A Trip Back to Medieval China: A Visit to Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (連山雙林寺)

Several months ago, I went on a field trip to visit the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery. It’s a very important place in the history of Chinese Buddhism here in Singapore. Why? Because it was the very first Buddhist temple that was set up on this tiny little island. In our contemporary society, there’s been quite a huge split between religion and secular affairs. However, not too long ago, the two were quite tightly intertwined (applies to almost every religion). The temple wasn’t just a centre for worship. It was also a community centre, a centre for education, for disseminating culture and the arts, it was a centre for merchants to meet and negotiate business matters, and in World War 2, this very temple was a training ground for the Overseas Chinese to learn how to drive (and repair) supply trucks up to China, to aid their fellow Chinese in their fights against the Japanese forces.

Anyway, the temple is extremely HUGE and very very beautiful! And yet, it is quietly hidden away amongst the many blocks of public housing in Kim Keat (around Toa Payoh).

Here’s the path leading to the temple if you were to walk from the bus interchange:

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You can’t find any temples in sight. But if you keep walking, you’ll eventually see the signage:

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What I love about it is the fact that the temple is so huge, once you step in, you feel as if you’ve gone back to Medieval China. In fact, the land is so vast that once you’re there, you don’t really notice the public housing blocks around the area. You only start to see them when you’re near the perimeter of the temple grounds.

If you walk in, the first building you’ll see is this:

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When you step in, it looks more like a Taoist temple than a Buddhist temple. Can you find Buddha?

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Well, to clear up any confusion, it really is difficult to draw a distinction between Taoism and Buddhism (and Confucianism) when it comes to Chinese religion. Due to socio-political-cultural influences in history, the three religions (or schools of thought) kinda get mixed and fused into each other. Every Chinese temple you walk into will have a mix of Taoist and Buddhist elements. In some, the Taoist elements will be strong, elsewhere, the Buddhist elements will be stronger. Anyway, this first building in the temple grounds is more (you could say) Taoist. The rest of the temple grounds is more Buddhist (we’ll get to that later).

Perhaps what’s interesting about this place is that amongst the pantheon of deities housed in there, one deity unique only to Singapore and Malaysia is the deity who goes by the name of 拿督公 (Naji Gong), or, in English, we’d say: Najib.

Najib? Wait… Isn’t that a Malay name? Yes it is!

Here’s a picture:

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It’s a Malay guy with a traditional Malay hat and dressing! I’m not sure about his story, but he was probably so awesome – especially towards the Chinese in Malaya – that people decided to venerate him after his death. If you ever notice a Chinese shrine that’s yellow in colour (it’s usually red) near a tree or something, that’s probably the shrine to the the deity, Najib! Yellow-coloured Chinese shrines indicate that some Malay guy or deity has been incorporated into the Chinese religion (that’s what I was told).

Anyway, here are photos of the two deities of death. This is the black guy, who’s short:

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And this is the white guy who’s pretty tall, and whose tongue is sticking out:

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I don’t remember their names. But the story goes that they were good friends. One day, they were supposed to meet up under a bridge. However, there was a flood, and the short guy drowned. The tall friend felt so guilty over the death of his beloved friend that he hung himself. That’s why his tongue is sticking out.

According to Chinese mythology, these two deities are always together and they will come to escort people who die (something like the Grimm Reaper). What’s ironic about them is that their hats say something you don’t expect from the bringers of death. The words on the white guy’s hat says: 一見大財 (yijian dacai), which means: [you’ll get] great fortune upon seeing me. I can’t remember what’s the words on the black guy’s hat. But it’s also about getting great fortune when you see him. Very ironic indeed!

Anyway, as you walk out of that building and continue on your way, you’ll start to see a very different scene:

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Can you see the more Taoist-looking building in the background (above)?

Here’s another view of the big courtyard:

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Now this is starting to look a lot more like medieval China. What’s cool about it is that this temple has undergone a lot of restoration works recently. I’ve been told that they’ve hired artisans from Fujian, China, to restore everything in Fujian style.

The one thing that amazes me is just how much attention has gone into the details!

Here are the tiles:

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Here’s the drain covers:

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Here’s the windows:

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Oh… And here’s the dustbin:

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Even the dustbin has been given as much attention and it looks really beautiful! I’d like a dustbin like this in my room!

