Ep 38: Three Decades of Inspirational Buddhist Music ft. Imee Ooi (Singer, Composer, Producer)

Published on Nov 17, 2023

About the Speaker

Imee Ooi is a Chinese-Malaysian record producer, composer, and singer who composes and arranges music for classic Buddhist chant, mantra, and dharani. She performs her compositions in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Mandarin. In 1997 she founded a record label, I.M.M. Musicworks, to publish her music. She has released more than 50 albums (55 between 1998 and 2020). She has also composed and directed three highly acclaimed stage musicals: Siddhartha, Above Full Moon, and Princess Wen Cheng (aka Jewel of Tibet). More about Imee Ooi https://www.immmusic.com/imee-ooi


[00:00:00] Cheryl:

Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl and today we’re back with another episode. With me, I have Sister Imee. She is a wonderfully renowned Buddhist music composer. I am very excited today because I’m such a big fan of her. I have listened to so much of her music and it’s brought me through a lot, a lot of dark periods in my life. I will hand over the stage to her to introduce herself.

[00:00:25] Imee:

Hello, everybody. Hi, Cheryl. I’m Imee Ooi, 黄慧音. I’m a Buddhist musician, composer, and also a singer. You probably have heard some of my ancient work. When I say ancient, it’s more than 25 years. Like the Chant of Metta, the Heart Sutra, Prajna Paramita, and Om Mane Padme Hum to name a few. I would like to say good evening to everyone. Hope I’m sending Metta from Kuala Lumpur to all around the world.

[00:00:54] Cheryl:

Wow. It’s amazing. I think even as you’re sharing, I already feel so much Metta radiating from you.

[00:01:00] Imee:

Because you feel Metta inside you. So everybody who has a kind heart and promotes peace and harmony will naturally have it inside them, right?

[00:01:09] Cheryl:

Yes. We would love to understand a little bit more about your personal journey of how you became a Buddhist musician.

[00:01:17] Imee:

Well, this is not a plan. When I was young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was naturally thinking of becoming a music teacher, or a piano teacher because my mother was a music teacher back then in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. So we have a music school back in our hometown. All we sisters and brothers, we learned the piano. So until then, I never thought I could compose music or even sing. Of course, we sing at home when we play the piano. We do have a lot of fun evening family mini-concerts at home. Since then, we have been exposed to a lot of good music, especially Disney music, and musicals from cartoons. Also from the pop industry and also Christian songs, because once you love music, you tend to look for songs to sing. Yes. When we play piano, we are always playing classical music. Eventually, we also learned the electone organ. The Yamaha electone was very, very popular back then.

[00:02:22] Cheryl:

Is it the double-tier one?

[00:02:24] Imee:

Oh, yes. You have a rhythm box. Then you can have a flute. You have strings. Besides piano, you are also able to use other instruments and then you can make your simple arrangement. It’s a one-man band. It was so enjoyable for kids and teenagers like us back then in the seventies and eighties.

So back to the question. I stumbled upon writing a Buddhist Sutra. Actually, the first piece was the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, the Prajñāpāramitā given to me by a director. I think he was very into Buddhist studies in Sanskrit. He also noticed that there is a lot of good Christian music, you know, gospel music, but there isn’t much Buddhist music that you can sing or play in the house as background music. Most of our Buddhist music then was more for rituals or for ceremonies. So maybe more traditional. So then I was very happy when I saw the schedule. I have not even learned Sanskrit, but it’s not very difficult for us Malaysians or even Singaporeans. So we picked up Sanskrit very easily from, of course, a good teacher. Naturally, when I know how to pronounce all of them, I find that it is very challenging for me to compose a song. Since then I was just a teacher, but I always aspired to be a composer. So I thought, well, to be able to put musical notes, phrases, and melodies into such a long, foreign, ancient, sacred text, it is such an honor. So I did that. Then I sang as well, instead of looking for a singer, I sang myself and then it turned out quite well. The result was very, very pleasing to a lot of people’s ears. This was one of my very first Dhamma music. Even in those days before the internet was very widely used, it went all the way to China and even to Europe and so many places.

