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In Session: Engendering Buddhism: Non-Theravādin Buddhist Women in Southeast Asia
4: Neither Laywoman nor Nun: The Vegetarian Women of Miao Ing Temple
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Ai Boay Tan
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia
Vegetarian cult, or Zhaijiao 齋教, is a popular religious tradition that combines Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist practices, and was transplanted to Malaya by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today, majority of the vegetarian halls (zhaitang 齋堂) in Malaysia have considered themselves as Buddhist institutions. How did vegetarian cult become Buddhicized in Malaysia? Who are the practitioners of vegetarian cult in contemporary Malaysian society? This essay examines how the Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist community in Malaysia absorbed and adapted various Chinese folk religious practices. Drawing on fieldwork and archival research, it uses the religious career of vegetarian women (zhaigu 齋姑) at the Miao Ing Temple in Gertak Sanggul, Penang, to explore the history and development of the vegetarian cult in Malaysia. I argue that vegetarian women of the temple, along with support from villagers in Gertak Sanggul, played a pivotal role in transforming Miao Ing Temple from a vegetarian hall to a so-called “pure” Buddhist institution since the 1980s. As this study will demonstrate, the Malaysian Buddhist Institute actively recruited vegetarian women from vegetarian halls to study the Buddha’s teachings, contributing to the “intrareligious” conversion of the Malaysian Chinese community. Vegetarian women of Miao Ing Temple, who are neither laywomen nor ordained nuns, serve as female religious professionals in Gertak Sanggul, conducting religious rites and teaching the Dharma to the local community.