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Creating an Oasis in Hong Kong
Roberta Raine talks to Mr. Ma Siu Hung, director of Cham Tse Ling, “A Place of Love and Compassion.”
Cham Tse Ling, the FPMT center in Hong Kong, is right in the heart of Kowloon, one of the busiest shopping districts of this bustling city. People pack the sidewalks at all hours searching for bargains, and cars and buses rush through the narrow lanes and alleys at breakneck speed. Looking up from street level, one’s eyes are greeted with a dizzying array of neon signs attached to blocks of flats that seem to go on forever. Take a rickety elevator inside one of these buildings, ascend fourteen floors and you are in side Cham Tse Ling, “a place where love and compassion grow.” While samsara whirs on day and night in the streets below, up here the atmosphere is peaceful and the pace of life slow.
I came to Cham Tse Ling one evening to speak with the center’s new director, Mr. Ma Siu Hung, a gentle, self-effacing man who looks far younger than his forty-two years. No one is more qualified to serve as Cham Tse Ling’s director. Before being appointed earlier this year by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Mr. Ma spent four years as the center’s spiritual program coordinator. He has been involved in just about every Buddhist organization that exists in Hong Kong, and he is a teacher of Buddhist studies.
Mr. Ma had an interest in Buddhism from an early age, although it was many years before he started actually practicing. His first contact was when, at sixteen or seventeen, he attended a public lecture on The Diamond Sutra. “I had no idea what The Diamond Sutra was, but I went to the lecture and found it rather interesting, so I attended the whole course.”
After graduating from high school, he continued his education at the Hong Kong Baptist College, where he majored in communications and minored in videos and movies. He worked at various television stations in Hong Kong, and a few years later decided to continue his studies in the field of Chinese philosophy.
As a Buddhist scholar, Mr. Ma is one of the few fortunate lay practitioners who are able to teach Dharma. He works for one of the thirteen secondary schools run by the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, where Buddhist studies is offered as a certificate-level subject. He also serves as the Panel Master of Buddhist Studies, whose job is to coordinate the curriculum. The day that I spoke with him he had just been to his school’s end-of-year celebration. I suspect that he is a much loved and respected teacher to his young pupils.
Mr. Ma is also active in a long list of Buddhist organizations. For example, the Hong Kong Examination Authority has a committee responsible for the certificate level of Buddhist studies, and Mr. Ma has been elected chairman of that committee for the past three years. The Education Department runs a Curriculum Development Council, which has a committee for a Form 6 subject on ethics and religious studies; Buddhism is included in the syllabus, and Mr. Ma was elected to be the division chairman of that committee as well. He also served for three years as the head of the missionary department of the Dharmasthiti Buddhist Institute, served on their Board of Directors for four years, was the secretary of that institute for one year, and once served as their vice-executive official, one of the school’s highest positions. He has also taught courses at the institute, where one can study Indian and Chinese Buddhist philosophy.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all these impressive achievements, I asked him to talk a little about his own personal experience and practice of the Dharma since he took refuge in 1984.
Having been a student of Chinese philosophy, he naturally tended toward the Chinese schools of Buddhism. His refuge master belonged to the Tian Tai school, one of the four major Chinese schools of Buddhism, the other three being Chan (Zen), Fayen (Huayan), and Pure Land. In the Pure Land school, the main practice for followers is reciting the name of Amithaba Buddha in the hopes that when dies, one will be reborn in that Buddha’s pure realm.
According to Mr. Ma, the Fayen school is named after the Flower Ornament Sutra. “There are two versions of this sutra in Chinese; one is sixty volumes and the other is eighty volumes, so it’s a very important sutra. There are some monks who say they belong to this tradition, but there are no systematic teachings available.” Most of the Chinese monks in Hong Kong belong to the other three schools, with Chan being the most widespread.
So how did Mr. Ma become a follower of the Tibetan tradition? In 1988 he accompanied friends to a teaching at the Kagyu center. He ended up filling in for the usual Chinese/English translator, and after a few months of translating for initiations and teachings, he was hooked. Later that year, Mr. Ma joined the just opened FPMT center, Cham Tse Ling, began as a translator, and has remained ever since. The following year he met Lama Zopa Rinpoche. “When I first met Lama Zopa I felt very happy and excited,” he recalled. “I felt very strong devotion, like I had just found a guru.”
He became one of the first Chinese members on the committee, and in 1991 was appointed spiritual program coordinator. He studied the lam-rim intensively during these years, and then went on to tantric practices.
I ask Mr. Ma what he sees as the major differences between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. “First of all, I think in Chinese Buddhism there is more emphasis on the doctrines. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the Chan (Zen) school, which emphasizes sudden enlightenment, but the other Chinese schools emphasize following a set of doctrines and then practicing them, and then later you get enlightened, gradually. But in Tibetan Buddhism, it’s rather different, especially the tantric path.
I asked Mr. Ma if it was the possibility of getting enlightened in one lifetime that attracted him to Tibetan Buddhism. “Of course!” he laughed. “Also, I find that there are more systematic teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. The lam-rim, for example, has a very good connection between theory and practice; it’s a whole system and is very practical. It’s quite different from Chinese Buddhist schools, where there is a difference between doctrines and practice. Some doctrines may be very metaphysical, so that you can’t put them into practice, and there may be some practices that have been lost, so you can’t do them, which means that there is just doctrine. Then it becomes just like any other kind of knowledge.”
Is Dharma flourishing in this materialistic society? I ask. “In recent years it seems to be flourishing, especially among young people. In the past, in the Chinese tradition Buddhism belonged to the old people, and young people were not so interested in it because they thought it was superstitious. But for the past ten or fifteen years, many centers in Hong Kong have put a lot of hard work into promoting and spreading Buddhism to young people, especially those with higher education. That was our purpose at the Dharmasthiti Buddhist Institute, to modernize Buddhism and spread Dharma to young people.”
