How often do we wisely choose our workplace?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

How often do we wisely choose our workplace?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

Editor’s note: 

Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to think about, in this mini-article series.

TLDR: We spend more than a quarter of our adult lives at the workplace. Knowing how to choose your workplace can either build or destroy your character. Choosing the right people, and culture, and asking the right questions is crucial!

Principles in the financial world and the Dhamma

The term Dharma/dhamma is something that brings up the mental image of a Californian long-haired hippy with incense and drugs, spouting free-love, with flowers in their hair. 

In reality, the term Dhamma is simply a set of conditionality or principles: this can be seen from how they are described, which are usually sets of conditionality i.e. if A happens, that allows B to happen, etc. 

So that is why in my mind, “Applying Buddhist Principles at Work” is the same thing as “Applying the Dhamma at Work”. 

Ray Dalio, a famous hedge-fund manager, who wrote a best-selling book “Principles” gives us further insight into the workplace. His book is about the principles he used to grow Bridgewater Associates into one of the largest funds in the world: that is a kind of Dhamma for hedge funds (and decision-making), with many overlaps with Buddhist Dhamma. 

Instead of ‘lazily’ applying the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths, I’m taking a first-principles approach to the Dhamma at Work, but without necessarily being MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive). These are decisions and actions that anybody probably needs to act on, at work. 

These are my personal views on the matter, so please feel free to look at it differently. 🙂 

I should also caveat that these Buddhist principles might not make you rich or conventionally successful. But you will probably sleep well at night, and probably suffer a lot less, and be happier! 

The following decisions need to be made by anybody with regard to any workplace.:

  1. Choosing a workplace
  2. How to look at issues and matters, and how to decide
  3. How to treat people at the workplace
  4. How to conduct oneself

This article will cover ‘Choosing a workplace’ with subsequent articles covering the other areas.

Choosing the place where you spend a quarter of your adult work life

A workplace is an environment where your mind will be in, for a substantial amount of your life. 

A week has 168 hours: a typical work week takes up anywhere from 42 to 120 of those hours, which is 25% or more of your total time. That’s where your mind will be at. 

What happens at work also spills over to the rest of your life, shaping your mental state for your week. Hence, I think choosing a workplace is perhaps the most important decision to make.

So how should we choose a workplace? I have a few factors to consider.

1. Choosing the people

The first factor to decide about a workplace is the people you’re going to be working with. You become the people around you

This was so important, that Ananda (who was the Buddha’s personal attendant) was rebuked  by the Buddha for saying that the good friendship was only half the Holy Life:

When a bhikkhu (monastic) has a good friend, a good companion, and a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path. 

SN 45.2 Half the Holy Life

The same consideration applies to choosing our colleagues. 

Why is it so important to choose your colleagues carefully? This is because of anatta, or non-self: if there truly is a self that was fully in control, then the environment wouldn’t impact any individual. 

But precisely because anatta or non-self is true, we humans are influenced easily by the people and environment around us. 

Choosing the workplace, especially choosing the people you work with thus helps shape our own minds and conditions. 

2. How do I know if the culture is right for me?

Related to this, is whether the culture of the team and workplace you’re joining is a good or bad culture. How do you know if it’s good or bad? And good or bad, with reference to what? 

Choose a workplace culture with reference to your state of mind, and your progress on the Eightfold Path. 

If you go to a workplace and you end up having a lot of strong desires, that’s probably not good. 

Nothing below a five-star hotel

When I was working with a previous employer in finance, an ex-boss said to me “You know, PJ, I can never stay in a hotel less than five stars, and on a plane less than business class.”

I was horrified and asked why. She said, “because I am so used to this, that anything less is really uncomfortable.” 

It was suffering for her, basically, because the financial industry had norms that were extremely expensive. And that’s when I realised that the industry was Super Samsara

That’s when I decided I had to leave because I also noticed that many of my colleagues and peers were not happy, not very healthy, and used their high pay to “buy happiness” outside of work, indulging in all kinds of expensive things. 

The layoffs happened

When we were laid off due to the financial crisis, I heard an ex-colleague had cash for only half a month’s worth of rent in her bank account, because she had spent all her income on spa packages, pedicure packages, gym packages, branded clothes, bags, drinks, expensive dinners, etc. 

So she was desperate to get another high-paying job as a banker, even though the market was flooded with retrenched bankers. 

My own state of mind back then was extremely unhealthy: strong desires, bad-tempered, and lacking sleep (I was working 90-120 hours a week). 

Even though it has taken ten years to get back to the base-level salary I earned in the investment bank, I still think it was the right decision to leave (or rather, to get laid off). 

The Buddha gave this advice on how to choose a place for a monastic: 

Buddha: Take another case of a mendicant who lives close by a jungle thicket. As they do so, their mindfulness becomes established, their mind becomes immersed in samādhi, their defilements come to an end, and they arrive at the supreme sanctuary. But the necessities of life that a renunciate requires—robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick—are hard to come by.
That mendicant should reflect: ‘…
I didn’t go forth from the lay life to homelessness for the sake of a robe, alms-food, lodgings, or medicines and supplies for the sick… they shouldn’t stay there.

– MN 17 Jungle Thickets

This advice isn’t just for monastics but is applicable to anyone who is intent on walking the Path. 

What’s perhaps most interesting is the subsequent instruction from the Buddha. When your meditation, mindfulness and practice aren’t good, due to your environment,

That mendicant should leave that jungle thicket that very time of night or day; they shouldn’t stay there.

That’s how important the Buddha placed the effect of a place on one’s mind. 

Asking the human mirrors you live with at home

How should you apply this learning, if you don’t really meditate nor keep precepts

A simple way is to ask the people who live with you: are you becoming more gentle, kinder, and compassionate? Or are you becoming more of a pain in the ass to live with? 

That will tell you how your mental cultivation is going. If your workplace is causing you to be more irritable, have strong sensual desires, and crave more material things, then you’re probably in the wrong place. 

And if you see that a workplace is full of people with big egos, anger, strong sensory desires and material things, those workplaces are probably the places to avoid.


Wise Steps:

  • Understand the impact of colleagues on your mind and choose them wisely. Which of your colleagues improve your mind, and which do not? 
  • Check-in with the people you live with if your character has improved or worsened since you joined your firm; this is one of the best indicators of whether you chose the right place. What do they say? 
Ep 14: Being Average & Not Knowing What to Do In Life (ft Tai Ling Ling)

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

Ling Ling  00:00

To compare  those who are in the position of a jack of all trades to someone who is specialised, I feel really sorry for them. Because it’s basically saying to a fish, you fail at climbing a tree, when actually you’re built for swimming in the water.

Kai Xin  00:17

Hey, friends, this is Kai Xin and you’re listening to the Handful Of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddha’s wisdom for a happier life. Do you feel average, average in a sense that you’re good at a bit of this and a bit of that, but not great at anything in particular? And when you look at people who  ‘made it in life’, people who have figured it all out, people who are celebrated for their expertise, does that makes you question your life? What do I really want? Am I meant to be doing what I’m doing right now? Should I be doing something else? And the more you ask these existential questions, the more stuck you feel. But what if you’re meant to be good at a little bit of everything? And what if not having a clear plan about the future is completely okay. And that’s what we’ll be exploring in this episode.

