What do people celebrate on Vesak Day — the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment? Little is talked about his death. Does ‘death’ have to be seen as taboo when celebrating his birthday?
TLDR: Reflecting and contemplating death can place our daily life experiences into perspective. It can give us a greater sense of purpose and makes us better, not bitter. It also prepares me for peace and acceptance when I arrive at my last breath.
“Choi! Choi!” my friend exclaimed while flailing her hands at me as if shooing a bunch of mosquitoes away. Her response is a common expression we hear when we breach death, a taboo subject. So what if I’ve brought up death in our conversation?
I recall several elderly relatives avoided attending funerals of their kin as they genuinely believe they bring bad luck – and death – closer to us!
Many find death a sensitive topic and prefer to veil it from their perception when possible, hoping that somehow postpones its eventuality. The avoidance of this topic may stoke an undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Some would rather “be positive” and “look on the bright side of life” than dwell on the sombre thought of life-ending.
“When it comes, it’ll come,” we say. Death seems acceptable now because underlying that thought, a sense of invincibility churns on: that energy, health and life are with us. That death is “something that will surely come, but probably not just yet”.
The certainty of living on, of course, may not be the case.
Fragility in the face of pandemics
The Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the fragility of human health. We hear of sickness and death taking place in our vicinity (friends or family), ringing the risk (and fears) of death in our hearts and minds.
Times like these remind us that ageing, sickness and death are always around the corner. We can train ourselves to be acutely aware of their imminence, despite accompanying unpleasant emotions.
How can we overcome the anxiety and fear associated with death? According to American psychologist George Kelly, we can alter our aversion to death by building familiarity with it. It is about intentionally – more importantly, peacefully – exposing ourselves to this uncomfortable subject with daily, time-bound reflections and actions.
Those who stick with this practice are likened by the Buddha to thoroughbred horses: easily trained and spurred into action with urgency.
A more fulfilling life
The Buddha has long ‘left us’ after his pari-nibbana; have we ‘left’ his teachings behind? There are several benefits that we can derive from his experience of ‘passing away’:
1.Acceptance is easier when death comes to us or those close to us.
When I was in Ubon Ratchathani, Northeastern Thailand, for a short stint, I witnessed a rural Thai funeral ritual that baffled me.
A young child was lifted into the coffin, and following tradition retrieved an object from the deceased’s head with their mouth!
Thais I saw were acquainted with death from a very young age, unflinching in their face-to-face interactions with a dead body. However, I observed that some ethnic Chinese would turn their backs toward the coffin as it is being lifted onto a hearse. Alas, this aversion to death!
Unsurprisingly, Thais I have met in these villages tend to be more spiritually inclined. They have a more positive outlook and go about their days with few complaints.
When speaking to the elderly womenfolk, they talk about pain in their legs with such a light-hearted demeanour: “It’s part of life, isn’t it?”
“It’s part of ageing”, they laughed.
Some of us would have been fraught with annoyance, and scour the land for the best physicians to remove their pain. Like Kisa Gotami who pleaded with the Buddha to remove the suffering that came from her son’s death, she ultimately realised the futility of her quest lay in her misunderstanding of the true nature of the human condition.
Whatever arises, passes away.
Thus, by acquainting ourselves with the nature of life and death, we are mentally prepared when it happens to us or those close to us. A calm and collected acknowledgement of the situation settles our hearts, allaying panic, shock and despair. “Indeed, death has arrived”, we will reflect, just as we have been reflecting everyday.
2.We focus on things that really matter.
Contemplating death helps us focus on the essentials. We are not as easily swept away by our fleeting youth (doing foolish things because we are young), health (sleeping late), or life (thinking that “next year I will…”).
Indulgences can take the form of an intoxicant. We can lose clarity of what matters in life, by pursuing fast cars, fashion bags, eating late oily suppers, and planning 10 years ahead as if life is certain.
As a means of surviving the mundane world, building wealth can be broken down into several parts including (1) being diligent in our education to acquire necessary skills, (2) further education to apply critical thinking, collaborating with others and other such soft skills, and (3) building our careers to earn a living.
