Imee Ooi is a Chinese-Malaysian record producer, composer, and singer who composes and arranges music for classic Buddhist chant, mantra, and dharani. She performs her compositions in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Mandarin. In 1997 she founded a record label, I.M.M. Musicworks, to publish her music. She has released more than 50 albums (55 between 1998 and 2020). She has also composed and directed three highly acclaimed stage musicals: Siddhartha, Above Full Moon, and Princess Wen Cheng (aka Jewel of Tibet). More about Imee Ooi https://www.immmusic.com/imee-ooi
Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl and today we’re back with another episode. With me, I have Sister Imee. She is a wonderfully renowned Buddhist music composer. I am very excited today because I’m such a big fan of her. I have listened to so much of her music and it’s brought me through a lot, a lot of dark periods in my life. I will hand over the stage to her to introduce herself.
Hello, everybody. Hi, Cheryl. I’m Imee Ooi, 黄慧音. I’m a Buddhist musician, composer, and also a singer. You probably have heard some of my ancient work. When I say ancient, it’s more than 25 years. Like the Chant of Metta, the Heart Sutra, Prajna Paramita, and Om Mane Padme Hum to name a few. I would like to say good evening to everyone. Hope I’m sending Metta from Kuala Lumpur to all around the world.
Wow. It’s amazing. I think even as you’re sharing, I already feel so much Metta radiating from you.
Because you feel Metta inside you. So everybody who has a kind heart and promotes peace and harmony will naturally have it inside them, right?
Yes. We would love to understand a little bit more about your personal journey of how you became a Buddhist musician.
Well, this is not a plan. When I was young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was naturally thinking of becoming a music teacher, or a piano teacher because my mother was a music teacher back then in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. So we have a music school back in our hometown. All we sisters and brothers, we learned the piano. So until then, I never thought I could compose music or even sing. Of course, we sing at home when we play the piano. We do have a lot of fun evening family mini-concerts at home. Since then, we have been exposed to a lot of good music, especially Disney music, and musicals from cartoons. Also from the pop industry and also Christian songs, because once you love music, you tend to look for songs to sing. Yes. When we play piano, we are always playing classical music. Eventually, we also learned the electone organ. The Yamaha electone was very, very popular back then.
Is it the double-tier one?
Oh, yes. You have a rhythm box. Then you can have a flute. You have strings. Besides piano, you are also able to use other instruments and then you can make your simple arrangement. It’s a one-man band. It was so enjoyable for kids and teenagers like us back then in the seventies and eighties.
So back to the question. I stumbled upon writing a Buddhist Sutra. Actually, the first piece was the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, the Prajñāpāramitā given to me by a director. I think he was very into Buddhist studies in Sanskrit. He also noticed that there is a lot of good Christian music, you know, gospel music, but there isn’t much Buddhist music that you can sing or play in the house as background music. Most of our Buddhist music then was more for rituals or for ceremonies. So maybe more traditional. So then I was very happy when I saw the schedule. I have not even learned Sanskrit, but it’s not very difficult for us Malaysians or even Singaporeans. So we picked up Sanskrit very easily from, of course, a good teacher. Naturally, when I know how to pronounce all of them, I find that it is very challenging for me to compose a song. Since then I was just a teacher, but I always aspired to be a composer. So I thought, well, to be able to put musical notes, phrases, and melodies into such a long, foreign, ancient, sacred text, it is such an honor. So I did that. Then I sang as well, instead of looking for a singer, I sang myself and then it turned out quite well. The result was very, very pleasing to a lot of people’s ears. This was one of my very first Dhamma music. Even in those days before the internet was very widely used, it went all the way to China and even to Europe and so many places.
I think it’s the strength of the Sanghas and also the Buddhist disciples, Buddhist laymen, and laywomen, once they get hold of a nice Heart Sutra version, they want to spread it and share it. It’s like the nature of us Buddhist brothers and sisters. After that, one after another, The Chant of Metta, then the Heart Sutra in Mandarin, then Om Mane Padme Hum, all the mantras that you can think of from the main Bodhisattvas and the three Buddhas, Medicine Buddha, Amitabha, everything just came. From three lineages also, I get a lot of requests. So this is my journey and it is like no turning back until today since 1998, I think. Along that journey, I also got the opportunity to write for three very scale musicals, Siddhartha, and then Master Hongyi Above Full Moon, and also Princess Wencheng. This is all Buddhist history where I could present my dedication in musical notes, and this is my journey until now.
Thank you so much for sharing. And I’m also very, very curious, what drew you to Buddhism and what was your journey in Buddhism actually?
Okay, what drew me into Buddhism, actually, it’s the music I wrote. Then I started to realize that, oh, I can actually practice Buddhism instead of just praying. During our young days, it was more like a culture. We just burn joss sticks, then certain festivals, then we have a lot of fruits and flowers to offer, but it never occurred in my mind that there is this deep philosophy or deep wisdom that is so practical to our daily life and even so useful for us to deal with all the negativities and emotions, love and hatred, everything. We could find the answer to ease ourselves from all these pains and suffering from this religion. So, well it changed my perspective of religion right away after I wrote the music. When the music is popular, you tend to meet a lot of Buddhist practitioners, then you meet a lot of monks and nuns. You open up to compassion mindfulness, giving, and patience, you name it, you know, all the good things in this one horizon that you always bump into these people. That’s where you can learn and ask your question in life.
Was there a particular time in your life when you felt the Buddhist teachings really helped you tremendously?
If you want to mention one is probably what has just happened this year. My parents, my mom, and my dad, passed away simultaneously within three weeks. First, my father caught COVID and then he went to the hospital and he came back but he never recovered because all his energy and his body had already been exhausted by the attack of his lungs and even his brain. So he passed on. And then my mom followed on three weeks later. My mom was sick with cancer, but she was still well, but I think because of this sadness of my father, then, you know, it just suddenly sped up everything. She also felt that, you know her meaning of life is different now.
And also because she practices Buddhism, she feels like she’s not afraid of releasing her body’s pain. She was in pain because she was in the last stage of cancer and she refused to go into any other treatment because she thought that she was already very old and there was no point in exhausting everybody’s energy. But of course, she went to a little treatment to make herself feel easier. Like when her lungs are filled with water, she has to drain it out. Those procedures that she has to do to make sure that she breathes properly. But I think she made up her mind. So what I saw in my mother’s bravery and her decision to let go just like that and let her body take its own course, was like a big awakening to me. Like, I’m going to tell my mom how we’re going to miss her and ask her to hang on and things like that.
There was this part that I think, well, am I going to be very selfish or I should just let my mom go, and maybe there’s another place? So I should release her as my mom, now she probably wants to be reborn as another being in another better place. She’s becoming an individual all over again. Our 缘分, our affinity as mother and daughter will come to an end very soon. The first five months of this in 2023 everything was very intensive, you can be very calm and poised in managing things, but deep inside you the night sinks in, everybody is asleep you feel like your mom and dad are walking towards the end of their life. There’s always this pain. You have to come to an acceptance that this is it. Time is up.
And what helped you through those moments of pain and perhaps loneliness as well?
Not so much loneliness because we were very busy then because we all stayed in the same place. So no loneliness. The sense of responsibility takes over. It’s like being the eldest in the home, not only do you have to make sure everything is in place, but you feel like sometimes we let other people suffer or we sort of take it for granted that people will do it or people can just figure it out, but when all the responsibility comes upon you, then you will notice that even this little, little things, a cup of tea in time or a little care just at the right moment is so important. So I think the sense of responsibility took over my whole head and body. I don’t feel anything. There wasn’t any pain except when I wanted to sleep in, and there would be this split second when the reality sank in. But other than that, it’s like you are just living in the moment. You take care of everything, minute by minute, hour by hour, you have to sort it out. You become so selfless. I realized that I don’t think of myself, whether I’m tired or I’m busy or I have not eaten or I have not bathed. All these things when it falls in place, it is there. If it is not there, there are always other things that are more important.
I recently watched a movie about people, the last moments of their deaths, and their loved ones just being around them. And there was this quote that really stuck with me. And he was saying that because our parents have a body, they have to pass away, but love doesn’t have a body. So love will always continue to live on, even though the parents, ‘ physical form has gone away.
