S’porean man who wanted to be a monk at 24 now uses his NUS business degree to manage temple
Running a temple is just like running any other organisation, he says.
At 24 years old, Venerable Shi You Wei already knew what he wanted to do in life.
It was to become a monk.
However, the former National University of Singapore (NUS) student was on a semester-long exchange programme then, and still had a number of hurdles to overcome before he would become who he is today.
Right now, however, the 43-year-old abbot (a.k.a head of the monastery) of Buddhist temple Di Zang Lin sits before me.
But besides that, Ven. Shi is also a licensed marriage solemniser, the religious advisor for Nanyang Polytechnic Buddhist Society, and a business administration degree holder.
Saving up money for monkhood
The decision to pursue monkhood at 24 was neither fleeting nor fragile.
In fact, it stemmed from a thoughtful place — one that foresaw a predictable, routine future that he didn’t want.
But Ven. Shi was not running away from the 9-to-5 life. Instead, the then-youth was actively chasing a path he found meaning in.
“I was thinking if I were to live a life where we earn money at the start of the month and spend it all by the end of the month, it’s kind of the same routine everyday. I wanted to do something more meaningful than that.”
But Ven. Shi’s parents were not on board with his choice for various reasons, with one of them being the expectations he had to uphold as the eldest son of the family.
“For Chinese families, they would usually think that the eldest son would have to carry the family lineage, so there was a bit of a concern there.”
For the uninformed, ordained Buddhist monks and nuns are required to remain celibate.
And then there were other concerns like who was going to take care of him once he’s older, and whether he was making the decision on a whim.
“They thought it was an impulsive decision and asked me: ‘Would you last long enough?'”
As his parents were still unconvinced, he went on to finish his degree and worked for a couple of years in a managerial position at a nursing home, and then another few years in a secretarial position for a private organisation.
“I was planning to go into monkhood so I needed to save up a bit of money, or at least give the money to my family. It’s to let them know that I’m not running away from normal living, that I can survive. It’s just that I chose a different kind of path.”
Abrupt “promotion” to head of the temple
Ven. Shi renounced his laity (or “ordinary life”) to officially become a monk five years later, when he was just 29 years old.
In order to obtain higher ordination, his tonsure master sent him to Taiwan’s Chung Tai Monastery in 2005, the very year he was ordained.
Tonsure masters are senior monks who are also mentors to the younger monks.
However, that period was short-lived as Ven. Shi had to return to Singapore in 2006, following the demise of his tonsure master.
Returning to Singapore to essentially manage a temple was definitely an overwhelming experience for Ven. Shi.
“When I was in Taiwan, everyday was a fixed routine where I just had to follow instructions. But when I got back to Singapore, suddenly I was the head of the temple.”
Serving the community
Eventually, Ven. Shi managed to ease into the role and introduced some changes into the temple, including giving away annual bursary awards to needy students and forming the DZL Volunteer Corp, which helps to deliver free dinner and ration to needy families weekly.
The needy residents of Marine Terrace are one such example of the temple’s beneficiaries.
While it’s not easy to run things on such a scale, Ven. Shi stresses that seeing the beneficiaries smiling and waiting eagerly is worth all the effort.
“There was this old ah po (grandmother) who called me and asked: ‘Are you coming? We’re waiting for your food!’ Instances like this reassures us that there’s somebody who needs us, that what we do is of help for someone else.”
Just like running any organisation
And as one would expect, working in a monastery is slightly different from an office job.
A day in a monastery typically begins at 4:30am and is packed with religious chores like daily prayers and the changing of offerings.
The day usually ends late into the evening, between 7pm to 9pm, where devotees come to pray or seek advice from the monks.
And then there’s also personal chores that the monks have to settle — like their laundry, for example.
Otherwise, running a temple, according to Ven. Shi, is exactly like running any other organisation — meaning his business degree definitely didn’t go to waste.
“As a registered charity, we still have to churn out a lot of reports and I still need to check ledgers and balance sheets. There’s still some financial planning involved.”
Facebook and Instagram for the modern monk
Besides the operations and management side of things, Ven. Shi also receives the occasional tough request pertaining to death, which includes funeral arrangements and end-of-life advice.
And there were moments in his line of duty which required him to see dead bodies.
“I remember going to a funeral of a deceased who died of a drowning incident. It was very different seeing his photo and then seeing his body as a drowning victim. The boy was a Chinese national studying in Singapore, so it struck me even more.”
Another challenge on the job is to find the right balance as a monk in the public eye, versus the traditional expectations of a monk.
To keep up with the times, for example, Ven. Shi has started managing his own Facebook page.
“I don’t have an Instagram account yet, but I’m looking into that. With technological advancement[s] and knowledge, blind faith has been replaced by the need to show evidence for some of the concepts of Buddhism.
Hence, there is a challenge of distinguishing between what is fact and what is fake news and that is why getting the lay people to be empathetic readers is important.“
And of course, sustaining the teaching of Buddhism and finding new monks for leadership roles have been a struggle as less local youngsters are willing to take up the robes.
Sacrifice personal time for others
Upon renouncing laity, Buddhist monks have to give up certain things including marriage, a meat-based diet and entertainment, among other things.
But for Ven. Shi, the main sacrifice he had to make was to give up his personal time for his devotees.
“When we renounce our laity, we’re essentially giving up our life for the sake of others. It’s difficult to turn people down because they wouldn’t be looking for us if it wasn’t a need. When there’s a need and we turn them down, where else can they go?”
Another thing he had to get used to was not being able to spend as much time with his family.
This is because monks are not encouraged to spend too much time at home, for fear that they may long for the life of a layperson.
Chinese New Year, for example, is now celebrated differently.
“I would only go back home when the temple doesn’t have any events going on, a few days before or after the celebration. I’d come back in the morning to sit around, chat and eat something with them.”
But when he does have a sliver of time to himself, he seeks solace in meditating and having some quiet time to himself.
“Why did you become a monk? Did your girlfriend ditch you?”
Whenever Ven. Shi travels in public, he shares that he will often receive stares and the occasional unsolicited question.
“Some have also come up to me and asked: ‘Why did you become a monk? Did your girlfriend ditch you?'”
And he gets especially more stares when he drives around to run errands.
After all, seeing a monk decked in an orange robe and with a clean-shaved crown driving a car isn’t a common sight.
“People have asked me how I can afford the car. The truth is, the car belongs to the temple and is also driven by the other temple staff. It’s more cost-efficient compared to taking a cab and I get to fit more things into a day’s schedule.”
Ultimately a fulfilling job
While being a monk remains an underrated job (in fact, some might not even see it as a job), Ven. Shi has never regretted the decision he made at a rather young age.
“The lives we change, the lives we touch and the dharma we teach keeps me going. The moment people learn something that they can use in their daily living, at least there is value in our being here; it’s how we effect and affect others.”
To him, the sacrifices he has made to impart the teachings of Buddhism makes the job all the more fulfilling.
“We are like a lamp: We burn ourselves and everybody else gets to enjoy the light.”
Top image by Fasiha Nazren