TLDR: A friendship of different faiths, a journey of letting go: Read about the power of Dhamma in guiding a dear friend’s peaceful passage.
A dear friend of mine, whom I had known for seven years, was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma that did not respond to any medical treatment. Our friendship was unique, with our different religious beliefs as a Christian and a Buddhist.
It was like butter and kaya, different tastes that blended so well together like in butter kaya toast.
Though A and I had different religious beliefs, we respected each other’s views, and our conversations were full of similarities about our beliefs. We often joked that if Buddha and Jesus were BFFs in their time, then both of us would be the perfect example of that relationship.
Whenever one of us had a bad day, I would say “Let God” to him, and he would say “Let Go” to me. This had become our favourite phrase over the years: Let God Let Go.
My daily visit to A in the hospital was always a precious one because I knew the time that I could spend with him was limited. I would always get him his favourite food on the days that he had an appetite, tell him funny stories, and do a massage for him which he enjoyed greatly, treating me like his personal masseur.
‘Wow, you really let go!’
On one such day, as I was having my usual conversation with him, he held my hands and said that he had decided to go into palliative care and asked that I stay with him and guide him in this last part of his journey.
Believe it or not, I had never cried since the start of his cancer journey but this time around, I just burst out in tears and cried buckets.
A just stared at me with his sparkling big eyes and cheekily said, “Wow, you really let go!”
This indeed was a real-life practice for me—not only did I have to guide someone in their last journey, but they were also a close friend who was of a different faith.
Developing mental states for future lives
As a Dhamma practitioner and speaker myself, I started trying to recall and research any material that enabled me to be A’s guide for his passing on. The mental states required for heavenly rebirth were a consistent theme in my research.
I thought that if I could use the principles behind these mental states without using Dhamma concepts, it would help A’s mind feel lighter, happier, and joyous, and therefore, it would be of great help for his next life.
There was a conversation in Dighajanu Sutta (AN8.54) between the Buddha and a lay disciple, Dighajanu, about developing mental states for future lives, namely Faith, Ethics, Generosity, and Wisdom.
Faith is a powerful energy that helps one’s mind feel energised, hopeful, and joyous. It was easy to trigger the faith in A as his religion is built on the foundation of faith.
I encouraged A to consistently arouse his faith in God and understand that whatever happens is in the hands of God. To not worry about the future and just be in the moment.
There were times when A felt immense pain and he told me because of the faith he had in God, the pain decreased tremendously most of the time. As Buddhists, we all know, that is the power of faith—it makes one filled with joy, and probably more endorphins are released into the body.
A is, by nature, a good person. If he were a Buddhist, he would be one that kept to his precepts relatively well. I always encouraged him to remind himself of all the good things that he had done, and he had also not intentionally harmed anyone in his life.
This constant reminder of him being a good person also helped him remind himself that he is a good servant to his God.
That recollection itself had helped him overcome his guilt and fear of death. I told him, “Whatever happens, you have a good report card to show to God”, and he often gave a peaceful smile, knowing that he led a good moral life.
As for generosity, I told A to recall all the good things that he had done for others and his church. A was an active volunteer of his church. He was also an active missionary who went to various countries to help the underprivileged.
Even when he was fighting the cancer battle, he was generous with his time and was always keen to share his faith and company.
Wisdom was the part that I found hard to explain to him. In Buddhism, wisdom is about realising the 4 Noble Truths (4NT). I was thinking very hard about how to help A to arouse this mental state. One night, as I was reflecting on the 4NT, it then came to my understanding that this whole Dhamma journey is about letting go.
When one realises the 4NT, it becomes about letting go of all greed, ill-will, and delusion. The more you let go, the less you suffer. I told A that he had to let go of any expectations, his body, and eventually his life.
He must Let God. Whatever the journey was, God would have a place for him when his mission was done in this world. A found peace in this and said that he finally understood “Let Go Let God,” which was our favourite phrase.
The journey ends
A few days before his passing, I asked A if he would be ok if I were away for a week as I was the organiser of a meditation retreat. He said he would be okay, and he was at peace and ready to return to heaven at any time.
He cheekily asked me to share merits with him in the retreat and said that he would look out for me when he is in heaven.
That night, I was preparing to rest for the day at the retreat centre. As I was dozing off, I was awakened by a bright light at the corner of my bed. I saw the light and felt extremely peaceful and joyous.
I returned to my sleep and didn’t think much about it as I was exhausted. A few minutes later I received a text from his close friend, stating that A had passed on peacefully in his sleep a few minutes earlier.
When I saw the text, I was at peace and there was immense joy in me. I know A had passed on well and he is now definitely in a good place.
The next morning, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful to my dear friend for allowing me to be part of his journey of passing on.
I am grateful to the Dhamma as I have witnessed the power of its teachings. It truly transcends space, time, and even people. If one is willing to listen and accept it, one will truly see the fruits of it. Dhamma is truly Ehi Passiko!
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
Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
What’s one way we can view Ghost Month? Beyond joss papers and prayers, we can understand how we can die well. Today we cover lessons from a Dhamma practitioner who faced death with ease and also what we can do when life seems to fall apart.
1. 10 Dhamma lessons that helped me in the last months of my life 2. Can life fall into place when it feels like falling apart?
10 Dhamma lessons that helped me in the last months of my life
Ann Le, a mindfulness trainer and member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community, shares 10 lessons that helped her in the last days of her life. She was hospitalised when sharing these short snippets of wisdom. She would then pass on after months of hospitalisation. We liked it because we could feel her wisdom and bravery in the face of death.
“Practice the habits of happiness in daily life when things are still okay”
When was the last time you practised happiness in daily life?
If tomorrow was our last day, will we be content with doing all that we wanted to? Life is uncertain.
Can life fall into place when it feels like falling apart?
When life falls apart, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know how to cope. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are ways to start putting your life back together. Einzelgänger, a philosophy youtube channel, shares a Buddhist story and how we can apply it to our lives.
