-pasadaniya Sutta (DN 28) and Sangiti Sutta (DN 33), four ways of descent into the womb are mentioned:

1) One descends into the mother’s womb unknowing, stays there unknowing and leaves it unknowing
2) One descends into the mother’s womb knowing, stays there unknowing and leaves it unknowing
3) One descends into the mother’s womb knowing, stays there knowing and leaves it unknowing
4) One descends into the mother’s womb knowing, stays there knowing and leaves it knowing.

The fact that there exists beings who are aware of the moment of entry into the womb indicates the presence of an intermediate state.

In India, there was research done on documented cases of very young children who were able to recall their previous human lives. In some of these case studies, it was discovered that if the lapse of time between death and rebirth was about a year or even more, the newborn child’s features and mannerisms were usually similar to that of the previous human personality and unlike that of the parents. If the period is less than 6 months, the child would resemble the parents because by this time the features of the foetus would have been formed already, thus the characteristic of the being going to be reborn would not be able to alter it. This obser-vation shows that the “intermediate state being” can enter the womb in the middle of pregnancy and begs the question: Does this mean that conscious life does not begin with conception? Before attempting to answer this, let us consider another case study.

In Thailand, there was a case of a man who died in his forties. Following Thai custom, monks were invited to chant for him. This man recalled looking onto his dead body and the other members of his mourning family. He wanted to tell them not to cry but naturally they could not hear him. Somehow he did not benefit from the merits transferred. Then he thought about his younger sister who had just delivered a newborn baby. In an instant, even though the 2 houses were far apart, he was at the doorway to her bedroom where she was resting with her one day-old baby.

His sister saw him standing there and dismissed him, saying that he had died and should not be there. He tried to turn away but an irresistible urge in him caused him to turn back. For the second time, his sister chased him off. This time as he tried to turn away, he felt himself spinning around and he lost consciousness. When he awoke, he found himself in the crib and in the body of the newborn child! Even though he was still a baby, he was able to recognise the faces of his relatives and when he learned to talk, he could call his mother by her maiden name. Naturally, everyone was shocked and unable to deny what the baby claimed as he knew the names of all his relatives!

When he grew to adulthood, he became a monk and his story was brought before the Sangharaja where it was debated whether it was a case of rebirth or possession. If it was possession, it would mean that the “soul” of the dead person had evicted the original “soul” of the baby, even though in this case, it wasn’t done deliber-ately. If it had been a rebirth, the rebirth occurred after the baby was born, but how could this make sense in terms of Theravada doctrine?

Thus, considering this case and the findings of the Indian research mentioned above, we cannot really determine the actual moment when conscious life begins in the womb. And we shouldn’t also react to the use of the term “soul” as heretical, so long as we understand that it is merely a designation for a residue of the gross Five Aggregates that also exhibits the three characteristics of existence.

Kuching Bhagavan Buddhist Society (KBBS)

The other society I visited was the Kuching Bhagavan Buddhist Society (KBBS), a Chinese-based Buddhist group. As most of the Chinese in Kuching speak the Hokkien dialect, I decided to give a talk in Hok-kien, with Tan Guan Soon prompting me whenever I had problems with the dialect.

At present, their spiritual advisor is Ven Kai Tak. He was ordained as a shamanera in the Ang Hock Si Temple in Penang where the Abbot, Ven Boon Kheng, was very strict and insisted that anyone who wished to become a monk had to observe the eight precepts, followed by 3 years as a novice before he could be ordained as a full-fledged monk. Ven Kai Tak later went to Hong Kong for his higher ordination and by now he had been a monk for over 10 years. He has been the spiritual advisor for KBBS for the past two years. Even though he was ordained in the Mahayana tradition, he teaches Buddhism according to the Agamas (equivalent to our 4 Nikayas). His devotees do not chant “Namo Omi To For” (as characteristic of Pureland Buddhism). Instead, they chant “Namo Sakyamuni For”. This is a legacy from Ven Boon Kheng who is open minded enough to al-low his disciples to choose their own preferred paths, and has thus produced a number of very diligent and well-versed monks. Another well-known disciple of Ven Boon Kheng is Ven Kai Chao of Nibbanavihara, Kajang. Ven Boon Kheng himself was English-educated but successfully managed to master the Chinese language be-cause of his desire to learn Mahayana Buddhism.

The KBBS premise is currently a shophouse like ours but they have acquired a 1.25 acre lot of land in the countryside where they are building 2 kutis (20ft by 30 ft). They have plans to build a 3-storey main shrine hall. I gave a talk on the fundamentals of vipassana and samatha meditations and their application in our daily life. They were very happy and requested that I return often to give more talks on Theravada Buddhism. Tan Guan Soon later told me that Ven Kusala who is currently in Myanmar will return soon and has been invited to reside at KBS (not confirmed). This is good news for them.

Appreciation of merit transfer

I am sure all of you can recall that we always transfer merits to Ming Choo after our daily pindacara sessions. She had severe kidney problems but has recently miraculously recovered. Although she still has to go for dialysis sessions, she is fine. The doctor was surprised at her recovery. On my return to Petaling Jaya, she visited me at the Buddhist Wisdom Centre as soon as she was released from the hospital. She wanted to thank all of us for transferring merits to her. Of course, she has a very strong spirit herself and that aided in her recov-ery. When I saw her, she looked radiant, more like a person who had just returned from a retreat than a sick per-son who had just recovered from a near death condition.

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