Tung Lin Kok Yuen

The Ho family story is integrally bound up with Tung Lin Kok Yuen, the landmark Buddhist temple located on Shan Kwong Road in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island. Mr Robert H. N. Ho, in particular among members of the third generation, feels an affinity and responsibility for the preservation of the distinctive building and those who live there or come under its support.

Founded by Mr Ho’s second grandmother Lady Clara Ho Tung (1875-1938) in 1935 and named for both her husband Sir Robert Ho Tung (Tung) and her own names (Lin Kok), the “Pure Land” Buddhist temple has played a leading part in many key events and relationships in Mr Ho’s life: a lasting connection to his grandmother whom he accompanied to attend religious rituals there when a young boy; a family sanctuary during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II; a pathway back to Buddhism after a period of personal withdrawal from the religion through the mentorship of Tung Lin Kok Yuen Board member Venerable Wu Yi; and an inspiration for Mr Ho’s own philanthropic vision to build a global Buddhist knowledge network that contributes to addressing the issues facing the contemporary world.

The Yuen became home to Lady Clara’s Po Kok Free School for Girls, founded in 1930 in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. It also incorporated the Po Kok Buddhist Seminary for nuns and female lay followers, established in 1932 and originally located in the Castle Peak area of the New Territories. In doing so, the Yuen became the only Buddhist nunnery and seminary on Hong Kong Island. In 1994, Mr Ho, then Chairman of the Board of Directors at Tung Lin Kok Yuen and now a Director, established the first overseas branch of Tung Lin Kok Yuen in Vancouver, Canada, adding an international element to the temple’s reach.

Today, it comprises a Hall of Worship, Ancestral Hall, library, Buddhist book centre, and living quarters, among other areas. Large portraits of Ho family members, including Sir Robert and Lady Clara’s eldest son Henry, who did not live past early childhood, hang on the walls of the Ancestral Hall. Tung Lin Kok Yuen has held Grade 1 historic building status since 2009.

Another special feature is that Tung Lin Kok Yuen survived World War II intact, despite its relief activities for Chinese troops and others, prior to the Japanese occupation of the city. This enabled the Yuen to retain its collection of calligraphies by luminaries and religious figures, acquired as a result of the Ho family’s significant role in the history of Greater China and the temple’s key place in nurturing Buddhism in Hong Kong.

Works include a pair of couplets by political reformer Kang Youwei, leader of the 1898 China’s reform movement, who was sheltered from the wrath of the Empress Dowager as a house guest of Sir Robert in Hong Kong soon after the movement failed. There is a horizontal inscription by Marshal Zhang Xueliang, instigator of the Xian kidnapping of Kuomintang leader General Chiang Kai-shek, and subsequently held under house arrest for 50 years following General Chiang’s release. Marshal Zhang was a lifelong friend of Mr Ho’s father General Ho Shai Lai (who also became a trusted member of General Chiang’s staff). Another inspirational piece is a calligraphic work by Master Fat Ho, one of the founders of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.


Moving with the times

After a period of relative isolation from the non-Buddhist world in the latter part of the 20th century, Tung Lin Kok Yuen is responding to Mr Ho’s drive to connect the temple up locally and globally, and actively engage in initiatives that can widen understanding of Buddhism.

One drastic change took place in 2007, with the appointment of Venerable Tsang Chit as the temple’s first abbot. The move was encouraged by the difficulty of finding a suitable abbess, and evolving Buddhist perspectives on the relationship with society. By the 1980s, a highly popular movement among both male and female Buddhist adherents in Taiwan had encouraged more social engagement to help the disadvantaged. Many in Hong Kong who were interested in Buddhism also studied in Taiwan. The development made it possible for the Board of Tung Lin Kok Yuen to consider altering long-kept rules. After consultations with venerables showed they were prepared to accept a male abbot and monks into their community, the Board went ahead.