” So, the best thing he could do is to find joy in his darkest hour, something that, as opposed to his predicament, lies within his field of control.”
Reflect on the last time change led to something positive and negative in your life. Have hope that situations do change. Hang in there
Remind yourself ‘this too shall pass’ in both good and bad times
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from PJ’s website. Do check out his past articles on tackling the workplace over here, here, and here.
On 19th October 2022, I flew back to Singapore after spending three months at my teacher Ajahn Brahm‘s retreat centre Jhana Grove and monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia.
Since then, I’ve been asked quite frequently about what I learned and “gained”, which I’ll attempt to summarize here. Below are the 11 things I’ve learnt.
(Graphic image warning: Please note that learning point 8 has a few graphic pictures of a decaying dead kangaroo. You may quickly jump to point 9 if you are easily affected.)
1. A much clearer & experiential understanding of how suffering works.
Expectations, wanting, hopes, plans, etc. are a huge barrier, because of the Second Noble Truth: wanting causes suffering. During this retreat, I think I’ve let go more of the expectations & wanting to re-experience the life-changing yo-yo-jhana in 2010, which I’ve written about here and here . And if I wanted anything, whether it was the beautiful breath, or silence in the mind, or nimittas, or jhanas, that wanting always led to suffering.
So towards the end, I was deliberately cultivating the mantra of “Good enough”. Heavy rain while walking to the monastery? Good enough. Restless mind while sitting in the morning cold? That’s more than good enough!
And that really helped and worked: there was a lot less suffering when I was developing this mindset of being “contented and easily satisfied”, instead of striving with strong wants.
It’s not all perfect: there were definitely days when it felt like walking into a perfect storm. The lowest point I experienced was towards the end, on a Monday. For the whole of Monday, I struggled with a very, very restless mind: I could barely sit. It was, as Ajahn Chah (Ajahn Brahm’s teacher) described, “you can’t move forward, you can’t go backwards, you can’t stay where you are”.
I’m experienced enough to know that restlessness is the mind being discontented with the present moment experience. So I tried to make peace with the present moment experience and tried to be unconditionally kind and gentle to my own mind. That caused my mind to kinda go into a kind of split, where a less-critical, more-loving PJ was having a dialogue with a very fault-finding, very discontented PJ:
Loving PJ: There there! It’s ok to be discontented. You’re not enlightened yet!
Fault-Finding PJ: Of course it’s easy to say that!
Loving PJ: Remember Ajahn Brahm’s instructions? Just make peace with the suffering, be kind, be gentle…
Fault-Finding PJ: Of course it’s easy for Ajahn to say that! He’s the MOZART of meditation, whereas you are still playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars! You can’t even watch your stupid beautiful breath, for goodness sake!
And there was despair because I was nowhere close to the jhanas, which are needed to really remove the defilements. And I had so many defilements … it felt like I was tasked with using a single box of matchsticks to melt an entire iceberg or glacier.
The fear and despair was very, very real, and very, very bad: I sobbed and cried my eyes out in the shower. I don’t think I have cried like this ever since my colleague Parathy died… after I finished crying, I asked my mind what it wanted to do, and went to sit and meditate, before going to sleep. The next morning, I went to ask Ajahn for advice on how to deal with such days.
Ajahn was so kind and compassionate… he kept saying “trust. you are so close“, and also talked about how, often, progress on the Path isn’t about more effort, but about finding the right place to perpendicularly cross the river. “And when you’re over, you’ll then realize how stupid you’ve been all this while, because you’ll look back and say ‘wait, that was it? That’s all it took?’ ” And that was all it took for me to gain back the trust, confidence, and patience to carry on.
2. A more experiential understanding of non-self”
The other learning is a more experiential understanding of non-self. Basically, I don’t really control my body or my mind: it is heavily influenced by the environment around me. The body is out of control, and the mind is out of control because they are all complex processes which have no single source of self, and where effects become causes for further effects. It’s all about putting the right causes in place, I.e. Right Motivation (Samma sankappa). A few episodes really highlighted this to me.
No matter how much I tried, I could not change the fact that my body is made in Singapore, and that I struggle with the cold. Cold makes my mind restless, as I am really not made for this climate. It’s quite funny because whenever it’s cold, there is automatically a soundtrack playing in my mind (for the first two months, it was the soundtrack of Crash Landing On You, because my wife and I re-watched it before I left…). But what was even more interesting was the short spell of warm weather in late September and early October: the soundtrack playing stopped in my mind, with no choice nor force at all! So it was really caused by the cold.
Physically with my body, there were a few incidents (suspect Covid; my twitching eye; body pains from sitting meditation) which drove home the point of non-self. From the Buddha’s second-ever discourse (Anattalakkhanasutta SN 22.59):
“(this body is not) fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’”, because “…if…(this body) were (my) self, this (body) would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of (this body): ‘let my (body) be thus; let my (body) not be thus’. But because (this body) is nonself, (this body) leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of (this body): ‘let my (body) be thus; let my (body) not be thus’. “
Basically, if your body was you or your self, then you would be able to compel it and control it to be well, not be sick, and to take on any shape or form you wish. Which you can’t.
3. Reduce the drivers of negative emotions
Much of Ajahn Brahm’s teachings are really about undermining and reducing the drivers for negative emotions, especially the overthinking mind that tenses up, comments, interferes, fault-finds, strives and tries, is ruthless, and seeks to control everything (especially due to fear).
If we do the exact opposite to the above verbs, those are the causes for future deep meditation and eventual liberation. So we should:
Relax to the Max
Disengage from commentary
Don’t interfere or do anything, because it is all none-of-your-business
Let the mind decide what it wants to do, rather than tell and control it
Cultivate contentment: “good enough”
And be kind, unconditionally.
4. Cultivating the opposite of fault-finding
Ajahn Brahm once wrote that “cultivating the opposite of fault-finding is 90% of the Buddhist practice”, and this was something I realised from the three months.
