“Why am I fired but not that lazy arse on level 26?” : A Buddhist ponders his retrenchment

“Why am I fired but not that lazy arse on level 26?” : A Buddhist ponders his retrenchment

TL;DR: Pei Jing muses about his two retrenchment experiences and the Dhamma lessons he took away: 1) save up a quarter of your salary when you do earn; 2) investigate and understand your suffering; 3) do good; 4) play up your strengths.

If there is a relatively unique experience that I can claim, which even the Prime Minister of Singapore can’t lay claim to, it is probably the fact that I have been retrenched before. Not once, but twice.

P.S. Pei Jing has his own blog! Read more of his muses here.

My first retrenchment

The first layoff was in May 2008. The call came when I was at my desk, in the investment bank’s office at Two International Finance Centre in Hong Kong. 

On a good day, from my office, you could see clearly across Victoria Harbour into Kowloon. But most of the time, we were working for such long hours that I almost took the view for granted.

“Please come up to this meeting room.” 

I knew what it was about, but I was so tired from pulling the all-nighter the night before that I felt numb.

I entered the meeting room and saw the Managing Director of my team seated with a stranger I didn’t know. “This is X from HR”, said the MD.

What happened next was a bit of a blur. But it was unmistakable that I was getting laid off. I suppose I only had myself to blame. When my direct boss asked me what I was going to do with my annual bonus, I told him that I was going to leave to study. So now I was getting laid off right before the bonuses were being paid off.

“What happens if I don’t accept this retrenchment amount of two months salary?” I asked. “Then you’ll get nothing,” said the HR lady.

So I signed, but not without some anger as the annual bonuses were 6 months and above. When I passed the form to her, she reminded me, “Please remember that you’re not supposed to disclose the amount to other people.”

I was angry. 

Angry at the fact that I was given a pittance. Angry at the fact that I was made to work an all nighter just before they laid me off. Angry that they also laid off other colleagues who were extremely hard working but kept those who were well connected to the rich and powerful. Angry at the lies they had told us.

Up until the last moment, they kept telling us that they won’t lay off first-year analysts.

But I was also curiously happy because that one year of investment banking was miserable. 

My parents came up from Singapore to visit me in Hong Kong once. Yet for the entire fortnight, they saw me a grand total of five meals, as I was tied up with work. When they left, they had gone to the trouble of buying some ginseng to brew, and kept telling me to watch out for my health.

My usual working hours were from 9am to 3am on weekdays. On weekends I would go in around 12pm to 1pm, often staying until 3am.

The salary was really high (HKD 55,000, which was around S$11,000 back then or $14,000 in today’s value) but this was an insane cost on my life. So I had planned to leave anyway. When I surrendered my Blackberry, I was told that I was the only one who was smiling as I did so. And why not? That device was torture.

Unlike my other peers who were laid off before me,I was allowed to stay in the office to say bye to people before I left for good. “The others”, I was told, “went up to the meeting rooms and never came back to our floor. Their secretaries then packed their stuff into boxes, which was mailed to them.” 

I bid farewell to my buddies, but also to the assistants and other colleagues, before I walked off home to sleep. My manager came to say bye, with tears in his eyes as he said sorry.

What was the point of saying sorry when he had already pulled the trigger? At that point, I thought he was just trying to make himself feel better and I couldn’t wait to leave his presence.

An unusual encouragement

On the way home in Central, Hong Kong, I came across a very unusual sight. 

There were multiple regular beggars (mostly from mainland China), especially on this particular overhead bridge that I crossed daily. The way they begged was almost comical: one grey-haired lady kept kowtowing profusely at every single pedestrian who walked past while there’s another regular who just bowed down and never looked up.

This guy I met was not a regular. He was armless and handless but he was focused purely on his calligraphy. His calligraphy was amazing: his skill with his two stumps was much better than most able-bodied Chinese I know. 

Incidentally, the calligraphy he wrote was especially apt for my retrenched state of being. The broad meaning of the phrase is, “Those with a will/direction, will definitely succeed. Those who suffered (for their will), Heaven won’t abandon them.”

First set of couplets I received from the calligrapher.

There were pretty high odds that I was getting laid off. Rumours had been going around that my ex-firm was not doing well and there would be layoffs. Colleagues who had experienced layoffs in other firms told me, “you just wait. They will fire all the locals but protect their own.” As someone who had zero political connections, I was expecting to be laid off anyway.

But the odds that, at the very moment I was walking home from being retrenched, an ARMLESS and HANDLESS calligrapher will be writing THIS phrase … ? It was encouraging, and perhaps a sign.

I stood there watching him work and said to him after a while, “Your calligraphy is beautiful! How much is this piece?” I thought he was going to say something ridiculous but to my huge surprise, he said, “Whatever price you think this is worthwhile.” 