I think it’s the strength of the Sanghas and also the Buddhist disciples, Buddhist laymen, and laywomen, once they get hold of a nice Heart Sutra version, they want to spread it and share it. It’s like the nature of us Buddhist brothers and sisters. After that, one after another, The Chant of Metta, then the Heart Sutra in Mandarin, then Om Mane Padme Hum, all the mantras that you can think of from the main Bodhisattvas and the three Buddhas, Medicine Buddha, Amitabha, everything just came. From three lineages also, I get a lot of requests. So this is my journey and it is like no turning back until today since 1998, I think. Along that journey, I also got the opportunity to write for three very scale musicals, Siddhartha, and then Master Hongyi Above Full Moon, and also Princess Wencheng. This is all Buddhist history where I could present my dedication in musical notes, and this is my journey until now.

[00:05:25] Cheryl:

Thank you so much for sharing. And I’m also very, very curious, what drew you to Buddhism and what was your journey in Buddhism actually?

[00:05:34] Imee:

Okay, what drew me into Buddhism, actually, it’s the music I wrote. Then I started to realize that, oh, I can actually practice Buddhism instead of just praying. During our young days, it was more like a culture. We just burn joss sticks, then certain festivals, then we have a lot of fruits and flowers to offer, but it never occurred in my mind that there is this deep philosophy or deep wisdom that is so practical to our daily life and even so useful for us to deal with all the negativities and emotions, love and hatred, everything. We could find the answer to ease ourselves from all these pains and suffering from this religion. So, well it changed my perspective of religion right away after I wrote the music. When the music is popular, you tend to meet a lot of Buddhist practitioners, then you meet a lot of monks and nuns. You open up to compassion mindfulness, giving, and patience, you name it, you know, all the good things in this one horizon that you always bump into these people. That’s where you can learn and ask your question in life.

[00:06:53] Cheryl:

Was there a particular time in your life when you felt the Buddhist teachings really helped you tremendously?

[00:07:01] Imee:

If you want to mention one is probably what has just happened this year. My parents, my mom, and my dad, passed away simultaneously within three weeks. First, my father caught COVID and then he went to the hospital and he came back but he never recovered because all his energy and his body had already been exhausted by the attack of his lungs and even his brain. So he passed on. And then my mom followed on three weeks later. My mom was sick with cancer, but she was still well, but I think because of this sadness of my father, then, you know, it just suddenly sped up everything. She also felt that, you know her meaning of life is different now.

And also because she practices Buddhism, she feels like she’s not afraid of releasing her body’s pain. She was in pain because she was in the last stage of cancer and she refused to go into any other treatment because she thought that she was already very old and there was no point in exhausting everybody’s energy. But of course, she went to a little treatment to make herself feel easier. Like when her lungs are filled with water, she has to drain it out. Those procedures that she has to do to make sure that she breathes properly. But I think she made up her mind. So what I saw in my mother’s bravery and her decision to let go just like that and let her body take its own course, was like a big awakening to me. Like, I’m going to tell my mom how we’re going to miss her and ask her to hang on and things like that.

There was this part that I think, well, am I going to be very selfish or I should just let my mom go, and maybe there’s another place? So I should release her as my mom, now she probably wants to be reborn as another being in another better place. She’s becoming an individual all over again. Our 缘分, our affinity as mother and daughter will come to an end very soon. The first five months of this in 2023 everything was very intensive, you can be very calm and poised in managing things, but deep inside you the night sinks in, everybody is asleep you feel like your mom and dad are walking towards the end of their life. There’s always this pain. You have to come to an acceptance that this is it. Time is up.

[00:09:20] Cheryl:

And what helped you through those moments of pain and perhaps loneliness as well?

[00:09:26] Imee:

Not so much loneliness because we were very busy then because we all stayed in the same place. So no loneliness. The sense of responsibility takes over. It’s like being the eldest in the home, not only do you have to make sure everything is in place, but you feel like sometimes we let other people suffer or we sort of take it for granted that people will do it or people can just figure it out, but when all the responsibility comes upon you, then you will notice that even this little, little things, a cup of tea in time or a little care just at the right moment is so important. So I think the sense of responsibility took over my whole head and body. I don’t feel anything. There wasn’t any pain except when I wanted to sleep in, and there would be this split second when the reality sank in. But other than that, it’s like you are just living in the moment. You take care of everything, minute by minute, hour by hour, you have to sort it out. You become so selfless. I realized that I don’t think of myself, whether I’m tired or I’m busy or I have not eaten or I have not bathed. All these things when it falls in place, it is there. If it is not there, there are always other things that are more important.

