Heart and Soul: Interpreter was the bridge between Buddhist masters and community

Khoo Poh Kong (holding mic) interpreting a Dharma talk by a Buddhist teacher in Ipoh in the 1970s. — LOKA SK NG

Much has been written about the contributions of Malayan Teachers Training College (MTTC) Kirkby-trained teachers to our country’s education. From 1952 to 1962, the Malayan government sent 1,900 young Malayans to be trained there.

In September 1956, Khoo Poh Kong, a young man of 23 left Air Itam, Penang, to attend training at the MTTC in Kirkby, near Liverpool, England. His two-year training as a teacher in Kirkby established the platform for him to serve the country and the people, especially the Buddhist community for the next 50 years.

Khoo, a Hokkien, was born on Jan 17,1933, in Medan, Indonesia. His father passed away when he was very young and he was brought up by his devoted Buddhist mother. Life was very tough during his growing up years whereby his mother used to collect discarded vegetables at the Air Itam market for their meals.

His initial primary schooling was abruptly stopped during World War II and he had to restart from Standard One again at the Kong Min Primary School in Air Itam after the war. He was very intelligent and was promoted to Standard Four whereby he attained first in the class. He continued his Standard Five and Standard Six in Chung Ling School Penang.

A young Khoo Poh Kong during his training at MTTC in Kirkby, England. — LOKA SK NGA young Khoo Poh Kong during his training at MTTC in Kirkby, England. — LOKA SK NG

After finishing Form Five at Chung Ling High School with excellent results, he was offered to attend teacher’s training at MTTC Kirkby. He returned to Malaya in Jan 1959 and started teaching at the Methodist Primary School Nibong Tebal. In March 1967, he decided to resign to look for a fresh challenge in another school.

In April 1967, he began his long teaching career at Hua Lian National Type Secondary School Taiping where he taught English, Chinese and Industrial Arts. He became the teacher advisor to the Buddhist Study Group of the school where he frequently gave Dharma (Buddha’s teaching) talks to the students. In January 1985, he opted for early retirement at the age of 52 which allowed him more time to serve the Buddhist community.

Venerable Chi Chern, a prominent Chan meditation teacher, Hua Lian alumnus and former president of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia, shared the following during Khoo’s funeral wake:

“It was during my school days that I developed a good impression of Buddhism after attending a Dharma talk by Khoo Poh Kong at Hua Lian. His talk guided me in understanding Buddhism. When I decided to become a monk in 1978, it was Khoo who selected an auspicious date for me to be ordained by Venerable Chuk Mor.”

Being proficient in Mandarin, English, Hokkien and Cantonese, Khoo was invited to translate Venerable Chuk Mor’s Dharma talks in Mandarin into Hokkien or Cantonese at The Triple Wisdom Hall Penang. To enable him to provide proper translation when interpreting for Ven Chuk Mor, Khoo began to learn the Buddha Dharma more seriously and research in depth the meaning of Buddhist terminologies.

He also attended Dharma classes taught by American monk Ven Sumangalo at the Penang Buddhist Association. He was very impressed and inspired by the monk and he later helped Ven Sumangalo to translate his talks into Hokkien.

Khoo developed a keen interest in Vajrayana Buddhism after reading a small booklet by the Vajrayana practitioner CM Chen. He helped CM Chen to reprint and distribute his booklets to libraries of major universities worldwide. In 1970, Khoo contacted Lodro Thyne, the translator for His Holiness the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje to arrange for the Karmapa’s visit to Malaysia. In 1972, Lodro Thyne brought His Eminence Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche to visit instead of H.H. 16th Karmapa.

During talks by H.E. Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche, Lodro Thyne would translate the teachings from Tibetan into English, following which Khoo would translate them into Cantonese. That occasion marked the beginning of Khoo’s involvement as a Dharma translator for Vajrayana teachers. When H.H. the 16th Karmapa finally visited Malaysia in October 1976, Khoo acted as the interpreter. That visit was the catalyst that strengthened the growth of Vajrayana Buddhism in modern Malaysia.

For many years, Khoo has acted as interpreter for many prominent Buddhist teachers, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ven Bai Sheng, His Holiness 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, Ven Hsin Yun and many others.

“Khoo Poh Kong is a Dharma protector who played an important role in facilitating the propagation of the Buddha-Dharma to Malaysians for more than 50 years. We offer our immeasurable gratitude to the late Khoo Poh Kong for his services”, said Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia president Pek Chee Hen.

Khoo first learned to teach Dharma under the guidance of Ven Chuk Mor and he learnt the most from him, Ven Sumangalo and Ven Sheng Jin of Dong Lian Siao Chu temple in Ipoh. During his years of Buddhist work, he taught Dharma in many places using either Mandarin, Cantonese or Hokkien.

In July 1986, he was invited to teach English Language and Buddhism at Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan. He was later appointed the first president of the Buddha Light International Association Malaysia. He also founded the Triyana Dharma Cakra Buddhist Association Taiping. Since 1959, Khoo Poh Kong has been advisor, Dharma teacher and translator to a long list of Buddhist associations.

In 1976, Khoo started shipping donated clothing to Buddhist temples in India and Nepal at his own expense. He also collected monetary donations for these temples to purchase robes for monks of Tibetan Buddhism since these robes are not available in Malaysia.

In 1996, through the Triyana Dharma Cakra Buddhist Association, he started to send robes for Theravada monks and English Dharma books to Bangladesh annually.

Kirkby-trained Khoo’s 50 years plus of Dharma work provided the impetus in developing Malaysian Buddhism by being the bridge between Dharma masters and the Buddhist community. The Malaysian Buddhist community indeed benefited much from this humble and low-profile extraordinary Buddhist interpreter’s dedication and services to the Buddha-Dharma.

The writer is an independent researcher of Malaysia’s Buddhist history. He was president of the Malaysia Buddhist Festival and Selangor Buddhist Development Council.

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