Letter to Khyentse Foundation from Bhikkhu PJ Paññādīpa 

Below, read the words from Venerable Paññādīpa, who won the Khyentse Foundation Award for Academic Excellence in Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong in 2018.

I was born to highly spiritual parents with no fixed denomination in Malaysia. Perhaps due to their influence, a deep interest in Buddhism and its profound philosophy has started to grow in me at a very young age. Buddhist books of various genres, audio teachings from eloquent Buddhist teachers, and visitations to temples, religious ceremonies and Buddhist masters made up a significant part in my early life. 

Venerable Paññādīpa in Hong Kong.

My interest was further branched to modern science starting my senior school years. At that time I became realized how modern science, especially the medical sciences, plays a vital role in alleviating human suffering by offering practical solutions to combat human morbidity and mortality. This promising prospect has lured me into taking up my bachelor degree in the area of preventative medicine at the University of Putra in Malaysia with a double concentration in nutrition and community health. I strongly believed that prevention is a more effective approach to good health and longevity than treatment of disease. With an intention to secure scholarships for postgraduate studies after the first degree, I worked very hard and finally graduated with a first-class honors and top grades in this program. Mainly due to this academic achievement, I managed to realize my academic dream by securing full scholarships from Canada to pursue an MS in Nutritional Sciences and a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology, both at the University of Toronto. 

Upon graduation I worked for two years as a postdoctoral research fellow cum laboratory manager at the largest research hospital network in Canada. During which I further obtained specialized certification in conducting human clinical trials in Ontario, Canada, as well as in the FDA regulatory affairs in drugs and biologics from the University of California at San Diego. My primary research interest was in search of a deeper understanding and ideal molecular targets of fine-tuning our body’s adaptive system against aging and degenerative diseases. With a decade devoted in medical research, I’ve bagged in numerous accolades. These include twenty-three journal and scientific proceeding articles, and six research awards at international scientific conferences. 

It was during such intense years in laboratories that I gradually became disillusioned to the extent modern science can do to our actual understanding of and, hence, solution to human suffering. The prevailing scientific approach which relies on an underlying but presumptive mechanical/materialistic model to addressing our physical and psychological conditions is deeply felt by me to be deficient. Seeing this shortcoming, I became increasingly drawn to the Buddha’s teaching which prescribes a much comprehensive understanding, by logical analysis and direct (experiential) knowledge, toward our life limitations and inherent suffering. Similar to modern science, the Buddha’s approach is an empirical one readily attested by those willing to give it a try. His remedy of human conditions takes account of both psychological and physical aspects that are seen to be phenomenologically co-dependent and subject to influences from various conditioning factors. In my final year of PhD, I began to experiment various meditation methods. I started to recognize the measureless potential a meditative mind can do to unravel the mystery of life, thereby harnessing liberating wisdom for attaining ultimate freedom. 

In 2011, I finally left my profession to follow my inner call to become a spiritual traveler. I travelled far into various forest meditation abodes in Southeast Asia to seek meditation guidance. Later on conditions have ripened that I took up a full monastic vow, a dream that I cherished when I was twenty-one. In the next few years, I resorted to seclusion at a forest monastery in Myanmar practicing meditation with strict adherence to monastic disciplines. I personally testify the necessity of higher virtue and mind training in removing defilements that hinder us from seeing the reality as it really is, and to arrive at sustainable mental peace. My confidence in Buddha Dhamma as a genuine panacea to human suffering increases. I also began to recognize the importance of correct theoretical understanding of the Buddha’s teachings in properly guiding the practice of developing concentration (samādhi) and liberating insight (prajñā). And from a penetrative insight, it in turn fosters a deeper appreciation of theoretical Dharma. 

In 2016-2017, I was offered the Glorious Sun Group scholarship to read an Master of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong whose curriculum included a doctrinal overview of the main Buddhist traditions and some application pathways on how Buddhist teachings can enrich various other disciplines to benefit today’s world. This interdisciplinary program is indeed an eye opener to me. It informed me with the limitless possibilities Buddhist teachings can lead us to in both supramundane and mundane happiness. To contribute a part in highlighting this versatility of Buddha Dharma, I initiated a systematic review, as my thesis project, on the published scientific reports that link multiple biochemical and molecular pathways to the health-enhancing effects of Buddhist meditation. For me, this thesis represents a milestone achievement in that I’ve applied my former training in medical research into Buddhist studies. 

Despite this, the creative adaptation of Buddha’s teachings to meeting today’s rapidly-changing technological age has not been sufficiently emphasized in Theravāda Buddhism. This insensitive attitude has already created an impasse to the propagation of this oldest surviving Buddhist tradition. There have been declining signs that this tradition has lost its prime to attract new adherents from today’s younger generation even in the traditional Theravāda nations. Therefore, I vow to work on rejuvenating Theravāda Buddhism so that it will continue retain its relevance in this world. I will keep up the principal spirits of this Buddhist tradition, i.e. to accommodate skillful changes without compromising the foundational principle, especially with regard to the doctrine and discipline. Currently I continue furthering my studies in Pali language and Abhidhamma in Myanmar. It is my hope that one day I will use the training I thus received to contribute a role to prolong the Buddha’s dispensation for a long time. 

I am extremely honored and thankful to receive the Khyentse Foundation Award for excellence in Buddhist studies. Your support has greatly encouraged me to make academic approach to learning Buddha Dharma a conduit to deliver the Buddha’s liberating messages to the intellectual world. I rejoice all your great works, and the compassion and wisdom you have given to those who work hard to make Buddhist studies a vibrant subject in religious studies. 

May you all be happy and free from danger and suffering! 

With boundless loving-kindness, 

Bhikkhu PJ Paññādīpa (Tan, Kah Poh) 

Lecturer on training 

Shan State Buddhist University, 

Taunggyi, Myanmar