Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
2 stories for you today!
January has “passed away”, how has the first month been? January was also a month that marked the passing of Ajahn Chah, a famous Thai Forest Monk. We share a story of his teaching and a simple picture on spring cleaning!
1.Our real home: Ajahn Chah’s encouragement for a dying disciple
2. Spring cleaning our social media
Our Real Home: Encouragements for a dying disciple
What’s going on here
Ajahn Chah, a renowned Thai forest monk, gives encouragement to a lay disciple that was passing away. He beautifully encourages the person to be fearless as life ebbs away. It is worth a listen and read especially for those of us who are with someone facing death.
Why we like it
Ajahn Chah uses the nature of things to skillfully cast out fear for his disciple. He makes you ponder deeper about where our true home is. We can spend this year chasing the external material stuff or this year developing ourselves. We are often paralysed when loved ones are diagnosed with a terminal illness or facing their end. Hence, this provides a balm to the questions we might have about dying.
“The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body has become old and now it’s meandering towards its death. Don’t go wishing it was otherwise, it’s not something you have the power to remedy. “
Where is our real home? Are we developing it daily or are we putting energy into things that eventually fall apart? By reflecting deeper, may you find the energy to develop your mind for the rest of the year!
This is an abridged chapter from Buddhist Scholar Sylvia Bay’s Book on Faith. You may find the book here!
TLDR: Buddhism is nowadays taken to be ‘scientific’ with little need for faith. Have we got it wrong? Which type of faith do you identify with? Blind, Knowledge, or practice? Sylvia shares more
Faith is not a static mental state. Faith can strengthen (or fade). Right knowledge and clear understanding will strengthen faith.
1. ‘Blind’ Faith
When we first declared ourselves to be Buddhists, the odds are that at that time, we didn’t really know much about Buddha or his Teaching. What little we knew then was probably hearsay or as tradition dictated.
We were likely to be caught up with the dos and don’ts of the rites and rituals. What to do at the temple or monastery? How to bow? How to chant? What offerings to make? And so on. Our faith might or may be transactional.
We “pray” to Buddha and show our devotion by making offerings so that we will be blessed with success or be able to ward off misfortune. We may have all kinds of wrong understanding: ‘Buddha is god’, ‘Buddha can save me’, ‘just pray to Buddha and all will be fine’.
Even worse, we may be afraid of asking questions because we think that it is ‘bad kamma’ to do so. Blind faith is superficial and fragile as it rests on ignorance and fear. This type of faith cannot withstand life’s inevitable disappointments and setbacks. It will be at constant risk of falling away.
2. Knowledge-based Faith
The faith that Buddha spoke about that is critical for spiritual growth is grounded on knowledge and a thorough understanding of the teaching.
The deeper the knowledge, the stronger is the faith.
Now, we must all start somewhere in terms of gathering knowledge. Buddha’s advice was to approach a teacher that you have respect for. Because of that positive chemistry, you will be willing to keep an open-mind and give him the benefit of the doubt. Because of your attitude, your mind is pliant, receptive and attentive.
That helps you to register the Dhamma properly and remember it. What you can remember, you must reflect thoroughly and compare the teachings against your observations about life’s experiences and your mind.
Only when the Dhamma makes sense, because it is consistent with what you have observed, will you embrace the teaching fully and confidently.
From the above, it is clear that Buddha had expected his followers not to just accept his words at face value but to have an enquiring mind and ask questions, challenge assumptions, think critically, and make thoughtful conclusions. These are high order cognitive processes.
He said that they should accept his teachings only after they are satisfied that Dhamma makes sense from their own observations about their mind and life’s experiences.
3. Practice-based Faith
Ultimately, Buddha’s Dhamma is not an intellectual exercise. It helps the practitioner to understand the true nature of the mind such that he can overcome feelings of dukkha and is able to live more happily.
It is not easy to get to a state where one can see the mind’s true nature. It may require fundamental changes to one’s habits and behaviour. One must make a serious effort to overcome one’s negative instincts and obstructive habits.
Hence, the next level of faith development is practice. You must be ready to deliberately and thoroughly weave all aspects of his teaching into your daily life. And you keep applying the training discipline until your mind settles into a new equilibrium, with new knowledge about itself and its habits.
When that happens, the practitioner would find himself becoming a kinder, gentler and wiser person, more content, happier and less caught up with ego and desires.
