Ep 34: Leading with Mental Vulnerabilities

Ep 34: Leading with Mental Vulnerabilities

Youtube video of this episode


[00:00:00] Cheryl:

Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcasts. Today’s episode is very interesting because we will be talking about Buddhist leaders and mental illness. The aim of this podcast today is to shed light on the challenges and lived experiences of our friends with mental illness, especially on the unique challenges faced as leaders in the Buddhist scene.

Today we have a guest who will bring in a very unique perspective to this topic as she has personally navigated mental illness while also holding leadership roles. So let’s welcome Sister Ching Wi.

[00:00:35] Sis Ching Wi:

Hi everyone. Hi Cheryl. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:38] Cheryl:

Hi. Sister Ching Wi is a social worker with Aranya Sangha Dana Fellowship, a nonprofit that helps Buddhist monks and nuns, especially those living in the community. She’s also a facilitator who designed the Life Story Workshop for seniors and graduated from the London School of Economics and the National University of Singapore.

Can you share more about your personal journey with mental illness and how it has intersected with your leadership or volunteering roles?

[00:01:07] Sis Ching Wi:

Hi, Cheryl. I’ve been a social worker and because I benefited a lot from practicing the Dhamma, so I also try and serve the Buddhist community in any way that I can. This is actually the 10th year of my depression. It’s a very, very long journey. It started with me taking a break from work, I was just doing nothing. I happily thought that I was just going on a holiday, but then I didn’t realize that not doing anything made me have a lot of time to ruminate. Then I found myself starting to worry. You’re so used to working every month and seeing the paycheck in your bank account. So, these worries become bigger and bigger worries.

And then lo and behold, I was just spending my days on the sofa watching TV. It got so bad that even when I had to go to the toilet, I just couldn’t get out of the sofa at all. I just felt like it was so difficult to move my body. Sometimes people say, your body feels as heavy as a mountain, it really felt like that. I really had to force myself. So every day it’s very tiring mentally because it’s not like I’m just sitting there stoning away. My mind was super hyperactive. I couldn’t take care of myself. And I really had to force myself. But I still tell myself, okay, maybe being a social worker, this is just burnout. You just need to rest more.

So it went on for a few weeks and then one day I was just standing at my window. Suddenly I just caught myself thinking, most of us live in HDB Flats, when I looked down, suddenly the thought came,Oh, actually it’s very easy to just drop down.” Then the next thought was, so how do you do that? Well, I guess I can push myself off my ledge and then I lose balance and I fall, or I can maybe just find a stool or a chair and step on it. Finding a chair will be easier. My chair is in the kitchen, so I turned and I walked towards the kitchen.

[00:02:54] Cheryl:  

It was quite a serious thought in the sense that there was the intention of executing it as well.

[00:03:00] Sis Ching Wi:

There was even a plan. So after a few steps of walking into the kitchen, I realized that it was a suicidal thought. So that’s when I figured, okay, I can’t do this on my own. I went to see a psychiatrist and a counselor at the same time. And I started my healing journey from then on. But it wasn’t smooth at all because of my personality of being a perfectionist and a workaholic and all that, I would ask a psychiatrist, okay, so how long will I take this medication before I’m up again? Should we give it three months?

[00:03:30] Cheryl:

It almost seems naive like you’re thinking three months, but actually now in retrospect, it takes 10 years.

[00:03:36] Sis Ching Wi:

Exactly right. A good way of understanding depression, I like the model of BPSS, which is biological, physical, and psychosocial. I like this model because the focus is not just on taking medication and getting better, but I also have to look into the psychological aspects and social aspects. This helped me a lot. I had to figure out how to manage stress.

This is where mindfulness comes in and as a Buddhist already meditating, not a lot, but enough to help myself a little bit. It really made me see how I have some unhealthy thought patterns being a perfectionist. It came from wanting to do the best that I can. It’s fine to do the best that you can, but you’re not a machine. Where did doing the best that I can come from? So it gave me a chance to really investigate. It came from a sense of being responsible. Again, being responsible is a very good virtue, but to balance it, to be healthy, you must know how to draw boundaries.

You must have the wisdom of knowing at what stage I have fulfilled my responsibility, when I should let go and not blindly be responsible 100% all the way. In these 10 years, I had a chance to really look at my thought patterns, my mental habits, trial and error and figure out. It’s like moving into OS 2.0 from OS 1.0 that totally failed. And along the way it’s 1.2, 1.3. So it’s not just about curing my chemical imbalance in my head, about managing my emotions, taking good care of myself in terms of health, but also really examining, throwing away what doesn’t work for me in terms of my thought patterns and adopting and practicing good mental habits.

[00:05:35] Cheryl:

Almost like the mental hygiene, cleaning up the unhealthy ones, learning and relearning. Like you mentioned, you don’t get it right the first time. It’s like 1.1, version 1.2.

[00:05:44] Sis Ching Wi:

In a fun way I tell myself, okay, so now this is a game of how many times do you want to continue to run into the wall? Because I would have high expectations of myself to get better. Okay, the medication is working. So now, I’m eating better. Maybe in two months’ time, I can take on more work. Actually, I have experienced, whether I wanted it or not, different ways of letting go. And I think this is so precious as a Buddhist. It’s very easy to say, I want to let go of my troubles.

[00:06:15] Cheryl:

But how do you do it exactly. Yeah. So let’s delve into that a little bit deeper, it’s almost as though there are a lot of conflicting parts of your personality, because there is the part of perfectionism wanting to get everything right. But on the other hand, when you are facing a depressive episode, you will be on the side where you can’t even move yourself to do the most basic things like going to the toilet. When you’re a leader, all of these tendencies would come into play. So, how has it intersected for you personally, between having this mental illness with your leadership?

[00:06:49] Sis Ching Wi:

There are a few layers. It’s my inner work, and then of course, working with the team or the project. I remember right at the beginning I would get overwhelmed to the extent of not showing up. And this is so out of character, right? I try so hard. I just couldn’t. It’s a combination of dread, being very scared, being very weak. Basically, I just couldn’t get out of the house. And then I will look at the time, the meeting has started and I’ll be missing it. And then after that, I’ll feel so bad. The guilt, the shame and I eventually retreated to just not showing up at all, not answering phone calls. As long as my handphone has battery and there’s a blinking light, when I see the blinking light, I will break into cold sweat. So I just want the battery to be off. I was just like isolating myself.

But then I still continue to feel bad actively, because I know, tomorrow there’s this thing, and three days’ time there’s this thing and all that. But of course, friends and fellow workers, everyone was very understanding and people got really, really worried. And then I know people will get worried and that set me off into another spiral. Of course, in the midst of all these, friends couldn’t get hold of me. They started contacting my husband, my sisters and close friends. Then, people knew that I had depression.

[00:08:03] Cheryl:

So at that point, it was not public information yet.

[00:08:05] Sis Ching Wi:

Yeah, it wasn’t. Then people started passing messages back, to send me loving kindness, tell me not to worry. It made me more relieved. So I told the psychiatrist, you know what I discovered? When I went off the radar, the world did not collapse.

[00:08:20] Cheryl:


[00:08:21] Sis Ching Wi:

And after I said that, I felt so relieved. I felt so relieved. So it’s not that I’m so egotistical, like the world revolves around me. But I was feeling so bad and I think I must have been beating myself up for so long, for not being able to perform all my duties.

So this term of being a leader, well, I guess you take on more responsibility. Part of the responsibility, at least for me, I always try to be hands-on. So then there’s this added responsibility of letting more people down. That was horrendous. Yeah.

[00:08:52] Cheryl:

Yeah. I think a lot of times leaders, especially in the Buddhist scene as well, people define leadership as basically being the person that is doing everything, doing the most. That can sometimes be a very heavy burden to lift, especially if you are already going through a very difficult moment in your life. But what you just shared is very powerful in the sense that sometimes leadership can be viewed as a shared responsibility amongst the communities, not just on your own shoulders. You are there, but also there are people supporting you there.

[00:09:30] Sis Ching Wi:

Definitely. In fact, I was already very blessed. One of my biggest takeaways was, thank goodness I didn’t have to do a lot of hands-on. So it wasn’t like I was the one who had the key to the Dhamma center, and then because I wasn’t there that night, people couldn’t attend the Dhamma talk. So it’s more at the planning level and all that. If we communicated enough and if we do proper planning, so what if somebody is down? The team just goes on and work gets done.

It really brought in the point that no one is indispensable. The leader must immediately think about leadership succession. It’s like day one of anything that you do, this notion of letting go is extremely important. It’s not just letting go of the duties. It’s not about being irresponsible, but it’s about can we find someone to shadow you? Can we work as a pair? Can we work as a team? And then somebody else can learn, the newer ones can learn, and the senior ones, can work themselves out of a job and go to the mountain and meditate.

[00:10:36] Cheryl:

So I’m curious, how do you juggle between a sense of responsibility versus a sense of shared community?

[00:10:44] Sis Ching Wi:

I think it’s mostly in our mental attitude. The responsibility and the job scope, you have to fulfill. But how can I try to be mindful of my attachment to the task at hand? If I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I don’t need to go back and be a perfectionist and ruminate. Can I let that go? Okay, I can. It’s an exercise in letting go. If this organization that I volunteer in or this project that I do, if we cannot achieve the objectives, then how? So, I’ve developed this habit of anticipating impermanence. There will be changes. And just being very clear to myself, okay what can I accept? Is there anything else that I can do? And that’s it.

I’ve gone through a rehearsal in my mind of the possible disasters. And when things happen I’m not caught off guard. In these rehearsals, it’s a chance for me to contemplate, how much do I personally, selfishly want this or am I seeing it too narrowly?

[00:11:39] Cheryl:

Yeah, that’s very wonderful. Thanks for sharing your reflections on this. What I take away is if someone is a leader who is struggling with mental illness, first is having that kind of self-awareness that this is my bandwidth, this is my capacity. And contrary to our ideas of taking on the whole world, on your shoulders, you can also understand that these are your boundaries. These are what you’re capable of and plan for how you can share these responsibilities. How can you give other people maybe an earlier heads up as well, so then you don’t have to feel so burdened by everything.

Then the second piece is that, where you’re possibly responsible for the task at hand, do your best and try to let go of whatever outcomes if you have already done your best and be at peace with whether the thing turns out good or bad knowing that you have already given it your all.

[00:12:33] Sis Ching Wi:

Thank you for the summary. I think a very important point comes to mind and that is the sense of ownership. I am not saying that I’m doing it fantastically well, but I know that it’s always important and I always try to do it right. If the sense of ownership is truly felt by most of us in the team, then it’s an organic thing. If the leader is out of action, everyone still has a shared vision, everyone still knows where we are going. So it becomes co-creation. It means that everyone brings in what is it that they want rather than it’s just a vision or goal by one or two people. Along the way, more or less we will achieve our outcome, especially being Singaporeans.

But the process is so important, whether we learn and we grow, whether we help each other to be more mindful, whether we are supportive of each other’s emotions. When you have disagreements and when people get hurt, do we as a team want to talk about it? It’s a way of supporting each other. The process is so important, especially if we are looking at voluntary projects, even if you’re paid nothing. I think a lot of times the stress comes from people misunderstanding us, miscommunication, not being able to share our passion, and not being able to contribute. So all this is about just the process of how can we help each other to achieve our own individual objectives as well as our collective team objectives.

[00:14:06] Cheryl:

And I think when individual contributors on the team are empowered, then that’s where we see more proactivity as well. That’s how the team grows in a more positive direction as well. With all the challenges you mentioned just now, how has that shaped your perspective on leadership? Do you find that it influenced the way you approach any positions that you hold?

[00:14:31] Sis Ching Wi:

Oh, definitely. The biggest lesson is in empathizing and respecting people I work with. Most people wouldn’t tell you they have had a hard day. They’re dealing with whatever that is happening in their lives. Most people are just responsible and they just wanna give their best.

So if we are not sensitive enough to catch people, these are the small little things, but extremely important things that we can do right by just checking in on people, making it a point to really get to know the people I work with. If there’s a change in their behavior or their energy, I can sense it. And developing a real relationship, just being authentic about it. We allow each other to offer support and even to take care of each other. That’s a huge thing that I’ve learned.

[00:15:20] Cheryl:

It seems that it empowered you to really be more compassionate to the people around you, especially in terms of building that personal, genuine relationship, seeing them as humans rather than just a person to get something done.

I’m also reflecting on the four Brahmavihārās that the Buddha taught us. One is loving kindness where you spread unconditional loving kindness to the people around us whom we are working with. Secondly, it is to have that sense of compassion to want to reduce their suffering.

I think these two things, in particular, are quite neglected sometimes when we are in the rush of getting projects done perfectly, or by a certain deadline. Sometimes we can forget these two pieces. It’s so important to always anchor ourselves that the person in front of us here is a human being, and we should wish for their happiness and to reduce their suffering as well.

[00:16:16] Sis Ching Wi:

Yeah. One point that I really wanna share is that the very basics of practicing Buddhism is to avoid wrongdoings, do good and purify our mind. So this notion of doing good, I used to not be able to understand. In Chinese Mahayana there is this 普贤菩萨十大行原品. It’s Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Ten Great Action Vows. One of it is 恒顺众生. It literally means to serve and to support all sentient beings, to help them as much as possible.

So then now that I think about doing good, in the course of us having the responsibility to get the job done, we have limited time. Sometimes we feel that it’s not so important to ask how everyone is feeling. Or if somebody doesn’t know how to be the administrator of Zoom, instead of taking the time to teach, you find somebody else who can.

But then if we were to look into doing good, if I take a bit of time to teach this person, then this person would learn something. This is such an important skill and this person can do a lot more, not just for the project or for the organization, but for his or her life. So it is about enabling and empowering people. So I’ll get smart next time. When I am planning the next project, let’s plan in time. Let’s plan this in as a task, so that we have the bandwidth. A project is a project, but you can build in small little tasks and goals along the way that we all can practice, we all can help each other to grow.

[00:17:56] Cheryl:

I really love that.

[00:17:58] Sis Ching Wi:

Yes, do good.

[00:17:59] Cheryl:

Yes. And it’s almost like if you set your mind on doing good, you’re intent on it, you would be able to find ways. You’re so smart in incorporating that into the project plan, empower this person, teach this person, put that as part of the to-do list. It’s so beautiful because then you are also helping another person. We help to nurture them to their highest potential and that creates a whole ripple of positive effects onto the community. Thanks for sharing.

[00:18:27] Sis Ching Wi:

Welcome, Cheryl. I really invite everyone to just try one small little initiative like that and when the project is done, everyone’s heart is closer to each other because I’m also rejoicing and celebrating your success. Not just in the final step of that project. Along the way the logistics person has to do this, the marketing person has to do that, but then I know I was journeying with you a lot more. So all the interconnection and all the rejoicing, it’s so beautiful. So please try it. Everyone just try it.

[00:18:58] Cheryl:

Yes. Let’s try doing that. For all the leaders who are listening here, try to intentionally put in an action step that you could do to help enable another person to learn to grow or to be nurtured. You mentioned rejoice as well, and I thought is so appropriate that rejoicing is the third Brahmavihārā . I shared the first two just now. The first being loving kindness. The second being compassion to reduce people’s suffering. And the third one is to rejoice to feel appreciation for other people’s success, joy and growth. The fourth one is the idea of equanimity. If everything fails, we practice that sense of equanimity, to see things as it is, that it is what it is. That’s the Four Brahmavihārās as well.

[00:19:41] Sis Ching Wi:

You frame my sharing in such a way that I think it comes across as so smart.

[00:19:45] Cheryl:

What you share is very valuable.

[00:19:48] Sis Ching Wi:

I think a lot of times equanimity, we related to letting go. The way that I eventually come to experience it is dynamic. It is not dead silence. It’s a dynamic process, there is also a timeline involved. There’s a duration involved. So equanimity as a state of mind, I can be mini equanimous and I can be super zen-out equanimous.

[00:20:14] Cheryl:

It is like a spectrum.

