There are three main schools of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajyarana.
Schools of Buddhism (Source)
While Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhism follow the Theravada tradition and Tibetian Buddhism follows the Vajyarana tradition, Chinese Buddhism follows the Mahayana tradition. What teachings distinguish each group?
Theravada Buddhism is centred around the ancient Pali scriptures transcribes from the oral tradition. Theravada belief follows that studying these texts, meditating on these words and living a life according to the eightfold path will enable one to achieve Enlightenment. It has a strong monastic tradition such as the Sangha tradition in Thailand.
Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the idea of compassion and venerates bodhisattvas, saints who practice compassion to liberate other sentient beings from their suffering, as central devotional figures. A very important bodhisattva would be Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy).
Vajyarana Buddhism straddles the former two. It teaches about a cycle of life that the physical state affects the spiritual state and vice versa. Enlightenment is obtained through the observance of rituals, chanting, and tantra techniques and learning the core values of both the Theravada and Mahayana schools.
The Kong Meng San Phor Kak See Monastry is a Mahayana Buddhist Temple.
It’s beginnings came from a plot of land given to by a Chinese business man (Tay Woo Seng) in 1921. Its growth continued with other philanthropist such as the Aw brothers of Haw Par Villa and Tiger Balm fame. The monastery does not just train monks, it also runs the country’s first Buddhist college the Buddhist College of Singapore, offering a four year bachelor degree in Buddhism. It’s not just a degree, like all religious groups in Singapore, the temple has also taken to new technology to share its religious message.
The main prayer hall, the Hall of Great Compassion (see the Mahayana influence there), has as its central figure the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva with a thousand arms and eyes, carved in Indian style by an Italian workman to show the compassionate desire of the Bodhisattva to save all souls.
The temple is, in my view, an architectural and religious gem with very strong Chinese influence. Look up at the roofs of all the buildings and you will see dragons and phoenixes, special holy animals in Chinese tradition. The dragon commonly refers to masculinity while the phoenix is an emblem of femininity, and the two are intertwined, need each other to form a whole.
I was also drawn to this sculpture of Guan Yin and the little monks meditating around there. Guan Yin is known as the Goddess of Mercy, and by meditating around her life and modelling their life around her, the monks are showing the essence of Mahayana Buddhism – living a life of compassion and mercy.
How to get there