Ep 13: Can we cure death? (Ft Dr Ng Yuen Yen)

Published on Sep 9, 2022

Dr Ng  00:00

When I see life and death very close up, because of my work in emergency medicine, that I’m unable as a doctor, to cure death. And then I sort of wake up. Oh, the Buddha has cured death, the Buddha has understood death.

Kai Xin  00:28

Hey friends, this is Kai Xin, and you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. 

What does it mean to cure death? 

In this episode, we speak to Dr Ng Yuen Yen, a retired emergency doctor and veteran Buddhist teacher, to learn more about the gradual path to the end of suffering or what Buddhists call the Deathless or Nibbana.

Nibbana. We all heard of it but do we really know it? Is it for everyone? Is it attainable? Is it even worth pursuing? 

This episode attempts to unpack Nibbana and shares a balanced approach on how we can slowly increase our happiness here and now. Dr Ng also shares her inspiring journey as a Buddhist and the turning point that deepened her inspiration to practice Buddhism urgently in this life. 

Tune in to learn more in this practical and insightful episode, and you may just never look at clouds and pebbles the same way again 😉 

Kai Xin  1:41

Hi. So happy to have you here, Dr. Ng. Today we are going to talk about a really big topic on the burner. And I can’t think of anyone better than you. You came highly recommended by one of the Dhamma teachers, Sister Sylvia. And perhaps we can start off this podcast episode by you sharing a little bit more about yourself and how you got in touch with the Dhamma.

Dr Ng  2:10

I’m born into a Buddhist family, I’m very fortunate, that from a very young age, I was exposed to Mahayana Buddhism. And when I was very young, I remembered feeling extremely happy in a temple, especially when devotees were chanting the Amitabha or chant and then circumambulating the temple. My mother also taught us to memorise the Heart Sutra, and then to copy the Heart Sutra, and to recite it often, but I didn’t really understand it when I’m young. But now with exposure to the Dhamma practice, I appreciate it very, very much. And I think the discipline learnt from my elder siblings, (I’m the youngest), helped me to restrain myself. So I learned how to restrain and I studied very well. So the family setting was very conducive to the practice.

Dr Ng  03:25

Eventually, when I was older, I took up medicine. And then subsequently, after my postgraduate degree in emergency medicine, I had more time to explore. And that’s when I get into meditation, and I find it fascinating. The exploration of the mind and the body. So, then I got hook. After that, my friends said to me, “Hey, you cannot just meditate all the time, you must have some academic background.” And that’s when I did the Diploma in Buddhist Studies, Bachelor of Arts and Honours at the Mangala Vihara Buddhists Pali College. Because we were the new batch, the principal, the late Bhante Gnanarama, requested both Sylvia and myself to teach. So I have taught for about 18 years in Mangala Vihara. Initially, because there are very few teachers, I taught the BA students even, but subsequently, I taught the diploma students, because I feel it’s very important, for the foundation of the Dhamma to be laid, and understood. So that from a foundation, you can venture elsewhere and be discerning. So this is my Dhamma journey.

Dr Ng  04:53

 I’m 67 years old already, and I’ve retired at 61. So although retired, I’m still busy managing my family, elderly siblings, which are very grateful to, for all the help and guidance that they have given me when I was younger.  I love the Dhamma and I try to practice the Dhamma daily, moment by moment, and I have enjoyed the Dhamma, I find that Dhamma is so wonderful, because it is what the Buddha has said – that it will help you to reduce and remove your suffering. What is the most important to reduce suffering is to have happiness. So then you will get to enjoy the happiness of the nature of what is the truth of the Dhamma. So this is my journey. And I’m very fortunate to be able to have the time to explore the depths of the Dhamma.

Kai Xin  05:41

Wow, seems like, you’ve come a long way since young until now. 67 still learning and teaching. I’m wondering, for the concept of nibbana, that’s the core of Buddhism. And I believe it’s also the goal that Buddhists are trying to strive towards. Is there a change in your understanding of what it is when you first started out learning Buddhism and now?

