Bodhisattvas in Kuala Lumpur


A review of Becoming Bodhisattvas: Practices and the Popular Discourse of Kuan-Yin in Kuala Lumpur, by Arthur Chia.

It has often been noted that the concept of the bodhisattva – the Buddha in the making who defers enlightenment in order to alleviate the suffering of others – is both a spiritual ideal and the basis for engagement with a broader society. With its attendant values of compassion and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, the notion of the bodhisattva sits at the interface between individual spiritual striving and the imperative for social transformation. However, these individual and social aspects may find themselves in tension, particularly in circumstances where religious practitioners are politically or socially marginalized.

This fundamental tension is the central problematic dealt with in Arthur Chia’s dissertation. This dissertation is a study of the Kuan Yin Contemplative Order (KYCO), a lay religious organization founded in 1979 and centered on the charismatic leadership of businessman Tony Wong, whom followers simply address with the Cantonese honorific “Sifu.” Located in the well-to-do Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petalang Jaya, the KYCO comprises mainly middle-class ethnic Chinese devotees who are attracted by the movement’s central focus on blessing, healing, and moral cultivation. With its focus on the bodhisattva of mercy, Kuan Yin, far and away Southeast Asia’s most popular Chinese devotional figure, the KYCO is but one of the vast number of “redemptive societies,” devotional or spirit cults patronized by ethnic Chinese that dot the religious landscape across Southeast Asia (p. 52). Although widespread, such movements are highly variable and have been subject to surprisingly little scholarly attention. Therefore, Chia’s dissertation is a welcome addition to the literature on this subject.

Based on nine months of fieldwork in 2008 and 2009, the dissertation primarily focuses on processes of religious subject formation, on the “religious activities, practices and conceptions as creative processes of moral self-making” (p. 9). As the title of the dissertation suggests, one of the core goals of the KYCO is working towards a bodhisattva-like subjectivity, oriented toward the key qualities of compassion and self-sacrifice. Drawing on practice theory, and strongly influenced by Michel de Certeau, Chia emphasizes religious activity as an active process of self-making rather than the mere acting out of socially approved norms or the expression of an abstract cultural system.

Chia’s study, however, does more than merely discuss individual moral practice. He locates the KYCO within a historical tradition of “redemptive societies” emerging from China. He also skillfully links questions of personal spiritual development and morality with broader tensions that characterize contemporary Malaysian society, and in particular those which face the ethnic Chinese, who – as in much of Southeast Asia – dominate the economic sphere but are relatively marginalized politically. Chia conveys strongly the anxieties and feelings of political powerlessness on the part of the ethnic Chinese KYCO members.

Chapter 1 positions the KYCO within what Chia calls a “possible history” of movements which emerged in China and spread to Southeast Asia (p. 38). Drawing on Prasenjit Duara’s term “redemptive societies,” he traces a genealogy of this style of movement characterized by syncretism, charismatic leadership and an emphasis on the redemptive possibilities of “moral power” to produce individual and social renewal (p. 37) . As this suggests, there are strong connections between notions of bodily cultivation and social transformation, between “inner” and “outer” practices, where the imperative to save others and notions of salvation or redemption are central.

By locating the KYCO within this specific genealogy, Chia shows how the movement draws on a pre-existing set of notions regarding the religious cultivation of moral subjectivity. This tradition provides a vocabulary or idiom within which moral practice can be characterized and a universalist framework in which action and experience can be made meaningful.

Chapter 2 deals with Chia’s own entry into his field site as well as presenting an ethnographic overview of the KYCO movement, its organization, objectives and relationship to the wider Malaysian social context. In describing his own arrival in the suburbs of KL, Chia pays a somewhat humorous homage to the traditions of anthropology as he describes the difficulties of finding a parking spot, a Christian neighbor who suspects that the white-clothed KYCO devotees may be devil worshippers, and the local attitudes towards public transport and crime. Such details are by no means superfluous or merely included to provide local color. They help to elicit an important theme running through the dissertation, namely, the deeply felt cynicism that KYCO members feel towards the state and their anxieties with regard to contemporary society. This theme of anxiety is central. The affluent middle class members of KYCO express their concerns about a variety of “social ills” (p. 101): anxieties about the declining economy, work insecurity along with resentment of the political marginalization of elite Chinese in Malaysian society, declining health care despite rising costs, and the aging of the population.

