The Vajra Buddhist Centre in Singapore is at the top of a narrow wooden staircase, the entry to which is through an unassuming doorway on the busy corner of Geylang and Lorong 40. At the side of the doorway is a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, a rarity in this city of gastronomic diversity. I’m here to meet the secretary, Johnny Ho.
We were meant to meet at 1.pm buthaving the foresight to call him, he tells me that our meeting
will have to be delayed as he has to pick up a monk from Taiwan at the airport. It is now 5.pm
With the sweat pouring down my face, (Singapore often has a humidity level of 100%) I enter the shrine room which is surprisingly cool with standing fans spinning in various positions around the floor.
Johnny tells me he was born in Singapore but not as a Buddhist. I’m from a Tao family, originally Tao, he tells me in his clipped Chinese-Singaporean accent. I ask him how he became a Buddhist and he says a friend had told him Buddha does not control you. You believe in him, you go to him. You don’t believe in him, you can move back. You have a problem you go back to him. He’s really wonderful. Things are very free in a Buddhist society.
He tells me he was thirty-five when he turned to Buddhism, Thai Buddhism at first, meeting many teachers. Alex is his personal friend and he was the one who helped him turn to Buddhism, in particular Tibetan Buddhism. Nodding his head he says, No one can do it on your behalf – you have to do it yourself and give your heart to the society.
The building does not belong to the centre but is rented. Originally they practised on the other side of the city. They moved into the building about seven years ago with ten members. By going to a house, there’s no fun because you’re maybe with your family.
On my first visit to the centre a few days before, we were welcomed by Madame Soh, a petite lady of indeterminate age who smiled without saying much, leaving me with the impression that she didn’t speak much English. The deference with which she was treated by others leads me to think she has played an important role in the functioning of the Vajra Buddhist Centre. Johnny says her role was important to the establishment of the centre. Whenever their finances were in the black, they would not ask her for help: but when they were in debt they requested money which was forthcoming.
He tells me, We met Ringu Tulku Rinpoche this year  for the first time. He was on the way to the World Buddhist Organisation in Jakarta and through some email corresponding he agreed to come to Singapore to give us a talk and teaching. He stayed in Singapore for a few days. First he gave a general teaching then he gave a two-night teaching at Ngee An Auditorium in Singapore and he gave some teaching here about dharma.
He says his sangha liked his teaching because he knew English and he explained things very well. He gave a very important Tibetan teaching. Most of them [the lamas] we do not understand the language, but Ringu Tulku, he knows very well and gave us a lot of explanations. There were about 30 or 40 people in the audience. We managed to get one Ani [Ani Khusang Lhamo who translates for Sangye Nyempa Rinpoche] who could speak Chinese and English and she translated. Hopefully I will meet him again in the future; he is still in our minds. We have a very strong image of him. He’s not doing it for himself, all his hard work is for others…you can go to his website and see a lot of things. He does not gain anything for himself, all is for others. We are very lucky to find a Tulku at that high level.
Johnny says that he hopes to own a place in the future. He would like a property in Singapore but property in the city is very expensive. The centre relies mostly on members. It costs $S3000 per month to run the centre. On top of this are the charges for facilities like electricity, rates and water. Most of the committee members pay if they can afford it. They rely on the donation box to pay for food for the resident lama who stays on the upper floor.
He will not make any pilgrimage this year because he has a lot of activities including a visit from Lama Norlha Rinpoche, a meditation and retreat master who will give a teaching and empowerment. He is resident in America. The Sixteenth Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche had brought him to America, he says. He is from the nyingmapa sect, he tells me. He teaches the Six Yogas of Naropa only in retreat. He will not teach outside of the retreat. You can go to his website and see. [http://kscmiami.wordpress.com] He teaches Kagyupa only. Those who practised about twenty or thirty years ago, they know his name. He can teach Nyingmapa, Gelugpa, Kyagupa, [and Sakyapa]. He knows all about dharma.
What I remembered most when I left the centre was the profound effect Ringu Tulku Rinpoche had left on the sangha at the Vajra Buddhist Centre in the short time he was there. Also, the contrast between the cool, shaded and peaceful ambience of the centre and the bustling, noisy streets outside brought home to me what a haven the centre is. Singapore is home to hundreds of Buddhist dharma centres, but they need an inspired and dedicated member like the personable Johnny Ho to develop; and my wishes are that he is successful in finding a more permanent residence for the sangha – and a place for teachers as inspiring as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche to visit in the future.
About the author:
Albert is a retired teacher and has taken a year out to travel with his wife, Fulmaya. He is currently researching the possibility of establishing a home for the elderly in Nepal. Further information on his travels can be found on facebook and at www.blowthegaff.blogspot.co.uk