[00:10:44] Cheryl:

I recently watched a movie about people, the last moments of their deaths, and their loved ones just being around them. And there was this quote that really stuck with me. And he was saying that because our parents have a body, they have to pass away, but love doesn’t have a body. So love will always continue to live on, even though the parents, ‘ physical form has gone away.

[00:11:09] Imee:

Yeah, of course, but the more important thing is, what are you going to do with this love for your parents? It’s not just in loving memory, or you just remember them during an anniversary, or just the rituals, or you just look at the pictures and then you talk about the past. If you think there’s so much love that’s passed on, it’s important to continue the legacy of your parents, the good attitudes and habits of your parents. I am not a very romantic person or emotional person. I will write all the beautiful words in memory of my mom, but I am not so much into that, what did my father and mother leave behind that I can use to grow into a better person and let them be proud of me as a daughter, and also what I can do for them to the society. Recently, I posted about an article I wrote in remembrance of my parents and I was thinking, what can I give with this story besides my words? I also shot a lot of my mom’s paintings, about 8 to 10 of them and I post them together. I say this is what my mom painted for us and for a lot of my fans too. Now I’m putting it on Facebook. Whoever wants to download it, can use it.

So whenever I remember my parents, I will remember their virtues. Rather than the love that lives on. I think love doesn’t have to be measured. In fact, sometimes I think I don’t want to be so attached and keep thinking of the love. The love has to be spread out, and shared by many other people. So I want to think what did my father leave behind, his virtues? It could be like a physical thing. Like my mom, she left a lot of paintings. She left a lot of nice cooking recipes, she cooks so well. I think that I want to cook it every Chinese New Year for our family. These are simple things that you need to put into action rather than all the text and stickers and just words.

[00:13:06] Cheryl:

Yeah, in a way, it’s very tangible, right?

[00:13:09] Imee:

Tangible and people can use it or even taste it and touch it. Amazing. That’s the way I want to express it.

[00:13:18] Cheryl:

Thanks for the free-flow conversation. We go into a lot of these beautiful perspectives exploring our loved ones and the virtues that they leave behind that we can bring forward and express to the world as well. Moving back to maybe some of the questions related to your journey as a musician. I think you have been a musician for about 26 years.

[00:13:39] Imee:

Yes. As a Buddhist musician, but before that, in fact, since 18 years old, I was already teaching and writing some simple songs. I started very early. When I was 18, I had a batch of five to six students. They were like about five years younger than me. Now they already have families and they’re all doing very well in music too. So they’re all over the world. We still keep in touch. Even for some of my concerts, I will also ask them to help me do some arrangements.

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[00:14:09] Cheryl:

If we zoom into your career as a Buddhist musician what were some of the challenges that you faced?

[00:14:18] Imee:

Okay. Many have. asked me about these challenges, but if I said none, it would sound very unbelievable. But there is a reason why I say there’s none because I never plan to succeed in a certain way or I will never think that I have to be doing so well and I need to be famous. So It’s very much living in the now. If you are only 30% good, but you do it wholeheartedly, then it is a hundred percent result of the moment. In Mandarin, I would say 每一次都是满分的因为我用完我的心. Heart Sutra says, 心无挂碍, 无挂碍故,无有恐怖. There’s no fear and there’s no challenges because I feel that in Buddhist text and this sacred text, there’s no way you can fix the best melody to it because these are boundless wisdom. Maybe in the future, there’ll be even more people coming to make it even better. So without any burden of like, what are the challenges? Because when you say there are challenges means you want to make it good, real good. But if you let go of all these whatever you do to the best, if it’s no good,  if it’s meant to fail, then let it fail. So I adopt that kind of mentality.

