Interview / Bro. Chan Khoon San
Interview by the Nalanda Institute for 'Community' the quarterly publication of the Nalanda Institute.
Mr. Chan Khoon San is a regular Dhamma Speaker based in Klang, Selangor. He is well-known for taking pilgrims to visit the Buddhist holy places in India and Nepal annually. The following is a transcript of Community Journal’s interview with this Malaysian Buddhist icon through e-mail.
What led you to Buddhism? Was there a defining moment or event, which resulted in the active pursuit of the Dhamma? Could you share that experience with us?
I shall answer these three questions together as they are related. The most tragic event in my life was the death of my mother in 1949 when I was barely eight years old. It left a deep and lasting impression in my mind and changed my outlook of life. At that time I could hardly understand or accept why such a thing happened to me. Left on my own, I grew up to be fiercely independent and distrustful of the world. My father was a Confucian and he never prayed to anything except his ancestors. Being educated in a Christian school, I learnt a great deal about Christianity and was inclined towards Christian values. I even scored a distinction in Bible Knowledge in the Cambridge exams in 1958!
My early impression of Buddhism was based on what I saw at the temples. In Penang, the most famous Buddhist temples were the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Pitt Street and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Ayer Itam. People would flock there during Chinese New Year and religious festivals to pray for good luck and prosperity. At other times, devotees would go there to pray for success in their businesses or children’s exams, or the recovery of a sick relative or simply out of devotion. They would light candles, joss sticks, oil lamps, and burn paper offerings, creating a lot of smoke and causing one’s eyes to smart and water. Sometimes I would see a monk or nun chanting in Chinese. They appeared very aloof and people kept their distance from them. There were so many idols around, each with a different name and role. It gave me the impression that Buddhism was a religion of idolaters!
I got a scholarship to undergo teacher training in England in 1961. I returned home in 1964 and started teaching in a Malay school in Province Wellesley. In 1967, I entered the University of Malaya, studied hard and graduated with an Honours degree in Chemistry. From 1971 till retirement in 1996, I worked as a Senior Research Chemist in the oil palm industry. It was a very satisfying job, full of challenges and rewards, and I have no regrets. In this comfort zone I live heedlessly until 1986.
One night in 1986, I was seriously injured in an attack during a drinking party. To my family and friends, it was just plain bad luck, doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I struggled to recover from the injury, I started to ask myself where all the bad luck really came from. Instantly, I realized that it came from myself due to my violent temper. The only way to change my luck was to change myself! This is easier said than done. But I had no choice. Change for the better or face more bad luck! It was a moment of reckoning and prompted me to search for a religion that is rational, teaches right living and self-control.
My first contact with Buddhism was through free publications, mostly on Theravada Buddhism, which I found to be rational and systematic. Later I joined the nearby Klang & Coast Buddhist Association (KCBA). Its members are mostly Chinese-educated and follow Mahayana tradition, but a small number of English-educated members follow the Theravada tradition. There I met Bro. Chan Chin Wah who proved to be a good friend indeed and encouraged me to take up Vipassana meditation seriously in addition to studying the Buddha’s Teachings. So I started to attend meditation retreats twice a year, about 10-days duration each. Later, I increased the duration to a month.
In 1995, I was diagnosed with multiple clogged arteries in the heart and had to undergo open-heart surgery. The thought of a major heart operation and possibility of death was very frightening. During the two weeks prior to the operation, my mind was full of worries and remorse, but I managed to keep calm through Vipassana meditation and the memories of my first Buddhist Pilgrimage in 1991, which helped to strengthen my faith. It really worked! I did not suffer any hallucination from the anaesthetics. When I awoke more than 36 hours after the operation, the first thing I became aware of, was the mind saying: “I’m alive!”
It was a new lease of life and gave me a deep sense of religious urgency (samvega). I told myself that I would be satisfied if I could live another ten years practising Vipassana meditation intensively. Fortunately, I met the Most Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw during a retreat at KCBA after my operation and he suggested that I should practise at least 3 months at the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre in Yangon. I followed his advice and went to Myanmar after my retirement in 1996. I found that the technique taught there requires a lot of patience, which I really lacked. I learnt that there is no short cut in Vipassana meditation and one needs to put in a lot of time and effort to progress.
