Exploring the Temple Columbarium: A Journey through Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden

In this book, I would make a deep exploration into the temple columbarium which is located at Fu Gui Shan, Singapore. A place where it houses the main activity of the temple that is to commemorate the spirit of the deceased. The book covers 4 main aspects of the temple which is its historical background, the temple layout, its services and rites, and the comparison between it and some of the other local Chinese temples. An interview will also be conducted with the temple’s chief abbot to gather more information on the actual practices in the temple. I hope that with this project, I would be able to have a better understanding of the temple in all aspects and to share it with everyone so that there will be a clearer picture of the significance of the temple compared to other common places of commemoration. It is important because the traditional way of spirit veneration is vanishing fast from the newer generation and soon it might come to a situation where it will no longer be practiced. By then, this project may be the only material left to explain about the temple.

Overview of the Temple Columbarium

The specific name of the garden is Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden. The temple columbarium is built on a hillside. It has a serene ambiance. You will see temples of Teng Cung and the temple of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. This temple has a history dating back to 1988. The first temple, Teng Cung, was built on a compound. This was then followed by the Kuan Yin Temple (1998) and later the temple columbarium was built in 2003. The establishment of this columbarium was to provide an alternative and affordable memorial sideways for Buddhist and Taoist to fulfill filial and show remembrance towards their ancestors. This temple has a rich and colorful history. Through ups and downs, it is still standing strong today. Step into the temple columbarium, you will find beautifully framed calligraphy and also beautifully painted statues of the Eight Immortals (王羲之、怀素、张怀真、顾愚、周文王、文征明、笑笑生、侯吉), this was donated by the Gao Yi Pian family. Walking on further, you will start to feel solemn and peaceful. This is where the niche compartments start. The columbarium houses a total of 11,234 niche compartments and also 2 wall scriptures room. Niches are arranged in an orderly manner and owners of the niches are able to easily locate their ancestors’ niches. The temple provides the service of post-columbarium cremation service to place the urn of the deceased into the niche compartment. The wall scriptures room allows families to enter into selected rooms to lay upon the tablet of their ancestor in a carpeted room. This will be more comfortable and convenient, ensuring a smooth process in venerating the ancestor. This is a brief breakdown of the history and what lies inside the columbarium.

Importance of Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden

The architecture and symbolism of the Temple Columbarium reflects the beliefs and aspirations of the Chinese community in Malaysia. This is exemplified through illustrating the importance of the Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden, which is a space within the Temple Columbarium. The Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden encompasses the beliefs of attaining earthly prosperity and good fortune to ensure that our offspring will have a better life and future. This is mainly due to the previous extensive research conducted, which concluded that the main concern of descendants (who are usually members of the Chinese community) is to find a final secure resting place for their departed loved ones. By providing a better resting place, future generations of offspring will not only find solace in knowing that their departed loved ones are at a secure place, but also gaining blessings from them to have a better life and future. This will enable descendants of the departed to rent or purchase niches in hopes that it will enable their ancestors to enter into a designed concept area of a temple, memorial garden, or a sanctuary which will depict in their minds.

Features of the Temple Columbarium

Columbarium, derived from “columba” (in Latin) meaning dove-cote, is a sepulchral building housing niches for urns containing the ashes of the dead. The columbarium serves as a depository for funerary urns and an altar for Buddhist rites and prayers. The columbarium is housed in a 2-storey building and a basement. The ground floor area consists of several small to medium halls with different decor, housing a total of 3648 niches. The 1st floor holds larger halls, 2 of which are devoted to the memory of Kuanyin and face Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. At the heart of the building, the Central Meditation Hall holds the Celestial Dragon. On the walls of the Central Meditation Hall are frescoes depicting the 18 layers of Hell and the 32 Expressions of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. These act as an educational aid to devotees and visitors alike. The Central Meditation Hall leads to the Hall of Ocean Light where families and devotees can make prayers and offerings to their deceased loved ones whose niches are located in the basement. At the back of the 1st floor is the Yet Kai Hall, and above it is a 7-level Pagoda which houses 1820 niches. This area is known as the Pagoda of Compassion, as the Yet Kai are being benevolent in providing a dignified place for prayer and offerings to the deceased ones at a minimal cost. The basement area houses a total of 1704 niches. Each level is dedicated to a different Buddha, and the Main Shrine depicts the 1000 Light Offering Samadhi of the Medicine Buddha. The Main Shrine area houses 3 large Buddhas: Shakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Master Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha.