On the spot, I offered him a sum of money (that I cannot remember) and also commissioned him to write up my school motto ‘To strive unyieldingly’ (“This is a saying from I Ching”, he said, which turned out to be true.) Both pieces are now framed up at my parents’ home.

(This was my special commission to him after I walked back)

Same fate, different outcomes

Even though I had not been particularly deliberate in saving up money, I still had enough after my retrenchment that I estimated I could keep my apartment and live the way I did for easily another six months and then some. In the worst case, I was prepared to just dump everything and return home to Singapore.

That’s when I heard the story of Y, an ex-colleague from the same firm. Y was laid off earlier than me. Unlike me, Y wasn’t smiling when she gave up her Blackberry. When I met Y with other friends at a meal, Y clearly looked distressed and asked around if anybody knew of any banking job opportunities. 

A mutual friend later shared that Y had only half a month of rental left in her bank account. I was shocked, “Huh? What did she spend her salary on??” It turned out that Y had spent almost her entire salary on not just branded bags, shoes, designer clothes, but also massage packages, spa treatments, pedicures & manicures (which she had bought by a lump sum package because it was “cheaper”). 

The mutual friend also told me that Y had a habit of urging everyone around her to spend money, because “you’re a banker, you can afford it!”

Never did Y realise back then that she could not afford to lose being a banker.

The second retrenchment

One year later in April 2009, my second layoff was much less dramatic.

I had left Hong Kong and joined a proprietary trading firm in Singapore, which was started by two Irish proprietary futures traders. It was a small outfit of less than 12 people, based in UOB’s building.

When we first joined, they told us we each had a Profit & Loss (financial statement) with a S$15,000 downside limit. Over the months, the downside limit reduced to $12,000, then $10,000. By the time I got laid off, my account loss was around $9,000. 

After I made my final losing trade, I got called into the office, was told “it’s not working out”, and was then asked to leave. This time with no retrenchment benefits at all.

A few months later, the firm wrapped up its operations in Singapore. And a few months later, it wrapped up for good. 

[Years later, I read Michael Lewis’ book “Flash Boys” and recognized what had happened to our firm: we were basically bled dry by high frequency traders. We would hit the offers, only to be filled in at prices that were significantly different from the offers we hit.]

No more “fooling” around

This second layoff had no “divine signal”, no signs of encouragement. As the American saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”I was beginning to wonder if the finance industry was fooling me twice. I wondered if I should continue or I should find something that is more meaningful beyond aiming to make rich people richer.

My initial instinct was to try and apply what I learned at the trading outfit, but it is different when you are a retail trader versus at a professional outfit: the lag times are even greater; there are significantly larger margins you have to pay and there is almost no “edge” (i.e. advantage) you have in the market.

Most importantly, my psychology was also fraught: I needed to make money, which magnified the emotions and made trading harder.

After a few months of trying to trade my own account, depleting my savings, and feeling emotionally exhausted from chasing money for its own sake, I decided to apply only to public service jobs. I wanted to spend my time working on something more meaningful. That was how I started my decade-long career in the public service.

What I learnt from retrenchment

Looking back, I think there are a few lessons that I drew from my two retrenchments, which might help others who are facing impending retrenchments. Where appropriate, I have also included excerpts from the Buddhist texts.

Pre-Retrenchment: Always have some savings, ideally a quarter.

In DN 31 Advice to Sigalaka, the Buddha gave some pretty good advice on money allocation:

In gathering wealth like this, a householder does enough for their family.

And they’d hold on to friends by dividing their wealth in four.

One portion is to enjoy.

Two parts invest in work.

And the fourth should be kept for times of trouble.”

Having a buffer of a quarter of your wealth is extremely useful in life, and one should ideally put aside a quarter of the money you take home.

In fact, I would even encourage you to consider using the concept of “runway” from the startup world, which Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, describes as:

Startup funding is measured in time. Every startup that isn’t profitable (meaning nearly all of them, initially) has a certain amount of time left before the money runs out and they have to stop. This is sometimes referred to as runway, as in “How much runway do you have left?” It’s a good metaphor because it reminds you that when the money runs out you’re going to be airborne or dead.

For any individual, I would recommend saving up a runway of at least 6 months of your monthly necessary expenses, excluding your long-term savings. That gives a lot of psychological freedom, because you are not in a state where you need to make money. That freedom was what I had during my first layoff but not during my second layoff.

Take a balanced approach to your budget

But one also shouldn’t go to the extreme of hoarding without any expenditure at all! Nor should one spend too much (like my ex-colleague Y). Instead, you need to strike a balance in your personal finances, avoiding both extremes.