Dr Ng  06:29

Oh, when I first started learning Buddhism, I was more intrigued with meditation. It is later on when I was taught about mindfulness of death. And mindfulness of death that life is uncertain. And that death is certain. And I see life and death very close up, because I work in emergency medicine. Even I’m unable as a doctor, to cure death. And at this time, that woke me up to the realisation that Buddha has cured death, the Buddha has understood death, and I have to understand that for myself. The Buddha understood, the Buddha understood, but it’s not me. So I felt very strongly that I have to understand death. And I then sort of understood that why the Buddha, whenever he see these four sights, he got this urgency, to practice. The four sights are to see an old man, to see a sick man, to see a dead man. And then these are the signs to remind us, that we have to practice. Because as long as we are born, we will grow old, every moment we grow old, and we will face with sickness, like this COVID thing. And we will face death, like there were so many deaths. And if we do not know the answer, then we go round and round.

Dr Ng  08:21

So initially, it was just an interesting adventure. Then later on, when I understood more, then I find the urgency to practice, to know the Dhamma for myself, that I then turn the goal towards the end of suffering. And that’s the same goal, same goal as Nibbana. So my goals have changed from beginning. And then now, in my later years, this goal is gradual. If you want it so much, it becomes an obstacle. It is just like what the Buddhists say, neither hurrying, neither carrying, the energy is just nice, just middle path. Neither going to self indulgence, nor going to self mortification, neither indulging in pleasure, nor averse to displeasure. When you are on the middle path, you’re on the Noble Eightfold Path, then it will help you end the suffering, and then you’ll see the happiness that he described. You may have glimpses of it, and that will reinforce the practice, and that you continue to walk this path.

Kai Xin  09:52

I just have goosebumps when you talk about your experience. Earlier on, you mentioned that, as a doctor, you realise that you cannot cure death. I think it resonated a lot with me, because I was also thinking about, you know, what’s the best occupation on Earth? A Doctor seems to be a very noble occupation. But it seems like no matter how much research and development with a medicine and new intervention, there will always be new diseases, new viruses, and there’s no end to this suffering, right. And that’s also when I realised that the actually the most noble occupation, is to realise the Dhamma and then to spread wisdom. It’s just like what you’re doing right now, because Nibbana is the Deathless.

Kai Xin  10:42

For listeners who might not necessarily understand what Nibbana is. Can you unpack a little bit about why you say the Buddha can cure death?

Dr Ng  10:53

He taught us Nibbana as the far shore, and in that far shore, there is also called a deathless, ageless, birthless. Where there is no more arising of lust, of desires, no more arising of hatred, or ill will, no more arising of delusion, all these three roots of existence have been destroyed.  Nibbana, the Buddha defined as the unconditioned. So this destruction means there will be no more rebirth, he says in the Mahaparanibbana. This is the last birth, or he says, “this person will not be seen by me again, because he will not be in the cycle of Samsara anymore.”

Kai Xin  11:57

Samsara meaning birth and death.

Dr Ng  12:00

Yes, yes, Samsara is birth and death. In the realms of existence, the realms of existence ranges from the hell, to the highest heaven, and there is birth and death of animals. Then there’s birth and death of human beings. But there is another dimension, where there are hell beings, and there are ghost realm beings. And lastly, there are the heavenly beings, but all these beings in existence, arise and die, arise and die. As long as they arise, they will suffer, even in the heavens, they suffer. Even the richest man on Earth will also suffer.

Kai Xin  12:50

When you say that the Buddha is able to cure them, from my understanding and your description, it seems like one can be free from the cycles of birth and death. And by that it is also being free from ill will, being free from hatred and delusion. Does it mean that a person needs to believe in birth and death and different realms in order to strive towards their freedom of suffering towards nibbana?

See also  Ep 14: Being Average & Not Knowing What to Do In Life (ft Tai Ling Ling)

Dr Ng  13:21

We do not need to die to see the different realms of existence. We see people going through hell when they are suffering. When they move from warzone, they go into trucks, they want to run away, and some die in the process. Isn’t that hell? Can you imagine? Having so little food? You’ll be like Hungry Ghost, and you’re with people passing urine and shit in a very small space? Isn’t that hell?

Kai Xin  13:57

Actually, you don’t have to go through warzone also feel like hell sometimes. Right? Yeah. See for example success. There’s always not enough, wanting one after the next. And if we look from a practical day to day standpoint, let’s see if a person wants to be free from suffering. How can one experience that?