Kai Xin  01:26

Cheryl and I chat with Ling Ling, who was an engineer, a trainer who has a Master of Science in Psychology, and now back to being a student. A jack of all trades, some would call her, and she’s perfectly happy being that. It is the combination of courage and curiosity that made her walk the nonlinear path with joy. And this episode, we uncover the balance between having a plan and being spontaneous. Knowing what to do when we’re at a crossroad and the clear steps of how to get unstuck in life, you also get an inside view of how to answer this classic question from a job recruiter. Where do you see yourself in three to five years time? Stick to the end of the episode to hear all of our candid answers to the questions. Now, let’s dive right in.

Kai Xin  02:22

 It’s so good to have you Ling Ling join us on this episode. And I believe we can all learn from your very unconventional path and wonderful experience. So today, we have our co-host Cheryl and myself to ask you some tough questions that might get a little personal.

Ling Ling  02:37

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Kai Xin  02:39

Maybe you can share with the listeners. If you were to choose between planning and being spontaneous, which would you choose?

Ling Ling  02:49

Actually, I believe it’s good to be comfortable with both, to be able to plan for things, and to be spontaneous because there are times in life when you need to do the planning, and there are certain times in life when being spontaneous is far better. So to give a personal experience in 2008, which is around the Asian financial or the global financial crisis, it was after some years of working as an engineer and a technical trainer, I decided to switch careers from being an engineer to a psychologist. So in order to become a psychologist, I decided to take my first master’s programme in psychology in the UK. And this particular master’s programme is special because it is designed specifically for people from other careers who want to join psychology field, it’s called a conversion programme.

Ling Ling  03:39

The plan was that at the onset of the financial crisis, after graduation, the financial crisis would be over. And I would then be able to find work in the field of psychology after graduation because in the past, when there was a financial crisis, or there was a recession, it usually takes about a year or two years to turn around. And the programme itself was about two years ago, so I figured, okay, once I graduate, I can surely find something in psychology. But as it turns out, the 2008 financial crisis lasted much, much longer, and it didn’t work out that way. After graduating from my master’s programme, it took me more than a year to find actual work, it was so so difficult to find work in the UK at that time. And not only that, I faced discrimination, I was running out of savings, I worked odd jobs to survive. And at that time, after almost a year of trying to look for work, I really didn’t know what to do. I hit the lowest period of my life. It came to a point where I only had less than 100 pounds in my bank account. And I wasn’t too sure whether I should remain in the UK in order to continue to look for work in psychology or to return back to Malaysia (because I’m from Malaysia.)

Ling Ling  04:56

So at this lowest period of my life I was feeling so stuck. I was feeling really anxious. I didn’t know what to do. But this spontaneous idea that came to mind to go on a meditation retreat. I don’t know why meditation retreat, but I needed to go on one. And I needed to make sure that as much as possible, this could be like a really cheap retreat or a free retreat, if possible because I only had so much money in my account. But thank goodness, we had Google that time. And from Google, it brought me to a website called Goenka Vipassana, and they had like a centre in the UK called Dhammadippa, which is fantastic, because they had a 10 day silent retreat in the countryside of the UK, and it’s entirely donation based. So it’s up to me how much I want to donate at the end of the 10 days retreat, and they provide your own room, as well as food, which is fantastic. Also, with a little bit of searching and a little bit of luck, I found a bus company that was able to provide bus tickets for one pound each way- one pound to get there on one pound to return. So I thought, okay, yes, this is fated for me, I gotta go to this silent meditation retreat. And this retreat introduced me to Vipassana meditation. So Vipassana is a Pali word, meaning insight. So in translation, it’s called Insight meditation. So basically, Insight Meditation is the training of the mind to observe bodily sensations as well as the content of the mind. Because I was introduced to this meditation technique, it really changed my life totally, like, from that moment on.

Ling Ling  06:47

My life gradually became calmer, and more balanced. And even though I’ve met different challenges in life afterward, I had greater confidence to face them and overcome them. So there was that act of spontaneity, allowing the universe or the life to show you paths, so your choices, but also there was that plan of mine, you know, trying to look for work after graduation. So there are times when we need both planning and spontaneity. And you also have to remember that, when you planned plans do not rarely turned out as planned. Because as we grew up, we were taught to plan the days or years of our life. But when we are so focused on our plan, we lose our ability to be spontaneous. And when you’re spontaneous, their incomes, all the other things that are wonderful to like, seeing different connections, being creative, having more fun and having more play in your life. When we’re not spontaneous, we also cut ourselves off from serendipitous moments, all these coincidental connections, meeting random people who could be the best friends or the love of your life, or you could see things in your environment that give you quiet signs that point you down a different direction in life that could probably give you greater happiness, greater love, greater joy.

So to me, you need to be able to plan of course, because that’s how things move forward. You need to complete tasks to meet deadlines, but you also need spontaneity to be able to broaden your mind, bring more fun and creativity, and so on. I hope that answers your question.

Cheryl  08:28

Yeah, I think that definitely answers the question. And I think it’s a very nice balance also because when you’re planning you’re giving yourself direction. And when you’re being spontaneous, you’re not forcing yourself to the stuck kind of outcome that you want. You’re allowing, you know, the world to open up to you meeting new people, like you say, you know, in the beautiful word that you used serendipitously. Serendipity. Yeah. And I was just wondering like so you said after the vipassana retreat, you felt more calm and more balanced? And did you feel like you shifted your personality or worldview in the sense that you became leaning more towards spontaneity? Or are you still you know, kind of very stuck in the middle of like planning and spontaneity?

Ling Ling  09:16

It was a drastic change. It was a gradual change because what the retreat taught me is that it is a daily practice. It’s not something where you know, you take a pill, you change overnight. If you stop practising it, you lose the balance of your mind. I don’t lean towards either planning or spontaneity. I use my own life experiences, as well as gut feeling and wisdom, which is better. For example, right now I’m doing my second master’s programme. I’m studying the psychology of intercultural relations. And of course, I cannot be spontaneous in my data collection, and spontaneous when I feel like writing I actually have to sit down and come up with a plan. And how many articles do I read this week and how many notes do I need to write because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline. But in between those times, because I’m doing this Master’s course, in Portugal, I would also like to explore and experience what life is like in Portugal, so I need to create or plan spontaneous moments where I can go out and understand the culture, meet different people and just experience what Portuguese life has, you know, presents itself to me. Yeah. So you can plan spontaneity, and you can be spontaneous and your plans too, like me suddenly deciding to come to Portugal to do my second master’s programme. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Kai Xin  10:44

I really liked that. I also have a personal experience, actually, all my life, I realised none of my plans go according to plan. Like, I wanted to go to university. In the end, I started a business and because of starting a business, I have more flexibility in time, then I also went on retreats, and meet really great teachers who have changed my life. And yeah, I think it’s really about keeping an open mind to have an overall sense of direction. But at the same time, don’t be too close-minded such that we lose sight of opportunities that are just right in front of us, and meeting you was serendipitous as well because it was my one and a half months trip to Amaravati, which is in the UK that I met a Thai friend, who then became your friend, and then she connected us. If I’m not spontaneous, and you are not spontaneous, we wouldn’t have this competition. So I really liked that it allow things to unfold by themselves.