So in that case, I felt that the whole journey of production was very smooth. Even when I record singing, I don’t want to have so much fuss about it, I got to rest, I got to drink some honey, or I got to meditate. But I think I want to be just a normal person, but the sense of responsibility is like, I still have to take care of so many other things, cannot be let letting other people give me the convenience and then they suffer and they got to run all over to do things just because they want to give me a good condition to record my so-called very important sacred song of Guan Yin. But if you are Guan Yin, you should be helping other people, you have no condition. With that kind of little understanding or enlightening wisdom that I adopted, I found that I have no challenges. There was not once that, I thought that it gave me a lot of stress that I wanted to throw away, and then I still couldn’t get the right note. I’ve done enough for it. Okay. Because I got so many requests, I cannot be mulling on one for a long, long time. So if that one doesn’t work, let’s say I only have five people liking it instead of 500 or 5, 000 people, then so be it. So it’s like 佛说:只能要渡一个有缘人就够了.

I think if you ask for challenges there’s not much. Also, I don’t know what will be the benchmark of good Buddhist music. There is none. I think this is a very universal thing that each and every piece of Buddhist music that goes out, will naturally find a listener who can embrace it and use it for their own healing, calming themselves or even feeling joyful about it.

[00:17:14] Cheryl:

I think it’s so inspiring because the music that you create really goes right into people’s hearts and speaking from my own experience, I feel that it just goes into my hardware. That melting kind of experience where my anxiety just melts away. Perhaps the reason is that when you create this music, there’s no attachment, no expectations. So it flows through to the listeners as well.

[00:17:39] Imee:

I feel that the reason why my music can penetrate well, perhaps it’s because I never thought so. It’s like every one of the volunteers, everybody holds their position and they have their responsibility in every corner of this world. So I think my part is perhaps because people like my voice and it happened that my voice and my composition and my music arrangement seem to blend well as a whole. I’m blessed.

[00:18:09] Cheryl:

Has there been a time when you felt that maybe this fame is a little bit too much or anything like that?

[00:18:18] Imee:

No, no. In fact, I need more because it’s very difficult. This so-called fame and celebrity status, if there’s one even exists. Over the years people have heard my music, but don’t really know who is behind this because I never show my face in my album most of the time. Only in 2015 when I had my first concert, that people know this is what Imee looks like. In fact, I think I can do with more because I didn’t misuse it.

So I don’t mind more fame because I’m very confident and I’m very stable in the ego part, maybe, I’m stable. And also because of my age, I’m not like a young person anymore. I’m not guaranteeing, I don’t know, maybe five years down the road, suddenly I become somebody very snobbish. Then you better give me a big knock on the head. So in that sense, I think we can do with more because I think we need more people to listen to Buddhist music because young Buddhists are declining in numbers. And more and more people not coming into the monastery or Buddhist centres. But I’m not very worried about that. It’s just a matter of time before we change ways. Maybe we just use other ways. We should open more windows and doors.

Back to whether this pressured me, no, I think I can do with more fame and publicity so that the music can go further. In fact, until now, a lot of people who have heard of my music, don’t know I’m in Malaysia. They thought that I was from China, Taiwan, or somewhere. They don’t even know the people behind the music, but I’m happy. I think in Buddhist music, it’s not like pop music. People want to know who is the singer, like Taylor Swift or BTS. But in Buddhist music, it’s not. People just want to listen to the mantra. It’s the sound by itself. It’s the vibration. Not many people care like who is the composer? The credit doesn’t matter much. So I think if I want to inspire more young talents who want to come to this, you must be prepared for this. You might not be well-known. Your name might not be known, but are you willing to put up with this, that is not for yourself, fame, or celebrity status?

Actually, everything is in the Dhamma as I learned. Obviously, I want to practice what I have learned. When I started 30 years ago, I was already 30 years old. So it’s not like you’re still mentally not very mature. Maybe it’s also my character and also my mom and dad’s education. We were always trying to be humble and helpful to other people. So I think this also helps. So I can’t tell you one reason why I’m not carried away. Although I enjoy the limelight, of course, I enjoy the limelight, when you stand on stage and being recognized. It’s not because I’m famous, I’ve got a very good voice or I’m pretty, but it’s that kind of satisfaction. Just like a Sangha, when you give a sermon and a lot of people use it in their daily life, or you give a retreat and these people come back to tell you it’s so, so usable.  The Dalai Lama is very famous. Mm. Thich Nhat Hanh is very famous. Venerable Hsing Yun is very famous. They are the model that I want to follow. Eventually, whether I’m ordained or not, I want to be the next example of what they are. Just give up whatever they can do for the Dhamma.

