UNIVERSAL DHARMA

So Many Roads ~ 'SEVENTY-SIX AND ALL THAT

I once knew someone so dishonest that he didn't just tell lies at times, but sometimes told the truth! And when a person can lie like that, there is nothing he won't do; it was so in his case.

Anyway, somehow, I got through ‘75 and into ‘76, and by the kindness of my parents and Gran and Tim and Jill, had enough to enable me to journey on. Back in Sydney, I stayed in the Thai temple again, and by then it had relocated to a sizeable house bought by the Thai government. I spent a month or so there before flying out to Singapore. 1976 was to be quite a momentous year for me.

From Singapore, I went to Taiping for the Wesak celebrations, and this time, managed to unstick myself from the place and move further afield, as I should have done long before. After Wesak, therefore, I went to the East Coast, having been invited to attend a Buddhist gathering in Kuala Trengganu. Ven. Dhammananda ~ ‘Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore’ ~ was there as the main guest, with a newly-ordained Malaccan monk, Mahinda, who had terminated his studies in New Zealand to become a monk after being so inspired by an itinerant preacher that he decided becoming a monk was more important than getting a degree.

Now, one of my students from Taiping had moved to Kota Bharu further up the coast, and was working there, so, being just five hours further on by bus, I decided to visit him, and stayed for the first of what would be many times in the Kelantan Buddhist Society, an old wooden building that was later rebuilt as a 3-storey concrete structure. I was pleased to see Ng Song Poh again, and he me. He had not been an outstanding student in school ~ not everyone can be, or even wants to be ~ but he had a good head on his shoulders and good heart in his chest, and would later build up quite a profitable business for himself from scratch; I watched it all happen over the years, as well as his marriage and raising of two sons, who, when they were old enough, he sent to a private boarding-school, providing them with opportunities he himself had never had or hadn’t taken advantage of.

Retracing my route back down the coast, I stopped at Kuantan to spend a few days at the Buddhist Association ~ an old building with a corrugated-iron roof, beside a busy highway; consequently, it was hot and noisy; they wanted to relocate to another place but had to wait another 20 years or so before they could achieve their goal; they now have a beautiful place that really looks like a temple, in an ideal location that the authorities finally granted them; it was worth their long and uncertain wait. Anyway, I was to visit them in their old premises many times over the next 20 years, and was generally welcomed, though whether my teachings had much effect, it is hard to say; although I did touch one or two people momentarily, as in other places. One man I met there, a building-contractor by the name of Tan Ngoh Yong, was always very kind to me, although he spoke no English, so we had to communicate via the little Malay and Hokkien I’d picked up. He used to take me for breakfast of ‘roti canai’ ~ a kind of Indian bread, followed by a walk along a nearby beach.

I returned to Taiping, but not for long, having learned how to go to other places in Malaysia. I set off for Kuala Lumpur, to accept the invitation of Ven. Dhammanda to stay in his place for a few days ~ the temple in Brickfields; maybe he’d forgotten about turning me away several years before, but I doubt it, as he had a prodigious memory. There, learning of my intention to go next to Malacca and stay in a Chinese temple, Rev. Mahinda told me I could stay in Seck Kia Eenh, a temple where things were conducted in English. So, this is what I did, arriving on my 30th birthday in a cycle-rickshaw with my belongings ~ mainly books, clothes, and some painting-materials ~ in an apple-box, still traveling relatively lightly. I was welcomed by the resident Sri Lankan monk ~ Ven. Deepananda ~ and some young people who used to spend their free time there; most were students from various high-schools in the vicinity, and some stayed there instead of going home to their outlying villages every day. The temple had a happy and relaxed atmosphere, and I spent my time talking with anyone who was interested and receptive. I also took long early-morning walks with some of the students, and stopped in cheap Indian restaurants on the way back for dosai or roti canai. Of the people I met at that time ~ and the only one I maintained contact with since then ~ was Goh Hock Guan, who will appear again and again later in my narrative.

One night, Deepananda and I stayed up talking about ghosts ~ a fascinating topic! ~ with the boys there, and went to bed after midnight. At 2:20 I was awoken by a horrible scream or howl, seeming to come from the back of the temple, where the boys were sleeping in the upstairs classrooms; I thought one of them was having a nightmare after the ghost-stories we’d been telling, so went back to sleep, and in the morning, asked, “Who screamed in the night?” but no-one else had heard it.