Ling Ling  11:37

Precisely that is an excellent example, Kai Xin, seeing the way we both connected.

Kai Xin  11:43

Like Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots backward. And I’m also wondering, you know, in today’s society, especially when you go to interviews, people would ask, or interviewers would ask, Cheryl is a recruiter, I’m not so sure whether she asked this question, what would you do in three to five years time? And I suppose that that question has the intention of really understanding whether a person or the potential hire, the candidate has clarity in terms of their career, trajectory, etc. But some people just don’t know. Like, I could tell you five years ago, that I have a particular plan for what I wanted to do five years later, which is now. But has it happened? Not quite yet. So I’m wondering, what is your opinion on this? Did you know what you wanted to do in five to 10 years’ time? And how do you sit with the idea of not knowing?

Ling Ling  12:35

The easy answer is I don’t really know, we cannot predict the future. And I think recruiters deep down, they also know this, but they ask it anyway, just to get a sense of whether this person has their own challenge, has like a career planning and stuff. But I also want to hear from Cheryl.

Cheryl  12:55

No, so the fun thing is, I will usually reject people who give me a perfect answer on what exactly they’re gonna do in five years because that shows that they could be very stuck, and they are not open to adapting to different challenges or different situations. So it’s actually a trick question. You need to have, you know, like, the kind of direction but also you need to have the humility to say that you don’t know and, and you are open to it, but people who are very structured, and this is exactly what I’m gonna do, and I’m like, okay, bye.

Kai Xin  13:22

So I’m quite curious here, like, what would be an acceptable answer? Because if people just say, I don’t know, it can come across as you don’t have your life sorted out.

Cheryl  13:33

I think it’s the way they answer. Sorry, this question is for Ling Ling but just I’m just stealing the spotlight here.

Ling Ling  13:39

I’m curious to find out what the thoughts of a recruiter so if I apply for a job, and I get that, I get that question, and I know how to answer it.

Cheryl  13:49

Yeah, it’s how you answer the I don’t know, right? Because I don’t know could be I don’t know. And I don’t care that that is a huge red flag that this person doesn’t have the kind of zest for learning or self-improvement. But if it’s I don’t know, but I’ve done things, you know, I’ve had the courage to try different things, then that is definitely an acceptable answer, because who gets things right all the time, and companies can’t succeed when they only hire people who have done things the way they have done it before. There will not be innovation and creativity and challenging the industry to be to the next level.

Kai Xin  14:22

I really like what you say about the courage to try new things and Lingling, I know you’ve tried a lot of new things over many years, and your plans keep changing, right? Could you share with us how you have such courage to try new things or when you’re stuck, you don’t know what to do next? What’s your guiding question or philosophy?

Ling Ling  14:41

Actually, every time my career changes, they are done for many different reasons. So sometimes it’s because okay, this particular career path is not working out for me. I don’t feel joy, going to the office feels like a drag and I could feel my sense of emotional and mental well-being, decreasing. So I know I need to do something. So that one was not so much out of courage, it was more out of necessity. For example, just like everyone else, I was told, from a young age you must get a good degree, you get a good job, then you get a big house, you find someone to marry and have kids. Now, I’ve been told this all of us, we’ve been told this, right? So at a young age, of course, I don’t know what to do. And I was persuaded to do electronics engineering as my bachelor’s degree. I did, I chose that degree because I was really good at mathematics and actually enjoyed mathematics. But maths and engineering are different things, as I found out for my degree, so when I did the job, it, it was okay. But it wasn’t something that gave me joy. It wasn’t something that gave me excitement, it became like a daily routine. And I could slowly feel like if I continued on this daily routine of being on this hamster wheel, a part of me slowly like dying. Maybe that’s too much of a word, but it just feels like I couldn’t be myself anymore.

And then, fortunately, within the department, I was working in engineering, they had after a year as an engineer, they opened three different vacancies. So two of them were manager positions, and one was a training position, an engineering trainer position. At that time, I was still young in my career, I wasn’t so interested in becoming a manager. And I know based on what was being told, I should be a manager, because that should give me more money. But I wasn’t interested, My heart told me yes, training seemed a lot more interesting, I’ll be more excited to do that, compared to being a manager and I followed my gut, I followed my heart I followed where I believe, can give me greater joy. I applied for it, I got it.

It changed my career from being an engineer to one step closer to being a training and development professional. At that time, it was called training and development, it wasn’t yet called learning and development. So through that work, I met so many different people, I had the opportunity to travel internationally to learn from different experts and bring that knowledge back to Malaysia, (I was based in Malaysia at that time,) and train other engineers on all these wonderful things that I’ve learned, all the programmes that I’ve created for them and such. So as I was in that particular role, I did, of course, self-examination and self-reflecting, on why is it this particular job, give me so much joy and excitement as compared to an engineering job, right.

After some reflection, I realised like, I find a lot of excitement and joy, and creativity, when I get to meet people, I get to understand their perspectives, and I get to learn from them. And also to see how their mind works, to see how they behave. So all of that pointed toward psychology. After three years plus of working in this particular role as an engineering trainer, then the financial crisis hit and I thought, “Okay, this will be a fantastic time to switch careers.” It was courage, but it was also out of necessity. And it also felt, right.

Kai Xin  18:19

Yeah. And you turn inwards in order to find what exactly is their motivation. Or it’s not just joy and excitement, but it’s really about connection. It’s about meeting people and learning things. And that is something that you can find anywhere, which I believe is not just our training and development, right? You travel a lot. I believe that’s what makes you travel because you can meet people, also, am I right to assume then?

Ling Ling  18:44

Yeah, so I travel a lot in my life. In my entire life. I lived in eight different countries, Portugal is my country number seven. The other country I lived in was Serbia for a few months last year. And because of this opportunity to live in different cultures, I enjoy learning about different cultures and how people can live very differently, still survive, still find love and happiness, and joy.

Kai Xin  19:11

 And now you’re pivoted into cultural intelligence as your study.

Ling Ling  19:17

That’s one of the things that I’m studying. That’s one of the things I’m also training. I’m a cultural intelligence facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre in the US. What I’m studying is called the psychology of intercultural relations. So I study the cultural values and cultures of different groups of people. But what I also study is how different groups of people interact with each other, different ethnicities, different generations different, just different social groups. And when they interact with each other, what comes out of it. So, it points toward issues that we face now, and that we see in the world in terms of racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination, and prejudice, as a going-to-be psychologist. What is it that I can learn from these experiences? And what is it that I can do to help create a more equitable and inclusive world in our society?