We can avoid squandering away our wealth by avoiding constant drunkenness, refraining from roaming the streets at unseemly hours that expose us to theft, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, foolish companions and laziness
Living the virtuous life
My spiritual practice revolves around the cultivation of skillful habits of the body, speech and mind. I have found that splurging my youth on chasing illusory sensuality tends to be unfulfilling. I would rather spend my energetic days, building my resolve and strength to overcome challenges and build positive habits.
Considering how precious rebirth as a human is (the probability of being born as a human being is extremely small in Buddhist cosmology), I seize every moment as an opportunity to grow wholesomeness and skillfulness.
3. We don’t take things for granted
If today were my last day, what would I say to my family and friends? Take every opportunity to express gratitude and appreciation. Resolve conflicts.
Ask for forgiveness as soon as you can. Avoid saying or doing anything to others that we would later regret.
Having no regrets or remorse is one of the greatest treasures that we can acquire. As the Buddha described, “one without regret need not wish ‘may I have joy, may joy arise in me’. It is natural that joy arises in one without regret”.
A deep quiet sense of joy that is solid and unperturbed by the vicissitudes of life.
At the end of a busy day, I dedicate time to settle my mind and pay my respects to the important figures guiding my life:
My deepest reverence to the Buddha.
My deepest reverence to the Dhamma.
My deepest reverence to the Sangha.
My deepest reverence to my teachers.
My deepest reverence to my parents, both in this life and in the past.
As I bow low to these important figures in our lives, I reflect on the day that I have spent. If I have spent the day usefully, filling it with goodness, I can go to sleep with a deep sense of ease.
Vesak, Death, and beyond
Every year when we celebrate our birthday, an anniversary or an important event like Wesak Day, we have the opportunity to reflect on his passing.
We can ponder “As death approaches us day by day, why do we not water the seeds of spiritual growth in our hearts?” This phrase helps to stir urgency for me to focus on what is crucial and discard what is not.
By bringing death closer to us, may we all live a more purposeful and meaningful life.
 A Cantonese expression to ward off bad fortune, a coarser resemblance of the expression “touch wood”.
Find a mantra to anchor you in the present (it need not be death related but something that clears procrastination.)
When I witness the death/funeral of strangers, I can remind myself of the spiritual urgency of living a life with purpose.
TLDR: Vesak Day began as a sacred festival to celebrate Buddha’s attainments and teachings, but as with all conditioned phenomena, has evolved, changed and even diluted in some parts of the world. We trace its origins, evolution and how we can skilfully partake in the upcoming Vesak Day celebrations.
9 days into May of 1999, in Yasothon, Thailand, a 120kg homemade rocket launched as part of a rocket competition sharply turned around and crashed into the ground with a deafening explosion, brutally killing 4 and wounding 11. This was a tragic conclusion to the otherwise buoyant three days of carousing and festivities that climax in a rocket-launching competition, locally known as the Bun Bang Fai, or Rocket Festival.
Shocking as the accident must have been, centuries of tradition carry a nearly inexorable momentum, and enthusiasm gingerly but surely picked up the following year.
If one so fancies, instead of spending the upcoming Vesak Day holidays visiting the temples of Singapore, or more likely catching the latest Netflix series at home, one can still witness this spectacle of jerry-built missile launches with a short budget flight and a long drive.
Pre-Buddhist fertility rites & Vesak
Although this festival owes its roots to pre-Buddhist fertility rites, its proximity to Vesak Day on the lunar calendar has led many in the region of Northeastern Thailand to associate it with the celebration of birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha.
The association is visibly weak though. A modern participant of the event can expect a rowdy start of all-night performances of Mor Lam Sing, which can be best described as a folksy musical of Laotian roots, leavened with wry and increasingly bawdy humour.
This is followed the next day by a procession of traditional dancers with accompanying musicians, with decidedly consumerist influences such as electric guitars.
Everything builds up to the main act of the rocket launching competition, where rockets made by teams sponsored by local companies fire off into the clouds and are judged on apparent height and distance travelled, with extra points for exceptionally ethereal vapour trails.
All throughout the three days, one can expect to see frequent cross-dressing and great quantities of Lao Whiskey consumption, which is a neutral grain spirit with 40-per cent alcohol content.
