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
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.
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.
Wow. It’s amazing. I think even as you’re sharing, I already feel so much Metta radiating from you.
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?
Yes. We would love to understand a little bit more about your personal journey of how you became a Buddhist musician.
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.
Is it the double-tier one?
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.
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?
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.
Was there a particular time in your life when you felt the Buddhist teachings really helped you tremendously?
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.
And what helped you through those moments of pain and perhaps loneliness as well?
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.
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.
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 thanthe 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.
Yeah, in a way, it’s very tangible, right?
Tangible and people can use it or even taste it and touch it. Amazing. That’s the way I want to express it.
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.
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.
If we zoom into your career as a Buddhist musician what were some of the challenges that you faced?
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.
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.
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.
Has there been a time when you felt that maybe this fame is a little bit too much or anything like that?
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.
Wow. That’s so beautiful. Some of our subscribers, actually asked what gave you inspiration for the music.
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.
The gem in itself is already shining.
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.
Yeah. Can you share a story that you remember of the most profound impact that your music has had on someone?
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.
So can you share a few?
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.
And when the root is plucked away, the grass won’t grow again.
Yes. Yes. At least we can just keep cleaning it, tone down this kind of attachment, and make life a little bit simpler.
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.
We have a cheeky question from one of the people. They were asking, what will you be doing if you were not doing music?
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.
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.
Yeah. I wish you all the best with the Buddhist Music Monastery.
This is so cool. I’ve never heard of Buddhist Music Monastery before.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, because after all, everyone is still lay people. We still have to take care of the four requisites on our own.
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.
Yeah, I’ve never thought of it in that way. It’s the other side.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Because you have to get to somewhere to be happy. Yeah.
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.
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.
You’re most welcome, 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.
Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
Vijaya Samarawickrama, fondly known as Uncle Vijaya, is a respected figure within Buddhist communities, delivering countless inspiring Dhamma talks at universities, schools, and Dhamma centers throughout Malaysia, as well as in Singapore and Australia, spanning over six decades. In addition to his speaking engagements, he held the role of Patron at the Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society in Kuala Lumpur and served as the Chairman of Nalanda Institute’s Education team. He represented Malaysia in various Buddhist conventions and conferences, both locally and internationally. He has authored over a dozen booklets, with more than 150,000 copies distributed worldwide. Before his retirement, he held the position of a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and worked as a lecturer in Drama and Theatre, Public Speaking, and World Religion at Taylor’s University American Degree Program.
Key takeaways from this interview:
Lessons on Acceptance and Philosophical Reflection:
Uncle Vijaya’s journey began with early losses, losing his parents during World War II and the communist insurgency. His acceptance of these circumstances reflects a philosophical perspective on life and death. He emphasizes the inevitability of death, quoting Shakespeare, “Death, a necessary end will come when it will come.”
Facing Personal Loss and Evolving Perspectives:
From the death of his parents at a young age to the recent losses of siblings, Uncle Vijaya shares how his perspective on death evolved. Overcoming the “Why Me?” syndrome, he embraces a philosophical approach, recognizing the transient nature of life and the importance of being prepared for the inevitable.
The Buddhist Approach to Death:
Uncle Vijaya delves into the Buddhist perspective on death, emphasizing the present moment’s significance. He quotes the Kālāma Sutta, highlighting the Buddha’s teaching on doing good for the sake of a good mind, rather than seeking rewards in an afterlife.
Readiness for Death and Living in the Present:
Addressing the common fear of death, Uncle Vijaya guides listeners to focus on the present moment. He encourages cultivating a good mind by following the five precepts and purifying the mind from defilements. The readiness to face death lies in being mindful and living a meaningful life.
Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha: Keys to Well-being:
Uncle Vijaya introduces the four Brahma Viharas as essential practices for creating well-being. He explains Metta (Loving-Kindness), Karuna (Compassion), Mudita (Altruistic Joy), and Upekkha (Equanimity) as tools to transcend selfishness and cultivate happiness within.
Equanimity: Beyond Emotionlessness:
Contrary to misconceptions, equanimity (Upekkha) doesn’t imply emotionlessness. Uncle Vijaya clarifies that the Buddha, while displaying equanimity, had his emotions under strict control. Equanimity involves maintaining compassion without personal attachment, as exemplified by a surgeon performing a critical operation.
Applying Brahma Viharas to Grief and Loss:
Uncle Vijaya advises empathy over preaching when someone is grieving. He emphasizes the importance of physicalizing pain through communal rituals, acknowledging the wisdom of funeral rites in helping individuals come to terms with loss.
Transcript of the Interview
Click here for the transcript
Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast episode. Today I have with me, Uncle Vijaya dialing in from BGF KL. Welcome Uncle Vijaya.
[00:00:10] Uncle Vijaya:
Thank you, Sukhi Hotu (May you be well and happy).
Very lovely to have you here. Today we will be talking about love, death and dying. A quick introduction about Uncle Vijaya. He is a prominent figure in the Buddhist circles, having given more than 100 talks in universities, schools and Dhamma centers for the last six decades. He’s also a longstanding member of the Sasana Abhiwurdi Wardhana Society in KL, as well as the Nalanda Institute. Uncle Vijaya has represented Malaysia in numerous Buddhist conventions and conferences, both locally and abroad. And he has also given numerous inspiring Dhamma talks throughout Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. So very honored to have you here, Uncle Vijaya.
[00:00:58] Uncle Vijaya:
Thank you for calling me.
Thank you. This is a very challenging topic on death and dying. Would you like to open and share with us about your personal experiences with loss?
[00:01:12] Uncle Vijaya:
Ah, personal experience with loss. Yes. But personal experience with death, not yet. I’m now 83 years old. So I’ve seen lots of people come into my life and a lot of people leaving. Yeah. And it doesn’t surprise me. Only this year, I lost two sisters. One sister died in January, just this year. And the other sister died in February in Singapore. Since I’m talking about being 83 years old, I lost my parents at a very, very young age. I was only six years old when my mother passed away just after the Second World War. So she was actually a victim of the deprivations that we went through during that time.
Then soon after that the communist insurgency took over and my father was killed by the communists when I was 12 years old. So, I’m no stranger to death. And it did affect me in a lot of ways, but the moral of the story is in the end we survived. It was difficult, I could have been bitter about it, could have blamed a lot of other people. But from my vantage point now, I’m saying, well, that’s the way kamma works. So I’m ready for the worst.
Thanks for sharing. I’m very curious to know from the first death that you experienced at six years old and just this year at 83 years old, how has your perspective changed in terms of accepting this death of your loved ones?
[00:02:56] Uncle Vijaya:
I think the word that comes to mind is philosophical. It’s something that, when I was younger, I resisted. And the “Why Me?” Syndrome. Why should I have to suffer this kind of thing? But as you go through life, and you see people dying at every stage of their own lives from very young to very old, and it is something that happens to everybody. What’s flashing through my mind is Shakespeare, where Julius Caesar says, of all the wonders that I have yet heard and seen, it seems to me most strange that men should fear seeing that death a necessary end will come when it will come. When I learned that I was in form five, so I was about 15, 16 years old. It didn’t mean what it means today to me. When it comes, it will come. You just have to be prepared for it. That’s what the Buddha says all the time. Death is not something you can predict. You can design, you can create. When it happens, are you ready? Then again, it’s not so much the fear of the actual act of dying, but what happens after that? Where will I go? What will I do?
And in the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65), the Buddha has a beautiful teaching on that. How do we approach death? How do we regard death? What will happen when I die? There are those who believe that when I die, I will either go to a heaven or to a hell. So what is my reason for doing good? My doing good is to book a place in heaven, but the Buddha says, what if you spend your whole life and it’s still fun being good, and you make so many sacrifices and you work so hard trying to be good all the time, hoping that when you die, you will go to heaven. Okay. You will go to heaven. Then the Buddha asked, what if you do all of this and then you die and you find there’s nothing out there. If there is a heaven, well and good. Even if there is a hell, well and good. What if there is no heaven, no hell.
Then the Buddha says, that’s not the reason we are good. We don’t do good in order to get that reward in heaven or that punishment. We do good because in this life, good is rewarded by good states of mind. So I live this life. Yeah, basically following the five precepts, the basic minimum, all right, I do that. And always in the knowledge that as I go through this life, I am not creating problems, I’m not running away from problems. I’m spreading happiness. I’m spreading well-being. And that itself is my reward. If there is a heaven, I accept that reward. If there is no heaven, I have not lost anything in this life. This is the Buddhist reason for being good. The Buddha doesn’t base his teaching on something that cannot be proven. Heaven and hell cannot be proven. Another life cannot be proven. The Buddha says don’t waste your time worrying about those things. What is important is the now, to be ready.
Again, we go back to Shakespeare, the fear of death. In Hamlet, there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Every life, every death. There is a reason. There is a moment. We are thinking of the fear of death. We are afraid that we will die. If we die now, then don’t worry. Because you don’t have to worry tomorrow. You’re already dead. You see? Yeah. So if it be now, it is not to come. If it is not to come, it is now. If it be not now, yet it will come. If it be now, whether it’s now or future or never, it will come. Then comes the lovely line, Buddha’s line, Buddha would approve. The readiness is all.
In Buddhism, we always talk about the present moment. At this moment of time, am I ready to die at the next breath? Are we ready? It’s as simple as that. Don’t worry about heaven, hell, preparation for funerals. We can talk about that. After that, you go alone. The only thing that can follow you is your kamma. Your good kamma, or your bad kamma. That’s your relative. That’s your friend. That’s your inheritance. That’s the only thing you take away with you. But in the meantime, the readiness is all. Are you ready to die next moment?
How can we be ready? Because I feel like for most of us, we are very busy. We are very stressed. We are never really in the present moment. And we really just try to pretend that death doesn’t come to us, especially when we are still young.
[00:08:43] Uncle Vijaya:
Yeah, but the Buddha says you look all around you. It’s happening to you all the time. That’s why we say of the best realms to be born in is this human realm, because in this human realm, you don’t have a fixed lifespan, where you can say, Oh, I have 40,000 years to live like you can in the deva world. You can never predict. You can never tell what will happen. Nobody needs to tell you that. Your existence in this world, you are going through the experience. People are dying in front of your eyes. Some dying at the age of a few months. Some dying when they’re 90 years old, some waiting to die, cannot die. And then we see all of that happening all around us. We don’t need the Buddha to tell us that. And the Buddha keeps saying, use your own eyes, experiential. And how can you then say it won’t happen to me? How can you then say it won’t happen to me tomorrow? Use your human intelligence. Don’t believe whatever people tell you, don’t believe what the scriptures tell you. Okay. Use your own eyes. This is the Buddha’s teaching. So you are young, that’s denial. Denial is different from not seeing the truth.
So the readiness is all back again. And then the Buddha says all the time, don’t worry about tomorrow because it’s not come yet. Don’t worry about yesterday. It’s already gone. All that you have over which you have control is this life, is the now. It is this present moment that you can control. You can’t control anything else. When you know that, then you say, okay, what do I do to make this present moment meaningful? And the Buddha has a teaching for that. He says to make this moment meaningful, do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. Purify the mind, get your mind clear of lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), moha (ignorance). Ignorance, greed, and hatred. These are the things that are eating at us. These are the defilements. Those three, remove them, remove them. Make sure you destroy your illusion. Don’t pretend that there is a real person here. Sitting down here. How do you understand that? What do you understand by me, I, self? What does that mean? When you understand that, when you see what composes you, then your hatred, your attachment, you stop holding on, grabbing. And becausewhen you grab, you suffer. When you let go, you are free. All these negative states, get rid of (them). Full-time job. Full-time job. Okay?