Cheryl  20:14

I really love how you use your experiences and all this knowledge, sort of like you absorb all this and it informs your worldview, and you’re just so curious to learn a little bit more and more. And although I think you’re a little bit hesitant to use the word courage, I feel that courage is an underlying theme that is really driving the way you move. Because speaking from experience, I also understand the complete narrative, right, you know, get the right like finance lawyer doctor kind of degree, and these are the only right degrees you could do. So I was pressured to take accounting as my degree. And all my friends who knew me, like knew my personality, they’re like, Cheryl, you’re going down the wrong path! What are you doing? And at that time, I was very stubborn. I was like, No, I love accounting. It was the only course in my life that made me cry every single day.

I couldn’t get it and I hated it and was just like, What am I doing here? Yeah, so then I switch out also, after that, to psychology as well. And I think from experiences, really courage, because it’s something where everyone around you is not doing, it seems like you’re almost like a failure, right? You know, everyone’s continuing with whatever degree chasing whatever managerial role they’re doing. Whereas you’re kind of like taking a step back and starting from scratch and doing something else. So, you know, in these kinds of situations seems like almost everyone is against you, right? How do you still like, or what do you use to help you make decisions going forward? And how do you still like, convince yourself that, okay, this is the right way to, you know, you turn and go with something else?

Ling Ling  21:49

It can be really hard when your, especially your loved ones don’t support your work. But the thought process that I go through and make this decision is asking myself this question, what is the alternative? And is the alternative better than the possibility of the option that’s presented in front of me or not? So the alternative would be always likely staying on the same path, which I’ve already tried, and I already know that no matter what I do, in my control, maybe it couldn’t be any better because I’ve tried everything that I could, right? And then there there are these other options that are presented in front of me? And then I think to myself, will these options be worse or better than where I am now?

Cheryl  21:49

 But you can never know for sure.

Ling Ling  21:52

No, you never know for sure. So you can come up with different pros and cons lists, you could talk to a whole bunch of people, you can talk to those who have been in their careers and such. But the truth is, we’re all emotional beings. We make decisions based on our emotions, no matter how much we try to patch it up or cushion it with facts and pros and cons list and whatever not. So I remember watching this movie, I think it’s called the Second Best Marigold Exotic Hotel or something like that. And there’s a particular scene in the movie, Maggie Smith, a British actress was in a taxi and was complaining to the taxi driver, right. And she was in a conundrum, she couldn’t figure out what to decide. So the taxi driver says, flip a coin, have the coin decide for you? And then she was like, why flip a coin? And he says, Well, you will already know the answer before the coin lands. So if you’re really truly honest with yourself, you actually know the answer already. And you know, if you go against your true answer within yourself, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to live your life to self actualise. And if you do not know the answer and if you’re not very sure whether to trust your inner answer, it’s also okay. It’s fine. Just stay where you are. You don’t have to make a decision. And when the right pieces or the right information or the right time falls into place, you will know with great certainty Yes, this I need to go. I need to do this. Otherwise, the alternative will be I’m going to spend 20-30 years thinking what if what if, what if, what if what if, and that is just as painful as trying and failing.  Or even more.

Kai Xin  24:21

Personally, I find it helpful to then balance the spontaneous as well as the certainty part here because sometimes when everyone around you are trying to dissuade you from following your heart, if you don’t have a very convincing reason, you wouldn’t be able to deny the adults with much conviction and it wouldn’t be very persuasive. Right? So then we waver. So I guess that’s where planning becomes important because it’s not just all about following our heart and you know, living a carefree life, we want to care we want to plan and it has to be practical. So you know we have to feed ourselves financially, be stable, etc. Not just quit my job because I don’t like et cetera, and live in this very distorted worldview, and I know perhaps a lot of times people are doubtful about our decision to switch path, especially in the Asian context, once you enter maybe secondary school and you choose your specialisation, pretty much your path is set. And it seems like you know, a little bit of everything, but you’re not good at one thing. And when people ask me, “So what do you specialise in? Or what’s your trade? Oh, I’m not sure I’m kind of a little bit good at everything. And I think that’s where it can impair our confidence as well. So I’m going to move into the next theme. And both of you can chime in on what your thoughts are. Do you feel that it is actually okay to be a Jack of all trades? Or do you feel that it’s better to master one domain and be the subject matter expert?

Ling Ling  25:53

Actually, I think it’s really unfair to pit jack of all trades with specialisation to make such comparison because I think you’re really comparing a Durian to a rambutan. I mean, some people like rambutan, some people like durian, right? Because a specialisation requires a specific set of skills, a specific set of knowledge, it’s the same with Jack of all trades, because they have the ability to see connections in different areas. And those connections, bring out creativity bring out innovation, and they require the ability to be flexible and adaptable in different situations. So I think to compare them both is really unfair, and those who are in the position of a jack of all trades, and being compared to a specialisation, I feel really sorry for them. Because it’s basically saying to a fish, you know, you fail, at like climbing a tree, when actually you’re built for swimming in the water. So if you’re a jack of all trades, and you’re being told, okay, you’re not so good enough in this, be confident in your own skills and your own experience to say yes, I’m not good enough in this one specific area.

But I’m good enough to know, that this specific area can connect to other areas, which can bring out something a lot more beautiful, or something more creative, or something more innovative, whatever that is. So an example could be let me think, okay, currently, I’m in academia. And I’m surrounded by people who are really, really fantastic in their research, they’re very detailed in the way that they review journals. And they look at that data and analysis and come up with wonderful findings. But they don’t have the skills, or they don’t have the experiences to share this knowledge in public. So public speaking is something that they’re not particularly experienced in. Whereas like, I’ve also been connected with public speakers, and they’re really great and telling stories and sharing inspiration. But behind those stories, there’s like, where’s the data? Where’s the science? So you can like, I have a little bit of both, I do public speaking, because I’ve been a trainer and a facilitator all this life, but now my interest is moving towards research because I wanted to make sure whatever I share with the world has a scientific basis behind it. So, you can tell me, yes, I’m not the best public speaker, I’m not the best researcher. But with these two skills, I can do something that a pure researcher cannot do, or a pure public speaker cannot do. So it’s not fair, I think to make that comparison.

Cheryl  28:25

Yeah. And I think it’s also really about the self-awareness of knowing what you can bring to the table, what strengths you have, or what weaknesses you have, and really owning that in a sense of, okay, I know I’m really good in my data analytics, and you know, wherever you go, or whatever space you go into, really add value in there, instead of trying to constantly like, look out, oh, I suck at like, public speaking, I shouldn’t be here and like, stuff like that. And I think my perspective comes from in school, I was really into sports, and I was very curious about all sorts of sports, I would play badminton then and after that switch, and then pick up squash, and now there’s, like, volleyball, and then I’ll kind of be just like meh in everything. I was like, I want to try the next new sport out there. And I always compare like, wow they’re so good at basketball! How do they do it? So it always came from a place of inferiority and competition, like within myself, but then I think as time evolved, and as I grew, I realised, it is really about valuing the curiosity that I have for learning new things and going through the rigour of picking up things from scratch, instead of just deepening myself in just one area. So yeah, I think this question can be looked at from different perspectives also, in terms of valuing what you have.

