A Tale of Buddhism Revived

It seemed odd to me that Singapore, where 70 per cent of the population is Chinese and the biggest annual all-consuming holiday is Chinese New Year, would have a Chinatown. But there it was, as promised by the tourist map and guaranteed in the name of a subway station: a few colorful lines of old shop houses against a backdrop of tall buildings in the mumble of traffic.

Unlike neighboring Little India, Singapore’s Chinatown is no ethnic enclave (the streets do not teem), but it does have distinct cultural markers in the form of temples (red and gold and traditional). The grandest of these is a new four-tiered building with upturned eaves in the Tang dynasty style that occupies a city block between two streets named Sago. Completed in 2009 at a cost of nearly $50 million, mostly from donations, it has the unlikely (from a tourist’s perspective) name: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. I found the sacred relic’s chamber, highly secured and shining with leaf gold, at the architectural center of the temple. All the mainland Asian traditions of Buddhism are represented here, up to and including the rooftop garden with a giant Tibetan prayer wheel, although the obvious center of activity is the high main-floor sanctuary of Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) where resident monks chant, believers pray and tourists shoot pictures.
But what thoroughly captured me for most of an afternoon there (yes, it is air conditioned) was the museum. The first pieces on exhibit, fine artful statues and bas-relief stone carvings, represented scenes from the story of Prince Siddhartha (Sakyamuni or Gautama). It’s a problematic and somewhat inaccessible tale because it tells how a young man from a royal family renounces everything, leaving his wife and infant son to go live in the woods (and in the purest version, never returning). I think of it as a sort of Western with the title, “The Man Who Rode Away.”

The curators of the Buddha Tooth museum have created their own fascinating device to make the story more accessible: the enlightenment as told by the Buddha himself. At first this seemed a little too unscholarly for a museum, too Disneyish for such a seriously religious place. Then it occurred to me that classical Chinese can indeed be translated in the first person if the context allows and, further, that Buddhism is not a by-the-book religion plagued with the dicta of literal interpretation. Texts are rafts for crossing the river, fingers pointing at the moon. I recalled the popularity of Thich Nhat Hanh’s novel-like rendition of the basic sutras in “Old Path, White Clouds.”

In this light, for me, the combination of art and personal narrative at the new free-admission (rare in high-priced Singapore) museum was captivating, a suspender of disbelief. Let me try to replicate the experience in part by quoting some things from the museum wall and, hopefully, give you some photos of the beautiful art pieces. (The outmoded HTML of this web site does not let me embed photos in text, but I’ll try to post them on Flickr or Facebook with links).

To begin with there’s a direct translation from the Mahapadana Sutra. “Siddhartha to Chandaka: What is that? A person? Why is his back so bent? Why does he seem so wobbly, trembling as if in fear? And his hair, why is it white, so different from the rest of us?

“Chandaka: This is an old man. He was not born this way. When he first came to this world he was like everyone else, but as time goes by, he aged and became an old man.

“Siddartha: What about me? My father? My wife? Will everyone end up like him one day?”

A placard carries on: “I witnessed the pains of aging, torments incited by illnesses and death. These truths made me realize that no human being can ever escape from this never-ending life cycle. No longer was I capable of continuing my indulgence in the joys and goodness of life. One day, at the northern gate, I met an ascetic (who said) self-cultivation was the only way for one to be liberated from the cycle of endless rebirths and sufferings. . . I started to have thoughts of renunciation.”

And so: “One night, at age 29, I took a last glance at my wife and son, who were deep in sleep, and left the palace without a word, riding my horse Kanthaka. At dawn, when I arrived at the Anoma river, I shaved my head, put on plain robes and told my charioteer Chandaka to inform the king of my decision.”

In another exhibit: “My father had no choice but to respect my decision. Upon hearing (of) my renunciation, five Brahmins in Kapilavastu decided to follow my footsteps and join my journey. We traveled through wild plains and walked through many hills, in search of a teacher who could teach us the way of cultivation that could lead one to emancipation. After countless disappointments we decided to seek the toughest form of cultivation – strict asceticism at Dharmarenya. For six consecutive years I underwent extreme practices through sheer determination and perseverance. I wore only rough robes, stood on my feet for extremely long hours, slept on rough grounds or on tombs, and also practiced the toughest and most extreme form of ascetism – prolonged fasting. As a result, I was reduced to a bag of bones, skinny as a stick, in danger of death.”

Then came enlightenment: “While I engaged myself in deep contemplation under the Bodhi tree, I finally felt as though my soul had broken through all barriers and rose to a level never felt before. My vow created a great uproar in the heavens above, causing great disappointment and frustration for the evil king, Mara, who was out to stop me. Mara tried all evil means and ways to deflect me from the right path. He not only tried to cajole me to submission, used beautiful women to entice me, and even resorted to violence. However, my soul stood firm as the mountains and eventually overcame all obstacles. After 7 days of meditation, as I gazed in the star-lit night sky, I suddenly understood the cause of all sufferings and the way to release the sufferings through one’s selflessness. Then I realized that I was free from the cycle of endless rebirths in this world. From that very moment, at the age of 35, I achieved Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi and became an Enlightened One.”

Back out in the sun, on the way to the subway station (clean and relatively quiet trains stop on time on the mark and move so smooth that some passengers stand without holding on, reading or texting) and a late dinner at an open-air restaurant (the lights of the tall buildings from a boat on the Singapore river at night are more impressive than those of Manhattan from the East River) I realized what Chinatown might possibly mean in Singapore, which like most American cities has a distinctive economy but not a culture. It is the heart of a heartless city.

Scroll to Top