AN 8.54 with Dighajanu

And what is accomplishment in balanced finances? It’s when a gentleman, knowing his income and expenditure, balances his finances, being neither too extravagant nor too frugal. He thinks, ‘In this way my income will exceed my expenditure, not the reverse.’ It’s like an appraiser or their apprentice who, holding up the scales, knows that it’s low by this much or high by this much. In the same way, a gentleman, knowing his income and expenditure, balances his finances, being neither too extravagant nor too frugal. He thinks, ‘In this way my income will exceed my expenditure, not the reverse.’ If a gentleman has little income but an opulent life, people will say: ‘This gentleman eats their wealth like a fig-eater!’ If a gentleman has a large income but a spartan life, people will say: ‘This gentleman is starving themselves to death!’ But a gentleman, knowing his income and expenditure, leads a balanced life, neither too extravagant nor too frugal, thinking, ‘In this way my income will exceed my expenditure, not the reverse.’ This is called accomplishment in balanced finances.

Then what should you use your wealth for? Make yourself happy and pleased first, followed by the people around you.

SN 3.19 Childless

At Sāvatthī.

Then King Pasenadi of Kosala went up to the Buddha in the middle of the day, bowed, and sat down to one side. The Buddha said to him, “So, great king, where are you coming from in the middle of the day?”

“Sir, here in Sāvatthī a financier householder has passed away. Since he died childless, I have come after transferring his fortune to the royal compound. There was eight million in gold, not to mention the silver. And yet that financier ate meals of rough gruel with pickles. He wore clothes consisting of three pieces of sunn hemp. He traveled around in a vehicle that was a dilapidated little cart, holding a leaf as sunshade.”

“That’s so true, great king! That’s so true! When a bad person has acquired exceptional wealth they don’t make themselves happy and pleased. Nor do they make their mother and father, partners and children, bondservants, workers, and staff, and friends and colleagues happy and pleased. And they don’t establish an uplifting religious donation for ascetics and brahmins that’s conducive to heaven, ripens in happiness, and leads to heaven. Because they haven’t made proper use of that wealth, rulers or bandits take it, or fire consumes it, or flood sweeps it away, or unloved heirs take it. Since that wealth is not properly utilized, it’s wasted, not used.

Suppose there was a lotus pond in an uninhabited region with clear, sweet, cool water, clean, with smooth banks, delightful. But people don’t collect it or drink it or bathe in it or use it for any purpose. Since that water is not properly utilized, it’s wasted, not used.

In the same way, when a bad person has acquired exceptional wealth … it’s wasted, not used.

When retrenched: remember the Noble Truths

When you are being retrenched, it can feel like a punch in the gut. A million questions and emotions will be flying through your head, “What do you mean I’m being laid off?” “I need this job to feed my family.” “Why am I fired but not that lazy ass on level 26?” for etc.

The first thing to recognise is that you are suffering.

The next thing to recognise is that your mind’s first reaction is to flee away from the suffering as fast as possible, either through denial or repression. Your mind is also likely to be defiled by negative emotions like anger or a strong desire to be somewhere else.

Consider the (First Noble) truth: life is suffering. To be born is to suffer, to exist is to suffer, as taught by the first sentence in this passage from the Buddha’s First Sermon:

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering

By getting laid off, you are also suffering by experiencing the…

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“…; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering

And what should you do with this noble truth?

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“This noble truth of suffering should be completely understood…”

By seeking to understand your experience, you might ask yourself, ‘Why am I suffering? What’s the cause for this suffering?’ At a fundamental level, the (Second Noble) truth is, your suffering is caused by you wanting or craving something.

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

The original Pali word for “craving” is taṇhā, which is also the word for THIRST.

The following is a useful guiding question. Anytime you’re suffering, ask yourself, ‘What is it that you want?’ That wanting is the cause of your suffering, because…

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“…not to get what one wants is suffering…”

So your wanting and craving for a job, with all its security, its status, for etc. are the causes for your suffering.

If you’ve identified your wanting, what can you then do to let go of your wanting?

SN 56.11 – Wheel of Dhamma

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it. [In Pali: yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo.

These are the four ways of letting go, of not wanting:

  • Caga – giving, generosity;
  • Patinissaga – letting go;
  • Mutti – free, releasing;
  • Analaya – Non-reliance, not-resting, not-sticking, a “Teflon mind”.

I would double down on caga. In fact, when you’re retrenched, I would strongly encourage you to volunteer and just give your time: go out of the house and do some volunteer work for a cause that inspires you. Because that makes unstealable wealth for you!

Make more unstealable wealth.

The Buddha gave this great definition of wealth that cannot be stolen from you, which I’m calling ‘unstealable wealth’.