The evolution of Vesak
Bun Bang Fai stands out as one of the more colourful and adulterated evolutionary branches of Vesak Day celebrations around the world, and it exemplifies the diversity of commemoration forms even within Southeast Asia.
Internationally, Vesak Day was formalised as an official celebration in the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka, but as with most official designations, the tradition has a history dating far before that in various Buddhist populations.
Even the etymology of Vesak defies a simple explanation. Vesak comes from the Sanskrit term Vaisakhapaurnami Puja. It is also otherwise known as “Visakkha Puja”, which is an abbreviation from the Pali term “Visakhapunnami Puja”, meaning the worship on the full moon day in the sixth month.
In Thailand, arguably one of the more devoutly Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, it is likely that the practice was transmitted from Sri Lanka in the Sukothai Era in the 1200s.
When the Sukothai empire declined and fell under the dominion of the neighbouring Ayutthaya kingdom, Vesak celebration was further elevated into a royal and public event, with three days and three nights of official observance.
But after the besieging Burmese forces sacked the city of Ayutthaya and brought the kingdom to its knees in 1767, the sacred ceremony was similarly forgotten.
It was only half a century later, in 1817, at the behest of King Rama II of the present-day Rattanakosin kingdom, in his desire to make supreme merit, that the ceremony was restored.
How it developed in the rest of the region
While Thailand was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to import this tradition, Vesak Day celebrations continued to find purchase in other parts of the region much later too.
Indonesia celebrated its first Waisak Day, as is locally known, in 1983. Today, it is enshrined as a national public holiday. While it is more actively observed in pockets of the population throughout the archipelago, the centrepiece happens at the Borobudur Temple at Magelang, where thousands of monks chant and meditate, before culminating in the Pindapata.
Closer to home in Malaysia and Singapore, Vesak Day was celebrated mostly by the ethnic Chinese, Thai and Sri Lankan populace. The first recorded mention of its observance was a notice in The Straits Times by jeweller B.P. de Silva, informing readers that his shop would be closed for the celebrations on 8 May 1925.
In Singapore in particular, it was only gazetted as a national holiday in 1956. The exact day of celebration was contested between the Singapore Buddhist Association, and other Buddhist groups, in particular the Buddhist Union, due to a technicality about when the full moon and lunar eclipse fell that year.
The customs of celebrations are quite varied even in Singapore and Malaysia. It ranges from the usual gathering of worshippers to meditate on the precepts, chant and make donations, to the washing of the Buddha statue, to colourful parades in Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur.
The changes over time
As we can see in this quick run-through of the history of Vesak Day, diversity and changes are an undeniable part of nature.
The celebration of Vesak Day, as a conditioned phenomenon, is subject to constant change. In some eras and geographies, it arose due to the presence of favourable conditions, persisted for some time, and inevitably decayed when the causes disappeared.
And so it goes, arising, persisting and passing away. Other than a reminder of the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena, it is also an arresting reminder that this current period when Vesak Day And Buddhism are still remembered as precious is not a given in the future.
It is not a given that the motivated ones among us can access teachings faithful to the source in the future. This reminds us that learning or listening to the Dhamma is an opportunity to be cherished with urgency.
Back to the Original spirit
And thus, given how rare and transient the favourable conditions we presently enjoy are in the long arc of history, I urge my fellow brothers and sisters to look past the rituals surrounding the Vesak Day holiday and connect with its original spirit – by recalling the inspiration and relevance of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana to our daily practice.
As the Buddha exhorted the monks, and one can imagine, all his future followers, “It may be that after I am gone that some of you will think, ‘now we have no teacher.’ But that is not how you should see it. Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly.”
Let us honour this upcoming Vesak Day with not just material dana (charitable offerings), but also spiritual ones. Apply ourselves generously in all interactions and even in our meditations. Hopefully one day, such beneficial practices find their place in the event programme of Bun Bang Fai, alongside the rocket launches.
Beyond following the many celebrations in Singapore and Malaysia, you can read super interesting stories of the Buddha from Buddhist scholar Sylvia Bay or check out a monk’s heavy research in demystifying the enlightened teacher, the Buddha. If you aren’t the reader type, join our 30-day meditation challenge to kick start your peaceful journey that Buddha set out 2,600 years back.