The next night, I heard it again, and this time, I called to someone in the next room: “Boon Seng: Listen!” and he heard it, too; it was like someone in torment or a mad dog howling. The following night, everyone heard it, but no-one there had made it. We then began to inquire around, and finally learned that someone had hung himself years before where the classrooms at the rear of the temple now stood. Deepananda and I therefore did some chanting and went all around the temple sprinkling ‘holy water’; we never heard the sound again.

While staying in Seck Kia Eenh, I was requested to give a talk in the Chinese temple, Cheng Hoon Teng. I’d not met the man who was to translate for me until I got there a few minutes early, so didn’t have enough time to assess his ability, unfortunately, because later, I learned he’d translated something really wrong. During my talk, I’d said something like, “Don’t think about Nirvana; just do the work that’s needed,” and apparently, he’d translated this as, “Don’t work for Nirvana” ~ quite the opposite. I was told that the chief monk there, Ven. Kim Seng, having heard this, and thinking that’s what I’d said, was a bit upset. From then on, I became very cautious about translation, feeling it better to say nothing than to have one’s words twisted.

Seck Kia Eenh organized a fund-raising concert in a large hall while I was there, and I was invited to attend. One item featured a temple-member who normally had such a bad stutter that I felt like pulling the words from his mouth, and standing in front of him one almost got a shower! On stage, however, the stutter was completely absent; it was remarkable! Anyway, during the concert, sitting in the front row, I suddenly got a terrible sharp pain in my chest, and thought I was having a heart-attack, but hung on grimly and didn’t say anything or attract attention to myself until it passed; no-one noticed. A few days later, I went to the hospital for a check-up, but it didn’t reveal anything.

My tourist-visa was good for just 3 months, and I’d managed to extend it once or twice on the condition that I didn’t ‘sem-bayang,’ which is Malay, and literally means, ‘pray’, but which they intended to mean ‘preach’. Always trying to pro-mote Islam, they tried many ways to hamper other religions. By birth, Malays must be Muslims, and are not allowed to convert, although I later heard of a Malay woman who went to India and got ordained as a nun, but when she returned, she got a hell of a lot of trouble; her family rejected her, her passport was cancelled, and she had to live in a little hut somewhere on Penang Hill; no temple dared take her for fear of being closed. They nearly drove her mad, but she per-sisted, having the courage of her convictions. I would have liked to visit her, but knew that if I did so, I would have been monitored, so decided not to.

Anyway, after a month in Malacca, my visa almost up, I went to Singapore, and this time got accommodation in the largest Chinese temple there ~ Phor Kark See, also known as Kong Meng San. After some days, I approached the abbot, Ven Hong Choon ~ Singapore’s ranking and most highly-respected monk at that time, who was well-known for his geomancy (Feng Shui) skills, and whom even the PM, Lee Kwan Yew, used to consult, at times coming late at night, when no-one else was there. I told the abbot I was a committed vegetarian, and found it inconvenient wearing Theravada robes, as I had to explain to people that I didn’t eat meat. I also said that Thai monks in general had an unenviable reputation in Malaysia and Singapore for dealing in charms and practicing magic, etc., and because my dress identified me with them, I would like to take Chinese robes, but didn’t want to be a Mahayana monk, any more than I wanted to be a Theravada monk. I had to speak through a translator, of course, as the Venerable knew no English. He told me that as long as I was vegetarian ~ something very important to him ~ and was active in propagating Dharma, it was alright for me to do so. On those conditions, therefore, I took Chinese robes in September ’76. I was given a new name, Seck Kong Hui, a rough translation of my Pali name. I also modified my Pali name to the Sri Lankan form, Abhinyana, rather than Abhinyano.

There was a young monk in Phor Kark See with whom I became friendly; his name was Kong Eng. He was a nice enough fellow, but was extremely stingy, and couldn’t bear to part with a thing, even though he must already have amassed a considerable fortune from his years in the temple performing ceremonies. I had been given one set of Chinese robes, and asked him for some old ones, but was not prepared for what he reluctantly gave, and came to call them my ‘farmer’s clothes,’ as they were so old and stained that they looked as if they’d been worn by a farmer!