It is so easy to lapse into fault-finding and criticism of everything: I could be sitting for 45 mins, watching the breath for 44 mins, and daydreaming in the last minute, and that is often enough for me to say “that was not peaceful”! This is crazy, if you think about it, because I wasn’t really looking realistically at the whole session, but only picking out the bad parts to smear the whole thing.
I think this fault-finding is due to social conditioning: it seems “smarter” to seem pessimistic, cynical, and negative (as shared in Psychology of Money: see point 7 in the original article here). This mindset is especially prevalent in Singapore, I think.
5. Systems, Not Goals
Scott Adams’ “system vs goals” came up in my mind during the retreat, and I started wondering what was my “system”, vs the “goal” of enlightenment. My system is to keep precepts, learn Dhamma, create the supporting environment for practice around me, and meditate daily. I’ll let the results take care of themselves. Some specifics that I picked up during the Rains:
If the meditation was me largely “letting go, being kind and gentle”, then the meditation was a success, regardless of the results!
I started debriefing myself after each meditation, as part of my “system”. I ask myself these questions:
What suffering was absent? How much peace, calm & stillness was generated from the sit?
Was there letting go, kindness and gentleness in the meditation, between me and the meditation object?
Which defilements were gone? Usually for me, there’s no ill will, sloth and torpor, and doubt. The usual suspects are Kama canda, and restlessness and remorse.
7. Meditation is like taking a shit
Meditation is a lot like taking a shit: there are a lot of parallels between the two.
Both are non-self: in both processes, there is no single part you can point to, and say that’s me, mine, a self. There are also none of the accumulations of a self in any part of the processes e.g. ego, pride, expectations, will, etc.
Both are natural causal processes, where willpower & expectations are NOT necessary causal factors & are often counterproductive:
If you’re blocked in meditation, often you need more mindfulness and kindness, to unblock yourself. If you’re blocked in shitting, often you need more fibre and water to unblock yourself.
Using willpower in both cases causes haemorrhoids in your mind and in your a**
Expectations in both cases are major blockers.
Both processes are about clearing their “containers” of defilements and debris: one is clearing the mind, the other is clearing the digestive system.
Last but not least, the best sits and the best shits are effortless and joyful, and very healthy.
7. Keeping Precepts is Critical
Keeping precepts is critical for progress on the Path. This is often overlooked, especially in western meditation instructions. But this importance becomes very clear when meditation deepens, and when your mind starts to reflect the spottiness of your ethical behaviour by body, speech and mind. Let me share a story about someone, whom I’ll call PJ2. Imagine that PJ2 is single, and that he once had a very, very deep meditation experience a few years ago.
At the start of the Rains Retreat, I was discussing nimittas and jhanas with PJ2. However, as the retreat progressed, PJ2’s past caught up with him: he had not kept his precepts fully, and that caused him to feel this overwhelming sense of guilt that triggered panic attacks.
This lasted until PJ2 left, and it was very eye-opening for everyone to see how important keeping precepts are, for deeper meditation and for one’s practice.
8. Death is everywhere
Death and dying is everywhere, in the most unexpected places. In September, as a few of us returned from visiting Kusala Hermitage, it turned out that two kangaroos had been hit by vehicles just outside Jhana Grove. One of them was more decayed, while the other one was quite intact. It was very eye-opening to see the decaying and decomposition process over the weeks, which I captured by taking multiple videos and photos.
What videos and photos do not capture is the smell: that nauseating odour of death and decay, which reminds me of the very first time I smelled that odour, as a teenager helping my father clear the drowned rat stuck under our driveway.
But what the photos and videos do convey are the charnel ground descriptions in the suttas, especially the Satipatthana sutta (** CONTACT ALERT: Pics of dead things**)
…And it had been dead for one, two, or three days, bloated, livid, and festering. They’d compare it with their own body: ‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’ 15.1
…a corpse discarded in a charnel ground being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, herons, dogs, tigers, leopards, jackals, and many kinds of little creatures. 16.2They’d compare it with their own body: 16.3‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’ 17.1
Bones rid of sinews scattered in every direction. Here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, here a shin-bone, there a thigh-bone, here a hip-bone, there a rib-bone, here a back-bone, there an arm-bone, here a neck-bone, there a jaw-bone, here a tooth, there the skull …
Bones rotted and crumbled to powder. 30.2They’d compare it with their own body: 30.3‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’
It is extremely sobering, especially since an adult male kangaroo is about the same size as me, to reflect that my body is truly “of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.”
9. The monastic practice is the Buddha’s Training Programme
The monastic practice set by the Buddha is THE way to get to Nibbana. Before this Rains, I had doubts about this: what’s stopping me as a lay person from being able to practice towards liberation? But after three months, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that the Training Programme decided by the Buddha is the best bet to Enlightenment.
However, my conditions in life are such that, it has to be lay life for me, at least for a while: as a married man, I have to take care of my wife, but also have to take care of my parents and parents-in-law as they age.
10. Some observations of my fellow retreatants:
The generosity of people is astounding. For three months, I was fed by other people. Also, this group of Rains Retreatants really were very generous with helping each other out. For example, Becky would serve Ajahn tea, but also do a lot of acts of loving kindness to others. And in turn, I saw others helping her: a number of retreatants were talking to her to give her an introduction to the suttas, just before her silent retreat. Everyone was helping each other out like one big family (e.g. Gayathri making soup for Piotr, our Polish retreatant, when he fell sick a second time), which the Jhana Grove staff observed was quite unusual to our group.
There seems to be a bit of PTSD from past experiences with SN Goenka vipassana meditation: a couple of retreatants mentioned to me something along the lines of “I can’t watch the breath, because I end up trying to control it from my vipassana experience” and “I can’t watch the breath with pleasure, because my vipassana conditioning kicks in”. Which is a real pity, because the breath can be a lovely meditation object.
