TLDR: Teacher burnout is a real risk. The mental health of teachers also has a significant impact on students. Besides relying on their peers and official support channels, teachers can practise meditation to promote greater mental wellness for themselves and their students.
The Missing Conversation
“What’s missing from the conversation in schools is the mental well-being of teachers.”
So goes a comment from a former secondary school teacher, as quoted in a CNA Insider post, which highlighted the challenges that teachers have faced. As netizens generally agreed, teachers have it tough.
Struggling to cover content while keeping up with new policies and coping with safe management measures, answering multiple stakeholders like parents, colleagues, and supervisors. Teachers may find it all rather overwhelming.
If a common refrain of critics is to ask who guards the guards, can we ask in turn how we can care more for the caregivers?
How should we take better care of teachers’ mental health, especially from a Dhamma-based perspective?
Burnout and Brownout
The issue of mental wellness has preoccupied the nation’s collective imagination in recent months. Reports have noted that, in comparison to their peers globally, Singaporean workers experienced higher than average levels of burnout: around half felt exhausted, while almost 60% felt overworked. For professions as demanding as teaching, the risk of burnout seems particularly acute.
Aside from ‘burnout’, more workplaces have observed increased incidence of ‘brownout’ — akin to the reduction in voltage which results in the dimming and flickering of lights — in the workplace environment. This would refer to the stage before the point of burnout, as a loss of interest in work and life, in general, threatens to slip into depression.
I’m reminded of the five hindrances in Buddhism: perhaps experiences of burnout and brownout constitute a toxic mixture of states of torpor, intensified by restlessness, worry, and doubt.
Some have raised the deeper question about the role of teachers and the scope of their responsibilities. In a widely-shared video by RiceMedia, artist-musician and former teacher Chew Wei Shan recounts what it was like to be marking on weekends and juggling multiple obligations like managing a CCA, managing parents’ expectations, and so on.
She movingly describes her experiences at school, which included dissuading a teenager from jumping off a roof at 2 AM, having chairs and scissors thrown at her, and male students cornering her while “eating [her] worksheet in [her] face”.
At the same time, she observes how emotionally invested teachers can be in the lives of the hundreds of students they meet every year.
As she reflects, it’s hard for teachers to avoid bringing back home worries about the students, or to prevent themselves from evaluating the little choices they make daily.
More than to ‘Just Teach’
As an NIE lecturer of mine once quipped, “If you want to just teach and only teach, you should be a full-time tutor.”
To be a teacher, however, is far more than just to teach.
It also means being a confidant, ready to step in when the need to counsel students arises, in addition to being an event planner, community organiser, safety officer, and a myriad of other roles.
I’m reminded of the figure of Kuan Yin, the thousand-armed bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, whose numerous arms deliver aid to all suffering sentient beings, and who tirelessly offers blessings in the spirit of boundless compassion and wisdom.
Perhaps teachers, who have dutifully coached and comforted students despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are akin to modern bodhisattvas, selflessly devoting their time and effort to the welfare of their young charges.
But unlike Kuan Yin, teachers generally don’t have infinite energy and knowledge. Many teachers have also gone out of their way to ensure that programmes and lessons can proceed uninterrupted.
For instance, as described in a TODAY article, as mass assembly programmes had to be halted due to safe management measures, teachers had to equip themselves with new skills such as how to record or live-stream performances to be presented via video-conferencing tools for events like Racial Harmony Day.
The work involved in preparing for such events, in addition to other preparatory work needed to create resources for home-based learning or other activities, may have taken a toll on teachers over the past two years.
No System is Perfect
In response to concerns about excessive workloads as a result of duties apart from teaching, the Ministry of Education has clarified that the appraisal of teachers is such that their contributions are given recognition in all aspects of work, taking into account their efforts in aiding students’ holistic growth.
As for administrative duties, there has been significant progress made to minimise teachers’ workloads by incorporating technology like the Parents’ Gateway app, as well as the evaluation and furnishing of manpower support. Furthermore, the ministry has reminded schools to review their systems of management so that teachers’ responsibilities can be better managed.
