Listen up, Buddhists: Chanting is out, hymns are in as BW Monastery Singapore invents “Auspicious Puja” for its Sunday service! Pastors in snazzy suits lead prayers while congregation sways to the beat
You may have heard of the Guru Puja, the Medicine Buddha Puja or the Pali Buddha Puja, but have you heard of an “Auspicious Puja“? If you haven’t, read on and discover how BW Monastery Singapore’s “Auspicious Puja” is now drawing crowds every Sunday.
With a congregation of 3500 and growing, BW Monastery Singapore is one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Singapore, and the largest Tibetan Buddhist center. In August 2017, BW Monastery Singapore opened its brand new S$20 million (NT$446 million) temple in Woodlands district. Affiliated to Bliss and Wisdom (BW) in Taiwan with 60,000 followers in Taiwan itself, BW is also one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, and the largest Tibetan Buddhist group. BW also has 30,000 followers in Mainland China and small numbers amongst the Chinese diaspora worldwide.
In many Asian countries like Singapore, Korea and to a lesser extent Taiwan, Buddhism is on the decline, eclipsed by the rapid growth of Christianity. Buddhist organizations are finding it challenging to attract and retain young blood. One anomaly to this trend is the BW organization. Founded in 1991 by Taiwanese monk Master Jih-Chang, who was a devoted disciple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, BW grew quickly to 30,000 followers worldwide at the time of his death in 2004. After 2004, a mysterious Chinese lady, Mary Jin, took control of the organization and aggressively expanded its congregation to 100,000 today. Rocked by a succession of scandals, some followers have left the organization, but in BW’s centers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States, it appears to be business as usual.
One of Mary Jin’s trusted lieutenants is the Singaporean monk Ven Jing Yuan, current abbot of BW Monastery Singapore. Ven Jing Yuan has a special status within the Marco organization in command of BW, with no need to report to anyone else but Mary Jin herself. The eminently capable Ven Jing Yuan was the one who launched a global search for a suitable location to house Mary Jin and her Marco entourage after it became difficult for them to remain in Mainland China, travelling to Europe, Australia, and many Asian countries before settling on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Mary Jin’s family members have also emigrated to Canada together with her.
Alarmed by the sharp decline of Buddhism in Singapore, Ven Jing Yuan has been trying very hard to reform Buddhism. From around 2014, he began to actively encourage the BW committee members in Singapore to emulate City Harvest Church (CHC), founded by Singaporean pastor Kong Hee.
Ven Jing Yuan expressed admiration for City Harvest Church’s wildly effective fund-raising techniques, and tactics to recruit and retain members, as well as their ability to attract young people with fun and vibrant activities. City Harvest followers, organized in cell groups, are under considerable peer pressure to remain in the organization and keep donating to the church, with many other cult-like practices. City Harvest’s fundamentalist and exclusivist doctrine already bear close resemblance to Bliss and Wisdom’s practices. According to information from Singaporean BW followers:
After seeing how wildly successful City Harvest Church is, Ven Jing Yuan kept telling the committee members to emulate CHC, even going to the extent of saying, “imitate everything they do wholesale, then we will become as huge as them one day!” So BW Monastery imitated many of their gimmicks, such as lucky draws after events and fund-raising tactics.
Many Singaporean Buddhists who attended BW Monastery’s events said that BW Singapore has a very Christian vibe to it.
Ever since Ven Jing Yuan pushed the committee to emulate CHC, for the past few years many senior followers of BW have been complaining that they learn and gain very little from BW Monastery’s events. Most of the dharma learning has been replaced with sales booths, auctions, fund-raisers and other “fun” activities.
Nowhere is BW’s Christianization more apparent than in its latest attempt at holding a Sunday service, the “Auspicious Puja”. Watch the promotional video below, produced by BW Singapore, to see how an “Auspicious Puja” is conducted:
“Recharge your body, mind and spirit by singing praises of the compassionate Buddha and Bodhisattvas! Channel all your worries and sorrows into hope and strength!” promises the video. BW’s doctrine is simple – just by carrying out devotional practices to the Triple Gem, especially to one’s guru (read: Mary Jin), one can achieve happiness, salvation and liberation. Attendance at BW’s events is important to accumulate merit, say the monks.
The entire service is only an hour long, starting with a short discourse by a monk or nun. Hands clasped and swaying gently to the music, the congregation sings Buddhist hymns, or “insightful praises” composed by guru Mary Jin. They make prayers and aspirations to follow their guru and the Triple Gem forever. Attending an “Auspicious Puja” can be a very emotional experience.
On Mary Jin’s first trip to Taiwan in March 2015, she captivated monks and nuns with her rousing dharma discourses, tugging at heartstrings and moving many nuns to tears.
BW’s “lecturers” also make an appearance at the “Auspicious Puja”. In recent years, to address a shortfall of monastics, Ven Jing Yuan instituted the “lecturer” system, not unlike Christian pastors, in which senior lay followers with excellent oratorical skills are trained to lead the congregation in teachings and prayers. Ven Jing Yuan requires the pastors to dress well in snazzy suits to project a more modern, upmarket image.
Even repentance and confession are done by song, a break from the traditional kneeling, bowing and chanting. Chanting the Buddha’s name has also been replaced by a hymn – listen to the calm, soothing, melodious tune in the video.
After each “Auspicious Puja”, BW’s efficient media team updates their official website with pictures and a write-up of the service. One of the followers said after the 24 Sep puja:
One of the attendee, Nigel Chang 张有福 said: “It was a refreshing new experience of Buddhist chanting in a beautiful way with piano. It is modern and not presented in a traditional Chinese way. I think many youngsters like it.” He added: “As Venerable said — the more we attend, we accumulate more merits and clear away future seeds of suffering through repentance.”
In contrast, other Tibetan Buddhist groups in Singapore, especially those with a stronger focus on dharma discussion and critical thinking, attract a much smaller crowd than Bliss & Wisdom. Whither Buddhism then? Will intellectual Buddhism remain a hobby for the elite few, with the rest relegated to joining mass-market groups with more show than substance like Bliss & Wisdom?
During his teaching to a group of former BW monks and followers in July 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama told them:
In terms of philosophy, we all belong to the Buddhist philosophical tradition, especially the Nalanda tradition. Whether we are Tibetans or Chinese, we share the same tradition. Where Buddhist thinking is concerned, especially the curriculum of the Nalanda tradition, we rely on logical reasoning instead of scriptural authority.
I usually cite this line from the sutras, “O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.” This is why we have a basis on which to hold dialogues with scientists, which is beneficial for both sides.
Where the teachings of the Buddha are concerned, if we adopt the system of the Nalanda tradition in studying Buddhism, this will suit the most capable students. In this way, the Buddhist tradition can continue into the next century.
If the tradition we preserve suits only the least capable students, and is purely based on faith – allow me to say this – just chanting “Amitabha, Amitabha”, we really have no guarantee that Buddhist teachings will continue to remain relevant in the next century.
Related article: Hello, Jing Yuan