Dhamma vitakka (thoughts of the Dhamma) as a subtle hindrance was something that came up in a sutta class taught by Ajahn Brahm, but it seems to have been rejected by a number of retreatants. This hindrance was something I saw in my own mind: at some point, I realised that reading the suttas was actually complicating my own meditation practice, because I ended up generating a lot of questions (“Am I doing X right, like in the sutta?”) which disturbed the peace of mind. So towards the end, I deliberately cut down on my reading of the suttas, and reduced my thinking on aspects of the Dhamma.
11. The Practice isn’t just about meditation
While on a day outing with Ajahn Santutthi, abbot of Kusala Hermitage, I asked Ajahn about advice on the practice, especially since I felt stuck and stagnating in my meditation depth. He gave very good advice: “the practice doesn’t end after three months”, “the practice isn’t just about meditation”, and “just develop contentment and peace.” Which is perhaps the main takeaway I got from my three months.
Steffi Chuah Siew Lin wears many hats: she’s a daughter, a marketeer, a triathlete, a swim teacher, and most of all, a breast cancer survivor. She enjoys creating content and is a big-time enthusiast of personal and human development. She hopes to be a teacher, and a mother one day. She currently lives with her mom, sister, and a dog.
[00:00:00] Kai Xin:
Hey there, this is Kai Xin and you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcast, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.
Today, I’m joined by my co-host Cheryl and our guest Siew Lin to talk about the journey of battling breast cancer. Our guest Siew Lin is battling breast cancer right now, specifically stage four, which is considered terminal. And she’s very young, only age 31.
And just to give you a little background of what happened before the call so that you can appreciate the conversation much better. So, Siew Lin had very kindly agreed to be on our show. And a couple of weeks before the recording, she was going through some treatment and told us that she wasn’t emotionally at her best.
And she actually asked if we would still want to record because the episode might not be the most positive and she wasn’t sure if there’ll be any inspiring takeaways.
But Cheryl and I decided to go ahead with it, provided that Siew Lin was comfortable and she was physically okay because we believe that that’s really something we can learn from her regardless of her situation. And it turned out to be true. We have really learned so much and through editing this recording, if you just listen to the conversation over and over again, you would pick out something new to feel inspired about.
And we also didn’t want to encourage toxic positivity where, you know, you just kind of show the bright side only, and the resilience, the determination all is good. We want to show the full story, that it is a tough journey.
And every bit of the journey, the ups and downs would make a person for who he or she is and Siew Lin, the very fact that she showed up, despite the challenges that she has gone through and opened up her heart, to be vulnerable in sharing her journey, it just made me admire her so much more.
So, Siew Lin was very kind, she said yes to continuing with the episode. And to be honest, when we were having the chat, there were really a lot of emotions to process. And it was through listening to the recording again that we had more takeaways. So do stay till the very end as Cheryl and I will be reflecting on our key learnings from the conversation.
This conversation is, to me, deeply profound.
And it’s really a privilege to have Siew Lin on the show with us. So we’re going to start off with her introducing herself. Sit back and enjoy the episode.
[00:02:49] Siew Lin:
Hi, my name is Siew lin, some call me Steffi. I’m currently working in an e-commerce company and on my off days, I’m a Freelance swim teacher and I’m just reaching my second year as a breast cancer survivor.
Nice. Short and sweet. You share it like very briefly, but there’s so much more between these three words. Breast, cancer, survivor. Mm-hmm. Do you wanna share a little bit more about when you were diagnosed with breast cancer? And definitely, you know, give us some details about your journey.
[00:03:23] Siew Lin:
It’ll be a very long, long story about how it all started. So it went, way back in 2020, I’m not even sure if it’s considered as diagnosed as breast cancer because when I found out, in the beginning, it was when I noticed there was nipple discharge during my training in the pool.
because I was training for a swimming event, I thought it was just a normal, infection. It didn’t get better after the event. So I went for an operation, a day operation to actually seal off the nipple so that the blood won’t keep bleeding. But after that doctor came out with a report where they took a sample from the nipple during the operation to seal the nipple, so, they call it Atypical Ductal Hyperplasia. So in short term, they call it ADH. So ADH is actually a pre-cancerous condition that actually affects the cell growth in the breast to grow abnormally. So it’s not cancer yet, but it has a higher chance of getting breast cancer. So at that point in time I was like, oh, okay.
I’m not sure what’s this, but I didn’t really put so much thought into it, but the doctor told me to follow up closely after that. So when I go through my follow-ups in a few more months after that incident I had my mammogram and ultrasound for the very first time.
And, I can honestly tell you for any young woman who did a mammogram for the first time, is really, really scary. A lot of women in their forties who be advised to do mammograms. But for ladies at very young age, like 27 or even younger than that, to do a mammogram is pretty scary. So maybe I just give you a brief description. Is this mammogram or about?
So basically you stand in front of a machine and this machine will compress your breasts. Like waist, from top to bottom.
So make a pancake, basically.
[00:05:43] Siew Lin:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Basically, it’s like, yeah, basically like, like what you say. So pancake, it’s not comfortable. Pancake. Every pancake can enjoy eating, right? But this one is, it’s really, you need to really stand still so that they can make it the right, the right mammogram for you.
Basically, you are strip stripped down to your bottoms and then, It’s freezing cool. Mm-hmm. When you do your mammogram, especially when the aircon is blowing towards you. But you have no choice to hold still as long as you can so that they can capture it.
So when the report came out, after I did those ultrasound and mammogram turns out that the doctor found out that there were a lot of calcifications. So calcifications are calcium deposits in the breast. So it’s like a lot of white dots in the breast.
So doctors who suspected these calcifications higher risk of getting breast cancer. So because of that, the doctor advised that it’s better to just remove the whole breasts, which are on my left side.
white calcifications are the cancer cells, or what are they?
