Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum
News | 03 April 2018
Dr. Teow See Heng aka Venerable Chuan Sheng (RI 1978, Pre-U2 1980) wears his grey robes and his 56 years lightly. There’s an intriguing spring in his step, and a brightness to his voice which suggest that he is largely unencumbered by the usual burdens of life. You wonder if the lithe grace he displays has something to do with the fact that in his Pre-U1 year at RI, he strode off with the coveted title of Best Band Major at the Singapore Youth Festival back in 1979.
Or perhaps that ease and adroitness stem from some deeper insight that he’s gained. Ordained as a Buddhist monk in 2013 after a 26-year stint with NUS where he specialised in Asian history and East Asian international relations, Venerable Chuan Sheng currently serves as the Vice-Rector of Academic Affairs at the Buddhist College of Singapore.
‘What attracted me to Buddhism is its simplicity and practicality,’ he shares. ‘I see it as a way of life - its teachings and principles were laid down by a historical man, and they are quite easy to follow. The most basic teachings are to avoid evil, do good and purify the mind.’
To Ven Chuan Sheng, these are good dictums to observe, even if one isn’t Buddhist. And, more importantly for him, he notes that ‘As Buddhists, we believe that how we do in life is shaped by our own thoughts and actions. So I find that meaningful – the idea that we shape our own lives.’
THE SEED OF INTEREST
It was sometime in his 40s that the thought occurred to Ven Chuan Sheng that there was more to life than one’s career. That thought drew him to the Buddhism that he had grown up with as a child and studied as a Philosophy minor, in his undergraduate days. ‘I went to different temples to learn more, and try different kinds of meditative practices.’
Then: Teow See Heng aka Ven Chuan Sheng in Sec 1.
His budding interest in Buddhist practice bore some early fruit: ‘I felt that having been very blessed - in the sense that my life has been pretty smooth, being offered a post-graduate scholarship to Harvard by NUS, and then working in NUS with a great career – [I wanted] to leave NUS at 52 and devote the rest of my time to paying back to society.’
‘Then, in 2012, when I was 50, I found out that the Bright Hill Monastery (Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery) had a short-term novice monk programme, and I thought, why not give it a go?’ he recollects. ‘As part of the programme, we went on a 10-day trip to Bodh Gaya – in the northeast Indian state of Bihar. It’s where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is said to have gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.’
There, surrounded by Buddhists of all stripes and traditions, from Southeast Asian Theravadins to Chinese Mahayanists to Tibetan Buddhists, Ven Chuan Sheng found himself incredibly inspired. ‘The place was amazing! Something just clicked while I was there, and I thought - maybe I can explore becoming a monk – after all it’s also one way of contributing to society and learning about spiritual matters.’
THE ROAD TO MONKHOOD
Upon returning to Singapore, he took the matter up with Ven Sik Kwang Sheng, the abbot of Bright Hill Monastery, uncertain if he would be admitted given his age. ‘At 50, there may not be people who want to accept you as a monk – it’s the same with many other religions, isn’t it? Normally you become a priest in your 30s. So fortunately for me, the abbot was quite open to the idea.’
His family members were unsurprised too, by his wish, as he’d been investigating his Buddhist roots for close to a decade by this point. ‘Their initial concern was – “You know, you have a good career in NUS. Are you sure you want to give it up and become a monk? Isn’t that a big risk?”’
But once his conviction was clear to them, their concerns rapidly faded. ‘I didn’t have to support children or a wife, and again, I’m blessed in the sense that I have elder brothers and also a younger sister who were similarly supportive, and assured me that I could leave our parents in their care. So I didn’t really have much to worry about in terms of filial duties to parents,’ he shares.
With Bright Hill keen to accept him, and his family likewise firm in their support, he tendered six months of notice to NUS; his final academic teaching stint was in July 2013 with Kyushu University, where he had been a fixture in their summer programme for the past decade. In August 2013, he would leave behind the life he had led as Teow See Heng and enter the monastery proper.