Observe impermanence and unsatisfactoriness in even the most sacred of rituals, for they are also conditioned phenomenon
Look past the myriad forms of Vesak Day celebrations and connect with its original spirit – that of recalling the Dhamma and applying it in our lives tirelessly
More than any other public holiday, make a concerted effort to practise generously this coming Vesak Day
TLDR: Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. Here is my story and why closure is not always a necessity.
Once upon a time,
Birth and Death were lovers.
They have always been in love and
had never been separated.
But one day,
Life separated them.
Like all great love stories,
They will find each other again someday,
because they always belong together.
Birth & Death are inseparable.
Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. It started with my grandparents, my good friends, and then my father.
I have not seen my father for over a year after my cancer treatments because he was suffering from Pneumonia, an infectious disease. Due to my low immune system, I had to move out and keep a distance away from him. How do you say goodbye to the person when you are not right by their side? Grief only becomes harder. It hurts a lot and it took me some time to go through the grieving.
Death is a selfish B*tch. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. It can happen anywhere and at any time. There is no warning or a good ending. Death never left anyone behind. The lucky ones will get to depart first. The one that stays on will linger on a bit longer facing grief.
Death will eat you up, mess up your mind and when someone we truly love dies, it can feel like the end of the world.
I remembered the story of Kisa Gotami vividly from the Buddha’s chronicle. After losing her only child, she went crazy, holding her dead son desperately seeking someone that could bring her son back to life. Her grief was paralysing so an old man advised her to look for the Buddha, a man well known for his wisdom.
The Buddha asked her to find mustard seeds from a household where no one had died so he could bring the child back to life. After hearing this wonderful news, she eagerly went from house to house, but to her despair, every household had suffered from a loved ones’ death. Eventually, the realization struck that there is no house free from death. She buried her son and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth.
I always wonder why would the Buddha agree to save her son although it is not possible?
The first stage of grief is self-denial, refusing to believe that the person had gone. There is this strong attachment that keeps holding on to the person. Buddha is a wise teacher, had he not assigned Kisa Gotami an impossible task she would not have understood the inevitability of death by herself.
We don’t have to find “closure.” Seeking closure is akin to someone trying to ask a question with no answer. Closure personally for me seems harsh, like trying to shut the door and end it with a bang. How can you shut down the love you had for someone?
The ability to face the truth is better than closure, it allows us to come to terms with what’s happening. It can help us to process the overwhelming reality of death.
Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.
— Martha Beck, “Elegy for Everything”
Dhamma is the best Psychiatrist
Dhamma helps to clarify. There is no right or wrong way to grief. Everyone has their way of coping with it.
Don’t let anyone judge how your grieving should be. Some people travel, some people take a break from their job and some people just need to get help from a professional by seeing a psychiatrist. The truth is it will get better as time goes by.
However, it takes effort to understand the Dhamma, read what Dhamma has spoken about death. The purpose of Dhamma is to help our mind to expand and grow, to clarify. It should uphold us and create an inner sense of peace, joy and clarity.
No one can tell you how long this grief will last or how to make it right.
What is important is that we should stop concentrating on what we have lost and instead acknowledge what our loved ones have achieved in this life. Doesn’t it make sense that life is not subjected or defined by how long we live, but by how we make an impact on our surroundings, family and friends?
When a caterpillar metamorphoses, it doesn’t want the other caterpillars to feel sad for him. Instead, every caterpillar knows it will get through this process naturally. There is no pain, no sorrow, and no guilt. It is merely how nature works. No one can stop the metamorphosis. Death is just a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon.
Also, part of me selfishly focused on my grieving and on what I’ve lost, failed to understand that this person doesn’t belong to me and his presence is not existential. Our loved ones are not born for us to grieve. I realised that everyone, not just me, had experienced grief before and we have to understand that everyone was born to die.
We all will become someone’s ancestors someday.
After the preaching from the Buddha, Kisa Gotami was awakened and entered the first stage of enlightenment. Eventually, she became an Arhat (An enlightened being that goes beyond birth and death). We too can work towards enlightenment by realising these small truths of grief along the way.
Don’t let the grief destroy love, shatter hope, corrode faith, suppress precious memories that you have for the departed.
Closure is not necessary. Don’t beat yourself hard by asking questions that don’t come with an answer.