Yeah, of course, but the more important thing is, what are you going to do with this love for your parents? It’s not just in loving memory, or you just remember them during an anniversary, or just the rituals, or you just look at the pictures and then you talk about the past. If you think there’s so much love that’s passed on, it’s important to continue the legacy of your parents, the good attitudes and habits of your parents. I am not a very romantic person or emotional person. I will write all the beautiful words in memory of my mom, but I am not so much into that, what did my father and mother leave behind that I can use to grow into a better person and let them be proud of me as a daughter, and also what I can do for them to the society. Recently, I posted about an article I wrote in remembrance of my parents and I was thinking, what can I give with this story besides my words? I also shot a lot of my mom’s paintings, about 8 to 10 of them and I post them together. I say this is what my mom painted for us and for a lot of my fans too. Now I’m putting it on Facebook. Whoever wants to download it, can use it.
So whenever I remember my parents, I will remember their virtues. Rather thanthe love that lives on. I think love doesn’t have to be measured. In fact, sometimes I think I don’t want to be so attached and keep thinking of the love. The love has to be spread out, and shared by many other people. So I want to think what did my father leave behind, his virtues? It could be like a physical thing. Like my mom, she left a lot of paintings. She left a lot of nice cooking recipes, she cooks so well. I think that I want to cook it every Chinese New Year for our family. These are simple things that you need to put into action rather than all the text and stickers and just words.
Yeah, in a way, it’s very tangible, right?
Tangible and people can use it or even taste it and touch it. Amazing. That’s the way I want to express it.
Thanks for the free-flow conversation. We go into a lot of these beautiful perspectives exploring our loved ones and the virtues that they leave behind that we can bring forward and express to the world as well. Moving back to maybe some of the questions related to your journey as a musician. I think you have been a musician for about 26 years.
Yes. As a Buddhist musician, but before that, in fact, since 18 years old, I was already teaching and writing some simple songs. I started very early. When I was 18, I had a batch of five to six students. They were like about five years younger than me. Now they already have families and they’re all doing very well in music too. So they’re all over the world. We still keep in touch. Even for some of my concerts, I will also ask them to help me do some arrangements.
If we zoom into your career as a Buddhist musician what were some of the challenges that you faced?
Okay. Many have. asked me about these challenges, but if I said none, it would sound very unbelievable. But there is a reason why I say there’s none because I never plan to succeed in a certain way or I will never think that I have to be doing so well and I need to be famous. So It’s very much living in the now. If you are only 30% good, but you do it wholeheartedly, then it is a hundred percent result of the moment. In Mandarin, I would say 每一次都是满分的因为我用完我的心. Heart Sutra says, 心无挂碍, 无挂碍故，无有恐怖. There’s no fear and there’s no challenges because I feel that in Buddhist text and this sacred text, there’s no way you can fix the best melody to it because these are boundless wisdom. Maybe in the future, there’ll be even more people coming to make it even better. So without any burden of like, what are the challenges? Because when you say there are challenges means you want to make it good, real good. But if you let go of all these whatever you do to the best, if it’s no good, if it’s meant to fail, then let it fail. So I adopt that kind of mentality.
So in that case, I felt that the whole journey of production was very smooth. Even when I record singing, I don’t want to have so much fuss about it, I got to rest, I got to drink some honey, or I got to meditate. But I think I want to be just a normal person, but the sense of responsibility is like, I still have to take care of so many other things, cannot be let letting other people give me the convenience and then they suffer and they got to run all over to do things just because they want to give me a good condition to record my so-called very important sacred song of Guan Yin. But if you are Guan Yin, you should be helping other people, you have no condition. With that kind of little understanding or enlightening wisdom that I adopted, I found that I have no challenges. There was not once that, I thought that it gave me a lot of stress that I wanted to throw away, and then I still couldn’t get the right note. I’ve done enough for it. Okay. Because I got so many requests, I cannot be mulling on one for a long, long time. So if that one doesn’t work, let’s say I only have five people liking it instead of 500 or 5, 000 people, then so be it. So it’s like 佛说：只能要渡一个有缘人就够了.
I think if you ask for challenges there’s not much. Also, I don’t know what will be the benchmark of good Buddhist music. There is none. I think this is a very universal thing that each and every piece of Buddhist music that goes out, will naturally find a listener who can embrace it and use it for their own healing, calming themselves or even feeling joyful about it.
I think it’s so inspiring because the music that you create really goes right into people’s hearts and speaking from my own experience, I feel that it just goes into my hardware. That melting kind of experience where my anxiety just melts away. Perhaps the reason is that when you create this music, there’s no attachment, no expectations. So it flows through to the listeners as well.
I feel that the reason why my music can penetrate well, perhaps it’s because I never thought so. It’s like every one of the volunteers, everybody holds their position and they have their responsibility in every corner of this world. So I think my part is perhaps because people like my voice and it happened that my voice and my composition and my music arrangement seem to blend well as a whole. I’m blessed.
Has there been a time when you felt that maybe this fame is a little bit too much or anything like that?
No, no. In fact, I need more because it’s very difficult. This so-called fame and celebrity status, if there’s one even exists. Over the years people have heard my music, but don’t really know who is behind this because I never show my face in my album most of the time. Only in 2015 when I had my first concert, that people know this is what Imee looks like. In fact, I think I can do with more because I didn’t misuse it.
So I don’t mind more fame because I’m very confident and I’m very stable in the ego part, maybe, I’m stable. And also because of my age, I’m not like a young person anymore. I’m not guaranteeing, I don’t know, maybe five years down the road, suddenly I become somebody very snobbish. Then you better give me a big knock on the head. So in that sense, I think we can do with more because I think we need more people to listen to Buddhist music because young Buddhists are declining in numbers. And more and more people not coming into the monastery or Buddhist centres. But I’m not very worried about that. It’s just a matter of time before we change ways. Maybe we just use other ways. We should open more windows and doors.
Back to whether this pressured me, no, I think I can do with more fame and publicity so that the music can go further. In fact, until now, a lot of people who have heard of my music, don’t know I’m in Malaysia. They thought that I was from China, Taiwan, or somewhere. They don’t even know the people behind the music, but I’m happy. I think in Buddhist music, it’s not like pop music. People want to know who is the singer, like Taylor Swift or BTS. But in Buddhist music, it’s not. People just want to listen to the mantra. It’s the sound by itself. It’s the vibration. Not many people care like who is the composer? The credit doesn’t matter much. So I think if I want to inspire more young talents who want to come to this, you must be prepared for this. You might not be well-known. Your name might not be known, but are you willing to put up with this, that is not for yourself, fame, or celebrity status?
Actually, everything is in the Dhamma as I learned. Obviously, I want to practice what I have learned. When I started 30 years ago, I was already 30 years old. So it’s not like you’re still mentally not very mature. Maybe it’s also my character and also my mom and dad’s education. We were always trying to be humble and helpful to other people. So I think this also helps. So I can’t tell you one reason why I’m not carried away. Although I enjoy the limelight, of course, I enjoy the limelight, when you stand on stage and being recognized. It’s not because I’m famous, I’ve got a very good voice or I’m pretty, but it’s that kind of satisfaction. Just like a Sangha, when you give a sermon and a lot of people use it in their daily life, or you give a retreat and these people come back to tell you it’s so, so usable. The Dalai Lama is very famous. Mm. Thich Nhat Hanh is very famous. Venerable Hsing Yun is very famous. They are the model that I want to follow. Eventually, whether I’m ordained or not, I want to be the next example of what they are. Just give up whatever they can do for the Dhamma.
Wow. That’s so beautiful. Some of our subscribers, actually asked what gave you inspiration for the music.
Just the text itself. I was always saying, what more can be more inspiring than the Dhamma itself? So I don’t want to source from outside. Since I take it as a responsibility, it’s my work. How am I going to present this mantra or sutra? So the mantra of the sutra has to be the one that inspires me because that is the thing that I need to reach out to many people. So how am I going to relate it and present it in my own way?
And the thought of sharing it with more people. When I wrote the Heart Sutra in Mandarin, it went on to Taiwan and it was one of the best sales of the record company. And the 大悲咒, the Great Compassion Mantra. But eventually when the famous singer 齐豫, she was singing pop all these years and then she wanted to sing Buddhist music. For her first album, she asked for my copyright for two of my songs. One of them is 心经 (Heart Sutra). So I was very happy because she has got millions of fans all over the world. Her effort of singing Heart Sutra will reach out to more. That’s why coming back to your question here, the inspiration should be based on how far it can reach out to people. The gem is right in front of you that you need to deliver out.
The gem in itself is already shining.
