The Importance of Promoting Buddhist Education

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Good evening to all the venerable members of Sangha, sisters and brothers in the Dharma. Today, we are happy to come to BGF for our Dhammaduta Tour of Malaysia. This year, we have decided to concentrate in Penang and the Klang Valley. So tonight, I would like to speak on “The Importance of Promoting Buddhist Education”.

Many years ago, I was in Hong Kong and there was a temple there. I was introduced to a very generous supporter of the temple, a lady, who immediately agreed to donate four million Hong Kong dollars for one of the lots in International Buddhist College (IBC). After she had made that donation, she sent me to the Hong Kong airport. On the way to the airport, she told me that she was very disturbed because she had sent her daughter to attend one of the best schools in Hong Kong. I think many of you know that most of the good schools including the best are run by Christians, especially Catholics because they had started to run schools long time ago. After her daughter attended that school for some time, she didn’t want to follow her mother to temple anymore. So this generous donor related this incident to me.

Recently about a month ago, I visited Myanmar. You all know Myanmar is a very devout Buddhist country but even then I observed that there were many international schools there which are privately run by foreign organizations, may be churches and they also have a very high fee structure. However, many Myanmar people sent their children to these schools because they want the best education for their children.

I went to Myanmar this time to attend the second conference of the Association of Theravada Buddhist Universities and there was a panel on engaged Buddhism. When we discussed this topic, there was a strong agreement that we should do something to avoid this kind of situation to continue. So may be we should ask ourselves why can’t Buddhist build and run quality schools.
We all know that the Christians have been building and running education institutions from primary school to university for a long time. During the colonial days, in many colonized countries including our own, the Christians started to promote education and run the remote school. As a result, today we see in this country, many top schools from kindergartens to universities are run by Christians.

I remember during an introductory meeting in Kuala Lumpur when we were planning this college, one of the Buddhist audience asked me, “Why do you want to build another (third) Buddhist university in Thailand?” He said that there were already two government supported universities. Some of you may know the two universities are the Mahamakut University and the Mahaculalongkorn University with Thai as the medium of instruction.

So, when we decided to set up an international Buddhist institute, we decided to use an international language. We choose English and later on also Chinese. So this was the question posed to me. So in reply, I asked the person, “Do you know how many Christian universities are there in Thailand?” This is a Buddhist country but there are actually seven Christian universities there and yet we are complaining that we have too many. In fact, it is not only the number, but the quality.

In Bangkok, there is an Assumption University. When it started, it was called the Assumption Buddhist Administration College. In fact today, the university is more popularly known as ABEC.

So today, that Catholic university had 20,000 students. Out of these 2,000 are foreign students and we are not talking about Thai Chinese. There were 1,000 students from China alone. So this is a top private university in Thailand. While here in Malaysia, we have the International Islamic University. That is not the only one but in many other countries with strong following of Islam religion even in Indonesia. Of course in many countries in the Middle East, they are many universities. All of these produced a large number of Islamic scholars yearly. So even compared to the Islam, we are behind in two ways. That is to say we started much later and also while the other religions are promoting their education building universities aggressively, we are rather conservative.

In countries like India (where Buddhism once flourished there), Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet, Buddhist monateries used to be the centres of education. In fact, if you want to receive the best education including secular education, you go to the temple. Even today in Sri Lanka, there are some traditional schools or institution which belongs to the Buddhist temples or monateries from ancient time.

There are special schools but of course in that area they don’t have other schools. So it is quite interesting that some students of other faiths sometimes study in these schools with even some young monks. In Thailand, many schools, whether they are primary or high schools are built within the temple compound. But they are not necessarily run by the temple because the education department for a long ago used monasteries as the centres for promoting education. But subsequently as in most countries the government took up the role and responsibility of educating, and of course we all also know that in some advanced countries, private schools or universities are doing better than government sponsored schools and universities.

In Than Hsiang Temple, we went into formal education with a kindergarten in 1991. The temple is situated in the middle of the high technology industrial park. We actually saw the need to have a kindergarten with good facilities for the young population there because many young couples at that time only started to have children and they were ready to join a kindergarten.