Architectural Design and Layout

The rooms of the columbarium are a string of construction dating over a long period of time, beginning with the more recent “Buddha’s Light” and “Eternal Light” courts. The former is a circular area with niches built into the walls to house urns and personal effects. At the center of the court is a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and the area is dominated by a round skylight. The circular shape and the light give the area a very uplifting, celestial feeling. “Eternal Light” is similar in design, though it is a rectangular area and there is no open ceiling. Step out from either of these areas and you will find yourself in the “Courtyard of Bodhisattvas”. This area is modeled after the white cloud sage’s abode in “Journey to the West” and is adorned with many statues of the 18 Arhats.

The columbarium at Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden is a maze of corridors, rooms, and exterior courts all designed to house cinerary urns. Masterfully engineered, many aspects of the installation are built to invoke, or in some cases impose, a particular reaction. The columbarium is a generally solemn area, though color was used to great effect in the exterior walls and some of the sculpture.

Sacred Artifacts and Decorations

Pillars which guard both sides of the temple doors are known as Vajras, a weapon that is said to function as a ritual object to symbolize both the indestructible properties of a diamond and a thunderbolt. The vajra is also a symbol of protection. Placing vajras at the door would mean that negative influences will not enter into the temple, or conversely, the potential for those within to do wrong will not escape. It is said that the Vajrapani or “The one who holds the Vajra” will use the vajra to destroy spiritual ignorance and is known to represent the energy of the enlightened mind. The presence of the Vajrapani thus represents the dismay of worldly evildoing and a strong affirmation in the salvation of others.

An altar is a structure on which offerings are placed. In Chinese tradition, the soul of the deceased is believed to be in existence in another realm, and in order to be eternally peaceful, the soul must first pass through different stages of purgatory where others deliver prayers and offerings. If successful, the deceased is reincarnated to a better life. Altars are the gateway between the living and the dead, and are locations in which to direct prayer. One such altar exists at Shuang Lin Monastery located at the far end of the courtyard. On this altar is a painting of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha or Dizang in Chinese, who is known for his vow not to enter Nirvana until all hells are emptied. This means that Ksitigarbha will be able to use his supernatural powers to save those beings in their abode before transferring them to a higher state. Throughout the year, monks will conduct services at this altar to relieve the deceased in hopes of a better rebirth.

Tranquil Gardens and Scenic Views

The name of Fu Gui solves the primary reason behind building this temple. He holds the view that life goes after death and hence after the family members leave the memorial halls, at the lower portion the deceased “move in” living in a congested HDB House. Hence there lower portion of the Columbarium is designed to appear like a typical HDB Housing estate with wide aisles of walking paths and garden at the centre. Above the lower HDB Housing estate is 268 units of semi-circular niches forming the Singapore first niche apartment. There are also 24 units of family niche apartments. At the ground floor, there are 64 units of garden niches. All the paths at the upper portion are connected to the 2 sheltered circular walking paths known as The Way of Heaven and The Way of Earth. 766 Niches are placed along these paths known as The Taoist Way. The central garden is planned with 4 grand children theme playground for young children to play. This will create the atmosphere of living in a serene and quiet environment. In the whole garden it has a blend of Chinese, Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Christianity ways of life. The Way of Heaven and Earth was recommended by the fortune teller as Master Low was looking for a way to draw a huge parallel line between the living and the deceased. This two ways had enable children to move from the first station to around the temple to station 14 where the 14th station leads to the deceased at the upper tier. This will become the merrily move into a place where sons and daughters had fulfilling made for their ancestors. A video is shown below illustrating the detailed creation of 上天之路与下土之路 and its philosophy.

Rituals and Practices at Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden

The deceased or the household might make any of the above demands from the administration or a specific puja depending on the current situation.

Guardians are regularly advised what offerings will help a relative who is sick or declining. Rinpoche has expressed the importance of practices to the mother of any younger member of the family with a moving illness in order to help the recovery or rehabilitation of that relative. Sometimes when the illness of a relative is severe or an sudden end or accident is anticipated, it could be appropriate to perform Pujas for the protection of the person’s life with the aim of stopping the death on the expected date. This was the case when Mahakala Pujas were performed for the life of a particular member. Finally, at the time of death or equivalent to the actual end of a loved one, practices exist to help the departed and to bring to a close any troubling connections coming from those who remain.