TLDR: Chanting keeps the mind afloat on the choppy waves of suffering. Connecting you to others across time and space, the ritual of chanting creates a refuge from pain. The healing device of chanting is anything but boring!
Yeap, you read it right. Chanting is crazy helpful. Especially when the mind goes crazy. To a non-believer, chanting can be an unfathomable activity – boring, even superstitious. To a practitioner, chanting cleanses the mind.
Let us understand what chanting is and how it heals.
Chanting Tickles Your Right-Brain
Relying on synchronised tunes and steady rhythms, chanting vocalises the Buddha’s teachings, recollections and praises for the Triple Gem.
Chanting is the ‘feeling’ and ‘healing’ part of a logical and pragmatic religion-philosophy. Done with full intent and focus, chanting soothes the heart like a balm. Cooling and stilling afflictions. Warming and uplifting the mind.
Short of comparing chanting to singing your favourite soundtrackmindfully in full earnest, the voicing of “lyrics” falls within a short range of inflecting tones without musical accompaniment. Chanting with the right understanding of familiar verses leads to joy and peace. Sometimes, tears. On auspicious occasions, goosebumps.
The volitional act of voicing out the Buddha’s teachings, never mind the tune, pledges one’s faith that the Dhamma leads beings out of suffering. This verbal allegiance is not for show but to remind ourselves of the Truth time and again.
Because we forget. In this way, chanting instils a sense of belonging – to the Triple Gem, to a wholesome way of life, to a practice of training towards the human fullest potential, to kindness. To hope.
Knowing how to chant, one plugs into a common Buddhist ritual that binds all differences – nationality, language, race, class, culture, those suffering and those enlightened. Cutting across space and time, in your home, at any temple, in a forest, on mountain tops or at the Buddist holy sites in India — wherever, whenever, chanting connects you to a community of practitioners since Lord Gotama Buddha’s time.
The key to a spiritually satisfying chanting session is then learning how to chant and what to chant, in which language.
The Ritual of Chanting
Typically, chanting is part of a practitioner’s morning and evening routines. Depending on the Buddhist tradition, chanting involves varying extents of ritual, usually set in front of an altar, where possible. Due to my upbringing, I have the fortune of learning how to chant in both the Mahayana (Chinese) and Theravadin (Thai Forest) traditions. Having experienced both, I feel more connected to the latter, which I will give a little exposé below.
Simple in tones and expressions, without instrumental accompaniment, Theravadin chanting is mainly in the Pāli language, an ancient vernacular during Lord Buddha’s time. Disciples of the Thai Forest Tradition alternate between Pāli and translations in their first languages, such as Thai, English, German, and Chinese etc.
From experience, searching up the translated meaning of Pāli verses before chanting helps to quell the critical mind.
After offering incense or candlelight or flowers and paying respects to the Triple Gem by bowing, you put your palms together in añjali, kneeling or sitting with your knees folded away from the altar. If you have learnt the words by heart, close your eyes. If not, set out a chanting book with translation nearby. Gather awareness on your breathing. Ready the mind for spiritual connection.
Then, the chanting begins.
Regardless of chanting in private or in public, alone or in a group, a keen sense of ego arouses when projecting the voice initially.
To avoid suffering, you can set aside that notion of “me/mine/myself” for clear awareness to arise. As the Dhamma rings in your ears and through your body, the vocal cords sync with a sincere heart.
The mind arrives at each articulated word to soak in its meaning.
Peace ensues. Chanting creates a refuge for the moment amidst chaos.
What chants can I turn to?
There is a chant for any time and occasion to counter greed, hatred and delusion, which reside in our hearts since the beginning of time.
Some recollections are snippets of the Buddha’s exhortations; others are full discourses considered as protective chants. Some typical chants a lay practitioner has in his/her spiritual toolkit help uplift the mind into wholesome vibes.
For monastics, cardinal sermons are chanted to maintain the oral tradition of preserving the Buddha’s discourses. Particular recollections pertain to arousing dispassion towards worldly attachments and urgency for practising the Holy life. A set of chants reserved for funerals; another set for blessings.
