Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang Malaysia

Kek Lok Si Temple Introduction

The Kek Lok Si Temple complex is located in George Town Penang in Air Itam. In Penang Hokkien, Kek Lok Si translates as “Temple of Supreme Bliss“.

Officially the Kek Lok Si Temple address is: 1000-L, Tingkat Lembah Ria 1, 11500 Ayer Itam, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. However, the address is really unnecessary because it is so easy to find.

The temple complex sits in the foothills in Air Itam on a hill that the founding monk of the temple called “Crane Mountain”. It is a very large temple complex which covers an area of 12 hectares. Additionally, it’s most commanding feature is the 30.2 meter tall bronze statue of the Mahayana Bodhisattva Guanyin. This is the largest statue of Guanyin in the world and Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple complex in all of Malaysia.

Guanyin Statue at Kek Lok Si TempleGuanyin Statue - Kek Lok Si Temple

Guanyin Statue at Kek Lok Si Temple

The goddess has many phonetic spelling variations such as  Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin, Quan Yin, Guanyin plus many more. However, they all mean the same thing which is “regarder of sounds” meaning she hears the cries and prayers of the world. She is also known as the “Goddess of Mercy”.

The goddess Guanyin is a very important symbol in Mahayana Buddhism. Devotees of Mahayana believe that she is the female incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Guanyin is a very popular Buddhist symbol in China and regions that have a large Chinese population such as Penang Malaysia. Her crystal vase is believed to hold the waters of creation. Therefore, her devotees believe that she also is the goddess of fertility, granting it to all who ask.

The bronze statue was the most recent addition to Kek Lok Si Temple history. Her statue was constructed in 2002 to replace the white plaster Kuan Yin statue that was damaged by fire several years earlier. In addition, the new Guanyin statue was fitted with a 60 meter high roof pavilion that was completed in 2009. However, the height of the structure was limited in order to avoid casting a shadow on the Penang State Mosque.

Photo of Guanyin in her Hill Top PavilionGuanyin Statue Kek Lok Si

The Kek Lok Si Chinese New Year is celebrated with extended Kek Lok Si opening hours and 10,000 lights. The light decorations and extended hours last for 30 days starting the first day of Chinese New Year. Guanyin is a very popular bodhisattva in China who is believed to be an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. Jade Buddha statues are believed to be very auspicious because the qualities of jade are combined with the very important figure of the Guanyin bodhisattva.

Kek Lok Si Lights 2017Kek lok Si Chinese New Year

Kek lok Si lights 2017
Additionally, the majestic hilltop location of Kek Lok Si provides excellent Kek Lok Si night time views of the George Town city lights.

Kek Lok Si Night ViewGeorge Town Penang city lights

Kek Lok Si Pagoda of “Ten Thousand Buddhas”

The Pagoda of “Ban Po Thar” is the main pagoda on the temple grounds. Construction of the pagoda was completed in 1930. “Ban Po Thar” means 10,000 Buddhas and they are constructed into the pagoda on the interior and exterior. On the interior they are mostly in the form of alabaster tiles and there is also a healthy inclusion of Buddhist statues located throughout the pagoda.

Buddha Statue at Ban Po TharBuddha statue inside Rama Pagoda
The following photos depict some of the thousands of Buddha tiles lining the interior of the pagoda.

Pagoda - Ban Po Thar

Pagoda of ten thousand Buddhas

Ten Thousand Buddhas Kek Lok Si

The 3 Tiers of  Ban Po Thar Pagoda

As a symbol of diversity in Penang Malaysia the pagoda pays tribute to both Mahayana and also Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, the design of the Pagoda of ten thousand Buddhas is split up into 3 sections. The octagonal base is Chinese, the middle portion is Thai and the spiral top is Burmese. As a result of the cultural inclusiveness it is also called the Rama Pagoda after King Rama the VI of Thailand. 

Rama Pagoda sections

Additionally, the Rama Pagoda has excellent 360° views of the Kek Lok Si Temple grounds, Air Itam and George Town. Simply climb to the top of the stairs.

Kek Lok Si History

The Kek Lok Si Temple was the brain child of a Chinese monk named Beow Lean. Initially, construction of the complex was begun in 1890 and was completed in 1905. A majority of funds for the temple construction was provided by prominent members of the Hakka clan who had immigrated to Penang from China.

The Kek Lok Si temple was subsequently recognized by the Qing Dynasty and Beow Lean was summoned to Beijing. Qing emperor Guangxu bestowed 70,000 of the “Psalms of the ancient works of Buddhism” to bring back and store at the temple complex. Irregardless of what the 70,000 texts contained, it can be deduced that Kek Lok Si has always been devoted to a Mahayana theme. Paradoxically, it can be argued that Kek Lok Si was never really meant to be “multicultural”.

The Controversy of Kek Lok Si Temple

However, in the interests of being politically correct it was deemed necessary to try and be all inclusive. As a result, the dedication of the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas to 3 nationalities and 2 Buddhist theologies is aimed at promoting a multicultural identity. However, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism can be considered mutually exclusive. Theravada teachings do not recognize much of what the more liberal and modernist Mahayana devotees have created.

For example, in the 70,000 texts that are bestowed at the complex you will find none of the Buddha’s teachings which recognize the veneration of deities. In fact, the Buddha never taught that devotees should worship deities such as Guanyin or even the Buddha himself. Paradoxically, many devotees pray to Guanyin and other “Buddhist” deities although technically they are not supposed to even exist. So I guess you could think of Mahayana as the Catholic version of Buddhism and Kek Lok Si is the Vatican. Additionally, much of the temple complex has commercial interests and there is no Kek Lok Si Temple dress code that may discourage Bermuda clad tourists.

Kek Lok Si Liberation Turtle Pond

Located below the parking area is the liberation turtle pond. The idea is that the turtles have been liberated in dedication to the Buddhist concept that respects all sentient life forms. One of the precepts of Buddhism is to never harm another life form and this is a core element of the Buddha’s teachings. Over the years, the turtle pond has gotten pretty crowded and they are not taking in new admissions. However, the turtles seem rather happy and the environment is very friendly in the pond. See for yourself in the video below.

Additional sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kek_Lok_Si