Kek Lok Si and the Goddess of Compassion

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pulau Pinang,
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    On our second day in Penang, we took an excursion out of Georgetown to visit Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia (and reportedly the largest in all of Southeast Asia).  Kek Lok Si means "Temple of Supreme Bliss."  The place was massive, but much of it was under construction.  It was interesting to see because it's built more in the Chinese style and quite different from Thai temples. 

     The Chinese are mostly Mahayana Buddhists, whereas the Thais are Theravada Buddhists.  The most overt difference is in their stylistic representations of Buddha.  The Thai version is thin and serene, whereas the Chinese version is more rotund and jolly.  But there are deeper differences in their religious ideologies.  The major one is this:  the Theravada Buddhists believe in a more orthodox view that individuals who abstain from worldly desires and seek to purify their minds can achieve nirvana, a state of enlightenment that allows them to reach the holy place and no longer reincarnate; Mahayana Buddhism teaches delaying nirvana.  Individuals who reach the level of high truth called Bodhi (thus the individuals are called Bodhisattvas) forego nirvana and choose to stay in the earthly world in order to help others along their path of enlightenment.  That’s simplifying it a lot, but I don’t want this to turn into lecture on world religions.

     The major attraction for the temple isn’t the classic Buddha statue though.  It’s Kwan Yin.  Kwan Yin translates to “She Who Hears the Cries of the People.”  Thus, she is known as the Goddess of Mercy and the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  There are various stories that trace origins of Kwan Yin.  They take many forms, but again, I’ll simplify.  Chinese legend holds that Kwan Yin was a princess named Miao Shan, who chose the life of a nun rather than marrying for wealth.  Her father, the king, was irate and ordered her executed.  When she witnessed the guilt on her executioner’s face, she transferred her karma to him so that he could live guilt-free.  Because of her loss of karma, she descended to hell, where she witnessed great suffering.  She then released all her karmic energy stored up over many lifetimes to free those sufferers to heaven.  Her compassion transformed hell into a paradise; therefore, the head demon sent her back to earth in order to prevent the destruction of his realm.  When she returned, she found her father gravely ill, and she sacrificed her life so that he may be saved.  As she ascended to heaven, she heard the cries of the ill, the elderly, and those saddened by loss, and she chose to return to help them end their suffering.

     I think when modern worshippers pay their respects to Kwan Yin, it not so much the selfless woman of myth they focus on, but the values and energy she represents.  This energy is known as “karuna” and is described as a love for all beings, equal in intensity to a mother's affection for her child. The root meaning of karuna is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow and an understanding that can only come from an unblemished sense of oneness with others. 

     I’m not really one to worship idols, but I like the concept of promoting true empathy and compassion for others.  Is building a gigantic and decadent temple the best way to do that?  In my opinion, no.  I would think simple reminders could suffice.  But maybe some people require grander sources of inspiration.

     I bought some Kuan Yin pendants at the temple.  If you're interested, you can go to my website:

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