So we decided to start a kindergarten and 18 years later, we now run six kindergartens in the northern states, not only in the island and the mainland of the Penang state but in Kedah state as well. In fact our approach now is to go into the community and run smaller kindergarten with less than 100 students each. We have main kindergarten in Than Hsiang Temple with about 350 students. But the other five are relatively smaller in size. So it is actually quite easy to run a kindergarten if you have 80 to 100 students as it is easier to manage.

Besides, we also run senior citizens home. Presently, we try to put kindergarten and old folks home side by side. We try to bring the young kids and the old people together. This actually worked very well because with our modern industrialization, a lot of young couples have to work, so we have problem on both ends.

Unlike 50 years ago or even 30 years ago, we have extended family structure. The trend now is for young couples to start their own family, and stay separately in a flat or apartment. Sometimes, the children rarely see the parents during the weekdays. On the other hand, the elderly people also face the situation where they have no son or daughter or even daughter-in-law to look after them because they are working. So in term of serving the community and society, we operate and try to have this centre not only with religious activities, but also to run small scale kindergarten as well as the old folks home. We also plan to run the old folks home in small scale with about 25 residents. So this is our new approach for both kindergarten and old folks home.

Now, I would like to share with you on the Phor Tay institution. The word Phor Tay in Sanskrit means Bodhi, which refers to the enlightenment of the Buddha. In 1935, a nun from Xia Men, China came to Penang and established the Bodhi institution. This is a nunnery, so she decided to name it Phor Tay, suggesting that even when it was established, this nun already had an idea that education is important. It is not only religious services that to be emphasized, but the education itself.

The nun subsequently worked together with her disciples and students. At first, they started a Buddhist Free School to provide free education for the less fortunate, the children and in fact they also established an orphanage. Eventually, there is a need for them to set up a primary school for the children. When the primary students completed their primary education, they continue to plan and subsequently build the Phor Tay High School.

So this is a very interesting nun that started all this educational school as early as the 30s. So today under this Phor Tay institution, they run a kindergarten, primary school and two high schools. What happened was the high school was established in 1954 and then later on in 1962, many of the Chinese high school accepted government assistance but the School Board decided to continue to operate a private high school. So as a result, there are two types of schools, one is government assisted and the second one is private high school.

Recently the government assisted school was relocated to the industrial area and also not far from Than Hsiang Temple. Therefore, we rebuild this high school into a very big school. There are some very interesting figures that were connected to this Phor Tay institution. There is a very famous monk from China, the most Venerable Ci Hang. Then, there is another younger monk, the most Venerable Fa Fan. Both of them had also been exposed to Theravada tradition. Venerable Ci Hang was very good with the mind-only school. In India, it is known as the Yogacara school.

Venerable Ci Hang was invited by this institution and with his help as well as some people who were teaching in another good school in Penang, they established at first the primary school and then the high school. So actually when Venerable Ci Hang was there as a religious advisor or teacher for three years, many younger monks went to learn from him. Another monk, the most Venerable Kim Beng who after learning from Venerable Ci Hang went back to Malacca and established another Buddhist high school and named it after his teacher, 香尼学校.

After the most Venerable Ci Hang, there was another monk, Venerable Fa Fan. Venerable Fa Fan is also very interesting because he went to Sri Lanka to study. He was a student of the reformist monk, the most Venerable Tai Xu. Venerable Tai Xu sent many monks to different countries to learn from these different Buddhist traditions. He sent some to Sri Lanka and some to Tibet to study Theravada Buddhism as well as Tibetan Buddhism.

As Venerable Fa Fan was sent to Sri Lanka, so he could speak and write English very well. After that, he was invited by a Buddhist college in Sri Lanka to teach Chinese Buddhism. On his way to Sri Lanka, he stopped over in Penang and he was invited by the Phor Tay institution to be the religious teacher and advisor.

