Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum
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The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum (BTRTM) is a religious and cultural institution in Singapore’s Chinatown. It houses a relic said to be a tooth from Buddha. The BTRTM is dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha and was built for the veneration of the relic, to promote Buddhist culture and education, and provide welfare services to the public.
Origin of the relic
The BTRTM relates the provenance of its Buddha’s tooth relic thus: in 1980, the tooth was discovered by Venerable Cakkapala, the abbot of the Bandula Monastery in Mrauk-U in Myanmar. In the process of restoring a collapsed stupa (Buddhist relic structure) and Buddha statue, Ven. Cakkapala and his assistants were said to have found the tooth within a stupa of solid gold on Bagan Hill. The discovery was not publicised and the tooth was enshrined at the Bandula Monastery.
Background of the BTRTM’s founding
In January 2001, the Bandula Monastery was hoping to raise funds and appealed to Venerable Shi Fazhao, from the Golden Pagoda Temple in Singapore, for financial assistance. Ven. Shi agreed to help and in August, he visited the Bandula Monastery and formed a close relationship with the elderly Ven. Cakkapala.
In 2002, Ven. Cakkapala arrived in Singapore, where he visited the Golden Pagoda Temple and the Metta Welfare Association, founded by Ven. Shi. In July, two Buddha tooth relics including the Bandula one were part of a three-day, S$1 million exhibition to mark the Golden Pagoda Temple’s 10th anniversary. The exhibition drew more than 300,000 visitors, and news reports then said that one of the tooth relics would remain at the Golden Pagoda Temple. On August 4, Ven. Cakkapala formally handed the Buddha tooth relic to Ven. Shi, adding that a monastery should be built to house the relic and receive Buddhist pilgrims. Ven. Cakkapala passed away in December that year.
Ven. Shi secluded himself in a year-long retreat and emerged with the inspiration for the name of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. He was also set on the temple’s architectural style being based on a mandala (Buddhist diagram representing the universe) as well as incorporating the Buddhist art of the Tang dynasty of China. Chinatown was chosen for the proposed temple’s location, with Ven. Shi saying that he hoped the BTRTM would add to the vibrancy and heritage of the area. The project was also supported by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which pointed out that the BTRTM would add to Chinatown’s appeal to visitors interested in religious attractions. The BTRTM was registered with the Registrar of Societies in February 2003 and as a charity in January 2004.
In May 2004, another exhibition featuring the tooth relic was held, drawing over half a million visitors. Details of the planned temple were released in the media, including its estimated cost, structure and its various exhibits.
On January 14, 2005, the BTRTM signed a 30-year land lease agreement with the STB for the 2,700-square metre site at South Bridge Road. A three-week exhibition to raise funds was then staged, and the BTRTM began seeking donations and building sponsorship for the temple’s construction. Parts of the building including Buddha statues and images, roof tiles and bricks were put up for sponsorship at varying amounts, and the BTRTM also collected donations of gold which was to be melted down to construct the stupa which would house the tooth relic. Ven. Shi was quoted in the media as saying: “Using gold to build a stupa is a demonstration of devotion, and devotees believe that by doing such a deed, they will receive the appropriate karmic returns.” In less than three months, about 83 kilograms of gold and S$10 million had been donated.
By November 2006, another 1,700 kilograms of jewellery donated by 15,000 devotees had been sealed in vaults in the BTRTM’s foundation. In May 2007, the BTRTM told the media that S$43 million had been raised from more than 60,000 donors. To meet the final cost of S$75 million, including the land lease, building construction, interior decoration and cost of the temple’s Buddhist images and artifacts, the BTRTM took out a S$22.8 million loan. The BTRTM was soft-launched in May 2007, to coincide with Vesak Day celebrations. A year later, the temple was fully completed and a consecration ceremony was held on May 17, 2008.
Structure and services of the BTRTM
The basement of the BTRTM, above its vaults, holds a theatre and multi-purpose hall, and a vegetarian dining hall. An entry gate and courtyard, flanked by two towers, is the temple’s entrance on the ground level, as are two halls of Buddha images.
On the mezzanine level are two halls, one of which is a chamber for ancestral tablets, and a wax museum exhibiting images of prominent foreign and local monks. The second level contains an exhibition hall for religious art and a depository for Buddhist texts, as well as a teahouse, reference library and shop. On the third storey is a Buddhist culture museum featuring artifacts and relating the events of the Buddha’s life, and a chamber containing “sariras”, relics of the Buddha, his disciplines and eminent monks.
The fourth storey holds the centerpiece of the BTRTM, the Sacred Light Hall which contains the Buddha tooth relic. The relic is housed within a 3.6-metre high stupa made from 420 kilograms of gold, around 234 kilograms of which were donated by devotees. The stupa is surrounded by gold tiles and covered by a gold canopy. Daily services are conducted here by monks, who are only ones allowed into the relic chamber. Visitors can view the relic chamber twice a day from the public viewing area.
On the roof of the temple are pagodas of varying sizes, pavilions and a garden containing the Dendrobium Buddha Tooth, an orchid named for the BTRTM. In the centre of the roof is a pagoda housing a Buddhist prayer wheel.
The BTRTM’s front office offers services including adoption of Buddhist ornaments, books, ancestral tablets and artifacts, public participation in Buddhist ceremonies, offerings of flowers and lights, sponsorship of vegetarian meals and marriage solemnisations. Offerings, donations and sponsorships are also received via the BTRTM’s website.
The BTRTM’s organisational structure is as follows:
• Facilities (Facilities management)
• Finance & Administration
• Buddhist Services
• Buddhist Culture (Museum and communications)
• Commercial (Offerings and merchandise shop)
• Group Services (Tours, community involvement and marketing)
• Food and Beverage
• Information Technology
• Hu Yuan (Volunteers)
A management committee is chaired by BTRTM president and abbot (Ven. Shi as of 2010), and an executive director reports to the management committee.
The BTRTM was embroiled in a controversy before its soft launch in 2007, when the media ran stories questioning the authenticity of the tooth relic. Dental experts were quoted as saying the tooth’s characteristics of a long crown and shorter root were incompatible with the dimensions of a human tooth, and that the tooth likely belonged to an animal; likely that of a cow or buffalo. The length of the tooth was also said to be too long to have come from a human. There was also no widely accepted provenance of a genuine tooth relic ever having emerged from Myanmar.
Ven. Shi was quoted in the media as saying: “To me, it has always been real and I have never questioned its authenticity. They can say all they want, I don't care what they say. If you believe it's real, then it's real.” A number of letters to the press from devotees and donors expressed disappointment and called for the tooth to be authenticated. In statements released to the media and advertisements taken out, however, the BTRTM rejected the possibility of DNA testing and quoted Ven. Shi as saying: “Each of us has different views on what is 'real', as it depends on each individual's understanding of Buddhism. While we fully respect the opinions of others, we should stand firm on our own faith towards the sacred relics”.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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