Jingtu Zhenzong: Jodo Shinshu among the ethnic Chinese, part one

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on


Zenjoki Shrine, Singapore. Image courtesy of the author

Those familiar with Japanese Buddhism know that the largest Dharma school in the country is Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu has a number of adherents throughout the Western world and maintains a presence in America, Canada, Australia and throughout Europe. What is much less known, even among the Jodo Shinshu Sangha, is that the largest ethnic group represented among Shin Buddhists after the Japanese is the Han Chinese.

The first non-Japanese person to embrace Shin was probably a Chinese merchant who met Rennyo Shonin (1415–1499, the "restorer" of Jodo Shinshu) while mired in grief over the death of his young daughter. Today, Shin Buddhist Sanghas composed of Chinese exist in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, while Chinese individuals adhering to Shin Buddhism are found scattered across Southeast Asia and the West.

Buddhism is normally seen as something that was passed down from the Chinese to the Japanese. Indeed, the great Buddhist scholar DT Suzuki once said that Shin (along with Nichiren) represented the only truly Japanese form of Buddhism. It is therefore very interesting and important to know how and why Chinese people around the world adopted and adapted such a typically Japanese tradition as Jodo Shinshu, seeing it as a legitimate gateway to the Pure Land Dharma.

In this series of articles, Buddhadoor Global will interview leaders of Shin Buddhist Sanghas in mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore. This first interview will take place with Mr. Clement Tan from Singapore.

Buddhadoor Global (BDG): Could you share your spiritual autobiography with us? How did you come to Shin Buddhism: directly or through other Dharma schools or other religions? Did you grow up in a Buddhist family?

Clement Tan: I am a third generation Singaporean Chinese, born in Singapore, of Teochew (1) descent. My maternal grandmother was a devoted
“Popular” Buddhists and Taoists, as many Chinese are, often visit various Buddhist and folk shrines. She also recited various prayers in the Teochew dialect daily in front of her Guanyin altar. Growing up in the 90s, there were many English and Chinese Buddhist books and materials circulating at Buddhist and folk shrines. Thus, I gradually improved my knowledge of Buddhism. This also coincided with the period of growth of the orthodox Buddhist movement in Singapore, which began in the 1980s in an attempt to move away from syncretic forms practiced locally.

When my grandmother died, a Black feeding ceremony (Yankou 焰口) took place during the funeral. A few years earlier, when my maternal grandfather died of illness, a traditional Teochew folk bridge crossing ritual was performed (2). Being exposed to such different forms of rituals and beliefs naturally led me to ask questions about the nature of different teachings and belief systems.

Image courtesy of the author

Strange as it may seem, my parents were English-educated but not particularly religious (other than participating in customary ancestral rituals or visiting shrines during Chinese New Year). My classical Chinese was largely self-taught, and I was exposed to classical Chinese Buddhist folding texts when I was young. An example would be the apocryphal images 84 of the Mantra of Great Compassion text (3). I was trying to figure out how to pronounce the transliterated alien-like characters and what the explanation was. Many characters were not even included in classical Chinese dictionaries. When I visited the temples, I gradually learned to read the couplets and decorative texts on the buildings.

Singapore has a myriad of Buddhist schools and traditions, ranging from new religions to traditional Chinese Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan schools. So I was trying different types of Buddhist schools. In the early 2000s, I also tried to study Gelugpa teachings a little. However, I felt that there were inherent problems that were not resolved, so I decided to return to traditional Pure Land Buddhism. At the same time, there was a famous Taiwanese monk who used popular media to preach to the entire Chinese diaspora and I listened to his speeches as well. However, some aspects of his teachings didn't answer the questions I had and I decided it might be time to look again.

In the 2010s there were more English-language materials on Japanese Pure Land Buddhism and I came across Sensei Inagaki's website on the Taima Mandala. This gradually led to my correspondence with him, before I decided to accept Jodo Shinshu after careful analysis of the principles.

Amira's Triad in the Taima Mandala. From myoedizioni.it

BDG: Could you tell us a little about the history of Jodo Shinshu in Singapore before the creation of your dojo?

Clement Tan: Jodo Shinshu, as a Japanese Buddhist school, is inevitably linked to the Japanese, both in Japan and abroad. There were pockets of Japanese immigration to different Southeast Asian countries in the early 20th century. Singapore is made up largely of ethnic Chinese, mainly of southern Chinese origin: Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan and others. Thus, the dominant faith at the time was primarily folk religion with ancestral reverence. Due to the language and social norms of the time, different ethnicities and dialect groups often kept to themselves and rarely interacted with each other.