As your understanding of the Dhamma deepens because of the practice, you will experience more periods of peace in your waking moments. Once the Dhamma is not just an abstract concept but a way of life, faith will grow exponentially.
You have confidence that you know how to shape the mind because you understand how it works.
This is adapted from Sylvia Bay’s bulletin for Buddhist Fellowship written in March 2020. This is a great reminder for us as we greet each new year. This pandemic throws all the curveballs we could never expect. Here is how we can l
TLDR: These are unprecedented times. The past few months have been very hard for us as the world gradually descends into a Covid-19 pandemic and we watch an accustomed way of life slowly disintegrates.Here is how we can develop faith in fearful times
Every new day seems to bring worse news and we are seized by worry and fear for the safety and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.
It doesn’t help that nobody knows how long this pandemic will drag on. What more damage will it inflict on society and the economy before it passes? Will it even be over? Will ‘normal’ life as we know it ever return?
Why Must We Not Give In To Fear & Worry?
It brings out the worst in us. In our practice, we must learn to recognise racing thoughts driven by worry and fear.
Recognition, seeing rightly, is a necessary first step to breaking away from being trapped in an endless, vicious cycle of anxiety and panic proliferating frightful thoughts which in turn heighten the overall sense of doom.
Fear and worry are powerful akusala (unwholesome) mental states that can and often do bring out the worst in us. We become selfish and self-centred. We do silly and illogical things. We hoard food, masks, sanitisers, washing detergents, toilet papers! Fear and worry drain our goodness and humanity.
Our capacity for metta, compassion, generosity, empathy and so on dissolve under the deluge of worried and fearful thoughts. Even our noble aspirations to be good Buddhists and to do the right thing for ourselves and for others are terminated in mid-stream.
That is why it is critical that we try our utmost not to give in to fear and worry. It is not easy, but it can be done.
When you see those two mental states arising, take a deep breath and acknowledge their presence.
Call them out by name: “That is fear. That is worry.”
But don’t get defensive.
Don’t blame yourself for their presence.
Just be aware of them and other akusala mental states trailing in their wake: greed, anger, resentment and so on. Then consciously and deliberately choose not to give in to all the mental negativities.
We must not because if we are decent people and especially if we want to be good Buddhists, we will regret any unkind word said and selfish action made while caught in the grip of fear and worry.
What Do We Turn Our Minds To?
Turn our minds to Faith
Instead, turn our minds to faith (saddhā). As Buddhists, our faith is in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
The stronger our faith, the more we will feel fear and worry dissipate. Faith is so powerful that it can bring up intense joy and immense gratitude.
If you don’t believe, try this: take a deep breath and say slowly, mindfully and with conviction, “My faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will protect me.” Don’t think. Don’t over-analyse. If you do as instructed, you will see faith surge. Joy, gratitude and humility will wash over you.
Like all mental states, faith has to be cultivated. Therefore, set aside quiet time to pay homage to the Triple Gem. More importantly, use that time to reflect on the meaning of the ancient words.
Right reflection is necessary to strengthen faith and protect the kusala (wholesome) in the mind.
We start by recalling the Buddha’s virtues as follows but in a language that we understand and can appreciate: “The Blessed One is an Arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.”
What stands out here is the fact that the Buddha was the epitome of wisdom (vijjā) and goodness (carana).
He had realised entirely on his own how his mind works and how suffering can cease.
And then out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to helping others to the same intuitive realisation. Buddha was an incredible teacher: ingenious and creative, uplifting and inspiring, with boundless compassion, drive and energy.
He taught Dhamma literally to the end.
As he laid dying beneath the Sal trees in Kusinara, Buddha reminded his students to strive on and to realise Nibbāna for themselves.
Buddha’s life was profoundly inspiring.
In these difficult times, we must remind ourselves to bring out that ‘Buddha’ potential in us and not give in to our darker instincts, namely, greed and anger. We must believe that we too are capable of great wisdom and goodness. We only have to stay committed to the practice and not lose faith.
Reflect on the virtues of the Dhamma as follows: “Well expounded is the Dhamma by the Exalted One, directly visible, immediately effective, calling one to come and see, leading on, to be personally realised by the wise.”
This is a reminder to ourselves to not get caught up in the running commentaries in our heads. Thought constructions are often unhelpful but they can be downright destructive if fuelled by fear and worry.