[00:21:46] Cheryl:

Wow. That’s so beautiful. Some of our subscribers, actually asked what gave you inspiration for the music.

[00:21:54] Imee:

Just the text itself. I was always saying, what more can be more inspiring than the Dhamma itself? So I don’t want to source from outside. Since I take it as a responsibility, it’s my work. How am I going to present this mantra or sutra? So the mantra of the sutra has to be the one that inspires me because that is the thing that I need to reach out to many people. So how am I going to relate it and present it in my own way?

And the thought of sharing it with more people. When I wrote the Heart Sutra in Mandarin, it went on to Taiwan and it was one of the best sales of the record company. And the 大悲咒, the Great Compassion Mantra. But eventually when the famous singer 齐豫, she was singing pop all these years and then she wanted to sing Buddhist music. For her first album, she asked for my copyright for two of my songs. One of them is 心经 (Heart Sutra). So I was very happy because she has got millions of fans all over the world. Her effort of singing Heart Sutra will reach out to more. That’s why coming back to your question here, the inspiration should be based on how far it can reach out to people. The gem is right in front of you that you need to deliver out.

[00:23:15] Cheryl:

The gem in itself is already shining.

[00:23:17] Imee:

Yeah. So brightly. It’s right in front of you. You want to create a tool to present it. It’s not like you have to find something nice in your life, some environment, nothing. Nothing is as important as just carrying out this mission of yours. Yeah. So, I put myself in a different position, it is quite different when you want to write a pop song and when you want to write a love song. Perhaps the thing itself, it’s emotional. I say it is 梦幻泡影 (illusionary). Then you’ve got to go and find somewhere that makes you even more emotional. But whatever you have the text of the Dhamma right in front of you is the truth. So the truth is just one. So there’s no other way to support it. Other than you just have to focus and do your best.

[00:24:10] Cheryl:

Yeah. Can you share a story that you remember of the most profound impact that your music has had on someone?

[00:24:17] Imee:

Wow. Okay. Before Facebook, all the so-called sharing of experiences, listening to my music, like the impact that you’re talking about has to be either from email or a letter with a stamp on it, sent all the way from Germany, from Italy, from Argentina, from China, right to my mailbox. After the 9/11 incident, I got an email from an American. He’s a jazz musician and a veteran, and he works in a church near the World Trade Center. The church was open to injured people and even dead people. He told me that the church actually used one of my Buddhist music because they realized that the people who came to look for help might not be just Christians or Catholics. It can be people from all faiths. So they played one of the Sutras. I think it’s the Ratana Sutra. He said he didn’t know anything about Pali. I think he went to search for my music and then he went to Chinatown and coincidentally, he heard my Heart Sutra in Mandarin. He said, what is this 揭諦!揭諦!波羅揭諦!(Sanskrit: Gate, gate Pāragate)? It sounds very ancient to him.

He then deduced that what he heard in Chinatown and this Ratana Sutta were sung by the same person, the same voice. So he said, Hey, I got to look for this lady. Who is she? He thinks that my music has some kind of, in his words, magical power that you can just absorb and get healed immediately. So yeah, he said, many people actually listened to the Ratana Sutta. During, I think a mass prayer, they just play their hymns, then they play my Buddhist song. Eventually, we became good friends. We share a lot and he also practiced a lot of Dhamma things, although he’s a Catholic. He also shared with me a lot of experience being a jazz musician in America who is quite well known. Of course, he shared with me what happened in the church when they played this song too.

[00:26:05] Cheryl:

So can you share a few?

[00:26:06] Imee:

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but free-thinkers who, after they listened to the music, started to learn Buddhism, in Mandarin we say 渡到的人. Or people who have converted from Christianity to Buddhism, or they’ve embraced both because they think that these two religion does not really clash. They share the same universal love. So a lot of these inspiring stories. But a lot of touching story has to do with the parting of your loved ones, whether it’s death or divorce. So human beings are often caught up in 爱恨情仇. It’s like passion, aversion, relationships, and negativity towards someone or an incident. I hope more people will focus less on this attachment, on these four elements that cause us a lot of suffering. I think one day you won’t even need music. If you can get over this, you don’t need anything to heal you anymore. You can self-heal because the root has been plucked away.

