The call of monkhood: Young people taking monastic vows

Family and social pressures are challenges faced by young people taking monastic vows

Venerable Jue Fang became a nun 14 years ago, soon after she graduated with a degree in economics and maths from the National University of Singapore, at the age of 23. -- PHOTO: VENERABLE JUE FANG
Venerable Jue Fang became a nun 14 years ago, soon after she graduated with a degree in economics and maths from the National University of Singapore, at the age of 23. -- PHOTO: VENERABLE JUE FANG

When a 27-year-old Ms Choo Boon Noi told her family in 1992 that she wanted to be a Buddhist nun, they were devastated.

Ms Choo, now 50, recalls: "One of my brothers pulled me aside to ask if I was okay, while my mother cried harder than she did when my father died."

The youngest of eight children was then working as an administrative assistant in a training department. She graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a diploma in business studies.

She says: "All my siblings were married and they wanted me to get married too. But when I studied the Buddhist teachings closely, I felt that life is more than raising a family and building a career. All these things are impermanent and I will not be able to take them with me when I die."

The path that Ms Choo, who now goes by her ordained name Venerable Shi Fa Xun, took 23 years ago remains uncommon among young Buddhists here today.

There are no official figures but the BuddhistYouth Network, which provides career coaching and leadership workshops for the 20 or so Buddhist youth groups here, estimates there are only about 15 Singaporean monastics under 40 years old. Most are in their mid- to late-30s. About half are based overseas.

Ven Fa Xun, who wrote an honours thesis on why women become nuns for her Bachelor of Arts degree in education at the University of Western Australia, says: "There are too many distractions for young Singaporeans. In their 20s, they are busy finishing up their studies or building a career. In their 30s, they are busy working and raising a family.

"It's usually when people find that all these things still don't bring them happiness that they start to consider taking up the monastic path."

From her own experience, she says "the good thing about doing it young is that you are more flexible and it is easier to change yourself to cope with monastic life".

Regardless of their age, however, she feels that Buddhists here are generally not drawn to life in a monastery as they have been conditioned by a capitalist society to climb the social ladder and indulge in sensual pleasures to achieve happiness.

Also, Chinese Singaporeans are still largely Confucianist in outlook and value having a family, she says.

Buddhist monastics, on the other hand, have to take a vow of celibacy. They are encouraged to live a simple and disciplined lifestyle and have to be contented with basic clothing and shelter.

Ven Fa Xun feels that monastics are still misunderstood by society today.

She says: "Monastics have often been portrayed as failures or uneducated in literature and popular media. The spiritual motivation behind their decision is often neglected.

"As a result, Buddhists who wish to pick up the robes often do not get enough support from family and friends."

Venerable Jue Fang, 37, is an exception.

When she became a nun 14 years ago, soon after she graduated with a degree in economics and maths from the National University of Singapore, she had the full support of her taxi driver father and housewife mother, both staunch Buddhists.

"I was very lucky," says the nun, who has a brother four years younger. She is now the director of international relations at Nan Tien institute in Australia, a tertiary institution which draws on Buddhist teachings.

For another 41-year-old Singaporean Buddhist monk who declined to be named, it took longer to win the approval of his parents, who practised ancestor worship and were not familiar with Buddhist teachings.

The youngest of three children was inspired to be a monk after reading Buddhist teachings and seeing his buddy in national service don the robes and the "serene" effect that had on him.

He decided to do the same after he completed his degree in English literature from NUS and worked for a year as a finance officer. He was 25.

Given the dearth of young monastics, are Buddhist elders worried about who will succeed them? Ven Fa Xun says: "We can only try our best and let people understand and value monastic life through Buddhist classes and dispel misconceptions that monastics are losers or victims. Ultimately, we cannot force people to take up the robe. The spiritual path must come from within."

According to the 2010 census, Buddhists form the biggest religious group here, with more than one million of them.

Tomorrow, they celebrate Vesak Day, which represents the birth, the Nirvana (enlightenment) and the Parinirvana (a state beyond birth and death) of Gautama Buddha.

While Buddhists accounted for 33 per cent of the resident population aged 15 years and over, this is down from the 43 per cent in 2000 census.

The number of Buddhists aged between 15 and 35 also dropped, from 35 per cent in 2000 to 30 per cent in 2010.

A spokesman for Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road says, however, that there has been a surge of spirituality among the younger generation who are searching for a more meaningful life beyond material pursuits.

He adds: "Young people who took up monastic vows today are working professionals with life experiences who seek a higher purpose in life."

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