So do good, avoid evil, easy. Five precepts. But that’s not enough. If all it takes to be a good Buddhist, do good, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit sexual misconduct, don’t tell lies, don’t take drugs. If that is all that it requires, my dog is a very good Buddhist. My dog doesn’t kill. He doesn’t steal. Well, the other one, I don’t know. The dog doesn’t tell lies. And has he ever smoked a cigarette? But what’s the difference? We are Manussa (human). Manussa (human), that which has a mind that can be developed. Do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. That’s the difference between us and the dog. And that’s the opportunity we have. What does the purification of the mind mean? Get rid of your delusion. Get rid of your greed. Get rid of your aversion. You get these three, you are living in a state of happiness and peace here and now. So while I’m in that state and I die, it stands to reason that state will continue into the next life. So I go to heaven, heaven. So the Buddha says it’s very easy. Don’t worry about heaven. Be in heaven now. Yeah.
Which brings us to the next point, be in heaven now, how do you do that? Buddha has the answer. He says we follow the four Brahma Vihara, the four states of well-being, the four states of happiness, Brahma Vihara, Brahma in Hinduism is heaven, is God. Vihara, a dwelling place. Where God dwells is heaven. The Buddha says, you don’t have to die to go to heaven. You create the conditions of heaven here through Brahma Viharas. Metta (Loving-Kindness), Karuna (Compassion), Mudita (Altruistic Joy), Upekkha (Equanimity). Remember, it’s all in the mind. Metta is the state of well-being, the state of feeling good about yourself, and radiating that feeling of goodwill, of love, of unconditional love towards all that exists. Not fellow humans, not fellow Buddhists, anything that breathes.
If you can have that feeling of love and contentment, you don’t need to go to heaven to be happy. You are happy here and now. And if in that state you die, you are automatically born into a good world. It’s not work or trying. It’s just creating the condition, creating the condition, that’s being Buddhist. Okay. Don’t worry about others. Don’t point fingers at others and say, they don’t do this, they don’t do that. You know, they’re stupid. We are clever. No, worry about your state of mind. So you have Metta. Metta is where it is sort of unilateral. It just spreads all over. You don’t choose. You don’t pick whom you love and whom you don’t. That’s Metta.
But I find that Metta is very counterintuitive because a lot of times we place conditions on why we love, what we love, who we love.
[00:15:57] Uncle Vijaya:
That’s why we have this word, unconditional love. As a mother loves her only child, so do I spread this feeling of happiness, goodness towards all beings. Buddha doesn’t stop there. Two legged, four legged, no legged, moisture borne, womb borne. He covers everything that breathes. So if you say, I only love my son. No, no, no, that immediately disqualifies. Immediately because at the end of all of this, you are working towards destroying your illusion that there is an “I” in here. The process is to kill the ego.
Just to tie this back to your own experiences of losing your parents, because they were victims of World War II and the communist insurgency. How did you, if you ever develop Metta for the people who harmed your parents?
[00:17:03] Uncle Vijaya:
At that point of time, and even today, I think I don’t see a connection between what happened to my parents and what happened in the world. My parents had to follow their own kamma, and I had to follow my own kamma in that I had to be born through them. That was part of my kamma. I accept that. In spite of the earlier childhood, thanks to the fact that I had an Uncle and an Aunt who adopted me and educated me, after that, I went on my own. So whatever pleasant situation I’m enjoying now was partly that I didn’t surrender to it. But at the same time, I didn’t waste time on self-pity. That’s important. And Buddhism taught me that from a very young age. This is okay. Somebody else is happier than me. Okay. Which brings me back to Metta.
Karuna is where you feel compassion to somebody who is not as well as you. I’m doing well. I mean, during tsunamis, we Buddhists have gone around helping everybody in the world without being selective or without any ulterior motive. Okay. So there’s Metta, there’s Karuna, when you are okay, your friend is not, and you feel compassion for that person. It’s easy when I’m doing well to feel compassion for the next guy. But what if that guy is doing well and you are not? How do you feel joy at your friend’s well-being when you yourself are not? When you destroy your ego, that’s possible. I have lots and lots of experiences where others have done much better than me, but I have not resented that. I’m happy for them. And you can see it’s a higher level of love, that we call Mudita. Mudita is joy at other people’s happiness.
Now all of these are worldly. Worldly forms of happiness involve “self”-ishness. It starts off with me. An “I” is involved. Then comes the higher level, which is symbolized by the lotus flower. Every Buddhist knows this. Why do we select the lotus flower? Because where does the lotus flower grow? In the mud. In the filthy, black, smelly mud, but the flower draws its sustenance from all of these. It rises above the water, pure and perfect. One of the most beautiful things on planet Earth draws from here (the mud).This is samsara. Anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, lobha, dosa, and moha. Everything we are churning in here. We are born into this. But when body is sick, don’t let mind be sick as well. Don’t let your mind get inward. Keep this above. Now that we call Upekkha (equanimity).
We have Metta, we have Karuna, we have Mudita, and then we have the highest level, which is the level of the Buddha. Okay? Where you… Radiate these kinds of well-being towards all without yourself being involved like a surgeon. A surgeon is operating on his mother. He cannot see his mother there. He must only see his function of destroying pain. And he cannot say, Oh, my poor mother. I’m sorry, ma. I’m sorry. I cannot. He has to remove himself. He has to have enormous amounts of compassion, but it cannot be personalized.
So equanimity or Upekka is not the same as being emotionless and detached and not feeling anything.
[00:21:23] Uncle Vijaya:
Ah, yes. Yes. You see, the Buddha was never emotionless. He had his emotions under strict control.The love that a mother has for her only son. That’s the love we have to spread. So when the surgeon is operating on his mother, he must have the same concern for her wellbeing as if a beggar is being operated on. Or if his enemy is being operated on. The Buddha was the embodiment of these four aspects, but you have to transcend all. When the Buddha experiences equanimity, he sees suffering. He cannot say, well, he’s only suffering here.
He sees the suffering, he actually physically helped a monk who was suffering from dysentery and was covered in his own filth and nobody wanted to go near him. But the Buddha personally went in there and bathed him, washed his robes and so on, preached to him until he died. So you cannot say that the Buddha was emotionless. Probably he was emotionless in the sense that an “I” is not involved. But there is suffering. I will do something to eradicate that suffering. Similarly, a surgeon is not burdened by that emotion. If you’re burdened with an emotion of love or pity or whatever, then you’re caught. But if you are only controlled by compassion, you can do a better job. And all of that here and now, not next life, not I born as an angel, I come and help you.
Right. And how can we apply this for Brahma Viharas to, let’s say, someone who is experiencing the grief and the pain of losing a very dear one. It could be death, but it could be heartbreak in all other forms, breakups, someone cheat on you or whatever else.
[00:23:53] Uncle Vijaya:
I would say. The first thing you should do is don’t preach to him. Don’t go and tell him, you know, as a good Buddhist, you should have Metta, Karuna, and Lotus flower. This guy is already suffering. I think any religion would teach you the word empathize. Your pain, I feel. I can only hug you. I can only hold your hand and I can only genuinely tell you that I experienced this with you, but to tell that person he’s wrong or that tell that person he cannot, he shouldn’t suffer. That’s wrong. You just lost your mother. You’re suffering. You’re crying. You’re in pain. I am as helpless as you, but I can hold you as a fellow sufferer. Now, I feel really that in the wisdom of the human race. If you really think about it, funeral rites are a waste of time. Somebody has died, and we go through this whole thing like, you know, scratching the nose like this, you know, just to keep… But I think it’s a terribly important thing.
What we are doing is the community gets together to physicalize our pain. We are so busy choosing the coffin. We are so busy getting the house ready. We are so busy talking to the undertakers. We are so busy that we have no time to have that self-pity to go inwards. And you have the seven days, you have the 49 days, you have the hundred days. All of this is the wisdom of our ancestors who gave us all these things to do and it’s all set into a community. So by the time seven days are over, you’re already coming to terms with the reality of the loss. All right. Yeah. Then three months. And then one year and each time we have got rituals to follow.
Don’t condemn the rituals and say, no, don’t burn paper, don’t do this, don’t do that. If you can cut down the cost, well and good. If you can meaningfully do these actions rather than burn a Porsche, go and give that money to an old folks home. You can transfer but the activity is the same. You don’t need to condemn others for what they do. Behind that is the physicalization of this extra energy that comes to protect you when you are suffering from this loss. That takes you on to about a year, after which more water goes under the bridge. Yeah, you’re sort of come to terms with it. This is the wisdom. But to say that, oh, he died. I’m a Buddhist, go ahead, send to the crematorium. I don’t even waste my time coming to see the dead body. It’s not the dead body that you’re seeing there.
You are giving rise to a very important word in Buddhism, Kataññutā. Kataññutā is we call one of the highest blessings. It is a state of mind of gratitude. This person has died, yes, but it is not just six feet of flesh and blood that’s lying in the coffin there. This person, when he was alive, helped me, did such and such for me, hugged me, kissed me, fed me. Now all of this at this point of time, I remember with gratitude. Knowing what good has been done to you. A lot of the time we, as children, will say, but I didn’t choose you as my parents. Why should I be grateful? No. Nine months when you were in the womb, what you were going through.
Okay. Now, of course. You are gone. How can I repay you? Kataññutā includes two things. Knowing what good has been done and what can I do to repay.It’s not just gratitude, it is reciprocating that gratitude. I think on a higher level, we can say as citizens, we need to remember that it’s very easy to complain and say that, we deserve better. But if we took the time to recognize how much good we have, is it enough just to sit down there and accept that as if it’s my right? What do I do about it? So my mother has died. I know all that she has done. What can I do about it? I can do good work, and if it is possible, to transfer it to the other side. If she’s in a position to receive (to rejoice at the good deed), well and good. If she’s not, whatever good I do in my mother’s name is not wasted because I have done good. I feel no more guilt, no more guilt. I have done something for my mother’s benefit. The more active you are, the easier it is for you to sort of sublimate your pain until a time comes when you develop what Shakespeare would call the philosophical mind, the mind that says, okay, she has gone and there’s no more pain. I’ve come to terms with it. All right. And of course, don’t forget while I’m coming to terms with it, new losses are coming. That’s kamma. So don’t tenggelam (drown), stay above, lotus flower.
And what about people who do not have good relationships with the dying? Let’s say the parents were abusive. Let’s say the parents were not good, distant and they hold a lot of resentment and grudges, even as their loved ones are passing on. How can one deal with this?
[00:30:24] Uncle Vijaya:
Okay. Before I throw a hot burning coal at you, hoping to burn you, who gets burned first? You. The one holding it. The one holding it. If you’re holding filth and throwing filth at others, imagine your own hand gets filthy first. Remember that. When you are going to talk about anger, you did so and so to me, even before you think of the other person, you have already polluted yourself. So your intelligent mind should say, protect yourself. And how do you protect yourself Four Brahma Vihara? It’s not easy. I’m sitting down here and saying, may you be well and happy. May you be well. How can I say when, when inside me I’m burning and I hate myself. Can you be so negative and then radiate positive? Cannot. You got to work. It’s not easy. Nobody ever said Buddhism is an easy religion to follow. Teaching it is very easy. Do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. All of Buddhism taught (that), which reminds me of a story.