[00:06:57] Siew Lin:
It’s not cancer cells, it’s just calcium deposits. Yeah. It’s normal to have calcium deposits in normal breasts. But if I look back at the symptoms that I have, The centers of having breast cancer is nipple discharge. Your nipple would invert inwards. Those were the few symptoms that I had. So it kind of correlates where if I have these symptoms, really, and from the mammogram, I have these calcifications. Hmm.
Makes sense. Like clicks.
[00:07:27] Siew Lin:
Yeah, I have a higher chance of having breast cancer, but breast cancer wasn’t in my mind. So when I asked the doctor, so in this stage one, stage two, He say it’s still stage zero. Oh yeah. So it was a very early pre-cancer stage. But I went through the operation I removed my whole left breast and till now after I have my follow-ups and just recently my last follow-up in April, in late March somehow, the area where I operated my breasts, where they did the biopsy of my breasts before I was diagnosed with the stage zero cancer, the lump grew at that area. So somehow, in a way, I’m not sure how it came back. Probably because when the doctor did the operation, there was still some cancer tissue left behind.
So the lump grew back because of the tissue. Even though I did my breast removal, I didn’t do any treatments after that, meaning there are no medications. I don’t need to do any other chemotherapy or radiation. So basically I just removed my breast and that was it.
But somehow after a few years, a few months later, the cancer grew back. So definitely there was something wrong with it. It’s probably the treatment wasn’t right for me. So I went for my PET scan. I actually visited other doctors in other hospitals as well to seek second third opinion. And, one of the doctors told me to do a PET scan. So PET scan is basically, you just lie down, they’ll inject a radioactive dye into your body and then you’ll be lying down on the table where you scan your whole body. and when I went through that procedure and the report came out, it seems that the cancer from my breast has spread to other parts of my body.
So in short term, stage zero has actually became stage four. So currently I’m diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and basically the parts where the cancer had spread was my spine, my pelvic, and my collarbone, and a bit on my ribs. So, so yeah, that’s how I was diagnosed from stage zero to stage four, and here I am today.
[00:10:06] Kai Xin:
It seems like a very short period of time to take in so much. How do you process all of this?
[00:10:15] Siew Lin:
At that point of time, when I was told that I was diagnosed with stage four, that was the second doctor actually. So I was like nah, you’re kidding. And I didn’t believe him because somehow I didn’t have a good rapport, rapport with that doctor.
So I didn’t really take him very seriously. But when, when I took my report to seek another third opinion from another hospital, it seems that shit. That the news really hit hard on me and not just me only, but also my family members as well. So it’s a really big lump in your throat, which you can’t really swallow.
[00:11:02] Kai Xin:
I can imagine how tough this is. It seems like even now when you’re saying you’re still kind of internalizing, is that correct?
[00:11:13] Siew Lin:
Yes, I do, but somehow I already grew to accept it already. I guess somehow I’m slightly at peace, but not there yet, but, well, it’s just a very hard news to actually tell a lot of people.
Especially my friends and family who thought that, Hey, I thought you were just stage zero. How come you’re stage four now? And it’s just really hard to tell them because they would be very worried. And it’s just hard to tell them.
[00:11:50] Kai Xin:
When you tell your close ones about this news, is there an ideal response that you hope they would give?
[00:11:59] Siew Lin:
Not really, because I was so consumed by the thought that I have stage four cancer. I didn’t really worry so much about how they would feel. But I was more worried about how would life be, especially for my parents after I’m gone.
Because the stage four life survivor rate is about 25% for people who could live up to five years. So actually the life expectancy is quite low, however, there’s not a lot of research on younger people who had stage four cancer, especially metastatic breast cancer. So it’s really hard to tell.
[00:12:49] Kai Xin:
So are you still keeping a sense of optimism that perhaps you can be out of that percentage seen in the clinical papers?
[00:12:59] Siew Lin:
Yeah, that’s what I thought as well. So, Currently, my biggest challenge is to be able to find someone that I could look up to, for those who have actually survived metastatic breast cancer, especially at my age.
So probably my objective right now is to beat the statistics and to be able to live longer than that.
[00:13:23] Kai Xin:
You can be the role model that other people are looking out for. I see on your Facebook you’ve been sharing quite extensively as well in terms of awareness. The video that I saw was in 2020, very very courageous for you to do.
Is there anything that made you feel that you need to share this piece of news or piece of information with the world?
[00:13:47] Siew Lin:
I guess by sheer luck is that I somehow caught breast cancer early and there are not a lot of youth and younger people at my age to actually share this information. So I guess being the first around my circle of friends or my family, hopefully sharing this would probably bring more awareness for them.
Siew Lin, you know, from what you’re sharing, I’ve been a little bit silent because I’m just processing all of this as well. The first thing I wanna say is I’m so sorry that this has happened to you from zero to four. When zero happened, I think I saw on your social media, you’re really doing the best that you can to just live life to the fullest.
And I think that must feel like quite, quite a lot like suddenly to, to receive this news as well. And I don’t know exactly how you’re feeling cause I think it’s crazy. It’s, it’s a huge thing that comes but from what I see, like online, I, I do see you as an inspiration who is always trying to do your best with what you can.
So yeah, thank you for putting your story out there. Thank you for letting random people like me, know your story as well.
[00:14:57] Siew Lin:
Yeah, no worries. But I think I should correct you at that point in time when you say you’re sorry, I think you shouldn’t be sorry because it’s not something that you should be sorry for.
And it’s hard to tell a lot of my friends when they first heard the news, they’ll say, oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you have this. I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I think the best way to actually tell someone who just recently diagnosed with breast cancer is to let them know that if you need any support, you can always let me know. I’m always glad to bring you to the hospital. I mean, I’m always happy when someone can fetch me to the hospital and probably just accompany them when whether they’re going through chemotherapy or any treatments. I think that’ll be better than just saying I’m sorry. Yeah.
[00:16:00] Kai Xin:
Thanks for shedding light on that.
Yeah, I, I think it’s always tough to, to know what to say cause you know, we are not in the position but also, sometimes we don’t want people to feel like, oh, we are looking down on them, or it’s, it’s something that we should take pity on.