Instead, live in the present moment or as the Buddha had put it: “sandiṭṭhiko” (visible here and now) and “akāliko” (timeless). Learn to enjoy the NOW.
Be aware of how our mind can stay in the present, without chattering, at least for a while before it drifts off again. Be grateful each time you are aware of this present moment where the mind is quietly watchful.
Treasure this moment in the Dhamma. Feel blessed that with the guidance of a 2500-year old teaching, we too are enjoying this wondrous experience
To recall the virtues of the Sangha is to remind ourselves that we must stay kusala and not willy-nilly stray into akusala. As the first part of the homage recitation goes, “The order of the Exalted One’s disciples is practising well; … is of upright conduct; … has entered the right path; … is practising correctly.”
Indeed, the noblest of Buddha’s disciples were all paragons of virtues. If we profess to be Buddha’s disciples, the least that we can do is to restrain our akusala instincts and to conscientiously cultivate kusala ones.
We learn to speak kindly and gently. In this trying time, where everyone is anxious and agitated, we should not add to another’s pain.
We shall act with consideration. We take (or buy) only what we need for survival and not clear the shelves because we can. We must be giving (cāga). For those of us with means, this is really a chance to cultivate generosity because there are very real and desperate needs out there. If we find our mind resisting to give, tame that stain of miserliness by giving more.
What must we do?
We must be empathetic. Covid-19 obviously does not respect national boundaries. There is no one race or religion immune to Covid-19. The entire human race is in this together.
So we will not point fingers and look for convenient scapegoats. Instead, we should embrace all and help all alike. And finally, we will be grateful for our blessings to be living in a country where we have good people and resources to contain Covid-19 outbreak and save lives.
The fact that we remain hopeful despite the body blows to the economy and complete disruption to our social lives, shows that instinctively we trust the people in the forefront know what they are doing.
We must not add to their burden. Instead, we will be humble and wholly support them. We must think positive, stay optimistic and believe that this pandemic will pass.
May we all emerge from this defining challenge of our time, stronger in our faith, kinder in our words and conduct, and wiser in our thoughts. May your faith in the Triple Gem keep you well and at peace
TLDR: Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. Here is my story and why closure is not always a necessity.
Once upon a time,
Birth and Death were lovers.
They have always been in love and
had never been separated.
But one day,
Life separated them.
Like all great love stories,
They will find each other again someday,
because they always belong together.
Birth & Death are inseparable.
Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. It started with my grandparents, my good friends, and then my father.
I have not seen my father for over a year after my cancer treatments because he was suffering from Pneumonia, an infectious disease. Due to my low immune system, I had to move out and keep a distance away from him. How do you say goodbye to the person when you are not right by their side? Grief only becomes harder. It hurts a lot and it took me some time to go through the grieving.
Death is a selfish B*tch. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. It can happen anywhere and at any time. There is no warning or a good ending. Death never left anyone behind. The lucky ones will get to depart first. The one that stays on will linger on a bit longer facing grief.
Death will eat you up, mess up your mind and when someone we truly love dies, it can feel like the end of the world.
I remembered the story of Kisa Gotami vividly from the Buddha’s chronicle. After losing her only child, she went crazy, holding her dead son desperately seeking someone that could bring her son back to life. Her grief was paralysing so an old man advised her to look for the Buddha, a man well known for his wisdom.
The Buddha asked her to find mustard seeds from a household where no one had died so he could bring the child back to life. After hearing this wonderful news, she eagerly went from house to house, but to her despair, every household had suffered from a loved ones’ death. Eventually, the realization struck that there is no house free from death. She buried her son and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth.
I always wonder why would the Buddha agree to save her son although it is not possible?
The first stage of grief is self-denial, refusing to believe that the person had gone. There is this strong attachment that keeps holding on to the person. Buddha is a wise teacher, had he not assigned Kisa Gotami an impossible task she would not have understood the inevitability of death by herself.
We don’t have to find “closure.” Seeking closure is akin to someone trying to ask a question with no answer. Closure personally for me seems harsh, like trying to shut the door and end it with a bang. How can you shut down the love you had for someone?
The ability to face the truth is better than closure, it allows us to come to terms with what’s happening. It can help us to process the overwhelming reality of death.
Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.
— Martha Beck, “Elegy for Everything”
Dhamma is the best Psychiatrist
Dhamma helps to clarify. There is no right or wrong way to grief. Everyone has their way of coping with it.