On the ground, much depends on individual schools, school leaders, and colleagues, but at least official clarifications signal purposeful angling of priorities and directions for future educational policies.
In a world governed by Dukkha (dissatisfaction), no system is perfect, but teachers can still refine and shape their sphere of influence to promote greater awareness and understanding of the roles that they play, and the effects they have on others.
Interdependence: Teachers & Students
As former nominated MP, Anthea Ong, was quoted to have observed, “A student who is not well affects the well-being of a teacher—and a teacher who is not well affects the students. These two things need to be looked at in totality.”
This reminded me of the concept of interdependence, or interbeing, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it.
When we understand how all phenomena exist concerning one another, we develop an awareness of the welfare of one is contingent on the other. Teachers and students are inextricably interconnected.
Such interdependence also explains why teachers play such a critical role in modelling to students what mental health entails. Students mirror their teachers in many ways, and the effect of teacher modelling can hardly be underestimated.
If teachers are calm and steady, students naturally sense this and develop a similar composure. If teachers are anxious or worried, students also succumb more easily to such fearful states of mind. Students are extremely observant towards the emotional tenor of their teachers, and they can quickly spot any discrepancy between teachers’ words and feelings.
Getting off my Treadmill of Suffering
All this is based on personal experience. I remember how, amid one particularly difficult period in school, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. All the work involved in teaching graduating classes, setting examination papers, managing a CCA, coordinating committee work, organising events, responding to parents, and so on—with the cycle repeating every semester—had left me feeling like I was on a samsaric treadmill that could not stop.
I hardly realised it at the time, but without adequate strategies to cope with stress through skilful means, the atmosphere of my classes had been compromised. Even though I thought I kept maintaining my encouraging and reassuring classroom persona in front of students, my students shared privately after school with me that they noticed how I was often worried and anxious in class.
My micro-expressions and other body language cues must have revealed my sense of tension and unease, which had invariably filtered into my students’ consciousness as well.
Fortunately, after my students alerted me to this, I began a process of self-reflection and lifestyle adjustment. I went through all my duties to reschedule or de-prioritise whatever I could. I blocked off time for sleep (instead of marking into the wee hours) and time for regular meals (instead of skipping lunch).
In the evenings and on weekends, I set aside time for spiritual reading, and often I would also be listening to Dhamma talks like those by Ajahn Brahm. I made a conscious effort to shift my default state of mind from restlessness and agitation to calmness and equanimity.
This shift paid off—my students noticed that I was more ‘alive’ and present during class.
It was a testament to the importance of self-care, which far from being selfish, is essential for long-term flourishing. It means setting boundaries and respecting one’s own physical and psychological limits.
The Power of Mindfulness
As Venerable Thubten Chodron observes in her book Good Karma, “Giving up self-preoccupation does not entail making ourselves suffer. We must take care of ourselves… this human body is the basis of our precious human life that gives us the possibility to learn and practise the Dhamma.”
Meditation can also be a powerful means of promoting greater mental wellness. When my school counsellor conducted weekly secular guided mindfulness practice sessions for the whole school via the PA system, I noticed how helpful it was for my students to begin the day with such a dose of calm.
This practice signalled how mindfulness could be beneficial for the mainstream. Through mindfulness practice, students could increase their attentiveness, reduce test anxiety, and develop greater impulse control. Teachers in turn could cultivate a greater sense of balance and become more responsive to students’ needs.
Naturally, this is not to suggest that mindfulness alone is a panacea for all teachers who experience burnout. For teachers experiencing mental health issues, support from colleagues and official channels (such as counselling services offered by the Academy of Singapore Teachers) would be crucial.
Seeking such professional help should also never be a cause for stigmatisation. We can continue to develop a culture in which self-care is safeguarded, and access to affordable therapeutic care is normalised.
Perhaps we could learn from therapeutic circles of care, such as those established in other countries that have leveraged community partners like trained grandmothers to provide affordable mental health support. At the same time, mindfulness can help to enhance teachers’ abilities, while ensuring that they can care for themselves in ways that allow them to care better for others.
If “wisdom springs from meditation” (Dhammapada v. 282), teachers are in a unique position to cultivate life-changing qualities of wisdom and compassion through the practice of mindfulness for the benefit of their students.
By championing and foregrounding the importance of mental wellness, teachers can better empower their students to learn, grow, and pass on the light of mindful living to others.
Develop a sense of purpose and meaning in the work that you do. Minimise the risk of burnout by prioritising tasks, based on discussions with colleagues and superiors.
Never be too busy to take care of your physical and emotional well-being. Schedule time for regular meals and sleep. Reading or listening to Dhamma talks can also promote your mental wellness.
Engage in mindfulness practice as a daily habit to ground and centre yourself during difficult times. Remain motivated to practise by staying connected to like-minded spiritual friends.
In December 2019, I was in Phuket, Thailand completing my teacher’s training in mindfulness and decided to do a ten day meditation in Bangkok. I have never done a meditation retreat near Bangkok. I have been to Khao Yai and Rayong for meditation retreats. Bangkok was never an option for me as I did not want to be near the city. Besides, I did not know of any teachers in Bangkok as I have always followed the teachers of the Thai forest meditation tradition started by the legendary Ajahn Mun.
I was not feeling physically fit then and felt I could not follow the rigours of practice in the Thai forest meditation. I wanted a long retreat in the forest, but at the time, I thought of doing a short retreat near the city, before heading home to complete my certification and return again to Thailand.
I had not expected the Covid-19 pandemic to put an end to international air travel and my aspirations.
At that short retreat, I met Mae Chee Brigitte (also known as MC Brigitte) who lives and teaches at Wat Prayong. MC Brigitte teaches introductory Buddhism to mostly Western travellers at Wat Prayong monthly. She also runs retreats in Europe and has regular students. I sought a quiet place to practice at Wat Prayong. The comings and goings of the many Thai visitors as well as some of the newbie Western meditators was not what I had in mind.
Nevertheless, I managed to practice with help from MC Brigitte and I began to be curious about how a Westerner like her from faraway Austria became a Mae Chee in Thailand.
First of all, Theravada Buddhism does not recognise fully ordained nuns. There were ordained nuns in this tradition found only in Sri Lanka and possibly in Myanmar. The Buddhist order died out in Sri Lanka due to war, drought and famine in the 11th century. The bhikkhus (ordained monks) in Thailand and Cambodia helped revive the monk’s order in Sri Lanka. But there were no bhikkhunis (ordained nuns) in these countries that could revive the women’s Buddhist order.
Thus, women could only practise as an eight precept or ten precept nun in these Theravadin Buddhist countries. It was not until 1996 that the ordination of women was revived in Sri Lanka. It is highly helpful to be fully ordained in Theravada Buddhism because this tradition relies heavily on support from the lay community for food, medicine, robes and lodging. Monastics in the Theravada tradition, unlike other traditions, do not handle money.
In Thailand, women could only practice as eight precept nuns. Thus, many do not receive the respect or help usually given to ordained monastics. Thus, it is admirable in my opinion for MC Brigitte to have stayed in Thailand to practice for such a long time.
The following is an interview with her. ..
When and where were you born? What religion did you grow up with?
I was born in the City of Salzburg in Austria as Brigitte Schrottenbacher in December 1962. My family is Roman Catholic. When I was young, I loved listening to stories of God and Jesus and wanted to be a good human being.
What caused you to start practising Buddhism?
I felt there is something really disturbing in life. I have to die, my loved ones have to die.
I had this fear of death after the birth of my second child. I feared the death of my loved ones. Although the feelings went away, I again felt it at the death of my partner’s grandmother. This uncertainty about life led to a kind of depression and that led me to practising yoga and later Buddhism.
Did you learn Buddhism in Austria? How did you end up practising in Thailand?
I went for a yoga course with a best friend. I experienced samadhi in the first yoga session I did. That was overwhelming, I never felt this way before. I got my first Vipassana instructions in Austria. My yoga teacher in Salzburg, seeing that I was getting serious about meditation practice, gave me the address of a meditation centre in Chachoengsao province in Thailand.
I went there in march 1989 and stayed for a 50 days intensive silent retreat under the guidance of Phra Acharn Thawee, an excellent Vipassana master of Thai Nationality and Phra Manfred, a German monk.
Can you tell us about your first Buddhist teacher?
Phra Acharn Thawee was the eldest son of a Thai-Chinese family. He never married and as the eldest son, he had to take over the family business with many ships that were fishing in the Andaman sea. One day he was out on one of those boats and they had caught a dolphin. He saw the dolphin having tears in his eyes. That day he stopped that job, passed the business to his nephews and became a recluse, practising alone in the forests of Thailand. After years in the forests he became a monk and studied with many teachers, also with Mahasai Sayadaw where he adopted his Vipassana practice. He taught for many years until he passed away in 1996.
What prompted you to stay in Thailand and to ordain as a Mae Chee?
After my 50 days retreat I was very happy and a hundred percent sure this is the way I want to live from now on.
It was a very difficult year of leaving behind not just my life and belongings in Austria but also my two children. I had to return to Thailand. So, I took them with me to Thailand but realised that staying in the temple as a nun with two small children was impossible. After a year, I had to bring them back to their father and to separate from them.
What was the most memorable experience for you practising under your Buddhist teacher in Thailand?
There are so many, but one of the first that I can’t forget is when I came to my first teacher one day with tears in my eyes and told him that I was thinking of my children. He listened and then turned his head to the right looking around and then to the left and then he asked, “What children?” It made it clear that all suffering is in the mind.
What did you learn the most in your time in Thailand?
My second teacher Phra Acharn Sangwahn taught mainly “know and let go”. Knowing the present moment, the present object and letting it go, don’t hold on to it, don’t get involved.
Not being careless, knowing (sati) and understanding (sampajanna) is important. Understanding the true nature of the object – it is impermanent (anicca), not satisfying (dukkha) or suffering and not under our control (anatta) or empty of a self.
What is the attitude of the monasteries and community towards Mae Chees in Thailand?
Well, to be honest Thai nuns are usually not that very much supported and respected. Many Thais think they became nuns because they had no other place to go. In the past it was the only refuge for women who had been rejected by their husbands. I have met so many buddhist nuns with high spiritual realizations. But usually they are quiet and humble.
I have done social projects to support buddhist nuns since 2001. As I have seen and experienced, it can be pretty hard to practice without much support.
You were ordained as a nun in Bhutan. How did that happen?
I met my third teacher, His Eminence Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorje Rinpoche in 2013 in Thailand through Khenpo Ugyen from Bhutan. He invited me to visit Bhutan and I was so impressed by this wonderful country and Vajrayana Buddhism. So I returned to Bhutan to do a one month retreat in 2014 under the guidance of Tsugla Lopen and after that retreat he gave me my second ordination into the Drukpa Kagyu lineage.
What is the status of nuns in Bhutan? Are they recognised?
There are only a few nuns in Bhutan. I have visited two nunneries, one was supported by private donors and one was supported by the queen mother of Bhutan.
It is just beginning to sort out facilities for nuns to study Buddhism. A lot of effort to support this was done by the Je Khenpo, the queen and my teacher Tsugla Lopen. I also have a project to support this project of my teacher.
Are there any differences between Buddhist meditation in Thailand and Bhutan?
Well, they are of different lineages, Theravada and Vajrayana. But I think they go the same way. It’s building up. I am very happy I could learn a lot in the Theravada practice. I saw some people who have started straight away with Vajrayana but had no insight in the basics like the four noble truths, trilaksana, and the noble eightfold path.
It is in my opinion not possible to go into a deeper understanding of the dhamma without those insights.
So my practice always starts with concentration, vipassana contemplation and continues with loving kindness, sharing the accumulated merit, and practising for the benefit of all beings.
Any advice for women interested in practising Buddhism full time?
Be where you are in the present moment. Know it’s true nature – impermanence, non-self and suffering, and let it be. No matter where you are, what you do. Even if you become a nun, it’s always the same.
Wisdom is not just found by sitting in meditation for many hours a day or studying Buddhism many hours a day. Wisdom is there every moment, just open your eyes and your heart.
Sure, listen to the dhamma, reflect on it and sit still to realize it. But it is there wherever you are and in whatever that happens!
TLDR: Is Metta Meditation really beneficial? Jin Young shares his own personal practice and his relationship with loving kindness meditation. A 30-min guided meditation is included. You’re invited to test it out for yourself.
When you don’t know what to do, try out metta or loving kindness meditation.
Encountering Metta MeditationMy first encounter with metta was listening to Imee Ooi’s “Chant of Metta ”. Imee’s voice was angel-like, saccharine and soothing. I especially enjoyed her chanting of the Metta Sutta in Pali language, albeit not knowing much about the actual meaning behind those words back then.
My mom would sometimes play the CD around bedtime, and I guess it must have had some sort of sleep-inducing effect, much like lullabies for babies.
Lighting My Fire Of Metta
When I was fifteen, I sat through my first metta meditation under the guidance of Ajahn Brahm. Ajahn explained that the cultivation of metta is analogous to starting a fire. You can’t start a fire by lighting up a huge log.
Rather, you need kindling, easily combustible materials for starting a fire such as papers or small little twigs. Once the fire is started, one then adds on larger and larger twigs before moving on to solid pieces of wood.
When the fire is well maintained, you can further grow it until the passion of loving kindness is strong enough to embrace the whole universe and even your worst enemies.
But first, we need to start with kindling. Ajahn told us to visualize someone whom we can readily feel and send loving kindness to. For me, it was my late grandmother who had taken care of me when I was young. She showered me with unconditional love.
“The door of my heart is open to you”
“I will take care of you”
“May you be safe, well and happy”.
With these words, I felt my chest and heart glowing with love and warmth. We then proceed to send similar thoughts and wishes to our other family members, friends, acquaintances, animals, and all sentient beings.
It was an empowering experience to meditate on metta with Ajahn Brahm. The flame of “metta” was passed on from Ajahn to us, and from us to our loved ones and on and on.
Keeping the Metta Flame Glowing
Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep this flame alive wherever I go. In Selangor, I joined the Buddhist Gem Fellowship and attended a weekly guided metta meditation by Datuk Seri Dr. Victor Wee, another lay-teacher and compassionate mentor.
Dr. Wee’s cues were slightly different from Ajahn Brahm’s, but the spirit of loving kindness was the same.
I brought the practice of metta meditation with me to Japan and China, where I studied abroad for four years. Whenever I missed my family, encountered negative events, or felt like I was stuck in an uncertain and helpless situation, I turned to metta meditation for help.
I like to believe that by sending my thoughts of loving-kindness to my family and friends, they are protected by my wishes, and become well and happy.
By sending metta to a professor or a superior, he or she would give me an A+ or a pay raise (I’m only half-kidding). By sending it to someone with whom I’ve had a negative encounter, relationships will slowly turn for the better, enmity and ill will shall be transformed into love and light.
No, Metta doesn’t Solve Everything
Of course, there’s no guarantee that metta will always convert “negativity” into “positivity”, nor is it a panacea for everything in life.
However, I believe that it can help transform the state of one’s mind – To face life’s suffering and problems with a heart of loving-kindness and gentleness.
Over time, as I became a yoga teacher and started leading mindfulness retreat expeditions to the Himalayas, I’ve developed and come up with my practice and cues for leading metta meditation.
These cues are of course consolidated from the various teachers mentioned above. During this pandemic lockdown, I decided to record a 30-min long guided metta meditation. I share it with anyone keen to explore and integrate this practice into their lives.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” This quote is often attributed to Laotzu.
Can we make metta “loving-kindness” the character and destiny of our life?
If you find it hard to send loving thoughts in your mind, find a safe space and utter them out in words.
Make it a habit to randomly wish someone to be well and happy each day, whether it’s mentally towards someone you love or to random strangers on the streets.
Meditate at least once a week to reset yourself energetically and spiritually.
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
TLDR: The encounters with an unseen being leads to a reflection on human nature and how we relate to other beings in Buddhist cosmology.
One Fateful Night
At barely 6.30pm, the women’s compound of Wat Boonyawad was almost pitch dark within the forest. I hastened my footsteps after finishing walking meditation near the main gate – tempo accelerando. There was no one else. In that solitude, I wished someone was with me — just not the unseen sort, whatever it wanted with me.
My torch was barely strong enough to see beyond one metre from my feet. Leaves crunched beneath me, like in The Slender Man.
Near my kuti (small practitioner’s hut) after I had washed my feet, leaves rustled and a breezy presence weaved through the surrounding forest. Yet, my skin pricked with heat. Panicking, I ran up the steps to the door.
Meeting the Ghost of my Mind
I fumbled for the key, with the torch gripped in between my teeth. Jaws tightened. The fear of being caught up by a menacing force crescendoed as each attempt to slot the key into the lock pad failed. Mosquitoes hummed impatiently beside my ears. Quick. Quick.
Finally, the lock turned and I slammed the door tightly behind me. All that hooting and howling from the forest grew claustrophobic; their sources unbeknownst to me. The forest has its ways to play tricks on the mind. This meditation retreat was my first ever to stay alone in a forest hut within a Thai monastery. So much unknown to fear for.
The relief of getting into the kuti (meditation hut) did not last, I hurried to the little altar to light up the candles, the heart-throbbing at my throat.
Buddha, help me. Bow. Dhamma, help me. Bow. Ajahns, help me. Bow. The candles flickered in the twilight.
I inched my way to unwind the huge windows for ventilation; my eyes averting the ominous world outside. What if a ghastly face stared back at me? At that thought, my hair stood on its ends as a chill ran down the spine. Spinning out of the sensation, I plunged to the floor into a half-lotus position for sitting meditation.
Buddho buddho buddho.
When hyperventilation evolved into a smoother and more refined breath, I saw clearly all that fear about ghosts was merely the sensitive mind misdirecting its alertness. I believed in ghosts’ presence within Buddhist cosmology.
At that time, I also assumed their nature to seek me out in avenging my past karmic misdeeds and sucking my energy dry with evil trances.
That such a hateful encounter was bound to happen kept my heart from sinking into the peace. It wasn’t the forest that was playing tricks. My defiled mind was the culprit puppeteer, pulling strings on a ghost puppet.
The First Encounter
No, I would not let that made-up ghost rob me of the peace that can develop from retreating thousands of miles away from home. The fear mis-manufactured from baseless perceptions and thoughts can stay.But I did not wish to indulge its willfulness, despite not understanding it fully.
With that determination to set aside fear, the heart finally found its resting spot in even more refined breaths: a clear quiet space opened up within my mind. The candles at the altar had gone out by then. The nocturne calls of animals were distant. This was one of the rare peaceful moments in the retreat, truly. A deep state of focus, tranquil, alert.
Soon, a face showed itself in my mind’s eyes. No vengeful entrance — gradual, weightless.
Just a head dripping in blood, rotten flesh, long hair; her round bloodshot eyes stared into me. The body trailed off. A very… sorry plight; nothing threatening.
I couldn’t explain how I knew this presence to be true but I did. The fear that I experienced earlier did not arise again. No goosebumps. No chills. I steadied the mind on the being, looking right back. I did not wish her away, neither did she seem to want to go away. Not yet.
Here, memories of reading Mae Chee Kaew’s biography where she communicated to ghosts using her heart surfaced within my mind. I was definitely not Mae Chee Kaew, but maybe I could try communicating to the ghost too.
What do you need from me? What is helpful for you?
Share merits. You have been practising the Dhamma.
I will wish you well. Hope you can receive them.
Eyes shut tight still. My heart turned inwards further and channel whatever wholesome bits it could find towards the being in front:
May you receive all the blessings from the goodness I had cultivated since the start of my life. May you have the merits you need for a fortunate rebirth. May you seek safety and refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. May you be free from all sorts of suffering in the future. May you be well and happy.
These phrases repeated in my mind like a playlist on loop, religiously as if my life–her life–depended on them. The sphere of goodwill (metta) radiated outwards to imbue her presence within it. Not long after a few cycles, the unseen being took her leave –gently, gradually, lightly–much like how she appeared but with more ease. The meditation came to an end too.
Do I know you? I wanted to ask but I didn’t. A sense of familiarity lingered, although I could not quite put a finger to it.
Moonlight shone through the canopy; their piercing beams reflected off the forest floor, lighting up the pitch dark from before. I took three candles outside, keen to place them along the earthen path for walking meditation. Finally, I was brave enough to venture out after nightfall. Before this night, moonlit walking meditation was completely unfathomable.
Affinity Knows no Boundaries
In my subsequent stays at various forest monasteries, trips to Kuala Lumpur, even at home, when I was alone in meditation and there were particular still moments of clarity at night, unseen beings of similar profiles would appear in my meditation. Each time, they asked for merits. Each time, I tried to maintain my compassion to share merits. Afterwards, they would leave quietly.
The restless mind was still afraid of the dark and jumpscares, but the fear was more manageable than the very first encounter.
These encounters were at least half a year apart so I thought that the beings were different individuals.
It was not until my India pilgrimage that I realised a trend.
Final Encounter in Pilgrimage
The hotel we stayed in at Vesali was haunted. According to Thai Forest Venerable Luang Por Piak, tens of thousands of hungry ghosts hung around the hotel. At the worst of my cough, I felt nauseous on the first night, after returning from a day of breakdowns. A Thai female doctor with the tour suggested treating me with acupuncture, which I desperately accepted. Anything to get me out of that bodily hell.
Moments after the acupuncture began, I slipped into unconsciousness while I was trying very much to be mindful of the needles. Soon, I fainted on my bed.
That night, I woke to a persistent furious hammering on the windows. Calling out to my Thai roommate from my crippling fear of angry ghosts, I hid under the covers, still weak from earlier. She went up to check the curtains and found monkeys. Nothing to be afraid of. Go back to sleep. How? I could barely feel safe.
On the second evening in Vesali, a second acupuncture session occurred in another hotel room, in which its inhabitants complained of paranormal activities from the night before. Despite the crowd receiving treatment, I caught a waft of ‘off-energy’. While sitting in meditation at a dimly lit corner, the mind gathered into stillness.
Soon enough, a familiar image of a bloody head and wispy long black hair came into view – the same request ensued.
This time I finally recognised her although she was hovering at the corner. An insight struck: this was the very same unseen being who sought my attention at Wat Boonyawad and thereafter.
She had followed me to India! She had been following me all this while! In sharing merits, I recollected about the wholesomeness from visiting the key Buddhist holy sites thus far and wished her to rejoice in the rare occasions arising from that pilgrimage. That night, I slept soundly.
At the last stop of the pilgrimage – Varanasi, my tour group disclosed that my Thai roommate (gifted with supernatural vision) had seen a ghost sitting on my bed that very night in Vesali. That was definitely goosebumps-inducing. Rounding up the trip at a final chanting session in Deer’s Park, I made a determination to dedicate all the merits from the pilgrimage to the unseen being.
Since then, she has not visited me in meditation. I would like to think that she has gathered sufficient merits to be reborn in a better place.
How Can We Live Better in this Cosmic World?
My unseen encounters left a lasting effect on my practice. They taught me to face my fear of darkness and to respect the presence of unseen beings. Now, I make a point to share merits every morning chanting and when I offer meal dana to monks. Sharing merits help to cultivate generosity in the immaterial world.
I have not mentioned the unseen encounters to my spiritual friends openly, for fear of coming across as boastful. The intention of sharing my encounters here is to help readers reflect that there are deprived states, where unseen beings exist in our cosmic world.
They exist out of their attachments and/or hatred to this material world, which they were not able to relinquish upon their death as humans.
(While I have not met malicious beings, I have heard stories of where ghosts have party hangouts in rooms for extended periods.)
Reflecting on the deprived states of ghosts, can we then work on our attachments, anger and hatred in this human life?
Perhaps, as much as I have encountered the manifestations of an unseen being, the visualization mirrored the hatred contained within my heart. Using the same Dhammic approach of awareness and acceptance, I can introspect on what the heart needs and what is beneficial for it. Then, apply the balm of loving-kindness and compassion.
To the being and myself: wherever you may be, I wish you well and hope you benefit from the Buddha’s dispensation, always.
Casper the friendly ghost is not untrue — ghosts primarily want sharing of merits when they manifest to you.
If you encountered ghosts as malicious, share even more merits. Done from a mind of pure generosity, offering a Sangha Dana can generate merits for unseen beings who could receive them for long-term welfare and fortunate rebirth.
With compassion towards the deprivation ghosts exist in, we may contemplate our strong attachments and begin to let go of the hatred we experience within our hearts.
Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries.
TLDR: A young monk is tasked to solve a series of puzzles in order to return home, but discovers something else in the process.
The definition of ‘home’ changes throughout one’s life. Whether we consider it synonymous to the place, people, or just a sense of safety and security, ‘home’ may be where the heart is – but even the most permanent residences are inevitably transitory in nature.
It is a lesson young Lobsang learns as he is sent to a Buddhist monastery at the tender age of ten. Uprooted from home and thrust into an unfamiliar environment, he quickly finds himself missing his home and his parents, and that yearning turns into several failed attempts at escaping the monastery.
In response, his compassionate teacher draws him a map-quest consisting of a series of eight puzzles that upon solving would allow Lobsang to return home.
“Why do deers need an umbrella?”
“How do you hide a lion’s roar in a pot?”
“What is the difference between two identical fishes?”
Crafted in relation to the Eight Auspicious Signs in Tibetan Buddhism, each puzzle guides Lobsang towards a piece of Buddhist wisdom, with the young monk’s curiosity soon taking him around the monastery and out. Experimenting with meditation. Scouring dense forests and packed libraries. Even having a brush with the supernatural. Lobsang’s adventure is laced with philosophical questions on suffering and attachment, yet because of its colourful analogies, the lessons he takes away are accessible and creative takes on the Buddha’s teachings.
Filled with inquisitive questions on every encounter, Lobsang ensures that the audience tags closely along when it comes to learning and growth.
The film takes place in Drepung Gomang Monastery in Mundgod, India, where 2000 monks currently reside. Giving us a glimpse into the everyday lives of Tibetan monks living in India, from hours of chanting and reading, to the unorthodox practice of Buddhist debate in Tibetan Buddhism, life as a monk centred heavily on education for these young men, covering not just academic texts but also philosophical discourses on logic and conceptualisation.
Yet, practice for them also extends into laborious tasks like washing robes and kneading dough, dispelling any myths about how easy monkhood might be for Lobsang and any unknowing viewer.
After all, renunciation for them was not meant to be an escape from the monotony of life, but to study life itself so they can share their knowledge and wisdom with others.
Beyond the Buddhist lessons, Saffron Heart is at heart also a story of friendship.
Throughout the 90-minute film, we see a blossoming relationship between Lobsang and his senior novice monk Tashi, who was assigned to guide him along. Though the exposition in dialogue was at times lengthy, Lobsang and Tashi’s natural chemistry made them an endearing pair to watch and root for on their individual journeys of growth.
While the song choices for some scenes felt out of place at times, the cinematography was stellar throughout the film. Capturing Mundgod’s scenic mountainous landscapes and Drepung Gomang’s intricate architecture, any frame in Saffron Heart would not be out of place as a still.
Despite Lobsang’s initial feelings of entrapment and longing for home, the mise-en-scene of scenes in the movie conveys a sense of spaciousness throughout the film. Living a completely different life in our concrete jungle here in Singapore, it made me wonder about the parallels between freedom, our environment and the states of mind.
The debut feature film of filmmaker and music composer Paul McLay, Saffron Heart comes from simple motivations: a desire to help and to inspire. Channelling all proceeds from the film towards Tibetan refugees living in a conservation area in South India, the effort to raise funds for the displaced parallels the film’s central narrative of finding wisdom amidst adversity and change.
Framed in a way that is suitable for all ages – from kids curious about Buddhism, to adults looking for a heart-warming tale – Saffron Heart serves as a reminder that as we go about our personal journeys, it’s not the destination but the process that serves as our biggest takeaway.
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