On every Full Moon and New Moon of the lunar calendar (Uposatha Lunar Observance Days), monks gather together to chant the VinayaPatimokkha, which is the Code of Discipline Lord Gotama Buddha set down for monastics to uphold and honour. Similarly, to upkeep their virtues, the laity would undertake the Five Precepts or Eight Precepts by chanting them on Lunar Observance Days.
Chanting plays important roles in our practice: it teaches us what is skillful and remind us to counter the stubborn poisons within our hearts.
Dr. Buddha, can you prescribe some chanting for my troubled heart?
For practitioners encountering intense emotions such as anger, sorrow, fear, anxiety or grief, listening to chanting is a helpful relief from recurring and distressing thoughts. The act of chanting brings an even greater autonomy over processing negative feelings. An effective spiritual ParacetamolTM that soothes sharp, crippling pains from my personal experience. You will always find an emergency playlist of my favourite chants in my phone on standby for breakdowns.
If you wake up grumpy, listless or sian, what better way to pick yourself up than a cup of warm water and a morning chanting?
For the past year, I made it a point to begin my day with morning chanting, regardless of how much time I have or how long the chanting is. On good days, morning chanting uplifts my mind for a quiet sit. On bad days, chanting seems to be the only wholesome thing I can cling on to for my life. Chanting has since become my anchor in the tumultuous waves of negative emotions.
Without chanting, I am pretty sure I would not have made it through difficult times to be here and write. Crazy helpful, I’d say.
I have listed a couple of resources to support your journey with chanting in the Theravadin Thai Forest Tradition below. Hope you will find a chant that resonates.
Beyond all the violence and nail-biting scenes of Squid Game, the show taught me some Dhamma lessons while I was watching it. Here are my 3 Dhamma takeaways!
One barely escapes Squid Game, both in the show and on social media.
A browse through social media will show scores of Squid Game memes, advertisements, and analyses on it.
Since its Netflix’s release, Squid Game has become the #1 show in over 90 countries. For the uninitiated, Squid Game depicts a story of people who are heavily financially in debt. They compete for 45.6 billion won (~52 million SGD) by taking part in six Korean kids’ games. However, if participants lose any of the games, they risk losing their lives. Intense.
Here are 3 Dhamma takeaways that you may have missed!
SPOILER WARNING! Jump to ‘Wise Steps’ if you do not wish to get these small spoilers!
Life is Impermanent and rarely linear
Sang-woo is the childhood friend of Squid Game’s main character (Gi-hun). A naturally bright student who enrolled in one of the top universities (as Gi-hun constantly reminds every contestant), Sang-woo gets a job as an investment banker, an occupation held in high regard in modern society.
Sang-woo’s character reveals the power of Anicca (Pali for “Impermanence” in Buddhism). The show highlights his decline from success to states of sorrow and anger.
What’s crazy about watching Sang-woo is that you can see yourself or even close friends in him.
Sang-woo reminds you of that one friend who is a perfect scholar. The one who studies hard. The one who gets into a top university and has a great job. I shudder at the thought of knowing the number of potential ‘Sang-woos’ in my life.
For these perceptibly fortunate folks, life seems like an upward trajectory, where the only thing permanent is their success.
Alas, the eight worldly winds, as taught by the Buddha do not spare Sang-woo from impermanence. Just like any of us.
Sang-woo’s greed and giddiness with success lead him to steal money from clients and bet it on the stock market. In desperation, he uses his mother’s little shop as financial collateral. This act of deceit spirals Sang-woo into further run-ins with the law.
Once Sang-woo joins the game, we see his transformation accelerate.
He evolves from a calm, caring man into a brutal opportunist.
In his final act of transformation, he shockingly betrays a kind-hearted contestant. This makes you lose all support for Sang-woo to win the game.
Sang-woo’s decline reminded me that life is hardly linear. Life is rarely set in stone with change as the only constant. As we look towards ‘change’ in terms of happier emotional states or ‘even better’ material possessions, we must remember that change is a double-edged sword.
A state can change for better or worse — we cannot be sure.
A balanced mind unshaken by the eight worldly winds will bring the greatest peace and clarity in times of trouble and happiness. Otherwise, we may be unprepared for the red and green lights that lie await us.
Red light, Green light. Staying Present
The first game that contestants play is the Red Light, Green Light game. Contestants have to cross the finishing line within five minutes. They can only move when the doll signals a ‘Green Light’. If the contestants move when it is a red light (which can happen suddenly), they lose (die).