Ceremonies to help close family members (between death and internment of a friend or family member) are intended to help the deceased and to diminish the misery of the living. Kagyu Samye Ling has a custom to offer Tsog to Sakya Dolma, one of the well-known dakinis of Tibet, with the purpose of ensuring the most ideal conditions for anyone passing on. Both of the above two ceremonies are intended to redirect any potential hindrances or blocks from the dying individual. Tsog is then offered for the purpose that the death will be peaceful.

Traditional ceremonies and offerings in the temple regularly focus on ceremonies to help the deceased in their otherworldly domain. Families may decide to gain good karma. This is a short ceremony which is offered to discharge a relative from a difficult karmic act. Another thought is the enactment of moving water empathy. An extraordinary celebration called Torodon, which is offered to dispatch ancestors from their dying days, is typically performed close to a natural boisterous or waterway.

Traditional Ceremonies and Offerings

Traditional ceremonies and offerings were a common practice at Fugui Columbarium. Such practices were often conducted by devotees in pursuit of positive karma for the deceased to ensure their entry into a favorable rebirth. The most common ceremonies and offerings are the bi-monthly offering sessions during Ullambana, the prayers of mercy and great compassion to relieve the deceased from suffering, and the offering of life release of captured creatures. These sessions often require the assistance of monks from Fugui Temple. A meaningful and significant ceremony that was a first of its kind at a temple in Singapore was the Tenzo Kai Ceremony, hosted in June 2005 by the Japanese community in Singapore. The objective of this ceremony was to reflect the Japanese custom where family members provide food and drinks to their deceased ancestors by offering these items to Sangha who recite sutras to relieve the sufferings of beings in the six paths. As a mark of gratitude, the Japanese community donated complete communion sets and a Tenzo board to Fugui Temple. To facilitate the visits of family members during Qing Ming and Ullambana Festivals, they may ease the burden of sorrow by conducting blessings and services to honor their ancestors, thus hoping the visit will be a favorable experience for them. In addition to these sessions, families have the option of contributing towards the maintenance and upkeep of Fugui Columbarium through the Columbarium Maintenance Fund (this is explained in detail during the booking of niches).

Meditation and Spiritual Practices

Meditation and spiritual practice in the temple fulfills a vital function in leading the devotee to a direct experience of ultimate reality. It is a means of transforming the mind and can be done at many levels. It can involve concentration which is focused upon an image, idea or sensation; full body mindfulness as for instance, in the slow movements of T’ai Chi or Hatha Yoga; it can also be aimed at developing insight in order to understand the true nature of phenomena. Guidance in meditation can be sought from the monk or nun and it is useful to have a regular practice and to set aside a special time and place for meditation in everyday life. Although it is an internal process, meditation can make a person more focused, calm and serene and these qualities should be reflected in their external activities. Meditation should go hand in hand with the learning of the Dharma and it is said that the best time to meditate is after listening to a Dharma talk. At a simplistic level, Chinese religion perceives gods in the same way as ancestors. It is said that there are local gods and temple deities who are basically people who accumulated much good karma and were reborn in one of these states. They are the objects of worship and the hope is that they will provide protection in this life or the next and help in the accumulation of good karma. However, for a systematic practitioner of the Dharma, worship should be aimed at human rebirth, heavenly rebirth and ultimately liberation and Buddhahood. The Pure Land sutras advocate the learning of meditation and mindfulness on the Buddha in order to obtain rebirth in the Pure Land where conditions are most conducive for practice and where there is easy access to the Buddha for guidance and teaching. Ancestors can also be objects of meditation in order to pray for their rebirth in the Pure Land and to alleviate their suffering in the states of man or hell.