Bodhidharma was a great Indian saint, Buddhist monk who went to China to teach Buddhism. On the way he met a chieftain and the chieftain asked him, tell me what does the Buddha teach? He said, very easy. Do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. And then the guy says, some more. He said, what? Some more what? You ask for three, I give you three. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas. Do good. Avoid evil. Purify the mind. Okay? Then the chief said, Oh, that means your teaching is so simple. Even a child of five can understand. And Bodhidharma replied, yes, a child of five can understand, but a man of 80 cannot practice.
Do good, avoid evil, no problem. It goes back to your question about anger, hatred and all. Nobody said it’s easy, but the higher the mountain, the greater the satisfaction when you climb to the top. So know that it’s difficult, but remember the reward is absolute. You don’t need to wait to die to benefit from the reward of that, you’re saying, if I have anger and hatred, whatever bad a person may have done, especially if it’s a parent, at least that parent gave you life. So all the bad things that came was later, nobody is 100 percent. So you need to take the effort to examine what good did this person do to me? And then dwell on that. Is it easy? Of course not. But nobody said Buddhism is easy.
Then on that note, how can the busy modern person, being overwhelmed by so many responsibilities, what are some small steps or practical things that they can do in their life just to get started?
[00:33:51] Uncle Vijaya:
Start now. Start now. Start with whatever can be done. Simple things like if the maid forgets to switch on the light and before you blow your top, purify the mind, keep telling yourself, look within, look within, look without. Okay. So if you keep all the time watching yourself for mistakes that you are making, don’t worry about others. The more you worry about yourself, the less time you have to worry about what others did to you. You do enough damage to yourself every day. Don’t waste your time with others. Again, not easy.
If you go to Japan, there is a doll that’s like that with a round base. What happens to that doll is called the Daruma doll. When you push the doll, what happens? It comes back. Our Buddhist life is like that. Five precepts, yes, but we break them all the time. But then we say, Kāyena vācā cittena pamādena mayā kataṃ. If by thought, word or deed I have done anything wrong, may the Buddha, forgive me. Buddha is not there to forgive you. You forgive yourself for your negative deeds. You did it. You say, okay, nevermind. Don’t do it again. So, first time I fell. I shouted at her. I know this is wrong. Either I apologize or in a kind way I make up for that. Tomorrow, when she’s going to do that, the temptation is there, but you have already practiced coming back. You come back faster and faster and faster until a time comes when you move from two words – Silava, Silamayo.
We’ll talk about Silava. A Buddha or an Arahant is purified. A Buddha and an Arahant cannot tell lies. It’s out of the system. If you give me a chicken and give me a knife and say, cut the chicken’s neck, I cannot do it, I cannot do it. You know, it’s out of my system. But I can tell a lie.
People love to navigate around that. Maybe a white lie is okay. A half-lie is okay.
[00:36:14] Uncle Vijaya:
We rationalize but the Buddha cannot. On the other hand, we are Silamayo. Silamayo means we are trying to be good. Do good, avoid evil, purify the mind. Fall, come up, do again, do again. It’s a process. It’s a process of purification. This is psychologically very important because otherwise the standards are too high. We cannot be Buddhas overnight. But when we know the system and we are working at it, the purification program, we know that it is taught by the Buddha.
Think of the Dhamma as an ocean. At the beach, it is very shallow. Only your toes get wet, but the deeper you go, the more wet you become. Beginning Buddhism, take it easy. Take it easy. Do what little you can, but as you get more and more purified and you understand more and more, the deeper you get, okay, the more wet you become, but it’s a slow process. Don’t expect instant enlightenment. It takes a long, long time. But it begins with wisdom, it begins with understanding. And that’s the process at which we are in the learning, the theoretical part, but the theory is important. Look within, look without.
Thanks so much for sharing. And I just wanted to circle back to an idea that you shared in the middle of the conversation about kamma. Can you share with us what is kamma in simple terms? And how will that help us to navigate death and life?
[00:38:03] Uncle Vijaya:
All right. Okay. One impossible task. You said simple explanation. There’s no such thing. Kamma is very, very complicated, very misunderstood, very misrepresented. Actually, kamma has gone into the English language. It’s a word in the English language. Kamma simply means action, just action. So at the moment, I’m the action of sitting down. That’s kamma. But in the English language, the nuance is, it’s something bad. It’s something negative. You see, when we talk about kamma in a Western sense, it’s something negative.
Like kamma will bite you.
[00:38:51] Uncle Vijaya:
Yeah, and I think you and I are both guilty of the same thing. When anything bad happens to us, we say what to do, my bad kamma. But if anything good happens, we say, thank God. You see, thank God and my kamma. That’s not all. Kamma is simply a very neutral word. No sentiment attached to it, but it can be negative or positive. Kusala (wholesome), akusala (unwholesome). And both of which is very important. You said simply, where does kamma begin? Now we are talking about purifying the mind. Kamma begins in the mind, it has to be motivated by that. That’s why I say kāyena (deeds), vācā (speech), cittena (thoughts). We have a thought, we have an intention, cetāna. That intention is translated into speech, into the body and into the mind. Body, speech, mind. All kammas originate in this way. If there is no intention, there is no kamma.
I’m walking on the road and I don’t see a cockroach and I step on the cockroach, the cockroach dies. I am not guilty because I had no intention of killing the cockroach. On the other hand, I see the same cockroach and I hate cockroaches and I (step on the cockroach) and say to hell with you, bad kamma has been made. Same action, one has intention, one has not. Very important to make that distinction. Now that intention has two streams. One stream is that intention is controlled. The intention comes from lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), moha (ignorance). Remember the ignorance, the anger, the greed. Now that is the defilement that is inside our untrained mind. Because they are all three negative, the intention is guarded by that, out comes anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, my whole body, all my actions are polluted. So bad karmic actions derive from bad sources. And what are the bad sources? Lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), moha (ignorance).
Incidentally, an Arahant (Enlightened being) has eradicated all of that. Therefore, Aloba (non-greed), Adosa (non-hatred), Amoha (wisdom). So the defilements have turned positive, these positives control the intention, the intention governs the kāyena (deeds), vācā (speech), cittena (thoughts). So basically this is kamma. So if you want to realign your Buddhist practice, look at your Lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), moha (ignorance). Your illusion gives you a sense of an “I”, “I” gives you a sense of “my”, “my” gives you a sense of “self”-ishness. When I work for my own benefit at the expense of others, that’s bad kamma. I create akusala, non-skillful.
Notice this is not a sin, a very important point. It’s not sin. God tells you don’t do something and you curi-curi (secretly) go and do that. So that is a sin. This one no. This is motivated by ignorance. Not knowing any better, you do this. This is unskillful. On the other hand, with the teaching of the Dhamma, you understand and you know this killing of a cockroach is wrong. I refrain from doing this. Also, because I have now taken the Buddhist path. And I’m now realigning my journey. I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to attain Nirvana, which is a completely different thing. So everything that I do leads me towards my goal. This we call Kusala. Kusala is skillful, nothing to do with crime and punishment, nothing to do with sin. It has to do with doing things that lead you up and things that lead you down. Kusala, skillful. Akusala, unskillful. So I don’t punish you for doing that. I don’t condemn you. If you knew better, you won’t do it.
And the one who doesn’t know better is suffering a lot as well.
[00:43:42] Uncle Vijaya:
Is suffering more than you think, yes. All those guys in jail, all those drug addicts, all those murderers. Do you think if they had a better life, they would do what they did? No, so what we need is our compassion and our understanding towards the wrongdoer, not to punish him, but to educate. And this again, Buddhist teaching. It is education, which is our strongest social not punishment and incarceration.
Wow. Thank you so much, Uncle Vijaya.
[00:44:20] Uncle Vijaya:
Was that a simple explanation of kamma? There’s a lot more to kamma.
I have a lot more questions, actually. For example, the intentions could be… Not crystal clear. So I can give you an example where I feel something crawling on me and then I will just, you know, just absentmindedly, try to move it away and maybe somewhere in my mind, I know, okay. It’s probably an ant. I don’t like the ant, but at the same time, I also didn’t think too much. Then I accidentally killed it. So is that good or bad kamma?
[00:44:48] Uncle Vijaya:
You are guilty of unmindfulness.
Oh, that’s such a thing.
[00:44:54] Uncle Vijaya:
Yes, that is a very important thing. A lot of the time we say, you are not as guilty as if this sensation comes, you know it is an ant, you hate ants, your anger arises, your hatred arises, and the amount of energy you get, like, argh! The amount of energy spent creating those negative emotions, that is what you pay for. On the other hand, a mosquito comes and you say, Okay, you’re unmindful. If you’re mindful, then you’ll say, Ah, stop. You are training yourself.
And when you say we pay, what does that mean? Because some people will have funny ideas of like, Oh, next time I will then become that mosquito or ant, and someone will squeeze me…
[00:45:41] Uncle Vijaya:
One to one. Absolutely no, no, no. Kamma is not just one. Kamma is one of five cosmic laws. And you said, keep it simple. We’re getting very complicated. The universe operates on five natural laws, cosmic laws. And these are called Niyamas. Utu Niyama, Bija Niyama, Citta Niyama, Kamma Niyama, Dhamma Niyama. Utu Niyama, physical laws. Physical laws of gravity and so on. (Bija Niyama) Biological laws, okay? So, organic, inorganic laws. Psychological laws, Citta Niyama. What happens in the mind? Then you have Kamma Niyama, moral laws, right and wrong, good and bad. It’s only one law, all of this. And then you have what is called Dhamma Niyama. Dhamma covers all of this. Like the Tao, the Tao is this together with everything that entails it. It’s a little bit complicated.
But the point I want to make is, you don’t get necessarily punished according to karmic laws, things can go wrong. If you are born as a human being, you cannot but die by the time you are a hundred. You can’t say it’s your bad kamma that you had to die. That is where your biological laws come into play. Now, when a tear comes out of my eyes, the obvious thing is, I’m in pain. I’m crying. Not necessarily because I’m sad. It could just mean dust has gone into my eyes. That’s another biological law. That’s the point. Not everything runs according to karmic laws.
So maybe just to wrap things up. Is there anything else that you would want to share about grief, loss and the topic that we discussed today?
[00:48:02] Uncle Vijaya:
Grief, loss, and so on, as we said before, the Five Niyamas (cosmic laws) again come into play. All of these are natural occurrences. When you suffer, don’t suffer with the suffering. In Malay, we would say, when you fall from the ladder, don’t let the ladder fall on you. So equanimity, patience, understanding. These are the words that we have to develop as Buddhists. You don’t have to pray to the Buddha. Praying to the Buddha is a physical thing. Very helpful, very necessary to align us spiritually. You see, understand how the universe operates according to those five laws. So don’t blame everything on kamma. Death is one such thing. You don’t necessarily die because of your kamma. You die because as a human being, you cannot live past this. So we have to accept that. Sometimes it appears as if, at 17, one walks down the road, gets knocked down by a car and we find it very hard to accept. In that case, there may be a karmic influence. Whatever it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. Yeah. There’s nothing we can do to change it. And whatever we do, we are sort of physicalizing our pain.
So Buddhism teaches us to take a rational view of death, separation, and don’t expect it to be otherwise. This is the way kamma works. This is the waysamsara (cycle of birth and death) operates. If you try to change it, you’re going against the stream. On the other hand, if you understand it, you are developing peaceful states of mind within yourself. You want to help those who have gone on to the other side, there’s very little you can do because their own kamma controls them. Okay, but it does you good because you are creating positive states of mind, especially Kataññutā, gratitude. You are physicalizing this gratitude. In the meantime, you are creating the four Brahma Viharas, states of well-being around yourself. These states of well-being, which you are practicing genuinely with understanding. These, you radiate. As you radiate around you, you become a source of happiness, and that’s your purpose in life, to be a source of happiness to others, including the smallest cockroach.
