Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Jack Meng-Tat Chia's "Monks in Motion"

Jack Meng-Tat Chia is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at the National University of Singapore. His research focuses on Buddhism in maritime Southeast Asia, Buddhist modernism, Chinese popular religion, and Southeast Asia-China interactions.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Monks in Motion: Buddhism and Modernity across the South China Sea, and reported the following:
Monks in Motion tells the story of Chinese Buddhist migration in the twentieth century. It explores the connected history of Buddhist communities in China and maritime Southeast Asia through the lives and careers of three prominent monks: Chuk Mor (Zhumo, 1913–2002), Yen Pei (Yanpei, 1917–1996), and Ashin Jinarakkhita (Tizheng, 1923–2002). In this book, I coin the term “South China Sea Buddhism” to refer to the forms of Buddhism in maritime Southeast Asia—which use Mandarin Chinese, Southern Chinese dialects, and Southeast Asian languages in their liturgy and scriptures—that have emerged out of connections across the South China Sea.

Page 99 of Monks in Motion falls in Chapter 3, “Yen Pei: Humanistic Buddhism in the Chinese Diaspora.” This chapter of the book introduces readers into Yen Pei’s religious career, offering a window into larger and more complex dynamics of Chinese migration and transregional Buddhist circulations in the South China Sea, during the second half of the twentieth century. On page 99, Yen Pei had just migrated to Singapore and assumed the abbacy of Leng Foong Bodhi Institute in 1964. I explain why Yen Pei saw an urgent need to reform and restructure his temple:
… Mahāyāna Buddhism as practiced by the Chinese majority in Singapore was “mainly ritualistic.” This was because the religious activities in Chinese Buddhist monasteries and temples were limited to lighting joss sticks and the chanting of scriptures. Ong also notes that most Buddhists visited temples to seek blessings and recite the sutra, but they had little knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist doctrines. Furthermore, Buddhist temples and organizations organized few Dharma lectures and propagation events. Although many Chinese Buddhist monasteries had resident monks, many of them were ritual specialists rather than Dharma teachers. In addition, Ong notes that the lack of suitable religious spaces could also be attributed to the dearth of Dharma propagation activities.
In essence, page 99 pretty well sums up the developing situation of Buddhism in a newly independent Singapore and sets the stage for deeper discussion on Yen Pei’s career. The following pages of this chapter examine Yen Pei’s Singapore career in two phases: the first as the abbot of Leng Foong Bodhi Institute (which he later renamed as Leng Foong Prajna Auditorium) from 1964 to 1979, and subsequently, as a social activist and founding chairman of the Singapore Buddhist Welfare Services from 1980 to his death in 1996. Throughout his career in Singapore, Yen Pei promoted ideas of Humanistic Buddhism which began in China during the Republican period, brought over to Taiwan, and later transplanted to Singapore.

Going beyond page 99, the book demonstrates how Chinese migration contributed to the spread of Buddhism and establishment of new Buddhist institutions in maritime Southeast Asia. As I write on page 11: “Chinese migration and the spread of Buddhism cannot be understood in isolation, and each monk is treated as a case study to show different aspects of Buddhism in particular locations. These three cases do offer a range of diversity by which to demonstrate the multifaceted nature of South China Sea Buddhism.”

Yet, there remains much to learn about patterns of Buddhist circulations in the South China Sea and the ways in which modernist Buddhist ideas overlapped with, and perhaps, facilitated one another. I hope as readers learn about Yen Pei and the other monks in Monks in Motion, they will look and re-look at the connected histories of Buddhist communities in this region with fresh eyes—More stories of South China Sea Buddhism remain to be told.
Visit Jack Meng-Tat Chia's website.

--Marshal Zeringue