AN 7.7 With Ugga

“But Ugga, how rich is he?”

“He has a hundred thousand gold coins, not to mention the silver!”

“Well, Ugga, that is wealth, I can’t deny it. But fire, water, rulers, thieves, and unloved heirs all take a share of that wealth. There are these seven kinds of wealth that they can’t take a share of. What seven? The wealth of faith, ethical conduct, conscience, prudence, learning, generosity, and wisdom. There are these seven kinds of wealth that fire, water, rulers, thieves, and unloved heirs can’t take a share of.

When you’re retrenched, it can sometimes feel tough. ‘My dream job was taken from me! Oh, that lovely (employment benefit) that I loved!’

The Buddha’s definition of unstealable wealth reminds us that there are things that cannot be taken from us. You probably gained a lot of knowledge from your work: that’s not something that can be taken from you (except by time). 

For example, I learned how to do financial valuation models in banking (which has made me extremely skeptical about all financial projections!), but I also used some of the trading-comparable techniques in analyzing companies when I started work in the Economic Development Board. 

Also, your acts of generosity, kindness, compassion, all cannot be stolen from you by others, nor removed by your ex employer. It’s something you have done before, and belongs to you. To exercise generosity, kindness, and compassion, to keep your Five Precepts and ethics, all these require no money to do! So what’s stopping you from making more of this “unstealable wealth” while you’re unemployed?

Even if you feel that somehow this unemployment situation was due to your bad kamma, you can’t get rid of bad kamma by “burning” it or just “tolerating” it. All the more, you should go out and just go good!

AN 3.100 – Lump of Salt

Suppose a person was to drop a lump of salt into a small bowl of water. What do you think, mendicants? Would that small bowl of water become salty and undrinkable?”

“Yes, sir. Why is that? Because there is only a little water in the bowl.”

“Suppose a person was to drop a lump of salt into the Ganges river. What do you think, mendicants? Would the Ganges river become salty and undrinkable?”

“No, sir. Why is that? Because the Ganges river is a vast mass of water.”

“This is how it is in the case of a person who does a trivial bad deed, but it lands them in hell. Meanwhile, another person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot. …

From the discourse above, we learn that you don’t burn bad kamma: you dilute it to the point where the bad kamma is like a lump of salt in a Ganges river of goodwill and good kamma.

You focus on making good kamma, on the positive, on the joy that arises from the intention (more in the latter). The more good kamma you make, the less your bad kamma from the past is going to impact you.

Again, the Buddha has some great advice on the kamma leading to long life, health, beauty, influence, wealth, status and wisdom:

MN 135 Shorter Exposition of Action

“Master Gotama, what is the cause and condition why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior? For people are seen to be short-lived and long-lived, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, uninfluential and influential, poor and wealthy, low-born and high-born, stupid and wise. What is the cause and condition, Master Gotama, why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior?”

“Student, beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.”

…This is the way, student, that leads to short life, namely, one kills living beings and is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings.… This is the way, student, that leads to long life, namely, abandoning the killing of living beings, one abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, gentle and kindly, one abides compassionate to all living beings.

… This is the way, student, that leads to sickliness, namely, one is given to injuring beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife….This is the way, student, that leads to health, namely, one is not given to injuring beings with the hand, with a clod, with a stick, or with a knife.

… This is the way, student, that leads to ugliness, namely, one is of an angry and irritable character…and displays anger, hate, and bitterness…. This is the way, student, that leads to being beautiful, namely, one is not of an angry and irritable character…and does not display anger, hate, and bitterness.

…This is the way, student, that leads to being uninfluential, namely, one is envious…towards the gains, honour, respect, reverence, salutations, and veneration received by others….This is the way, student, that leads to being influential, namely, one is not envious…towards the gains, honour, respect, reverence, salutations, and veneration received by others.

… This is the way, student, that leads to poverty, namely, one does not give food, drink, clothing, carriages, garlands, scents, unguents, beds, dwelling, and lamps to recluses or brahmins.…This is the way, student, that leads to wealth, namely, one gives food…and lamps to recluses or brahmins...

Tips on Looking for a New Job

When looking for a new job, it is useful and important to know what you’re looking for or not. It’s also important and useful to know what you’re good at or not: this depends whether you’re just starting out in your career, or you’ve more experience.

If you’re just starting out, I think you should just try different things and learn from your experience. For example, I learned from my two layoffs that:

(a) I hated the investment banking lifestyle;

(b) I really didn’t have a knack for day-trading futures;

(c) After a while, the pointlessness of making rich people richer really wore me down.

With time and experience, you know what your strengths are and that then allows you to figure out where and how you should play to your strengths in your future jobs.

