BUDDHISM AND CHINESE RELIGIONS
Malaysia has a sizeable population of Buddhists from the Chinese, Sinhalese and Thai ethnic groups. Of these, the Chinese, by far, are the largest community. Small numbers of Chinese have lived in Malaysia for many centuries, but their communities swelled during the 19th century with immigration during the British colonial period. The Chinese were centred mainly in tin mining towns and other large settlements. Nowadays they are established all over Malaysia and have integrated with society at large.
Buddhism is usually seen as a gentle religion that does not actively seek converts. Devout Buddhists merely seek to enlighten those who already profess the religion and to guide them in leading a religious life. Both the main schools—Theravada and Mahayana—are followed in Malaysia. Each form has its own temples and associations. However, whenever there are important religious events or festivals, Buddhists of all traditions come together. A good example is the Joint Wesak Celebrations Committee where different Buddhist temples come together to organize the annual activity which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Buddha.
‘Pure' or fundamental Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists are in the minority among the Chinese in Malaysia. Many may nominally be Buddhist or Taoist but they may recognise beliefs and practices across a range of Chinese religions and adopt aspects of a number of them in their religious life. Traditional Chinese values, many developed from the teachings of Confucius and Lao Zi, are widely accepted and influence daily life. In many temples, clan houses, guilds and dialect associations, which serve as local temples and focal points for various Chinese communities, statues related with Buddhism and Taoism are placed under the same roof. However, statistics from the 2001 Census indicate that around 20 per cent of the population, mainly Chinese, are Buddhist and a further 3 per cent follow Chinese religions including Confucianism and Taoism.
The practical, adaptable, generous and ancient character of Chinese religions has encouraged the emergence of new sects, such as I-Kuan Tao and De Jiao Hui (Moral Uplifting Society), which try to integrate the teachings of different religions. These sects, which do not appear in China anymore, still sustain their ministry in Malaysia. Rather than rejecting, many Chinese religious groups and worshippers, honour the beliefs of other religions and declare ‘all religions carry good deeds to people'. As a result, Chinese folk beliefs in Malaysia include beliefs in local guardian spirits which originated from traditional animism and mysticism, and the worship of sacred monks and spirits popular among the Thais. Chinese Malaysians have, historically, also elevated local heroes and leaders to patron saints and guardians.