Yeah. So brightly. It’s right in front of you. You want to create a tool to present it. It’s not like you have to find something nice in your life, some environment, nothing. Nothing is as important as just carrying out this mission of yours. Yeah. So, I put myself in a different position, it is quite different when you want to write a pop song and when you want to write a love song. Perhaps the thing itself, it’s emotional. I say it is 梦幻泡影 (illusionary). Then you’ve got to go and find somewhere that makes you even more emotional. But whatever you have the text of the Dhamma right in front of you is the truth. So the truth is just one. So there’s no other way to support it. Other than you just have to focus and do your best.
Yeah. Can you share a story that you remember of the most profound impact that your music has had on someone?
Wow. Okay. Before Facebook, all the so-called sharing of experiences, listening to my music, like the impact that you’re talking about has to be either from email or a letter with a stamp on it, sent all the way from Germany, from Italy, from Argentina, from China, right to my mailbox. After the 9/11 incident, I got an email from an American. He’s a jazz musician and a veteran, and he works in a church near the World Trade Center. The church was open to injured people and even dead people. He told me that the church actually used one of my Buddhist music because they realized that the people who came to look for help might not be just Christians or Catholics. It can be people from all faiths. So they played one of the Sutras. I think it’s the Ratana Sutra. He said he didn’t know anything about Pali. I think he went to search for my music and then he went to Chinatown and coincidentally, he heard my Heart Sutra in Mandarin. He said, what is this 揭諦！揭諦！波羅揭諦！(Sanskrit: Gate, gate Pāragate)? It sounds very ancient to him.
He then deduced that what he heard in Chinatown and this Ratana Sutta were sung by the same person, the same voice. So he said, Hey, I got to look for this lady. Who is she? He thinks that my music has some kind of, in his words, magical power that you can just absorb and get healed immediately. So yeah, he said, many people actually listened to the Ratana Sutta. During, I think a mass prayer, they just play their hymns, then they play my Buddhist song. Eventually, we became good friends. We share a lot and he also practiced a lot of Dhamma things, although he’s a Catholic. He also shared with me a lot of experience being a jazz musician in America who is quite well known. Of course, he shared with me what happened in the church when they played this song too.
So can you share a few?
Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but free-thinkers who, after they listened to the music, started to learn Buddhism, in Mandarin we say 渡到的人. Or people who have converted from Christianity to Buddhism, or they’ve embraced both because they think that these two religion does not really clash. They share the same universal love. So a lot of these inspiring stories. But a lot of touching story has to do with the parting of your loved ones, whether it’s death or divorce. So human beings are often caught up in 爱恨情仇. It’s like passion, aversion, relationships, and negativity towards someone or an incident. I hope more people will focus less on this attachment, on these four elements that cause us a lot of suffering. I think one day you won’t even need music. If you can get over this, you don’t need anything to heal you anymore. You can self-heal because the root has been plucked away.
And when the root is plucked away, the grass won’t grow again.
Yes. Yes. At least we can just keep cleaning it, tone down this kind of attachment, and make life a little bit simpler.
And I think that’s why the Buddhist teachings are so beautiful because it’s also helping us to uncover our highest potential, to clean it away, to pluck it away. And hopefully one day we can really uproot it forever.
We have a cheeky question from one of the people. They were asking, what will you be doing if you were not doing music?
Sleeping or eating? So you are cheeky? No, Auntie Imee will not let you be cheeky. Okay, let’s be serious about this. Yeah, I always I’m quite proud to say that I live like a monastic, although I’m not ordained. I don’t go out, go to cafes, go for a movie. Besides my concert, I don’t go out at night at all. Anything that I need to go out and socialize, has got to do with my Buddhist work. Either we have a discussion or I need to be there to attend a ceremony or whatever. But talking about ceremonies, I don’t even attend weddings, anniversaries, or happy occasions. I only go to funerals. It’s like my choice. I can enjoy anything. I can enjoy a nice birthday party too. But I feel that in my life, I need to have my selection of what I do since I have too much to do with my Buddhist music and also some other work that is related to it, to build this music monastery that I aspire to have eventually. You don’t have to be physical, that’s a building. But if I have a building, as we call it a “music monastery”, this is where I can maybe share and teach more people. Like-minded people can come together. Maybe the Dhamma work through performing arts, music and dance will flourish even faster.
I feel that now I’m close to 60 next year and I don’t know how much time do I have to achieve this. By trying to do as much as I can, I have to sacrifice a lot of things. So I don’t do anything else, but eat, sleep, and do my music. And of course, concerts. Just the necessary things, but I don’t go out. I don’t have even holiday plans to go visit a country. The only holiday I’ve ever gone on with my family was to Singapore and that is also to visit relatives. I’ve gone to many places but it’s because of my concert or related to my Buddhist work. There was not one that was just a pure holiday until today. Yeah. Wow. It just came naturally. It’s not something that I planned, but I think it’s like the work and the cause of events that just spin off year after year and lead me to where I am today. I’m quite happy with this.
Yeah. I wish you all the best with the Buddhist Music Monastery.
This is so cool. I’ve never heard of Buddhist Music Monastery before.
Don’t you think it’s so cool, right? All the people there, either you sing or you dance or you’re a composer or you are a lyricist, or you are researching somewhere. It’s so beautiful, this place where we can live together. Because I think with more people living it together every day, I think the whole process and the achievement will be by folds.
On a similar note, but also not, not too similar. I think this is a very interesting question on the idea that people pirate Buddhist music and books with the excuse that Dhamma is free of charge. Can you share your opinions or experiences?
I think there are two kinds of them. A lot of people actually don’t know they are copyrighted, but there are also people who know, that they’re copyrighted and they pirate them. But if they pirate for the use of Dhamma, not for monetary benefit, I think it’s okay. But it is also not okay if you come to think of it, eventually, no one wants to become a Buddhist musician or book writer because it doesn’t give them security anymore. It’s always a voluntary work. It doesn’t make sense from the modern world’s point of view. So how are you going to solve it? Because if you can do this professionally, wholeheartedly, and just do this and nothing else, I’m sure the quality of our work can be much better. That’s what the music monastery is all about.
When we have so many people we can put up good quality performances or good quality music. When there’s a market, then there’s a supply. That’s where there will be a balance. Then we can fit these people and they can use this as their livelihood and make it their profession. It’s going to be a very good thing, a very good future if we can build this up. Otherwise, now, the whole mentality is just like, this is only a part-time thing, how do you survive over this yourself? Oh, yeah. Maybe that’s the most challenging part. If you wanna ask me about this. It’s always financial. People think that with my celebrity status, I should be very rich, but it’s just the opposite. I’m not poor, but it’s so difficult for me to be able to handle so many things with just my own effort. I can’t take in sponsorship or offerings like the monastery because I’m not a monastery. So I’m trying to build this whole thing as a profession. But so far so good. I just thought it could be much better so that in the future, many people can choose this.
And I think this is also a problem that’s very prevalent in other aspects of the Buddhist scene as well. Even in temples, the running of it, most of it is all 乐捐 (voluntary donation), right? People donate and people who want to help are all on a voluntary basis as well. Then it results in a lot of attrition because the fully talented ones, have to go outside to earn a lot of money.
This is one big issue that I also see. Maybe most of this so-called donation or sponsorship or whatever should focus less on the hardware, like building the tallest Buddha or the building. But if you have so much space, we have to make sure that it’s fully utilized and it can generate self-sustaining work. But looks like it’s not the case now. A lot of the good people will not stay. You just cannot keep these people. I mean, I wonder why. Maybe the new generation. can put this into serious planning. The traditional way of doing things should still be preserved, but maybe we can have another option we can build a Buddhist environment for more people to come. The people who are serious about practicing and they want to learn, but they also want to contribute at the same time. They can also find a place where they can take care of their livelihood.
Yeah, because after all, everyone is still lay people. We still have to take care of the four requisites on our own.
You should let them feel comfortable, and take care of their needs first. Give them what they need first, instead of asking them to give you what they can give as a Buddhist. It’s the other way around.
Yeah, I’ve never thought of it in that way. It’s the other side.
Because whenever you walk in and say, Oh, what can I offer? You think of that first, right? You never say, what can you offer to me? You have to be brave to say that. If I walk into a Buddhist, I can do this. You have anything to offer to me, but we are always asked to offer the Buddha and the Triple Gem first. Of course, that is something that we obviously need to do, but can that be not to new people who want to embrace the Dhamma? This is quite difficult. We can try to understand it’s nothing wrong. It’s nothing wrong.