Then: The Raffles Institution Prefectorial Board, 1979. Teow See Heng aka Ven Chuan Sheng is in the middle row, sixth from right.
BUILDING UP THE NEXT GENERATION
Fast forward to 2018, and Venerable Chuan Sheng is one of two Vice-Rectors at the Buddhist College of Singapore (BCS). Founded by Ven Kwang Sheng in 2005 to nurture bilingual Buddhist monks for the regional Buddhist community, BCS is quartered in a 6-storey building within the Bright Hill Monastery compound, and currently enrolls about 100 students from around the region.
It’s plain that his academic experience has been put to good use – as the Vice-Rector of Academic Affairs, he oversees the BCS curriculum and has made it eminently practical. As many of BCS’ graduates will go on to run temples and teach in neighbouring countries, it’s been designed to equip them with the tools and knowledge that they will find most useful.
Thoughts penned on the occasion of Farewell Assembly 1978, from The Rafflesian.
Rather than just focus on Buddhist Studies, ‘we have included different components – sociology, management, communications, social work and counselling – subjects that we think will help our monks be more effective in working for their societies,’ Ven Chuan Sheng explains.
‘The ideal is for them to become bilingual in both their own language and English, so that they can be more versatile; if they need to move around the world, they also have a language that will facilitate that mobility.’
Considerable thought has been put too, into ensuring that the degrees serve the monks well as an academic passport of sorts. Through the BCS’ partnership with Sri Lanka's state university, the University of Kelaniya, and the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand, its graduates receive their degrees from those universities, and greater recognition of their accreditation, as a result.
A CALL TO ACTION
Simplicity and practicality come up again as a running theme, when we ask Venerable Chuan Sheng about the figures or writers that have most influenced him.
He points to his Master, Ven Kwang Sheng, as his chiefest influence. ‘Academics are not really people of action. We think critically, we talk about things – that’s the background I come from; Ven Kwang Sheng, on the other hand, is a study in contrast – he’s very action-oriented. I’m 56 – he’s 66, and yet he’s more energetic than me! That’s something that I need to learn.’
But what is even more inspiring for him is Ven Kwang Sheng’s breadth of vision and clarity of purpose – where Bright Hill monastery has always been steeped in its practice of chanting, Ven Kwang Sheng ‘moved on to found and build up the Buddhist College. His next major project is actually to build a meditation centre. In this sense, he’s uniting within Bright Hill chanting, college education and meditation.’
The BCS' 4th B.A. Cohort on its Graduating Tour. Ven Sik Kwang Sheng, the abbot of Bright Hill Monastery, is in the front row, fifth from the left. Source: Buddhist College of Singapore website.
Ven Chuan Sheng also cites the global spiritual leader and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh as a major influence. He speaks admiringly of the socially-engaged Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh has fostered, and his talent for communication. ‘Buddhism cannot be just lived in seclusion, right? We are very much a part of the whole world and universe, and have to act in ways that are in accord with the broader earth,’ he opines.
‘This notion of interdependence is a very important part of Buddhism, and Thich Nhat Hanh has a gift for conveying these ideas in ways that can be easily understood by modern people. He’s very inspiring, in that sense.’
Revered around the world for his best-selling writings on mindfulness and peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world. It’s a message that has caught on in the West, to judge from the swelling ranks of celebrities that swear by mindfulness, scientists that study it and business leaders that use it to avoid burnout.
But what would Ven Chuan Sheng make of concerns that Buddhists have raised of late, that mindfulness has been co-opted into the all-consuming machinery of late capitalism – that instead of moving people away from their ego and in the direction of greater selflessness, mindfulness practices today are instead reinforcing the self?