[00:27:07] Cheryl:

And when the root is plucked away, the grass won’t grow again.

[00:27:10] Imee:

Yes. Yes. At least we can just keep cleaning it, tone down this kind of attachment, and make life a little bit simpler.

[00:27:18] Cheryl:

And I think that’s why the Buddhist teachings are so beautiful because it’s also helping us to uncover our highest potential, to clean it away, to pluck it away. And hopefully one day we can really uproot it forever.

[00:27:31] Imee:


[00:27:33] Cheryl:

We have a cheeky question from one of the people. They were asking, what will you be doing if you were not doing music?

[00:27:40] Imee:

Sleeping or eating? So you are cheeky? No, Auntie Imee will not let you be cheeky. Okay, let’s be serious about this. Yeah, I always I’m quite proud to say that I live like a monastic, although I’m not ordained. I don’t go out, go to cafes, go for a movie. Besides my concert, I don’t go out at night at all. Anything that I need to go out and socialize, has got to do with my Buddhist work. Either we have a discussion or I need to be there to attend a ceremony or whatever. But talking about ceremonies, I don’t even attend weddings, anniversaries, or happy occasions. I only go to funerals. It’s like my choice. I can enjoy anything. I can enjoy a nice birthday party too. But I feel that in my life, I need to have my selection of what I do since I have too much to do with my Buddhist music and also some other work that is related to it, to build this music monastery that I aspire to have eventually. You don’t have to be physical, that’s a building. But if I have a building, as we call it a “music monastery”, this is where I can maybe share and teach more people. Like-minded people can come together. Maybe the Dhamma work through performing arts, music and dance will flourish even faster.

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I feel that now I’m close to 60 next year and I don’t know how much time do I have to achieve this. By trying to do as much as I can, I have to sacrifice a lot of things. So I don’t do anything else, but eat, sleep, and do my music. And of course, concerts. Just the necessary things, but I don’t go out. I don’t have even holiday plans to go visit a country. The only holiday I’ve ever gone on with my family was to Singapore and that is also to visit relatives. I’ve gone to many places but it’s because of my concert or related to my Buddhist work. There was not one that was just a pure holiday until today. Yeah. Wow. It just came naturally. It’s not something that I planned, but I think it’s like the work and the cause of events that just spin off year after year and lead me to where I am today. I’m quite happy with this.

[00:29:56] Cheryl:

Yeah. I wish you all the best with the Buddhist Music Monastery.

[00:30:00] Imee:

Thank you.

[00:30:01] Cheryl:

This is so cool. I’ve never heard of Buddhist Music Monastery before.

[00:30:04] Imee:

Don’t you think it’s so cool, right? All the people there, either you sing or you dance or you’re a composer or you are a lyricist, or you are researching somewhere. It’s so beautiful, this place where we can live together. Because I think with more people living it together every day, I think the whole process and the achievement will be by folds.

[00:30:26] Cheryl:

On a similar note, but also not, not too similar. I think this is a very interesting question on the idea that people pirate Buddhist music and books with the excuse that Dhamma is free of charge. Can you share your opinions or experiences?

[00:30:41] Imee:

I think there are two kinds of them. A lot of people actually don’t know they are copyrighted, but there are also people who know, that they’re copyrighted and they pirate them. But if they pirate for the use of Dhamma, not for monetary benefit, I think it’s okay. But it is also not okay if you come to think of it, eventually, no one wants to become a Buddhist musician or book writer because it doesn’t give them security anymore. It’s always a voluntary work. It doesn’t make sense from the modern world’s point of view. So how are you going to solve it? Because if you can do this professionally, wholeheartedly, and just do this and nothing else, I’m sure the quality of our work can be much better. That’s what the music monastery is all about.