Kai Xin  29:34

Yeah, and I know sometimes it can seem that we are fickle-minded. If we keep trying out new things people wouldn’t see us as curious people would just like make up your mind, what do you want to do? And Jack of all trades has a very bad reputation. But there are more research studies that show actually having general knowledge can give you an added advantage because I mean, especially in the career space As right things are moving so quickly. In the past, let’s say if both of you were stuck in engineering and accounting, it might be completely obsolete in the next 20 years. So if you don’t have the soft skills, you don’t have skills like psychology, asking the questions for the facilitation, probably connecting the dots will be a little bit challenging. Cheryl I know, as a recruiter, probably you’ve also seen trends, right, that technical role now also has to understand some non-tech stuff and possess some of these skill sets. So I really like how both of you brought in the point that it’s not really about either, or, it’s really, what can you offer and constantly evolve, that’s, again, where the spontaneity comes into the picture rather than being so stuck in our old ways. And I’m also thinking from this aspect, there must be a skill that is timeless or that can kind of allow us to evolve. What do you think that skill is that everyone should possess, regardless of profession?

Ling Ling  31:01

Cheryl, would you like to go first?

Cheryl  31:05

Sure, I would also love to hear Kai Xin’s thoughts on this as well. I think this is, yeah, this is a very interesting question, right? Because I think when you ask this question about the one skill that can help us evolve- It’s a very tricky question because the way humans have evolved has helped us to optimise for survival, but not for happiness. So if we are talking about the one skill that everyone should learn, for evolution, would be for survival, then I think we are social creatures, creatures that need emotional connection, learning to get to know people learning to be resourceful. And connecting with as many people as possible, I think, is very important, because there’s no person who could go into the world alone and survive it, I think. But if I’m thinking about the skill that one shouldn’t have to optimise for happiness, it should be learning to be compassionate and like be skillful and emotionally self-regulating, think that’s the one skill that can help people to go through the ups and downs and uncertainties that life can bring to us. Curious to hear your thoughts.

Ling Ling  32:08

Actually, it’s really, really hard to pick that one skill. The one thing that came really strongly into my mind is mindfulness. And I know this comes from my own meditation practice. But I see how mindfulness has changed my life in many ways. And it can also help in whatever profession you’re in, not just in your life in your profession. Because there are so many benefits. And there are a lot of studies about mindfulness. It can help you reduce stress, bring clarity to your mind, it could help balance your emotions. And we need all of this in the workplace. So when you practice mindfulness, you have clarity of mind. So when you make decisions, you know that the decision you make is not clouded by your own emotions, of fear of anger, of jealousy, or envy, you know, you’re doing it out of clarity of your mind, and in consideration of what’s going on in the environment, what’s going on with other people, and so on. If you practice mindfulness, and you’re working on a task, be it a work task or a daily task. With that clarity of mind and clarity of motion, you can put your focus on the task, to make sure that there are fewer errors and that every action you take is more intentional. And you know, those intentions come from either a place of goodness, sincerity, of compassion or out of ignorance. When you’re mindful, you are very, very clear on why you do what you do. That’s one.

Also, with mindfulness, when it comes to social connections, you become a lot more present with the other person, you acknowledge them, and you’re more open to their perspective to understand what their thoughts are, what their feelings are, in doing so you build a greater connection with the other person, build a better relationship, and encourage, you know, greater compassion for each other. So I think the overall skill, one must have is mindfulness.

Kai Xin 34:47

I really like both perspectives, because you can have one without the other, you can be really resourceful and survive on the planet. But if it is, without compassion is without mindfulness, then what for it will just be such a tough and chaotic life. For me, what came to mind was reflection and critical thinking, I can make up my mind which one is more, but it’s worth the, with the concept of constantly looking beyond the surface and to also taking on the thought that our life is filled with hypotheses. It’s like doing research, right? We shouldn’t go out there just to prove ourselves right. But we should prove ourselves wrong, and take on healthy challenges so that we can constantly improve and evolve. And that’s where, again, the theme of this episode. I think it’s daring to be spontaneous. to go a different path, I think that’s where we see new possibilities, we find new solutions, rather than what is presented in front of us or to us. Yeah, so I think it requires a lot of contemplation and critical thinking, to see what’s beyond.

Cheryl  35:16

I do see a connection between what everyone says, I think it’s packaged in different words, and different probably techniques as well. But I think it all leads to one thing, which is basically increasing the connection to oneself. Right?

Ling Ling  35:28

I think it all boils back to ourselves, right? We must be aware of who we are, what we are and how we operate in the world. And who we are also impacts the people around us and the environment, too. So it’s the interaction between the environment and the self, we can see what’s outside in the world, but if we don’t know what’s happening on the inside, how do you know whether what you do has an impact or not? Or whether it impacts people in ways that are not so great. So it’s that interaction of the inner and outer.

Kai Xin  35:57

Like a feedback loop? Yeah, I know, some philosophers would say our worldview is shaped because of our social interaction. So yeah, that’s beautiful. So to wrap up the episode, as we’re coming to the end, for listeners who maybe are at a crossroads, and if they feel stuck, they’re not so sure whether they should move forward with an unconventional path, or what to do if they don’t know want to do, do you have some advice in how they can get unstuck and lean into curiosity?

Ling Ling  36:29

So if you’re stuck, it’s okay to be stuck. Because it’s a normal experience. Everyone goes through it. In some time of their life, we make decisions all the time. And the level of stuckness can be different, different times if I could use that word stuck in this. So you do what you can do, like based on Kai Xin’s question much earlier about what if everyone’s persuading you to do something else, and but your heart says, oh, I need to do this, there are some practical things you can do. So some of the practical things you can do is come up with a contingency plan. If what you decided doesn’t work, what is the alternative, you can also come up with an exit plan? If you face something that’s really entirely unexpected, how you’re going to exit it with minimal damage? That’s another thing you can do.

You can also think of listing out why is this path really important to you, and share it with your loved ones, because they come from a place of fear. And they worry that if you take a path that is unknown, that is untested, that you will face challenges or difficulties, and they will have to be involved too. So if you show why this is really, really important to you, then perhaps you can persuade them to support you. So that’s another way of of doing this. But if you’ve not reached that level of persuading your loved one, for me, it’s like it’s okay to be stuck. That’s fine. When the time is right, the answer will appear.

Cheryl  38:05

I mean, there’s a perfect answer already. I just wanted to maybe just add on a little bit, not a completely new point here. But I think really leaning on the theme of not sure, or like uncertainty where you know, you think that you’re feeling like this is the worst job in its worst situation. But you never know what happens, right? Moving could be better, not moving could also be better. So really just allowing that gap and space of uncertainty because life is very gray. And I think our world view for good or for worse is always very black and white. But if we are able to start, you know, leaning into the grayness of it and finding the beauty there just allowing it to unfold, and evolve.

Kai Xin  38:47

Well. I do agree, quite similar sentiments. I think it’s the perception around uncertainty and not sure- it comes with fear most times, and I find it personally helpful to get out of my head. Because a lot of times when I feel stuck I’m using not sure in a negative way. What if I do this? Or what if I didn’t do that? And then I’ll come up with 10,000 different reasons why I should and shouldn’t do and I’m like, Oh no, I’m stuck. So which one! Then weighing the pros and cons just makes it worse. So I find getting out of my head to just do one thing can help me feel like I’m progressing, and that in itself makes me feel I’m less stuck. And then slowly I pick up momentum, I get more clarity speaking with people who can be a sounding board, offering different perspectives. And once I consolidate all my data, I feel like okay, I have a contingency plan. I have this set-out, I have both certainty and uncertainty then I would take that bold step. And then whatever comes along the way I’ll just take it with grace.