While acknowledging that as a real possibility, Ven Chuan Sheng has a more optimistic take on the matter. He sees mindfulness as a necessary first step toward improving a person’s general health – spiritual, mental, physical. ‘And then from there, if the person is a Buddhist and wants to move onto higher goals, like selflessness, then we will approach it in that direction,’ he adds.
CEASING THE CONSTANT CRAVING
Our conversation wraps up with a fascinating discussion about contemporary values. ‘Capitalism and consumerism promote the idea that you must accumulate more and more things, because happiness is defined in terms of accumulating material things,’ Ven Chuan Sheng observes. ‘Whereas in most religions, including Buddhism, the idea is to do away with. We have wants – basic needs, basic wants are okay, but we should be careful of our desires, because they are non-ending, and you will just get yourself caught. You will stress yourself by wanting more and more things – from a small car to a bigger car, from a small house to a bigger house, and there will be no end to it.’
He points out that Buddhist teachings, like many other religions, try to draw our awareness to the unending nature of craving, and how easily we can become consumed by that, and highly stressed as a result. As he explains it, part of the reason why the craving never ends is that at some level, we sense the impermanence of things and know that even as we keep accumulating, the sense of security or ego boost that they provide is fleeting.
Yet, rather than reduce our dependence upon things, many of us opt to go in the other direction – to keep adding, in a frantic attempt to ward off the deep-seated sense of insecurity. ‘When you understand that underlying the things that you have, there will always be a sense of unease – the Buddhist term for this is dukkha, or suffering or unsatisfactoriness – then, hopefully, with practice, in due time, you will see that there is less and less for you to crave for or grasp at.’
To him, the solution lies in having some form of balance. ‘If you have a certain balance of your needs, of providing for your family or your children, you can devote the other part of your time to society – then perhaps you won’t find yourself so stressed,’ he suggests.
‘Scientific research is showing us that if you work for more selfless purposes, you have a sense of well-being and happiness that you cannot get if you’re just working for yourself or for selfish concerns.’
‘Ultimately, the central idea in Buddhism is the transformation of the mind,’ Ven Chuan Sheng notes. ‘The mind directs us in many different directions. If we can discipline our mind and transform it, if we can reorient and replace unwholesome values toward or with wholesome values, then we know that we’re on a good path.’
‘It’s what we talked about earlier – avoid evil, do good and purify the mind. Purifying the mind helps us avoid evil and do good. Of course you must have a moral foundation – that’s the basic starting point. Then, the more you can purify the mind, the stronger you will be in your foundation,’ he concludes.
It strikes us as eminently sound, simple and practical advice.
What strikes us too, is the aptness of the name given to him by his Master, Ven Kwang Sheng. Chuan Sheng (传圣) can be interpreted as ‘transmitting enlightenment’; that is, transmitting the Buddha’s teachings, teachings that will lead to enlightenment. In his own way as a Buddhist monastic today, Ven Chuan Sheng continues to embody the Rafflesian motto, of being the hope of a better age.
Ven Chuan Sheng’s Book Recommendations
(for those interested in finding out more about Buddhism)
Buddhism for Beginners.
Singapore Buddhist Federation. Singapore: Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, 2009.
A concisely written book that introduces the basics of Buddhism. It is structured in 3 parts: Life and Teaching of the Buddha; Buddhism in Practice; and The Historical Development & Spread of Buddhism.
The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism.
Peter Della Santina. Chico, California: Chico Dharma Study Foundation, 1997. E-book: Buddha Dharma Education Association.
A clearly written book that introduces the major traditions of Buddhism to readers who wish to explore beyond the basics. It is structured in 4 parts: The Fundamentals of Buddhism; The Mahayana; the Vajrayana; and the Abhidharma.
An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices
Peter Harvey. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2013.
An accessible academic approach that is based on recent scholarship in the field of Buddhist Studies. Comprising 13 chapters, it provides a comprehensive introduction to the development of Buddhism in both Asia and the West, focusing on Buddhist teachings, history and practices.