From watching all that running, my Dhamma takeaway was that everyone has their own pace in life.
Those who know their pace and stay present win the game (mostly). The person who hastily runs towards the line, despite the red light, faces elimination. Those frozen with fear also lose the game. In essence: move too slow or too fast? You lose.
Knowing your own pace and ability to pause is crucial in winning the game and the game of life.
Reflecting deeper, some contestants do try their best at the game but still lose. This part reminded me of the times when we did our best to follow the ‘rules of life’ such as working hard or eating healthily to live a good long life. We may think we have it sorted, the green and red lights of our lives.
However, life is uncertain. Our hard work turns into a missed promotion. Our healthy lifestyle can still result in early-stage cancer.
Reflecting thus, the game was a reminder that there is sometimes no visible order to the world. No ‘order’ to the way we want it to be. It is better to stay present and treasure life as we never know when we will face a sudden ‘red light’ in our lives.
The three forms of intoxicants (youth, health, and life) make us think the green light will go on and on and on. We must remind ourselves not only to constantly go at our pace but also to not get kidnapped by a false sense of security that we know it all.
Once we win the game at our own pace, would we know the difference between happiness and excitement?
Happiness vs Excitement
What happens when you have all the material wealth you ever wanted? What happens next?
These questions form quite a bizarre future for us to grapple with, especially in the workforce where we work towards the idea of financial freedom. What’s next?
The show replies to this existential question through the character of ‘The Host’.
The Host created the Squid Game, an annual game hosted across different countries, where contestants compete for prize money that grows with elimination by death.
What could drive The Host to commit such a sadistic act?
The Host was in the financial industry and accumulated a lot of wealth. He reached a point where his life had no more excitement.
“Do you know what is the common ground between someone without money and having too much money? Life is just not fun! If you have too much money you can buy, eat and drink as much as you want, but at some point it gets boring. “ – The Host
The Host highlighted that even when he was extremely wealthy, he and his associates (the VIPs) could not find joy in living anymore. Hence, they created the game to get a different level of excitement (from watching people kill one another). This excitement was something they could never get in the material world.
The Host confused excitement for happiness — this was another key Dhamma lesson that I took away. I wondered how many times I made the same mistake of taking both as identical.
While going on a Youtube binge can be exciting, I rarely find myself in a happy state after the binge. A question of ‘What now?’ ensues. Happiness is not found. Rather, I find eye bags and regrets on the following day.
So what exactly is the difference?
Excitement relies on external stimuli to drive a temporary surge of positive feelings. Happiness comes from one’s own internal world. Happiness is not reliant on external conditions for its creation or sustenance.
Namely, they are the happiness of ownership, using wealth, debtlessness, and blamelessness.
Regarding wealth, Buddha says ‘It’s when a gentleman uses his legitimate wealth and makes merit with it. When he reflects on this, he’s filled with pleasure and happiness.’
The idea of making merit (beneficial acts towards oneself and others) and of reflecting is crucial for happiness. Think of the last time we gave our money to a person or cause in need, did you notice a smile in your heart? It is such moments of reflection that can be painfully lost if we become jaded with the material world around us.
By learning about Buddha’s four types of happiness, we can make better choices and avoid being taken hostage by the allure of excitement.
Squid Game was a fulfilling series with many moments when you paused either in fear or in shock.
It forced the viewer to think about what kind of person you would be if you were in that situation.
We reflected on the impermanence of our conditions and how we can be ‘indebted’ to them if we were not careful like Sang-woo. We also learnt to go at our own pace in life, walking the Middle Path even when others are going at extreme ends. Lastly, we were forced to ask ourselves: what is the true difference between excitement and happiness in life. Which matters more?
One barely escapes Squid Game, both in the show and on social media. Can we also escape the pitfalls of life that Buddha warns us about?
Reminding ourselves that life is full of change keeps us on our toes to never take situations and relationships as permanent
Stay present and learn to let go of grudges because death comes unexpectedly. In this life, whether tomorrow is our green or red light…nobody knows
Recognise the differences between happiness and excitement. The wise know what brings inner joy with little reliance on external conditions