Religious tour of Chinatown

My sightseeing here in Singapore has been somewhat curtailed by my efforts to get my passport paperwork in order, but I did make it down to Chinatown, which is both a huge free tourist destination and an interesting cultural commentary on Singapore.

There is no majority religion in Singapore due to the diverse ethnic mix of its population. The largest slice of the pie, 33%, is Buddhist. The first place I went in Chinatown was the large Buddhist temple containing a relic of the Buddha tooth. I am fairly ignorant of Buddhism, but I wasn’t aware that it included relics. I went in and a woman made me cover my shoulders… I had brought a scarf, thinking this might be an issue… and then a man handed me a wrap because I was wearing shorts. Thus enveloped, I stood to the side and watched for a few moments as people came in and pressed their hands together as if in prayer, bowing towards the statue of the Buddha. I say towards because Buddhists’ reverence of their statues is somewhat like Catholics’ reverence of theirs: Buddhists don’t believe the Buddha was a god, and neither do they worship him or his image; they revere his ideas and his example. Many of them also bow to their elders and revered members of their society. Catholics, of course, do not believe that images of Mary or the saints are something to be worshiped, but they also bow and make the sign of the cross out of reverence to the people and the example they represent. Image

This is not to say that Catholicism is much like Buddhism — in the first place, Buddhism, according to many Buddhists, is not a religion, because it has nothing to do with the existence of God and focuses instead on personal enlightenment and responsibility — but wandering around this Buddhist temple, I was rather amazed at how familiar it felt after all of the cathedrals of Europe I had visited over the years (not least because of all the tourists wandering around with their cameras, which always vaguely annoys me, despite the fact that I am one of them). I am certainly not the first to remark upon some of the similarities between Catholicism and Buddhism, from the monastic orders of both to some of the overlapping teachings. For example, the five precepts of Buddhism are:

  • I undertake the precept of abstaining from destroying living creatures.
  • I undertake the precept of abstaining from taking anything not freely given.
  • I undertake the precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the precept of abstaining from false speech.
  • I undertake the precept of abstaining from taking intoxicants which lead to carelessness.

Although perhaps these precepts are closer to the tenants of Quakerism than Catholicism. In any case, when I walked one block up the street to the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple, which has been declared a national monument, it felt much less like what I was used to. In fact, I felt clueless. However, there were some adorable children running around chasing birds; I don’t think that was part of anything other than their own antics, but I could be wrong.ImageImage

One more block up the street was a mosque, but after peeking in I didn’t go further, because there was a class of small boys sitting in the middle of the floor, and the sign in the entryway required a more strict dress code than what I was up for, especially in the heat.

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