Ling Ling  39:47

Sorry. I wanted to add something based on what you shared because it reminded me of a Buddhist philosophy that’s been drilled into me over and over again, which is that everything is impermanent. So even though you have this emotional sense of certainty, yes, this is the path I’m on, or yes, this is the path that I don’t want to take, or whatever. It’s based on the information and data that we have at this point in time. We cannot predict the future we didn’t. Two years ago, we didn’t know COVID will happen and all of our plans changed. There are things in the environment and things in the universe that will happen beyond your control, and it will make you consider other things. So everything is not permanent. And your need for certainty and security comes from our deep-seated emotions for survival, for being secure, for being safe. So it taps onto what Cheryl shared earlier that it’s okay to be uncertain. It’s just part of how we are built as human beings. But also know that life is uncertain anyway, it’s great anyway, we cannot predict anything. So it’s also okay. Do what you need to do. Talk to people, and make plans.

Cheryl  41:02

Yeah, I really, I really love your sharing today Ling Ling because I feel that you have a very balanced worldview that is both very harmonious with, you know,  just the openness to the outcomes that come to you, but also not leaning to the extreme of like, you know, just letting go of everything, and just let’s see, whatever happened. You still have that pragmatism, and, the practicality of planning, you know, being very rational about things, which I feel is a very beautiful and harmonious way to view the world and its uncertainty. So I really enjoy this episode. And I hope like, by the end of our podcasts, our listeners, also, you know, along with us in this conversation, feel at least comfortable that they don’t have to know 100% of what they do in life, and have a little bit of the clear steps from the insights that you share on how to feel less unstuck or the stuckedness as you used,  and to be able to find that balance in certainty and uncertainty as well. So yeah, thank you very much for joining us in this episode.

Ling Ling  42:02

Thank you so much, both of you for inviting me onto your show. It’s been so much fun speaking to both of you.

Kai Xin  42:08

Thank you once again for tuning in. If you know of someone who could benefit from the perspective shot in this episode, do hit the share button. Let them know that it’s okay to not have everything figured out in life. Have a general plan, but also allow space to let the unexpected unfold. You can also join our telegram channel and share your perspectives about this topic. In the next episode, we will be learning about how to cultivate a mindset of abundance to get what we want in life. Till then, may you meet with the causes and conditions to fulfill all your meaningful aspirations. And may you stay happy and wise.


About Ling Ling

Ling is a seasoned learning and development professional, a former electronics engineer, and is transitioning into cultural psychology. Ling’s career spans a variety of areas including manufacturing, travel, humanitarianism, and education. Since 2005, she has facilitated and delivered programs in 21 countries across four continents. Eventually, she founded Culture Spark Global, a learning and development company focused on developing intercultural skills for an inclusive and equitable world.

Originally from Malaysia, Ling lived in Australia, Canada, the USA, Singapore, the UK, and Serbia and currently resides in Portugal.

Ling has an MSc in Psychology from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, and currently pursuing an MPsy in Intercultural Relations in Portugal. She is a member of the British Psychology Society, International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and International Council of Psychologists.

Previously, she hosted a popular podcast called Leaders of Learning. Currently, she writes on her personal blog Miss Elle Tea about anything and everything that tickles her curiosity.

Daily, she learns Ashtanga yoga and practices Vipassana.

Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Special thanks to our sponsors for this podcast: 

Alvin Chan, Tan Jia Yee, Siau Yan Chen, Tan Key Seng, Ven You Guang.

Why We Should Talk About Reclaiming The Chinese Seventh Month

Why We Should Talk About Reclaiming The Chinese Seventh Month

Editor’s note: Ghost month is often seen as a month full of superstition that may ring hollow for the younger generation. We reproduced this article because we enjoyed this anthropological take on Ghost month and what future opportunities it can offer. Through a Buddhist lens, we have offered different ghost month perspectives of burning joss paper, ghosts, and death. So we thought a different point of view would be a nice addition!

This article has been reproduced with kind permission from RiceMedia. The original article can be found here.

About a week and a half ago, I wrote a post on social media about why it is time for us to reclaim the narrative of the Chinese Seventh Month in Singapore, and revitalize it for our future. Growing up as a millennial, the discourse around the Chinese Seventh Month I was used to hearing was generally negative (and I am saying this as an ethnic Chinese person in majority-Chinese Singapore). Colloquially branded as the Hungry Ghost Festival, I had come to know of the Seventh Month as a season when older, less-educated Singaporeans engage in meaningless rituals to appease unseen beings, hoping that wealth, health, and luck will befall them. 

In other words, the Seventh Month was seen as an entire month where personal superstition was played out in ritual practices. Other younger Singaporeans lament the fact that they were forced by their elders to participate in the festivities which did not mean anything to them. Further, when they questioned the festival’s significance, they were not given answers. Instead, many were told not to question so much and to do what they were told so that ill-luck would not befall their families. 

In addition to this, younger people are aware of the potential environmental and health impacts from rituals such as the burning of joss paper. Inconveniences are also caused by the placing of candles and joss sticks on the ground in public spaces and the scattering of joss paper. What seems to annoy Singaporeans the most, however, is the failure of worshippers to clear up after prayer. This has led to a yearly barrage of complaints in online spaces. Netizens have called for a harsher restriction of these Seventh Month practices. Others have gleefully noted that with less younger Singaporeans being interested in the festival, it should just be left to disappear quietly into the night as its practitioners get older. 

Image from author

While I understand why many of my millennial counterparts feel that way, I believe that there can be a better way around all these issues without severe restrictions or letting the festival die out. I believe that this lies in the need for us as younger Singaporeans to reclaim and revitalize the festival for the future. 

Firstly, I do not deny that the Chinese Seventh Month is religious. However, it is important for us to see that underlying its religiosity, it is inherently cultural and communal. Take for example the ‘hungry ghosts’ which are commonly seen as the main target audience of the festival. Buddhists and Taoists might disagree on who these ghosts are and which part of the afterlife they came from. However, without going into the nuances of what they believe in, practitioners generally agree that these ghosts in one way or another represent all our departed ancestors. 

The worshipping of these wandering spirits then, represents a veneration of all our ancestors—all those who lived and came before us. The underlying essence of the Seventh Month is bigger and deeper than religion. It is actually about the commemoration of our shared past; the expression of our gratitude for all those who came before, and the establishment of a communal identity. These are secular values which we all hold as important and meaningful as individuals living in community. Moreover, one must also understand ritual from a more anthropological lens. Rituals are performed not just for the dead or divine, but are a vehicle for the living to express their feelings and thoughts through action.  

