Nirvana in Singapore

About a week ago, an article appeared on StraitsTimes about Nirvana Memorial, a columbarium in Singapore that offers a final resting place in style — for those who can afford it.

The article featured two monks in its cover photo with the Buddha’s image shining forth multi-colored lightings.  If the paper was a multi-media device, you would also hear the full-featured melody and announcement made through the hi-tech audio system.  The two monks is non other than Bhante Dhammaratna, founder and Chief monk of the Buddhist Library in Singapore, and myself.  Elizabeth, the reporter who penned the article invited me for comments and since I had no idea about Nirvana memorial at all, she kindly offered a tour of the premise so we can have an idea of the place.

The tour brought us to the main hall where prayers would be offered, the various niche rooms where the ash remains and tablets will be placed, and one of the building houses different types of niches.  In all, the whole tour was rather pleasant, though one of the building reminded me more of a hotel interior than anything.  Perhaps that is their whole point and such a layout and interior design may appeal to some people,  but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Since the article appear in the papers, Buddhists have pointed out to me that they saw Bhante and me in the article while some even joke about how we have gone to Nirvana and back!  After the excitement, they would then comment about the exorbitant prices that the columbarium offered its services for storing ash niches.  It is indeed expensive to spend $30k for a niche, and it is really a personal choice whether you should use their services or somewhere more affordable.

People will complain about how this is too commercialised, but Nirvana Memorial is a commercial entity, so we should keep our expectations in check.  When Elizabeth asked me for comments, I
mentioned that while Nirvana Memorial is a profit-making business entity, and should be treated as such.  However, by offering columbarium services, they can be helpful in promoting gratitude and filial piety in the family of the departed.  If they can further help promote other Buddhist values and teachings such as Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekkha, it would be even more ideal!

Today, a student even emailed me, commenting

There is a price to be in Nirvana – exorbitant. And much more to be near the Buddha. Hmmm … another one of those commercial enterprises that makes use of Buddhism for profitable gain.

To which I replied:

There is indeed a price to pay! If you pay in worldly currency, you get to go to the worldly Nirvana. If you ‘pay’ in spiritual currency (cultivation), you attain the Supramundane Nirvana! 😉

Thing is, while people complain about expensive columbarium or funeral services, when I ask people to pay in spiritual currency (cultivation), they run away even faster than you can read this article!  Between the two forms of ‘payment’, most would take the easy way out and make worldly payment.

Most venerables I know of, provide funeral prayers as a service to the Buddhist community and not as a business transaction.  But in Singapore, monastics face the need to pay for electricity bills, food, medical etc etc.  I’ve been rather fortunate to receive guidance, care and support from my late master, Ven. Miu King, when I was in US and later from Venerable Kwang Sheng, Bhante Dhammaratna and many various other elder monks in Singapore.  As such, I’ve not had to be concerned about the four requisites and have the privilege of focusing on my own study and practices while serving the community through Dharma and meditation classes.  Other venerables that I know of, unfortunately, did not have such good conditions and either have to bear the responsibility of running a Buddhist centre by themselves or have to stay without support after returning back to Singapore.  They do not as a result get waiver for their bills just because they are earnestly learning and practising the Dharma.
Do you know that many religious centres, including Buddhist temples, are given 30 year leases on the land?   It means that the Buddhist temple or society has to be on a perpetual fund-raising mode just to keep the temple ground.  Think again when we complain about making offerings to the temple or monastery.  This is 21st century Singapore.  There is no Anathapindika who will simply offer a whole Jetavana to the MahaSangha for all future generations to use.
So remember, when you give, give as an offering, then it is dana.  When you give thinking of it as a transaction, it becomes a payment.  Let the giver purify their end of the giving.  Let the monastics purify their receiving.  Let them use the offering in a meaningful way to support their learning and practice of the Dharma and strive toward Nirvana!

3 thoughts on “Nirvana in Singapore”

  1. Dear Shi Fu, 
    Thank you for this wonderful article, especially the second part on the need to raise funds.
    Frankly, I belong to the camp that believes that Sangha members should abide in the Vinaya rules and not handle any money. While that can be done by making direct donation to the temples directly, the less well supported Sangha members still need to think about how to get enough support for lay people to support their temples. A very real concern. 
    I remembered that when my friend's grand parent died she invited "monks" to chant at the funeral. The "monks" would tell her and her family that if they want a more powerful chant, they will need to pay more.. like from $3k to $5k. In effect, they are like priests of the past who hold the key to the divine and they use that to control and profit from the ordinary folks. I believe (hope) those were not real monks.   
    I feel that its good that these money issue (of needing to raise fund) are discussed in the open. I believe that if communicated clearly, the informed Buddhist community would be more willing to help. But there need to be checks and balance, and transparancies to assure the donors that the money have been put in good use. Ming Yi is a good example of someone from the Buddhist community who is lax with money and destroyed trust between the Sangha and lay community.
    I think we need to be smarter and more professional when it come to money management. 
    Thanks again Shi Fu for this article.
    with metta
    meng haw 

  2. Hi Ven, I'd like to share an alternative way of burial, it was much advocated by Ven Master Sheng Yen, of Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山). There is a small plot of land in DDM Taipei for burial of people ash after cremation. The ash will be divided into 5 portions, and planted into 5 randomly selected holes. There is no marking (for the long term) left for identification purpose after that. Master Sheng Yen was buried the same way last year Feb 2009. In this video, he explained his concept of this 生命园区 and other stuff, very inspiring to me: (be aware of some yelling ads in front). This video was done around Nov-Dec 2008, possibly his last aired tv interview. I wonder if there is any chance we could do the same here? … 'cos I'm sure I can't afford Nirvana! 😛

    With Metta

    1. Dhammadinno & BK, thank you for sharing. I’ve also heard of people doing ‘sea burial’ wherein they get a permit to scatter the remains (ashes!) of a departed one over the ocean.

      I think these are all good idea and ways to help
      the living come to terms with the death of a love one. If there are land or garden available, it may be good to do what Master Sheng Yen suggested. 🙂

      All said and done, it can still be meaningful to have a simple tablet for the departed. It can be called a memorial tablet or reflection tablet. Instead of remembering the departed and becoming distraught, one can use the tablet and reflect on how, like the tablet, the five aggregates is impermanent, subject to change, subject to suffering (if clung on and attached to) is not self and has not self or qualities (substantiality).

      Further, reflecting on the tablet, the tablet is *labelled* a certain name, but that alone does not make that tablet a person, persona, group or family. Likewise, the names of the departed is but a label applied conventionally to the five aggregates. The same applies to the living, ie ourselves. 生者亦復如是!

      In this way, the departure of our love ones is also Dharma! If only we pry our lazy eyes to see. Suki hontu! ^_^

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