[00:20:15] Sis Ching Wi:

It is a spectrum. Earlier on I was talking to my husband and I said, I have to practice mindfulness to literally save my life because I need to catch all these illogical suicidal thoughts when they come up. It is quite similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When your eyes see something, it goes into your brain. It will be linked to a certain thought or a certain memory. Then, you will create a story in your head. And when the story is created, it seems so real. Sometimes certain feelings will come up and you may even want to do something about it.

Let’s say someone may see my very short hairstyle, which is my lack of mindfulness in communicating with the hairdresser. Somebody may think, I also want to have that hairstyle, maybe next time I can go and get that hairstyle. So from seeing me, you develop thinking,

[00:21:03] Cheryl:


[00:21:04] Sis Ching Wi:

Yes. It may even lead to emotions and actions, I like this, or I don’t like this, and I wanna do something about it. So back to mindfulness and being equanimous. I realized that I have to be mindful and I have to manage myself in such a way that I don’t become too crazy high and I don’t become too depressingly low. For me, this is kind of like being equanimous. I just have to stay within a range of emotions. And in order to do that, I have to constantly be mindful. Then I realized that actually, this is a very good skill to have as I go about life, when I’m stressed, when I am in a hurry.  I found my zone, I have to just keep on practicing to be in that zone. As a result, I’m more grounded, my mind is clearer. Whatever work I do, I can just be more attuned. I have more space to observe people, to be more considerate of how they are doing, to pick up if they are feeling low, things like that. This is my own interpretation and working model of equanimity. This is how I apply and I understand the Four Brahmavihārās.

[00:22:13] Cheryl:

Can you share what are some practical trainings or reflections that you do to help keep you within that healthy boundary?

[00:22:23] Sis Ching Wi:

Being a workaholic and a perfectionist, I had to try very hard to convince myself that I have to take it easy. After convincing myself to take it easy, I have to put it into an action plan.

[00:22:34] Cheryl:

The take-it-easy action plan.

[00:22:38] Sis Ching Wi:

Oxymoron. So how many percent of your action plan have you completed in taking it easy? Yeah. I’ve learned to just tell myself it’s okay that I don’t get it right all the time. Finally, I think what worked was to have a sense of fun and adventure. Let’s treat it as a game. If I can catch a negative thought, yay! What do I reward myself with? So there are a lot of constant opportunities to reframe and to practice self-compassion. When I decided to see this as a fun thing, I finally took off. I finally started to really incorporate a lot in my life. Yeah.

[00:23:16] Cheryl:

So in the Take it Easy action plan, there are some guidelines if anyone wants to build up their own action plan. Reframe. So if your habitual tendency is to get angry, allow yourself to think of alternative ways about this. What can I do other than get angry? What are some other things that I can put in instead?

Second is to make it fun. Try to catch yourself. Try to notice how many times you have a negative thought or how many times you go into unhealthy coping behaviors. And third is to practice self-compassion. Occasionally indulge in a healthy amount of potato chips or whatever else, not indulge until you get a stomachache. But get some form of harmless fun to your life.

[00:23:56] Sis Ching Wi:

Along the way, I think small little victories, I celebrate. Neuroscience theories will tell you, if you celebrate, you’re developing your neural pathway, you are growing it. So if I pay attention to good things, then the good neural pathways will grow. If I pay attention to bad things, then I’m just sabotaging myself. So then celebrating becomes very important to seal it in. I went on this whole spiel about, look, you’re a responsible person. You are Buddhist, so you don’t celebrate in an indulgent way. Don’t be so frivolous and all that. Hey, wait a minute. Oh yeah, hey, I caught it! In this ongoing process, I’ve also gotten to know myself a lot better.

I’ve also gotten to see my ego. We all have this vanity, of wanting to present the best of ourselves. After I try this and that, and bang my head against the wall, there comes a point where I go like, oh, I forget it. This is just too tiring. I just let go. So I keep letting go, I don’t care how people think of me anymore. This is a healthy kind of adjustment. The whole idea is you become more and more relaxed. You wanna take it easy. Eventually, I got somewhere after years, and When I saw people behaving in a certain way that I used to behave, that empathy and compassion came out. But then I quickly remind myself, Hey, remember you’re a social worker, it means that there’s a tendency for you to not respect your own boundary and go and help save the whole world. Right? Anyway, these thoughts we’ll always have in our heads, but we don’t have to entertain them. But then I’m able to see people struggling, and it just makes it so much easier to connect. The empathy of just wishing somebody well, just smiling at that person.

I will admit that it’s really not easy, just bravely seeing yourself for who you are, but it results in a lot of beautiful things in my life now for myself and for people around me. So it’s totally worth it. I’m sure even for friends listening who are not diagnosed with depression. All of us have got bad days and all that. But just keep on working on ourselves. It will come to a stage where we become better and when we are better, we become more attuned to people around us and we can start to help people around us. Then it just becomes a cycle that goes on and on. Yeah.

[00:26:03] Cheryl:

And like Thich Nhat Hanh always says, the more we are in touch with our own suffering, then the more we can be in touch with other people’s suffering. That’s where true compassion can spring up. Because we understand it for ourselves, we truly know how unpleasant it is. When we touch the core of it, then we are also able to see it in everyone. And in that sense, we see, despite our colors, our perspectives, our views, underlying all of these things, we are one and the same in terms of our quest for happiness, our quest to be free from suffering in our own ways.

[00:26:41] Sis Ching Wi:

So beautifully said.

[00:26:45] Cheryl:

And Sis Ching Wi, I really want to thank you for coming on this show. It’s very brave of you because there are a lot of people out there suffering from diagnosed mental illness or even mental illness to a lesser degree, but still struggling. And I think that by you coming up here today to speak, you’re also speaking for all of them and of course everyone else who’s keen to understand a little bit more. Would there be one message or word of encouragement that you would like to share with the people who may be listening and struggling silently?

[00:27:18] Sis Ching Wi:

For all of us who are struggling, just keep trying. Even if it’s just about managing to get a glass of water for yourself. It’s not about always having progress all the time or to achieve big milestones. As long as we don’t give up, we are trying, as long as we are breathing, we are trying. So as long as I just tell myself I will keep trying, that’s it. That’s my project.

I would like to invite everyone out there, be it you are a leader or team member, to see if we can hold space for each other. Very simply put, if you can see that somebody is struggling, then there are some little acts of kindness that we can do. Holding space also means, if we see some toxic behavior, then we should call it out. If a leader is too demanding, then can we communicate more with each other so that at the end of the day, we don’t end up creating more harm to each other as an operating principle. And I’m sure there’s a lot of different context and all that. So calling out toxic behavior may be the more intense kind of action. But if we see it as a spectrum, if we see unkindness, are there ways that we can try again and do it in a different way?

If we can all try and put this at the back of our mind, to always hold space for each other and to always make sure that we take care of each other, just as how you want to take care of yourself, this will have a very good outcome for ourselves and for people around us.

[00:28:55] Cheryl:

And like the Buddha said in the Karaniyametta Sutta, like a mother loving their only child, that’s how you should cherish other people as well and view them as precious or treat them with that form of kindness and gentleness. Thank you so much, Sister Ching Wi.

And for all of our listeners here, I hope you enjoyed listening to our conversation. If you like this podcast, please like, give us five stars and stay happy and wise. See you in the next episode. Thank you.


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Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee

Ep 33: Ghost Month: Buddhism, Real Ghost Encounters and Hell

Ep 33: Ghost Month: Buddhism, Real Ghost Encounters and Hell

Tune into our Episode here!


[00:00:00] Kai Xin:

Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Handful of Leaves podcasts, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. I am Kai Xin

[00:00:10] Cheryl:

and I’m a ghost. No kidding! I’m Cheryl… with flu.

[00:00:14] Kai Xin:

And today we are gonna talk about ghosts. It’s gonna be interesting because we’ve collected some stories from some of you, our subscribers. We’re gonna share three stories and also insert the Buddhist perspective of ghosts as well as the ghost month.

So for myself, I used to be very fearful of ghosts. You know, when you’re a kid in primary school, I don’t know if you remember the chain messages that say like, “Oh, if you don’t send this to 10 people, then at night somebody will knock on your door or somebody will hide under your bed.”

Yeah. That scared of the hell of me. I thankfully don’t feel scared anymore. So actually, I like watching ghost movies. In fact, I feel that they’re a little bit sad. And yeah, people jio (invite) me to do crazy things like go to abandoned Istana buried deep in the woods, it’s like those abandoned house.

(I was also) quite daring as a teenager also, you know, cycle midnight, go to Old Changi Hospital and then got caught by the police as we were coming out, ’cause we didn’t know there’s like CCTV installed.

[00:01:18] Cheryl:

It’s like you don’t just enjoy ghost movies. You wanna put yourself in a ghost movie like that!

[00:01:22] Kai Xin:

No, I don’t do that to find trouble, but it’s just more to explore and adventure ’cause I just find them interesting.

[00:01:28] Cheryl:

I’m the total opposite of you. I would not wanna go to any of those places and I don’t wanna watch ghost movies. Last time on my way to school, I used to sit those public buses and then to entertain us a whole bunch of high school girls, right, the driver he’ll play a ghost movie and it’s usually the very, very scary one. He’s those like, Thailand Ghost movie or Japanese ghost movie? Like The Shutter.

[00:01:51] Kai Xin:

Japan’s one is the worst. Yeah.

[00:01:53] Cheryl:

It’s very scary and he’ll play it on repeat. So first time, I close my eyes. Second time, my friends watched so I need to pretend to be very courageous, and even after watching like one snippet for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, I cannot shower for like a whole week. Many years later, I’ll still think of the scene (in fear).

[00:02:11] Kai Xin:

I can empathize. I’ve been there before and I think we can also share a little bit more about perspective on ghosts, how to view them, how do we respond when we actually encounter one, or in the scriptures, what did the Buddha teach about all this.

In fact, this entire month is also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. The seventh month in the Chinese calendar, which falls in August and people believe that this month the Hell Gates will open and then the beings from the underworld they’ll come out and it includes the ancestors that have passed away.

[00:02:45] Cheryl:

Most people would usually have more ghostly encounters as well.

[00:02:50] Kai Xin:

Oh, yes. Or like you would suddenly see a lot of funerals under your void deck.

Yeah. Goosebumps.

By the way, we are recording this at 1125pm. Cheryl is making a cockroach looking expression. Hopefully the fear would change to something else at the end of the episode.

All right. So I think we can start off by asking first the whole thing about Ghost Month, is it a Taoist thing or is it a Buddhist thing?

[00:03:10] Cheryl:

I think a lot of people’s knowledge is that, Ghost months you just make sure when you walk on the road, just avoid all the Joss sticks or the paper. Actually it’s very interesting, the Ghost Festival, has its roots in the Buddhist festival, Ullambana.

So the Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story from India. There was this well to do merchant Maha Mogallana who gave up his trade and he then went on to become a Buddhist monk, and he was the monk That’s foremost in psychic, and so after he became an Arahant (fully awakened being), you know, being very filial and all that, he wonder, “Hey, what happened to his parents?” So he used his psychic power to travel all the universes and realms. After you died and born either of the higher realms or the lower realms.

So he found his father in heaven. Good. Nothing needed. But then when he found his mother, his mother was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts. As a lay woman, she was very rich, but she was not generous.

So when she died, she was reborn in this low realm. So Maha Mogallana Alana went down to the Hungry Ghost realm, and eventually saves her from this plight, and the story ends with this festival and the rescue of his mother from hell.

[00:04:23] Kai Xin:

The interesting part of the story is that the Buddha, specifically in the Sutta, the Ullambana Sutta mentioned that even like the Heavenly Kings, and even Maha Moggalana, an Arahant, by using his power, he was not able to be able to elevate the mother from, suffering from the hell realm. So Ullambana is basically a gathering of all the Sangha members, the monastic, and then lay people would offer certain things usually like robes or food and it’s believed that the power of this gathering and the merit, probably uplifts the mind of the lower beings to then be able to reborn in a better place. Which we will cover more, later how, you know, the mechanism work, ’cause I think there’s also a lot of misconceptions around it.

And interestingly we have a submission of a story from KS, and this is in Malaysia and I wouldn’t say it’s like a ghost, ghost story, but I found it quite touching actually.

I’m gonna give some context first for clarity. ’cause this is a recount of, his or her aunt. And basically what happened was the, the aunt has four children and passed away at a relatively young age because of cancer. So, The account over here is not long. About few months after the passing away of aunt who, whose name is Ah Soon, uh, suddenly a family member received the information from somebody through word of mouth to say, “Hey, somebody is looking for the husband of this person, named Ah Soon, which is the aunt,” and then the uncle was then notified and apparently it was some person from the temple that is really far away from where this family is living, and it’s like, okay, what’s going on? So they brought the entire family there, located like eight km away. They’ve never heard of this temple before.

And apparently in the temple there is this medium did this ritual where, um, kind of get the aunt to communicate through his body I mean as a medium. So in the conversation, the aunt actually communicated how she felt very unjust and resentful, like why does she have to pass away at such a young age? And then very painfully due to cancer at the age of 40, and then living behind a husband and four children who are still relatively young. I think the max that was mentioned here was like secondary school age. So she also shared that she’s currently residing in the third level of hell and she was quite descriptive during this whole ritual.

She explained that there are levels of hell categorized by punishment, torture or suffering. And the first level is the least suffering and the deepest, which is the 18th level being the harshest suffering. Then, her current level is third level, so she can still chant every day and shared that she’s destined to be reborn in human realm again after 10 years.

Then according to the uncle and cousin, who’s the children of the aunt, this was the first and the only time that the aunt came to the temple conversed with them through the medium and there’s no other accounts already.

[00:07:40] Cheryl:

I think the part where she was lamenting about having passed away so painfully, the submitter also shared that through some notes that the deceased wrote few months before her passing, she did indeed share that same sentiment.

It is quite interesting because such a far away temple was able to accurately know the name, the situation. So what do you think Kai Xin? Do you think hell really exists? What do you think of the story?

[00:08:08] Kai Xin:

I can’t say for sure ’cause I’ve not seen hell, but I do believe and have some faith that it exists. In fact, in the Sutta the Buddha actually described quite in detail, the different levels of hell and the different kinds of punishment.

Some of the realms can actually receive some form of merits from like us human beings. You know, if we dedicate, they’ll feel joyful. But some, no matter how much you try, right, also cannot. So there are different levels and there’s more than one Sutta that actually talks about hell in the, the Pali canon and in the Mahayana scripture. In fact, I think the question is why are people born in hell.

Right? We, I think just now we have, uh, an example about being stingy. You know, we are not generous enough. And then in terms of like the account of KS, so it is believed that if you die with a very negative mental state, the negative energy will just bring you down to the lower realm.

Yeah. And the last thought is very important, so it might be the case that she feel that resentment and that became a condition for her. So in other there’s this very interesting exchange between Yan Luo Wang, or King Yama, and somebody who just entered the hell realm.

 King Yama or the hell of God.

[00:09:35] Cheryl:

The God of hell.

Hell of God. Yeah, it’s God of hell.

[00:09:41] Kai Xin:

He’s like the God of hell. And it’s interesting because God of hell is actually very compassionate when it’s described in the Sutta and it’s also there to teach beings in that realm of what they did wrong so that they can reflect.

What happened is that, the King Yama was lecturing this being and say, Hey, you know, uh, didn’t it occurred to you that if a person were to do evil deeds, even before you die, you’ll already be tortured, which is true, right?

[00:10:17] Cheryl:

If you conduct a crime, let’s say you go scot-free for 10 years.

But can you imagine the torture every day? Just worrying whether people will find out whether there’s any tracks that she didn’t cover.

[00:10:29] Kai Xin:

Yeah, it’s a mental torture in itself, right? Very interesting ’cause king Yama was saying that, even like here and now, evil actions have a punishment, then what more the life after?

So from that note, Wouldn’t you reflect that, hey, I need to do good with my body speech and mind. And he say, as we are living on earth, we will probably see the divine messengers . So, sickness, aging, and death. Then didn’t it occur to you that you are subjected to all of this and because of that, you shouldn’t just squander your youth away.

You should use the time to, be a person of integrity, do good, guide your mind, et cetera, which I found to be quite interesting ’cause we don’t necessarily have to even believe in the afterlife, but you just think about like this life, and if we are able to see like the divine messengers, then we would be able to do good, purify our mind a little bit and uplift our entire spirit.

