Penang Buddhist Association, the temple with a Malaysian identity

by Cyril Aruno, The Buddhist Channel, 29 April 2024

Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia) -- Penang, an island with a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, has been a hub of cultural diversity since its inception as a British settlement in 1786, formerly known as Prince of Wales Island.

Immigrant communities, including Thais, Burmese, Sinhalese, and Chinese, began arriving on the shores of Penang, bringing with them their religious customs. They erected Buddhist temples and formed associations, primarily establishing Theravada temples to serve the spiritual needs of their respective communities.

However, over time, the demographics shifted, and Chinese worshippers outnumbered the original communities. Consequently, the temples adapted, incorporating Chinese customs and celebrations into their practices.

Formation of the Penang Buddhist Association (PBA)

The Penang Buddhist Association (PBA) emerged as a response to this shift. Founded in 1925 by Straits Chinese Buddhists, it aimed to preserve the essence of Buddhism free from external influences such as Taoism.

The PBA was registered with the Registrar of Societies on Feb 25, 1925. The Government Gazette Notification No. 441 published on March 6, 1925 listed the nine association founders as Lee Swee Bee, Lim Chean Seang, Lim Boon Chin, Lim Eu Teong, Ong Boon Sin, Lim Teong Aik, Teoh Teik Thuan, Chew Eng Bang and Lim Say Eng.

The PBA was the first Buddhist institution in Malaya to present the correct teachings of Buddhism, free from the trappings of superstitions and malpractices, to members of the public.

Under the leadership of Venerable Kee Tong, the association denounced practices like burning paper houses and elaborate funeral processions as deviations from true Buddhist teachings. Despite being predominantly Mahayana, PBA maintained an inclusive approach, welcoming speakers from both Mahayana and Theravada backgrounds.

Early Beginnings

Initially lacking a dedicated building, PBA operated from temporary premises before securing its own site opposite Datuk Keramat Padang (field). By 1929, through fundraising efforts and membership drives, the PBA had secured enough money to purchase the land. In the years after, PBA flourished, becoming the wealthiest Buddhist institution in Penang by 1935.

The PBA Building and its Surrounding

The PBA building was completed in 1931. Externally, it does not have the traditional Chinese architectural style commonly seen in early Penang temples. Instead, a westernised form, called the "Late Straits Eclectic" style, fusing Chinese elements with Western ornament, and incorporating climate adaptations from the Malay archipelago - was adopted by the founders when construction began in late 1920s.

Visitors will see Amitabha, accompanied by Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta upon entering the PBA from the front entrance

The temple showcases a lavish interior featuring polished wall tiles, a high, pillar free hall, elaborate chandeliers and custom made floor tiles with the lotus image.

At the heart of the hall, a sizable square shrine divides the Buddhist pantheon into distinct sections. Amitabha, accompanied by Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, symbolizing the Mahayana tradition, gazes towards the primary entrance. On the same shrine, at the back of this trio of Buddha-rupa stands Gautama Buddha, alongside his disciples Sariputra and Moggallana, representing the Theravada tradition. Each Buddha figure is meticulously carved from Italian marble.

The arrangement of the Mahayana and Theravada Buddha-rupas, symbolizing a non-sectarian approach, is probably one of its kind in the Buddhist world.

Gautama Buddha, flanked by Sariputra and Moggallana are placed immediately behind the Mahayana Buddha-rupas on the same shrine

Surrounding the large central shrine are numerous Peranakan Baba Nyonya designed Buddha tables, decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays. These tables hold paraphenilias such as vases, oil lamps, candles, myriads of Buddhist statues (mainly Mahayana ones) which enable devotees to make their offerings.

One can even say that the PBA stands as the epitome of original Malaysian Buddhist temple architecture, blending rich Straits Chinese influences with a non-sectarian approach that embraces both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Reflecting the Malaysian ethos of cosmopolitanism and inclusive cultural acceptance, it embodies the nation's spirit.

Outside the building, in front of the main entrance, sits the famous PBA pagoda, a seven storied structure inspired by Chinese Buddhism symbolising the 7 factors of Enlightenment [1]. The pagoda is surrounded by a moat with koi fish swimming in the pond. At the tip of the pagoda is the chattra (Sanskit: “parasol”), an auspicious symbol, representing royalty and protection.

To the right of the pagoda (view from entrance) is a magnificent Bodhi tree, which its original sapling coming from Sri Lanka.

In the rear of the main hall, visitors can pay homage to the Bodhisattva Guanyin amidst a picturesque Chinese garden, where colorful koi swim joyfully before the statue.

Philantrophy Record

Beyond its architectural splendor, PBA was renowned for its philanthropy, supporting various charitable causes before and during the Japanese Occupation.

In the 1950s, a youth section was established to coordinate various activities tailored for the younger demographic, including picnics, study groups, hymn singing sessions, and preaching sessions. Additionally, Mandarin classes were introduced to cater to PBA’s English-educated members.

In 1964, recognizing the necessity of supporting working parents in caring for their children, the PBA established its kindergarten. This day-care facility quickly gained popularity within the George Town community, offering an affordable option for childcare that continues to serve families to this day.

Buddhist Road Names

The land between Jalan Anson, Jalan Perak and Jalan Lim Eow Thoon, where the association is currently located, was developed by the PBA. The surrounding estate, called Taman Nirvana, reflects Buddhist influences in its street names. Hence, the roads within Taman Nirvana are named after Buddhist-related teachings and holy items.

Nirvana Road (Simplified Chinese: 尼哇纳路), is known today as Jalan Nirvana. It is the main road that connects Jalan Anson to Jalan Lim Eow Thoon. It also branches off to a number of side roads including Jalan Dharma, Jalan Deva Pada, Lebuh Bodhi (Avenue) and Kim Bian Aik Road.

PBA Today

Today, PBA stands as a testament to the preservation of Buddhist values, reflected not only in its architectural grandeur but also in its commitment to serving the community. The surrounding area, Taman Nirvana, bears witness to this legacy, with streets named after Buddhist teachings and holy items.

The temple embodies the vision and foresight of its founders, who skillfully integrated local architectural design while embracing the values of its diverse communities. Serving as a beacon of Buddhist harmony and spirituality, it aptly reflects the ethos of the people of Penang island.

If you go:

Address : 168 Jalan Anson, George Town, 10400 Malaysia
Telephone: 60 4228 0910
Open Hours: 8am to 6pm Daily

1 The 7 factors of Enlightenment are mindfulness [sati], investigation [dhamma-vicaya], energy [viriya], rapture [piti], tranquility [passaddhi], concentration [samadhi] and equanimity [upekkha]

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