Dr Ng  14:23

The Four Noble Truths is that the origin of suffering is craving. If you want ‘things’ so much, you need to have your sense pleasures from your sense objects, then there is no end to luxury items. But if you can be satisfied with just the four basic things, with just shelter, food, water, medicine, if you don’t demand so much, from yourself, wanting this and that, be contented that there’s a roof over your head, that medicine is accessible to you, that you are clothed decently. If you are contented, you can live a very simple life, then you don’t need to run after things to be a slave to your desires. We need to go back to nature, to experience the quiet, the stillness, a walk in the park, looking at the sky, observe the clouds, the trees, smell the roses, there’s a lot of joy in nature. You don’t need the joy from material things, the joy in nature, you can satisfy your being because happiness is free actually.

Kai Xin  15:48

Yeah, actually, sometimes we get there already with all the material gains, but we are still not happy, like you say,the richest man and the woman that can still suffer. Does it mean that a person needs to give up everything in order to be free from suffering? Because I also do understand that the Buddha did say that worldly and material desires or gains, they can bring a form of happiness, but it’s not the most sustainable one.

Dr Ng  16:19

You cannot force, you have to do it gradually. So even you become homeless or renounced oneself, the practice has still to be gradual. It doesn’t mean that once the head is shaved, the robes are worn, that there is no more craving. This craving is in the mind, it is a mind object. The clinging is in the mind. So you don’t have to give up everything, but you have to give up only lust, hatred and delusion- the delusion of that there is a self. Because delusion of a self, will sort of have that “who is to attain. which will be I need to attain.” So, there is an that “I” will need to attain, but you see, all conditioned things are impermanent and impermanent things are suffering, and suffering is non-self. Once you see this, then you would want not to hold on to anything, but this is a gradual path. Also you must remember that renounced beings also may have lots of things. So, the renunciation, direct relinquishing has to be in the mind, and that it doesn’t matter, you do not have these (material things). And then there is the destruction of craving, cessation, dispassion. So, these are the things that the Buddha taught, but you know, you have to be quiet to see the gems at the bottom of the lake. If it is like, muddy up, you can’t see. So, you have to be quiet, then you can see, you have to pay attention.

Dr Ng  18:13

It is attainable, and it is being verified by the Buddha, and the Sangha members who are all human beings. And the Sangha members include, like the stream enterers, like even King Bimbisara, Anandapindika, practising laypeople, so many of them may be stream enterers too. So do not be disheartened. There are like-minded practitioners, they come together, and we encourage each other in that Dhamma practice.

Kai Xin  18:46

So for listeners who are not sure what stream enterer is, is basically you’re kind of dipping your toes in the water of Nibbana. And you can’t unsee the wisdom and there’s no turning back that Nibbana is guaranteed, and from my understanding, it is within seven lifetimes. Is that correct?

Dr Ng  19:05

Yes. Yes. That’s what the teachings say. All right.

Kai Xin  19:11

You mentioned about gradual path, I’m wondering whether you can share your personal experience, about how you realise holding on to impermanence is suffering, and how you slowly relinquished it?

Dr Ng  19:24

Okay, so impermanence is something of the body and of the mind, of all phenomena. And you can always get in touch with impermanence, when you do Anapanasati meditation, when you do breathing in and breathing out. So I would recommend highly, that people practice the 16 steps of Anapanasati. And also practice Satipatthana. So you just read the sutras, it is a line by line guidance. In the first four steps, where you just breathe in and breathe out, the first step breathing in, you know, you’re breathing in long, or breathing out long. The second step is that you’re breathing in, short, or breathing out short, then the third step is to experience the entire breathing in. Eventually, when you look at it (the breathing), it gets calm. When you look at just the breathing in, you can see impermanence. There’s a beginning of the breath, and then the breath itself, and then the process of the breath and then the end of the breathing in. So there is an arising and an ending. So if you can see these three, you see the impermanence, you see the non-self of breathing, is just a condition. And this is very close to yourself, to your being. This requires practice.

Dr Ng  21:09

And then you then go into the foundation of feelings. To see what is the feeling of just breathing in and out. Nothing else just breathing in and out. Not caring about anything in the rest of the world. You will experience the rapture of the body. Breathing in and out, just hear the vibrations of the body, as a body that is just breathing and that is pleasurable in the mind and just experience the mental formations. These mental formation also changes. This bodily formations, and mental formations are impermanent, just like the clouds in the sky, the cloud formation in the sky is impermanent, you look at them as if there’s something substantial. But when you go above the clouds in the plane, you see, there’s nothing, there’s no substance in it at all. Cloud formation, bodily formation, mental formation, empty. And then you see for yourself, day in day out, we all tie the mind to mind objects. This mind objects is not the mind.