A Dhamma teacher was saying, you know how sometimes people are hospitalized and then we say, get well soon. Actually a Buddhist way is to wish the person to have that mental strength to tide through whatever. Is to face the fact that maybe the person might not get well. If you get well, that’s fantastic. You know, I also hope Siew Lin, you can beat the statistics, but it’s also a bit tougher sometimes having to face the truth.
So I dunno, are there other words besides, I will be there for you. I can, you know, fetch you through the hospital. Are there other words that people can say to make you feel comforted?
[00:16:55] Siew Lin:
Well, I think to be honest, I think being silent and being just physically there with them is good enough. I think get well soon is the worst thing to ever say.
[00:17:14] Kai Xin:
it’s okay. Take your time. Does it put pressure on you?
[00:17:21] Siew Lin:
Yeah, I think about what you said.
What if that person can never get better?
So I, I guess I can put in the sense that even though that person is going through chemotherapy or medications, but you just never know that yes, maybe the medications may work, but there are higher risk of that patient or even myself may face other side effects and also higher risk of getting other cancers as well.
Like I can give an example. I’m doing oral chemo. I just found out as well that the reason why,
You can cry.
[00:18:08] Siew Lin:
Okay, so after I was diagnosed with stage four, my oncologist, who’s my treating doctor, told me to do a genetic testing. So this genetic testing is to check whether cancer is genetically inherited. So from my family history, there is no breast cancer from our side.
But when I went through that genetic testing it was found out that I inherited Cancer genes. So basically there are two types of cancer genes. So they call it BRCA 2 or BRCA1. So it turns out that BRCA2 was tested positive in my genetic testing. So BRCA2 basically is, BR means breast CA means cancer. So it kinda makes sense that to have this, it means that my genes is not working properly to defend the body from cancer.
So for people to have to be tested.
It’s okay. It’s okay.
Take your time. I wish I was there to hug you.
Do you wanna grab a tissue? Maybe take a sip of water.
No, it’s okay. So actually as I was saying, for people who have BRCA 2, they have higher chance of getting cancer. Breast cancer is about 80%. Uterus cancer is about 40%. Yeah. So I wasn’t surprised because I accepted I mean, it came to no surprise that I, I have high chance of getting breast cancer cause it’s already there.
But there is also a higher chance of me getting other cancer as well. So that’s, I mean, in a way I’m taking medications to suppress the hormones. So actually the cause of the cancer not is not only genetic, but it’s also cause of my hormones where I have very strong estrogen hormones, which is feeding to to the cancer cells.
So to actually block this estrogen, I have to take a pill called estrogen. There’s many types of medications named, but the one that I’m taking is to suppress the estrogen hormones. So the side effects is that you won’t have period, which is maybe many girls’ dream but it puts you into menopause.
So I believe most of our mothers who went through menopause, you would understand that sometimes they have mood swings, sometimes they had hot flushes. And many other things. At my age to experience all this menopause and it is it really brings me to slight depression in the past few months as well. And did you know that if you have menopause you higher chance of getting heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis. So sometimes if I look back, is it worse to get treated for cancer or actually dying, having heart attack or getting stroke and not being able to move for the rest of your life.
It’s a very hard question to actually answer. But probably it’s some thought for those people out there.
And I would imagine your entire life is changed, right? Like, for me, I think it is about, stable career, relationship, and then the really normal stuff like everyone our age is thinking about what’s next, what’s next?
And that’s kind of just pulled out of the rug for you because all you are facing now is uncertainty. Do you want to share a little bit more maybe about what are some of the things that help you to ground yourself in trying to find peace in this entire journey?
[00:22:33] Siew Lin:
I think it’s just taking one step at a time.
I really love kids, but I guess (having) kids is out of the question right now because you can’t have kids when you’re going through this treatment and I didn’t really have big dreams of like having a house of my own or having a big car. Anything that’s materialistic, it’s really not within my not really my so-called societal goals.
So. I guess what I can do right now is to really make peace by taking just one step at a time, one day at a time. And it can be as small as just waking up and going to work and doing the simplest things, which you can’t bring yourself to do. And I guess what I started doing is really treating my arthritis because now my, medication is giving side effects, which is arthritis as well.
So it causes stiffening in your joints. So as a person who likes to exercise and my big dream of achieving Iron Man, for those who don’t know, Iron Man is basically swimming, cycling and running a full marathon all in one single day.
[00:24:12] Siew Lin:
Yeah. It’s a really extreme sport, but for me, my current state, I don’t think I’m able to do that.
So finding myself to exercise is really, really hard. My schedule is really just really filled up and I couldn’t find a time to really do it. So I started signing up for forcing myself to sign up for swimming in the swimming group. So they have very disciplined training every single, single day.
So I signed up for that and I started going for trainings like diligently just going for training is good enough to really help me cope with some of the side effects that I’m having. So having to do that, just give me a little bit more peace that I would say.
[00:25:01] Kai Xin:
Good that you have almost like a support system or just a life system to keep you going and also seem like celebrating small wins, simplest things can make a very big difference. So thanks for sharing that. I’m wondering, have your priorities in life changed?
[00:25:20] Siew Lin:
I would say it hasn’t changed much. I would say, I give less priority to work.
[00:25:30] Siew Lin:
I mean, let’s just be honest. I mean, work can’t be your whole life. I mean, even if you resign, that’s always someone else who would replace you. That’s the reality of working in a rat-race world.
So I don’t really focus so much on work this time around, but of course, I really love where I’m working right now, so I couldn’t say, I don’t care about what I work. I do still care to a certain extent, but when it comes to my health, I will just prioritise on that first, which is as simple as just visiting the hospital and taking a day off if I really need to.
[00:26:10] Kai Xin:
Is there anything like through this journey that you have reflected on like aha moments or certain reflections that just become amplified along the way?