When we have so many people we can put up good quality performances or good quality music. When there’s a market, then there’s a supply. That’s where there will be a balance. Then we can fit these people and they can use this as their livelihood and make it their profession. It’s going to be a very good thing, a very good future if we can build this up. Otherwise, now, the whole mentality is just like, this is only a part-time thing, how do you survive over this yourself? Oh, yeah. Maybe that’s the most challenging part. If you wanna ask me about this. It’s always financial. People think that with my celebrity status, I should be very rich, but it’s just the opposite. I’m not poor, but it’s so difficult for me to be able to handle so many things with just my own effort. I can’t take in sponsorship or offerings like the monastery because I’m not a monastery. So I’m trying to build this whole thing as a profession. But so far so good. I just thought it could be much better so that in the future, many people can choose this.

[00:32:31] Cheryl:

And I think this is also a problem that’s very prevalent in other aspects of the Buddhist scene as well. Even in temples, the running of it, most of it is all 乐捐 (voluntary donation), right? People donate and people who want to help are all on a voluntary basis as well. Then it results in a lot of attrition because the fully talented ones, have to go outside to earn a lot of money.

[00:32:51] Imee:

This is one big issue that I also see. Maybe most of this so-called donation or sponsorship or whatever should focus less on the hardware, like building the tallest Buddha or the building. But if you have so much space, we have to make sure that it’s fully utilized and it can generate self-sustaining work. But looks like it’s not the case now. A lot of the good people will not stay. You just cannot keep these people. I mean, I wonder why. Maybe the new generation. can put this into serious planning. The traditional way of doing things should still be preserved, but maybe we can have another option we can build a Buddhist environment for more people to come. The people who are serious about practicing and they want to learn, but they also want to contribute at the same time. They can also find a place where they can take care of their livelihood.

[00:33:48] Cheryl:

Yeah, because after all, everyone is still lay people. We still have to take care of the four requisites on our own.

[00:33:54] Imee:

You should let them feel comfortable, and take care of their needs first. Give them what they need first, instead of asking them to give you what they can give as a Buddhist. It’s the other way around.

[00:34:07] Cheryl:

Yeah, I’ve never thought of it in that way. It’s the other side.

[00:34:10] Imee:

Because whenever you walk in and say, Oh, what can I offer? You think of that first, right? You never say, what can you offer to me? You have to be brave to say that. If I walk into a Buddhist, I can do this. You have anything to offer to me, but we are always asked to offer the Buddha and the Triple Gem first. Of course, that is something that we obviously need to do, but can that be not to new people who want to embrace the Dhamma? This is quite difficult. We can try to understand it’s nothing wrong. It’s nothing wrong.

[00:34:41] Cheryl:

Yeah, with a Handful of Leaves, I think it’s interesting a lot of our volunteers, become volunteers because they feel that they have benefited a lot. Oh, the content reaches out to me, then I want to help. So it’s like you say the opposite, they receive before they give.

[00:34:57] Imee:


[00:34:58] Cheryl:

And I want to share with you some lovely notes that were given. This is from Gordon and he says that one of the foremost reasons that got me interested in Buddhism back then as a primary school kid, 12 years ago, was due to your melodious voice. So, thank you very much.

[00:35:19] Imee:

I’m happy to share. Yes, this is interesting if you ask me about the very significant impact. In fact, I’m very happy that as I traveled around all these years, I met a lot of monks and nuns who told me the same thing. They became monks and nuns, the first influence was my music. But I feel ashamed. 你们都出嫁了,我还在这混,还是个凡人 (you’ve all ordained but I’m still a layperson). So I always make this joke. Then they started laughing. 那欢迎! 您什么时候要加入我们的一家人?(When will you be ordaining? We welcome you to the family!). Many of them I actually keep in touch.

I also cannot say, all this effort is worth it. No, because I’m not like somebody so great. As a Buddhist musician, you shouldn’t say, oh 我这一生值得了,我做的东西能够渡那么多人. Because you should feel blessed that you should be able to participate in this sense. It humbles you that you are not always looking to see that whatever effort that you put in, whether it is mind or body, is worth your life or not. Your life is worth nothing if you don’t hit the Dhamma. If you don’t hit the Dhamma, you have wasted your whole life. Being born on earth 在人间, we should also bear in mind that this is very important.

[00:36:37] Cheryl:

Yeah, this is such a wonderful reminder because the opportunity to even be born as a human and to listen to the Dhamma is so rare.