I’ll end with this beautiful Buddhist parable of a quail playing to its strengths, outwitting a hawk. May you be a quail that finds your clods of soil!

SN 47.6 The Hawk

“Bhikkhus, once in the past a hawk suddenly swooped down and seized a quail. Then, while the quail was being carried off by the hawk, he lamented: ‘We were so unlucky, of so little merit! We strayed out of our own resort into the domain of others. If we had stayed in our own resort today, in our own ancestral domain, this hawk wouldn’t have stood a chance against me in a fight.’—‘But what is your own resort, quail, what is your own ancestral domain?’—‘The freshly ploughed field covered with clods of soil.’

“Then the hawk, confident of her own strength, not boasting of her own strength, released the quail, saying: ‘Go now, quail, but even there you won’t escape me.’

“Then, bhikkhus, the quail went to a freshly ploughed field covered with clods of soil. Having climbed up on a large clod, he stood there and addressed the hawk: ‘Come get me now, hawk! Come get me now, hawk!’

“Then the hawk, confident of her own strength, not boasting of her own strength, folded up both her wings and suddenly swooped down on the quail. But when the quail knew, ‘That hawk has come close,’ he slipped inside that clod, and the hawk shattered her breast right on the spot. So it is, bhikkhus, when one strays outside one’s own resort into the domain of others….

Wise Steps:

  • Aportion a quarter of your salary towards your savings when you are employed.
  • If you were retrenched, try to understand your suffering using the Noble Truths.
  • Yield your mind to perform acts of generosity, goodwill and letting go. These form the ‘unstealable wealth’ that retrenchment can’t even take away from you.
  • Recognise your strengths and play up to them when searching for your next job!
“I lost my sense of smell.”: Turning to Dhamma when Covid strikes you

“I lost my sense of smell.”: Turning to Dhamma when Covid strikes you

TLDR: Learning to be okay with not feeling okay can help us recover better when an unexpected illness happens

It was during a meal that Celeste, in her 20s, began to feel some slight discomfort. Her throat was dry and her nose was runny after having Tom Yum soup.

At 4 am, Celeste confirmed that her discomfort was not from the Tom Yum but something worse.

Her test result showed she was positive for Covid-19. It was something that she never expected to contract as she had taken many precautions.

Fever and body ache struck her quickly. This shocked her as she assumed that after being fully vaccinated, and keeping a healthy lifestyle, it will pass like a breeze.

That was far from the truth as she entered Day 2 of home recovery.

Rotten food & rotten plans

Snapshot of the food that had no taste due to Covid

Celeste felt that being a swim coach, playing tennis & yoga, coupled with healthy eating would provide a strong trampoline for recovery on Day 2. Covid had other plans installed for her. It was not going away.

“I lost my sense of smell. Everything tasted like rotten food”, she recalled.

Fear arose when she Googled and found that some people stopped eating even after recovery as their sense of smell never recovered fully. They had lost interest in eating as it was no longer enjoyable.

There was also a very real possibility that she may end up in the 0.2% of infected vaccinated patients who died from the disease. 

The fear then morphed into self-blame for falling sick.

“I didn’t realise it was unkind until the anger and fear clouded my mind. It made me afraid of Dukkha (Suffering)”, she recalled.

Her meditation practise helped make her aware of the unnecessary self-criticism and blame she was laying on herself. However, the fear and anger grew in her mind.

Soothing Fear with Dhamma

As the fear paralysed Celeste, she decided to use piano music to calm herself as she lay in bed. However, the mental proliferations filled with fear did not go away.

She then recalled a playlist of talks recommended by her Dhamma friends from her young working adult Dhamma group (DAYWA). Being new to Buddhism, she was unfamiliar with whether it would help but decided to give the playlist a try.

“Be okay that you are not feeling okay”, Ajahn Brahm, the monk on the playlist, advised. This struck her hard.

She was always trying too hard to be healthy. Covid was something beyond her control. Despite being fully vaccinated, she still fell deeply sick. Acknowledging that it is okay to fall sick was a great relief to her heart and mind.

“90% of my worries never came through. I spent so much time worrying about things that never happen”, recalled Celeste as she was recovering.

After the one hour Dhamma talk, Celeste felt at ease and fell into a deep sleep.

Returning to senses

Celeste, having heard numerous mind-soothing episodes of Dhamma talks, was ready to accept a life of no smell. She reflected that she had taken her 5 senses for granted and realised that they did not belong to ‘us’ strictly as we could not command them as we like.

“We don’t own these senses, senses are merely borrowed. Not Mine, not myself.” she reflected.