Yeah, with a Handful of Leaves, I think it’s interesting a lot of our volunteers, become volunteers because they feel that they have benefited a lot. Oh, the content reaches out to me, then I want to help. So it’s like you say the opposite, they receive before they give.
And I want to share with you some lovely notes that were given. This is from Gordon and he says that one of the foremost reasons that got me interested in Buddhism back then as a primary school kid, 12 years ago, was due to your melodious voice. So, thank you very much.
I’m happy to share. Yes, this is interesting if you ask me about the very significant impact. In fact, I’m very happy that as I traveled around all these years, I met a lot of monks and nuns who told me the same thing. They became monks and nuns, the first influence was my music. But I feel ashamed. 你们都出嫁了，我还在这混，还是个凡人 (you’ve all ordained but I’m still a layperson). So I always make this joke. Then they started laughing. 那欢迎！ 您什么时候要加入我们的一家人？(When will you be ordaining? We welcome you to the family!). Many of them I actually keep in touch.
I also cannot say, all this effort is worth it. No, because I’m not like somebody so great. As a Buddhist musician, you shouldn’t say, oh 我这一生值得了，我做的东西能够渡那么多人. Because you should feel blessed that you should be able to participate in this sense. It humbles you that you are not always looking to see that whatever effort that you put in, whether it is mind or body, is worth your life or not. Your life is worth nothing if you don’t hit the Dhamma. If you don’t hit the Dhamma, you have wasted your whole life. Being born on earth 在人间, we should also bear in mind that this is very important.
Yeah, this is such a wonderful reminder because the opportunity to even be born as a human and to listen to the Dhamma is so rare.
Yes, so people always ask 我们在寻求人生的意义, what’s the purpose of life? Why am I here for? What is the truth of life? Who am I? I think all these questions no need to look because once you look means that you want to identify yourself as a person and your worth. But if you don’t go out and do something, you will never know your worth. You can start by sweeping the floor. You will slowly find your worth. The day you breathe your last breath, that’s the only time you know what is your purpose in life. I always think so. Not any moment in your life until your last breath. I think I will discourage people from looking for the purpose of life because I think whatever comes, the first responsibility, go do it first, then it will unfold the next page you will see.
Because a lot of people feel very stressed, like everything they do also, they feel that it’s not them. It’s not worth their life. It’s suffering, it’s torture. So I think you should just accept it as your karma. And then you will be happier that way that you will notice that time will be the medicine to heal you and the same time to open up the next page of your life. If you think that what is the purpose of life in search of the truth, then you probably will never get the answer. I think this is my perspective.
And whatever it is that we are doing, we do it with our full heart, whole heart and even it can be as simple as just sweeping the floor. It’s something that we can also do it.
Mindful. I think mindful is a good word. Mindful doesn’t mean you have to be always kind. You have to be always giving. Mindful just means you’re aware of your surroundings, aware of yourself being there, and aware of people around you, things around you, happening around you. It’s like your scanner, you’re always scanning yourself. But I think we should just put our radar open to a wider scope that you can scan through 360 degrees if not 270 degrees, or you open up 45 degrees. We talk about vibration. If we are one in the universe, we always say we are one. What is this oneness all about? We say, Oh, we are oneness. We are happening in one country, harmony. But what is that? What does that mean? How to get it started? So you can start with this, and open up your radar. Then you can scan things around you so that only you can become one, but if you’re not connected, you can’t even scan three feet away. So if you are not opening up your scope, I don’t think you can move on, if you just think, why am I here? You keep searching for happiness and truth, you will never do it.
Yeah, and it’s very brilliant. And one last one. They said, Dear Sister Imee Ooi, your chant showed me self-love and unconditional love for all beings. Relaxing in a chair, closing my eyes, and following this chant, sometimes brings tears to my eyes, experiencing the depth and boundlessness of this goodwill. I’ve been transformed from the inside out from the regular practice of metta with your chant. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Sadhu to you. Thank you very much for sharing. I wish everybody well and safe. Those days I always say wish you well and happy. Recently, I think I should take away the word happy because I think it’s overrated if you keep on having this place to reach or to find this in search of this thing, I notice it doesn’t work on a lot of people. In fact, you get more depressed because everything you look around you is not enough.
Because you have to get to somewhere to be happy. Yeah.
It’s like I’m entitled, is my entitlement. So how can I find my entitlement to happiness? You know? So if you are not mindful, or you do have not enough wisdom, or the environment is not conducive, you tend to go the other side. So I think we will say, May you be well and safe. I want to say safe because I think without this body if you’re sick. Death is not so scary. I think to me because I’m prepared for it. But sickness is like going through a period where your body just cannot wake up to your mind. So you still need your body to do a lot of things.
So I think I would rather wish people well and safe. So once you are safe from a lot of bad things around you or pain and sickness or disturbances, probably when you’re in a safe place, safe doesn’t mean that you lock yourself up all the time. Sometimes being safe is like you’ll be able to be in touch with so many out there and still feel secure. You’re in control of your doings.
We wish everyone, all our listeners to be well and safe. And I think that brings us to the end of this beautiful sharing from Sister Imee. And thanks so much for spending your time here with us.
You’re most welcome, Cheryl.
Thank you. And for everyone who likes our podcast, you can like it, subscribe to it on Spotify and you can check out Sister Imee’s work on YouTube, Spotify, and wherever else you find your music.
Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
Welcome to the Handful of Leaves podcast. My name is Cheryl, and today we are back with another episode. I am here with Alvin, a friend who has experienced and struggled with drug addictions in the past. He’s here today to share a little bit more about his learnings, and his journey. He wanted to give back to society after seeing how the Dhamma really helped him in his journey.
Hi, Cheryl. Hi, guys.
I’m very curious about how you started getting into drugs.
So, an ex-friend actually introduced me to drugs. When we were in primary school, they told us to stay away from drugs, right? They told us we’d get hooked easily. I guess at that point, I was just curious. Oh, is it really true that a few puffs will really get us hooked? So I went ahead and tried it, which is a very bad idea.
Right. Curiosity killed the cat, but in this case, curiosity got you hooked. I see. And what happened after that?
Your work, your health, your relationships friends, actually everything got affected. Because almost every moment I was thinking about drugs. In a way, deep down a part of me also feels guilty. I know this is wrong but, I just can’t help it. The addiction basically just takes over. To be honest, I broke all the precepts except for the first one, the killing of another human being.
Because I was using crystal meth, the whole time I was feeling like I was no different from an animal or maybe a ghost? Basically, I was always craving for drugs. It increases your sexual desire, you are impulsive, and you have frequent mood swings. Because I have a bit of anxiety, it actually increases the anxiety attacks.
I see. What was the turning point to get out of your addiction?
I mean, I feel like I’m a being from the lower realm. When I look at my friends, I basically feel that something is actually wrong with me and I need to change. That is when I started to do my own research on the Dhamma and modern psychology to help myself get out of the addiction. Basically, abusers will glorify the highs you can get from the substance, and they don’t look at the negative effects on your mind and body.
I watched videos on human anatomy created by healthcare professionals, to watch what it does to your organs, your brain, everything. In that process, I listened to Dhamma teachings. I make the effort to go for meditation, sign up for retreats, speak to Bhantes, and share my problems with them. Going through all these Dhamma activities, I also made Dhamma friends. I also share my problems with them. All of them gave me advice and helped me.
And because of meditation, I looked inwards, and I realized that being in addiction, my behaviour, my thinking, everything was distorted. It’s really like beings from a lower realm. I must just keep making the effort to replace negative habits with refined habits and negative thoughts with refined thoughts.
That is actually very similar to what the Buddha said of Right Effort and Right Intention. The Buddha shared that essentially when you have wholesome, skillful states of mind, you make the effort to make it more abundant. If it has not yet arisen, you also plant the seeds so that it will arise. Then on the other side if it’s unwholesome things, if it has not arisen, you try to make sure that it doesn’t arise. But if it has already arisen, you make the effort to cut it, abandon it, and don’t indulge too much in it. That sounded very similar to what you shared as well.
Just in reference to what you said about feeling like a being from the hungry ghost realm, I think it’s a perfect simile because they are usually depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, and small mouths, and their limbs are very thin and very emaciated. At the same time, they have very large, bloated, empty bellies. In the domain of addiction, when we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb that insatiable yearning for happiness, relief, or fulfillment, we will always feel empty inside because these substances, these objects, these pursuits, we hope that it will help us to be happy, but it will never give us the happiness that we need. And we will haunt our lives without ever being fully present.