Chia describes the movement’s social engagement as political, but non-confrontational, expressed through individual spiritual practice. The transformation of society is something that mainly proceeds through self-development, as well as non-confrontational philanthropy cooperation with a variety of spiritual organizations. Drawing on Robert Hefner’s work, Chia argues that a key emphasis is on “civility” through a discourse of respect and inter-religious and ethnic dialogue (p. 76).

The teachings and influences drawn on by the group are eclectic to say the least. This is reflected in the broad range of guest speakers and teachers who come through the organization, including Buddhist nuns and monks from all major Buddhist traditions, an unorthodox “rainbow monk”  from the U.S., and even Christian speakers (p. 79). The movement also draws on Theosophy, New Age spirituality and popular psychology. Of particular importance are Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, images and rituals. Chia thus locates the movement in the diverse and transnational Malaysian religious scene and demonstrates that, although the movement is a part of the genealogy of Chinese redemptive cults, “its (contemporary) meanings and relevance are derived from and endowed by local relations and global connections of the community” (p. 89).

Holding all this diversity together is the charismatic leader Sifu, whose affective relationship to his followers aids in the production of an “emotional community” (p. 104). He mediates between the divinities, especially the bodhisattva Kuan Yin and the beggar monk Jigong, and members as a sort of spokesperson and provides regular lectures in which he passes on messages conveyed to him by the divine powers.

Chapter 3 goes into more detail about Sifu, his personality, and his charismatic and moral leadership. It outlines his background in the wealthy Teochiew business milieu, his genesis as a spiritual figure and the eclectic elements that make up his charismatic persona, especially his gruff manner and business tycoon-like presence. This latter point leads to an interesting discussion of the figure of the towkay or business tycoon as a model for spiritual leadership among Southeast Asian Chinese. Unlike the Confucian scholar ideal that has dominated in China itself, in the context of migrant groups in Southeast Asia the towkay, the meritorious capitalist and the straight-talking man of action, has emerged as a prominent model of spiritual leader. Sifu thus fits a dominant idiom of leadership in the region in which worldly and spiritual mastery merge. It is this persona that is able to produce the intense “intimate and devotional” relationship that his followers have towards him (p. 138).

Another section deals with Sifu’s prowess in spiritual healing, a major draw for followers. This leads into a discussion of the notion of such practices in terms of gift giving and into a broader discussion of “the gift” in the spiritual discourses of the organization. Sifu’s charisma is profoundly felt by followers, who report a range of ineffable experiences in his presence. It is assumed that his knowledge and perception goes beyond that of his followers, even if he only communicates a part of that in his lectures.

Chapter 4 turns to the followers of the KYCO, providing portraits of a number of key members who became important informants and friends during the course of the fieldwork. We get to know the polite and earnest Swee Kiat, who became Chia’s closest and most supportive informant, as well as the acerbic and fatalistic retiree Mr. Lim, and housewife and cancer survivor Wendy Ong, who relates using her chemotherapy as bodhisattva training.

Chia’s intention here is to go beyond social processes of indoctrination to view the emergence of spirituality through individual biographies. The emphasis is to show how a spiritual conviction has emerged in their lives as well as how it is manifested in particular life events. This is a very humanizing touch as he describes their motivations, their anxieties and their struggles to incorporate the bodhisattva ideals of compassion and self-sacrifice into their own lives and practices. In this sense, he draws attention to the “complex embodiment of virtue, ambiguity, anxiety, aspiration and exercise of the will, which have come to characterize KYCO as a community of spiritual practitioners” (p. 164).

The next two chapters focus on the issue of practice in the KYCO, providing detail about the various techniques and technologies central to the movement: praying, chanting, singing, contemplating, writing and listening. Here, Chia is concerned with how these practices are implicated in the production of spiritual subjectivities, with what these practices are considered to achieve. These are the actions through which followers work towards their own bodhisattva-hood. Drawing on Talal Asad’s writing on the production of new moral subjectivities, where it is “less about discipline than self-discipline,” he describes spiritual practices as forms of subjectification, Foucauldian “techniques of the self,” not imposed upon members, but confronting members as a “truth” that they seek to reach through practices of self-discipline (p. 174).

Chapter 5 explores this through detailed descriptions of Dharma sessions, sounding the brass bowl, opening prayer, chanting and singing, and the experience of mudras (ecstatic states in which members wave their arms uncontrollably) that these produce. It also discusses the central values of “listening with the heart” (p. 190), and the role of emotions and “knowing without understanding” (p. 192), leading to the centrality of compassion as an element of moral transformation.