Celeste was internalising and seeing first-hand what Buddha talked about non-self. We do not control our body and mind as much we would love to. For if our body was fully ours, it wouldn’t lead to dissatisfaction and we would have full control. 

This brought to mind Buddha’s teaching to monks in the following dialogue:

What do you think, monks? Is form (body) permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”

“No, sir.”

As Celeste was coming to peace with her lack of smell senses, it came back to her. She was beginning on her upward path to recovery.

Associating with the kind

As she slowly recovered, she found that body aches and pain remained. However, she avoided the trap of feeling unhappy with her body.

“Wanting things to be perfect feed the monster within you. Pain reminds you that your body is not perfect…and that’s okay”, Celeste shared.

Beyond the Dhamma talks, her loved ones were pivotal in lifting her towards full recovery.

Her in-laws delivered her favourite vegetables that she loved to eat even when the Delta variant was a real threat to their health. Her yoga friends delivered herbal tea and cooked for her.

This difficult period also made her appreciate her husband more (who was also infected and had to be hospitalised). Life and death became very real for her when her husband heart rate dropped drastically which landed him in the hospital as she lay at home infected with Covid.

“These moments made me count my blessings and not take them (loved ones) for granted”,  Celeste recalled.

Life lessons from covid

This episode made Celeste rethink the way she was living her life. She decided to cut down on some overindulgence she was partaking in, such as midnight movies and sleeping late. Maintaining health was a crucial component of her life that she wanted to strengthen. 

She then aspired to dedicate more time and consistency to her meditation practice which tide her over this tough period. She found herself meditating less when times were going good for her and hence, aspires to build a consistent habit of meditating regardless of the times.

“Be patient and be unafraid” she advised those who may face such an unexpected infection.

“For your friends infected with Covid, ask them how you can help them. Delivering food and checking in on them really lifts their spirits”, she encouraged.

In our darkest and lowest times, recollecting the Dhamma is one way to rest our minds at peace. This allows our body and mind to be okay at being not okay, paving the way for deeper healing.

Wise Steps:

  • Create a playlist of your favourite Dhamma talks that you can listen to in times of trouble
  • Every hardship we face is an opportunity for us to turn towards the truths of life or remain in our perceived truths of life
Through a Buddhist Lens: Waking Up To The World And Taking Rest From It.

Through a Buddhist Lens: Waking Up To The World And Taking Rest From It.

TLDR: With wisdom, we wake up to achieve our human potential. With mindfulness and metta, we rest our minds. Gathering the Buddha’s teachings, I reflect on waking and sleeping better.

Time flies. Days and nights passing away. How are we spending our time?

I pull overtime at my job almost daily. Time passes in a blur as if I were on a roller coaster ride. Exhaustion and sleep punctuate work; work thoughts disrupt my sleep. 

Waking up, pangs of dread overwhelm the heart — the daily existence is a grind. 

Despite the grind, an awareness that ‘Life can be better,’ nags on. The heart is eager for nourishment.

Two Important Moments Of The Day

If waking up and sleeping point to the start and the end of a day, they become two important moments. A question then surfaces, “What is a skillful way to sleep and to wake?”

What does the Buddha and the Sangha (the community of monastics) recommend? Tucking this question in mind, I sought for answers.

In a weekly morning podcast by Dhammagiri Forest Hermitage, I posed the question to my teacher Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha. He is a German monk residing in Brisbane, Australia. His answer is simple:

“The Buddha teaches us to be mindful all the way to the moment we sleep.

Lying down mindfully (on our right), we direct our minds to the time we wish to wake up the next morning. Intend to wake up by then. Thereafter, focus the mind on a suitable meditation object, such as loving-kindness (metta or thoughts of goodwill). Thinking:

‘May all beings be well and happy. May I be well and happy. May everyone be free from suffering. May all be safe and at ease…’ 

Meditating as such uplifts the mind to a wholesome state. The Buddha also highlights that practising metta will ward off bad dreams.

At the first moment of waking up, we develop metta within our hearts. We then radiate warmth and kindness in all directions.”

The Resolution to be Kind

Here, I recall a teaching from Venerable Ajahn Anan. Ajahn Anan is a Thai Forest Tradition master and the abbot of Thai Monastery Wat Marp Jan. He reminds us of the following:

“Waking up, be determined to not give in to anger and ill-will. Be resolute to be kind and compassionate to others because all beings are suffering.

Making this determination doesn’t mean that the mind will not experience anger or ill-will later in the day. We need to train our minds to let go:

‘What is the point of being angry when I am going to die? What’s the point of fear? We are all going to die- death is the culmination of our lives. It is inevitable that we will die.’ Knowing this, anger is a waste of our precious time.”