[00:36:44] Imee:

Yes, so people always ask 我们在寻求人生的意义, what’s the purpose of life? Why am I here for? What is the truth of life? Who am I? I think all these questions no need to look because once you look means that you want to identify yourself as a person and your worth. But if you don’t go out and do something, you will never know your worth. You can start by sweeping the floor. You will slowly find your worth. The day you breathe your last breath, that’s the only time you know what is your purpose in life. I always think so. Not any moment in your life until your last breath. I think I will discourage people from looking for the purpose of life because I think whatever comes, the first responsibility, go do it first, then it will unfold the next page you will see.

Because a lot of people feel very stressed, like everything they do also, they feel that it’s not them. It’s not worth their life. It’s suffering, it’s torture. So I think you should just accept it as your karma. And then you will be happier that way that you will notice that time will be the medicine to heal you and the same time to open up the next page of your life. If you think that what is the purpose of life in search of the truth, then you probably will never get the answer. I think this is my perspective.

[00:38:05] Cheryl:

And whatever it is that we are doing, we do it with our full heart, whole heart and even it can be as simple as just sweeping the floor. It’s something that we can also do it.

[00:38:15] Imee:

Mindful. I think mindful is a good word. Mindful doesn’t mean you have to be always kind. You have to be always giving. Mindful just means you’re aware of your surroundings, aware of yourself being there, and aware of people around you, things around you, happening around you. It’s like your scanner, you’re always scanning yourself. But I think we should just put our radar open to a wider scope that you can scan through 360 degrees if not 270 degrees, or you open up 45 degrees. We talk about vibration. If we are one in the universe, we always say we are one. What is this oneness all about? We say, Oh, we are oneness. We are happening in one country, harmony. But what is that? What does that mean? How to get it started? So you can start with this, and open up your radar. Then you can scan things around you so that only you can become one, but if you’re not connected, you can’t even scan three feet away. So if you are not opening up your scope, I don’t think you can move on, if you just think, why am I here? You keep searching for happiness and truth, you will never do it.

[00:39:16] Cheryl:

Yeah, and it’s very brilliant. And one last one. They said, Dear Sister Imee Ooi, your chant showed me self-love and unconditional love for all beings. Relaxing in a chair, closing my eyes, and following this chant, sometimes brings tears to my eyes, experiencing the depth and boundlessness of this goodwill. I’ve been transformed from the inside out from the regular practice of metta with your chant. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[00:39:45] Imee:

Sadhu to you. Thank you very much for sharing. I wish everybody well and safe. Those days I always say wish you well and happy. Recently, I think I should take away the word happy because I think it’s overrated if you keep on having this place to reach or to find this in search of this thing, I notice it doesn’t work on a lot of people. In fact, you get more depressed because everything you look around you is not enough.

[00:40:14] Cheryl:

Because you have to get to somewhere to be happy. Yeah.

[00:40:16] Imee:

It’s like I’m entitled, is my entitlement. So how can I find my entitlement to happiness? You know? So if you are not mindful, or you do have not enough wisdom, or the environment is not conducive, you tend to go the other side. So I think we will say, May you be well and safe. I want to say safe because I think without this body if you’re sick. Death is not so scary. I think to me because I’m prepared for it. But sickness is like going through a period where your body just cannot wake up to your mind. So you still need your body to do a lot of things.

So I think I would rather wish people well and safe. So once you are safe from a lot of bad things around you or pain and sickness or disturbances, probably when you’re in a safe place, safe doesn’t mean that you lock yourself up all the time. Sometimes being safe is like you’ll be able to be in touch with so many out there and still feel secure. You’re in control of your doings.

[00:41:22] Cheryl:

We wish everyone, all our listeners to be well and safe. And I think that brings us to the end of this beautiful sharing from Sister Imee. And thanks so much for spending your time here with us.

[00:41:33] Imee:

You’re most welcome, Cheryl.

[00:41:35] Cheryl:

Thank you. And for everyone who likes our podcast, you can like it, subscribe to it on Spotify and you can check out Sister Imee’s work on YouTube, Spotify, and wherever else you find your music.

[00:41:46] Imee:

Thank you very much.


Special thanks to our sponsors:

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Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee



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