I have spent the past week in Malaysia and Singapore which are fascinating places of convergence, where different cultures come together. From cuisine to architecture to spoken languages, you see influences from China, India and the West being added to indigenous Malay practices. All of this blends harmoniously, with locals even taking some pride in the fusion they have created.
Not surprisingly, this harmonious relationship extends to religion too where different traditions live in harmony with one another. In Penang, one road is nicknamed “Street of Harmony” as it has a large mosque, wonderful Buddhist and Hindu temples, and an Anglican church. These communities exist as good neighbours to one another. In addition, when I asked the guide at the mosque if it was a Sunni mosque, she waved away the question, saying these were political categories with no relevance in Malaysia. I don’t know if all Malay Muslims would agree but her brushing aside of difference seemed to reflect the culture’s inclusive attitude.
However, what really caught my eye were the Buddhist temples. Buddhism arose in south and east Asia and seems to have internalized this fusion approach. I suspect many Westerners might find some of the examples of fusion below puzzling. But for now, I encourage you to suspend any judgment and focus on engaging your curiosity by observing one way that we humans do religion.
Buddhism’s open-endedness plays out firstly in its wide array of spiritual figures, called buddhas and bodhisattvas, that fill these temples. These beings are not part of the Buddha’s teachings but some Buddhist branches – though not all – have made these additions over time. But that’s just the beginning. As Buddhism entered China, it mingled with Chinese spiritual practices. The evidence was everywhere I turned including:
- Penang’s Thai temple included a shrine to a god of wealth, a figure drawn from Chinese folk religion;
- At the Singapore temple, people prayed to the Jade Emperor, a figure from Daoist and ancient Chinese religious folk religion;
- This same Buddhist temple incorporated the Chinese astrological signs so that if you were born in the year of the rabbit, a particular Buddhist spiritual guardian was recommended to you to pray to. If you were born in the year of the rooster, a different figure was recommended;
- I also saw a Buddhist figure with six arms, which likely stems from Hindu iconography where deities often have many arms. Buddhism was born amidst India’s Hindu culture;
- The Thai temple had Chinese dragons out front acting as guardians. Dragons are a central motif of Chinese culture;
- Finally, in Kuala Lumpur, there was a Chinese temple centered on three key shrines, one to the Buddhist figure of Avalokiteshvara, but the other two were to Chinese goddesses, one of the sea and another of the waterfront. This temple also had structures all around coordinated with different phases of the moon as well as dedicated spaces connected to Chinese astrological signs.
Buddhism was born in India, a culture where religious ideas are frequently added but rarely pruned. It then flourished in China where religious fusion is so common, it is said the typical Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe, and Buddhist sandals. Malaysia and Singapore have significant Chinese populations who brought this perspective and built temples.
Western notions of religion are based on exclusivism – if you are Catholic, you are not Protestant, and if Christian, you are not Jewish. Religious exclusivism is one way religions manifest in our human experience. But in Malaysia and Singapore, you can see something different. A culture that welcomes input leads to Muslims and Buddhists existing quite peacefully with one another while the Buddhist temples have really become hybrid structures, incorporating influences to foster something new.
As our own society becomes more diverse, there are lessons here for us to learn. Like the Street of Harmony, we will need to live harmoniously side by side (and indeed we often do). We will need the accepting attitude of my Muslim guide who felt Sunni and Shia differences were irrelevant to whom was welcome to the mosque.
Thanks for sharing your journey. I love your photos and the story on the Street of Harmony.
Imagine having such streets in every city! Keep going and keep sharing. thanks