Fighting against the Sweet Nectar of Snooze

For some night-owl like me, waking up does not often translate to getting out of bed immediately. Zzzng zzng. Snooze. Just one more minute. Zzng zzng zzng. Snooze, repeat. Sounds familiar? All that snoozing conditions the mind for more sloth and laziness at our first opportunity for exertion.

There is simply too much inertia to overcome in the morning. This is evident if the day did not bring anything promising to look forward to. What can we do? 

Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha suggests automatic lighting that switches on with chanting, instead of a regular alarm. Now, that is creative. I wish my home had smart lighting. For those who use analog light switches, the next best option is to set your alarm tone with a recording of the Pali morning chant and spring up for the lights upon “Arahaṁ sammāsambuddho bhagavā…”

Is this challenge possible? What makes me so sure a perpetual snoozer would jump up at that?

Contemplating Hell to Roast Us Back to Reality

For monks in the Thai Forest Tradition, they sleep less and wake up earlier than most of us in the wee hours of the morning. How do they do that? 

Venerable Ajahn Chah, the teacher of both Venerable Ajahn Anan and Venerable Ajahn Dhammasiha, had a curious way of training his disciples to wake up on time as the abbot of Wat Pah Pong, a Thai Forest monastery. I paraphrase Venerable Ajahn Chah’s exhortation as follows:

“When you are awake, think, ‘Should I return to sleep, may I drop to hell when I die.’ Really believe in this and you dare not return to bed.”

A fellow practitioner I know uses this method with much success for his morning spiritual routine. For those who are not ready to believe in hell’s existence or who prefer a gentler but no less serious reminder, contemplate death:

“Life is uncertain. Death is certain. I am grateful for being alive today. Death can come at any time. May I make use of what limited time I have as a human being. May I exert energy for the benefit of myself and others.”

Having tried these contemplations personally, the mind may still not be fully awake to gain physical momentum to get out of bed. During these trying moments, we must rely on our sheer willpower to pull away the covers:

Change the posture to sit up. Plant both feets to the ground. Stand. Head for the lights. Then, step out of the door. 

The struggle is worth it. A day of opportunity awaits.

What is the Reward? 

The still silence of the morning permeates our hearts as we go about our routine. For many practitioners, they allow themselves to soak up the joy and peace arising from the morning chanting and meditation (more on chanting in another article).

To rise early with a clear mind demands the discipline to sleep early. Hence, we cannot be greedy with screen time on our electronic devices. 

To borrow the following wisdom from our Christian friends:

“There is a time for everything, 

and a season for every activity under the heavens” – Ecclesiastes 3

There is a time for us to rest; a time to wake. 

With wisdom, we wake up to achieve our human potential. With mindfulness and metta, we rest our minds. Wishing all beings wakeful and restful moments, always.

Wise Steps:

  • Start your morning with feelings of metta, or goodwill, to all beings around you!
  • Know what can move you out of laziness in bed? Contemplating hell? Or contemplating Death?
  • Instead of simply battling to rise out of bed, explore what also encourages you to sleep early! (E.g. Locking your electronics away at 1130pm to reduce blue light exposure)
Can we use violence to protect Buddhism?

Can we use violence to protect Buddhism?

This teaching is extracted from the Q&A section of a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahmali at Buddhist Society of Western Australia on “Buddhist attitudes towards worldly problems”. View the full talk here.

The following is a transcript of the above video with edits.


There is no way that the disappearance of Buddhism can be stopped by war. War will make it disappear even faster. Buddhism is the expression of how we live. Defending Buddhism through violence is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Buddhism should be defended through how we live our lives. Our lives should be an inspiration to other people. This is how we are most likely to support Buddhism for the future.

So, there is absolutely no grounds at all for violence. Sometimes, you hear arguments like, “we have to get rid of all these people such as the Muslims because they are invading our country, they are degrading us.”. This is the wrong way to think. Acting on such thoughts is the fastest way to destroy the good name of Buddhism in the world.

Muslims are human-beings too. They have feelings like everyone else. They just have a different religion.

Is there anytime when violence is approved by the Buddha?

The answer is ‘yes’.

The Buddha said, “I allow you to kill one thing, monks. What is that one thing? Anger.”

If we eliminate anger in our lives, that is that one thing we are allowed to kill. Apart from that, stay away from killing, stay away from violence. Violence does not work.

If you read the discourses of the Buddha, one of the things that is prevalent is the integrity they have. There is nothing in those suttas that can be construed in any way as supporting violence. Nothing. The early Buddhist suttas are absolutely devoid of it. There is the integrity to the teaching that is absolutely astonishing.

That sense of integrity, which is so strong is one of the reasons why I have such incredible faith in the Buddhist path.