At that time, they were going to build the Phor Tay High School. He gave them word of encouragement and said that Phor Tay High School is even more important than the primary school which they had established earlier. Anyway, he said that he had to fulfill his commitment to go and teach in Sri Lanka first. But he said that after they had established the high school, he will be happy to come back and teach Buddhist classes here. Before he went, he said something else that in case he cannot come, then there is a young monk in Macau, Venerable Zhu Mo, who is very young and capable. They can also invite him. So with this word he left for Sri Lanka.

I remember the first time I went to Sri Lanka. Venerable Professor Dhammavihari , who was not ordained yet, was the director of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist study at the University of Kelaniya. So he took me to the library of the college and said that they also had a set of Chinese Tipitaka.

These Chinese books are brought over here by the monk from China. In Sri Lanka, he was just known as the monk from China because may be his name is too hard to pronounce for Sri Lankan. So they did not remember him as Venerable Fa Fan but monk from China. I saw the books he left there. Well, what happened was he went and taught in Sri Lanka and he died there. As a result, the Venerable Chu Mo was invited by this institution to be the religious teacher or advisor and teach in the high school.

When the high school was to be built, many of the elderly monks during that time in the 50s went for a tour of Singapore and Malaysia to raise fund. They bought a piece of land with the fund they raised and donated this piece of land for the building of Phor Tay High School. So from its inception , the high school has a very special connection with Buddhism and especially the Bodhi sangha.

When Venerable Chu Mo came, he himself taught at the high school. In fact, if you talked to some of the people who graduated from the Phor Tay High School, they will share with you their experiences been taught by the most Venerable Chu Mo himself. After he taught in Bodhi High School for some time, he subsequently established the Malayan Buddhist Association which later on became the Malaysian Buddhist Association with some other elderly monks during this time. After the establishment of this institution. he also established the Malaysian Buddhist Institute (MBI). It is an institute which provides Buddhist education primarily for young monks and nuns. The institute is also open to lay students. The institute had been running for more than 30 years with no interruption, continuously until today. So as a result of MBI establishment, many young Chinese monks and nuns became well-educated. They subsequently could live in different temples and also different Buddhist organizations with many Buddhist activities in South-East Asia.

MBI as a Buddhist education institute not only exerts its influence in Malaysia, but the whole of South-East Asia as well. So all this started in connection with the Phor Tay institution established by the nun Fang Lian in 1935. In fact, the nun, Fang Lian passed away at an early age when she was only 37. Her work was continued by many of the disciples.

There is also a Buddhist Free School in Penang. Fourty years ago, Venerable Guang Yu and his Dharma brother,Venerable Guang Yi established the school with the help of many teachers from Chung Ling High School. All of us know that Chung Ling High School is an elite Chinese school in Penang. The idea was to provide education for people who lost opportunity to complete their education when they were young. The idea is to run an evening school so that they can continue to improve themselves even after working.

This government assisted Phor Tay High School or SMJK Phor Tay used to share the same school building with private high school because they were owned by the same board. However, about two years ago, the school received the approval to be relocated to southern region of the Penang island.

Today, there are nine Chinese primary schools in that region. After they had completed their primary education, they have to travel more than an hour just one way to go to one of the Chinese schools in town. The point is by relocating this school to this region, it has the potential to become a very good school because it is the school of first choice for students living in that area.

In fact, we were racing against time and completed the construction of this school building which can accommodate about 3500 students as it is a very huge school. We raised about 30 million to build this school in the past two years. The construction of the school took about 14 months. As a result, in January with the new academic school year, the school was relocated. In fact for the Form One class, many students were trying to get into the school.

So if we run this school well, we can really make this school into one of the top schools in Penang. This is a very interesting development but the uniqueness of this school is that we also teach Buddhism as a subject in the school. Actually, for the primary school, the private high school and also the SMJK Phor Tay, we have monk and nun from Than Hsiang Temple together with some of our lay teachers who volunteer to teach in this school. Of course we also hope that the school would not only do well academically, but to apply and practice the teaching of Buddhism in order to have an all-rounded education. This is important so that our students will also have good religious sentiment or good conduct.