“The Yuen should not only train practitioners but be an open door for as many people as possible,” Abbot Tsang Chit said. “This is not really a shift in emphasis, rather a way to realise opportunities. Tung Lin Kok Yuen is now seeking to promote Buddhism in different parts of the world through the buddhistdoor website, temple in Vancouver, and other links.”


Living history

Among the most pressing of the tasks facing a more outwardly engaged Tung Lin Kok Yuen is conservation to enable future generations to learn more about its unique history, buildings and purpose. In 2015, the 80th anniversary of the temple’s founding, the Yuen launched a project to preserve its past. Conservation architects have been employed and surveys undertaken to ascertain precise measurements and details of the condition that will serve not only to inform preservation today but in the future as well.

Software as well as hardware is regarded as important to preserve, with digitalisation of the Yuen’s historic books and records underway.


Reaching out via the arts and social engagement

In terms of community involvement, Tung Lin Kok Yuen has long-established links with the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, which used to operate from the temple complex in the 1950s, Abbot Tsang Chit explained. The temple is now employing new thinking and different ways to reach out to a wider range of people. Architects, historians and writers are keen to visit the temple and explore the role it has played in the Hong Kong story. Group tours are available, though limited by staffing resources and the need to conserve the temple environment.

The arts are proving another interesting pathway. Abbot Tsang Chit has been working with local experimental theatre group Zuni Icasahedron on combining Buddhist chanting with multimedia performance in “Hua-yen Sutra” since 2007. This has involved teaching the actors how to chant and also chanting on stage himself with a group of other monks.

Meanwhile, a group of Tung Lin Kok Yuen nuns and monks have started to go out to talk and interact with Po Kok school students through a programme called “Venerables in Residence”. “It doesn’t mean they are trying to influence the students to be Buddhists,” Abbot Tsang Chit said. “They are more like social workers. The venerables find out what students’ needs are, become their friends, and help them to develop a good approach to solving problems in daily life. It could be school work, it could be personal problems.” In the future, the aim is to serve more schools in this way.

Mr Ho has also maintained the Ho family’s active involvement in the Po Kok schools, which over the years have expanded from one to three to cater for rising demand as Hong Kong’s population surged. The primary school remains based at Tung Lin Kok Yuen while the secondary school moved to Tseung Kwan O in 2000. A branch school is located in Yuen Long. In view of the changing times and educational landscape, all three schools now admit boys as well as girls.


Taking forward Lady Clara’s educational vision

One outcome of Mr Ho’s visits and talks with students and staff has been the setting up of overseas exchanges funded through Tung Lin Kok Yuen. Po Kok students have since had the opportunity to visit different English-speaking countries to improve their language skills and intercultural understanding, and those in Hong Kong have met international students exchanging in to the school. Funding from the Yuen has enabled more teachers to be employed and small-class teaching to be introduced. Support for IT and computer facilities have brought further learning opportunities.

Indeed, since the millennium, education has played a core part of Mr Ho’s philanthropy, taking forward his grandmother’s vision into the higher education sector and across the world. Starting in 2001, with an on-going annual donation to the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong, Tung Lin Kok Yuen has supported the development of Buddhist education at world-class universities in Thailand and Canada (through the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation) as part of Mr Ho’s vision to establish a global network of Buddhist scholars. Buddhist programmes at institutions in the US and the UK have also been sponsored through The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.

In generating greater awareness of the temple and seeking to move its activities more into the community and out beyond Hong Kong, Mr Ho sees that he is actively pursuing Lady Clara’s intentions for the Yuen. In doing so, he feels he is fulfilling a role that his grandmother delegated to him in a life-changing encounter in her final hours when he was just six years old. “I feel she picked me out and maybe this is why I continue to do all this Buddhist-related work. The other cousins and my sister do not care about this. I’m the only one among my generation. Now I’m a Buddhist and one of my sons is too. It always makes me think that somehow she passed the spirit on to me. So I carry on, and I like to do so.”