Kek Lok Si Temple, the monastery on Crane Hill
In Chinese iconography, the Crane holds special significance. It is an auspicious symbol denoting longevity, and wisdom that comes with age. The Crane is said to manifest a peculiar interest in human affairs and is also often associated with good luck, high-mindedness, purity and freedom.
When the Venerable Beow Lean first gazed into the sprawling hills that back-dropped Ayer Itam village on the outskirts of George Town over one hundred years ago, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to a crane spreading its wings. Naming the hill Huock San (Crane Hill), and noting its auspicious feng shui, Venerable Beow Lean envisioned the setting up of a monastery, which would act as a retreat for Buddhists and bring to the public a better appreciation of Buddhist traditions.
From the seed of this vision, the Kek Lok Si temple has sprouted into what is today one of the largest and finest Buddhist temple complexes in Southeast Asia.
The history of Kek Lok Si can be traced to the late 19th century. The founder and first Abbott of Kek Lok Si was the Venerable Beow Lean, who was born into a devout Buddhist family in Fujian province in 1844. At the age of 33, he left his occupation as a businessman to devote his life to the teachings of Buddhism. In 1885, he came to Penang with the aim of obtaining donations for the renovation of a monastery in Fuzhou, China. As faith would have it, the trustees of the oldest temple in Penang, the Kuan Yin Teng (Goddess of Mercy temple) in Pitt Street, offered him the position of Chief Monk-in-residence. Impressed by the deep devotion of the Penang Chinese to Buddhism, he accepted and settled down in Penang.
"A man determined can move a mountain, but a man devoted can carve one". It was through the sheer diligence, determination and devotion of Venerable Beow Lean that the Kek Lok Si temple began to take shape. With the blessing of his superiors and the unstinting support of five local tycoons, the first phase of the temple complex, which consisted of a series of monasteries, prayer halls, and landscaped gardens, was built between 1891 and 1905.
Even in those early times, fund-raisers were experienced enough to dedicate structures and artefacts to the temple's benefactors. These five substantial benefactors became known as the "Big Five Supporters" of the Kek Lok Si and their life-like sculptures and those of a few other donors are kept in the upper floors of the Tower of Sacred Books, to perpetuate the memory of their generosity.
Such was the renown of Kek Lok Si, it even gained the imperial sanction of the Manchu Emperor Kwang Xi who presented the temple with a set of 70,000 volumes of the Imperial Edition of the Buddhist Sutras, the Emperor's hand-written scripts, and several other relics. Well-known Empress Cixi of the Ching Dynasty also wrote and presented hand-written scripts to the temple. The inscription in Chinese calligraphy Ta Seong Pao Dian on this plaque was written by His Majesty Emperor Kuang Xi of Ching Dynasty and was presented to the First chief Abbot of Kek Lok Si in 1904. Today, these priceless heritage relics still exist in the temple archives.
Among the myriads of magnificent buildings found in the sprawling complex that constitute the Kek Lok Si, the one that stands out as a shining beacon must surely be the Pagoda of Rama VI, the foundation stone of which was laid by the Thai monarch himself. Known popularly as the Wan Fo Pau T'a, or "Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas", it towers just over a hundred feet and is reputed to be the largest pagoda in Malaysia. Construction commenced in 1915 and upon its completion in 1930, it was opened with a series of grand ceremonies every seven days over a period of forty-nine days.
This unique pagoda has a Chinese-influenced octagonal base, middle tiers of Thai architecture and a Burmese-styled crown, reflecting the temple's wide embrace of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. The pagoda houses a fine collection of Alabaster and Bronze Buddhas which can be viewed while ascending a spiral staircase.
Ensconced in the Tian Huang Dian (Hall of the Devas or Heavenly Kings) are the imposing statues of the Four Heavenly Kings. Each of the Kings controls one of the four points of the compass and the centre of the hall where they stand represents the centre of the universe. Clockwise from the left as one enters the hall, the first statue is that of Kuang Mu, the Giant of the North. He holds a reptile in one hand and a pearl in the other. The reptile will devour anyone at his command. Trapped beneath his feet are a murderer and a scoundrel. Beside him is Tou Wen, the Guardian of the South or Lord of Growth, who holds the "Umbrella of Chaos" which when opened, would extinguish all light and plunge the world into darkness. He tramples upon a harlot and a gambler. Next comes the statue of Ch'i Kuo, Guardian of the West. He carries a magic guitar which when strummed, burns down enemy camps and brings harmony to the virtuous. He stands upon a drunkard and an opium smoker. Finally, there is the statue of Ch'ng Chang, Guardian of the East. Whenever he draws his sword thousands of spears spew forth amidst a thunderous gale, which is then followed by an all-consuming fire. Under his boots are a liar and a thief.
Sitting in the centre of the Hall of Heavenly Kings (and thus the centre of the Universe) is the statue of Maitreya, the "Laughing Buddha". Clutching a sack containing gifts of good luck for humanity, he radiates happiness and prosperity. He is the "Buddha of the Future", or the "Buddha to Come".
Often referred to as "the jewel in the crown of heritage temples" in Malaysia, the Kek Lok Si was initially established as a branch of the Buddhist "Vatican" in Fujian, China. Heavily influenced by the Mahayana Buddhist sect, the original complex consisted of a series of simple monasteries, prayer halls, and landscaped gardens. Large boulders set in the hills were inscribed with verses by Chinese poets, and these can still be seen in the central courtyard today.
The temple grounds contain beautiful gardens and sacred ponds, including the "Liberation Pond" or "Sacred Turtle Pond". To the Chinese, the turtle is an emblem of longevity, strength, and endurance. Many devout Buddhists believe it is an act of spiritual liberation to purchase a captive turtle and set it free in this sacred pond. The pond is found at the end of a meandering flight of ancient granite steps leading to the temple, the old path trodden by the devoted to the Kek Lok Si.
During times of festivities, in particular the Chinese or Lunar New Year, the entire Kek Lok Si complex is strung with tens of thousands of lanterns representing donations by devotees. When lit up during the evenings, the temple is literally transformed into a fairyland of lights.
This lovely retreat for meditation, worship and devotion has been popular since the pre-war days. The popularity of Kek Lok Si has led to modern renovations of opulent proportions, which some might consider excessive. Today, many of the monastery and prayer hall buildings have been extensively refurbished, complete with air-conditioning for the present-day needs for the temple staff . It now features a large new complex housing a prayer hall, souvenir shops and vegetarian restaurants.
The new building is designed with beams and columns and painted according to the dictates of northern Chinese architecture. The tiered and painstakingly landscaped gardens of yore have to a large extent been concretised, including the turtle ponds.
One significant additions to the temple complex include the reconstruction / refurbishment of the 30.2 m bronze statue of the "Greatly Compassionate & Sagely Kuan Yin Bodhisattva", the completion of the Guan Tong Great Hall, the Arhat Hall, hostel blocks for residents of Dhamma assemblies, and the installation of a cable-car route on the hillside above the pagoda. The Kuan Yin statue was completed and opened to the public at the end of 2002.
Known not only for the beauty of its historic buildings (which attract thousands of tourists every year), the Kek Lok Si is first and foremost a centre and repository for Buddhist teaching and Chinese culture.
The temple, in all of its beauty and grandeur exists to guide the beginning adherent to the real Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who exist in their own hearts.
Written by William Chow © All rights reserved
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 29 January 2022