One can see the celebration of community at the heart of the festival when more attention is paid to it. Rituals and Getai concerts are conducted in public places. Makeshift altars are built under HDB blocks, at car parks, and beside hawker centres. The festival is meant for everyone to participate in. If you notice carefully, Seventh Month altars have free joss sticks available for anyone to come by to use. Some altars have little boxes for donations that ensure food offerings and joss sticks are replenished. These point to the underlying notion that the festival is ultimately about building a sense of kinship and cooperation through communal filial piety and societal remembrance. 

The festival, thus, is an avenue for the community to express gratitude to all those who preceded us for their part in establishing community. It recognizes that every individual who came before us had a part to play in making us who we are today. It is also for those forgotten souls who fell through the cracks of society and history. 

An example of these forgotten souls can be seen in altars set up particularly for those who passed away very young. Offerings of candy, toys, and children’s clothes are placed on these altars as a sign of remembering those who could not live a full life. These souls remain embodiments of hope, love, and joy to their parents who bore but lost them at a young age. Most of all, the Seventh Month is about the love for our unknown neighbour, which is why the notion of “wandering spirits” surrounds the whole festival.  

Image from author

I admit that I used to be cynical about the Seventh Month. It was only after doing some research and talking to my dad who observes the Seventh Month that I came to understand what a truly meaningful festival it is. I realized how reclaiming its inherent narrative would actually assist in creating a more compassionate and understanding community for the future. Reclaiming the narrative of the Seventh Month to me, however, needs to go hand-in-hand with revitalizing the festival for a cynical generation and making it relevant for the 21st century. I was inspired to think about how these could occur after living for some time in Los Angeles. 

When I was living in LA, I had the opportunity to experience the Day of the Dead festival—a remembrance festival similar to the Seventh Month celebrated by the Mexican community in California. Like the Seventh Month, the Day of the Dead festival at one point of time had been seen as too religious and superstitious. Apart from older Mexican-Americans, it did not have much attention in the wider community. However, in the 1980s, Mexican artists led the charge in revitalizing the festival in California, making it relevant not only for those of Mexican heritage but for the wider community as well. They did so by combining Mexican religious traditions associated with the festival with modern American pop culture. Art, dance and music forms were intermixed, making the festival go mainstream, appealing to not only the younger generations, but people of ethnicities too. 

Today, face painting, processions, concerts, food markets, and altar displays celebrating Mexican culture have become the norm and are held across the state. The revitalization of the Day of the Dead helped the Mexican community in California to embrace the beauty of their roots, enabling them to be proud advocates of their culture. Altars set up in Mexican family-run businesses quickly became the norm again and younger generation Mexican-Americans are making it a point to visit the cemeteries during the festival. In addition, you would see people of all ethnicities taking part in the festivities while learning about and enjoying Mexican culture in America. Activists also use the festival to highlight local social issues on immigration, poverty and racism. 

Image from author

I had the privilege to attend the annual Day of the Dead celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in LA, and encounter this revitalization first hand. There was a carnival-like atmosphere to the festivities and the celebration reflected the unique Americana vibe to the commemoration of this ethnic festival. Mexican elements were combined with contemporary American ones in art exhibitions and music concerts held on site. The event also saw an altar building competition where apart from traditional altars being built, people of different ethnicities and nationalities were invited to create altars unique to their own culture but in a style appropriate to the festival. I saw people of all ages and colours attending the celebration with many opting to paint their faces and pick up sugar skulls as souvenirs. I could only describe the event as a celebration of Mexican-American culture and the pluralism of California.  

I wondered how we could reclaim and re-enchant the Seventh Month in order to ensure that these deep and meaningful values continue to be commemorated and celebrated. After all, like LA, Singapore is a multicultural city with a vibrant and youthful population excited to move further into the 21st century while embracing their heritage. Discovering the deeper meaning behind the Seventh Month and seeing how a similar festival was revitalized halfway around the world made me realize how important knowing and celebrating our roots can be in establishing a more cohesive society. This is especially so for generations so invested in creating individual identity while remaining rooted in community. 

Image from author

My journey of discovery not only connected me to a heritage greater than myself, but got me to think how the values of my culture can be a positive driving force in creating a pluralistic Singaporean society today. The essence of the Seventh Month in building community through remembering our ancestors extends far beyond the Chinese community. This has to include our friends of other ethnicities as well. They are an integral part of our community and their ancestors, too, had a huge part to play in making us who we are today. To reclaim and revitalize the Seventh Month then, is for us to think how we would be able to make the festival relevant for all of us as an entire country while celebrating its Chinese roots. 

I anticipate with awe and hope for a more hybrid and multicultural Singaporean Seventh Month. This would also mean that the religious aspect of the festival would be better understood by everyone simply because people would be more familiar with the festival. However, the revitalising of the festival for the wider society would also mean that certain religious practices would need to evolve and adapt. This might mean more discreet burning of incense papers, and the intentional clearing up of candles and joss sticks on the roadside after prayer. The Seventh Month’s focus on community at its core has to reflect the necessity for all of us to take ownership of our living community, be respectful to those of different traditions, and to preserve the environment for all to enjoy. 

Could Getai concerts be made bilingual, and mainstreamed and modernized for a younger audience? Could there be altar building competitions and community processions organized throughout the month where anyone could participate? Could there be fairs, exhibitions, food and night markets celebrating local Chinese culture and raising awareness of social issues? Could there be a cleaner and greener way for rituals to take place?

What the Seventh Month looks like for Singaporeans in the future is anyone’s guess, but I am certain that reclaiming it will have more positive outcomes for the future. 

Image from author

I recall a short conversation I had with a Taoist friend who noted that the exact origins of the Seventh Month are debated but its practices do evolve slightly with every generation. The festival’s essence and its values on community and remembrance however, remain fixed throughout the centuries. Thus, with these core values in mind, I hope for the reclamation and revitalization of the Seventh Month to be an organic one, and for younger generations to spearhead. 

Film Review: Lunana – Finding happiness in a dark valley

Film Review: Lunana – Finding happiness in a dark valley

​​Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2022 (3rd Sep 2022). THISBFF 2022 features 1 film this year for viewers to get a taste of 2023’s full film festival!

TLDR: A reluctant educator is sent to a ‘dark valley’, what will he learn? Will he find happiness there or does happiness await for him in a place like Australia?

Where is happiness? Where do we pursue it?

Perhaps in Bhutan, the world’s happiest country.

Director Pawo Choyning Dorji explores the answer of happiness in a real-life inspired narrative and picturesque stills taken mainly in Bhutan’s Lunana, a remote village sitting on the Himalayan highlands along the Bhutan–Tibetan border.

The Dark Valley

Lunana, literally translated as the dark valley, is an eight-day hike from the nearest road. No electricity. No cellular data. Harsh cold winds. An isolated community of 56, Lunana is surrounded by the daunting heights of the Himalayan mountain range. 

No wonder the main protagonist, Ugyen, a reluctant educator from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, who so desires to migrate to Australia, finds it tough to accept a teaching stint to the children of Lunana, for them to be more than yak herders and cordyceps gatherers.

