Master Hong Choon 宏船老和尚
The Late Venerable Seck Hong Choon
~ 1907 – 25 Dec 1990 ~
A Man of Humility
Born in Xiahu village, Jinjiang in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, Venerable Seck Hong Choon came to Singapore in the late 1930s. He decided to make Singapore home because “the climate and situation suited my physical and spiritual needs”. Acknowledged by Chinese Buddhists in Singapore as their highest religious leader, he was also held in high esteem by Buddhists of other countries, including Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Venerable Hong Choon was concurrently the honorary president of several Buddhist temples in Singapore at that time, as well as temples in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and mainland China, a testament of the great respect that people paid to him. However it was his humility more than anything else that endeared him to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, a humility born from his upbringing and religious discipline.
His father, Zhu Zanjia and mother, Li Wangniang were both from well-off peasant families in Jinjiang and Venerable Hong Choon was their only son in a family of six. He was the favourite child in the family and was given loving attention and care despite his mother’s early death when he was nine. Initially he received his education at home. However, he was later sent to a private school in his aunt’s village to learn Chinese classical literature.
At 14, Venerable Hong Choon became a vegetarian under the influence of his grandmother and aunt. A serious young man, he was very conscious of the importance of social service. At 16, he decided to become a Buddhist monk, and took Venerable Seck Hui Quan as his master. That proved to be the turning point in his life. He devoted himself to the serious study of Buddhism and the teachings of the Vinaya School in Guang Hua Temple in Putian.
When he was 18, Venerable Hong Choon followed his master to Nan Pu Tuo Temple in Xiamen which broadened his outlook and made him even more diligent in his study and practice. He had the opportunity to meet Venerable Taixu and for three years, studied under the latter, specialising in two Buddhist Sutras – the Vidyamathnsiddhi-Tridasakarika sastra and Vijnaptimatrasiddhi sastra.
World War II
Venerable Hong Choon’s studies were interrupted by World War II with the Japanese invasion of China. He fled south with his master and came to Singapore in the late 1930s. They stayed at Long Sun See Temple and Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery which was then a simple structure with just one prayer hall.
Six months later they went to Rangoon (known today as Yangon) where they stayed for three months. They then left for Medan, Indonesia and later settled down at Meow Sian Lin Temple in Penang.
Coming to Singapore
His master died in Penang but Venerable Hong Choon, who spent three years and eight months in total there, was invited by the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, Pu Tuo Temple and the Chinese Buddhist Association to come to Singapore and take charge of the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery.
The monastery at that time had only two shrine halls and a plot of farm land. Venerable Hong Choon set out to organise things in the monastery. He gathered fellow monks to grow groundnuts, sweet potatoes and sugarcane on the farm, and started expounding the Buddha-Dharma at the same time. His erudition attracted many to the monastery. He lectured on the Sutras, drawing a widening circle of disciples all the while. His lectures also took him to the then-Malaya.
His Contribution to Singapore’s Buddhist Community
In the early 1970s, Venerable Hong Choon organised the first Great Compassion Prayer. Despite the difficulties, he took steps to expand the monastery, adding a crematorium, a Hall of Great Compassion, a Hall of Ambrosia Precepts and a Dharma Hall.
Under Venerable Hong Choon, many amenities were added on the nearly 22-acre monastery site, including a welfare home for the aged, Bright Hill Evergreen Home in the 1980s. (The Home is presently located at Punggol Field.) His services to Buddhism were recognised not only in Singapore but also in Southeast Asia.
As a tribute for his contributions to Buddhism, Venerable Hong Choon was conferred the title “Supreme Chinese Monk” by the Thai King in late 1987. He was the first monk in Singapore to receive such an honour from the Thai King. Venerable Hong Choon was also a strong advocator and driving force for world peace and religious unity. He founded Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) in 1949 and played an important role in seeing that IRO programmes run without hitches.
On 25 December 1990, Singapore lost one of her most highly regarded monks of our time when Venerable Hong Choon passed on at the age of 84. His grand funeral procession was attended by nearly 200,000 people from all over the world.