Thank you, Uncle Vijaya. This is very inspiring. I hope to all our listeners out there, you have learned something, and if you like this episode, please like, and subscribe to our Spotify, Handful of Leaves and share with your friends. And if you want to find Uncle Vijaya, you can search Buddhist Gem Fellowship. You can see some of his wonderful, wonderful talks on YouTube as well. Thank you very much, Uncle Vijaya. Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu.
[00:51:38] Uncle Vijaya:
Sadhu to you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. May you be well and happy. May all our listeners be well and happy always.
Sukhi Hotu – A common Buddhist greeting that conveys the wish “May you be happy and well always.” When greeting more than one person, the plural, “Sukhi hontu” applies.
Kamma – Intentional action of moral import (producing for the agent an inevitable result or consequence in the same or another life). Can be Kusala (wholesome) or akusala (unwholesome).
Kataññutā – Gratitude, acknowledging the good that has been done to oneself.
Brahmavihārā – Four states of well-being i.e. mettā (Loving-Kindness), karuṇā (Compassion), muditā (Altruistic Joy), upekkhā (Equanimity).
Five Niyamas – Five natural laws that affect physical and mental phenomena i.e. Utu Niyama (Inorganic Laws), Bija Niyama (Organic Laws), Citta Niyama (Law of Mental Activities), Kamma Niyama (Moral Law), Dhamma Niyama (Natural Laws of Existence).
Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
Hello, welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. So we will be getting up close and personal with the founders of Handful of Leaves, getting to know their journey with Buddhism, their personal life up and down and to understand why the both of them come together to found HOL.
[00:00:17] Kai Xin:
Hi, I’m Kai Xin. I co-founded HOL with Heng Xuan. I’m an introvert. That’s one thing to know. I run an agency in my day job. This is something that I’m doing on a voluntary basis.
[00:00:29] Heng Xuan:
Hi everyone, my name is Heng Xuan. I work in the finance industry. I did HOL because I felt there was a gap in the Buddhist landscape. So I got Kai Xin into this wild roller coaster to do Handful of Leaves. But a bit more about myself. I enjoy working out daily, just sweating it all out, especially after one tough day of work. That’s about me.
I must say, Xuan is everyone’s personal fitness coach. Dragging everyone to the gym and making sure we clock our workout hours in. I think Kai Xin has also been a victim of that. Yes.
[00:00:58] Heng Xuan:
Supporting my team.
So, yes, let’s know a little bit more about your journey with Buddhism.
[00:01:06] Heng Xuan:
For me, I started Buddhism, I’m brought up in a family that’s pretty much nominal Buddhist. So it means that at every start of the year, you go to the temple to pray and all of that. And then you just offer joss sticks. And then the temple is very nice, they give you a pencil and ruler.
[00:01:18] Kai Xin:
Okay, yeah, never got that before.
[00:01:20] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, it’s basically to be smart, and hopefully, the ruler helps you pass your exams.
[00:01:24] Kai Xin:
Then why I’m not as smart? I never get a ruler.
I thought the ruler was for your parents to whack you.
[00:01:29] Heng Xuan:
I mean, if you don’t study hard, then yeah, it’s a great mechanism there. So for me, growing up a nominal Buddhist, I went to a mission school and then that made me question like, what am I doing? Maybe it’s cooler to join Sunday service and stuff. So I experimented with a lot of different religions. Then came a point when I was 13, and there was a newspaper article advertising this monk, talking about Ghost Month. It was actually this monk called Ajahn Brahm. And I was like, eh, very weird, eh. There’s a Caucasian monk talking about Ghost Month. So, my mother said, you wanna go? Then I was like, just go.
And then I found myself straight away diving into Buddhism, cause there was a group called Buddhist Fellowship Youth. They had bowling, they had singing, karaoke, and as a 13-year-old, I think that was really fun. Going there for the friendship. Then after I started learning Buddhism, I took it off all the way to where I am now.
Wow, I love how from a nominal Buddhist, all these little seeds that were planted by the temple, the Ang Mo Monk (Ajahn Brahm), your mom really just brought you into understanding the Dhamma. I’m very curious, what made you dedicated to giving back to Buddhism?
[00:02:23] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, so I started off as a kid that was really impulsive, and also angry at times. Cause I did karate and I will actually try out the different techniques. I will fight with fellow classmates in secondary school and in primary school. I wanted to just charge through life. Everything must go my way. And the Buddha taught that not everything goes your way, right? A lot of things are outside of our control. And that change that I saw in myself improved my relationships with people all around me. And that’s something that I want to bring across to people around the world and help make people’s life really more light, and less dark.
And it’s beautiful how it all started from yourself. You noticed the change, and that’s how you wanted to give back to other people. I’m very curious if you had something similar with Xuan as well, in terms of your journey.
[00:03:07] Kai Xin:
Oh for sure. So Xuan was the one who brought me to Buddhism. He’s like my 贵人 (benefactor), I always say that. Yeah, and Buddhist Fellowship is where I started. We met at an orientation camp in Poly and he’s very good at recruiting. So he’s like, oh you like meditation, right? There’s a retreat coming up. So I’m like sure and what stood out to me was first, I never knew that meditation can be taught. I thought it was just breathing, just sit there, close your eyes. I remember it was a one-day retreat and it felt really good. So I thought there must be something deeper to that.
There were a lot of talks around misconceptions of Buddhism, and it blew my mind because being a nominal Buddhist, my mom and my dad would pray. I would always go to Guan Yin Ma temple at Waterloo Street. I didn’t get a pen and ruler, but I would ask Guan Yin Ma to bless me for good results. Yeah okay lah, can pass. But I realized there’s something more to that.
So when I got to know about the misconception, it blew my mind because I realized that, hey, what I was taught from young, I thought that was Buddhism, but it’s the complete opposite of what the Buddha taught, right? Rites and ritual, it is a good form of increasing our faith, but it’s not the thing. It’s really about releasing ourselves from suffering. And then I started volunteering as a youth leader. So again, he recruited me to be a part of the EXCO member. Yeah, just constantly serving. It feels like a crime to not give back because I’ve benefited so much.
That’s a very huge statement to make actually.
[00:04:37] Kai Xin:
A crime. Really, really. It’s like you’ve benefited from someone or something and then you see other people who can also benefit from it. And you just turn a blind eye. Like how could you do that, right? The analogy would be if you see a kitten that is injured on the street, are you just gonna walk away? Yeah, so when people ask me for help, then I would say okay. Yeah, sure. Why not? And I don’t see myself doing anything other than serving the Dhamma, it’s like the most meaningful thing that anyone can do, I feel, yeah.
Wow, I think it’s interesting you brought up the presentation that Xuan made about the misconceptions about Buddhism because that was when I had an aha moment when Xuan presented that exact same deck. And I actually reached out to say, could I use this presentation and share it with the KL community because it was that impactful. I was like, wow, it really changed my mind as well about what Buddhism is about.
Fun fact as well, I was also introduced to the Buddhist community by Xuan through one of the camps, the Pushing Boundaries Camp. And that’s how I got in touch with all the other communities. So thanks, Xuan!
[00:05:41] Kai Xin:
Another fun fact, Cheryl came all the way from Malaysia to Singapore for the camp, based in Singapore. So really kudos to you, and now you’re residing in Singapore.
Yeah. Yeah, awesome. I love how our journeys are all kind of interconnected in some way. All these little seeds are planted. But what brought you guys together to actually work on HOL?
[00:06:03] Kai Xin:
You have to ask the brain behind it.
[00:06:06] Heng Xuan:
So I think Handful of Leaves is pretty much a COVID baby. We actually talked about many ideas. So over the years, Kai Xin and I did many, many random stuff in the Buddhist community, from selling stickers to selling T-shirts just to make Buddhism cool again. So the start point for Handful of Leaves is actually many years before, but the little thing that pushes you across is COVID. Vesak was coming and there were lots of Buddhist Organizations that were really optimistic that they could still do Vesak Day. So we decided to just curate this directory that allows people to actually seek out where they want to go.
So that is how we actually get the emails. Then after we get the emails, we get the data of how many people visit our website, and how many people go. Then we started to curate, how can we build a resource for people to anchor their practice on. And that’s where we found there’s a huge gap because in the Buddhist world, you will only have the option of Dhamma book or listening to one and a half hours of Dhamma talk and you have no clue what is Kamma, what is Vipaka, all these random Pali words. And we felt that there’s a gap and we said, yeah, let’s do this. Let’s give it a trial. We do user testing and all the funky tech stuff. Yeah, coming together. That’s how we kind of started.
And what made you decide to work with him?
[00:07:18] Kai Xin:
Oh, I’m super aligned with the goal and also I feel the urge to fix this problem. So the Vesak directory was kind of like a band-aid, a very short-term solution to a bigger problem, right? Yes, we direct people to different online Vesak events, but what is next? And just now he mentioned Pali words and… Things that are not very relevant or accessible to people at least from a language standpoint or you have to go through maybe pūjā which is chanting, the rituals in order to then get the gem of the teaching some people they don’t even know, what am I chanting? Is this a cult? You know, like what does it sound so foreign? So boring. Yeah. So if we do it in a very traditional way I think the barrier to entry for people to understand the true Teaching is very high. When we were talking about the directory, we said, actually what is bigger than this? Content? We are actually quite lagging behind in terms of the Buddhist scene. We don’t have much content on the net. Even if we have maybe the website would look very 1990s and it really takes a person who is truly seeking to be able to get past that to then uncover the golden nuggets behind it.
So, what Handful of Leaves really stands for is practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. Because you really want to make it very relevant and accessible to what is happening in the day-to-day challenges that you don’t usually hear of in the temple. Yeah. So, for instance, the taboo subject is premarital sex. Is that a misconduct? Because people feel guilty about it and there are genuine questions around. And I think it is a little bit more tricky for monks and nuns or monastic members to talk about such things or even down to How do you take care of your mental well-being at work, toxic workplaces? So I’m very aligned with that, just like, yeah, sure, let’s do this. And here we are three years later.
HOL is like your toddler that’s three years old. Do you think that the problem that you’re trying to solve from when you first started is still the same?
[00:09:13] Heng Xuan:
I would agree that it’s yes and no. We plug the gap. It’s a ship that has many holes and you’re like hammering in one after three years and then you look behind you and there’s more holes to fill.
Oh no, it’s like whack a mole where everything keeps coming up. Yeah, correct. Yeah.
[00:09:28] Kai Xin:
So I guess the first hole that we were trying to fix on the ship was how do we get more reach so that people who are truly searching would be able to find us. So we have social media. And people do find us organically on Google as well. Then, the next hole that we are trying to fix right now is, okay, now we are volunteering. It takes a lot of time and also a lot of effort. I mean, you will know because you are doing the podcast with me, right? Like transcribing and stuff. It takes a lot of effort. It’s like a full-time job on its own. Then, it becomes an operational challenge that we have to fix. How can we sustain this in the long run so that the ship can continue to sail?
Then there are more problems. When we engage with our community they start saying, hey, can you talk about this particular topic? You’re like, okay. We are not that experienced about this then what should we do? We invite experts and constantly experimenting with different ways of providing practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.
And you agreed with her. Do you want to share more?