Is it the case, then, that Chinese Buddhism is the most popular type of Buddhism here, in a territory that’s made up of ninety-eight percent Chinese people? Mr. Ma replied that there are several ways to look at this question. “If you are counting the number of followers, then the tantric schools (Tibetan Buddhist centers) have many people. And if you count it according to the number of Dharma events, then you can also see that many people are involved in the tantric centers. But then if you look at statistics, a lot of people say they are followers of the Pure Land school. They like to recite the name of the Buddha because it’s an easier and faster way, a safer way.
“If you are counting the number of active members, then the Tibetan Buddhist centers have more. For example, when there are initiations at the Kagyu center, you can sometimes see 500 to 1,000 people, mostly Chinese. However, most people are more interested in receiving initiation than attending teachings. From my experience as a translator, when there are initiations the room is always crowded, but when I translate for teachings there are maybe eighty people. They are interested in receiving the blessing from the initiation rather than doing the actual practice.”
Did he feel that there was a certain amount of spiritual materialism among Buddhists in Hong Kong? “Yes, that’s why I said that on the surface, Dharma seems to be really flourishing, but it’s not the real situation. There are, of course, some centers that are doing practical work, and some people who are really interested in studying Buddhism. For example, at one of the centers where I teach, the Miu Fa Association, they provide a very systematic study of Buddhism, with introductory, intermediate and advanced courses in Indian and Chinese Buddhism.”
And what about after 1997, when the Communist Party of mainland China reclaims sovereignty over Hong Kong? This is a question on everyone’s mind these days, and knowing the Chinese government’s attitude toward religion, one can’t help wondering if the situation for Buddhists in Hong Kong will change. “Of course there will be some effect,” Mr. Ma replied. “We know the Chinese government doesn’t like religion to be so strong, so there may be some imitations or constraints on the spread of Buddhism. It may not be easy to get permission to conduct open talks. In mainland China, even at Buddhist colleges in monasteries, the government doesn’t like them to conduct open talks. They limit the study of Buddhism to those Buddhist colleges.
“About four or five years ago, a Western monk from Nalanda Monastery, Thubten Dadak, came to teach at our center. That was before the June 4 incident [in Tiananmen Square]. We went to China in 1988 to Lanhua Monastery in Guangdong Province. Lanhua is one of the pilgrimage spots of the Chan school, because the body of the Sixth Zen Patriarch is kept there. They have a rather big Buddhist college at that monastery, providing education to the monks. They asked us to give some talks, and the monks were quite interested, but they made these teachings secret, not open to the public. They said that if the teachings were open, the government would not like it. So yes, I expect that after 1997 there will be some imitations on the spread of the Dharma.”
Although Mr. Ma has no plans to leave Hong Kong in 1997, as a great many people have, he said that some Chinese monks in the territory are already building monasteries in the West, in preparation to move there in 1997. And as for bringing in Tibetan lamas after the Chinese takeover, Mr. Ma is unsure of whether or not there would be difficulties. He said that the government might choose to send their own lamas or monks, in effect representatives of the government, to Hong Kong, just as they are already doing in other places.
“According to the policy set out by the Chinese government now, they say they allow the people to have freedom to believe in religion, but they don’t have the freedom to spread religion. You can become a follower of any religion in your own mind, but you can’t spread the Dharma to other people.”
However, Mr. Ma is not unduly concerned over the future of the center. Indeed, one of his primary tasks as director is to continue the search for new and larger premises. The current center is housed in a tiny flat measuring perhaps 600 square feet, with the meditation room large enough to hold twenty to thirty very densely-packed people. In a city where the amount of living space one has is often an indicator of wealth, finding a larger flat with the existing funds seems an almost impossible task. Mr. Ma feels that they may need to wait until property prices drop – as 1997 approaches, many people are predicting this – before they can afford a move.
Other plans Mr. Ma has for the centers are to try to implement Lama Yeshe’s vision of Universal Education, a program that is already underway at some of the FPMT centers. Lama Zopa has also suggested that the center set up a geshe study program, to train people in some of the subjects traditionally studied in the Tibetan monastic universities.
Lastly, Mr. Ma would like to arrange social get-togethers for the members and their families, with the idea that videos could be shown on the new television recently donated by the center’s advisor, a Chinese monk called Ven. Hin Hum. This advisor, who was appointed by Lama Zopa, is one of the center’s greatest benefactors, and has donated more than HK$250,000 (US$35,700) to the center in the past few years.
I couldn’t help wondering how a monk could come up with so much money. Giggling, Mr. Ma replied that before Ven. Hin Hum was ordained he worked as a fortune teller and made great sums of money, so he is not a poor monk by any means! Certainly this kind man’s support is much needed and appreciated by the center.
Currently, the membership of the center is between fifty and sixty people, with ten to fifteen of those being foreigners. There are pujas performed twice a month, one Guru Puja and one Tara puja, and some of the members get together once a month to do the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas practice, as well as every Saturday to do other practices such as mandala offerings. At the moment there is no resident teacher, but Geshe Lama Konchog of Kopan gave teachings in July, and Lama Zopa has assured Mr. Ma that he will send a teacher as soon as possible.
Like most organizations in Hong Kong, attention is paid to catering to the needs of both Chinese and English speakers, so there are two versions of the center’s newsletter, one in each language. And at teachings by Tibetans, two translators are needed: one for Tibetan to English and another for English to Cantonese. But as Lama Zopa might say, it’s a wonderful opportunity to practice patience! And judging from Mr. Ma’s own exceptional patience and kindness, it seems to be a very effective practice indeed.
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