Let me share with you finally our endeavor into tertiary education especially in Buddhist study. In 1992, when I was studying in New Zealand, I had two university mates - Venerable Professor Dhammajoti and Venerable Mahinda. Venerable Dhammajoti went to Sri Lanka and then stayed there to completed his MA and PhD and continue to teach. He spent about 25 years in Sri Lanka and when I visited Sri Lanka, he brought out the idea of setting up an institute to promote Buddhist studies in Malaysia. Based on his help, we worked with the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka and in 1992, we started first to offer Diploma course and then Bachelor of Art (BA) course.
During that period, Professor Karunadasa came to teach in Penang and he was very interested in the uniqueness of Malaysian Buddhism. Here, he saw the meeting of two major traditions that are Theravada and the Chinese Mahayana tradition. At that time, Tibetan Buddhism had started to come to Malaysia as well. He drew out an idea established a university which embraces all three major traditions. Therefore, he was the one who initiated this idea.

After giving serious consideration, we decided that Thailand would be a better place to start this college. There were two main reasons. One is because Thailand itself is a Buddhist country. Secondly, Thailand in term of geographical location is the heart of South-East Asian in Asian region. So, it was centrally located. Besides that, we chose Thailand because it is close to Malaysia and we chose the southern part of Thailand because that is the nearest to us.

In 1999, we registered Than Hsiang Foundation Thailand primarily to register the IBC. So we engaged a group of consultant. At first, we wanted to call this International Buddhist University but later on the advice of the consultant we opted for a college as there is no need for us to establish three or four faculties because the more faculties we establish, the more costly it will be. So, if we are only going to offer Buddhist study, then we only need to establish two faculties, one faculty of Buddhist study or religious study and another one is liberal art because Thai education system is based on American style system.

So, for a start we also offer some general subjects – core subjects with four under liberal art – languages, anthropology, computers and statistic to have a broad foundation built for our students doing BA. We obtained the license to operate this college and a year later, we took in the first batch of BA students which was in 2004. Actually, when we started to offer BA course, we didn’t even know that Thai education policy was very liberal. We submitted the application to offer course in English only and we were not required to teach Thai. Then, after we had first two years of students especially with some students from China, they had to struggle with English. They had to study English first, sometimes one year and others may need more than one year just to improve their English before they could do the BA course. So for them we felt that if we can also offer Chinese medium courses, it will make it easy for students from China and also some from South-East Asia, from Malaysia and Singapore. There are students who study in the Chinese stream, so it will be very easy for them.

As a result, when we apply to start the MA course, we have our curriculum both in Chinese and English and there was no problem. It was approved. So in 1996, we took in the first batch of MA students, actually two classes – both English and Chinese. Last year, we produced the first batch of BA graduates and the first batch of MA graduates. At the same time, after we had produced MA graduates, some of them wanted to continue, so we apply to offer PhD courses, also in two languages and that were also approved.

For the BA and MA courses, we went through an accreditation process and we did it very well. The first convocation was held on the 20th August last year and today we also have four PhD students, two registered in Chinese and the other two in English. We also submitted a revised curriculum for BA and now our students are also allowed to choose either Chinese or English as a medium. Therefore at present, we offer both Chinese medium and English medium for BA, MA and PHD courses.

About a month ago, we had to go through an external assessment of the quality assurance system for higher education which is similar to the ISO9000. In Thailand, all universities whether public or private has to undergo this quality assessment once every five years. As this year was our fifth year in running the college, so we have to go through that assessment which was organized by ONESCA. In fact, we passed this assessment with a very good result. Our emphasis is to adopt an approach of starting with a small batch of students and we have continued in this way for five years. It was an opportunity for us to learn through this process. It was really a wise decision to start small and to focus on the quality education rather than to try to recruit many more students. We actually stressed on quality instead of quantity.

