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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jetavana
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!