It’s rare to find places in Singapore where so much attention has been paid to the small things. Now that everything is pre-fabricated, a lot of structures are pretty plain. Now, you’ll tend to just see either concrete or glass, and it’s either squares, lines, or waves. Nothing as complex as the patterns that you see above!

Also, they’ve got very special rainwater collecting pipes:

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When I first visited this place, it was raining. So I got to see it in action. What’s really cool about this design is that it makes rain water flow down gently from one section to another, so that when they collect water in pails, the water does not splash all over the place. It’s a very efficient way to collect rain water. Pretty cool!

Anyway, here’s a panaromic view from the centre of the courtyard:

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And behind me is this:

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They built a huge wall just to block out the expressway (it’s the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) if you’re wondering). The entire outside world is cut off. Even though the familiar secular world is just next door, you really don’t get a sense of it when you’re here. You suddenly forget that you’re in modern Singapore. It’s quite a nice feeling, like a short getaway from the hectic hustle and bustle of daily life.

Here’s more photos of the great attention to detail made by the artisans. Here’s the door:

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Here’s the ceiling of the sheltered walkway:

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Here’s the roof:

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Wow… I cannot imagine just how many hours of loving labour (and resources) that went into making this entire place so beautiful!

Anyway, as you enter, you’re greeted by another courtyard:

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Here’s a close-up:

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If you enter by the side, you’ll find a little room with a lot of history and other interesting artefacts.

The room on the right houses a huge bronze bell:

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Those are words from a Sutra (scripture). It is believed that hitting the bell is equivalent to reciting the words of that Sutra. When you hit it, those words are broadcasted in the form of the bell-sound for others to hear.

Anyway, here’s a short history of the temple: A long time ago, a Chinese merchant in Singapore had a dream. He dreamt that the Goddess of Mercy (觀音 Guanyin – the Hearer with insights on the cries of the people; she’s actually a Bodhisattva, i.e. one who attained enlightenment, but chose to stay behind to help others attain it too) appeared to him and told him that a boat will soon arrive in Singapore with a few monks on board. They are to help set up the first temple in honour of her, so that others may be saved.

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He went to the harbour at the appointed time and true enough, he met three monks – brothers from China who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism.

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They agreed to stay and help set up the temple.

Eventually, the merchant was able to find other benefactors to donate, and they were able to begin construction of the temple.

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And voila! That’s how the Shuang Lin Monastery came into being!

Once you’re out of the little room of history and interesting artefacts, you’ll see another shrine:

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And facing this shrine is another building housing yet another shrine:

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Here’s what’s inside:

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I love how the interior was designed. It’s sooooo beautiful! Look at that!

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Once you’ve reached this building, you’ve reached the peak of the temple.

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Not too long ago, that’s all there is to the temple grounds.

Now, they’ve added one more building! In order to see that new building, you got to make your way down to the courtyard and walk through a little garden:

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Immediately after the car park, you’ll find a really tall pagoda!

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And just behind this pagoda is the brand new building dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy:

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As you climb the stairs, you suddenly realise the public housing flats once again.

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Notice how you weren’t able to see any public housing blocks in all the photos previously? That’s how big this place is! The only reason why you can see public houses now is because you’re now at the edge of the temple grounds! Wow…

For me, the experience was a little surreal. After walking through the temple grounds and seeing nothing but Fujian architecture, I really forgot what era and what country I was in. And now, I was caught by surprised, and was greeted by tall yet plain pre-fabricated buildings – wow – it’s like a huge wake up call that brought me back to the present moment.

Here’s a close-up of the building:

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Once again, I’m impressed by the amount of attention that went into all the fine little details of the entire place. Here’s the door:

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Those are wooden carvings painted in gold. Gosh… There’s so much detail in the carvings! It’s amazing!

Anyway, enough about the door.

As you enter the building, this is what you see:

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Here’s a close-up:

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There’s another exit at the other end of the temple grounds. It’s a very quiet exit that leads back into the familiar modern world, back into the housing estate.

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For a back door, I’m pretty impressed by the amount of fine details that went into the design:

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Anyway, as I was about to leave the temple grounds, I spotted an elderly man jogging.

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This was the first sign that I was leaving this sacred little haven, this little place detached from the modern world, this little time-machine that brought me back to medieval China, into a place of quietude.

It’s amazing what you can find hidden quietly within a residential area surrounded by so many public housing flats!