Your book “Buddhism Course” is well received by students of the Dhamma. What inspired you to undertake the task of writing this comprehensive work?
I met Bro. Leong Yok Kee (now known as Jinavamsa) in 1998. He had read some of the articles that I had published and suggested that I should compile them into a book, which he undertook to publish. From 1999 to 2001, over 5000 copies of the book were printed under the title “Introductory Course in Buddhism”. A friend in Penang told me that he found the subjects so clearly explained that he recommended the book to a young Christian student who wanted to know what Buddhism is all about so that she can write an essay in her degree course.
In 2002, I was invited to conduct the weekly sutta class at SJBA. It gave me an opportunity to study the Buddha’s Teaching directly from the suttas and spend more time checking the various references and commentaries. That was when I decided to upgrade the Introductory Course to a higher level by providing more details and new articles about the Buddha’s Teaching as well as the history of its preservation, propagation and perpetuation. The compilation of ‘Buddhism Course’ was a labour of love, and a source of joy and inspiration.
Currently do you have any plans for a follow-up title?
At the moment I am busy editing and enlarging the book ‘Buddhist Pilgrimage’ to inspire more Buddhists to perform a pilgrimage at least once in their life. I hope to publish the new revised edition in 2009. It will have more articles describing the shrines along the Buddhist circuit and the great personalities responsible for the Buddhist Revival in India today.
Any particular reason for the choice of topic or area for the forthcoming publication?
The book ‘Buddhist Pilgrimage’ is in great demand by pilgrims. Every few years, I do a reprint and update with descriptions of new shrines along the route as well as fresh articles and information connected with the holy sites. I also add group photos of the latest pilgrims so that it becomes a memento for them to keep and refresh their memory. You can read more about these and other interesting articles in my new book next year.
What is the impact of the Dhamma on your life?
Since 1996, I have practised diligently every year for 2 to 3 months at the Chanmyay Yeiktha Centre in Hmawbi, about an hour’s drive from Yangon. I like to practise in Hmawbi because it has a lot of shady trees, clean drinking water and food, and very helpful teachers. It is like my second home. I have made a lot of Dhamma friends and found true happiness through the practice of the Buddha’s Teaching. You can say that I have made peace with myself so I can live in peace with the world. This is the impact of the Dhamma on my life.
Recently, one of my meditation teachers, Sayadaw U Indaka, suggested that I should practise Metta to develop a more-friendly attitude to others. So I took up Metta meditation and found that it helps me to live at ease and create a caring attitude, which is very useful, especially in my relationship with my sutta class members. From my experience, Dhamma teachers need to practise both Vipassana and Metta meditation to develop understanding and friendliness.
We understand that you are actively pursuing the study and practice of meditation in Myanmar. What motivates you for such commitment and devotion?
To me, the main attraction of Buddhism is that one can actually verify the Buddha’s Teaching of the Four Noble Truths in this very life through the practice of Vipassana meditation. Here is a noble teaching that I can really practise to redeem myself after all the years of performing unwholesome actions. Vipassana meditation really works if you enter a retreat without expecting results. This is easier said than done! How not to expect results, especially when we have sacrificed our precious annual leave to come to the retreat? Also, it is difficult to sustain the practice without results, as our interest will wane.
Here is a skilful means that I apply when I go to Hmawbi for my retreat every year. After honouring the Buddha by visiting and reverencing the holy shrines in India, it is now time to honour the Buddha by practising the Dhamma. I go into retreat with this objective in mind and it is enough to sustain my practice. Results become secondary. You should try this every time you sit and practise meditation. Dedicate your practice in honour of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, your parents and teachers too. It will arouse your faith and devotion, which will bring mental purity and sustain your practice. So you can see that honouring the Buddha by practising the Dhamma is the cause and the result will follow!
We also understand that you lead pilgrimages to India. What do you derive most from these pilgrimages?
Organizing the Buddhist Pilgrimage is one of the highlights of my life. It gives me a lot of joy to bring fellow Buddhists to the Eight Great Places of Pilgrimage to honour the Blessed One. Even though I have gone round the Buddhist circuit more than ten times, I still feel the religious excitement every time I embark on this journey of faith and devotion. Firstly, I look forward to the fellowship with the new pilgrims. Most of them join the group through the recommendations of their friends who had gone with me previously. Secondly, I get to see many familiar faces in India, namely, the local tour agent, guides and the venerable monks in the various monasteries. Thirdly, the travel agent gives a free place to the organizer, which I offer to one of the monks from Chanmyay Meditation Centre. They were my brothers who helped me when I was a bhikkhu in 1996 and 1998, and I can now show my gratitude to them.