Dr Ng  22:34

This mind objects are like the Buddha says in Satipathana. The hindrances is like the pebble that you throw into the mind. But it’s not the mind, the mind as a base has changes. Even in the pleasurable states, it changes. So there’s nothing substantial about it. But of course, experiencing the pleasurable changes is pleasurable. But you also know that these are impermanent, that there is nothing to hold on to, and most importantly, not to be caught up with the mind objects. And the mind objects are what the Buddha has very clearly stated, the mind objects are the hindrances.

Dr Ng  23:22

So you see hindrances such as lust. You throw a pebble of lust into your mind pool, the mind becomes coloured, you can’t see clearly. You throw the pebble of anger into your mind, it boils, you can’t see clearly. If you throw a pebble of doubt, it is muddy, you can’t see clearly. If you throw a pebble of sloth, it is all heavily thick, like algae-infested reed . And then you throw the pebble of restlessness and worry, then that pool, the mind pool, just stripped here and dead and restless, you can’t see the mind for what it is. So these are hindrances. And you have to see for itself, that if you do your practice of focus, you will not be distracted by all this. But you have to see them as mind objects that arise and ceases and it gets liberated, or you get what they call release. So this are things that we see, in the practice, daily, when you walk, you see yourself moving, your activities moving, if you are mindful, your mind is peaceful. If you’re not mindful, you get caught up, your mind is not peaceful. So these are caught up with mind objects.

Kai Xin  24:53

Yeah, I really like how you’ve made it. So simple, right? The gateway to Nibbana is just as simple as with this breath. And by breathing in and out, watching, contemplating, you’re able to see the arising, the ceasing, and so many more. This is something that is very hopeful, because I used to fall into this perception as well, that Nibbana is something that is very far away, that I might not be able to experience and it’s always somewhere else, away from me, and beyond myself. But you have just given examples of how we can contemplate on this daily. And it seems like with all the different examples you have given, Nibbana or the way to attain Nibanna, or to experience it, really starts from stilling the mind. And then once that’s done, I like your analogy of the pebble, you no longer use the pebble to create all the ripple effects. So you clear off the hindrances. You see things clearly as they are and you stop clinging, you stop craving, and that’s where you can really renounce, from a mental level and nothing can cause you to stress despite having external circumstances that can be very chaotic.

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Kai Xin  26:11

I’m wondering from your perspective, what would make it worthwhile for people to chase after Nibbana? Because I have heard of people who would feel that Nibbana is not for me, you know, I am okay. Going through life up and down. It makes me feel human to go through sadness to go through anger, and peace is just a little bit too boring.

Dr Ng  28:30

If you suffer enough, if you really suffer mentally, then you want to chase after Nibbana. The Nibbana is defined as the end of craving, destruction of craving, and so we have to practice and to see for ourselves, how craving makes us suffer. And then you will want to end craving, this suffering, because you have to know it for yourself. So sense pleasures, like I want to enjoy life, I want to enjoy life to the maximum, but what is that? What is the enjoyment? That sense pleasure is fleeting. At the end of the life, there may be regrets, and regrets is not what you want. You want to know how to direct your life, to ensure that you did the best you could do in this life. To carry on with just living life, as in enjoying the pleasures of the senses, that is just an ordinary being who doesn’t know the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and don’t know that he has potential in himself to realise that all this is just a “wah wah game”, it is unstable. It is a charcoal pit that you are let on to it and there’s like a blowing torch, that the wind is blowing at you and the torch is burning. Your world is burning. When you’re sick, you’re burning, for that moment of sense pleasures, you are burning, and the person will be suffering and death is at the door and life is just wasted.

Dr Ng  28:32

But then, you have to walk the middle path. So knowing the gratification, the danger, the escape, one who want to escape from it what more, to realise the full potential of a human being and what the Buddha says that it is possible. So I don’t buy it. That “eat, drink and be merry”, that is not the way.