The toilets in Phor Kark See were so dirty that I just couldn’t stand it and had to clean them; the monks who used them would never think of doing it themselves. In fact, some of them used to leave their clothes outside their doors to be picked up for laundering by a lady who worked there. Is this why they became monks? I was not impressed.

Soon afterwards, I returned to Malacca for a while. Deepananda had gone back to Sri Lanka. My new garb was apparently not appreciated by some of the older temple-members there, as Seck Kia Eenh is basically a Theravada establishment, although no-one said anything to me. After some time, I went to Penang, but stopped at Taiping Buddhist Society on the way. This is primarily a Mahayana Buddhist place, but my garb raised a few eye-brows there, too ~ not least with the people who had treated me as their ‘pet monk,’ and who responded in such a way that indicated they felt I’d betrayed them; they forthwith abandoned me, and I never saw them again, although I wasn’t really sorry about that; in fact, it was a relief to have them off my back!

On, then, to Penang, where we spent a few days in a Chinese temple. Someone said to me, “It would be better not to visit Luang Pau, as he won’t be happy to see you.”

“Why not?” I said, “I haven’t done anything wrong,” so went to see him, and while he didn’t show displeasure, he couldn’t resist making some comment about my dress ~ particularly the pants ~ which I thought rather petty. Worse was to come.

From Penang, I returned to Malacca, but while I’d been away, something had changed. Another local monk who’d spent years studying in Bangkok, had returned hot-foot to take up residence in SKE, fearful in case Mahinda should do so before him. His name was Piyasilo, and some of the members had told him of my visits during the previous months, and of my various activities. He was waiting for me to return. When I got to the temple, he met me with his iceberg demeanor, and told me flatly that I would have to find somewhere else, as I was not allowed to stay there any more. Needless to say, I was shocked, but could see he wasn’t joking. What could I do but go? I had just met the most-evil person I had ever come across, although his evil towards me was yet to unfold. Now, I don’t think of many people as evil, but he was certainly one of them, as I will explain.

I went to Cheng Hoon Teng, where I was allowed to stay, but not content with having barred me from SKE on his own authority, completely over-riding the committee there, the demon even went to Ven. Kim Seng, and tried to persuade him to eject me from there, too, but he refused, suspecting some mischief, and asked where I would go if he were to do that ~ to a hotel?

The committee of SKE went along with Piyasilo ~ who enjoyed explaining that his name meant: “Beloved of Conduct” ~ and he proceeded to ensconce himself there as if he were the abbot, when it was a Buddhist Society, not a monastery (monstery, perhaps, now that he was there). Towards the end of the year, he organized a ‘Holiday Work Camp’ for the youth (he was good at organizing things; in fact, he was good at other things, too, like writing and talks; unfortunately, everything he did was egocentric; he had to be the pivot, and would let nothing or no-one stand in his way). For this, he printed a ‘Case Study,’ obviously about me, but without my name. It told about “a certain European hippy who had donned the robe….,” and exposed, as if they were crimes, my morning-walks, outings to an offshore island, and even the blood-donation I’d organized at the local hospital. He accused me of being against monks and advocating their abolition, of being disrespectful towards the elders in the temple, and other things his fiendish mind had come up with. I was shown his print-out, but kept quiet, feeling that to deny would be to affirm, and preferring to let time take care of him.

By then, I was staying in a fledgling Buddhist Society called the ‘Humanistic Buddhist Society,’ and one day, was called to the Immigration Department, to be told a complaint had been made about me. The officer ~ a not-unkindly man ~ wouldn’t tell me what it was, nor who had made it. I could tell, however, by my various names ~ including my latest Chinese name ~ on the form in front of him, that it could only have been made by Piyasilo: overcome by jealousy and hatred, he had stooped so low as to report me, probably on the pretext of preaching while on a tourist-visa, which I was not supposed to do, as both he and I knew. Unable to protest or appeal, my passport was sealed in an official envelope, and I was told to present it at the checkpoint when I left the country within 48 hours. I went to Singapore, and my passport was returned to me at the Malaysian side of the Causeway linking the two countries, and after two weeks there, decided to try my luck in returning to Malaysia, which I was able to do without any trouble. And because our negative actions will probably come back to us in some form or another, Piyasilo had played his trick to his own detriment!

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