There’s a famous monk in Burma who said to the army that violence is okay according to certain scriptures. The scripture that he had to cite, to be able to say that, was a history book. It was the history of Sri Lanka. 

It’s called the  Mahavamsa. 

And he pointed, “well, in the Mahavamsa, there was an ancient King in Sri Lanka, and he killed all of these people.”. Then he asked the monks and the monks said something in the lines of, “yeah, they aren’t really people. Because they aren’t Buddhists”. What a really awful story!

Then he (Burmese monk) said that that is the precedent and it (killing) is okay. It’s a crazy thing!

But these are not the words of the Buddha. It has got nothing to do with Buddhist doctrine. It’s a history book about what happened in ancient Sri Lanka.

It is not something we can use to justify these things.  And still, that’s how desperate they become. Because there’s nothing else to use in Buddhism.

Buddhist teaching has incredible integrity when it comes to not oppressing anyone. Not harming anyone.

This is an interesting idea in Buddhism – not to be harmful.  It means you should be considerate. You should not be ruthless.

You should be ruthful. Full of ruth, full of compassion. You should not be inconsiderate. Because being inconsiderate basically means that you prioritise your greed and your desires over the consequences of that those greed have for other people.

Do good. Avoid evil. Purify the mind. This is the teaching of all Buddhas.

The Buddha only encouraged us to kill one thing – anger. This is reflected in the Ghatva Sutta, SN 1.71:

As she was standing to one side, a devata recited this verse to the Blessed One:

Having killed what, do you sleep in ease?

Having killed, what do you not grieve?

Of the slaying of what one thing does Gotama approve?

[The Buddha:] Having killed anger, you sleep in ease.

Having killed anger, you do not grieve.

The noble ones praise the slaying of anger — with its honeyed crest & poison root

— for having killed it, you do not grieve.

Wise Steps:

  1. Strive to destroy the anger within you instead of letting anger destroy you.
  2. Learn to be considerate and compassionate towards others, recognising that all beings desire happiness.
  3. Inspire others to practise the teachings of the Buddha through your wholesome conduct instead of brute force.
Sailing The Highs & Lows of Working Life

Sailing The Highs & Lows of Working Life

TLDR: When we are at the height of our career success and plummet into failure overnight, what do we do? Gather our courage to see things from a different perspective. 

The Highs Could Only Go Higher Right?

2019 was an amazing year for my career. I achieved the coveted promotion by securing large revenues for my company, the bosses had only praise for my hard work, and I earned nearly 1-year worth of bonus. 

Times were good, and when January of 2020 approached, I had only big plans for the year. This was going to be the zenith, I knew that I would achieve my second promotion, earn even more money and shine ever bigger. 

In a natural turn of events, I knew nothing. 

The moment COVID began impacting Malaysia, my career nosedived in a single day. All the deals I had lined up were halted, and the tumultuous journey began. 

Long were the days of tough talk with the bosses; it felt almost like a consistent interrogation revolving around my presence in the company despite my lack of revenue. It was apparent how the company now saw me as a burden.

The Crash Of Change

I was entangled in a mass and mess of emotions; my mind alike to the sea that I so love, unpredictable. Fury, jealousy, melancholy, had a wonderful time consuming my waking thoughts. 

Thoughts of “Why can’t they understand my difficult situation?” and “Why are they making things difficult for me?” only oiled further anger within. 

To soothe this heat, I began plotting to create reputation damage to the company. Sharing this with a good friend, he merely asked “What is the point of harming others and oneself?”

Building Courage Again

That phrase gave my mind a sudden epiphany. For years I have heard the phrase ‘embrace change’, but now I am behaving like a temperamental child robbed of desires. 

It is odd how I welcome change with a big hug only if it is in my favour yet loathe the tide’s natural turn when my desires are unmet. What I needed, was quite simply courage. 

Courage to admit that success and failure are betrothed, there is nothing shameful about failing. Courage to refrain from blaming an external party for the source of my negative emotions, and instead to realise that I am still a lot of work in progress. Courage to embrace change, both positive and negative with grace. 

I found the Dhamma quote on being unshakeable when the winds of life blow inspiring: 

“As a solid rock

is not shaken by the wind,

even so the wise are not

ruffled by praise or blame.”

Dhammapada Verse 81

My world outside may burn with uncertainty, but I can make the conscious choice to continue my best efforts with quiet stability.

2020 turned out to be another good year for me; it was rich with life’s lessons and discovering this potential for courage. 

May this simple story help you face any challenges with courage and grace.

Wise Steps :

  • When times are good, or when times are bad, just remind yourself “This is not permanent. This is a natural part of life.”
  • Acknowledge the pleasant or unpleasant emotions that have arisen, and let it go.