Kai Xin  29:02

Yeah, I think it does require, like you say, a gradual path in order to realise. It reminded me of the story of Venerable Sariputta. He and his other very good friend, they were at this party, right? So at the top of the hill, they were seeing everyone drinking and be merry. It’s not that they haven’t indulged before, I think it got to a point where they realise that it’s fleeting, and there’s no point. That’s when they went in search for the truth. That was before they met the Buddha. I really hear you in terms of saying it’s only when a person really feels the pinch of suffering, that they will try to find it an answer. So yes, I’m also thinking maybe it’s okay, if a person wants to just go through life, going through the ups and downs, maybe it just isn’t time for that yet. And we can, you know, plant the seeds, cultivate our mindfulness, and rather than taking a big leap to say, “Okay, we have to strive for Nibbana.” But on a day to day basis, how can we just relinquish bit by bit and be slightly happier?” And then eventually, when the time is right, then we would see oh, this is what the Buddha said about Nibbana. And then the roadmap is already presented to us and we are ready to walk the path fully. Yeah, cause I know sometimes people can hear like, oh, Buddhism is very serious, right? I have to give up my sense pleasure, cannot watch TV, you know, cannot go party. Is it wrong?” And I think that view can scare a lot of people away.

Dr Ng  30:34

I think it’s the middle path. Because some people need to destress. So I think some distraction ( I mean, this is their way of destressing) is okay. But you’re gonna have to be very aware of like, where you may over indulge, where you always spend time, on the handphone on certain times. You must be able to regulate and restrain yourself, you must be able to discern what is important in your life. You must put time aside for the practice, sometimes just to be quiet.

Dr Ng  31:14

Of course, when you are stressed, it’s good to ventilate, it’s a way to destress, but you must associate with good people. You must be associated with good friends who wouldn’t like lead you to down an even darker path. You must be with friends who listen to you, and then to encourage you and then to help you navigate back into a less stressful situation. So it is important to have good friends, listen to the Dhamma, pay proper attention. It is gradual. You don’t sort of like, I don’t want this, this become aversive, you might just develop aversion. You cannot force Nibbana, you will suffer because when you force, it is a wanting. So you will see gradually, you learn how to be mindful.  And I think it is individual. Because we all wake up at different times, depending on the conditions, if the conditions are right, then it provides you with more time to practice, but I’m just saying extremes, to say that let’s say, you indulge too much, this is the problems you have.

Kai Xin  32:31

So it’s to understand the limitation of sense pleasure, and always knowing that, let’s say if we get too carried away, Nibbana, the gateway to it, is just here and now. It’s not exclusive. It’s available, and it’s also possible to attain. To me I feel that’s very hopeful, and that’s very inspiring. It’s kind of like a home that we can always turn to.

Dr Ng  32:55

Yes, yes. That’s why you take refuge in the Dhamma, the Buddha, the Sangha, and that this Dhamma of Nibbana can be seen. Sandithiko, Akaliko, Ehipassiko, Opanayiko, paccatam veditabo vinnuhiti. If it cannot be seen, if Nibbana cannot be seen, he won’t say this. He says Nibbana can be seen, the end of craving can be seen- by the wise for himself. The journey has to be walked by oneself, and it is very fortunate if you have good friends, to walk on this journey, to encourage you on this path.

Kai Xin  33:41

Definitely. So to be experienced individually by the wise and you know, turning inwards. Thank you so much for all your sharing. I really like how you started the podcast by saying that there is something beyond death and it is possible. It is a gradual path. And you also provided some of the key steps to do it on a daily basis, suvh as anchoring on our breath, and contemplating on impermanence. I think those are very quick action steps that our listeners can take away. Regarding the point on it is possible to experience the Dhamma, we talk about the Triple Gem. So we have the Buddha, his teachings, the Dhamma and the Sangha. It is precisely because there are disciples and there are individuals who saw the Dhamma, realise what the Buddha realised, that we have the third jewel, which is the Sangha, and there are enlightened beings around the world. And they’re just like, testimonies and role model for us to look up to and say that, hey, if they can do it, we can also do it. And how we go about it, of course, is at our own pace, and based on our own causes and condition. So I just wanted to end off with that. And any last words from you, Dr.Ng? No. All right. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Dr Ng  34:59

Thank you for inviting me. Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu!

Kai Xin  35:11

And that’s a wrap for this episode. My key takeaway is that life is uncertain and only death is certain. If we heedlessly indulge in the pleasures offered in the world through our sight, taste, hearing, touch and smell, we seek refuge in unsatisfactory and unreliable conditions, we may live a life full of suffering and be filled with regrets. The Buddha offered a system and education out of suffering that is achievable and attainable, may we all plant the seeds and conditions for our awakening to a refuge that is beautiful and beyond birth and death. 

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Till the next episode, may you stay happy and wise!

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