Like beings of the lower realm, there’s no way we can create merits because our views are distorted. Even though we think that we are doing something virtuous, actually it’s not.
Can you share an example?
I have a friend who introduced me to drugs. After every session, he will share some so-called TCM with fellow drug users to help them to relieve the symptoms. He thinks that he is actually doing something virtuous to help people, but actually, he’s not.
You can’t blame him, but indirectly he’s actually giving people the wrong idea that you can actually remove the toxins from drugs using TCM after you use them. But they didn’t know actually crystal meth affects your brain immediately when you take them. So what he’s doing is actually relieving the symptoms after the drugs which actually doesn’t help to remove the damage to the brain.
Interesting. So he himself probably has that wrong belief as well, that it’s the right thing. And he goes on to perpetuate that. And I think that is the danger of not having Right View, right? When you don’t have Right View, you firmly believe that what you’re doing is actually going to give you happiness and you follow it. The result of that is obviously suffering to yourself and suffering to others as well. These are very painful consequences. Were there any relapses in your journey to recovery?
If let’s say after you stopped using for three months, you suddenly go and take a puff, it’s considered a lapse and not a relapse. A lapse is just a slip. I have a few lapses here and there. If I remember it’s around maybe three. After every lapse, I will feel extremely guilty. Oh no, I actually took a puff. I’m such a terrible person. I thought I made the motivation to stay clean. How could I do something like that? After feeling guilty, I have to maybe look back and see what causes the slip. Is there anything I missed out? Maybe some context I didn’t delete or maybe the triggers. So after every lapse, if you make the effort to learn from it, it will prevent the next lapse from happening. It’s basically like riding a bicycle. If you fall, you get up and then you continue riding. If you fall and you just give up, then you won’t be able to ride a bicycle.
But what gave you the motivation to come back up again? It’s so tiring, right? You are literally fighting a battle that is very hard to win because it has already affected your neural connections. So what gave you that strong drive?
I relate to beings of the lower realm, right? If I don’t want to get out of the addiction, I’ll always be a being of a lower realm. I’ll always be stuck there and the worst thing is in this life and in my future life. So yeah, that gave me the motivation. Also because I did some meditation, I have to be mindful that actually I’m fighting the defilements. It’s the defilement that keeps pulling me back. I stick a note on my wall to remind myself that thoughts are thoughts, memories are memories. Just come back to your breath. So whenever thoughts try to trigger me to pick up the substance. I just remind myself that, that’s not me. That’s just my past habit. So after a while, usually after a few minutes, the thought will go away. So you just have to keep fighting it.
You have to endure it within the few minutes when it comes on strongly. Alvin, I must really say that I really admire how much wisdom you have. This wisdom of seeing things clearly in the sense of seeing the drawbacks of being in this lower realm. First, you compare yourself with your friends, you’re lagging behind because of this addiction. Second, realizing the drawbacks of how rare this human birth is, but at the same time being stuck in the lower realm, traps you into not being able to do any goodness, any merits. With that wisdom, that really pushes you through all the difficulties, even though there were lapses in your process of learning how to ride the bike.
The Buddha shared the second of the Eightfold Path, which is the idea of Right Intention. Being firm on this idea of renunciation, letting go of ill-will, keeping yourself in goodwill, keeping yourselves in loving kindness. Being firm and resolved on the idea of harmlessness to yourself as well as harmlessness to other people. This is called right resolve or right intention in which you set your mind firmly to move on into more wholesome activities, more wholesome bodily actions as well.
I’d also like to add that every time I go for Dhamma activities, the Bhante or the Luang Por will make us retake the Five Precepts. So every time I retake the five precepts, it reinforces the motivation to stay away from all these substances. Every time I go to these Dhamma events, I see my Dhamma friends there. I shared with them my addiction and they are like my safety net. So every time I meet up with them, they will ask me, how are you? Indirectly, they will check in on me. I also made promises to Ajahn and Luang Por. Every time they see me, they’ll also ask me. It gives you the additional protection. It’s quite helpful. Maybe those who are actually struggling with addiction can apply it to themselves.
Thank you so much for sharing. You’re very, very lucky to have this supportive community of spiritual friends and more importantly, spiritual teachers that you respect. When you make aspirations in front of people that you respect highly, I think you’ll take that more seriously as well. Your defilements will be a bit scared of it as well. And what are the biggest changes in your Dhamma practice in these two and a half years?
I will say that my mindfulness has increased. I have more opportunities to create merits, go on retreat, and do things that truly benefit myself and other sentient beings. It’s a big gain. I will use a simile right now, I feel like I’m a human being. And I’d kind of go further into maybe Deva?
For all our listeners who have not heard of this term, Deva usually refers to the higher beings. It could be something like deities, angels, or beings of the higher realm that are in a way superior to the human realm. And I guess that is also the path, right? In a way, we start off as puthujjanas, which means that we are not really wise, we break the precepts, and we are a bit heedless here and there. And then as we do more goodness, we start to practice generosity, then that’s where we become kalyanajanas, meaning good people or good beings. Then as we continue on the path and practice, cultivate, and purify our minds, hopefully, we can be Ariya-puggalas, which basically refers to noble beings where our minds are purified as far as possible from the grasping of greed, hatred, and delusions. And Alvin, I just wonder, are you happy now?
Basically, in the past, every weekend, long weekend was the time when I met my friends for drugs. But right now, I have the time to listen to teachings and really spend time with my loved ones. I feel that really benefits myself and other sentient beings. The happiness is different from the happiness you get from drugs. Drug-induced pleasure is basically short-lived, just for that few hours you feel good, but after that when the effect wears off, everything starts crashing down. Whereas the happiness I feel from creating merits, listening to teachings could last for up to a few days. So every time I do something good on Sunday, I listen to a teaching, and attend Dhamma activities, every time I recollect that memory, it actually brings out happiness.
It’s actually referring to merit arising. It’s the idea that when you perform meritorious deeds, you can constantly recollect to bring up joy in your mind as well. You can also recollect your merits in times of sadness or depression. You remember the good that you did and that joy can continue to sustain you. And this kind of joy is very different from the pleasures of drugs or even the pleasures of shopping. You go and shop or you’re going to eat good food after a while you’re like, I’m hungry again. I need the newest bag. I need another car. It’s unsustainable.
It’s very interesting because a lot of people don’t understand that this kind of craving is not sustainable and if you just look into material society, everyone is running around for the bigger paycheck, the next big thing to buy, the next thing to own. “Encircled by craving, people just hop around and around like a rabbit caught in a snare. Tied with all these fetters, all this attachment, you go on to suffer again and again for a long, long time.”(Dhammapada 342) And this is actually in one of the Suttas as well. Then the Buddha says, don’t be like that rabbit. “Anyone on the path should dispel that craving and should aspire to dispassion for this endless craving for oneself”.(Dhammapada 343)
What Buddhist teachings inspire you the most these days?
I’d say the Four Noble Truths. From my own experience, I find the suffering of being addicted actually gives me the motivation to seek a path out of that suffering. In the process, when you look inward, you realize that the problem is not from the outside, but from the inside. So once we are able to fulfill our internal needs by looking inward and also relating to our own experience, then we realize that actually, the pleasures of the material world can only give us temporary happiness. It isn’t sustainable. Nowadays, I find that doing my meditation, it’s actually able to give me that happiness that material pleasures can’t fulfill.
I’m wondering what was it that you were craving that you hoped drugs were able to give you.
It was the loneliness inside and also trying to find the quick and easy way out to fulfill the internal needs. Unfortunately, it could only make things worse.
Yeah, unfortunately, it just worsens and perpetuates your suffering, the very suffering that you wanted to run away from initially. Wow. That’s powerful. I’m very glad, that you also have the right conditions to go back to the Buddhist teachings. A lot of people, once they go into drugs as strong as crystal meth, it’s a one-way road down to deterioration and you’re able to still turn back.
Yeah. Basically, that is also what I told myself because I keep asking myself, I have the condition, my life is actually good, and I don’t have any problems with my family, or my friends at work. Why am I doing this to destroy my own life? This gives me the motivation to want to stop the addiction. If you don’t have any meditation background, you can look for a teacher and learn meditation. When you start looking inward, you realize that we have the choice to change our future. So it’s actually really up to us. We can’t rely on external things to make us feel better.