[00:10:23] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, so I think the whole idea, why I think that there’s relative success is, we found actually quite a number of individuals finding us through Instagram and then after that beginning their Buddhist journey by joining other Buddhist organizations out there and they’re really actively serving. So to me, that’s very good validation that our funnel works in bringing people into the Dhamma and giving them opportunities to practice.
Where I say that, no, we haven’t achieved that, is because there’s still so much to be done. There are still so many media resources that we can leverage and we just don’t have the bandwidth, or the manpower to actively push for it. Like for example, doing video podcasts like this is like a rarity, right? It’s so hard to get the resources in place. But we know that that will increase our reach. Yeah, so these are the things that we still under-penetrate the markets.
Yeah, I think of course there’s a lot more potential for HOL to grow, but don’t underestimate how far you’ve come. Yesterday I was just speaking to a colleague randomly and she’s like, Hey, I know you are doing a podcast. I ran into your podcast. I was like, scanning my brain. Did I tell her? I don’t think so. So I asked her, how did you find it? She said, Oh, I was just looking for mindfulness content and I came across this podcast. And I was like, wow, yeah, SEO. It’s very heartening to know someone that you don’t promote this, just found it and hopefully found it beneficial as well.
[00:11:42] Kai Xin:
And I think it’s also heartening in terms of the impact we create. So some fun facts about how we evolve, right? The visuals that you see on our website and our social media, many of them are created by a volunteer and she started without knowing us. She was a reader of our content and she found it really interesting. And then her friend was like, Hey, you know, they’re looking for volunteer designers. Do you want to sign up? And here she is. I think she’s been volunteering for over a year, right? Yeah, so shout out to You Shan, thank you very much.
And I think we have a lot of other examples of readers, listeners who just benefitted from all of the content and they just want to help and want to give back. Very similar to how you all started as well. You all benefitted from it personally and you want to share, yeah.
You have mentioned that you all met each other long ago. So it’s about 13 years? Yeah, so let’s get a bit more personal. Let’s see how well they all really know each other. So these are very basic questions. I will ask something about Heng Xuan that Kai Xin has to answer and Heng Xuan will validate whether it’s correct or not. Very, very basic one. What is Heng Xuan’s favourite colour?
[00:12:52] Kai Xin: Red.
[00:12:53] Heng Xuan: Not bad.
[00:12:54] Cheryl: Okay, correct. And what is Kai Xin’s favorite color?
[00:12:57] Heng Xuan: I think it’s also red.
[00:13:03] Kai Xin: I think I know why. It’s hard to guess because I don’t wear the colour.
[00:13:07] Cheryl: Okay, I’ll give you a hint. It’s something to do with monastic colours.
[00:13:11] Heng Xuan: Oh, okay. Orange.
[00:13:13] Kai Xin: Close. If you dilute it a little bit more.
[00:13:16] Heng Xuan: Yellow?
[00:13:17] Kai Xin: Yes.
[00:13:18] Heng Xuan: Oh wow, that’s like so off. Okay.
[00:13:20] Cheryl: Guys, you’re getting exclusive content here. For the first time in 13 years, Xuan finds out about Kai Xin’s favourite colour. Very good. And next one, what is Heng Xuan’s favourite food?
[00:13:35] Kai Xin: I mean, he’s a vegetarian. I suppose his favourite food will be related to tofu.
[00:13:41] Heng Xuan: Walking Tofu (Xuan’s IG account). I like noodles. It’s very generic. It was supposed to be like very carb-y, yeah.
[00:13:52] Cheryl: She’s just trying really hard now. And what about hers?
[00:13:58] Heng Xuan: Wow. Hor Fun.
[00:14:00] Kai Xin: I hate Hor Fun! Oh no, he does not know me! I don’t eat Hor Fun, it makes me nauseous. I only eat it when I’m in the mood.
[00:14:09] Cheryl: Wow! You can’t get more off than that!
[00:14:14] Kai Xin: We only know each other’s working style.
[00:14:19] Heng Xuan: Cuisine, maybe I’ll say Indian food.
[00:14:22] Kai Xin: I love Indian food, but no, that’s not my favourite. It has something to do with the colour, yellow.
[00:14:27] Cheryl: It’s something to do with Thailand as well, let me give you that.
[00:14:30] Heng Xuan: Pad thai.
[00:14:31] Kai Xin: How are yellow and pad thai related? Oh my goodness.
[00:14:34] Cheryl: Okay, before HOL doesn’t exist after this call, I will reveal the answer. Kai Xin’s favourite food is actually mango sticky rice.
[00:14:41] Kai Xin: And it’s also hard to guess because I seldom eat it. For practical reasons, mango sticky rice in Singapore is not nice and it’s really expensive.
[00:14:48] Heng Xuan: It’s high in calories as well, so please watch your waistline.
[00:14:52] Kai Xin: We’re not fat shaming. But it’s okay to indulge moderately.
[00:14:57] Heng Xuan: Don’t get diabetes.
Yeah, the fitness guru. Okay, so now let’s move into the second part of this conversation, which will be a little bit more about the challenges and difficulties of running a Handful of Leaves. I think you mentioned it was almost like a full-time job. Why do you dedicate so much time? Where do you find the passion, energy, and drive to run this on top of your day job, other personal commitments, and everything else?
[00:15:28] Heng Xuan:
Well, the short answer is that you don’t have a life. So I feel there’s always a lot of time leakage in our day-to-day life. I’m always very happy to see where I am wasting time, be it on commuting or Instagram and stuff, then that’s where your willpower dies. So these are all the pockets of time you can actually find in your day-to-day life. So that’s one part.
Motivation, I guess, is the fact that there are a lot of people backing us right now on a monthly basis, sponsoring all the different things that we do together. To me, that keeps me going, and the people saying that they appreciate our content. Not that we are just throwing out trashy content, and then the motivation dies very fast. But the fact that people say, hey, this actually touches me where I really needed it right now, then that makes you say, I’ll continue working and serving the people because the happiness of others and peace in others is something that no money can put to it.
When you really see the impact there and the lives that you touch, this doesn’t become just numbers. You really remember, wow, these are the people that you have served.
[00:16:27] Kai Xin:
Yeah, quite similar for me as well. It’s in hindsight that I feel, oh wow, the work that I’ve done has touched people. But when I’m doing the work, I don’t really think much, I just do. So it’s pretty much like, if I’m free, I’m doing Dhamma work. It never felt to me like a chore. Unless, perhaps when it gets very, very stressful, when I have too much on my plate, then I would feel like, I need to be doing something else.
But when I’m doing Dhamma work, I just do it, and it feels very fulfilling. I’m actually enjoying the entire process. So it feels very natural for me to find time or time just naturally appears. Over time also when we also hear about success stories and people that we do not know randomly sponsor us items or subscriptions online. You can visit our support page, for as little as $10 per month, then it becomes a different level of motivation because you can’t just do this because you feel like doing it. People truly see the value and you have to live up to that. Maybe that’s also some form of pressure to not want to disappoint people, but it can get unhealthy. So that’s a separate story altogether.
We need to hear that.
[00:17:38] Kai Xin:
I was just having a conversation. I’ve not told Heng Xuan about this, but I had a conversation with one of the sisters. We are seriously talking about the future of Handful of Leaves. We are doing this on a voluntary basis, but it almost feels like a full-time job, right? The conditions are now right because our job is relatively stable, it’s not like we have to OT or life is not too stressful. So the conditions are right now. But we’re not so sure what will happen in 2024. So I had this conversation with a sister who’s the mom of the crew behind the camera. I was just sharing with her some of the challenges we might face and that we don’t want to disappoint sponsors because we can’t just slack off and not put in our work when people are trusting us with their money. And she gave a very good piece of advice to say, what makes you think that people are expecting you to do X, Y, and Z just because they have contributed? Maybe they have contributed because they found value in the articles that they read or the content and they say, Hey, let me support. But they don’t think too much about it. This I cannot validate. So if you are a sponsor, please let us know if you have expectations.
But we have been having ongoing discussions about like, we had to be transparent. Let’s create an annual report to show people where the funds are going because we truly care about this. And we want people to care about this together with us. Somebody has to keep us accountable, basically. Yes. Yeah, so I’m not too sure whether that leaks into an unhealthy level of stress or pressure, cause those are assumptions that we make. Yup. I think the turning point is, she kind of questioned, are you sacrificing your life aspiration just because of this assumed expectation that people have? So, that was like… I mean, in our separate lives and including yours as well, we do have things that are going to unfold in 2024 and Handful of Leaves, running this is going to be quite a big consideration when we make those decisions.
Yes, I’m processing it because it’s a lot that you have shared and it’s very multifaceted, right? It started out as a project to help people, but then now when you actually have people really benefiting from this and endorsing and supporting this, then it becomes like a lot of burden on you as well. And of course, we are only humans. As much as we can optimize the time leakage, there are times when we can feel stress or burnout as well. I’m wondering if there was a moment in this three-year journey where you felt like HOL was not going to work. I just want to give up.
[00:20:11] Kai Xin:
The first part, yes. Giving up, no. I’m not sure about you.
[00:20:16] Heng Xuan:
I manage the pipelines for the articles, right? So I think there were certain moments where we were two weeks away from having no articles or no content to publish. And those are the moments where you’re like, I think we’re going to die here and run out of content. There are moments, I won’t say give up, but maybe like pull back a bit of production. But then we realized that some people have told me that they actually bookmarked our page. I was just like, cannot give up lah. But it’s also very hard to find articles and find different content angles. So I think for me, I feel it more in the sense of like, wah, want to give up kind of thing. But of course never lah.
Luckily, thank you for holding on.
[00:20:54] Kai Xin:
I agree with the latter part. I’ve never thought of giving up because I won’t give up Dhamma. I mean the work will probably manifest itself in a different way, a different way of giving back. But in terms of, it will never work, I think it’s also similar to the pipeline issue because it’s very dependent on our daily commitments, right? So let’s say if I am down, I fell sick and I didn’t batch enough content, then what’s going to happen? It’s not recommended, but… For real, both of us, if we are sick, we’ll still be doing Handful of Leaves work, or like Dhamma work.
She was even doing it when she was hospitalized for Rhabdomyolysis.
[00:21:34] Kai Xin:
Yeah, spin class.
And she was like (typing sound) in the hospital.
[00:21:38] Kai Xin:
It’s the most conducive environment because you’re on your bed and then food is served. You don’t have to spend time anywhere else.
[00:21:44] Heng Xuan:
But please don’t go to spin class to get Rhabdomyolysis, to get time off work. I don’t recommend it.
[00:21:48] Kai Xin:
Take care of your health.
[00:21:50] Heng Xuan:
Yes, but spin is good.
[00:21:55] Kai Xin:
I love all these plugs. Not a sponsored ad, just saying.
No, but I’m actually very curious because how do you know you’re not pushing yourself to the extreme? Because sometimes when you feel like it’s for the good of a lot of people, I have to do it because I don’t want to let people down as well. But how do you know you are taking care of yourself adequately as well? What is that balance?
[00:22:16] Heng Xuan:
For me, it’s like I try to meditate every day. So I try to meditate twice a day. If I start to meditate once a day, I know, okay, something’s not going as well. You know you’re actually close to pushing yourself over the edge when you actually see a lot of frustration, a lot of anger arise. And because the mindfulness is there, it’s actually able to catch. But once your mindfulness is anemic, it’s weak, then it will not be able to catch the defilements. Then you know you’re actually close to the burnout point already. So I think for me, that’s the telltale sign when you get frustrated at things that wouldn’t usually frustrate you when you’re doing stuff.