[00:26:24] Siew Lin:
I think for the past few weeks I have been reflecting on the thought that I deserve all the privilege that I can get because I’m gonna die soon, so I’m going to do whatever I want. So in a way that I feel like basically, you deserve all the attention that you get, it’s like..
[00:26:48] Siew Lin:
No, it’s not self love. I’m not allowed to swear right?
Can if you want.
[00:26:53] Siew Lin:
They call it privileged bitch I guess
It’s like oh! Entitled. Yeah. Okay. Okay. The word, the word is entitled.
Yeah. So I feel like I’m entitled to everything. I give you a scenario. If I were standing on the LT train. And if I have to fight for a seat with another person, inside my heart, I’ll probably tell ‘you don’t deserve to sit. You’re not even having cancer. You stand la. I deserve to sit cause I’m gonna die soon anyway. That kind of entitled mindset.
It’s not really healthy to have this kind of mindset. I am aware of that, but I just can’t help myself to have that kind of thought, which, in a sense, it really puts me in a very selfish position because somehow in a way I’m prioritising myself over those around me. So it’s still a struggle for me, but at least to be aware that I have that thought, I’m just trying to tame myself.
[00:28:06] Kai Xin:
I’m curious, why do you feel that it’s not right to feel entitled?
Because you do deserve the care and concern. Is it just because it’s framed or it comes from a sense of aversion, which makes you feel a bit uncomfortable?
[00:28:22] Siew Lin:
Because in a way I’m still alive and I still can’t move like everyone else. It’s just that I had slighter difficulty in terms of like, probably if you ask me to sit very long on the floor, like squatting position, probably I can’t do that, but if an old auntie can do it. And she has arthritis and you can’t do it, what makes you so deserving of being entitled, right?
So in a way, I would feel entitled because I think that the other person may not know what I’m going through.
[00:29:02] Kai Xin:
Yeah, I think it’s okay, I mean, you are entitled to care and concern. Perhaps it is just the way that we project it on others. Are we like compromising their wellbeing and stuff, but I don’t think you should steal their entitlement away from yourself because you’re also a human being. You need love whether you’re old or young.
And I’m also wondering, like, in terms of your relationship with this whole illness as well as death, has it changed? Because at the start of the chat, you were saying it didn’t cross your mind that it could be breast cancer. I suppose that comes with age as well, because the youth, you tend to think that cancer and illness come with older age. What’s your relationship with this whole topic? Has it changed?
[00:29:53] Siew Lin:
I guess I wouldn’t say I love the whole experience.
[00:29:59] Kai Xin:
Who would love the experience? *chuckle*
[00:30:01] Siew Lin:
I guess like every other person it’s not the destination right? It is the process. Enjoy the journey of whatever you are experiencing. I think that’s the beauty of it.
Because I live by this philosophy when I started writing, I’m blogging quite frequently.
I always believe that I should live my days like I’m going to die. So I have lived by that philosophy so strongly even until now and even before I was diagnosed with cancer. So it doesn’t change much for me because I have lived through my years beautifully and meaningfully for myself and it’s a bit sad that other people can’t see the same. When I hear friends, people close to me who have regrets of not fulfilling what they want to do, it’s a bit of time wasted on their end.
But especially for my end, I take my time really seriously even when I was very young. Cause time is really precious, so, whatever seconds and minutes I have, I really make use of it as much as I can. So every minute is like a living memory.
I want to ask you a question that is somewhat related but it’s two sides of it.
Is there anything that you have not done and want to (do)?
Second is, what do you want to leave behind? Like you can call it your legacy or like, I don’t know whether it resonates with you, but yeah, the kind of idea you get what I mean?
[00:31:43] Siew Lin:
Definitely, to accomplish Iron Man probably before 35. Not sure. And at the top of my list is definitely climbing mountain Fuji actually. So unfortunately there was MCO previously, so now that Japan has opened their doors, I probably can use some of the money to go.
Unfortunately, I didn’t want to leave anything behind. But if I were to leave, it would be stories about people in my life. So I had this inspiration to actually write something about the people around me. People who I grew up with throughout my life. I wanted to call it hundred people who had made me for me.
So, I wanted to list out some of the people have really shaped me for who I am, and also just to commemorate conversations between the both of us, which was very meaningful at that moment. It’s really, really a lot of work. Probably I’ll start it one day, but that day is not so soon yet.
[00:33:12] Kai Xin:
You can voice record and get the software to transcribe.
[00:33:16] Siew Lin:
Yeah. True, true.
[00:33:18] Kai Xin:
But it’s so beautiful that you have this sense of gratitude because, I mean, just now you mentioned that you have the thought of entitlement, right? But then you feel bad about it. And I, I think that’s a common thread over here.
You’re just very compassionate and you see how people have shaped you and you’re kind of intertwined with everybody and I think you’ve also shaped many people’s lives as well. People should probably write a book about you.
Actually, if you were to write a book about your own life story, what would be the title on the book cover?
[00:33:55] Siew Lin:
Wow. Thousands of funny moments of Siew Lin.
[00:34:04] Kai Xin:
Is it gonna be a lot memes?
[00:34:07] Siew Lin:
[00:34:10] Cheryl: Thousand memes of Siew Lin.
[00:34:13] Siew Lin: Oh, that’s a good title.
[00:34:16] Kai Xin: Yeah. Okay. When is it gonna be published? Keep you accountable.
[00:34:20] Siew Lin: Wow. One day.
[00:34:24] Kai Xin: No pressure. No pressure.
[00:34:26] Cheryl: Thanks for sharing every single thing you have been super courageous, and vulnerable and it’s not easy for you to come and share this as well. So thank you very much.
Are there any things that you’d like to share with listeners or any advice to all the listeners here?
[00:34:42] Siew Lin:
If I want to share, it is actually one of the frequently used quotes that a lot of breast cancer survivors actually share. Sometimes living through cancer. It takes up a lot of your time and affects a lot of yourself and your relationship with other people as well. But it’s not your core identity. It’s because of what you’re going through that makes you just a little bit different from other people. But it’s not the whole story of your life. It’s just one chapter. So, I am who I am because I have to do what is necessary for myself to treat myself. So it’s not a real version of myself.