There is no place on earth that can boast such powerful objects of faith than those one gets to see and worship at the Eight Great Places of Pilgrimage. In fact, the sights of these holy shrines impact so deeply in the mind that the pilgrim will always remember them with joy and reverence for years to come. A pilgrimage is especially beneficial to the older folks. Why? As we grow older, we become weak and suffer all kinds of illnesses more often. This is a condition for sorrow and despair to arise leading to depression. In fact, I encourage members to persuade their aged parents or relatives to join in the pilgrimage. Their slower movement is not a burden because they need not follow the able-bodied pilgrims to see every shrine; just the main shrines will do, where they can take the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, and perform dana with devotion and a clear, happy mind. From personal experience, the memories of all the wholesome things done during a pilgrimage are some of the best sources of inspiration and joy in life. In times of sickness, fear and worry, or depression, one can easily dispel these negative mental states by rejoicing in one’s wholesome actions during the pilgrimage.
What have you accomplished and what more do you wish to accomplish?
It’s more than twenty years since I followed the Buddha’s Teaching. Those who knew me then say that I have made a 180-degree turn. My wife says that I have improved ‘only a little bit’ compared to the old self. My daughters are more complimentary and say that they are proud of the things that I have done since becoming a committed Buddhist. Personally I think that I have done as much as I could. I still wish to help and advise others, whether they are old friends or new acquaintances who are keen to learn the Buddha’s Teachings and practise Vipassana or Metta meditation. Finally, I really wish that my two daughters will become committed Buddhists one day when the time is right.
Could you share with us your insight on ‘Selflessness in Service for Mankind’ from the Buddhist perspective?
To me, “Selflessness in Service” would mean putting the interest of others above our own interest. Buddha has taught that a living being consists of physical and mental aggregates that are impermanent, suffering and non-self. It is the idea of a self or ‘atta’ that is the cause of suffering. As we are not Arahants, we still have the idea of self. But when we put others’ interest above our own interest, that idea is absent. This is what is meant by ‘selflessness’.
The perfect example of such ‘selflessless’ is the Bodhisatta’s aspiration to Buddha-hood. He could have attained Arahantship had he wanted to but he postponed his enlightenment because he placed the interest of a suffering humanity above his own interest. He aspired to become a Samma-Sambuddha so that he could help mankind to end their suffering. In this, he was prompted by great compassion (maha karuna), an immense sympathy for all beings without discrimination, as sufferers in samsara. To achieve the goal, he had to bear personal suffering in samsara for a long duration of time. But compassion alone is not sufficient to fulfil his objective. He must possess the skill and wisdom in developing the Ten Perfections (parami), which are the basic means and support for attainment of Omniscience in order to deliver beings out of samsara.
It is not easy to be a Bodhisatta, but one can serve others to the best of one’s ability with the Bodhisatta attitude. For lesser mortals like you and I, the Buddha has prescribed certain guidelines to follow in order to succeed in any undertaking, whether secular or spiritual. It is called ‘Iddhipadas’ or the Four Bases of Success. First is ‘chanda’ or desire, in this case a genuine desire to serve mankind. Second is ‘citta’ the willpower or endurance. Third is ‘viriya’ the energy or effort. Fourth is ‘vimamsa’ the knowledge, skill or know-how. When these four factors are founded on compassion, supported by compassion, they become the engine to drive those acts of ‘Selflessness in Service of Mankind’.
From a Buddhist perspective, those who wish to practise ‘Selflessness in Service of Mankind’ should take the Bodhisatta as the role model by developing the skill and wisdom in ways and means to serve others selflessly. Mind is the forerunner of all states. It was the Bodhisatta’s pure intention that led to his aspiration to Buddha-hood and fulfilment. Although we cannot always act selflessly like the Bodhisatta, we should always try to cultivate this altruistic mind of ‘Selflessness in Service to Mankind’ and act accordingly whenever we can.