[00:11:30] Cheryl:

We think about hell as external, a place to go to a, a place to be fearful of. But hell is actually within your own mind.

[00:11:42] Kai Xin:

Yeah. So you ask how exists or not, it can be metaphorical or it can be literal, right?

[00:11:47] Cheryl:

Yes. And there’s this, Sutta sharing, it says that evil is done by oneself. By oneself is one defiled; evil is left undone by oneself, by oneself is one cleansed.

It shows that hell, suffering is a consequence of unwholesome actions. but you also have the ownership to get out of that place. You can change if you find yourself to be suffering because, you do a lot of unwholesome things but there is the opportunity for you to take responsibility, to get yourself out of that hell. Evil is left undone by oneself, by oneself is one cleansed. So there is no God there to punish you.

[00:12:32] Kai Xin:

Then some people might ask we offer all this food. If cannot, then why do I offer all this food?

I think sometimes it’s also about whether we have the capacity to. If I’m just overwhelmed and overcome by anger, it’s actually very difficult to think straight and to say that, oh, you know, I have to repent and I have to do good. ’cause it’s always in hindsight.

We need like a spiritual friend or some wise people to pull us back on the path, in order to have that clarity of mind. So regarding the question at the very beginning we talk about, hey, you know, all this offering, does it really work? What’s the mechanics behind?

I got this Karma point and got this karma point, but it’s really about recollection of one’s virtue. So like you say, right? Because if the evil is done by oneself, then oneself is being defiled. If a person has virtue, and we recollect that virtue, then the mind brightens. So the, there’s also another Sutta that talks about specifically offering food to deceased relatives.

So it’s like, outside the walls they will stand and then they return home. Then, no one remembers them and say, oh, such is the karma of this being. There’s no person to actually, dedicate.

[00:13:48] Cheryl:

Oh, that’s quite sad.

[00:13:50] Kai Xin:

So, I think even like in this lifetime, sometimes we are forgotten by people, and you see people who are very lonely, they age alone and stuff.

Some people can also attribute that to causes and condition and karma, like, have you been a good person? The more virtuous you are, then you’re surrounded with great friends that are very appreciative, that would support you. So if you’re talking literally in the Sutta, it was described that, those who feel sympathy for their relatives will actually give timely donations, and you’ll wish may this relative be well, which I think is very beautiful act as well, because it’s like you’re appreciating them like, ah, you were my relative who have done me good, or I’ve benefited from your presence.

[00:14:34] Cheryl:

And it’s also simply that, that gratitude, right? Where it’s understanding without you, I won’t be here as well. Without all your ancestors, even though you don’t know them by name or form, without them, you can’t be here.

[00:14:46] Kai Xin:

So it’s not so much like we do all these offerings, , tolong (please) don’t come and disturb me. But it’s more like, oh, this is an occasion for me to appreciate you and to practice gratitude.

[00:14:56] Cheryl:

There was this case where King Bimbisara was very lucky to offer the Buddha, a wonderful meal, Dana.

But then he forgot to share merits to his relative. So after that meritorious deeds, what happened was that he heard a lot of crying sounds, so then he could ask Buddha, Hey, Buddha, how, why, like that Then Buddha say, ah, cause , you never go and share your merits and this occasion to, give food to the Buddha is so, so rare, your relatives have been waiting for a very long time, but you didn’t share with them, so they are quite upset with you. So then, King Bimbisara did it again, and then this time he shared all the merits re- collecting all the goodness that he’s done, wishing for his relatives to take part and rejoice and, there was no more, wailing sounds and, and they were also very happy after that.

[00:15:49] Kai Xin:

Every time we do good, we must think off the conditions that allowed us to do good and just dedicate the merits to our departed relatives. And going back to the question of, okay, so how does it work? I thought we are the owner of our own Kamma.

 I had this question many years ago and a friend gave me this super cool analogy if you are sentenced to say 10 year of prison sentence, right?

You can’t do anything in prison. And he is like, oh, I have to wait it out. And sometimes the conditions can, can be quite bad, like depending on, you know, which squad. So he kind of compared it to like, hell. If somebody visit you at the prison, like a relative and say that, Hey, I did this, this, this good deed, and when I did those, I thought of you or I donated this, in your name, how would you feel?

Like, wow, happy, right? Like you thought of me, I don’t feel so lonely. Then because you feel that maybe your conduct in prison would be better and because of that your jail sentence is also shortened. So, It’s not so much that you are, paying off people’s negative, karma or like helping them to free them from punishment.

We are still the owner of a karma, but it’s more of like both the receiver and the giver gain merits because we are happy about the process of giving and it’s the uplifting of the mind. And because of that, then we create the conditions to be in a better space. Yeah.

[00:17:23] Cheryl:

It’s so important because it’s so easy to forget the goodness and the merits that we do. So if I recollect the times where I feel very depressed and I feel like, oh, life doesn’t have any meaning, uh, that sort of dark mental state just clouds the mind and I’m just not able to remember or think about any of the goodness I’ve done and that further weighs me down.

[00:17:47] Kai Xin:

That’s so true.

[00:17:49] Cheryl:

So having that brightness, of good deeds just being shared, just being generously, uh, rejoiced in, is, is so, so, so powerful. And that one mindset can lift beings up, sometimes even from the hell real to an instantaneous rebirth. If it’s lifted so high, especially if maybe it’s a form of recollection with regards to the Buddha, and maybe a faith that is so strong can instantaneously lift them into a higher, a better rebirth.

[00:18:19] Kai Xin:

Yeah. Yeah, that’s so true. In fact, a friend has shared with me before when she was in a really dark place, She’s like, can you share, some good things ’cause I really cannot think of anything that is joyful. I can’t think of any good things that I’ve done. Can you just share with me, what is good in your week so that I can rejoice?

Sometimes even this life, the darkness just clouds your mind and it really helps to have somebody there with you to recollect.

[00:18:46] Cheryl:

A very good practice for, for everyone also who perhaps find themselves sometimes pegged down by the burdens of the world and we can become a bit pessimistic, is to have a diary or a small journal to just write down all the good deeds that you do and how you’ve helped someone, how you even thought a good thought, in your mind. You know, maybe feeling happy for a friend. Just write that down. And occasionally when you’re feeling down, you can just look at it again.

I have a relative who shared with me that I’ve actually done a lot of good things in my life. A lot, a lot, a lot of good deeds, but I don’t remember them. And that’s why I always feel very depressed. So then she also started this and it helps her, not only recollect that, on her death bed, but also on her day-to-day to increase her wellbeing.

Speaking about death, it is a good practice to read to a person who is dying, recollect all the good things that they have done so that their, their mind is bright when they’re departing. And, it’s also said that, you shouldn’t be crying. It’s like, why you leave me? It, it’s kind of like the auntie story, right? It’s like, I’m so young. I feel bad for leaving my kids behind, my family behind. Then they go with a very, very down mind. So it’s good to have this diary so that your loved one, like let’s say if I’m on my death, Cheryl please share it to me all the good things I’ve done. All the times a lot la uncountable good deeds done.

[00:20:19] Kai Xin:

I’m not sure whether I can recollect all of them when I die. I think who, who knows The bad karma in the past might have ripened during my death moment. So yeah, it would definitely be helpful to have this, jot down somewhere.

And I think it helps the living as well to be able to look at your loved one to say, wow, actually this is such an amazing person, how actually the best lesson learned from separating from loved one is to live your life well as like a living person, that’s the best gift that you can give to them.

[00:20:54] Cheryl:

I don’t understand that. Can you share more?

Why is it the best gift? The person died already.

[00:21:02] Kai Xin:

To lead a good life yourself is the best gift that you can give to them. So that they don’t have to worry. You know, like how they wouldn’t know, ah, haven’t you seen ghost movies, the attachment is a thing, right?

So if a person is burdened by family duties is good to live a good life so that you don’t have to worry them and you don’t be the cause of why they are in a lower realm. Just like, you know, my life is good. Don’t have to worry. Just go, go to a better place. Everything is taken care of.

[00:21:35] Cheryl:

And I guess like if you live well, you’ve got more good things to share, more merits to, to give them as well. And, that will be very helpful. Like if they happen to be lower. We can also share some interesting things about merits.

[00:21:51] Kai Xin:

I’m gonna share another story. This one is Army. So people, guys who have served the army probably also have experienced, something similar. Like how, how do you react or respond when they are supernatural encounters?

So this story goes like this, OCS days, that’s like about a decade ago up. So this person, our follower Jaden, was sharing the story of how they had to do like this night navigation at the top of Rambutan Hill. Never served NS before so some of the terms I don’t know, but basically, this hill, you have to go in groups and then there are different checkpoints to clear, within a stipulated amount of time that everyone would have like their helmet, their vests, et cetera, and the torchlight.

And they would tape up with a red tape with very, very small square window so that the light emitted is very minimal. So he was navigating the pitch black forest for very long. Only cleared two out of four checkpoints and was very desperate.

So at the time, most of the other cadets have already completed their course and went down to the foot of the hill and to prevent losing cadets in the forest, the instructor, would say that if you cannot finish clearing your checkpoint by a certain time, and if you hear the whistle start walking down a hill or return to the last checkpoint that you were at.

So it was really humid at night, and he was very tired from climbing the steep terrain and from all the falls that he had. And he was walking around aimlessly, like there’s no sense of direction, but he knew that he was somewhere near the highest edge of the hill because of the, the noise of the highway beside, which also meant that he was very far away from the base.

Then suddenly he saw someone in uniform. Cheryl is making a funny expression. And she says she pretend not to hear. Okay, I’m gonna continue anyway,

 Those of you who are scared also, you can, uh, fast forward. So suddenly he saw someone in uniform walking towards him. But he was very happy. He was happy to see this other person because he was walking alone for a good 15 to 20 minutes and he couldn’t quite see the face, like, ’cause you know, helmet was low.

Then his eyes squinting ’cause all the sweat and he went to ask this person, do you wanna join me and find the checkpoint together? And the person didn’t look at him, always had his back facing him. So he told Jayden that he came from a checkpoint that is not too far from where he was.

And then he pointed the direction. Then suddenly the whistle sounded so it’s like a cue for them to go back. So Jayden invited him to walk to the checkpoint that he said that he came from since the course has already ended, so we have to go to the nearest checkpoint.

 Then, weirdly enough, this person rejected the offer and insisted on going to another checkpoint on his own. Then the whistle sounded again. So I, I think at this point you can really tell that maybe the person is not a person.

So he’s just like, ah, yeah, this very stubborn guy. So he made his way down to the direction.

Then just like all 10, 20 steps, and then he saw other cadets and instructor. Then the instructor shout at him and asked him whether he saw anyone who was also like as equally lost as him, and then, He said yes, but then he turned back then ’cause 10, 20 steps only, he turned back then suddenly nobody.

 So very long story short, the instructor informed all the other instructors via the walkie talkie to do a head count at the base. And then, they call back and say that everyone has returned, left only the three of us at the checkpoint. After returning to the base, he went to ask around if anyone saw him, talk to him. Like who was this like fellow? And most of them look like they have been back for a very long time. Uh, then he look at the direction of this dark hill, then he froze.

And before leaving the base and returning back to, their bunks, he look up at the night sky and then he put his palms together. He believed there Bear spirits everywhere in trees, in rivers. And that one just had to be respectful to the environment, especially if it’s not our property and place.

So I think he realized that, actually the someone that he saw that was actually nice enough to help him was not a person ’cause everyone else was already at the base. And, so all the goosebumps are for nothing. ’cause this is not really a scary story. Some might say that he’s a bit thinking too much or maybe he counted wrongly or hallucination, but he truly believed that it was like somebody that he talked to.

There’s really no way for the person to return in such a short span of time, after that interaction. And he felt thankful that the being actually led him to the checkpoint ’cause he was so lost and he told himself to be more respectful and believe that Hmm, perhaps there are also good spirits around.

So it’s not really like a malicious spirit per se. It’s like Casper, the friendly ghost.

 The very long and interesting story. What’s your take on this? Are you less scared of ghost now? Like you had the perception like, oh by, hey, this, this goes so nice.

[00:27:12] Cheryl:

I still scared.

[00:27:16] Kai Xin:

Why are you scared?

[00:27:30] Cheryl:

I think it’s just the idea of something that is not human anymore that is very scary. But of course they may have good intentions. They sometimes may have not so good intentions, but it’s like how we are scared of sharks because of all the movies that portray them to be extremely dangerous.Yeah sharks are so gentle.

They generally don’t bite humans unless unless you’re go and agitate them. I think a lot of this fear is very, unfounded is coming from misinformation, and unfamiliarity. So there’s this story that Ajahn Somchai, a monk, the vice abbot of what Maja, um, shared actually about fear and ghost.

So it’s very common for these monks to, you know, go to the charnal ground where, you know, they just put the dead body there, in the open or because they’re planning to cremate it maybe the next day or something. So he was sharing how one of the novices the brother died, uh, young, some young boiler.

And so they placed the body of the young boy and he planned to do his meditation there. So usually what monks would do is that they’ll go in the afternoon to survey the area so that they recognize the trees. They know that at night if they think too much , it’s just overthinking, ’cause they already saw the tree in the afternoon, but he didn’t get to do it in the morning.

So he could only go into the charnel area at night. and that was when everything is extremely scary. So he was sharing his experience, how he sat there and he was just so terrified. He kept looking over to the area of the boy ’cause he was scared, like, “Oh my God, the boy is going to like, suddenly stand up and, scare me or like, haunt me or whatever.” For many, many, many hours, he just couldn’t make his mind settle down. ’cause he was that terrified. It was just pitch dark. It’s only him and the body there. And so he made the determination. He’s like, okay, this fear is not going to go away. I will just keep doing my walking meditation until it goes away. So, For the first few hours he, when he was walking, he was just, he kept like imagining every time he turned around, the being was gonna be behind him but through his perseverance, he managed to overcome that fear, to realize that actually fear is not so much in external things in the ghost, in the body, uh, in the whatever thing out there, but rather fear is within himself.

And with that, he was able to watch over the fear in his mind , and he was able to overcome that fear of death, of channel, ground, of the body. And his mind became very, very, very bright because of the peace and wisdom that he found.

And long story short, while I’m sharing this story, is because, yes, I’m very scared because the external goals is very unfamiliar to me.

I don’t know where the ghosts come from. Is it a bad intention or good intention ghost, but knowing that fear is within my mind, is something that I can overcome with mindfulness, brings the power back to me and I don’t have to be so scared. And I can then choose to use Metta like the Buddha shared in the Metta Sutta, right?

To share loving kindness, goodwill to all beings, regardless of what form they take, whether it’s scary or pretty or whatever. That’s my reflection.

So are you less scared now?

I talk until I less scared now.

Kai Xin:

If we can see them in a different light and learn from them, uh, that, that’s how I overcame my fear. ’cause if you think about it, if I die and like I need help, then I go to my relatives, or my family then they run away from me. I’ll feel so sad. It’s like, hello, you’re supposed to help me. The more you go near them, the more they run faster.

Exactly. I do feel that these beings are very sorrowful and to our best of our ability. Of course, provided that we have virtue, then we have something to share.

Then on another hand, it’s also, virtue really helps to stabilize the mind. ’cause if I never do anything wrong, then why am I scared of? Why, why am I afraid that they would come after me?


No, I kind of disagree. Like you scared sometimes it’s not about what you are trying to hide, but it’s more about trying to protect your life. Like what if they come in, I dunno, possess me, then I don’t have my life anymore or what, right?

[00:31:59] Kai Xin:

I think if the virtue is strong enough, then your mind would be bright and they wouldn’t be able to disturb you . Of course there are malicious beings. Not to say that, all beings are kind. Some might actually be very revengeful. So we definitely have to be careful and like, uh, Jayden mentioned, right? Be respectful of the environmental, don’t purposely go and find trouble or criticize them.

If we can understand causes and condition, and I think virtue, not in a sense that, we got nothing to hide, therefore we are not scared of them, but we are so confident in our own morality that there’s really nothing to be scared of. That’s like literally the best protection. It’s not the amulets, but even when we chant, you know, it’s a way of to dispel the spirit.

