Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Inclusive Spirituality: The Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin as Moral Exemplar and Self-Cultivation in a Malaysian Dharma House

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Inclusive Spirituality: The Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin as Moral Exemplar and Self-Cultivation in a Malaysian Dharma House

Article excerpt

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Introduction

I readily agreed to join in the Vesak1) day procession that was to be held on a weekend evening of May 2008. No prior registration was required nor forms to be filled. I just needed to show up at the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, joining my friends from the Kuan-yin Contemplative Order (KYCO)-a lay Buddhist organization. They stood out in their crisp all-white attire, looking fresh and clean. There were 11 of them from KYCO that evening. Kiat,2) one of the most active members of KYCO and the coordinator for this outing, was happy to see me there and delighted that I had worn the white KYCO polo shirt as well. Someone from the group pointed at my dark blue cap and said with good humor, "You look like you are from UMNO." It was a stark reminder of the recent watershed general election of March 2008, which had seen the biggest loss for the ruling Malay party-UMNO-in its history (although the party still maintained a precarious majority).3) I was perturbed by that insinuation, because UMNO is not only the ruling party of the country but also an exclusively and dominantly ethnic Malay political party, and the comment reminded me uncomfortably of my place as an outsider.

The atmosphere was festive as we marched along the 10 km route that weaved through the city of Kuala Lumpur. However, the mood in my group was subdued and somber, in contrast to the joyous singing and easy camaraderie amongst other marchers. Kiat proposed that we "contemplate on the sufferings of the world" and "dedicate merit generated from the march to those who are suffering." Although the march was not physically arduous and I secretly found it to be enjoyable, Kiat invoked the effort as a spiritual struggle of sorts, dedicating it to all beings-humans and non-humans in this world as well as others.

Going home that night, my mind was occupied by the image of these Chinese middleclass English-speaking devotees from KYCO dressed in white marching solemnly, in contrast to the celebratory atmosphere of the Vesak day procession. They stood out in their all-white outfit as a marker of purity and virtue, and demonstrated visually the relationship between the body's corporeality and morality.4) Kiat's reference to suffering seemed to set things in a certain perspective-suffering is central to Buddhism, where the world is depicted as suffering and a solution is sought to the end of suffering5)-but his call to contemplate on the world's sufferings invoked moral empathy, prompting "something that depends on intellectual and practical disciplines" (Asad 1993, 62).

I am moved by my friends' actions in which they seek to dedicate themselves to help all beings. By doing so they manifest not only Buddhist compassion but, more important, a spirit of inclusiveness and universalism. Their actions are grounded in aspirations not necessarily realized in the (protective) powers acquired through meditation and disciplinary practices that normally accrue to magical monks and/or meditation masters in Thai, Laotian, or Burmese Buddhism (Houtman 1997; Cook 2010; McDaniel 2011). Instead, KYCO followers aspire toward moral transformation through selfcultivation practices where spiritual accomplishment and morality are demonstrated by the exemplary life and conduct of charismatic lay masters and gifted adepts.

This paper seeks to describe some of these moral aspirations and spiritual experiences, examining the self-cultivation practices and inclusive spiritualism that give rise to them by situating KYCO and the religious universalism from which it emerges in the cultural and historical context of "redemptive societies"-a religious tradition that was established in the late imperial era of China and exploded during the early twentieth century into the cities and spread to Southeast Asia.

Kuan-yin Contemplative Order: Inclusive Spiritualism

The arguments in this paper emerge from fieldwork conducted from 2008 to 2009 at KYCO during which I observed firsthand the activities that KYCO followers carry out in order to fulfill or realize the Bodhisattva Vow6) they have undertaken. …

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