So TLDR it’s like when you start seeing yourself getting crankier.
[00:22:48] Heng Xuan:
Yeah. When you get cranky and the defilements arise, then you’re like, okay, I’m nearly there so I need to chill.
But have other aspects of your life taken a toll as well? ’cause you prioritize Handful of Leaves?
[00:23:01] Heng Xuan:
I don’t know but I still have a very healthy balance. I can cook my own food and I have a very awesome relationship with my wife. So it’s like…
[00:23:09] Kai Xin:
Need to validate.
[00:23:15] Heng Xuan:
So I also have friends, I think.
If you’re a friend of Heng Xuan, please like the video.
[00:23:24] Heng Xuan:
Please. Yeah, so I don’t think it has taken a toll. It’s just like trade-offs. I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I see it as a trade-off. Like, if you want to go out with friends every night, you can’t do Handful of Leaves. Confirm. If you wanna travel the world and do a lot of things, very hard to do Handful of Leaves. So yeah, I think these are the trade-offs, but not sacrifice. Trade-off means what you’re giving away to take on something. Sacrifice is like, oh, I give up.
Yeah. The trade-off seems to be very intentional. There is a sense of willingness because you know it’s important.
[00:23:50] Kai Xin:
Yeah. That’s something I really admire about you actually. Even though you’re very occupied, right? You always go to the gym, and then you still make time to hang out with Angela, your wife, and then Handful of Leaves, and I don’t know how you still go and meet different people every week even though you’re an introvert and still excel at your day job. For me, it’s actually quite the opposite. So, sometimes… The trade-off would be, that I might be a hermit, I just don’t meet people. Sometimes I can stay in my room for days and just come out for meals. She can validate because we are like housemates.
For me, the yardstick would be in terms of emotion as well. Typically, I’ll feel it in my body, or if I’m really, really tired. So yes, when I was hospitalized, I was still working on Handful of Leaves, but it’s not compromising my health because mentally I was still really clear. It’s just physically I cannot really walk. So if I am diagnosed with a different illness then yeah, I would just take a break and I would tell myself that I don’t have to push myself so hard.
In terms of other things, I think it’s just regulating our energy as well as emotions. And if my negative emotions were to spill over to other people, then that’s where I know sleep is affected. And then I need to re-look at taking a pause and then restarting Handful of Leaves again.
Can you share a personal moment in your life where you were going through very difficult times, and it was really a struggle to… Keep going at the pace that you were going.
[00:25:20] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, I don’t think it’s like Handful of Leaves per se. There was a time when I was working in Thailand as a management consultant. I was so tired that actually I walked into a glass wall. And that is actually the moment I knew like working 16 hours a day or 18 hours a day is not sustainable. And I think the way to look at it is to take a break and see if is that something that you really want. These are the moments like, oh, I cannot keep going at this speed. Trying to manage this, trying to manage that.
Thanks for sharing.
[00:25:48] Kai Xin:
So this is gonna go very personal. Spilling the tea. I think my romantic relationship is being compromised. I have made a very rather firm decision that I think Dhamma is going to be what I will marry myself to. And people might disagree, but to me from a very logical standpoint when I’m doing Dhamma work and when I’m serving people, the level of value and impact that I can bring is a lot wider. It’s a lot more people rather than just one person. I can choose my life partner, but I can’t choose my family. So I still value family time a lot. I try to make it a point to, even though I’ve moved out, to meet my parents. We go on family trips, et cetera.
But to then make a decision to enter a romantic relationship is something that I’ve always held back on. Cause I feel like if my partner is not going to be doing the same thing that I do, it feels like I’m being stolen away from my partner. So it’s a running joke that I’m married to the Dhamma. Yeah, so it’s personal in a sense because it’s a decision that I’ve made and I feel pretty at ease now. I’m not so sure about next time if it makes sense. People listening to this might disagree.
First really thank you for sharing something so personal but I think it really boils down to what is important to you and there’s no right or wrong about this. Perhaps listeners will be like, no, I think maybe Dhamma would be ranked one, two, three, four, after everything else, but that’s fine also. But it seems to be very clear to me that for both of you, Dhamma and the practice and propagation of it is ranking number one.
[00:27:28] Kai Xin:
Number one for me lah, I’m not sure about…
[00:27:30] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, I view it as like many universes, there are many planets.
[00:27:35] Kai Xin:
I feel like you balance it quite well. So that’s something I would never be able to do and I really respect that about you.
[00:27:40] Heng Xuan:
They say that there are many balls in life, right? There are glass balls and there are rubber balls. And you must know at every point of your life, which are the glass balls and which are the rubber balls. The moment you fail to recognize that, you drop the glass balls and it’s gone. But the rubber balls will come back, they will bounce back. That’s how I view the whole ecosystem. The universe of relationships and all the things that you hold in your life.
Oh, that’s a really good one to think about. What are your glass balls and rubber balls in life?
We have come to an end for all the questions that we wanted to ask. But I’m actually still very curious about your personal practice and your relationship with the Buddhist practice itself. What is your relationship with your own suffering after encountering Buddhism for the many years that you have?
[00:28:27] Kai Xin:
I guess it’s to define what suffering is and then the relationship with it. In the past, when I first started, suffering felt very gross, why Buddhism is so pessimistic? And it feels like I have to cry and break down to define myself as I’m suffering. But over the years, I realized also to practice that even though I don’t have those, breakdown, and burnout moments, I am still suffering in a very subtle form. For instance, clinging onto my views or maybe my ego or my sense of identity that I always have to do Dhamma work. All of this, unless I’m enlightened, would still constantly be a source of practice and reflection, right? Am I dissatisfied at any point in my day?
So, the relationship has changed to something more nurturing. I don’t blame myself for feeling negative or feeling certain unpleasant emotions. Yeah, and just like, oh yeah, you’re just a work in progress. You’re progressing, and these are the yardsticks. You’re doing well, and it’s okay to backslide a little bit. Just put in an effort in the future, and it’s a dance, it’s a very nice dance. So I think, now, I can say I’m in a good place, I don’t attach too much to the things that I do or views anymore. Yeah, but people around me can tell me otherwise. It’s like blind spots, right?
I think the first thing that I get from you is like, you seem a lot more gentle with yourself. You could be very harsh to yourself in the past.
[00:29:56] Kai Xin:
Yeah, I am still very self-critical. It’s something that I’m still working on. Yes, but more gentle.
Thanks for sharing.
[00:30:04] Heng Xuan:
I think for me, suffering I used to want to get rid of it. I would actually watch YouTube videos or watch movies. Last time I really loved watching movies, like you enter a whole new world. And that’s actually pushing away suffering. Like most of us start from the angle of, I see suffering, I want to run away from it. I want to push, I want to indulge, I want to eat a lot of ice cream or whatever and get away from it. And even to a certain extent, working out to get rid of the stress or run away from emotions.
But right now actually, the relationship with suffering is seeing it on a smaller level. Seeing how you cling to certain views therefore you become unhappy. And I think last time I could be angry with something for like maybe one week. And now it is as little as 10 minutes. I can let it go.
[00:30:44] Kai Xin:
I’ve never seen you angry before.
[00:30:45] Heng Xuan:
Yeah, so I rarely get angry now. I think maybe less than twice a year kind of thing. Wow. So it has really improved. One of my Dhamma friends said, if you die tonight, will that anger matter anymore? Then that kind of thing strikes at you and you exit this whole suffering, self-created suffering. But I’m a big fan of this thing called chosen suffering.
So basically, there are certain things that you do that you don’t like to do, but you choose to do it because it’s good for you and because life is going to throw at you unchosen suffering. So all of this is training yourself to reach a better state of mind, so that when unchosen suffering hits you, you are ready for it, you can bounce back. But if we spend our life choosing to follow all our pleasures, then it’s going to be difficult because we’re not going to be prepared for that day, and that day will come when unchosen suffering like aging, sickness, and death comes.
[00:31:38] Kai Xin:
That’s so true. So your chosen suffering is at the gym?
[00:31:43] Heng Xuan:
Actually, it’s not just at the gym, right? So chosen suffering comes to the point of like eating well, when I commute I don’t use social media, I listen to Dhamma talks. And not every day you want to listen to Dhamma talks. But that commute, even if you’re not in the mood, I will just tune in. Because some Dhamma talks are just 10 minutes, which is like super good. Or even for those people who are very busy out there, then perhaps 3 minutes. dhammatalks.org
[00:32:06] Kai Xin:
Or you can listen to our podcast.
[00:32:09] Heng Xuan:
Sometimes you don’t like to meditate, right? Don’t tell me every day you…
[00:32:11] Kai Xin:
No, of course. There will be times when you feel like, ah, why?
[00:32:15] Heng Xuan:
Correct. And that’s the chosen suffering that we all try to do every day.
[00:32:19] Kai Xin:
Wow. That’s powerful.
Yeah. So choose your suffering well so that you’re training yourself, you’re cultivating your mind to have that sense of resilience that when life throws you lemons and unchosen sufferings you’re able to tap back into that strength to overcome it. With that, I think we’ve come to the end of the episode. So thank you for sharing Kai Xin and Heng Xuan. And thank you listeners for staying to the end. If you like this episode, comment and let us know if you want to see more of this kind of video.
[00:32:49] Kai Xin:
If you haven’t subscribed, please do so now It would really help us to increase the reach and also the algorithm.
[00:32:55] Heng Xuan:
Every time you subscribe, we can reach 10 more people. That’s just amazing. So just help us subscribe and make someone’s day. You’ll never know.
Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei, Zayn See, Yu Xiangzhi
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl, and today we are back with another episode. I am here with Alvin, a friend who has experienced and struggled with drug addictions in the past. He’s here today to share a little bit more about his learnings, and his journey. He wanted to give back to society after seeing how the Dhamma really helped him in his journey.
Hi, Cheryl. Hi, guys.
I’m very curious about how you started getting into drugs.
So, an ex-friend actually introduced me to drugs. When we were in primary school, they told us to stay away from drugs, right? They told us we’d get hooked easily. I guess at that point, I was just curious. Oh, is it really true that a few puffs will really get us hooked? So I went ahead and tried it, which is a very bad idea.
Right. Curiosity killed the cat, but in this case, curiosity got you hooked. I see. And what happened after that?
Your work, your health, your relationships friends, actually everything got affected. Because almost every moment I was thinking about drugs. In a way, deep down a part of me also feels guilty. I know this is wrong but, I just can’t help it. The addiction basically just takes over. To be honest, I broke all the precepts except for the first one, the killing of another human being.
Because I was using crystal meth, the whole time I was feeling like I was no different from an animal or maybe a ghost? Basically, I was always craving for drugs. It increases your sexual desire, you are impulsive, and you have frequent mood swings. Because I have a bit of anxiety, it actually increases the anxiety attacks.
I see. What was the turning point to get out of your addiction?
I mean, I feel like I’m a being from the lower realm. When I look at my friends, I basically feel that something is actually wrong with me and I need to change. That is when I started to do my own research on the Dhamma and modern psychology to help myself get out of the addiction. Basically, abusers will glorify the highs you can get from the substance, and they don’t look at the negative effects on your mind and body.
I watched videos on human anatomy created by healthcare professionals, to watch what it does to your organs, your brain, everything. In that process, I listened to Dhamma teachings. I make the effort to go for meditation, sign up for retreats, speak to Bhantes, and share my problems with them. Going through all these Dhamma activities, I also made Dhamma friends. I also share my problems with them. All of them gave me advice and helped me.