According to my research in the national archives and available library materials, there was a Jodo Shinshu meeting place here in the 1930s, established by Japanese immigrants. Japanese immigrants to pre-war Singapore mainly ran businesses, photography studios and service industries. The dojo would likely have operated out of a residence. There was an old photograph from the 1930s depicting the funeral of a relatively well-off Japanese man, and a Japanese priest stood in plain sight. However, the details remain unclear. During the occupation period from 1942 to 1945, there was a Japanese language school opened by the Syonan Hongwaniji (4). It operated from a colonial building on Queen Street, with some of the educational certificates issued still preserved. During this period, there was a Betsuin (district temple) which opened around 1944 in the River Valley road area. However, with the end of the war in 1945, these churches were closed and the priests and members, perhaps seen as defeated enemies, were repatriated.

As the purpose of these meeting places was primarily to serve Japanese immigrants and military personnel, no effort was made to preach to the locals. Some locals took Japanese lessons primarily to find employment or to prove that they were good citizens subject to the military government. There were unlikely to be any local supporters as life under military rule was very harsh and there was great resentment from the local population. This was different from colonial Taiwan where local Taiwanese adopted Jodo Shinshu, and some even went to Kyoto to receive ordination.

The only remains of Jodo Shinshu dating from before the war are a few tombs bearing the inscription Namo Amida Butsu in the grounds of the local Japanese cemetery located in Yio Chu Kang. However, this is only an inference since the buried person could also belong to Jodo Shu or Tendai.

Amida Buddha welcomes newborns to the Pure Land in the Taima Mandala. From myoedizioni.it

BDG: What motivated you to create a Shin dojo in Singapore? When did you officially open your doors?

Clement Tan: Since there are a few people interested in Jodo Shinshu, I thought it would be nice to find a place where meetings can take place without encroaching on the privacy of our own homes. Additionally, I have helped Sensei Inagaki (5) print several of his translations since 2007 and needed a place to store them as well. Renting accommodation long term is not viable and most areas do not allow religious activities either. Before his passing in 2021, Sensei Inagaki expressed his hope that I could establish a small dojo in Singapore.

Real estate prices are very expensive in Singapore. Last year, in 2023, I sold my own government apartment – ​​home ownership is within reach of most Singaporeans thanks to government support – and used the profits to fund the Purchased an old ground floor unit from the 1960s that could be used as a religious venue. place. I had to take out an additional loan to finance the difference.

I had a simple opening ceremony in December 2023 with Rev. Ho from Hong Kong as the officiating priest. Rev. Kobai, who is a well-respected Jodo Shinshu scholar, also took time to attend the event via Zoom.

BDG: What is your dojo called and how is it affiliated with Shin institutions in Japan?

Clement Tan: I am not yet registered with the Companies Registrar as a religious company and have only registered an events business entity. I used the name Zenkoji Amida Nyorai in Singapore as my Facebook name. I am not affiliated with any foreign organizations at this time, but in the future I will look into the options available.


(1) Teochew (caozhou; 潮州) Refers to the historic district located at the eastern end of Guangdong province. The majority are Han Chinese who speak the Teochew dialect which is a subcategory of the Fujian Minnan dialect. The Teochew diaspora tends to be very religious as the coastal area of ​​Chanshan is very prone to typhoons and various natural disasters. Ancestral reverence is also an integral part of family kinship in Teochew families. Popular religion and Buddhism coexist and syncretism is commonly practiced. A significant minority of Teochews are Catholic, as the faith was introduced in the late 19th century by missionaries.

(2) The Bridge Crossing Ritual (过桥) is a traditional form of Teochew death ritual performed on the last night before cremation or burial. The lead singer carries a paper lantern banner to lead the soul across the bridges of the Underworld. The bereaved family will walk around and across a steel-stayed bridge and toss coins into a pool of water to symbolize “purchasing” the deceased’s right of way. The lead singer will sing operatic arias extolling the virtues of the deceased. Similar rituals also exist in the Hakka and Hokkien dialect groups.

(3) 84 Forms of the Great Compassion Mantra (八十四相大悲咒): This is a Chinese Buddhist apocryphal text which attributes 84 images of various Buddhas, etc., to the 84 verses of the mantra. The characters used to transliterate Chinese mantras are often archaic and very difficult to pronounce, even for educated people. Most practitioners learned it by heart.

(4): Syōnan 昭南: After the surrender of British forces by General Percival in February 1942, Singapore was renamed Syonan Island.

(5) Inagaki Hisao (稻垣久雄) (Dharma Name: Zuio 瑞雄) (1929-2021) was a prolific and scholarly translator of numerous Pure Land Buddhist texts and was a recipient of the BDK Distinguished Service Award.

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photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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