Home Sharing Articles English Buddhist Hymns development in Malaysia: Messengers of Dharma (MOD)’s journey

English Buddhist Hymns development in Malaysia: Messengers of Dharma (MOD)’s journey

Written by  Cedric Tan (Member of MOD) Thursday, 17 October 2013 00:00

My initial exposure to English language Buddhist hymns was when I was five years old in Seck Kia Eenh Buddhist Temple in Melaka in 1970. Hymns sung were mostly devotional in nature written by American Buddhists of Japanese descent. The late Ven. Sumangalo who was a visiting monk between 1959 until his demise in 1963 was instrumental in introducing these songs to Malaysia and since Seck Kia Eenh was one of his frequent stops, these songs slowly grew popular with the youth. By the time the late Ven. Ananda Mangala became the resident monk in 1963, Buddhist songs were incorporated not only during Sunday morning service but also into Buddhist plays which he staged regularly.

When I started visiting this Temple, the singing of limited English Buddhist hymns and Pali gathas was already a culture there In the 1970s, Datuk Dr Victor Wee who was then a student and member of the youth section started composing or re-writing the tunes for various compositions and with that effort, the repertoire of Buddhist songs grew. Some favourite tunes then were The Sunrise Comes, Wesak Dawn and Anthem of Unity. He subsequently recorded into cassette some of these songs together with his sisters Ivy and Mabel Wee. When he left for Kuala Lumpur, he continued writing songs and subsequently formed the first English Buddhist singing group i.e. Wayfarers.

It was during Ven. Piyasilo’s tenure as the resident monk in Seck Kia Eenh that the Temple became the top Dharma education centre in the country. Dharma Teachers from all over Malaysia was given their first taste of Buddhist songs during Dharma Preacher Training Course (DPTC) conducted initially in Seck Kia Eenh and then in Kuala Lumpur. However the growth of the hymns singing and Dharma outreach in Melaka stifled after the departure of the Ven. Piyasilo from Seck Kia Eenh. An informal group under the stewardship of Bro. Tan Huat Chye consisting of Dharma friends who were concerned of the vacuum caused by the sudden departure of Ven. Piyasilo met weekly in the homes of team members to train Dharma speakers and hymn session leaders so that participating schools of the Melaka Buddhist Youth Societies (MBYS) were not left in the lurch. I was roped in due to my ability to play the guitar and under Bro. Tan’s guidance, I became involved in leading hymn session in the School Buddhist Societies meets. It was during this tumultuous period that Bro. Tan Huat Chye composed numerous heartfelt lyrics and tunes such as “The Wondrous Guide” and “O! Suffering World”. These tunes were sung regularly during such informal meetings and in turn were introduced to the School Buddhist Societies.

Due to this effort and perseverance, most of the members in the School Buddhist Societies became proficient in singing Buddhist songs and within the next few years, Inter-school Hymn Singing Competitions were well participated and attended when the annual competition was held during the Wesak month. For those who were uninterested in Dharma studies activities, the singing of Buddhist songs was another Dharma door to youth to get closer to the Truth. In the late 70s and in the 80s singing Buddhist songs was considered ‘hip’ and it was sung almost in every major event organized by the Temple and Sunday School and even in School Buddhist Societies Combined Meetings and Campfires. The youths of the day in Seck Kia Eenh were rather musical in nature and that interest bounded them together as they organised and participated in secular and religious concerts. It was this bond that kept some and brought the rest together and saw the formation of Expounder (2002) and later Messengers of Dharma (MOD) in 2004. Members who later left for tertiary studies spread the seeds of singing Buddhist songs into colleges and universities.

In the late 1990s and onwards, we noticed the popularity of singing English Buddhist songs in Melaka waned as the batch of youth left for further studies outstation. Singing Buddhist songs once more was relegated as part of religious service and hymn singing sessions were hardly conducted in Sunday School due to the lack of able teachers and interest in the subsequent batch of youths. In spite of the availability of new songs by Wayfarers and Bhikshuni Heng Yin, there was hardly any spike in the interest in singing such songs beyond the confines of the shrine hall. We also noticed the problem of repetitive songs during religious services and thus many were not aware of other songs available. Thus singing Buddhist songs slowly bordered on becoming boring and old fashioned.