In our first year of student’s recruitment, we had 65 applicants from China who applied the course through the internet. Out of these, we only accepted 13. But out of these, only eight came because in many parts in China, if you are living in a big city, you can get the passport quite fast. But if you are living in remote places, it takes more than half a year just to apply and obtain the passport. So those who could not obtain their passport in time, they could not join us.

Every year in the month of April, we organise a Dhammaduta Tour. Our fifth academic year is over. In the fifth year, we had about 80 students. We had also started a pilot phase of e-learning, choosing some subjects from our BA curricular. Now, we are planning to offer a 3 years MA course through e-learning from September this year. This e-learning approach is very important for us. There are two reasons for introducing e-learning approach. Of course internet is now so common. If you have access to internet, you can study anywhere in the world and we can reach a very broad target.

Based on our experiences in the first five years, the most difficult part in running IBC is not so much on academic side, but the students’ problem. Therefore, if the students are staying at home, doing their study at their own phase, we don’t have to bother about their accommodation as well as problem of students coming from different countries. In fact, although we have 80 students, the students came from more than fourteen countries with different Buddhist traditions and speak different languages.

At first, it is very tough for us to look after these students because of their different backgrounds. Anyway, after they are able to settle in IBC, I think they appreciate this diversity because they can learn different Buddhist traditions from fellow students and many other interesting things.

It is only in Thailand that we can start a college or university by first focusing on Buddhist study. Some of you know that in the past 20 years, many Buddhist organizations had started universities in Taiwan, but all these universities until very recently, they are not allowed to offer Buddhist study. They are running secular courses whereby huge amount of investment was put in. For some of these universities, they study Buddhism not in Buddhist faculty but under Philosophy or under Comparative Religion.

When we operate a college in Thailand, we offer Buddhist study first. But from the experiences we had acquired here in Malaysia, in term of running kindergarten, old folks home, counseling centres, we also would like to offer these courses. In fact, Buddhist psychology actually has a greater text compared to Western psychology. Our idea is to offer counseling course and to bring in the element of Buddhist psychology. Furthermore, in almost all countries population are aging, so we need to look after old people. Then, geriatric nursing is also a course that will be useful. We will also offer Chinese medical course because we had been running clinic using the service of Chinese physician in Penang and other parts of the northern state for more than 20 years already. So it is in our plan to subsequently introduce these secular courses in IBC.

In fact, the first one that we will most likely focus on is pre-school education because the kindergartens that we have run, we run them very well. That means we will continue with the concept to get the best of both the traditional Eastern education whereby the children learn through reciting classic and also from the Western education in term of pre-school education which will let the children learnt through play. Both of these pre-school education systems have their respective wisdom. When we combine these two, we come out with something unique.

The whole idea is that we don’t have to build so many old folks home and kindergarten ourselves, but by providing these courses in our university, our graduates can go back to their respective countries to start international school, kindergarten and so on.

In conclusion, my observation is this, if we do not invest in education, Buddhism will be replaced by other religion as the religion with most number of followers in Asia. At present in many countries in Asia, Buddhism still has the biggest followers but if we continue on our current pace, we will be replaced. One day we may become irrelevant. This phenomenon actually has already happened in South Korea.

I just recently went to China to attend the World Buddhist Forum. I observed the same thing there. The Christians are going there very aggressively because in the West, the Christian churches especially the traditional one, the Catholic, they used to have big churches but now they have very few followers. As a result, they have taken the resources and invest in Malaysia very aggressively. Even in Thailand, they are very aggressive. Venerable Dhammodaya told me that Sri Lanka also faced the same thing. In South Korea too, there are more Christians than Buddhist already. If we don’t change our attitude, this will happen in China, may be in the not distant future. My estimate is within 20 years this may happen.

Last but not least, let us reflect on this and put the emphasis on Buddhist education. It is a sad thing that when we want to build temples, there are a lot of supporters. But when we want to promote Buddhist education, people are not so supportive. Lastly, I am happy to share with you my observations and some of the Buddhist education projects in Malaysia as well as the International Buddhist College (IBC).

Thank you.