You have to only rely on your own efforts, to persevere through and then you’re able to find inner happiness, but we’re also very lucky at the same time that we have the Buddha who taught the Dhamma and have a wonderful community of Sangha to show us how to practice well this path so that we only have to put in the effort to go through this practice.
And as you wrap up that chapter of your life, there were definitely some things that you have remorse for. How do you deal with that remorse and regrets of the past, the people that you’ve hurt, and perhaps even your loved ones?
I just use the simile, it’s something that I did in my so-called past life. I can’t go back and change the past, but what I can do is I can change the present. So I just do well right now and I can create a better future for myself and the people around me.
Just focusing on the present. With the faith that what you’re doing in the present is good, the future will ripen with good seeds as well. In the Buddha’s time, there was this serial murderer, Angulimala who killed 99 people to get their fingers. Then the last one he wanted to kill was his mother. But the Buddha, out of his compassion, saw that Angulimala was going to do a very, very big offense. So he went there to try to stop Angulimala and Angulimala wanted to kill the Buddha instead. He’s like, huh? Okay. I don’t kill my mother. I kill the Buddha. But then of course the Buddha cannot be killed. So using his psychic powers he kind of floated away while Angulimala was trying to chase after him. Then after a while, Angulimala got really tired and he was like, Stop running, Buddha, please.I’m tired. Then the Buddha said, Oh, I have stopped for a long time.
In that passage, what he’s referring to is actually not about the running, it’s about the craving. He has stopped all these cravings for a very, very long time. Then of course, with the Buddha’s amazing ability to teach the Dhamma according to everyone’s conditionings, Angulimala became one of the Buddha’s disciples and eventually became an Arahant as well. He even made the blessing chant that after becoming the Buddha’s disciple, I had not killed anybody before. By the power of that truth, may this protect anyone who’s going through difficulties in giving birth or in labor. So it speaks to the potential of all of us regardless of what bad deeds we’ve done or whatever foolishness that we have committed in our past that there is hope to change ourselves as long as we put in the effort. As long as we are able to find the Dhamma which corrects our Right View and to walk on diligently, then we can attain to the Path.
And I guess addiction, there’s a lot of forms, right? Eating disorders, sexual addiction, porn, even video games, gambling, social media. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with any form of addiction?
I came across this quote that actually motivates me. Addiction is the only prison in the world where one holds the key. For someone who is in deep addiction, who wants to get out they might feel a bit helpless, it’s like, what do you mean I hold the key? It’s very difficult for me right now. Yeah. So actually I would encourage people to just get professional help if they really need it. It’s okay, it takes courage to admit that you have a problem. Get help if you really need it.
And I find it very interesting because, in your own journey of recovery, you actually didn’t seek professional help, right? You were kind of DIY, do it yourself. So it’s interesting that you gave the advice that it’s okay to look for help. Why do you give this advice?
Although I didn’t get professional help, I did talk to Ajahn. It took me quite a while to get out of that remorse state. We can expect everybody to use the Dhamma to help them. Some people might need professional help. So there’s no one-size-fits-all method for everybody.
You have to find what is suitable for you at that point in time. And at different times, you will require different things as well. Yes. You were saying it took you quite a while to get out of that remorse state. But eventually, in retrospect, what you realize is that… There’s no point in clinging to the past and the present and the future is more important. Okay. What was the turning point, which gave you that aha moment?
I heard this teaching from Luang Por. Every time we recollect something virtuous,it’s like we are doing that virtuous action again. Similarly, if we keep thinking about the negative things we do, we are actually indirectly doing that negative action again. So I have to tell myself whatever is done is done, just move on. If I really want to benefit myself and all sentient beings, I have to move on.
That is very powerful. I really love that. Thanks for sharing. Amazing. Is there any last thing that you want to share from your experience with struggling with drug addiction?
There’s this method which I find quite helpful. Perhaps you can use something of higher value to overcome the addiction. So something that fits your principles and your personal values. In the past, I’ve always wanted to be a fitness instructor. So actually I also make use of fitness, like going to the gym, taking out new sports to overcome the addiction, and using that drive to help me get out of the addiction and also to pursue my dreams.
What if someone doesn’t have any other value and the value is just seeking happiness? Drugs give me the highest happiness, they can say.
It’s still a form of wanting to seek happiness. To me, it’s still a value. You could actually replace that addiction with something positive. Get a friend to help you to try something different, learn a new hobby, et cetera. Then you can compare and contrast. To see that actually, there’s something that could be even a higher form of happiness compared to the substance I’m attached to. Just try to take the first step.
Yes. The first step might sound extremely scary, and difficult. But always know that there are alternatives to the drugs that you’re taking which harm your body in very severe ways and there are other ways to obtain happiness that actually continues to contribute to your long-term happiness as well. That could be a better option as well. And I’m actually very curious. You say that you have already cut off the friends who did drugs with you, I guess the dealer as well. Have you forgiven them?
To be frank, for a period of time, I was blaming them. But I realized that actually I also have a part to play. So just see everything as due to causes and conditions. So just move on. Cause if you keep dwelling, having anger towards them, then you’re actually still trapping yourself in the past.Just have compassion for them as well, because they don’t have the Right View. They don’t have the merits to encounter the Buddha’s teaching. That’s why they are actually doing something that they think is right, but actually it’s wrong. In the future, they have to bear the consequences of their actions as well. So they deserve compassion and empathy more than anger.
That’s very wise words as well, because at the end of the day, no matter how people manifest in their actions, no matter how evil, how selfish, or how unpleasant it is, everyone is really just seeking happiness in the ways that they know how. It’s unfortunate that people sometimes seek this happiness through ways that cause them more harm because Kamma is the action and intention and the results of this action and intention will always be by your side. You will always be related to this Kamma. You always be associated with this Kamma. You always be with this Kamma. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to bear its results. So in a way, you’re right, they deserve compassion a lot more than they deserve anger. It’s very, very wise of you and very compassionate of you to be able to notice that, and I rejoice with your wisdom.
We’ve come to the end of this episode. Thank you so much for sharing on a topic that not many have experienced, but yet also relating to. I guess that’s the humanness of all of us, the suffering that all of us share together in wanting to be happy, and trying to find the best ways to be happy as well.
To our listeners, I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and you’re able to apply some of these gems of wisdom and compassion in your own lives. If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five-star rating on Spotify and share this with your friends. Until the next episode, stay happy and wise.
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Buddhist Youth Network, Lim Soon Kiat, Alvin Chan, Tan Key Seng, Soh Hwee Hoon, Geraldine Tay, Venerable You Guang, Wilson Ng, Diga, Joyce, Tan Jia Yee, Joanne, Suñña, Shuo Mei, Arif, Bernice, Wee Teck, Andrew Yam, Kan Rong Hui, Wei Li Quek, Shirley Shen, Ezra, Joanne Chan, Hsien Li Siaw, Gillian Ang, Wang Shiow Mei.
Editor and transcriber of this episode: Cheryl Cheah, Susara Ng, Ke Hui Tee
Well, if you’re listening to this podcast, I’m pretty sure you ask yourself this question sometimes, because you’re constantly trying to find ways to develop yourself to become a better person. And doing good for others and yourself is such a big part of this self improvement journey, however, is doing good, always good.
Who exactly defines what is good or what’s bad? What is right or what is wrong?
So we have the king of fried rice to king of fruits, the king of the jungle. What about the king of goodness?
Hi, my name is Kai Xin. I’m your host for this episode. And you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcasts, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.
You know, the path to happiness isn’t a smooth one. We will definitely meet with setbacks and challenges around work, relationships, mental well being and so much more. In this podcast, we discuss these realities of life and explore how we can bring the Dharma closer to home so that we can navigate the complexities of life just a little better.
Besides this podcast, we also share resources and insights on our Instagram, Facebook and Telegram channel. Please subscribe if you haven’t already done so.
In this very episode, we have a chat with Sister Sylvia Bay. She graduated with a BA Honours first class in Buddhist studies from the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka in 2000. Sister Sylvia isn’t just academically smart. Since 1992. She has been dedicating her life to the practice and serving the community, she has been doing so by dedicating time outside of work to give Dhamma talks and lectures, and practical application of the Dharma is always heavily emphasised in all her sharings.
