For the Good of the Many

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An Interview with Venerable Wei Wu
(This reproduced article is taken from Eastern Horizon, August 2005 Issue No. 17)

YOON KHING : You initiated the International Buddhist College (IBC) in Haadyai, Thailand. How did it all happen?

WEI WU : Firstly, I must clarify that I did not initiated the college myself. It was a joint effort of a group of people. In 1992, we started the diploma courses from Buddhist and Pali University (BAPU) of Sri Lanka. Then in 1994, Prof. Y. Karunadassa of Sri Lanka came to Penang and we started the Bachelor of Arts (BA) program for students to continue after their Diploma courses. He said that Malaysia is a very special place as we have different Buddhist traditions, and is thus suitable for a non-sectarian Buddhist University to be established. So I would credit Prof. Karunadassa as the one who mooted the idea of an International Buddhist University. But the decision to start our own learning institution so soon was ignited by a strike in BAPU whereby the examination for BAPU courses had to be postponed. We felt it was time we start our own institution to teach Buddhism.

More serious discussions continued in 1999 with Venerable. Dr. K. Anuruddha, the first Vice Chancellor of BAPU, Prof. Y. Karunadassa, Venerable Prof. K.L. Dhammajoti, and Mr. Lai Han Yau, who was studying in the University of Virginia, to discussed the proposed university. Our conclusion was that Thailand would be the best location for the university but since there are already two Buddhist Universities in Bangkok, we decided to establish the university in the south.

Why was Thailand chosen as the site for IBC?

An important factor was because Thai education policy allows us to start a college that focuses on Buddhist studies in the initial stage. This is not possible in some other countries. For example, in Taiwan, there are many Buddhist universities and colleges established and managed by Buddhist organizations. However, the Government dictates that they offer secular courses and any courses that is related to Buddhist studies must fall under comparative religions. Since our initial focus is Buddhist Studies, Thailand appears the most suitable place for our college.

I understand the medium of instruction is English. Any special reasons?

When we were starting IBC, we visited Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. It is a very successful university and is today well known for its business courses. It started as a college with few students but today has many faculties and over 20,000 students, among them 2,000 foreign students. The main reason for the success of this university is their choice of English as the medium of instruction. All the courses are taught in English except for law because they need to produce lawyers who suit Thai society.Thus, when we started IBC, we decided to use English as the medium of instruction. Perhaps later on we can courses in Chinese, which is fast becoming a popular international language. So I am confident that with English, and later Chinese and some secular courses, IBC will become a useful institution of higher learning.

But why is it called a College now, and not a University?

In order to have a university status, we need to set up four faculties. We decided then that there was no necessity to operate four faculties immediately because of cost and manpower. Therefore, we worked on a master plan for a college, initially with two faculties, and changed the name to International Buddhist College. When we are ready, we will increase the number of faculties and make it into a university.

What is the significance of the motto “For the Good of the Many”?

Prof. Karunadassa asked Venerable Prof. Dhammavihari to choose the motto for IBC. Below is Venerable Prof. Dhammavihari's explanation of the motto:

“ Bahunam vata atthaya ” which means ‘ For the good or benefit of many.'

The above expression which referred to Shakyamuni Buddha was made by his stepmother, Pajapati Gotami, the first Buddhist Nun. This expression can be found in the Theri Gatha and Theri Apadana under the name of Pajapati Gotami. It is therefore a very appropriate motto for an institution like ours, with the objectives that we have.

Firstly, we live in a world of turmoil where there are conflicts in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, some of these conflicts are in the name of religion. The world is not balanced in terms of material development and spiritual development. In fact, if we continue to focus only on material development at the expense of spiritual development, we will probably end up inventing weapons that will one day destroy the entire world. This is where religions have a role to play to prevent such possible tragedies. The teachings of all the world religions, including Buddhism, are therefore more relevant today.

While it is vital to have inter-religious co-operation, we must first ensure there is understanding and harmony within our own religion. So, the aim of IBC is to bring followers of different Buddhist traditions together. In the past, due to difficulties in travel, there was poor communication between Buddhist traditions, resulting in little cooperation. Sometimes this even resulted in them belittling each other. But the three major Buddhist traditions – Theravada, Chinese and Tibetan – in essence follow the teachings of Buddha very faithfully. We hope that IBC will help to foster better communication and understanding between the Buddhist traditions. However, even for those without religions, there are many teachings in Buddhism that would appeal to them.

We are happy to note that though we only started in October 2004, we now have students from all three different traditions. It is interesting to observe the students from different traditions performing their morning puja (services) together. For instance, even in prostration, there are different styles, depending on whether you follow the Theravada, Chinese or Tibetan tradition.

Once we have developed understanding between the Buddhist traditions, we can proceed to promote inter-religious harmony. It is important that all the religions of the world work together for a common goal. As a united force, we can do much more than individually. Our motto is thus very appropriate for what we are trying to do in the College.

Since IBC also caters for students who may not become monastic upon graduation, are there programs to ensure that they can easily find employment when they graduate?

The questions of lay students not being able to find employment when they graduate is not a big problem. What is important is that the college must be fully recognized by the Government. Then it will be easier for our lay graduates to find jobs in different counties. If we were to reflect on the level of Buddhist education at university level, we have to acknowledge that we lagged far behind, compared to other religions like Christianity and Islam.