Importance of Ancestral Worship

In the current era, the cremation of the deceased has now become common practice. Modern cremation involves placing the deceased in a coffin, which after a funeral service, is sent to a crematorium where the body is cremated in the coffin. Following this, the deceased’s remains are collected and stored as ash. The Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden has recognised that in this modern era, more people are turning towards cremation for the deceased and has built a temple Columbarium in order to house the remains of the deceased. This module is specifically aimed at honoring the deceased and it is as close to the traditional practice of ancestor worship as you can get in the modern era. Ancestor worship is a practice that urges devotees to honor ancestors through remembrance and performing rituals. Within the temple Columbarium, there is an area known as “the family altar”. At the family altar, there are tablets which are inscribed with the name of a deceased person. These tablets are to be housed in a niche. Below each tablet, there is to be a photograph of the deceased as well as a scroll inscribed with the posthumous Buddhist name of the deceased in order to commemorate and show respect to the deceased. This community service project offers the public the chance to participate in venerating the deceased by sponsoring a niche and installing a tablet in honor of a beloved one who has passed away. By hosting this family altar project, it offers people the chance to engage in activities to honor the deceased such as conducting a chanting session in dedication to a loved one, or offering incense and making floral offerings at the altar. Chanting sessions and making offerings for the deceased are alternative ways to perform the act of condolence and to show respect to the deceased.

In Chinese Buddhism, practicing filial piety is a very important concept and to be devoted and respectful to one’s parents while they are alive is considered of the utmost importance. However, this respect and devotion does not end with the death of one’s parents. According to traditional Chinese thoughts on filial piety, a child’s devotion and respect towards their parents should be continued even after their parents have passed away. In this respect, one of the primary efforts in the practice of filial piety is to honour one’s ancestors through condolence. The Fu Gui temple recognises the importance of this practice and has devised a ritual specifically for it.

Role of Monks and Nuns in the Temple

The role of monks and nuns within the temple of Fu Gui is extremely important to the entire realm of Buddhism. They are seen as teachers for laypeople, as well as upholders and preservers of the teachings and the discipline of the practice. Possessing the monastic lifestyle, they are more capable of staying true to the Dharma because of the elements of simplicity and renunciation. They are the ones who have the ability to practice and fully devote themselves to the teachings, and are highly respected by laypeople who often are in support of the monks and nuns and their practices in the monasteries. The support of the laypeople in conjunction with the teachings of the Buddha result in the further spreading of Buddhism. With knowledge and understanding of the Dharma, and the importance of Sangha and practicing Dana, a group of Mahayana Buddhists initiated a plan to build a Shaman (monastery) at a local Chinese temple, with the hopes to guide future Buddhists on to the path of Enlightenment and teach them the importance of serving others in their communities. This group hopes to one day bring monks and/or nuns to a location at Fu Gui to enlighten the community about Buddhism and the Buddhist lifestyle, as well as to interpret and conduct various ceremonies for the people.

Visitor Experience and Services

Exhibitions on heritage, culture and the understanding of life and death are also one of the key features of the temple to bring forth the desired message to the public. A rich collection of artefacts has been collected over the years that also showcase the different kinds of effigies found at the old burial grounds. This stark contrast will be quite educational for the young ones of today to understand the generations of the past. It is through here that they may be able to understand more about history and culture in comparison to the modern world today. An interesting topic on festivals celebrated by the Chinese will show the significance of life and the understanding of life and death in contrast to today’s festivals. On several occasions, we have conducted talks or seminars with various community and clan associations all around Singapore. The temple provides an ideal venue for such community organisations and it is through their visit and support that we too can understand more about their culture and way of life.

The temple also promotes cultural and educational trips. Visits to the temple will include guided tours, educational talks and a meaningful tour of remembrance for your loved ones. In fulfilling our mission to promote a good and meaningful life that should be celebrated, a wise father may want to reward his children with a trip to understand Chinese customs and traditions while a loving couple may want to experience a renewal of marriage vows in the presence of the deities as their witness.

Seminars can be conducted at our multi-purpose room which has a seating capacity of 100. Our air-conditioned room can be arranged to cater to the different needs of our clients. Simple talks can be held in a form of theatre, or an exhibition to bring across the desired message of educating the public that life is precious and it should be celebrated. The room can also be converted to a setting of nostalgic Chinese wedding for a nostalgic couple to mark their anniversary in celebration of their love. A heartfelt dedication to couples who have come a long way.