Today, she’ll be opening our minds on a topic of what it means to be good. And the tipping point when doing good, turns bad. Trust me, it’s filled with so much insights. I personally had a lot of ‘aha’ moments. And I encourage you to take a notepad and start taking down some notes. Now let’s begin.
Kai Xin 02:22
Hi, Sister Sylvia, good to have you here.
Nice to see you too.
Kai Xin 02:27
Yes, it’s really good to have you because today we are exploring something that it’s quiet, I would say, mind-boggling because you know, in Buddhism, we talk about doing good, avoiding evil, and purifying the mind. What I think is mind-boggling is the definition of good. Because you know, people sometimes will justify their actions to say, Oh, I do this because, but it’s a little grey as well. There are a lot of questions that I have for you to kind of explore that grey area. Perhaps we can start off with, what is your definition of good.
This thing about good? People kind of know, right? I mean, we all have all of us, any of us, even the little ones will have some sense of what’s good and bad. And typically, if you ask people, why is this good? Or why is this bad? It will boil it down to a few things. One, it has to do with feelings. Meaning, if you feel really unpleasant, and because it’s so unpleasant, your instinct is to react to that in a way that will cause pain or more problems for yourself or for others. And because you do that, it will create pain, or, or suffering for yourself or others. Generally, it’s like that.
If you think about it, let’s say I get angry. Anger is an unpleasant sensation. When one feels anger, one will say something or do something that allows one to express that anger. And in saying or in doing, the odds are, it hurts someone, whether it’s yourself or another. And when you step back, you who were angry, when you look at the episode, there will arise a sense of maybe conscience, maybe a bit of shame, a sense that maybe I shouldn’t have done that. There’s regret, and there is remorse. Anybody in a similar situation is likely to say that’s bad. That’s not good.
Conversely, suppose let’s say, you were very kind, you saw people hurting, you came forward, you help. And then you turn away and say, ‘That’s a very nice feeling. I really feel happy I feel light there’s pleasant sensation.’
And then others observing that act, and will also say, ‘Oh, that’s a very good act’.’ Because they also feel pleasure, they feel the pleasant sensation. One thing about what’s good or bad has to do with feeling. Which is why for many people, there is generally some common instinctive appreciation of the act as good or bad. We understand the feeling involved in that. But it’s not all about feelings. We know that. For instance, sometimes you feel unpleasant. Like righteousness, right? Someone gets bullied. And then you look at it, and you go, it’s not nice. The sense that this is wrong, there is unpleasant, but you know, when you feel sorry for someone that’s considered good. But the feeling is not good.
Kai Xin 06:26
I hear a couple of things. So one is you yourself must feel pleasant.
Or it has to stem from wanting to do good, then there must be some form of feedback as well. Right? So other people are approving of your act.
However, I’m just thinking of a very grey situation where maybe somebody is bullied. And I feel righteous that this person mustn’t do this. Then, I act on my feelings, and it might either be scolding that person or maybe I might retaliate, and people around me might say, ‘Wow, you’re so brave to do that.’. Then is it still good?
Now we go back and we unpack this one. Okay. Let’s unpack this, when you feel sorry for the victim, at that point, what arises is empathy. Empathy is the condition that allows you to continue doing something good for another. Empathy is a good thing. But because our feelings and actions proliferate fast, they react fast, and they proliferate fast. The result is anger will come up, you basically put it righteousness. Righteousness is anger, a sense of justice, which is anger, okay? When that comes up, what is good is now being stained. What would have been good, has now become somewhat stained by our sense of righteous anger. And that’s why there is also that sensation of unpleasantness that because it’s unpleasant, you want to react, whether to score or to stand up for somebody you want to react, and the words that come out is intended to hurt, to beat the other bully. So all this is downstream.
Now, what was initially would have been a good reaction has now become not good. Because now we are experiencing a lot of wanting a lot, which will create more pain for yourself and for others. If you ask me, what would I consider good, is a speech or an act that will lead to benefits and happiness for yourself and for others. It’s always for Buddhism, it’s always for yourself, and for others, it’s not a zero-sum game. It has to be when there is the raising of common interest, benefit, happiness, welfare. In my mind, that’s what I would consider is good and correct. Anything that leads to pain suffering, it will cause hurt for people. It would diminish interest, welfare, happiness, those are considered bad. No good. It’s actually not difficult. It’s pretty straightforward.
How do you know what is good or not, you will experience it through the feelings, for sure you will have the sensation. I’ll give you an example. Suppose let’s say you lost somebody, someone very close to you. And there is a part in you that griefs. No one would say that’s bad per se because it doesn’t hurt another person. But it’s pain, right? You lost somebody, you miss the person, you experience pain. The fact that you experienced pain means there is attachment. There is longing, attachment, longing, it’s always a condition, for problems now and in the future. And in that sense, any form of craving, or wanting or longing, any form of it is not good, unskilful (Akusala). Any form of it.
Kai Xin 11:08
Let’s go back to what you said about any speech or action should be for the welfare and benefit of others and yourself. How do you measure that benefit? Because I’ll give you an example. I think in today’s day and age, there are a lot of activists, you know, small groups wanting to fight for social justice, or environmentalism. And it’s always, there are two sides to a coin, right, somebody feels that it’s valuable to be a vegetarian. And some people feel like no, it’s not really to my advantage and my welfare, and it’s such an inconvenient thing. And I don’t feel happy about it as well. So then it becomes like a dichotomy, or in the process of wanting to do good, perhaps somebody else’s happiness is being compromised?.
Isn’t it vary based on what an individual would value? Then is that something which everyone would agree upon? Who defines the benefit, and who defines what’s good? Isn’t it very subjective?
Then, of course, there’s some degree of subjectivity. That is true, in fact, in how each person view the world, it’s subjective, in anything that you undertake. If someone perceives that his interest is infringed on that his happiness is compromised, he will perceive you as not nice to him not doing good by him. That is true. There are many causes that people get themselves into that they get very righteous, they are very active and very enthusiastic. But you think a bit harder, it’s questionable about the end results of the causes. That is true, I acknowledged and agreed to that.
Let’s think back about what makes it right and what makes it wrong. The Buddha talked about intention, and how it’s done, and then the results. There are three parts to it.
If your intention was wholesome (Kusala), and you really wish for a common good and everyone can benefit from it. If that’s your intention, then you will experience that it is pleasant. If your intention is pure, your experience will be pleasant. If you say the cause is pure, like protecting life, it is pure, but the way you’re expressing your feeling about it is unpleasant or painful, Then at that point, whatever you say, your motivation is still unwholesome.
I’ll give you an example, let’s say pro-life, people who fight for pro-life and then some of them get so angry, right? That you respect life is pure. But because you’re angry with others who don’t share your views, and therefore, at the point when you feel pain, that motivation has already turned into unwholesome. You just didn’t realise it.
Do you understand? It’s the same thing when you campaign for the weather and climate. You’re doing that because you understand the science that men are paying for the sins of the past. That now you’re angry that there’s a bunch of people who are irresponsible and unreasonable ,and they really don’t care. There is anger. Your cause is maybe good. But because your mind is now narrowly focused on the selfishness of others. The cause is still wholesome, but your motivations are no longer wholesome.
Kai Xin 18:24
Yeah, that’s such a good point. Because I also personally would notice, perhaps there’s some form of attachment, wanting other people to kind of fit my own ideals. And there’s a lot of judging in the process as well. And it’s a valuable point that you pointed out that it doesn’t matter how people judge you because, in my mind, it’s very difficult to please everybody, right, my intention might be pure. And I might go through the motion and execute my pure intention in a skilful way. But if the other person is going to be angry about it, then do I have to feel the need and the sense to fit that person’s ideal, then it will just be a very stressful life to me.
Then you’re in the world, really. It’s in action reaction.
You know, in some countries, in some regional countries really good. They you see pots and pots of water that they left the leaf outside their house for travellers to be able to drink. It’s very pure. It’s like, I want to be timing and take a drink if you need one. And that’s correct or not. You put the you put the item on the table, and you walk away without because then you’re saying I’m not invested in the outcome. I’m only invested in the purity of the act, but the outcome of it, I’ve walked away from it. I don’t want to hang around and be really caught up in why is it not working.
Kai Xin 19:58
Speaking of that, when you talk about not being invested in the outcome?
Personally, I think it’s very difficult because the outcome is the most tangible. People can’t read minds. And you know, when we talk about being good, we have certain guidelines to follow, don’t lie, don’t kill. And that is the experience also in the process, like, oh, perhaps I have accidentally told a white lie, or I’ve like intentionally out of habit. And then I go into this self guilt kind of mode. How do you reconcile because the outcome is bad, right? I’m not supposed to lie. But then I’m judging my intention.