But actually in the middle of the chanting we are steadying our mind and recollecting the virtues, and that is the protection. I feel like virtue is very important. There’s, uh, then there’s nothing really very much to be scared of. Rather it just like, oh yeah, you come, then I feel for you. Uh, is there anything that I can share than just wish them, well.

In fact, the, there is one famous discourse called the Karaniya Metta, where the monks actually encountered beings that are very naughty. Like they go and disturb the monks when they were trying to meditate in the forest. So it was close to the Rains retreat, I think. And then they’re like, they all have their own experiences like that.

The ghosts going to disturb them. Then they realized that everyone is being disturbed by this ghost. That, okay. Okay. Go back to the Buddha and ask like, for his advice and the Buddha’s, like why, why you come back and, uh, ask them to chant this, go back again. And the entire suta is basically recollecting about how one should be contented, easily satisfied.

And it, it’s not really like, oh, go, go away or hey, you know, stop doing all this nonsense, but it’s really about rejoicing what are some of the, the virtues that we should be cultivating in this life and whatever beings you are think of that as well. And the beings actually stop disturbing the monks, and they coexist during the period.

Mm then it always goes back, right, that the mind is a fore runner of things like how keeping your mind in a wholesome state is what protects you in moments of fear, in moments of the unknown.


I actually really like the point about being respectful. I think if we can just treat like other beings even including ants or animals, insects, with respect as you were to a friend, rather than criticize or be rude and offensive.

I know someone who can connect with these beings, have shared experiences of where these being can be offended through wrong speech.

[34:55:44] Kai Xin:

In fact, one of our listeners shared a story about how she was disturbed by a spirit because of something inappropriate, which he said he or she, this is anonymous, so happened around like Bukit Timah area, at night.

So when, I’ll just take it as a “She”, when she came home, then she felt very uneasy and, uh, chanted like, oh, money pay me home. But it didn’t really help and it was quite, uh, visual. So she sat at the side of the bed and somehow just lie down as if cannot be controlled, if feels almost like a possession.

This my interpretation and felt like, oh, this invisible energy creeping up, from the leg to the body as if somebody, something is taking over the body. Right when it’s just right below the nose, like creeping up, she chanted Guru Rimpoche seven line prayer and suddenly felt the force retreat. And it was scary because it’s like the thing is still in the room and felt really disturbed for the period and had like a mental meltdown and snap, and so this person has access to some high Tibetan Monk who happened to be in Singapore during that period and felt like the force just needed to seek help from the high master.

Two points to take away from this story from my perspective is, number one, guarding our speech. Be respectful. I’m not sure whether the inappropriate thing was about the being or something they walked past, or is it just about somebody? And then, somehow there’s this being kind of just latched on and it seemed like the being is also trying to ask for help in order to meet like the high master to maybe gather some merits as well.

Yeah. I personally have heard, some stories in the monasteries where beings will come and, just like really want to tap on the merits in order to then be reborn in a better realm. Yeah.


Yeah. I think putting it in the perspective is just turns on the switch of compassion, right? It’s like, you can see them as beggars, that they need something that we have, that we can offer, and beggars, if you think about it, they don’t come in lavish clothes, right? They usually come in very, dilapidated, outfit, and their hair is disheveled. Their face is dirty. So in that, in that same sense, they don’t always appear very beautifully. But that’s because they, they, they don’t have much and they need something and we can always, give them and, and share with them, hopefully to alleviate their, their misery.

Kai Xin:

The Ghost Month really have a lot of things to teach us. We’ve covered quite a lot. I mean, stories as well as, you know, the, the different, conditions. In terms of teaching, to me, I feel number one, compassion is definitely yes. And then filial piety or a sense of appreciation and gratitude and also teaches us how not to end up in those state. It it’s really about guarding our body, speech and mind to cultivate virtue.

And even if we don’t believe that hell exists, it doesn’t matter because just in this life we will be able to reap all of the benefits of all the, the good virtues that we have cultivated. And like you say, like you mentioned quite a few examples about how when the mind is very down, you know, or depressed or like angry, we are in hell on earth.

So it’s important to take this away rather than look at the hell beings or ghost in a fearful light, think about what they can teach us.


Yeah. And one more thing to add is the idea of karma, right? That all actions, um, be it wholesome or unwholesome, there will be a certain result and you, the person who had the intention and conducted whatever act you’ll be the owner, you’ll be the heir, you’ll inherit, this karma as well. And no one, even the loved ones or no external god creator, can take that for you, can save you away from that.

 The power is within your hands to change to be more intentional in cultivating the wholesome, the skillful. With that, then you can be assured that you are, wherever you go. There will always be good wholesome results following you. With good coming down and with the good and wholesome results. Also remember to think of people who have helped you along the way and in the best of your abilities, dedicate them to your departed relatives or any beings who need them.

Kai Xin:

If you have an opportunity to take part in the, the Ullambana ceremony, Sadhu, it’s very virtuous. Otherwise, you don’t have to wait for ghost month in order to dedicate merits. I think you can do it on a daily basis, we make it a habit actually after every Dhamma talk. There’s this sentence that I really like a lot.

I feel joy listening to the Dharma talk. I, I wish that other beings would be able to experience this joy as well. Or like, may they be free from suffering and may I be free from suffering?


Oh, I’ve not heard of that. Thanks for sharing.

Kai Xin:

Yeah. So we wish others well. And may you be well listening to This’s episode and if you wanna continue to do good things or you wanna do more, you can go to our directory directory. Handful of leads live for events. listen to DMA talks, volunteer. Do offerings like there’s alms giving every weekend, actually every day at Wat Palelai Buddhist Temple as well where you can offer food to the monks and me your virtue allow you to build the conditions to meet with more goodness.

Yeah. Hope you’re not too freaked out by this episode it’s actually not very scary. I think it’s more heartening and inspiring than scary. So may you be well till we meet again. Goodbye. Stay happy and wise!


Tirokudda Sutta

Ullambana Sutta

Video on Merits: Transforming Mind and Life by Sis Sylvia Bay

Handful of Leaves Directory

Special thanks to our sponsors:

Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang.

Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng

Ep 32: Greendot CEO, Fu Yong Hong on Growth, Purpose and Balance

Ep 32: Greendot CEO, Fu Yong Hong on Growth, Purpose and Balance

We’re experimenting with a visual format for podcast. As we’re still bootstrapping, we’ve not upgraded to a studio yet.
Let us know what you think about this new format. Join the conversation via Telegram.

About Our Guest

Yong Hong is an ordinary young entrepreneur, he started Greendot at the age of 22 with his good friend Justin. Green Dot was started with the thought to help professional women to stay healthy and love themselves. With this as motivation, it has grown from a small vegetarian stall to a vegan food restaurant chain in Singapore.

As a young CEO at age 33, Yong Hong currently manages a team of 200 staff. He is responsible for Green Dot 15 stores, including 12 Green Dot outlets Lotus Heart Vegetarian Chinese Restaurant, Greendot Patisserie, and a central kitchen. To him, work is a journey to cultivate himself and an opportunity to find insights within. Yong Hong has a great passion for yoga and music. He hopes to learn n grow with the people he meets.


[00:00:00] Cheryl:

Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcasts. Hi, Yong Hong.

[00:00:03] Yong Hong:


[00:00:03] Cheryl:

Welcome. So today we have an interview with the CEO of Singapore’s largest meat-free chain, Green Dot, and I’m very happy to speak to him today because I would love to know about his reflections on his entrepreneurship journey, his reflections on his growth in Buddhism. And recently Yong Hong became a father of a beautiful four-month-old baby girl. So we will also be speaking to learn about his insights and what parenthood has taught him. So, Yong Hong, to get things started, for those who do not know you or who have not heard of Green Dot before, can you share more about your entrepreneurial journey with Green Dot?

[00:00:45] Yong Hong:

Sure. Thank you so much, Cheryl, for this opportunity to be here and to share my experiences with the audience. So I started Green Dot about 12 years ago when I was at NUS, National University of Singapore, during Year Two of my studies. I was studying Business back then. It was one of the toughest periods of my life. I remember I have to pack my modules into two days and for the rest of the days, I have to work at the outlet.

So, how Green Dot started was because I didn’t think so much. If I think so much about how tough entrepreneurship is, then probably I wouldn’t have started Green Dot, especially in food and beverage. So, I started Green Dot because my business partner Justin, he’s a vegetarian since he was a baby. Back then I was in Chung Cheng High School. I knew him since Secondary One. And back then it was not easy being a vegetarian in school because you have no vegetarian store.

So he has to bring his own food, or he has to ask the aunties, and uncles in the canteen store to cook special meals for him. He felt that being a vegetarian is a lifestyle choice or a personal choice. Why do we have to have so much inconvenience? He thought that having a vegetarian store and having quality food in school maybe will help to make the younger generations who are vegetarians like us feel proud of being a vegetarian because there’s an option. So that was how it started. We didn’t think so much and then we started our first store at Temasek Poly.

[00:02:20] Cheryl:

What about Justin that makes you want to go into a partnership with him?

[00:02:24] Yong Hong:

They call it fate. We got along well. I think it’s a very interesting thing. I’m the CEO of Green Dot, one of the largest chains of vegetarian restaurants in Singapore, but I wasn’t born a vegetarian. So when I was younger, I’m a meat lover. No meat, no happiness. When I eat a McDonald’s burger, I must remove the…

[00:02:43] Cheryl:

Take away the vegetables.

[00:02:46] Yong Hong:

So I don’t like vegetables at all. Even till I founded Green Dot.

[00:02:50] Cheryl:

Yeah. It’s like me. I hate vegetables last time and I’m actually a vegetarian now.

[00:02:54] Yong Hong:

That’s why I think sometimes it’s just fate that you walk this path. Like Steve Jobs always say, you only can connect the dots when you look back. I just have a voice within asking me to try.

[00:03:06] Cheryl:

That’s very courageous, and also I would say a bit impulsive, not thinking too much, and just jumping into trying this thing out, which then eventually turned into something bigger than you ever imagined 12 years later.

[00:03:19] Yong Hong:

Of course, I always wanted Green Dot to do well. Because to me, Green Dot is not just a vegetarian chain because you look at your grandparents, your uncle, and your aunties around you, and as they age you’ll see that the diet actually changes. Less meat and more balanced meals, more vegetables. So I feel that this change of diet will come but you want it to come later in your life or earlier in your life. I have friends around me who are in their late thirties but they have gout because of seafood, beer, and alcohol. Their diet is impacting their lives.

Because of Green Dot, I was exposed to a plant-based diet. I realized that, hey, actually, brown rice can be very nice, vege can be very nice. This journey of Green Dot also changed my diet and impacted me to change earlier in my life. I hope that Green Dot can not only be a place where we serve quality plant-based meals but also be a channel where we can help more people start their more balanced meal diet earlier in their life. It’s not to fully convert you first, but at least 21 meals a week. Maybe you can try 3 meals a week. Change can start earlier.

[00:04:29] Cheryl:

It’s so beautiful how an entrepreneurship that was just part of your hustle became something that actually changed your perception about diet, lifestyle, about keeping healthy. I’m curious if there were any other changes that you experienced when working and growing with Green Dot, for example, in spirituality.

[00:04:51] Yong Hong:

Yeah. Actually, it’s been 12 years. There are a lot of things that I’ve been through, all the highs and lows. Looking back, I feel that this journey has really changed me. I’ve been through three stages of Green Dot. It wasn’t all happy and smooth sailing. It was really very tough. During my first few years of Green Dot, every day I wake up, I go and cook at the store, I feel like giving up. Every night I tell myself, I think this is the last day. I tell Justin, I think you’ll continue. So the first three to four years of my initial startup phase, I treated Green Dot as work. I find no meaning in it because I have no F&B experience before this. I don’t like F&B. I never stepped in the kitchen before. So even before I start going, I don’t know how to cut broccoli or cook rice. I remember on the first day the uncle say, Yong Hong, go and cook some rice. I said, how to cook the rice, how to measure the water, put in the water? So overall, the first three to four years, it was work for me.

[00:05:49] Cheryl:

Even the way you describe it sounds like a chore already.

[00:05:52] Yong Hong:

I hated to go, but because I chose this path, so ego kept me going. But for the second phase, after I started Green, it grew to a few outlets. Then NUS also gave me a fund because they also acknowledged me as a young entrepreneur. Finally, some acknowledgement. From then on, it became a career for me because I was being packaged as a young entrepreneur from NUS. I was driven by results. I wanted to grow Green Dot and do well, and to show that I’m a successful young entrepreneur.

So I was driven by that. That’s where I also faced a lot of problems. Although my business grew to many outlets, but it wasn’t making money. There were a lot of people problems because I’m raw in management. Then I wasn’t happy. I broke up with my other half. My health was in bad shape because I was working every day. I wasn’t happy. My life’s all about work and I wasn’t earning a lot of money because it’s in a growth period. So the only thing driving me is because I’m a young entrepreneur. I was in my career stage where I just work every day. So I achieved some success on the surface, but I wasn’t happy.

It was about five years ago that I had to find answers to change this. One morning, I was YouTubing, and I saw Venerable Jing Kong’s (淨空法師). At that moment, I felt that there was actually another way of looking at life. That was when I start to have more balance in my life. I got a personal trainer. I start to go for music. Then I realized that although I don’t work as long, I have a bit of balance, but my business got better. At that moment I start to really go deeper into understanding what is vegetarianism about. And that’s where it became a mission for me. And that’s where Green Dot started to get better and better. Three phases, from work to a career to seeing as a mission.

People say there’s an aha moment, but sometimes it’s an accumulation of a few things. Change isn’t one moment. People sometimes oversimplify change. Change is like 1%, 1% every day. Not everybody can, *snap* then this moment. So I think it’s being oversimplified. I always tell people learning is not always about learning new things. Actually, the biggest and most important learning is learning about the toxic in yourself. Life is about removing all the toxic in you. Like for example, when we are babies, we are very pure. As we grow up, we start to have disappointment, frustration, anger, and jealousy. So all these are within us. So as we grow up, and we start to understand this, our journey starts to take out all this toxic one by one. Jealousy maybe, it’s at level 10. But today you can take out one level, so left nine. So you keep taking them out. So I feel that change is not that moment, but it’s just that, oh, we realize and you do it day by day. It’s not that today you read and you will change. It just starts you on the journey. Every day you remove something.

[00:08:38] Cheryl:

Incrementally build up that sense of self-awareness. And with that self-awareness, then you put in the patience, the effort to remove it, as you say, take out the toxins and then become purer and purer in heart and body.

Because you mentioned jealousy as well, I think jealousy is something that is so deeply rooted in all of us. It’s almost deeply rooted in our conditionings. From a young age, when we are in school, jealousy is almost a thing that drives us to excel, ’cause you see that someone else is doing better, someone is scoring more, President of CCA, then you push yourself to do. But what that accumulates is all of us become young adults that are so insecure. They are so fearful and lack the courage to try something new. So it is very, very toxic in a way.

So back to the three phases that you shared in the mission phase, it sounds that everything in your life started to become better. You were finding balance, you’re becoming happier. And ironically, because you found that happiness, that drive, that energy, your Green Dot started to see more success as well, right?

[00:09:44] Yong Hong:

Yeah, it’s all about the mindset. Looking back, I know why I wasn’t so happy when I was starting a business. Because of one mindset, I always tell myself 创业要很辛苦. It means entrepreneurship must be tough. That’s why my mind is really tuned to make my life very tough already. I realize that if I don’t feel that my life is a mess or very miserable, I don’t feel that I’m going through entrepreneurship. That’s when I realized that all the actions I do I subconsciously make my life miserable.

[00:10:15] Cheryl:

Because you need to be hustling and you need to feel awful.

[00:10:18] Yong Hong:

The second mindset, they always say 赚钱很难, earn money very tough. That’s why I always use very tough ways to earn money. I mean, of course, money is not everything, but money is important. But I realize that money is a byproduct of excellence in the things you do. If you are not earning money, it means you are not so good at the things that are doing yet, money is not attracted to you yet. That’s when I realized that a lot of mindsets make me very, very miserable in the earlier stage of my life.