There are many opportunities that our students can explore when they graduate. For instance, they can continue to promote Buddhist education in different parts of the world as teachers. Compared to Christianity, Islam or Judaism, the Buddhist scriptures – comprising the Theravada, Chinese and Tibetan canons – are much larger. As such they require translators, especially into various modern languages. Due to our diverse traditions, there are many employment opportunities for our graduates.

What about secular courses being offered at IBC?

Yes, we are studying the possibility of offering certain secular courses at IBC. However, they are not the type of courses that private universities would provide since their objective is to attract many students. Courses we would offer including counseling and psychology. We then can integrate Western psychology and Buddhist psychology. We also have hands-on experience in the area of counseling since we have been operating counseling centers in Malaysia for 15 years as well as homes for senior citizens and kindergartens.

Other courses we could offer would be pre-school education and geriatric nursing. As we live in an aging society, there is a need to train more helpers to take care of our senior citizens.

Being a Buddhist college, we would ask our students taking these secular courses to choose Buddhist subjects as one of their electives. In this way, the students would be able to become social workers with a good understanding of Buddhist teachings. They will be useful to serve the society as counselors, teachers, nurses or social workers.

Will there be branch campuses in Malaysia and other countries in the future?

It is too soon to plan branch campuses overseas. In Malaysia, we have established Than Hsiang Buddhist Research Center, an academic institution that offers courses from BAPU. Besides, we will maintain our affiliation with BAPU, which can then be affiliated to IBC to run courses in Malaysia.

Our focus for the first five years would be for our main campus in Songkla to function smoothly. As the funds that are raised for IBC currently comes mainly from Malaysia, we will certainly want to establish more centers where Malaysians can have access to Buddhist studies.

I understand IBC will teach courses on Indian Buddhist Studies, East Asian Buddhist Studies, and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, but would there be a central focus on a specific tradition – e.g. Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana?

No, there are already other existing universities that are doing that. So our idea is to give equal emphasis to the different traditions. There will be no one central focus on any specific tradition.

The prestige of a university depends much on its faculty. Has IBC managed to appoint some distinguished scholars in its various schools?

At present, we have only started the four-year degree program. We are pleased that Venerable Prof. Dhammajoti, a Malaysian, has accepted the post of Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at IBC. Venerable Prof. Dhammajoti is a visiting professor at Hong Kong University (HKU). He is a well-known Buddhist scholar who has won international recognition, and his expertise is in guiding students in their research work. He visits IBC during semester break at HKU. After we have established the post-graduate program, Venerable Prof. Dhammajoti would be invited to conduct it at IBC itself. As he has good contacts with leading Buddhist scholars in Sri Lanka, he would be able to invite more distinguished teachers to IBC.

In fact, an organization in Hong Kong known as Tung Lin Kok Yuan, which is the main sponsor of the Buddhist Studies Center in HKU, was introduced to IBC through Venerable Prof. Dhammajoti. After paying us a visit, they agreed to assist us in several ways. Firstly, they will donate HK$4 million for one of our academic blocks. Secondly, as they have sponsored a chair of Buddhist Studies at the University of British Columbia (BCU) in Canada, and are considering another similar sponsorship at Toronto University, they have said they would like to send visiting professors from both universities and HKU to IBC. At the same time, they would be happy to sponsor any academic conferences that IBC were to organize. So this is very encouraging.

Would you be starting Master-level programs soon?

As a college registered in Thailand, we have to comply with Thai Education Ministry policies and procedures. In Thailand, we must provide under-graduate courses first before offering any post-graduate programs. Since we have already started the BA program, we are now seriously considering a Master of Arts (MA) course in the near future. Venerable Dr. Fa Qing from IBC is working on the curriculum of the program with Venerable Prof. Dhammajoti. If all requirements are met, we could commence the M.A. program as early as next year (2006).

Is academic study important in Buddhism? The general perception is that the serious Buddhist is a meditator who has no need for book knowledge.

If you say that the general perception is that the serious Buddhist is a meditator, then this is a wrong perception. Without understanding, you cannot practice well. This is true with all Buddhist traditions. Even the Burmese, who are known to include meditation as part of their lives, base their meditation techniques on the Pali scriptures. Without an understanding of the scriptures, how can one practice correctly? For instance, there is the Visuddhimagga written by Buddhaghosa. The Visuddhimagga is a very comprehensive manual on the Buddha's teachings. It divides the methods into sila, samadhi, panna – ethical practice, cultivating mentally to develop concentration, and insight and wisdom. So it is not correct to say that only meditators are serious Buddhists. In addition, it is not correct to say that to meditate you do not need knowledge.

IBC is the first Buddhist higher institution of learning that is closely associated with Malaysians. What is the state of academic studies on Buddhism in Malaysia?

If you compare with Islamic scholarship, Buddhist scholarship is way behind in Malaysia. I think we need to raise the awareness on the importance of academic studies in Buddhism. We must change the perception that Buddhism is only about sitting in silent meditation or prayers and nothing else. If you study Buddhism, you will realize that the teachings are very, very rich! However, we require a serious and systemic study.

However, I must also say that IBC, though an academic institution, does not ignore the practice aspects of Buddhism. It is our objective to manage an academic institution where there is a balanced emphasis on the study and practice of the Buddha's teachings. Study and practice, even during the time of the Buddha himself, are not mutually exclusive. For instance, we now have a residential college for our students. We emphasize not only the development of academic knowledge but also good community spirit and a disciplined life style. We do morning service and evening meditation together. This has been our approach. In addition, we hope that the students, most of whom are members of the monastic order, will become good monks and nuns, and at the same time, good scholars as they progress in their studies.