Chapter 6 continues the discussion of practice, focusing on the central “prescribed embodied practice” of contemplation (p. 217). Similar in nature to meditation, contemplation involves developing awareness of one’s thoughts and emotional states with the goal of developing key qualities of compassion, reverence and humility. This chapter also draws attention to the political delicacy of negotiating religious subjectivity in contemporary Malaysia. Here the background to KYCO spiritual practice is an environment of religio-ethno-political tension, including the banning of yoga as haram, and the Hindraf protests of 2007-08 against the poor treatment of the country’s Hindu population. The context of political crises and conflict create a background sense of political decline, of living in immoral times. Chia conveys well the personal pressures and anxieties experienced by KYCO members and the delicate position they negotiate to develop personal, individual spiritual practice under difficult political and economic circumstances.

Here, Chia emphasizes the apolitical character of self-cultivation, a mode of fashioning the self in individual, moral terms which resolutely resists recourse to structural explanations or direct political critique. The emphasis on inner experience against external action is described as a way of structuring a response to such social conflict and locating social problems at the level of individual experience. Drawing on de Certeau, he characterizes this as a type of “escape without leaving,” a characterization more as a type of coping mechanism rather than an explicit attempt to address structural inequalities (p. 237).

The final chapter provides a detailed discussion of the core concept of compassion and demonstrates the complexities inherent in the efforts of KYCO members to deal with real-world dilemmas. As Chia argues, the paradoxes of the term can lead followers into particular moral conundrums. In this discussion, Chia once again works through an ethnographic exegesis of a number of key concepts that organize KYCO practice and discourses. He deals with the centrality of sacrifice – the ideology of giving which should be without cost/benefit calculation and where spontaneity of giving is highly valued – as well as understandings of karma, fate, and the good life as embodied in the triple Chinese deities of Fu, Lu and Shou: prosperity, social status and longevity respectively.

For all the emphasis on compassion and the social goals of religious practice, however, Chia concludes that KYCO does not offer thoroughgoing social critique. Instead, social hierarchies are affirmed. Nevertheless, members are motivated to moral self-critique. The overall argument would seem to suggest that KYCO fulfills the role of assuaging anxiety and allowing its members to experience themselves as good subjects while posing no serious challenge to the status quo of Malaysian society.

All in all, Becoming Bodhisattvas represents an important contribution to scholarship on “popular” Chinese religion in Malaysia and in Southeast Asia more broadly. However, the dissertation should also appeal to scholars of religion more generally. It addresses themes of universal interest and offers a sophisticated understanding of the production of religious subjectivities. It further shows that a movement like the KYCO, while embedded within a genealogy of Chinese contemplative societies and reflecting the specificities of Malaysian religio-ethnic politics, also participates in global spiritual discourses and transnational religious networks. The dissertation therefore also makes an important contribution to multi-nodal theories of religious globalization that challenge the assumptions of the West as the primary source of “the universal.”

Finally, this relatively compact dissertation, written in a lively and accessible style already suggests it could be readily publishable as a book. There is also a personal quality to the dissertation which I found highly welcome. Chia is also not afraid to discuss his motivations and reactions to his fieldwork situation and he does not hide his emotional engagement with his key informants. As a result, he is able to bring a very personal note to his descriptions of his informants’ lives, allowing the reader to empathize with their anxieties and struggles to realize the compassionate ideals of their movement. His descriptions are also not without humor. For example, Chia seems to delight in relating the performance of the 1963 Ricky Nelson hit “I Will Follow You” at a birthday celebration for Sifu. In this context, the old pop song takes on devotional qualities without losing a sense of fun and plain silliness. At other times, he takes great care to point out the make and model of cars that his informants drive, clearly important social markers in the fieldwork context. It is this eye for the mundane, and an appreciation for the complexities of the everyday, and his clearly sympathetic engagement in the lives of his informants, which make this a fine and highly readable ethnographic work.

Jovan Maud
Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology
Georg-August University, Göttingen, Germany

Primary Sources

KYCO newsletters and annual magazines

Dissertation Information

National University of Singapore, Singapore. 2012. 330 pp. Primary Advisor: Goh Beng-Lan.

Image: Kuan-yin in Malaysia, 2009. Photo by Author.

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