I am dwarfed by the imposing and very grand statues of the seated Buddha Maitreya, flanked by two Bodhisattvas, and a surreal feeling washes over me. Grandeur is everywhere. Impeccably carved and ornate sculptures, given a glow by overhead tungsten light. Gold on red-lacquered beams and pillars. It feels more like a palace fit for kings, bearing little resemblance to the humble temples I used to begrudgingly visit when I was young, compelled by my elders. In fact, the temple, erected in 2007 and inspired by the architectural style circa the Tang dynasty, cost a staggering seventy-five million dollars to build. Rather (needlessly) grandiose if you ask me, and ironic, for one of the doctrines in Buddhism centre on non-attachment.
On the fourth floor of the temple is where the supposed sacred relic lies, ensconced in a mammoth and ostentatious stupa made with three hundred and twenty kilograms of molten gold. But I have a question: How came the temple by this sacred artefact, if it is widely believed to be located in Kandy; and in Singapore of all places, which bears no direct connections with Buddha himself?
The history can be traced to the late Venerable Cakkapala, the abbot of the Bandula Monastery in Myanmar. In 1980, while restoring a collapsed stupa, he discovered the tooth relic, and kept his finding a secret. Then, in 2001, he reached out to Venerable Shi Fazhao of the Golden Pagoda Temple in Singapore for financial assistance, and in the following year, handed over the relic to the latter after stating his wishes that a monastery to house the relic be built.
The authenticity of the relic, of course, came into question. In olden days, whenever the relic was ordered by non-believers to be put through the hot wringer of fire, it would emerge unscathed, rising from the flames in the shape of a radiant lotus flower, and non-believers quickly became converts. Such divine miracles no one in this day and age, no matter which religion they adhere to, can say they are a witness to. Moreover, Venerable Shi has denied any requests for DNA testing, which came after outcries that the supposed tooth could not have been a human’s, given its length, and more likely a cow’s or buffalo’s.
Addressing the sceptics the venerable said, “To me, it has always been real and I have never questioned its authenticity. They can say all they want. I don’t care what they say. If you believe it’s real, then it’s real. Each of us has different views on what is ‘real’, as it depends on each individual’s understanding of Buddhism. While we fully respect the opinions of others, we should stand firm on our own faith towards the sacred relics.”
This hardened atheist can easily dismiss this as a cop-out, but this is the very core of religion, is it not? To take a leap of faith. To believe in a higher, omnipotent power. As the monks begin their mid-day rituals, I see the security guards and staff of the temple put their palms together and chant alongside them. Even I, standing amidst the pious seeking solace, who hold whittling incense sticks in their hands as they offer up their deepest thoughts, cannot say I am not moved.