And I think that Buddhism always talk about in life there’s a lot of suffering but there are actually causes. Buddhism helped me understand what are the causes of my suffering. I start to go deeper into phasing all the internal reasons that lead to my unhappiness. Then that sparked a change in me.

[00:11:06] Cheryl:

Yes. And in the Four Noble Truths, the reason why we are facing so much suffering, so much disappointment is always because we are clinging to something that we wanna be, refusing to accept the way things are. And I think the most beautiful thing about Buddhism is not that it tells you that there is suffering, but it actually tells you there is a way out of suffering and that gives us so much hope to put in the effort to free ourselves from this misery. Can you share maybe one of the biggest challenges that you faced in the mission phase of your career and your life, and if relevant, how did Buddhism specifically help you overcome it?

[00:11:45] Yong Hong:

The biggest challenge was deciding to become a vegetarian honestly, ’cause my whole family is not vegetarian. It’s not difficult for me to be a vegetarian because of my work. My chef always R&D new dishes for me to try. But one of the challenges is my parents. Well, I remember one weekend I told my mom, I want to become a full vegetarian because it’s something that I really believe in.

So my mom says no as usual. She says, ah, why? You don’t eat well, not enough nutrients. I said, but let me try to decide what I want, respect my decision. And then she said, okay. Then the next weekend, because it used to be a habit, every Sunday, they will buy Nasi Lemak or Roti Prata for me. Sunday I woke up. I open up the breakfast. Then it was Nasi Lemak.

[00:12:27] Cheryl:

Oh no, cannot eat.

[00:12:29] Yong Hong:

Yeah. How? Should I eat or should I not eat? To me, it was not a point where I become vegetarian. I tell myself my family, my mother’s belief and respect are still very important. I asked myself as a wise person or wise monk in my situation, what will you do? The key is not to be angry at my mom or parents for not understanding. But the key is becoming a better person after becoming a vegetarian in that I must prove to my mom that, after I become a vegetarian, I’m still her good child that she loves and I want to become a better person. Of course, she starts to accept my decision. But at the initial stage, she was very embarrassed to share with my relative that I’m a vegetarian. Two to three years later, they started to prepare vegetarian options for me. I realized that, ah, finally…

[00:13:15] Cheryl: Getting more acceptance.

[00:13:16] Yong Hong:

So this journey is like that. Buddhism has helped me in practical aspects in facing challenges like that and not be angry or be embarrassed or doubt my own decisions. It’s all about changing your mindset and it’s all about changing yourself. The change can always start with yourself.

[00:13:30] Cheryl:

I think it’s very, very wise of you. Because what you’re doing is that you’re not attaching solely to your view that I am vegetarian now, I must only eat veggies. Everyone must approve. But rather it is being respectful and considerate about other people, yes, and making sure that it’s convenient to them, it doesn’t make them feel slighted that you don’t eat their food. So it’s very wise of you.

[00:13:52] Yong Hong:

It was not easy, but change it’s not immediate. Some things can be immediate. Sometimes know that things take time and patience. Talking about patience, looking back on my entrepreneurship journey. I was from NUS Business School. In school, I have many driven classmates, very intelligent classmates very resourceful classmates. After 10 years, why am I here and getting some results? I realized the key difference is patience.

We wanna believe that if we put in the effort today, we wanna get results tomorrow. But you realize that all these things take time. And I think the biggest, biggest quality that young people need to have is patience. Patience to put in the hard work and live in the moment. When you are working, you enjoy your work. When you are at home watching TV, you enjoy the TV. When you’re in the podcast, you enjoy the podcast. You know that the result will come, but it’s not immediate.

[00:14:48] Cheryl:

But I guess a lot of people do not have patience or lose patience because they do not have faith that the result will come. Any advice that you may have for that?

[00:14:57] Yong Hong: In this world, we need to be more optimistic. As a CEO people always ask, what is your five-year plan, three-year plan, or 10-year plan? Honestly, it’s very hard to plan for a very long term in the context where the word changes very fast. Aim to become a better person every day and become better in what you do. I think that’s the key and the most important thing is being present. I also don’t have a way to tell you to believe that the goal will happen. I think enjoying the moment is more important.

[00:15:29] Cheryl:

Enjoy the process, that’s the outcome. Not the final destination that is the outcome. Because I think when you adopt that kind of approach as well to life, then you allow yourself to open up to the possibility that life could give you, maybe it’s not what exactly you plan for, but it could be something even more beautiful.

[00:15:47] Yong Hong:

Yeah. Because the goal is what we believe is beautiful. But maybe when you reach there, you realize that not necessarily as beautiful as you think it is. But it’s the moment that we open our minds up to awareness, up to what’s happening around us and grab the opportunities, maybe that will be the best journey for us. The goal is what we think is the best for us, but it might not be. When you move forward and open up, then you realize the opportunities change.

[00:16:13] Cheryl:

Wonderful. So stepping a little bit back from the business perspective, the CEO perspective, you have recently become a parent of a beautiful girl and congrats on that.

[00:16:24] Yong Hong:

Yeah. Thank you.

[00:16:25] Cheryl:

I also wanted to ask you on a more personal level, how did becoming a parent change your perspective on mission, meaning and priorities in life?

[00:16:37] Yong Hong:

It is a huge change for me and a very meaningful experience for me because becoming a father. When you look at your child, it makes you feel that whenever you have any problems in your life and work problems, you look at her and all your problems will fade away. It made me realize what’s important in life as well. After I have my baby, of course (some) aspects of my life slowed down. Last time, I used to go to yoga six times a week. Now, one time a week is really a bonus to me. My life is all about work and going home to accompany her. So I realized that it’s about finding a balance. Life cannot be in full throttle in all aspects. So you need to know that sometimes this thing is faster, sometimes this thing is lower and there’s nothing wrong.

Sometimes people get frustrated, ah, because of my child, I have to give up so much. But you have to understand that this is part and parcel of life and instead of thinking that you have to give up, why do you think that this is a happy time for you being with your children? I’m thankful that she’s a happy baby and a healthy baby.

[00:17:42] Cheryl:

That’s wonderful. And even just seeing you speaking about her, I can already see the joy in your eyes, that smile that you have when you’re speaking. It’s so wonderful. And I wonder what’s your aspirations for her when she grows up?

[00:17:55] Yong Hong:

To become a person of good character. Confucius’ teaching has four modules. The first module they learn is always the values. What is the right value? What are the right principles? Second, they learn the way you speak, the way you act. Third, they learn about their culture and history. And last, they learn more about their profession. During my time, we are more focused on studying science to become a doctor or earning a relevant degree to take on a certain profession. In Singapore, what I feel can be even better is values teaching. The most important thing we can do for our children is to let them learn the right values. What I can do is focus on myself, and become a person of good values, so that she will also be inspired to become a good person in the future.

[00:18:39] Cheryl:

In a way, walking the talk, being the role model for her. She learns from seeing, from admiring how you behave, how you treat others, your wife and the employees that you have as well. So you were saying just now that all aspects of your life cannot be in full throttle all at the same time. You’ll only go crazy like that. So at this point, it seems like family is taking the forefront. Then how are you balancing or how are you managing the stakeholders at work? What are the aspects of that? Do you tell them like, okay guys, I’m clocking out at five?

[00:19:12] Yong Hong:

So I always believe in knowing your priorities. I believe there are four pillars of life.

  • The first pillar of life is 身心健康, inner and physical health.
  • The second thing is family happiness.
  • The third thing is 助人致富, earning money through helping people.
  • Lastly, 广结善缘, making meaningful interaction with people and helping others, giving back.

These four pillars, I think maybe a lot of people understand, but the key is that there’s a priority. You must build upon this in the right order. When you’re very young, some people say, oh, I need a lot of networking. Then you spend a lot of time networking. But all this networking is pointless if you don’t have the first three. See, let’s say you don’t have a career yet. You go and network, but when you network, you are asking people for help. You don’t have the experience and even the resources to help people. Or let’s say you have a very good career but you don’t have a family to fall back on, or you don’t have health to fall back on, that’s where you become empty.

Career will always be very, very tough. Why? Because you take a salary. You must exchange it with your hard work. So if you ever find a work that doesn’t need hard work and gives you a salary, call me. There will always be hard work, which means there will always be disappointment and frustration. It’s okay. Because when you have frustration, then you go home. If you have a wife or husband or mother, you tell your mother, Mommy, today my work was very tough, my boss scolded me. She’ll say, never mind, ok, good girl. That’s where you’ll have a good night’s sleep and you go out and try. Then let’s say you have a hobby, then you fall back on the hobby. You see, your work is very tough, you fall back, you go up again, fall back and go up again. This constant way of falling back and going back again makes you rise up in your career because the two foundations stop you from falling all the way down, keep you there and keep you going up.

[00:21:07] Cheryl:

It’s almost like a bouncing net of resilience. It keeps you bouncing and you bounce higher after that.

[00:21:13] Yong Hong:

That’s why I think that it’s very important to build the pillars of your life. That’s how I make my decisions in life. It’s about priorities. I exercise maybe two or three times a week but that’s the most important for me, I will allocate time to do that, but work and family still take up the majority of my time. It just means your priority, you make time for that. You tell your wife, hey I need to go for this one-hour training. Can you please step in for me? My wife will say, okay, please. We all agree. We know that health is very important.

[00:21:43] Cheryl:

And when you communicate these priorities as well, then it becomes the non-negotiable for you and you’re able to take care of yourself and take care of others. Because when you take care of yourself, you show up better as well to other people. Treat them nicer, and don’t get angry so fast.

[00:21:58] Yong Hong:

That’s how we balance that. And my wife also agrees and we encourage each other, we cover for each other. When we go for our hobbies, our exercise, and things that we need to do to serve the family and our work better.

[00:22:11] Cheryl:

For 身心健康, taking care of the physical and the internal mental hygiene I think Buddhism has a lot to contribute there. Some useful exercises that people can do would be a short meditation, daily practice, end-of-day journaling or even starting your day with gratitude and contentment. Just wake up and find two to three things that you’re thankful for to be alive at this moment. Yes. And that can definitely help keep a very, very healthy mood and well-being. Any other tips, Yong Hong?

[00:22:42] Yong Hong:

I think reading. Reading has been a huge part of my life. If you don’t like reading, you can do audiobooks. I spend a lot of time on the road, I spend a lot of resources on reading and learning. I think it’s very important. So many things are happening in the world, and we tend to be FOMO, fear of missing out. But Buddhism has taught me that actually the key is not to be so worried about things that keep happening, but rather learn a lot more about the right values, and the right principle. This will guide you to make decisions even without knowing what’s happening all around the world. We need to be updated on the news but don’t feel like we miss out a lot or you feel very nervous because we don’t know a lot of things happening. It’s more about understanding the values, principles that help you make better decisions.

And of course, I feel that learning is also learning about yourself and growing a lot more by learning about the bad things about yourself. Looking at cycles in your life, like for example, you used to argue with a friend in this company. You say, oh my friends are very bad, always bad mouth me. You change to another company, but things still happen and you say, this company is not good. The culture is not good, the boss is not good. Then you change. Then after you change again, you argue again, ah, the cleaner auntie is not good. That’s why I argue. So I realize that the problem is who?

[00:23:55] Cheryl:

You! You’re the only constant in those, those environments.

[00:24:00] Yong Hong:

Look at the bad cycles in our life and jump out of bad cycles, that’s how you always improve in different aspects of life, just reflect. It’s one of the very useful ways in improving your life.

[00:24:12] Cheryl:

Yeah, and that really reminds me of a quote, the problem never goes away until you learn from it. Then that’s how you solve it and resolve it, and then it will go away on its own. I think we’ve had a really long, wonderful conversation. Talking about your entrepreneurial journey, talking about your learnings and growth from the Buddhism aspect. I see that it’s really peppered in your life principles, in even some of the decisions that you make as well. Touching a little bit about how having a daughter really brings to the forefront what is important, while at the same time balancing the other pillars of your life.

So if you were to end on one piece of advice to young adults out there who are trying to find purpose, what is that one piece of advice that you’d share with them?

[00:24:57] Yong Hong:

Of course, the first thing is, what is your definition of success? There’s no right or wrong. I think this success changes according to age and what you’ve been through. So you define what is success to you at this moment in time and the next three to five years. Even if you say at this moment I wanna have a lot of money, okay, it can also be so, but just be happy doing it. When you face challenges in trying to go for a goal, just accept it because it’s what you define as success.

The second thing, after you define, it’s good to focus on who you are becoming rather than what you are accumulating. Cause what you are accumulating is attracted to you. It’s not that you chase after them. So focus on who you are becoming. If you become a person of good values, good quality, good leadership, or you have good skills, good things follow you, and good people will follow you.

[00:25:45] Cheryl:

Thanks for sharing and thanks for your time throughout this entire podcast. Thanks, everybody and I hope you continue to stay happy and wise. If you like this episode, please give us a five-star review on Spotify. Thank you. Bye…

[00:25:59] Yong Hong: Bye…


Special thanks to our sponsors:

Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang

Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin

Ep 31: Cheating on others and being cheated on

Ep 31: Cheating on others and being cheated on

About Our Guest

Jason* is a pseudonym as this topic is very sensitive and involves many other people’s stories. Jason wants to be mindful and avoid implicating the people involved in the past relationships, and thus an altered voice and pseudonym are used.


[00:00:00] Cheryl:

Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl, and I’m your host today. We will be talking about the topic of cheating and can leopards ever change their spots? We have a very interesting guest who has courageously come up to share his experiences of being cheated on as well as cheating on his partners.

So I invite you to listen with an open mind as we delve into his past, to understand why people cheat, as well as to explore the question of whether someone who has cheated should be forgiven.

Can they be forgiven? Can they ever change? This episode will be enjoyed best with earphones because we will be altering the voice of this person and using a pseudonym*. So with that, let’s get started.

Hi Jason*, thanks for coming to this episode to speak to us today on the condition of anonymity. So I think first off, I would love to understand what’s your definition of cheating.

[00:01:06] Jason:

I think generally most people talk about cheating in two forms, emotional cheating, and physical cheating. Physical cheating would be engaging in sexual behaviour with someone else apart from my partner. To make it clear, in this case, it’s not just sexual behaviour, but nonconsensual sexual behaviour.

[00:01:25] Cheryl:

Thanks for clarifying that for us. And maybe you can also share with us your experiences of cheating.

[00:01:32] Jason:

For my experience of being cheated on, it’s very interesting. I think till today, I have no clarity on whether it actually happened. Before the time of smartphones and dating apps, we had to use IRC Chats to get to know people. I, later on, found out that even though we were together, he went out to the IRC channels to meet other people with the intent of dating. So that to me felt like it should be cheating already. But that was my first relationship. I went through many years trying to think whether that counts as cheating or not.

[00:02:07] Cheryl:

Well, it must have been very confusing for you because it’s also your first experience and what did you feel?

[00:02:14] Jason:

The initial reaction was shock, then came, is it true? Could it be someone else impersonating my boyfriend? So when I actually tried to clarify he gave many reasons. I was just like, am I being cheated on? What’s happening? What am I supposed to do? It’s just very overwhelming.

[00:02:35] Cheryl:

I see. And I think that is really inflicting a lot of pain inside you as well, where you have to doubt yourself, doubt whether your partner is lying to you or not, or are they actually telling the truth.

Putting into the context of Buddhism. So Buddhism doesn’t really have the connotation of sin or whether things are right or wrong, but rather, sexual misconduct where cheating is actually viewed as unskillful and unwholesome because it causes a lot of pain to other people. It harms other people. In the context of cause and effect, when you do something bad, you’re really planting the seeds for something bad to happen in the future whenever that ripens. I think you really brought out the point that it just causes a lot of unwholesome states of mind to arise within yourself as well.

[00:03:30] Jason:

Cheating as a behaviour itself causes a lot of harm. At the same time, I feel that it indicates that generally there’s a deeper issue at hand. This might be a precursor to even more unskillful behaviour that may happen later down the road. So some people may think that it seems like a very small, innocuous action but the effects are quite severe.