Don’t let anyone judge how your grieving should be. Some people travel, some people take a break from their job and some people just need to get help from a professional by seeing a psychiatrist. The truth is it will get better as time goes by.
However, it takes effort to understand the Dhamma, read what Dhamma has spoken about death. The purpose of Dhamma is to help our mind to expand and grow, to clarify. It should uphold us and create an inner sense of peace, joy and clarity.
No one can tell you how long this grief will last or how to make it right.
What is important is that we should stop concentrating on what we have lost and instead acknowledge what our loved ones have achieved in this life. Doesn’t it make sense that life is not subjected or defined by how long we live, but by how we make an impact on our surroundings, family and friends?
When a caterpillar metamorphoses, it doesn’t want the other caterpillars to feel sad for him. Instead, every caterpillar knows it will get through this process naturally. There is no pain, no sorrow, and no guilt. It is merely how nature works. No one can stop the metamorphosis. Death is just a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon.
Also, part of me selfishly focused on my grieving and on what I’ve lost, failed to understand that this person doesn’t belong to me and his presence is not existential. Our loved ones are not born for us to grieve. I realised that everyone, not just me, had experienced grief before and we have to understand that everyone was born to die.
We all will become someone’s ancestors someday.
After the preaching from the Buddha, Kisa Gotami was awakened and entered the first stage of enlightenment. Eventually, she became an Arhat (An enlightened being that goes beyond birth and death). We too can work towards enlightenment by realising these small truths of grief along the way.
Don’t let the grief destroy love, shatter hope, corrode faith, suppress precious memories that you have for the departed.
Closure is not necessary. Don’t beat yourself hard by asking questions that don’t come with an answer.
Beyond all the violence and nail-biting scenes of Squid Game, the show taught me some Dhamma lessons while I was watching it. Here are my 3 Dhamma takeaways!
One barely escapes Squid Game, both in the show and on social media.
A browse through social media will show scores of Squid Game memes, advertisements, and analyses on it.
Since its Netflix’s release, Squid Game has become the #1 show in over 90 countries. For the uninitiated, Squid Game depicts a story of people who are heavily financially in debt. They compete for 45.6 billion won (~52 million SGD) by taking part in six Korean kids’ games. However, if participants lose any of the games, they risk losing their lives. Intense.
Here are 3 Dhamma takeaways that you may have missed!
SPOILER WARNING! Jump to ‘Wise Steps’ if you do not wish to get these small spoilers!
Life is Impermanent and rarely linear
Sang-woo is the childhood friend of Squid Game’s main character (Gi-hun). A naturally bright student who enrolled in one of the top universities (as Gi-hun constantly reminds every contestant), Sang-woo gets a job as an investment banker, an occupation held in high regard in modern society.
Sang-woo’s character reveals the power of Anicca (Pali for “Impermanence” in Buddhism). The show highlights his decline from success to states of sorrow and anger.
What’s crazy about watching Sang-woo is that you can see yourself or even close friends in him.
Sang-woo reminds you of that one friend who is a perfect scholar. The one who studies hard. The one who gets into a top university and has a great job. I shudder at the thought of knowing the number of potential ‘Sang-woos’ in my life.
For these perceptibly fortunate folks, life seems like an upward trajectory, where the only thing permanent is their success.
Alas, the eight worldly winds, as taught by the Buddha do not spare Sang-woo from impermanence. Just like any of us.
Sang-woo’s greed and giddiness with success lead him to steal money from clients and bet it on the stock market. In desperation, he uses his mother’s little shop as financial collateral. This act of deceit spirals Sang-woo into further run-ins with the law.
Once Sang-woo joins the game, we see his transformation accelerate.
He evolves from a calm, caring man into a brutal opportunist.
In his final act of transformation, he shockingly betrays a kind-hearted contestant. This makes you lose all support for Sang-woo to win the game.
Sang-woo’s decline reminded me that life is hardly linear. Life is rarely set in stone with change as the only constant. As we look towards ‘change’ in terms of happier emotional states or ‘even better’ material possessions, we must remember that change is a double-edged sword.
A state can change for better or worse — we cannot be sure.
A balanced mind unshaken by the eight worldly winds will bring the greatest peace and clarity in times of trouble and happiness. Otherwise, we may be unprepared for the red and green lights that lie await us.