So do get treated and be consciously be aware of your body and if you suspect anything, do just get it checked, because you may never know that it’ll be a life-changing decision in the future. So yeah, every symptom matters.
[00:36:00] Kai Xin:
Thanks for sharing that. I really like how you say it’s a chapter. On the other hand, I also think that it reflects so much about you, your qualities, how you show up to challenges. I think we ought to also celebrate your success in terms of how you keep a strong mind, and it’s also okay sometimes you are vulnerable. And thanks for being vulnerable on this podcast to show the real you. So just now when Cheryl say, what do you wanna leave behind? Even though you don’t wanna leave anything behind, I think people would remember you for many, many good things. Yeah. Just wanna comment on that. And once again, thanks for being here on our podcast.
[00:36:40] Siew Lin: Thank you for having me.
[00:36:42] Cheryl: And if there’s anything that we could help with if you want to leverage the platform to share anything about yourself feel free to do so. And then on a personal note, also, if you need anything, although I, I’m not there, like in person if you need anything, resources or, you know, like even monks to chant for you, I think we can definitely find a way to help you as well.
[00:37:04] Kai Xin: Yeah, we’re friends now so we can ping me.
[00:37:07] Cheryl: Ping me. She’s my friend.
[00:37:10] Cheryl: What are your thoughts, Kai Xin? Any reflections?
[00:37:13] Kai Xin:
I thought it’s quite interesting to see how she show no trace of anger when she’s talking about her journey because she actually did some form of measure to prevent the cancer cells from even, you know, spreading. And I think calcification, that was where she removed one side of her breast and then it kind of escalated to stage four. I think if it’s me, I would feel. Yeah, just like, why, you know, I did the thing already. I’ll feel angry. Uh, perhaps she has already gone through the phase. So I think it’s inspiring to see the level of acceptance that she has dealing with reality and just living life to the fullest with a lot of gratitude.
Yeah, I thought it was quite interesting to see how she showed no trace of anger. And she’s talking about her journey because, she did some form of measures to prevent the cancer cells from even growing or spreading because when there was calcification, that’s when she removed one side of her breast and that was stage zero. And within a very short period of time, after that, it escalated to stage four.
I think if it were me, I would be in a state of denial. And probably feel angry as well. Perhaps, she has already gone through that phase. So I think it’s really inspiring to see the level of acceptance that she has and how she’s dealing with her current reality. And acceptance, not in a form of being happy and positive all the time, but it’s really just living life to the fullest. With a lot of gratitude, despite the challenges. So I really admire that about her.
[00:38:55] Cheryl: Definitely. And I think gratitude is one of the qualities that really shined through as well, , in our chat with her, especially, you know, when given the chance with that question to answer. What book she’ll write and she wanted to use that chance to dedicate it to all the people who have influenced her, I think that is really inspiring because if it’s me, I’ll be like, oh my God, 1000 amazing things that I did.
[00:39:23] Kai Xin: You’d write a memoir, right?
Yeah! But the fact that that piece of work is one that speaks of others really talks about her gratitude. And I think, you know, as listeners and even myself as a co-host, I feel that this really is an invitation for me to reflect on my life.
Think about three people that we are all grateful for and you know, maybe we don’t say thank you too much. And this could be an opportunity to text them, call them, and say, yeah, thank you very much and I really appreciate what you do.
[00:39:56] Kai Xin:
Yeah, and I think she’s also very compassionate and I think when a person is ill, the mental faculty is not so strong. It’s really like a true test of the practice. Because it is difficult if your body goes through a lot of pain and she still had that capacity to reflect and that wisdom to say, no other people also deserve care and love, even though I’m going through a difficult situation.
And also the part where she mentioned how at a very young age, she really kind of know what she wants to do and she takes her time really seriously. There’s a sutta called Auspicious Day, and it says, ardently do what you need to do today. Who knows?
Tomorrow death may come and. I think now I’m quite complacent, like still young, you know, and death contemplation is definitely something I’m gonna do more often after this episode.
Yeah, and definitely I think it’s normal. I think because we are young, we’re generally healthy, and we are intoxicated by three things and Budha highlighted that these three things are firstly our youth. Secondly, our. And thirdly our life.
So we think that death, sickness and old age will not happen to us, and that’s very dangerous to think like that because really, you know, we are the slaves to time and any of this youth health and life can be taken any second, any moment. So yeah, definitely a great reminder to be heedful and use our time wisely, even if we may not have a very clear idea of what our purpose or meaning is. At least try to make time to do things that are skilful, do things that are wholesome. And actually, one last point that I had was really about how the conversation receiving was almost like a journey.
She started, you know, introducing herself as like, Hey, I’m, I’m Siew Lin, I’m a cancer survivor. But you know, as we progressed through the conversation, as we reflected a little bit more about her life, her ending, her closing note was really about cancer is an important part of her life, but it does not define her.
And this makes me think about how often I define myself by my worst moments, but we should also see what we can get from our worst moments, the virtues and qualities that shine true, and maybe let ourselves be defined by that instead of the worst part for ourselves. What do you think?
[00:42:22] Kai Xin:
I think, well, I mean, you put it so nicely.
It is indeed true, that it’s a defining moment for her to inspire others, but it’s not gonna be what defines her as who she is.
It has been a really inspiring episode. Thanks, Cheryl, for inviting Siew Lin to this podcast. And for our listeners, hope you have something that you’ve taken away. You can share it on our telegrams, and say some words of encouragement.
If you’ve been inspired by Siew Lin, you can also type that in the Telegram chat. We’ll share it with her.
And yeah, if you like this episode, please give us a five-star review or share this with a friend.
And til the next episode, may you stay happy and wise.
Special thanks to our sponsor for this episode
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.