[00:03:53] Cheryl:

And tell us a little bit more. So how did that manifest in yourself? And in a way, how did that experience of cheating kind of lead you down this vicious cycle of hurt where you eventually then became someone who cheated on others at some point in your life?

[00:04:09] Jason:

My ex-partner and I, we both hurt each other a lot. At one point, I was threatened with suicide and a lot of emotional manipulation. It’s not unfair to say that I was traumatised by the first relationship, and I didn’t know how to recover from it. So I started dating very serially, rebound partner after partner. Even if I didn’t feel like I was in love with the person, I just kinda crave another person.

Eventually when I realised that I wanted to end the relationship, but I didn’t know how, subconsciously what happened was, I cheated in order to get out of the relationship. Yeah, in hindsight it’s really horrible, but I look back and I realised that at that point in time, I had no idea what I was doing. That sounds like I’m probably trying to find excuses for the cheating but that felt like what was happening.

[00:05:01] Cheryl:

And how do you come to that realisation then?

[00:04:57] Jason:

It took many years. It took a few relationships and very unfortunately, that was not the only time I cheated. After the death of a loved one, I decided that I wanted to see a therapist. With the therapist, I worked through a lot of different issues about grief, about relationships, about the cheating behaviour. At one point, there was a question that was always on my mind. Since I have cheated before, does that mean that I’m a cheater and I will always be a cheater? It took me many years of therapy and a lot of work on myself to discover that I cannot define myself by my behaviours.

[00:05:31] Cheryl:

Yeah, I think that’s a tricky one, right? I know people who have been cheated on before, and they will be in that dilemma where, can I trust my partner again? Or am I just being stupid? Because in a way, a leopard never changes its spots. Right? What can I do once this trust is broken?

But as you mentioned, a lot of things, the actions, the behaviours are really just the superficial layer and there are always underlying reasons or root causes behind them. Not to say that the behaviour is correct. I mean it causes harm, causes hurt. You can’t deny that. But if we go deeper, we can really see that there are a lot of root causes there.

I’m just curious, for yourself it was because you experienced a hurt very deep from all the trauma from your first relationship, and it was kind of like your defense mechanism to then hurt your future partners, is it?

[00:06:33] Jason:

Yes. I think you put it very well. It was a defense mechanism, to hurt before I get hurt. It’s quite sad and looking back the amount of hurt I inflicted on my ex-partner was very unfortunate. The person had no hand in whatever trauma I received. But looking back, this behaviour caused so much hurt to my ex-partner, an innocent party, for no good reason.

[00:06:55] Cheryl:

I see. Because it’s very complicated, right? When you were in the moment, you really didn’t know what you want. I guess all you felt was just a desire to go on the app to find someone else, but you can’t really pinpoint what’s happening as well. So how can we avoid even putting ourselves in these situations where we may lose control? How can we better create conditions to not hurt other people so much?

[00:07:21] Jason:

That’s a difficult question and I’m glad I’ve gone through sufficient therapy and worked on myself and I have my spiritual practice to support me on that. How to stop? Should I not put myself in situations where it is likely that this behaviour will happen? If it’s subconscious, are you sure that you can stop it? Cheating is never just that one spur-of-the-moment decision. What we see is that action. What we don’t see is what happens behind that led to that action. Maybe there’s some unhappiness in the relationship or there is something that the person doesn’t want to handle within themselves.

So for me, I didn’t want to handle the hurt from the previous relationship. So, I just diverted my attention outwards. And when some additional trauma comes in internally, then I think it spills over, and whatever external measures I put in, it’ll all be pointless. So what I realized is that we must always work on ourselves. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, make sure that you’re a person who can live a wholesome life so that you don’t bring your personal problems into a relationship, or you don’t cause the relationship problems to be unable to be resolved because your own personal issues are standing in the way.

[00:08:37] Cheryl:

Yeah, it does make sense and it really gives me a different light because a lot of times people are very quick to judge or condemn people who cheat, and straight away criticize and judge and put a lot of labels. But then as you share, I realize that there’s so much suffering within one person to bring them to that action of cheating and of course all the steps that it takes to reach that behavior. They cannot contain it anymore and then it just spills over. Sadly, with this spilling over, it burns them as well.

Any practical tips that you think could be helpful? Maybe stop using the apps when you’re in a relationship or don’t look at people who walk around with blinders.

[00:09:12] Jason:

Practical tips? My response to what you said about not installing the apps. I thought that would work. I honestly tell you, I’ve tried it. But the horrifying thing is that, when the intention is there, whatever you want to make happen, you probably can. So, a practical tip I would say is to get in touch with your inner self whether it’s through meditation, or through other means available for you. Find out what are the areas of your life that may cause you problems when you’re in a relationship. A lot of people like to use this term, oh I’ve already found my better half, or my other half. My own personal belief is that we need to be whole before we go and meet another person so that we are two people who are whole that come together in a relationship that is healthy and they both grow.

[00:09:55] Cheryl:

You’ve brought up a very important point that the mind is the forerunner of all things. If you don’t take care of your mind, you don’t prioritize mental hygiene, then you know that uncleanliness will spill out one form or the other, and no external thing, no people will be able to fix you for you, you gotta fix you for yourself. But of course, we can always lean on others but not a hundred percent, and throw our problems at them.

[00:10:22] Jason:

To allow my mind to be less likely to tend towards such things, the Buddhist principle of morality is very important. And it’s something for us to practice on a daily basis. Tend your mind towards wholesome thoughts, wholesome behaviours, and actions, so that the imprint on your mind will be more wholesome and that it slowly grows with time, and we let go of the more unwholesome behaviour, which goes back to the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Effort in this case.

[00:10:50] Cheryl:

Indeed. Really plus one to that because I feel like the undercurrents of greed, hatred, ill-will or delusion is very, very strong. And for me, sometimes I find it very fascinating that it can come out so strongly. Generally, I’m a normal person. I don’t have very crazy thoughts. I don’t indulge too much in violence, but when I feel either very hurt or I feel betrayed or if I don’t get something that I really want, the thoughts of anger, of wanting to hurt people can come up very strongly. As you said, if we practice inclining our minds towards wholesome states, towards skillfulness, then that restraint really helps to protect us to actually turn all of those thoughts into action.

I think we can also segue into moving beyond the identity of both being cheated on and all the connotations that you may hold about that, as well as someone who has done these actions. What was your journey in forgiving others and forgiving yourself?

[00:11:54] Jason:

Forgiving others turns out to be easier than forgiving myself.

[00:11:57] Cheryl:

Oh, interesting.

[00:11:59] Jason:

I think what helped was realizing that this person was very hurt and therefore might have acted without being fully conscious about what he was doing.

It feels like cheating is like trauma and like how intergenerational trauma works. If a person has been hurt so much and is unable to process that hurt and let go of that hurt, that person will go on to hurt other people.

I think forgiving that person came a lot easier when I realised to have compassion for the other person, knowing that this person doesn’t have the intent to hurt. And to be fair, I think nobody on Earth has a true intention to hurt. I believe that. But if somebody is hurting, there must be some reason that the person is unaware of.

But forgiving myself, that was a whole different ball game. The question about, will I always be a cheater? haunted my mind so much. I had a friend who told me, my principle is I’ll never make friends with cheaters. But you, Jason, you’re my good friend and I understand what happened. Her forgiveness might have helped me to also see that she hates the behaviour, but she doesn’t hate the person. That made me realize that at some point, I need to separate the behaviour from the sense of me. I cannot keep latching on to that behaviour, identifying with that behaviour.

[00:13:24] Cheryl:

Where you’re able to see the entirety of yourself as bigger than the acts that you have committed.

[00:13:34] Jason:

I think that was why the first time I encountered a teaching by Ajahn Brahm, one of his famous stories, it’s about the two bad bricks in the wall. He misaligned two bricks and all he could see was that these two bricks were just so horrible that they ruin the whole wall. Until one day he realized that there are so many other beautiful bricks there.

He used that story to explain that when he went to a prison to teach, he didn’t see prisoners, he didn’t see rapists. He saw people who murdered, people who raped. But apart from looking at just this behaviour, there’re so many other aspects of this person that we can look at. That teaching touched me deeply. It made me realize that there are so many other aspects of myself. Even though, yes, I made a mistake, it’s a really horrible mistake, I made it more than once. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a person who is incorrigible.

[00:14:23] Cheryl:

Yeah, Sadhu. Very good to see that you’ve come around to this. I think it’s important to not let yourself be burdened by all of this guilt as well because if you keep carrying that burden of I’m not a good person and berating yourself, it just causes you to be in a very unwholesome mindset state. When you’re in an unwholesome mindset state, when you’re not thinking clearly, habitual tendencies can arise more quickly. So when you are moving away into a lighter mind state where you are at least abiding in forgiveness, in self-love, in mettā, unconditional loving kindness, then the clarity of mind is there to inform you to make wiser decisions the next time you’re in difficult situations as well.

[00:15:08] Jason:

Yeah, and it feels like common sense but it actually took me a while to grasp the fact that I need metta for myself, so that once I can sort out all the hurt from the past, then I can have the capacity to go and stop harming others, be kind to others. If I want to be kind to others, I must first start with myself. By being kind to myself, I stop holding on to the past and let the past hold me back.

[00:15:36] Cheryl:

Very beautiful. I’m just curious, I don’t know if you have had any closure with that person. But if he were to listen in and you were able to share with him something, what would you say?

[00:15:45] Jason:

I would say, thank you for the good times we had. As much as we’ve both hurt each other a lot, I think now looking back, I’ve tried to find things I’m thankful for, things that I’ve learned in the relationship. And I forgive you because it’s what is not easy to do. Made me realize that we all are hurting in this world. I hope that you’re having a good life and that all of us can take good care of ourselves and stop hurting others.

That’s a great question. I feel like I’m in some therapy session. That was an amazing question.

[00:16:24] Cheryl:

I’m sure a lot of our listeners will feel deeply touched by you really acknowledging the suffering and the capacity for us to continue to love, and continue to be kind. And what would you say to Jason in the past?

[00:16:38] Jason:

I would say, you tried your best. There were times when you didn’t know what you were doing. You were hurt so deeply, by so many things in life. Maybe you hope that you could have done better, that you shouldn’t have done all this and you’re probably scolding yourself for being such a messed up person, for hurting other people and everything.

I just wanna tell you, it’s okay. Let go of all these. Don’t have to hold on to it. It really hurts a lot to hold on to all these. It may cause you to hurt even more people later on. If you can just let that go, I assure you that you’ll become a really beautiful person down the road.

[00:17:16] Cheryl:

Wow. I think that was not just for Jason. It really goes into all of our hearts because we’ve all done things that we’re not very proud of, big or small. I’m sure there are some things that we still hold against ourselves, but allowing ourselves to let go and forgive. That’s a very, very beautiful way to end our episode today.

We covered a little bit about cheating, the experiences of Jason being cheated on, and how that hurt propelled him into a really dark place in life, where hurting others and cheating multiple times was almost his only way of finding happiness at that point. We talked about how we forgive ourselves and not define ourselves as just the bad acts that we do, but also look into all the 98 other beautiful bricks that we have within ourselves. That gives us more confidence, gives us more strength to love others, love ourselves, and create less harm in this world.

[00:18:18] Jason:

Wow. What a beautiful way to end this and I just want to say thank you for making this podcast a lot less difficult than I thought. I’m very thankful to you for all the really great questions. Going through this podcast has helped me to learn a lot and to reinforce the message for me to be even kinder to myself.

[00:18:35] Cheryl:

Sadhu Sadhu. I hope all of our listeners will also take away something and continue to stay happy and wise and see you in the next episode.

Special thanks to our sponsors:

Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Loo Tiong Ngee

Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin

Ep 30: The Overachiever Mindset ft. Venerable Damcho

Ep 30: The Overachiever Mindset ft. Venerable Damcho

About Our Guest

Venerable Thubten Damcho is a Buddhist nun residing at Sravasti Abbey, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries in the United States. Born and raised in Singapore, she graduated from Princeton University in 2006 and worked as a high school teacher and public policy analyst in the Singapore government before returning to the U.S. to take novice ordination in 2013. She tells her story in The Straits Times Singapore.

Venerable Damcho’s monastic life is rich and varied. She serves as assistant to Sravasti Abbey’s founder, author and well-known Buddhist teacher Venerable Thubten Chodron. Her other responsibilities range from translating Chinese texts into English to removing weeds from the Abbey’s 300-acre property. Venerable Damcho has given Dharma talks in Spokane, Idaho, California, India, and Singapore. She was the Chinese-English interpreter at a full ordination program in Taiwan in 2019, and has studied Tibetan through Maitripa College and with other teachers since 2017.


[00:00:00] Kai Xin:

Hi everyone, it’s me again. Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. I’m Kai Xin. I started a business at the age of 19.

[00:00:12] Cheryl:

Hi, I am Cheryl. I started my anxiety, which is my best achievement from the age of 15.

[00:00:19] Venerable Damcho:

Hi, I’m Thubten Damcho and I graduated from Princeton on a Public Service Commission scholarship.

[00:00:27] Kai Xin:

And today we are gonna talk about the overachiever mindset, hence the introduction. We are gonna share more of our overachievements in this episode and how to balance that with our Buddhist practice. Venerable, for listeners who haven’t heard of you or listened to the previous episode, which was fantastic on sex and the Buddhist, can you share with our listeners a little bit of your background?

[00:00:53] Venerable Damcho:

So I was born and raised in Singapore. I went overseas on scholarship and I was on track to have a very good career in civil service. But along the way I met the Buddha Dhamma and that really got me questioning my priorities in life. And eventually, I ordained here at Shravasti Abbey.

I live in Newport, Washington, in the U.S. We’re on the West Coast and I’ve lived here for 10 years now. I received my novice ordination in 2013, and then I received higher ordination in Taiwan in 2016. So it’s always a delight to reconnect with everyone in Singapore. So thank you for having me here again.

[00:01:26] Kai Xin:

Thank you for being back. On the topic on overachievers, I just wanna ask all of you, do you consider yourself an overachiever?

[00:01:35] Cheryl:

I think so. From young, I’ve always had that mindset that I need to be the best at what I do. When I went to school, I got a scholarship to Singapore. I’m from Malaysia. And when I went to Singapore, I had to go to the best school, the most elite school. I won’t name it, but it’s one of the top elite schools. When I went to uni, it had to be the best in some sort of field. When I start work, it had to be the best in some industry. When I have my anxiety, I need to have the worst critic, the most overachieving critic to beat myself up. So yes, overachieving in all different senses. What about you, Venerable Damcho?

[00:02:09] Venerable Damcho:

I love this question because I’ve never thought of myself as an overachiever because I’m always number two. I’m just never good enough. So how could I be a real overachiever? I think for me, underneath that need to achieve is a strong sense of I’m just never good enough.

The first time I ever heard someone call me an overachiever was Brother PJ. He was actually my next-door neighbor, and we reconnected after I came back from the U.S. and so did he, and he was just casually saying, “This is how overachievers behave”. I was like, that’s not me. What are you talking about? So it’s actually been a slow revelation of what these behaviors mean because to me it seemed very normal or I guess I was placed into student groups where everybody behaved that way, so it seemed very normal.

And then your whole idea of what is success or failure is so skewed. I remember for the mock PSLE in my class, I got 91, which is still A* and I felt very proud of myself because my math is very poor and the class average I think was 94. So, 91 was below average. So because of that, I don’t see myself as an overachiever. And some of that is a lack of self-cognizance, self-awareness, I think.

[00:03:22] Kai Xin:

It’s interesting you say that because I can relate. I am also not number one, but somehow people call me an overachiever, so I scratch my head just like, yeah I’m quite average, right? I mean, I didn’t go to elite school. I didn’t even finish or pursue any further studies or get a degree. My highest education is a diploma in Business Studies. I think it’s maybe the accolades or track record that I’m associated with, that people say, “Kai Xin, you’re so smart, you’ve achieved so many things”. But deep down inside, I’m just struggling.
If I were to look back, I did exhibit overachieving behaviors and mindsets. I have to study really hard, get good grades and just keep being very restless in striving and striving. So, I literally can’t sit still. I have to go for electives, CCA, partake in competition, win some medals. I have all these things on my shelf and I still don’t feel really good about myself. There’s still this imposter syndrome that’s like, am I really good?