Weaving skilful cinematographic techniques with multi-layered storytelling, such as contrasting long shots of Himalayan mountains and close-up shots of character interaction, the film allows its viewers to experience humanity’s warmth that flows from a heart purified by Lunana’s vast pristine landscape. 

Throughout every intentional juxtaposition of characters sprinkled with dashes of humour, Director Pawo guides us to witness Ugyen’s growth from a stuck-up young adult into a self-sacrificing teacher that “touches the future” of Lunana’s young generation. 

Generosity in a material scarce land

Credits: THISBFF

As if the purity of Lunana’s land and its villagers’ humble hearts steeped into his, Ugyen learns how material scarcity distils into easy contentment and unwavering generosity. 

The latter virtue is most impressionable amongst the Lunana villagers. We observe the giving of material comfort to a stranger, the giving of compassion towards an unappreciative city-dweller, and the giving of goodwill towards all beings through an offering of songs. 

A yak in the classroom

Credits: THISBFF

The film’s recurring song, titled Yak Lebi Lhadar, has a heart-stirring tune that calls out the precious bond between a yak and his herder. In Bhutan, yaks are gentle creatures the highlanders depend on for fuel and meat. 

Viewers soon learn of this song’s significance in the film when Ugyen had to leave this village of simplicity before winter. 

From a receiver of Lunana villagers’ warm hospitality to a giver of hope and motivation to its children, Ugyen is seen to experience happiness in heart-warming moments as his generosity grows with the spirit of the highlanders.

But is this happiness limited to being in Lunana? Where else can Ugyen seek it from? Would Ugyen return to Lunana again for the following spring? The viewers beg to wonder.

This film reveals details at the most unsuspecting moments to form the dots for viewers to connect! If you intend to watch, give all your attention to the little nooks and crannies in the story. The answer to happiness awaits in your awareness.


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4 things I never realised until I studied overseas…during a pandemic

4 things I never realised until I studied overseas…during a pandemic

TLDR: Being stuck in lockdowns isn’t the best way to start university, but here’s what I have learnt! Studying overseas allowed me to have an open mind and embrace challenges as they came. 

“Congratulations! The world is your oyster.”  

Like many undergraduates studying abroad, studying overseas was a significant milestone for me. I had many aspirations for personal growth, academic success and ultimately, a successful career. 

Though I had many worries about what the future may bring, I knew that it was something I have longed for. I couldn’t contain my excitement as the days approached – the start of my journey in England! 

Groups of students were at the airport with their friends and family, but I was alone pushing the airport trolley. It was a familiar yet strange feeling to be at the airport. This time was unlike all previous trips: I felt uneasy and lonely. 

This was just the beginning of my journey. It was later filled with moments of unexpectedness. An identity I thought was solid was shown to be transparent.

Here’s what I have learnt during my year abroad:

1. Being at peace with my emotions

Lugging heavy luggage up and downhill, then up a few flights of stairs marked my arrival at college. A physical workout I never expected at a world-class institution. 

Then, came my greatest shock: 2 boxes of food that were for half a month of quarantine. Hot meals that I expected to be delivered to my room were merely my wishful thinking. 

Instant food and more junk food greeted me as I rummaged through the boxes, only to find out that I was given the same food ration daily. 

The reality was vastly different from what I had expected. I was disappointed because I had high expectations of university life. One disappointment after another coupled with homesickness just made things worse.  

Being in an unpleasant situation, I learned to slowly acknowledge and accept my emotions. Recognising that emotions were fleeting and impermanent calmed me down. Labelling my emotions made their fleeting nature more obvious.

I was more mindful when unpleasant emotions arose and l grew to be more gentle towards myself. Unhappy times would eventually pass, and so would happy ones. 

I started to live in the present and realised I had limited control over the future. We, humans, desire pleasant feelings and want to cling to them, while quickly escaping from unpleasant ones. 

Suffering is experienced when things do not go according to our wishes. We feel uneasy and become reactive towards the unfamiliar.

My comfort food was a warm bowl of noodles and not potato chips in the cold weather. I learned to be grateful for the food which provided me with energy instead of viewing it as an unpleasant meal. 

All conditioned phenomena are impermanent; When one sees this with Insight-wisdom, one becomes weary of dukkha (dissatisfaction). This is the path to purity.” Dhammapada Verse 277

2. Learning to slow down

In Singapore, I was used to the fast-paced life where everything has to be done quickly and efficiently. We are always in a rush to complete yet another task. 

In England, I began immersing myself in my surroundings and noticed the little things. I took time to enjoy the brilliant colours of the autumn foliage, sheep grazing the field, birds chirping at dawn and dusk and the paw prints of bunnies when winter arrived.

I made so many discoveries when I slowed down to observe. 

The little things which I once paid no attention to were the ones I looked forward to each day. 

By relaxing my pace of life, I started to appreciate the people, culture and environment. I was slower in jumping to conclusions and was more willing to understand and learn. I was responding and not reacting to different situations

I felt happier and more relaxed by focusing on what I had, rather than worrying about the future.

3. Staying calm in the face of challenges

One of my favourite places to take a walk

Stuck in the middle of a pandemic, I had to do my laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc., amidst many assignments and exams. These were previously handled by my parents in Singapore.

Moreover, schoolwork greatly increased in depth and breadth compared to polytechnic. There were much more readings, preparations for seminars, and numerous modules to handle.

Besides, I was studying a subject that was foreign and needed more time to understand the content. The accumulation of the tasks and workload consumed me.

I was experiencing high stress, yet I need to increase my productivity to complete my tasks. Thankfully, I managed to set aside time to find some solutions to get me through these difficult moments. Having exposure to the Dhamma through groups like BFY and NPBS gave me the tools to get through these moments.  

– Meditation 

Before a study session, I would calm down by doing a short meditation. This was beneficial in decluttering thoughts and giving clarity to focus on tasks. 

Day-tight compartments

Day-tight compartments prioritise focusing on the task we have at hand, without being trapped in the past or future. 

I would plan out my agenda for the day and break it down into small manageable tasks. Having a plan assures me that I would be able to complete my agendas on time. 

During each study session, I would focus on my planned tasks. However, if important stray thoughts arose, I would jot them down and attend to them later. 

4. Being appreciative 

Being away from my family and friends made me realise their importance and how much I have taken them for granted. 

All the little things that I have taken for granted all these years, such as a bowl of home-cooked food or even a short face to face meet-up with my friends and family were the ones I yearned for. 

These made me more appreciative of the unconditional care and support that I once took as given. Now that I am back at home, the experience abroad reminds me to spend more quality time with my family and do more for them. 

Even though I am currently back in Singapore, studying abroad was one of the most memorable times –  wonderful memories and the ones that made me grow. 

It made me realise the impermanent nature of things. I was once full of hope for where my educational journey in England would bring me, but ultimately things change, and so do my purposes. This is truly anicca.


 Wise Steps:

  • When an unpleasant situation arises, observe & label the emotions you are feeling and note your reaction to them. What can we do differently the next time it arises?
  • The next time you’re on your daily commute, take time to observe your surroundings and the greenery that surrounds you.
  • Identify methods that calm yourself down in the face of adversities (meditation/ taking walks/ day-tight compartments)

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