Red light, Green light. Staying Present
The first game that contestants play is the Red Light, Green Light game. Contestants have to cross the finishing line within five minutes. They can only move when the doll signals a ‘Green Light’. If the contestants move when it is a red light (which can happen suddenly), they lose (die).
From watching all that running, my Dhamma takeaway was that everyone has their own pace in life.
Those who know their pace and stay present win the game (mostly). The person who hastily runs towards the line, despite the red light, faces elimination. Those frozen with fear also lose the game. In essence: move too slow or too fast? You lose.
Knowing your own pace and ability to pause is crucial in winning the game and the game of life.
Reflecting deeper, some contestants do try their best at the game but still lose. This part reminded me of the times when we did our best to follow the ‘rules of life’ such as working hard or eating healthily to live a good long life. We may think we have it sorted, the green and red lights of our lives.
However, life is uncertain. Our hard work turns into a missed promotion. Our healthy lifestyle can still result in early-stage cancer.
Reflecting thus, the game was a reminder that there is sometimes no visible order to the world. No ‘order’ to the way we want it to be. It is better to stay present and treasure life as we never know when we will face a sudden ‘red light’ in our lives.
The three forms of intoxicants (youth, health, and life) make us think the green light will go on and on and on. We must remind ourselves not only to constantly go at our pace but also to not get kidnapped by a false sense of security that we know it all.
Once we win the game at our own pace, would we know the difference between happiness and excitement?
Happiness vs Excitement
What happens when you have all the material wealth you ever wanted? What happens next?
These questions form quite a bizarre future for us to grapple with, especially in the workforce where we work towards the idea of financial freedom. What’s next?
The show replies to this existential question through the character of ‘The Host’.
The Host created the Squid Game, an annual game hosted across different countries, where contestants compete for prize money that grows with elimination by death.
What could drive The Host to commit such a sadistic act?
The Host was in the financial industry and accumulated a lot of wealth. He reached a point where his life had no more excitement.
“Do you know what is the common ground between someone without money and having too much money? Life is just not fun! If you have too much money you can buy, eat and drink as much as you want, but at some point it gets boring. “ – The Host
The Host highlighted that even when he was extremely wealthy, he and his associates (the VIPs) could not find joy in living anymore. Hence, they created the game to get a different level of excitement (from watching people kill one another). This excitement was something they could never get in the material world.
The Host confused excitement for happiness — this was another key Dhamma lesson that I took away. I wondered how many times I made the same mistake of taking both as identical.
While going on a Youtube binge can be exciting, I rarely find myself in a happy state after the binge. A question of ‘What now?’ ensues. Happiness is not found. Rather, I find eye bags and regrets on the following day.
So what exactly is the difference?
Excitement relies on external stimuli to drive a temporary surge of positive feelings. Happiness comes from one’s own internal world. Happiness is not reliant on external conditions for its creation or sustenance.
Namely, they are the happiness of ownership, using wealth, debtlessness, and blamelessness.
Regarding wealth, Buddha says ‘It’s when a gentleman uses his legitimate wealth and makes merit with it. When he reflects on this, he’s filled with pleasure and happiness.’
The idea of making merit (beneficial acts towards oneself and others) and of reflecting is crucial for happiness. Think of the last time we gave our money to a person or cause in need, did you notice a smile in your heart? It is such moments of reflection that can be painfully lost if we become jaded with the material world around us.
By learning about Buddha’s four types of happiness, we can make better choices and avoid being taken hostage by the allure of excitement.
Squid Game was a fulfilling series with many moments when you paused either in fear or in shock.
It forced the viewer to think about what kind of person you would be if you were in that situation.
We reflected on the impermanence of our conditions and how we can be ‘indebted’ to them if we were not careful like Sang-woo. We also learnt to go at our own pace in life, walking the Middle Path even when others are going at extreme ends. Lastly, we were forced to ask ourselves: what is the true difference between excitement and happiness in life. Which matters more?
One barely escapes Squid Game, both in the show and on social media. Can we also escape the pitfalls of life that Buddha warns us about?
Reminding ourselves that life is full of change keeps us on our toes to never take situations and relationships as permanent
Stay present and learn to let go of grudges because death comes unexpectedly. In this life, whether tomorrow is our green or red light…nobody knows
Recognise the differences between happiness and excitement. The wise know what brings inner joy with little reliance on external conditions