There’s just never an end to the chase until I met the Dhamma, which brings us to another part of this conversation. I think the whole mode of striving, if it’s kind of misdirected, it can be unhealthy and not very conducive to the practice. So I’m actually quite curious to know, Venerable, when you became a nun, do you see any of these tendencies change?

[00:04:47] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah, slowly over time. I think first of all to even recognize the tendency. I moved here 10 years ago. The first time I sat a long three-month winter retreat, I had some goals. What are you gonna do with yourself if you don’t have goals to achieve? We’re talking about realistic goals, so Stream Entry, right? I wrote it out. So I was like, okay, let’s be real. Stream Entry can be done. Name what those things are. I actually really had a thought, maybe by the end of three months I will be able to walk through a wall. Yes, that’s how deluded I was. I was like, it’s possible. You just have to put the effort in. That’s how it’s been your whole life.

We have the Nine Stages of Sustained Attention or something like Nine Stages to Cultivating Serenity. Sometimes in the Tibetan Thangka’s you see a person with an elephant and a monkey. And it’s all symbolic of the stages of moving towards Samādhi. Then you have to combine that with insight. The first time I read this, I was like, oh, there are these nine steps. Now with clear instructions, sometimes you find the object, sometimes you are able to stay on it longer and longer and then you lose it.

Throughout the retreat, I was constantly asking what stage am I at? Is this stage one? Is this stage two? After a certain part I was like, oh, I think it’s really hard to even get to stage three, which is more sustained attention on the breath or whatever object it is. And I just really started to push. I would sit extra long sessions. I was so disappointed somewhere in the middle of the retreat, realizing I’m not gonna get past stage three or you’re gonna be stuck here. Even stage three itself is amazing to accomplish. But then I didn’t see that as an affliction at the time. It’s just how I’ve lived my whole life. So at the end of retreat, I realized, this is how I approach everything, with a lot of, let’s just push and make it through.

So just that slow recognition and then to see that repeat in so many areas of my life here at the monastery. I think it’s just having that space where I start to recognize these things. So, the next year I thought, okay, we’re not gonna push a retreat. Then I found myself distracted and I created some huge projects outside of the retreat. I’m sitting five sessions a day and then I’m gonna go and translate this very complex thing in all my breaks. I’m not gonna achieve it in the retreats, I’m gonna achieve it somewhere else, again, and again and again.

Venerable Chodron was instrumental in helping to point out these habits to me. She’s my teacher and the Abbess of the monastery. These are some habits and they don’t serve me. I really have to rethink how I approach my life. So, yeah, it’s been a slow process.

[00:07:17] Cheryl:

Two things that are particularly interesting to me. One is that you didn’t realize the afflictions that you were in. I think that’s the problem that a lot of us have. We just don’t know that we are in pain or we don’t know that we are suffering, and then we just continue with the same lifestyle until one day, either you have a terrible breakdown or your body just stops functioning. Then you’re like, I’ve been living life in a horrible way. I have inflicted so much pain on myself. That’s where you start to look for a way out and think, maybe I should change a little bit.

The second thing that was very interesting to me was the idea of how very strong habitual tendencies, if you don’t work with it, it can always change the object. First, it’s the meditation. Second, it could be some other project that you’re interested in. I thought that was very interesting and very relatable as well because I also never really understood my anxiety. Like I never really understood what is it for, what is it trying to protect? And it was kind of a pain. I was like, it’s good, if I’m not anxious, if I’m not critical of myself, I would just be a sloth and my whole life will just crumble. I never really saw how painful it really was to myself.

Just reflecting on my meditation practice as well, I realize I bring that into the cushion, the overachieving tendencies. It manifests in terms of so much tension because you must control how the sit is like. I need to experience that calm, and the calm cannot just be short, it must be long. It must be vision and brightness and everything like that. I just wanted to point out.

[00:08:42] Kai Xin:

Totally. There was once during Wesak Day, there were so many things going on. I was volunteering then I committed to sitting overnight and that was the worst overnight sit that I’ve ever experienced because I keep opening my eyes. It is starting at 9:00 PM then it ends at 4:00 AM where we do the morning chanting. Every single 10-minute block is just excruciating. And I keep telling myself, I’ve a lot of things that I need to do tomorrow. Am I able to do it? Here I am, having inner critics. I’m supposed to be peaceful, I’m not feeling peaceful. Why is everyone sitting so still? How long is this gonna last? I was so in pain that at 3:00 AM or so, close to 4:00 AM, I really just gave up. I went back, I took a cab and I was in tears.

The funny thing was, my mom knew about my intention to sit overnight and she discouraged me from doing so. I had this sense of ego, right? Ah, I’m gonna go back. My mom is gonna find out that I didn’t sit through the night, and she’s gonna say, “See lah, I told you already, don’t push yourself so hard”. I can’t stand that. So, my plan was to be very quiet, open the gate, and before she wakes up in the morning, I would wake up first and then go to the Wesak Day to volunteer. But lo and behold, I forgot to bring my house keys. And I tell you, I felt so lousy about myself. I really felt like a failure. I have no choice but to ring the doorbell and gonna get all these nagging.

At that point in time, it was quite an aha moment for me. I’m like, Hey, I’m suffering, you know? The practice is supposed to lead me out of suffering, but here I am clinging on to this idea of, I have to commit to my intention. I have to feel peaceful. Everybody else can’t know what’s going on inside me.

I was just wondering, from a Buddhist perspective, what do you think is the root cause of all this desire to achieve and how do we know when it is bringing us pain? How do we know when the pain of striving, which is sometimes good, can actually lead us to the end of pain? There are two parts, right? Pain leading to more pain. Pain leading to less pain.

[00:10:41] Venerable Damcho:

That’s a really powerful story actually. Your recognition of all those things going on in your mind, especially the I’ve gotta look like I have it together. I think that’s a really good clue.

From a Buddhist perspective, all our afflictions arise on the basis of ignorance functioning in many ways, right? First of all, thinking, here’s this real person in this body who has this mind, a possessor of it who is the mind, and so there’s someone here that achieves things that all these external things relate to. Here’s my achievement, my trophy, my accolades, and they reflect on me. Even just seeing ourselves in that way, seeing the external world as objective things separate from me and my mind that I have to obtain to be successful, or control. I want certain things. How am I gonna get them? Control the external world, which is very different from just creating the cause and seeing things in terms of dependent arising. On the basis of that, we get fixated on trying to organize everything.

And I think with achievement or this kind of painful striving, what’s at work is what we call the eight worldly concerns. That’s one of the teachings in the graduated stages of the Path to Awakening that we study in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s craving for material success or material wealth and aversion for poverty or lack of wealth. Attachment to sense pleasure and strong aversion to unpleasant sensory experiences. Especially with the achievement piece, it’s attachment to your good reputation and complete aversion to having a bad one, and then attachment to praise, wanting people to say nice things about you and aversion to blame. It could vary for each person, which is the main driver. So sometimes we’ve had discussion groups here, look at which one is the main driver in your daily life behavior.

For me personally, it’s very much about attachment to praise or blame, especially from people I consider very important.

[00:12:41] Kai Xin:

You mentioned the root cause of the painful striving, is ignorance. Just to help our listeners here, you mentioned the Eight Worldly Winds, right? So there are four pairs. Praise and blame. Pain and pleasure. Gain and loss. Fame and disrepute. And because it comes in pairs, that means either side, we would suffer. Then how do we find the balance?

[00:13:03] Venerable Damcho:

I would say we have to step out of that framework completely. That’s the problem with these kinds of dichotomous frameworks. You get stuck in this, it’s either this or that. For a start, recognizing their disadvantages. Is this way of thinking serving me or not? Does it bring about benefits? Does it benefit other people? Does it benefit myself? And really making examples from our own experience.

Especially with the eight worldly concerns, what’s helped me so much is coming back to my motivation for what I’m doing, and focusing on what’s happening internally. With overachievement, it’s what am I getting outside? What’s this external thing? Whether it’s sense pleasure or some material thing. But now I come back to, why am I engaging in this activity? What kind of internal benefit is it going to bring for myself or for others?

If I’m very, very clear about my motivation for doing something and that it’s a long-term motivation, it brings benefits now and in the future. It might be painful in the short term, but I know it’s going to be beneficial in the long term, then it’s worthwhile. Then no matter what happens, people criticize me or whatever, I can come back to, wait a second, the starting point is good, my motivation is clear. That’s helped me a lot. Just coming back to that, taking time to really get clear about my motivation.

I’m thinking of when I used to teach. I really wanna benefit these students. But along the way, could this also be about my job performance? Because I’m a school teacher and how they do at school reflects on my teaching skills and the bonus I’m gonna get. Is that creeping in? I want this to be about the students. How do I make sure I pull that back? If it’s really genuinely about the students, then I always have the energy to keep going. It doesn’t fall into, you have to perform, everyone, on this test by the end of the year. I don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking at you as human beings. I wanna see those grades, which is really awful.

[00:14:54] Cheryl:

It’s so important to routinely check with yourself and remind yourself, what’s your motivation, what’s your intention? When we do that as well, it can help us to fixate less on the outcome goal and start to take note of the little progress throughout the journey as well, which can help us to take a more relaxed attitude and a more open and exploratory approach to wherever we want to get to.

[00:15:19] Kai Xin:

That’s interesting, and it almost seems like the achievement is the result of our good intention and effort, versus how originally if it’s misplaced, it would be the desire to overachieve driving us. We might not necessarily get the result that we want and that’s where our whole world crumbles because it comes from external sources, which is beyond our control. We can’t even control our own minds, what more what other people think of us or how other people would like to recognize us or reward us, et cetera. I find that to be very, very powerful.

I also wonder, because sometimes people might have this saying, don’t try so hard. I literally had Dhamma brothers and sisters come up to me and say, Kai Xin, I think you’re trying very hard. Maybe you should let go a little bit. But then I’m thinking, is it really about not trying hard or is it about trying hard the right way?
If I were to recollect, the Buddha did try very hard. He touched the earth and he’s like, may the earth be my witness until I attain enlightenment. And he literally had to fight his defilements in order to realize what he realized and have the compassion to teach us. So it’s not dualistic per se. Then again, how do we reconcile? Are there certain signposts that you would look out for beyond the inner intention? How do you know you’re trying too hard, not trying so hard?

[00:16:46] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. But before that, to really look at what is this drive to overachieve before we get into the setting a good intention part. When we start to recognize some of these behaviors are perhaps perceived as excessive by other people. True or not true? What is my motivation behind this? Sometimes people come to tell us these things because they are our friends and they’re concerned.

When I first moved to the Abbey, people are like, you should take a break. I’m like, what are you talking about? Or you’re not getting enough sleep. I’m like, sleep is for the weak. I heard that as judgment. Like you said, you don’t like people to tell you, just relax. I’m like, leave me alone, I run my own life.

It took me a long time to even hear, okay, there’s some concern there. People are perceiving that I’m not balanced. You’re so fixated on the external achievement, you don’t see, oh, maybe I’m neglecting my relationships. Maybe that’s what my friends are saying. Or I’m losing my temper with them. The people who care about us are seeing something out of whack. Yeah. I will say that was the chief motivator in me, pausing and rethinking all these behaviors.

We had a community workshop here where we wrote feedback for each other. And mine was around, people are just concerned that you spend so much time working. This is taking you away from the community. I thought, wow. And that was the first time I actually started to listen to feedback and really look inside and see, yeah, what is driving that need to overachieve?

Because like you said, if the need is to feel better about ourselves, no external thing is gonna accomplish that. And that’s the painful setup, right? No matter how many trophies you have, I still feel lousy. Yeah. So if the striving is to heal some kind of internal sense of lack, make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. That’s right striving, right? It’s first of all, checking up on what is driving the striving, what are you actually trying to accomplish.

There was a young woman who came to the Abbey, who grew up with a lot of trauma. She was abused but externally presented as so incredibly successful, making tons of money in Silicon Valley and all that. And it was very interesting for me to watch her journey here. Letting go of the career was terrifying, right? She saw that the whole overachievement was like a shield. To protect her from a world that was abusing her, right? It’s like, if I have this career, if I have the money, if I’m independent, nobody can trap me. Nobody can bully me. This is my defense.

So, you know, I don’t come from a background of abuse, so it was interesting to see that’s one thing that can drive the overachieving. What is it for me? So for me, a lot of it was hoping to have love. Thinking having all these external things is going to bring love. And the moment I recognized that, it was like, oh, I don’t need it from outside. I can love myself.

So, yeah. I don’t know. Your thoughts? What’s driving that need to achieve?

[00:19:34] Cheryl:

I have so many thoughts on this. Is it true that it’s completely internal? Only we can give ourselves a reliable sense of happiness and love. Is it bad if we outsource it on external? What’s the balance? 50% external, 50% internal?

Because I was having a conversation with a friend who’s not Buddhist, I was like, you know, I’m camp internal. It’s all inside you. You can control that, you can generate it, you can train that right, purify your mind. And they were like, oh my God, you Buddhists are horrible. We need validation. We need people to love us and let us know we are worthy. That’s nice. That’s pleasant. That’s fun. So what is the balance that we should be ideally striving for in a healthy way?

[00:20:15] Venerable Damcho:

My goodness. I love our overachiever vocabulary. I just need to step back and say, is it right, is it wrong? Should I be doing this? What is the percentage? We need data.

[00:20:25] Kai Xin:

Oh yeah, that’s so true.

[00:20:28] Venerable Damcho:

This invisible world of standards that is shaping you that you don’t even know.

Yeah. It was a counselor who pointed that out to me. You might wanna look at some of the standards you have. And I looked at her like, what do you mean standards I hold, this is the way, the truth, the life. The world’s like this. I’m like this. You are like this.

Anyway. I think we come back to the principle of dependent arising, right? Multiple causes and conditions. In Buddhist practice, a lot of the emphasis is on what we can cultivate internally. But of course, yeah, you’re influenced by your peer groups, right? So sensibly, if your practice is not very strong, don’t hang out with people who are going to make you commit non-virtue, support you in committing non-virtue. It’s a balance of both, I would think.

Listening to advice from wise people. It’s who you trust to help you understand who you are. Do I trust the friends who are encouraging me to do things that are not beneficial or do I listen to my teacher, whom I trust is wise? If my teacher is disapproving, I will think carefully, not necessarily judge myself or feel poorly, but think, okay, something’s up here that I really need to look at.

[00:21:35] Kai Xin:

Yeah. It seems like there’s no black and white, like 50-50, 80-20. And it’s just about sitting with the uncertainty that maybe there is no right answer.

I think for my personal experience to answer Cheryl’s question is to also have the discernment to understand, okay, at this point in life, do I have the capacity to accept myself? And if I’m honest and truthful, I know, maybe I need to lean on somebody to offer me strength first before I can then offer strength within for myself. But to eventually realize that we can only rely on ourselves till the end, but we need somebody to walk the journey with us.

[00:22:15] Venerable Damcho:

From a Buddhist perspective, what can be shocking to your friend who’s non-Buddhist, is that refuge is the Dhamma. It’s not a human being. The refuge is in our realizations. It’s in the compassion and the wisdom that we’re realizing in our own mindstream, and it’s the compassion and wisdom that’s in someone else’s mindstream.

Like right now, what’s very big in our community is that a major teacher just passed away. Lama Zopa Rinpoche passed away suddenly, and people are shocked, or grieving. Venerable Chodron has been giving talk after talk about how the physical manifestation of your teacher passes away but what he has left with you is the teaching that you have every single day. That’s what this person was trying to impart to you.
Same with the Buddha, right? He’s like, don’t cry or grieve. The Vinaya is your teacher. You’ll always have the Dhamma with you. The most important thing is to actualize it in your own mindstream. I think what I respect in my teacher is recognizing, they have certain ways of thinking that I want to emulate. They have behaviors that I think are really admirable, but I can cultivate them too. They do not rest in that person. They’re teaching me how to do it for myself and then I have to do that for other people.