And because of meditation, I looked inwards, and I realized that being in addiction, my behaviour, my thinking, everything was distorted. It’s really like beings from a lower realm. I must just keep making the effort to replace negative habits with refined habits and negative thoughts with refined thoughts.
That is actually very similar to what the Buddha said of Right Effort and Right Intention. The Buddha shared that essentially when you have wholesome, skillful states of mind, you make the effort to make it more abundant. If it has not yet arisen, you also plant the seeds so that it will arise. Then on the other side if it’s unwholesome things, if it has not arisen, you try to make sure that it doesn’t arise. But if it has already arisen, you make the effort to cut it, abandon it, and don’t indulge too much in it. That sounded very similar to what you shared as well.
Just in reference to what you said about feeling like a being from the hungry ghost realm, I think it’s a perfect simile because they are usually depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, and small mouths, and their limbs are very thin and very emaciated. At the same time, they have very large, bloated, empty bellies. In the domain of addiction, when we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb that insatiable yearning for happiness, relief, or fulfillment, we will always feel empty inside because these substances, these objects, these pursuits, we hope that it will help us to be happy, but it will never give us the happiness that we need. And we will haunt our lives without ever being fully present.
Like beings of the lower realm, there’s no way we can create merits because our views are distorted. Even though we think that we are doing something virtuous, actually it’s not.
Can you share an example?
I have a friend who introduced me to drugs. After every session, he will share some so-called TCM with fellow drug users to help them to relieve the symptoms. He thinks that he is actually doing something virtuous to help people, but actually, he’s not.
You can’t blame him, but indirectly he’s actually giving people the wrong idea that you can actually remove the toxins from drugs using TCM after you use them. But they didn’t know actually crystal meth affects your brain immediately when you take them. So what he’s doing is actually relieving the symptoms after the drugs which actually doesn’t help to remove the damage to the brain.
Interesting. So he himself probably has that wrong belief as well, that it’s the right thing. And he goes on to perpetuate that. And I think that is the danger of not having Right View, right? When you don’t have Right View, you firmly believe that what you’re doing is actually going to give you happiness and you follow it. The result of that is obviously suffering to yourself and suffering to others as well. These are very painful consequences. Were there any relapses in your journey to recovery?
If let’s say after you stopped using for three months, you suddenly go and take a puff, it’s considered a lapse and not a relapse. A lapse is just a slip. I have a few lapses here and there. If I remember it’s around maybe three. After every lapse, I will feel extremely guilty. Oh no, I actually took a puff. I’m such a terrible person. I thought I made the motivation to stay clean. How could I do something like that? After feeling guilty, I have to maybe look back and see what causes the slip. Is there anything I missed out? Maybe some context I didn’t delete or maybe the triggers. So after every lapse, if you make the effort to learn from it, it will prevent the next lapse from happening. It’s basically like riding a bicycle. If you fall, you get up and then you continue riding. If you fall and you just give up, then you won’t be able to ride a bicycle.
But what gave you the motivation to come back up again? It’s so tiring, right? You are literally fighting a battle that is very hard to win because it has already affected your neural connections. So what gave you that strong drive?
I relate to beings of the lower realm, right? If I don’t want to get out of the addiction, I’ll always be a being of a lower realm. I’ll always be stuck there and the worst thing is in this life and in my future life. So yeah, that gave me the motivation. Also because I did some meditation, I have to be mindful that actually I’m fighting the defilements. It’s the defilement that keeps pulling me back. I stick a note on my wall to remind myself that thoughts are thoughts, memories are memories. Just come back to your breath. So whenever thoughts try to trigger me to pick up the substance. I just remind myself that, that’s not me. That’s just my past habit. So after a while, usually after a few minutes, the thought will go away. So you just have to keep fighting it.
You have to endure it within the few minutes when it comes on strongly. Alvin, I must really say that I really admire how much wisdom you have. This wisdom of seeing things clearly in the sense of seeing the drawbacks of being in this lower realm. First, you compare yourself with your friends, you’re lagging behind because of this addiction. Second, realizing the drawbacks of how rare this human birth is, but at the same time being stuck in the lower realm, traps you into not being able to do any goodness, any merits. With that wisdom, that really pushes you through all the difficulties, even though there were lapses in your process of learning how to ride the bike.
The Buddha shared the second of the Eightfold Path, which is the idea of Right Intention. Being firm on this idea of renunciation, letting go of ill-will, keeping yourself in goodwill, keeping yourselves in loving kindness. Being firm and resolved on the idea of harmlessness to yourself as well as harmlessness to other people. This is called right resolve or right intention in which you set your mind firmly to move on into more wholesome activities, more wholesome bodily actions as well.
I’d also like to add that every time I go for Dhamma activities, the Bhante or the Luang Por will make us retake the Five Precepts. So every time I retake the five precepts, it reinforces the motivation to stay away from all these substances. Every time I go to these Dhamma events, I see my Dhamma friends there. I shared with them my addiction and they are like my safety net. So every time I meet up with them, they will ask me, how are you? Indirectly, they will check in on me. I also made promises to Ajahn and Luang Por. Every time they see me, they’ll also ask me. It gives you the additional protection. It’s quite helpful. Maybe those who are actually struggling with addiction can apply it to themselves.
Thank you so much for sharing. You’re very, very lucky to have this supportive community of spiritual friends and more importantly, spiritual teachers that you respect. When you make aspirations in front of people that you respect highly, I think you’ll take that more seriously as well. Your defilements will be a bit scared of it as well. And what are the biggest changes in your Dhamma practice in these two and a half years?
I will say that my mindfulness has increased. I have more opportunities to create merits, go on retreat, and do things that truly benefit myself and other sentient beings. It’s a big gain. I will use a simile right now, I feel like I’m a human being. And I’d kind of go further into maybe Deva?
For all our listeners who have not heard of this term, Deva usually refers to the higher beings. It could be something like deities, angels, or beings of the higher realm that are in a way superior to the human realm. And I guess that is also the path, right? In a way, we start off as puthujjanas, which means that we are not really wise, we break the precepts, and we are a bit heedless here and there. And then as we do more goodness, we start to practice generosity, then that’s where we become kalyanajanas, meaning good people or good beings. Then as we continue on the path and practice, cultivate, and purify our minds, hopefully, we can be Ariya-puggalas, which basically refers to noble beings where our minds are purified as far as possible from the grasping of greed, hatred, and delusions. And Alvin, I just wonder, are you happy now?
Basically, in the past, every weekend, long weekend was the time when I met my friends for drugs. But right now, I have the time to listen to teachings and really spend time with my loved ones. I feel that really benefits myself and other sentient beings. The happiness is different from the happiness you get from drugs. Drug-induced pleasure is basically short-lived, just for that few hours you feel good, but after that when the effect wears off, everything starts crashing down. Whereas the happiness I feel from creating merits, listening to teachings could last for up to a few days. So every time I do something good on Sunday, I listen to a teaching, and attend Dhamma activities, every time I recollect that memory, it actually brings out happiness.
It’s actually referring to merit arising. It’s the idea that when you perform meritorious deeds, you can constantly recollect to bring up joy in your mind as well. You can also recollect your merits in times of sadness or depression. You remember the good that you did and that joy can continue to sustain you. And this kind of joy is very different from the pleasures of drugs or even the pleasures of shopping. You go and shop or you’re going to eat good food after a while you’re like, I’m hungry again. I need the newest bag. I need another car. It’s unsustainable.
It’s very interesting because a lot of people don’t understand that this kind of craving is not sustainable and if you just look into material society, everyone is running around for the bigger paycheck, the next big thing to buy, the next thing to own. “Encircled by craving, people just hop around and around like a rabbit caught in a snare. Tied with all these fetters, all this attachment, you go on to suffer again and again for a long, long time.”(Dhammapada 342) And this is actually in one of the Suttas as well. Then the Buddha says, don’t be like that rabbit. “Anyone on the path should dispel that craving and should aspire to dispassion for this endless craving for oneself”.(Dhammapada 343)
What Buddhist teachings inspire you the most these days?
I’d say the Four Noble Truths. From my own experience, I find the suffering of being addicted actually gives me the motivation to seek a path out of that suffering. In the process, when you look inward, you realize that the problem is not from the outside, but from the inside. So once we are able to fulfill our internal needs by looking inward and also relating to our own experience, then we realize that actually, the pleasures of the material world can only give us temporary happiness. It isn’t sustainable. Nowadays, I find that doing my meditation, it’s actually able to give me that happiness that material pleasures can’t fulfill.
I’m wondering what was it that you were craving that you hoped drugs were able to give you.
It was the loneliness inside and also trying to find the quick and easy way out to fulfill the internal needs. Unfortunately, it could only make things worse.
Yeah, unfortunately, it just worsens and perpetuates your suffering, the very suffering that you wanted to run away from initially. Wow. That’s powerful. I’m very glad, that you also have the right conditions to go back to the Buddhist teachings. A lot of people, once they go into drugs as strong as crystal meth, it’s a one-way road down to deterioration and you’re able to still turn back.
Yeah. Basically, that is also what I told myself because I keep asking myself, I have the condition, my life is actually good, and I don’t have any problems with my family, or my friends at work. Why am I doing this to destroy my own life? This gives me the motivation to want to stop the addiction. If you don’t have any meditation background, you can look for a teacher and learn meditation. When you start looking inward, you realize that we have the choice to change our future. So it’s actually really up to us. We can’t rely on external things to make us feel better.
You have to only rely on your own efforts, to persevere through and then you’re able to find inner happiness, but we’re also very lucky at the same time that we have the Buddha who taught the Dhamma and have a wonderful community of Sangha to show us how to practice well this path so that we only have to put in the effort to go through this practice.
And as you wrap up that chapter of your life, there were definitely some things that you have remorse for. How do you deal with that remorse and regrets of the past, the people that you’ve hurt, and perhaps even your loved ones?
I just use the simile, it’s something that I did in my so-called past life. I can’t go back and change the past, but what I can do is I can change the present. So I just do well right now and I can create a better future for myself and the people around me.
Just focusing on the present. With the faith that what you’re doing in the present is good, the future will ripen with good seeds as well. In the Buddha’s time, there was this serial murderer, Angulimala who killed 99 people to get their fingers. Then the last one he wanted to kill was his mother. But the Buddha, out of his compassion, saw that Angulimala was going to do a very, very big offense. So he went there to try to stop Angulimala and Angulimala wanted to kill the Buddha instead. He’s like, huh? Okay. I don’t kill my mother. I kill the Buddha. But then of course the Buddha cannot be killed. So using his psychic powers he kind of floated away while Angulimala was trying to chase after him. Then after a while, Angulimala got really tired and he was like, Stop running, Buddha, please.I’m tired. Then the Buddha said, Oh, I have stopped for a long time.
In that passage, what he’s referring to is actually not about the running, it’s about the craving. He has stopped all these cravings for a very, very long time. Then of course, with the Buddha’s amazing ability to teach the Dhamma according to everyone’s conditionings, Angulimala became one of the Buddha’s disciples and eventually became an Arahant as well. He even made the blessing chant that after becoming the Buddha’s disciple, I had not killed anybody before. By the power of that truth, may this protect anyone who’s going through difficulties in giving birth or in labor. So it speaks to the potential of all of us regardless of what bad deeds we’ve done or whatever foolishness that we have committed in our past that there is hope to change ourselves as long as we put in the effort. As long as we are able to find the Dhamma which corrects our Right View and to walk on diligently, then we can attain to the Path.