Guided tours can be arranged upon request for both groups and individuals. Our experienced tour guides will take you round the entire temple columbarium and explain to you various points of interests. Additionally, educational programs will be organized and conducted by the temple to provide knowledgeable sessions on understanding Buddhism, Chinese customs and our life here in Singapore. We advocate multiculturalism in our society and everyone from every race and religion is welcomed. This would be a good opportunity for the youths and students to learn and to interact through our carefully planned educational programs.

Guided Tours and Educational Programs

The memorial garden has received numerous local and international groups who have varied backgrounds and interests. Since the official opening of the temple columbarium, guided tours have been provided for groups such as the National Heritage Board, undergraduates from the Nanyang Technological University, Oral History Department and the Polys University Architectural Faculty, Canossian Daughters, Singapore Art Society, the Methodist Church and many others too numerous to list. This has been a great way for these organizations to bond together and learn about Chinese heritage and culture. Each tour also provides participants with the opportunity to participate in a situational learning activity where they can experience firsthand through the use of the five senses, an activity related to Chinese culture and heritage. A senior citizens tour for participants from selected senior citizens homes is also in the pipeline.

Distinguished scholars of Chinese heritage and culture are engaged to lend an academic flavor to the tours. The educational programs are led by trained specialists from this field who help participants unravel and appreciate the various aspects of Chinese culture and heritage. The tours provide participants with a more enriching experience as they learn through the use of the five senses and through a variety of experiential learning activities. These tours are suitable for participants of all ages and are great for families to learn and bond together. A variety of school programs for preschools to tertiary institutions are also available. These are specially designed to support the various levels of the student curriculum and are a great way for students to learn about Chinese culture and heritage, outside of the classroom.

Cultural and Heritage Exhibitions

On the broader horizon, the Fu-Cong Foundation hopes to encourage an appreciation of history among the youths of today, believing this to be an effective antidote for the modern-day affliction of rapidly vanishing cultural roots. In a nation preoccupied with securing its future, we must not forget the importance of knowing where we came from.

Through this program, the council wishes to expose students to the foundation in a personal way, providing them with a change in environment quintessential to a lesson about ancient history. We hope to spark interest and passion for the subject, kindling a curiosity which will move the student on to further exploration. This will be achieved through the use of lively and knowledgeable guides, interactive materials, and group activities. The ultimate goal is to give the student a sense of discovery as he learns of an age long gone.

Laid out in a mazelike fashion, the Temple Columbarium serves as a repository of Buddhist culture and history, painstakingly re-enacted bit by bit in scenes from the life of Sakyamuni Siddhartha. The Dharma is thus made a living experience, speaking to this day and age as it did when first pronounced. The exhibit is a first of its kind attempt to bring the past to life in the present, and in doing so, to touch a person’s heart. Such exhibitions are still an uncommon sight in modern-day Singapore and thus pose an interesting experiment: is there still relevance and meaning in the moral of an ancient story?

Supportive Services for Visitors

Backend services include the loan of a wheelchair to assist the handicapped to move around the temple columbarium, and a Lost and Found service. A Nursecare Service had been previously implemented which provides complimentary service to nursing homes to visit the temple columbarium, but this service had been discontinued due to the lack of demand. As the temple receives around 350,000 visitors annually, all of these services are in place to ensure that the purity and tranquility of the temple is preserved, and visitors feel at ease during their visit at Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden.

Supportive services are put in place to ensure visitors have a pleasant and meaningful visit to Fu Gui Nirvana Memorial Garden. These services are especially helpful for the elderly and the handicapped. To help visitors traverse the complex terrain of the temple columbarium, the management team has implemented an Electric Tram Service, which ferries visitors to key areas around the columbarium for the price of $1. The tram runs every 15 minutes with pick-up and drop-off points at the main road transport entrance, main temple square, and open-air carpark. At the moment, this is only the first phase of the service which includes 2 tram cars and 6 drivers on rotation. This was initially met with great reception. An article on Shin Min Daily on the 30th of July 2013 titled “The electric tram service has made it convenient for the elderly to go up the hill to pray for their ancestors” shows testament to this. In the long run, the visit experience would be greatly improved when the service extension to cover the entire temple columbarium is completed. The management team also plans to implement a Mobile Audio Tour, which guides visitors around the temple points with narrated messages, similar to an audio guide in a museum. This service, however, is still in the planning stages.

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