[00:23:30] Cheryl:

It’s so beautiful.

We will go back to the question, what are the drivers for our overachieving tendencies?
For me, it comes from a place of lack and unworthiness and it’s because growing up I was surrounded by relatives who basically did really well, and had full scholarships. And in terms of the family tree as well, my father was always the odd one out. And within my family, I was the smarter one compared to my sister. But at the same time, seeing all my relatives who were better, I always had that sense of lack. And I always had to prove that my family was not that weird. So I had to overachieve in that sense.

But because it comes from this place of lack, it is a very, very painful striving cause the whole insecurity, and uncertainty about myself, the doubt is always there as I tried to head towards a place of worthiness through external achievements.

[00:24:24] Kai Xin:

I think for me subconsciously, it’s about the proving part as well. I grew up never really wanting explicit external validation from people. In fact, I do feel quite lousy since young, because I’m a bench player in basketball. I feel like, okay, I have all these medals, but I don’t really contribute to them. So it’s a part of me that says, I need something that I can call my own that I have achieved for myself to prove to myself and also to other people that I can do it. I’m independent. I don’t need to rely on anybody. This is something that is mine, not shared.

And I think it comes very subconsciously. Also, the restless mind wants to just fill my mind with things so that I don’t really have to sit still and address the inner critic and the voice. So it’s about doing, doing, doing. And it comes off as overachieving, right?

But when I started learning the Dhamma, then really looking within, Hey, what’s the driving factor? I realized, okay, I don’t need to prove to anybody. But do I also have to prove to myself? What is it that I can really call my own?

So when I had a long retreat, one and a half months in Amaravati in the UK, I was kind of searching and also asking myself about the identity. So if I were to forgo the business, do I still call myself an entrepreneur? Because that was the identity that I was tied to for two, three years. It was very, very prominent. And I feel a sense of pride and people are like, how do you achieve so much?

Then having to let go of that thought was interesting because what do I call myself then? Who am I? Then, I realized it’s really the fundamental things about my virtue that are what I’m gonna take with me when I die. The memories of the good that I’ve done. It’s really not so much about the act of doing or the act of achieving anymore. So there’s a little bit of recalibration there. Again, outwardly it might seem like the same thing, but then inside, there is a shift in how I show up to day-to-day life and the driving force, which is much healthier.

I wouldn’t say that it’s always on point. Sometimes I still lose my way and I have to have friends to call me out to say, Hey, I think you’re working too hard. What’s your priority? What’s driving you then? I take a step back, recalibrate, and it’s a constant process.

[00:26:47] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. I just remember Venerable Chodron telling us, balance is like walking. You’re just constantly shifting your weight. It’s not some kind of magic steady state and it will forever be the same. Impermanence, remember?

What you both shared reminded me of two teachings I received from Venerable. Earlier on, she told this story about how her brother is a doctor and so she also had this whole high-achieving life. She went to college early and she’s on track to be a school teacher and has a good husband and so forth.

And then she becomes a nun and her whole family’s like, what? So she met up with her brother and he was just like, what do you want to do with yourself in the next five years? Have you just lost all goals and direction in life? And she said to him, I want to be a kinder person.

I was just blown away by that answer. I just sat there with that for a long time, and there’s a part of me that’s like, that’s all? That’s all you wanna be? But Venerable Chodron, you’re like super successful in my mind. It’s like, no, she just wants to be a kinder person, and that’s what matter. So yeah, just convincing myself or coming to it on my own terms, right? Actually, what genuinely matters is our virtuous attitudes towards ourselves and other people.

[00:27:59] Kai Xin:

I’m wondering whether it’s realistic for us to have this balance of sorts, whatever we perceive of it. Cause there are so many external forces, especially from society, right? In the capitalistic and materialistic world, you must strive hard, to get an A. And then we have tiger moms and parents. Then our academic system kind of only rewards those who are at the end of the bell curve. How do we then live in this world where we have this balance and say, yeah, I’m content. It’s good enough. I don’t really have to strive so much. Is it really realistic?

[00:28:33] Venerable Damcho:

There are two things. One instruction Venerable Chodron gave me very early on drove me almost insane. Because we were talking about a high achiever, you want some specifics, right? Like 50% or whatever. She kept telling me, you have to find your own center. I was like, what kind of new age nonsense is that? What do you mean find my own center? Like where is it? Can you be more specific? So I thought about it for a long time now, what is this center?

Maybe if I retranslated her instruction, it’s how do we learn to evaluate ourselves? And that’s really hard. You are conditioned from a young age. Cheryl, you had a great example of how your family conditioning shapes so much of how you see yourself. My family is seen like this. I am this person in my family. This is how we relate. So based on all this storytelling from other people, you can decide whether you accept the story or not. As a responsible family member, I must prove that we are not weird.

Or Kai Xin, then you’ve made your own story. What is an entrepreneur and what does that mean in society? I didn’t follow the conventional route of getting a degree, but you know what? I know better than you college people and I’m succeeding. There’s that whole story based on what other people tell us, how we wanna accept it, and to know that we can undo that as we get older.

Maybe as a kid, there’s a lot less agency, right? You’re dependent on your parents for survival. You live in that house. It feels like life and death at that age. Then you get older, it’s like, I don’t have to follow everything my parents taught me. I can be an adult and look back and see what is useful, what is not, what’s true, what’s not.

I always think of those Chinese fighting serials. You are from the Pan family. Then the Lee family disgraced us, so I must now kill everybody who is Lee. That’s the purpose of my life. I spent my whole life training in sword fighting. Then I go and kill all the Lee’s. Then I write poems in Chinese, why did I do this? I don’t want my life to be like that.

[00:30:31] Cheryl:

Especially in Chinese New Year, right? Where everyone compares who does what?

[00:30:35] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. But I don’t wanna spend my life living out my parents’ expectations. Thank you. That’s your idea of happiness, but that’s not mine. So that’s one piece. And then like you said, looking at what society expects. Is it true that getting good grades is the ticket to success? Maybe you challenge that strongly. What are you telling me about conventional education? Why do I have to believe this?

But I found that maybe the last piece I wanna add is just, if I’m driven by anger, when I need to prove myself, I need to fight you, fight your expectations, fight to show you who I really am, underneath that there’s a lot of anger and it’s exhausting. As opposed to being centered, I know who I am, a genuine sense of self-confidence, these are my values, these are my motivations and that’s what drives my life. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. You can have your story about who you think I need to be and I don’t need to buy into it. I can give it back.

[00:31:31] Kai Xin:

There’s a tipping point also, right? Sometimes tip into the aspect of I’m more superior, I know what I want, I’m gonna challenge your assumption. Society doesn’t know what it’s doing. Then again, I know it’s overachiever to have signposts and frameworks, but how do we know that we have tipped over to the other side?

[00:31:50] Venerable Damcho:

So it’s learning your own internal signposts maybe. So that’s the internal achiever, maybe. That’s just learning to evaluate yourself. Only you know your own mind. I think that’s what our meditation practice helps us with. It’s just learning how every single affliction manifests in my own experience.

In Buddhism we have all these lists, right? Attachment, anger, and you spend time with that. So how do I know when I’m being driven by anger? Whether it’s physical, taking the time to see what kinds of thoughts are running in the mind and driving my behavior. And that’s how I find my internal signpost.

And so you’re right, the external behavior can be totally the same, but I’m, as you said, learning to calibrate internally. For me, some of the signs are that I’m actually happy doing what I’m doing. I don’t get burned out. I don’t get frustrated. There’s a lot of joy. And that’s when I know, okay, we’re going on a good path.

[00:32:43] Kai Xin:

So it’s less greed, less hatred, and delusion, the reduction of the three poisons, right?

[00:32:49] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. Guess what? That actually frees up a lot of energy.

[00:32:52] Kai Xin:

It does, it does. Cheryl, do you have any thoughts on that?

[00:32:56] Cheryl:

I’m just thinking it’s very hard because at the start where you mentioned that we always see things as like my achievements, my accolades. So that sense of self is very strong. It’s also very easy to fall into the whole conceit of feeling superior, feeling inferior, and feeling neutral. It’s almost like a very strong, automatic narrative in your mind.

Can you speak a little bit more about that comparison in relation to overachieving?

[00:33:24] Venerable Damcho:

It’s such a painful state of mind. It’s so encouraged in society. I remember when I first decided to move to a monastery, one of my old friends from JC called me up and said, we need to talk. She was very concerned about my life choices and when we sat down for lunch, she was like, how can you live without competition?
I mean, she was working for Lehman Brothers, and then Lehman Brothers collapsed. But she’s like, no, it’s cool, I’ll find another job for sure. She’s working 12, 16-hour days in a fancy apartment with no time to do anything except eat, sleep, and exercise and go to work. And she’s telling me that competition’s very important, that if I don’t have competition in my life, I will not improve myself.

I’m like, oh, okay. At least I could sit there and be like, I hear that you’re very concerned for me, but that’s just not what I feel is helpful in my life. But I think you’ve nailed it. Just even naming the thought, I’m better in whatever way. So you don’t actually have any realistic sense of how you are in relation to others. Yeah. That’s the definition of arrogance, thinking you’re better than someone who is actually better than you, thinking you’re better than someone who is not as good as you, thinking you’re better than someone who is equal to you.

When I looked at that, I was like, oh okay. It’s just that thought, I am better. It doesn’t matter externally what the actual situation is. And what’s helped me a lot is just looking at how that has damaged a lot of my personal relationships. It sounds like this is resonating, but it’s only something that became very clear to me when I moved to a monastery. Maybe cause in the monastery we’re all supposed to be equals on the path, just driving together and supporting each other. I can’t stand you because I think you are better or I should be better. Like, wow, this is how I relate to people my age. I don’t compete with the older nuns because they’re older, they’re seniors, and I have my own story about them. It’s like, oh, I’ve related all my friends like this. Oh, so painful. So just seeing that and really rethinking, how do I relate to people in a way that’s kind, that’s not based on measuring.

It just comes back to a sense of lack I think. You have something I don’t, I better have something you don’t.

[00:35:37] Cheryl:

I noticed that in a 10-day retreat in Thailand, my mind was having a lot of fun judging everybody. But the thing that I noticed was that it is a complete seesaw. So one day I will walk around, be like, oh, I’m sitting the straightest. I’m sitting there longest. I’m better than all of you. Then the next day when I’m feeling sleepy or when the mind is just not getting together, I’ll be like, I’m the worst here, I’m never getting enlightened.
It’s really torture because when I’m down then all the critical thoughts and the anxiety, everyone must be looking at me knowing I thought that bad thought. But then when I’m feeling good, that whole narrative of, everyone should be looking at me, look at how I sit, look at how I walk. The aha moment really came in, I realized this up and down is really stupid. What am I doing? If I feel great and I hold onto it the next moment I’m gonna feel shitty. It was very helpful when I just realized that it’s so pointless to cling on either of that good or bad, because it’s gonna change anyway.

[00:36:32] Kai Xin:

I think it requires a lot of introspection to even see that. But most of us don’t get to even quiet our mind for just one minute and we don’t have the opportunity to see what exactly is insight. When I’m hearing both of you, it seemed to me that it’s not so much about not having standards because the Vinaya is a form of standard, right? We have certain guidelines to uphold in order to support us in our practice. So it’s not so much about forgoing the standards, but it’s about clinging to the standards. Then it becomes a fetter, where we cling to rites and rituals. We cling to a specific framework or how things should be done, or should not be done. Then when it causes us suffering, that’s when we have to let it go.

Similarly, it’s also not so much about not having competition at all, but perhaps it’s okay to have healthy comparisons. We rejoice in other people’s good effort, right? If friends share with me about their amazing meditation experience, I shouldn’t be like, how come I don’t have?

Cultivate sympathetic joy, Mudita, to say, wow, good for you and use them as a source of inspiration. So then that’s where healthy comparison comes into the picture rather than oh, I’m not good enough. You’re better, or I’m better. You’re not good enough. It’s very interesting because when we stop looking at things from a dualistic perspective, not clinging on to, it has to be this way or that way, then a lot of all this affliction would just fall away. Like there’s really nothing to cause us suffering anymore.

[00:37:57] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. Like you said, rejoicing is a very powerful antidote to the competitive jealous mind. I think a lot of it’s just recognizing the affliction to begin with, what we’re describing. Yeah. I definitely got to see my inner critic very clean, clear at the first retreat I sat. Then years later, you read these texts that have these definitions of mental states, right? It’s like, oh, that’s arrogance. Duh. That is the different types of arrogance. Yeah. I think I’m better, but “I think I’m the worst” is also arrogance. It’s the flip side, right? Everybody’s so good. I’m so special. I’m worse than the worst everybody can attain. It just comes back to that. Anytime you’re thinking I’m special or I’m better, that’s you, arrogance. You’re not realistic. Go away. Doesn’t help.

[00:38:41] Kai Xin:

I’m worst of the worst reminds you of, you know, how we have a culture of who sleeps later at night because they’re working. It’s a form of ego and conceit, I suppose.

[00:38:52] Venerable Damcho:

No, it’s amazing. You can get arrogant about everything. We’re the Overachiever Club. You should have the podcast for the Underachiever Club. Who’s worse and who’s more gangster, who has served longer in jail or whatever. You can get arrogant about that too. That’s very nice.

[00:39:07] Kai Xin:

All right, we’ve covered a lot. Unfortunately, everything has to come to an end, but we hope this is just the beginning of our practice in terms of introspecting. Cheryl, any salient points that you took away from our chat?

[00:39:22] Cheryl:

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really about going back into our drivers, our motivation and our intention. Especially when we are feeling kind of out of whack. That’s a clear signpost for you to just really check what’s going on. Am I moving away from the reason why I started?

[00:39:40] Kai Xin:

For me, what stood out most is about catching myself when I need certainty. It was an aha moment when you say, all these vocabularies that we are using, the frameworks, the percentage, and just learning to sit with, what if I don’t have the answer? How does that feel like? Yeah, I think that that’s my greatest takeaway. How about Venerable?

[00:40:02] Venerable Damcho:

Yeah. I love that you said this is just the beginning of our introspective journey, cause you touched on some really important things that really are at the heart of our suffering situation. Anytime our sense of self gets overly puffed up or we are holding onto some identity or story too tightly, that’s really causing us a lot of pain. And it’s very empowering to recognize that, oh, hang on, it’s actually just thinking about things in an unrealistic or inaccurate way, and I can take time to shift the way I think. And that’s what changes everything. It’s not about having to get something outside, or even go for some multimillion-dollar workshop. It’s really just how am I thinking about this and how do I slowly train myself to shift how I’m thinking about it?

Yeah. In the definition of joyous effort, I guess skillful striving might be another way to put it. It might be Venerable Chodron’s translation of Viriya, I’m not sure. But it has four aspects. There’s aspiration, right? So that comes from you already doing that inner work and reflecting, okay, what are the benefits of this? Why do I want to accomplish this? And then that very naturally drives your behavior. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to like must wake up at X time. It’s like, oh, I’ve thought about the benefits so it’s naturally going to arise and then keeping it stable over time. There’s joy in the mind.

But most important, the last piece there’s rest. I was so shocked when I received that teaching. It’s like, ah, part of joyous effort is rest? But that’s for lazy people. No, it’s knowing, this is my capacity and I need time to recuperate. I’m an ordinary being with body and mind. I want to keep going so I rest with good motivation and then I come back when I can. And that’s it. Yeah. It’s not that you become a slob. That’s two extremes. Either you’re the rabbit or the turtle.

That’s my sense of recognizing my limitations and I have aspirations and how to keep going and a steady, sustainable way.

[00:42:03] Kai Xin:

Thanks. Very beautiful way to wrap up. And I think it also ties back to how we started that it’s really gradual how we let go and shed all these habitual tendencies of over-striving or unskillful striving.
So thank you once again, Venerable, for being on the show. And to all our listeners, if you like this episode, please do share it with a friend. Hit the five-star button on the review section and till the next episode, may you stay happy and wise.

Special thanks to our sponsors:

Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Loo Tiong Ngee

Editor and transcriber of this episode: Tee Ke Hui, Cheryl Cheah, Koh Kai Xin