And I guess addiction, there’s a lot of forms, right? Eating disorders, sexual addiction, porn, even video games, gambling, social media. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with any form of addiction?
I came across this quote that actually motivates me. Addiction is the only prison in the world where one holds the key. For someone who is in deep addiction, who wants to get out they might feel a bit helpless, it’s like, what do you mean I hold the key? It’s very difficult for me right now. Yeah. So actually I would encourage people to just get professional help if they really need it. It’s okay, it takes courage to admit that you have a problem. Get help if you really need it.
And I find it very interesting because, in your own journey of recovery, you actually didn’t seek professional help, right? You were kind of DIY, do it yourself. So it’s interesting that you gave the advice that it’s okay to look for help. Why do you give this advice?
Although I didn’t get professional help, I did talk to Ajahn. It took me quite a while to get out of that remorse state. We can expect everybody to use the Dhamma to help them. Some people might need professional help. So there’s no one-size-fits-all method for everybody.
You have to find what is suitable for you at that point in time. And at different times, you will require different things as well. Yes. You were saying it took you quite a while to get out of that remorse state. But eventually, in retrospect, what you realize is that… There’s no point in clinging to the past and the present and the future is more important. Okay. What was the turning point, which gave you that aha moment?
I heard this teaching from Luang Por. Every time we recollect something virtuous,it’s like we are doing that virtuous action again. Similarly, if we keep thinking about the negative things we do, we are actually indirectly doing that negative action again. So I have to tell myself whatever is done is done, just move on. If I really want to benefit myself and all sentient beings, I have to move on.
That is very powerful. I really love that. Thanks for sharing. Amazing. Is there any last thing that you want to share from your experience with struggling with drug addiction?
There’s this method which I find quite helpful. Perhaps you can use something of higher value to overcome the addiction. So something that fits your principles and your personal values. In the past, I’ve always wanted to be a fitness instructor. So actually I also make use of fitness, like going to the gym, taking out new sports to overcome the addiction, and using that drive to help me get out of the addiction and also to pursue my dreams.
What if someone doesn’t have any other value and the value is just seeking happiness? Drugs give me the highest happiness, they can say.
It’s still a form of wanting to seek happiness. To me, it’s still a value. You could actually replace that addiction with something positive. Get a friend to help you to try something different, learn a new hobby, et cetera. Then you can compare and contrast. To see that actually, there’s something that could be even a higher form of happiness compared to the substance I’m attached to. Just try to take the first step.
Yes. The first step might sound extremely scary, and difficult. But always know that there are alternatives to the drugs that you’re taking which harm your body in very severe ways and there are other ways to obtain happiness that actually continues to contribute to your long-term happiness as well. That could be a better option as well. And I’m actually very curious. You say that you have already cut off the friends who did drugs with you, I guess the dealer as well. Have you forgiven them?
To be frank, for a period of time, I was blaming them. But I realized that actually I also have a part to play. So just see everything as due to causes and conditions. So just move on. Cause if you keep dwelling, having anger towards them, then you’re actually still trapping yourself in the past.Just have compassion for them as well, because they don’t have the Right View. They don’t have the merits to encounter the Buddha’s teaching. That’s why they are actually doing something that they think is right, but actually it’s wrong. In the future, they have to bear the consequences of their actions as well. So they deserve compassion and empathy more than anger.
That’s very wise words as well, because at the end of the day, no matter how people manifest in their actions, no matter how evil, how selfish, or how unpleasant it is, everyone is really just seeking happiness in the ways that they know how. It’s unfortunate that people sometimes seek this happiness through ways that cause them more harm because Kamma is the action and intention and the results of this action and intention will always be by your side. You will always be related to this Kamma. You always be associated with this Kamma. You always be with this Kamma. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to bear its results. So in a way, you’re right, they deserve compassion a lot more than they deserve anger. It’s very, very wise of you and very compassionate of you to be able to notice that, and I rejoice with your wisdom.
We’ve come to the end of this episode. Thank you so much for sharing on a topic that not many have experienced, but yet also relating to. I guess that’s the humanness of all of us, the suffering that all of us share together in wanting to be happy, and trying to find the best ways to be happy as well.
To our listeners, I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and you’re able to apply some of these gems of wisdom and compassion in your own lives. If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five-star rating on Spotify and share this with your friends. Until the next episode, stay happy and wise.
Special thanks to our sponsors:
Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei.
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
TLDR: How would a conversation about Buddhism from three different perspectives (a Professor of Asian religions, a Zen monk and a Tibetan nun) turn out to be? Will we wake up in 2050 seeing true happiness?
*NOTE: This contains Spoiler for the film Waking up 2050*
In a world where technology and materialism often take centre stage, the quest for true happiness becomes even more elusive. Waking Up 2050 is a thought-provoking documentary that takes us on a journey to explore a common understanding of Buddhism from varied angles and its relevance in our ever-changing world.
Directed by Ray Choo, this film offers diverse perspectives from individuals living with Buddha’s teaching or learning and teaching it (Ani Pema Deki, Kodo Nishimura, and Prof. Daniel Veidlinger) shedding light on the profound teachings of Buddhism and its potential impact on our lives.
The documentary seems like separate interviews merged into a film without the questions asked out loud, an interesting structure as the viewers could still understand what the interviewees are referring to. The futuristic visuals serve as an additional anchor for contemplation with the presence of the director is cleverly noted in narrations throughout the film, gently steering the topics for the viewers.
Labels are often used for practical reasons, mainly as a point of reference in communication with others. We need a common term (e.g. a person’s / object’s name) for a conversation to be as effective.
Prof. Veidlinger teaches Asian religion at the University Chico and is often asked by students about the definition of Buddhism.
“Whatever people call it, I don’t know and I don’t very much care what it’s called”
Prof. Daniel Veidlinger
Let’s investigate: what is Buddhism, in conventional meaning and its true meaning? Some may define it in the rituals, some may define it as philosophy, others may categorise it as one of religion, or even differentiate it as spirituality.
What does being a Buddhist mean to individuals and society, and its true meaning? Or is ‘being a Buddhist’ what we need/should strive for?
Buddha said ..you don’t deserve the label ‘outer robe wearer’ just because you wear an outer robe
‘Outer robe’ represents a perception. How much does perception of oneself and others affect our definition of the surrounding world, including how we interact with that surrounding world?
Kodo Nishimura, a Zen monk who also dresses up and works as a make-up artist – is he fitting in the definition of ‘monk’? By whose definition? Would Lord Buddha approve of this choice?
Interestingly, monastics in Japan underwent a fundamental change from Buddha’s Vinaya (monastic rules). There were records of monks getting married during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
However, the further secularisation of monastics for some sects was cemented in 1872 which allowed monks to be free to “eat meat, take wives, and shave their heads” as they chose.
Scholars suggest that allowing monks to marry was a ‘necessity’ to allow the continuance of inherited temple land to be passed on. The taking up of jobs beyond being a monastics was also done to fund their livelihood as some temples did not receive enough donations for day-to-day living.
Hence, this film might bring some form of cognitive dissonance for viewers who are used to monks being celibate and not in the ‘business’ of running temples. However, viewed through the lens of Japanese contemporary Buddhism, this is more rule than the exception.
He is not a monk just because he lives on others’ alms. Not by adopting outward form does one become a true monk
When Kodo Nishimura was uncertain whether he was disrespecting Buddhism by also being involved in the fashion industry, he sought advice from his Master and strengthened his conviction in his choice.
“The Master said if the message can be delivered to many people and you can spread it easier, I don’t think wearing something shiny is a problem”
The notion that monks are still involved in worldly roles (e.g. taking up occupation), even if the intention is to expand Buddhism and draw more laypeople to be interested in the teaching – would’ve been something beyond the concept of ‘monastic’ to me. However, when applied to how Buddhism has developed in Japan, this brought me to a greater understanding and how perceptions can differ by magnitudes when history & culture intersects.
Even though his views differ from my personal opinion, I found it helpful to not be overly attached to how a monk should behave in this film and instead just let that disagreement sit peacefully within me.
Japanese Honen Buddhism, Bhutanese Vajrayana Buddhism, and Thai Theravada Buddhism – are these conventions created by the mind? What are the benefits and drawbacks of such segregation and categorisation?
“The Dalai Lama often says Buddhism is religion, philosophy and science”
Ani Pema Deki
It seems to be a much deeper assessment than simple external perception. How many of us have genuinely adopted the full teaching to pass judgment? Or rather, would it still matter when one does reach such a level of realisation?
It feels like the effort to clarify such conventions may be less relevant to me, than using the same effort to take on the practice – of which the clarity would most likely arise from the journey.
Buddhism is often linked to Asia. In Southeast Asia where it is one of the major religions, many follow traditions that could be considered cultural practices (e.g. 7th lunar month prayer or praying to gods in general).
Where does culture and Buddhism meet? A way of life or a teaching? When those in Asian countries do things ‘a Buddhist is supposed to do’, does that make us a Buddhist?
“..if one sees the core Buddhism as a self-transformation, conquering desires.. to emerge into a more enlightened mode of thinking.. seeing the world as it is.. realise they’re impermanent – then the vast majority of Buddhists are not really practising. .. Though the essence of Buddhism is that there is no core that doesn’t change”
Is there a benefit to an outsider’s mind looking at these practices and rituals to understand Buddhism? Is it a practice done in a specific place/time or can it be part of life? Embedded into our mindset, habits and values.
On the other hand, the female monastic topic has been an ongoing conversation. Ordination for female monastic is not allowed in many Buddhist lineages due to some scholars arguing that since the nun’s order died out long ago, it should not be restarted.
Restarting it, they argue, requires breaking the rules set down by the Buddha which required the presence of already fully ordained nuns. Hence, this creates a circular argument which cannot be easily resolved. For some who do, it isn’t at the same level of recognition as male monastic and with more rules applicable to females than males.
Emma Slade was ordained in Bhutan, taking the Buddhist name Ani Pema Deki. And because she has had a child, Ani Pema Deki feels that her ordination is the result of luck. Nevertheless, she feels the experience of caring for her child, a vulnerable being, with patience and love has helped with her practice.
“It is real combination and it’s very useful for the path”
Ani Pema Deki
When we ask ourselves, what is the reason I’m following this teaching? What has arisen for us: because that’s how it is with my family/society, or because I choose to follow the path from my understanding.
For many (including myself), it could start as automatic family/society culture and evolve into intentional choice from the ground of clearer understanding – which can be a path of its own.
Happiness in the world and beyond
The mind that is bent on finding meaning (or ‘happiness’ as it thinks), defining what’s right or wrong according to convention – seems like a turning circle with no end or rest. Similarly, the intention to present what is thought to be ‘perfect’ to the external world, is futile.
Amongst diverse worldly experiences packaged to bring happiness in the progressive world, will we wake up to true and lasting happiness when we arrive in 2050?
The next time we start a conversation with ‘I am..’, how would we continue the sentence? When we ‘do’ Buddhist instead of ‘be’ Buddhist, that’s probably a reminder to investigate the intention behind it.
At the end of the day, which is the more important question? Is the label used to refer to happiness or the actual path to arrive at true happiness?
“The teaching of Buddha-Dharma is limitless and boundless”
In a world filled with uncertainty and rapid change, Waking Up 2050 aims to shed a guiding light, and illuminate the timeless wisdom of Buddhism and its potential impact on our life, today and into the future. As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, the teachings of Buddhism offer solace, inspiration, and a roadmap to true happiness. Let this documentary catalyse self-reflection and a source of hope as we strive to awaken to our fullest potential.