Up north, the Gee Bees were actively singing Buddhist songs; old and current in Mahindarama Temple while the Wayfarers made headlines in the Klang Valley. To date, Wayfarers has produced 5 albums while the Gee Bees made home recording of the songs they usually sang. These home recorded songs can be downloaded for free from the internet. In the 1980s, YBAM also organized an English Buddhist Songs writing Competition and culminated with the production of a cassette album for the songs selected.

Where English Buddhist songs development retreated, the sudden emergence of the local Chinese Buddhist songs in the 1980s took the local Buddhist community by storm. Though there were some prevailing Mandarin Buddhist songs then, the snowball effect created by Bro. Tan Huat Chye’s ‘Yi Zhan Deng’ album sets the tone for the production of more locally produced Chinese Buddhist songs. Today, Chinese Buddhist songs have overtaken their English ones by leaps and bounds in terms of sales, quality and variety. The market for Chinese album is large especially within Southeast and East Asian Buddhist communities and with more local Chinese being educated in the Chinese medium, the future of Chinese Buddhist songs will remain bright.

When the pioneer members of the MOD gathered in early 2000s, they expressed the concerns of waning interest in the singing of local English and to a certain extent Malay and Pali language songs through the last decade and decided to do something to arrest the matter. On top of that, there is also the fear of these songs being boring due to the prevailing style of singing and thus repelling younger listeners. We noticed that there is a need to expand the current repertoire of songs and rhythms keeping in mind the changes that are occurring in the music industry. We also wanted to address the issue of the lack of proper music accompaniment and conducting technique during Buddhist songs sessions.

From mid 2000’s onwards, new English and Pali Buddhist songs were flooding the English Buddhist centres with the formation of younger Buddhist singing groups i.e. Messengers of Dharma, i-Gemz, Mahindarama Sunday Pali School singing group under the baton of innovative Bro. Leonard Tan, Expounders and Bro. MV Nathan. On a commercial note, Imee Ooi’s numerous albums based on Pali Suttas and Sanskrit mantras are sold in music stores and were incorporated into some Buddhist musicals she co-produced. In the international scene, Ven. Heng Sure and Ravenna Michelson from USA, Plum Village, Fo Guang Association from The Philippines, D-kidz of Singapore and Tzu Chi International, Taiwan also produced and released their English language albums within this short span of time. While such efforts are lauded, most local Buddhist centers hardly heard these lovely songs as they were not informed of the presence of these albums. Therefore, MOD has made it a point to include songs from other albums in their outreach performances and also to introduce these songs to the Buddhist community across Malaysia and Singapore while imparting the same message found in these songs – the message of loving kindness and compassion by Lord Buddha.

To tackle the problem associated with the lack of music accompaniment and lead for fellowship sessions and services, MOD is now working on producing low budget home recorded sing-along CDs based on the songs found in the Buddhist Song Book edited by Datuk Dr Victor Wee and as well as some published and unpublished songs. The CDs were created along thematic lines using suitable contemporary music arrangement consisting of the sing-along and minus one section. So far two albums have been released: VESAK (released Vesak 2010) and PRAISE (released Magha Puja 2011) respectively.The CDs are distributed to all Buddhist centers free of charge and can be downloaded from www.justbegood.net/Download.htm or www.sjbays.com/mod.

MOD has been truly blessed by the responses and support given today. The first two sing-along CDs were fully sponsored and we are confident more will come to cover the expenses for the remaining CDs. We will continue to collaborate with other groups and composers. One successful outcome was between MOD and multi talented Bro. Leonard Tan whose unflinching support brought the song The Story of Dona to greater height. He also shared his experiences in dabbling with home recording and encouraged MOD to consider that avenue during the initial planning stage of sing-along CD. Meantime, we continued to invest in training others to learn old and new English, Pali, Indonesian and Chinese Buddhist songs. Collaborating with Subang Jaya Buddhist Society Youth Section, MOD conducts sing-along sessions every Wednesday evening in D’Lot (Dharma Lot), top floor, 66 Jalan SS15/4D (same row as McDonalds), Subang Jaya, Selangor.The weekly sessions will resume after Chinese New Year 2011 and is open to all for free. For more information about MOD and her projects, kindly add us in facebook ID mod messengersofdharma or email to us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .