TLDR: A “Happy New Year” comes not from external conditions, but from appreciating the little blessings in life. The key is to adopt “gratitude as our attitude”.
During this festive season, we often wish our relatives and friends “Happy Chinese New Year”, or “恭喜发财“. In recent years, I started questioning – where does happiness (喜) in a new year come from?
For the young me, this was easily answered. Happiness came from playing with firecrackers, enjoying sumptuous dinners and sinful goodies, meeting my cousins to sing KTV/play cards, and watching TV shows till late.
As I grew up, my views changed. More than seeking pleasures derived from “consumption”, I saw the potential of seeking happiness through “appreciation”. In other words, gratitude.
Gratitude to Parents (父母恩)
In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, there are 4 objects worthy of great gratitude (四重恩). The first object is none other than our parents.
Leading up to each Chinese New Year, my dad would busy himself around the house. Cleaning the fan, wiping the windows, changing cushion covers, hanging up decorations – the work seemed never-ending.
I didn’t always appreciate these. The loud vacuum noises and the buckets laying around were a nuisance to me who was trying to study at home.
Mum was also busy during the Chinese New Year when my sister and I were young. She would pack our bags for our 3-day stay in Malaysia (our Grandmother’s house), tend to our daily needs away from home, and deal with any contingencies. I recall once when I fell ill with a stomachache – Mum’s Chinese New Year was spent with me visiting the doctor instead of relatives.
As I grew up, I had to take over some spring-cleaning tasks from my dad. With baby nieces and nephews around, I had to babysit them as well. These made me realise how much I have overlooked the contributions of my parents in giving me a “normal” Chinese New Year to enjoy.
I realised that the “normalcy” I enjoyed during Chinese New Year when I was young was built on their sacrifice.
Gratitude to Country (国土恩)
It was a challenge going into Malaysia each year with traffic jams at the immigration customs lasting up to 3 hours. There were even times when my family was delayed and had to have reunion “suppers” instead!
As a youth, I was often frustrated at the other cars. “Why do all of you have to leave at the same time?”, I would wonder. Also, couldn’t the customs officers work faster?
One year, I realised, “I was not stuck in traffic. I WAS the traffic”. I realised that the customs officers were part of the solution, while I was part of the problem.
Frustration gave way to appreciation to the customs officers. Thanks to them, our immigration system is working smoothly and our national borders are kept safe.
Thus, the second object of gratitude is to our country (e.g. public service; national infrastructure; healthcare/immigration/security system). These blessings are not always visible, but they provide the foundation for us to lead our normal lives.
Gratitude to All Beings (众生恩)
Many beings bring convenience to our lives. We may not know most of their names and faces, but we have benefited from their contributions. They form the third object for gratitude.
Chinese New Year offers many opportunities for us to observe how people have helped us.
In recent years, I started noticing the waiters who serve our food at reunion dinners, the chefs who prepare the food, the entertainers who perform in celebratory “countdown” shows for us, the cleaners who clean up the mess made after New Year events, and many more.
I realised that things are easy and pleasant only because people help one another. We influence one another, living in a community and society, and our lives are deeply interwoven.
Recollecting the debt of gratitude we have for fellow sentient beings, I feel connected to others around me. This brings much comfort and warmth.
Gratitude to the Triple Gem （三宝恩）
The final object for recollection is to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) – our safe and secure refuge.
Reflecting on my life, I discovered that I was constantly seeking things to invest my faith/time/effort in return for some happiness. This can take the form of relationships, wealth, fame, job, or even rituals.
We are all seeking a “refuge” to seek comfort from. For example, a popular “tradition” in Singapore is to pray at a temple upon the turn of the Lunar New Year. Some even make efforts to be the first person to offer prayers (插头香) in the belief that it is an auspicious act.
Lunar New Year can help us to consider what we choose to invest our faith in. For me, the New Year encourages me to reaffirm my faith in the Triple Gem.
This reminds me that true happiness is a function of my efforts, and not from external conditions. For that, I am grateful.
What makes a “Happy New Year”?
A “Happy New Year” need not just be a cursory greeting we repeat during the 15 days of New Year festivals during house visits. It can also be a sincere aim to strive towards for the entire year.
Things will never be totally smooth in life. If we depend on favourable external conditions to bring us happiness, we will never be able to find much stability.
However, with gratitude as our attitude, we can learn to observe the little blessings around us. Through patient and consistent effort, we can gradually learn to see challenges as opportunities for growth and to find the silver lining in dire situations.
This would be the true cause for happiness in our lives, and allow us to enjoy a “Happy New Year”.
Keep a gratitude journal. This can be a physical notebook, a virtual word document, or even a private instagram page. Be disciplined in writing down something everyday.
When idle, play a game with yourself – note down 10 things around you to be grateful for. Challenge yourself to identify blessings you have taken for granted.
Train your mind to see problems as challenges, and as opportunities for growth. Be grateful for the tough times in life, and be worthy of your sufferings.
TLDR: Are we truly a rainbow of a thousand colours, lighting up the sky? With Singapore’s myriad of diverse identities, we can receive its cultural melting pot with kindness and an open heart. Reflecting on two vignettes, we refresh commonality and connect uncharted dots between faiths.
Take a spin around your neighbourhood or a stroll down Central District this weekend.
How many different places of worship can you find along the way? And when was the last time you stepped into another, other than your own?
It is likely that the number nor the lack of visit will surprise you. Have you ever wonder why do they not?
Greater than the Sum of its Parts
I pondered on how parts of the world fit snuggly into modern Singapore, partly implemented via intentional planning of her policy makers and partly developed through her history of immigrants.
The feat that so many chapalang people, cultures, identities and faiths can co-exist within the limits of this space calls for a cake. As we learn of various national conflicts arising from differences, the ‘peace’ we share in Singapore may just be good enough.
When I say ‘co-exist’, I talk about awareness and at best, acceptance of diversity, differences and conglomeration. Let’s face it, relating harmoniously with everyone or anyone we encounter is no rosy picture. Humans have likes and dislikes.
It is natural to agree and disagree; to identify and cluster, what more to differentiate and – god forbid – discriminate. Yet, how often do we understand each other?
If my belief is right, the hodgepodge of cultures, races and religions goes way back beyond when Sang Nila Utama first stood on this island. Thanks to the 2019 Bicentennial efforts, we now acknowledge Singapore’s history to stretch over 700 years and longer.
To co-exist with such intense diversity in a cramped space for that long, this morphing society has learnt to draw upon individuals’ virtues and their conscious efforts to overcome inherent human cognitive biases.
Psychology of Goodwill towards “Different” People
Think about that one time when you felt uncomfortable or emotional in an encounter with someone outside your usual community in Singapore. What immediate perceptions did you form about this particular person and his/her/their community?
What decisions did you make about future interactions with this person/community during and after this encounter?
It takes open hearts, basic kindness and willingness to communicate and understand that someone of a different race/faith/culture does not pose a threat to what or who we identify with. It takes courage and patience to say:
“Hey, I don’t know you well enough. Help me see what’s going on for you,” or;
“Let me put aside my tightly-held conceit to appreciate who you are and what stories you live”.
Sometimes, we latch onto our views so strongly that we forget how it is like to be open to other perspectives or to not have any views at all. When we hold onto our version of reality as more important or deny others’ realities, the aversion and hurt ensuing from our attachment are poisons that we choose not to see.
Only when we rightly acknowledge and accept the multitude of truths held by different communities as their ways of life, will we have a more generous heart to learn and adopt inspiration from each other. Then, perhaps, we can love our neighbours as ourselves.
Honest Encounters with Various Faiths
The rest of my writing contains two vignettes of my local encounters with various faiths, as a late millennial female, straight Hokkien-Teochew Chinese, Theravadin Buddhist, who lives in a HDB flat and works in the construction industry.
The slew of labels is not necessary but what do you see? Look at the portrait you can construct using those stereotypes.
How many different intersections of faith, race, culture and identity can you imagine I have (not) crossed? What lessons will you uncover?
A continuous ringing of a bell shrills through the entire HDB flat at around 8am and 5 pm daily.
When I first heard it, it was the last thing I wanted to hear amid my activities. I complained to my mother. She explained, “It’s part of the Hindu prayer lah girl,” “Not peaceful leh?” The disgruntling echoed after each ring in my mind.
One evening, the ringing pierced through my body when I had a pounding headache from the foggy consciousness caused by drowsy antidepressants.
The bell rang with such vigour that I could picture the faithful hand that shook it so earnestly. I wanted to be annoyed but there was no strength to resist the daggers of sounds.
If I can’t run away, why don’t I accept it? I embraced the ringing with my awareness. The heart shifted.
Each ring sent my mind right back to the present moment. Each ring lifted me one inch out of that terribly dull drowsiness. As the last ‘ling’ landed in the air like a finale, the headache dissipated with a ripple. Since then, the ringing became a familiar soundscape at home, no longer a frustrating auditory contact.
On National Day, the bell rang again, as if to alert me that I have yet to fulfil my learning of this Hindu ritual. Seizing the opportunity to understand better, Google affirmed that I was not the only one hearing “bells ringing at home”.
It turns out that ringing the bell (or Ghanti) is part of the Hindu puja offering, where the worshipper announces his/her arrival to the Hindu deity worshipped.
Dear Lord, I am here. Please bear witness to my presence.
One offers his/her presence to greet and honour transcendence. This meaning of presence flows very much like the kangse meditation bell: a reminder to recollect the moment and to stay with one’s awareness that is larger than self.
Well, how could I forget that bells are also used in Taoist, Buddhist and Christian traditions?That they come in all shapes, sizes, tones, pitches and manners of ringing?
“Ting – ling ling ling —-” Here and now. Here and now.
2. Cleaning Ourselves
During the Ramadan of 2019, I was invited to participate in breaking fast with migrant workers at Masjid Yusof Ishak Mosque. As part of the interfaith circle’s initiative to promote appreciation of Muslim practices, youths from different faiths observed the evening Muslim prayer and joined in the mass breaking fast.
A scent of communal dedication to Islam hung in the air throughout the entire evening. What stuck with me was this particular quote outside the common toilets:
“Cleanliness is half of the Faith.”
In my mind, I drew an immediate parallel to Upaḍḍha Sutta, where Venerable Ānanda asked the Buddha if having admirable friendship is half of the holy life. If admirable friendship is the whole of holy life and cleanliness is half of the Faith (Imaan), then how much weight does the latter hold in a Muslim’s life?
Following the teachings of the Quran, Muslims cleanse their faces, heads, hands (forearm up to the elbow) and feet (up to ankle) to prepare for their prayers.
This ritual washing purifies the body of the filth before Muslims convene with God as
“Truly, God loves those who turn unto Him in repentance and loves those who purify themselves.”
Body purification and spiritual purification are both crucial in the Islamic Faith. Being pure brings one closer to God.
The principle of keeping up cleanliness is also prominent in Theravada Buddhism: monks wash their feet after walking their alms round barefooted; tidy and clean living quarters reflect the practitioners’ clear states of mind.
Often, the metaphor of cleaning a dirty and cluttered room is used in Thai Forest teachings for the practice of meditation and mental cultivation: what used to be a pure mind was tainted by unwholesome qualities or defilements (kilesa) since the beginningless time.
The way to liberate the heart is to clean out the defilements through the patient and consistent practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Essentially, we practitioners are cleaners scrubbing out stubborn stains with our tools and cleaning solutions. More importantly, the room does not belong to us. After cleaning it up, we can appreciate it as a pleasant abiding, close the door and leave.
But first, we have to recognise that the room is indeed dirty from our self-centred activities and that we want to clean it. Then, we go about learning how to clean and then actually doing so.
Some folks are okay living in a dirty room because they are unaware of what a clean room feels like. Think about an elderly who hoards compulsively and fills up his flat with precious things that ultimately breed dust.
The ways of the world can be distressing because so much clutter and filth get into our mind-rooms, through our own ignorant volition and through unfiltered acceptance of external influences.
We definitely deserve better.
I find the following verse from the Bible resonates with the Buddhist practice so saliently:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
If the heart is filled with impurities, then what comes out of the heart is hazardous to others. Likewise, if the heart is imbued with unconditional love and kindness, goodness permeates in our interactions.
Regardless of who we meet in our “living-room” (be they religious figures like Lord Vishnu, God, Jesus Christ, Guan Yin, the Buddha or our family, friends, fellow Singaporeans, foreign talents, migrant workers etc.), I hope that we maintain as hospitable, self-respecting hosts to welcome and honour the guests’ presence in a clean and fresh space.
Perhaps, that hospitality may just be why Singapore tries to be as clean as it can.
In a world of turmoil and confusion, recollect on the goodness of the place you live in. Gratitude can light up your heart.
Share with your friends and co-workers from other faiths your similarities and differences. There are many lessons out there for us to learn amongst other faiths when we are open.
Reflect on your ‘living-room’. Where have you done well in keeping clean? Where needs cleaning?