How does one not be invested in the outcome?
You know, we’re talking about campaigning for the climate. And that’s a cause, a social cause, a social set of conditions that you’re trying to create what you were referring to separately, it’s about precepts, not telling lies and not killing, not stealing, meaning, the choices you make at a very narrow tactical level.
The other one is you’re talking about a goal. In its most strategic things, it’s like, how do I live my life? How do I raise children, that’s a goal. In that goal, there are many steps and many acts. Many things that you do those minute ones is a separate thing.
Can we take them separately?
Specifically on this issue about precepts, keeping to precepts, that you’re feeling bad because you didn’t do it right. I believe if you understand why the rules are crafted like this, meaning what is the larger objective, then you know how to calibrate your life, calibrate the choices, and you don’t feel bad when you are calibrating. I’ll give you an example. Let’s take lying. The reason is that the consequences on our mind if you generate shades to explain reality, and your shades do not directly correlate with reality, you’re shading the truth, right? When you do that, your mind starts to store your version. In the process of all these narratives being stored in all the different shades, not absolute truth, you’re murky with the truth.The point will come when the mind can’t quite tell, accurately, what is the fact and what is not? The perception of reality of fuzziness, becomes very fuzzy, at some point becomes your reality.
For anyone who’s practising seeing reality as is, this condition of the mind really will be a huge obstacle to practice – to realising the true nature of the mind and be able to kind of shrug away the negative instincts and become a good, wholesome, wise, clear person. Your effort to become all these is going to be seriously undermined by fuzziness. That’s one part of it.
The second part of it is regarding your reputation in society. This is the part that not many people talk about because they don’t realise they may or may not realise that this is an important point, which is something that Buddha had talked about, when someone does not tell absolute truth. It will hit his credibility, social standing, his credibility, his words will not be taken seriously. In assembly, this is how it was set in the Sutta. You think about it, you shade truths, people find out about your shading because truth has a certain way of kind of emerging, right? Then at some point, you have a reputation, she’s very loose with truths. Now you have a problem. You have a credibility problem.
For yourself internally, you can’t quite tell what’s real. For the world, externally. Your words are questionable. If people say, is this a lie? If you’re asking me that, the odds are, you know, you’re being loose with the fact, then you decide do you want to proceed with the elusiveness knowing that at some point, it may cost you your ability to see things clearly. And why do you want to do that?
We uphold these precepts, whether it’s about the truth, whether it’s about not being greedy, and taking things not given to you, whether it’s about honesty in relationship, etc. It really is because all these choices, leaves serious imprint on the mind, it can change your character, it can affect your relationship with people, it can cost you what I call it, social costs, your standing in society, and so on. Those are the practical ones.
Now comes the bigger issue, the most strategic one — the goal, the end goal, the big cause. How can one not be invested in the outcome. If you’re invested with any outcome, there is in you, a clinging, a craving, a desire. It’s not right or wrong, you must know that the more invested you are, the more stress you will feel, the more pain you will experience, the more disappointment is likely to come your way. The more intense your attachment, the more you must be prepared to accept disappointment. That’s the cost.
Kai Xin 26:42
I’m hearing a lot of common thread in your points that the attachment to the desire, having anger, these are considered unwholesome. But does that mean that we shouldn’t have desire at all? How about the desire to be good? At what point would we know that the desire for good will actually turn sour and become bad?
Desire for good is good only because it leads to good.
Desiring to be good means it’s the start point of downstream choices that will lead to an outcome where you experienced peace, calm, contentment, the cessation of angst, that’s why the desire for good is good. Any other forms of desire that leads to an increase in agitation, increase in pain and suffering, then those desires are unconducive for your welfare too for some it sounds “Oh this is so tall order” for some people. You just have to bring it down to your personal level, bring it home to your daily experience practice. If you say I wish to be a good person, I want to learn to be a good person.
What does it mean downstream? I will read up on what makes a good person, I listen to talks, I watch shows and I try and model behaviour to learn from others. And if you’re very serious about wanting to be a good, person, you will build upon your sense of guilt when you are not good, you feel shame when someone tells you “This is not nice” you feel shame. You’re basically quietly gently generating the conditions that will keep you on track to be a good person who causes nobodies harm and create pain for others, when people in your space they enjoy being with you, okay?
Now let’s take it differently. Let’s say I now desire to push for vaccination for everybody. Can you see the difference? You get agitated. You go ahead. Send out paper flyers, go and hound somebody. What is wrong with you? Why are you not vaccinated? Let me explain to you. As you talk you get more agitated, the fellow listeners get more agitated, the whole world around you get more agitated.
Kai Xin 29:34
What I’m hearing is that there are many causes. They really are a means to an end. Like I want to keep my precepts, or I want people to take the vaccine at the end of the day. It’s really about the welfare, the harmony or feeling peace. I will use my mental state as a yardstick. But you also mentioned shame and guilt. In the Buddhist space, we talk about Hiri Ottapa, this sense of moral shame. And then I’m also thinking on behalf of the listener and the viewers, isn’t shame and guilt an unpleasant feeling?
Some people might think, ‘I don’t think I am moral enough ,or I’m good enough to even be on the path.’ Or I cannot, you know, it’s too hard. I cannot meditate because I’m always not very peaceful. I feel like shame, it is very unpleasant. Is shame and guilt or unpleasant feeling part of the process, we have to be patient with it and see the peace, and again how do we tell it’s so such a fine balance?
Okay, Hiri Ottapa, Hiri is moral conscience, this is internal, you like it or not it’s there it’s built into all humans the condition, and we know that it’s built in because studies have shown that psychopaths don’t have, that it cannot be turned on that part of the brain doesn’t light up. It actually lights up, okay? And what the Buddha has taught is use this natural state to protect yourself in your practice, it’s considered a good thing because it’s what will keep you from undertaking actions that will cause you problems in your cultivation exercise. For instance, you know these precepts, don’t lie, don’t take what’s not given. If you have conscience, you don’t need this precept to tell you that you cannot do that, you cannot kill. You just don’t want to do it because you know when you do it you feel bad. Then on days when you’re very angry, very, very angry. You want to smack someone. But that part of you that holds you back is this conscience it is very strong, you are reminded that there is a cost to undertaking an action that costs another pain, you will be reminded so that you are taught never to do it. Not that you will never do it. But if you’re constantly reminded, don’t do it because you cannot sleep at night. Then when you’re confronted that situation a new situation, but it’s similar you will not do it because you remember, it will cost you sleepless night. That’s conscience.
Shame (Ottapa) is this sense of a need for communal approval and I believe that this is also in a DNA this part about needing the approval of others, right, I believe this I have no proof. I believe this is also part of our DNA because possibly built in during the time when men was living in a very dangerous world, and the only way he can survive this way he has others like him, and together they help each other in order to be able to continue staying with others, then you must conform to a certain behaviour that communally they agreed to. Your sense of shame is cultural, it is a condition or thought. It changes over time, but it’s really because there is a constant internally, you want to be accepted. And the manifestation of that is you will mirror behaviour, you will follow what people do, you will learn where all the OB markers (“out of bounds marker”) are so that you are accepted within this community. These two pillars for practice, right? It is to help the individual navigate and stay on the path that will give him a sense of peace, when you undertake an action that straight out of these two OB markers, you will have no sense of peace, they are what I call the hard parents smack you then you “I will not transgress” because they are hard.
Initially, it is difficult. But over time you can appreciate it, you can appreciate these two, if you are generally okay. And these two in your life, hold you to a wholesome path. You’re okay with it. Overtime, you feel very peaceful, then you are very grateful for these two that had kept you in check initially.
Conversely, you’re very angry person then this two you will resent then you act on your anger, you get more frustrated. These two fellows now come very hard at you. And they’re trying very hard to hold you in check. But if you refuse to at some point, you drop these two. “Heck I am already so bad, who cares” You will drop your conscience ,you will not allow people to shame you right, now you’re forcefully removing these two pillars, you have no sense of shame, you have no sense of guilt, you will continue to do whatever you want. Creating more pain, discomfort, no peace of mind, more things for yourself. Now you’re spiralling into the negative. It’s very hard to attain these things because really they are conditional.
And you just basically pick a point in this circle, that chicken and egg story. You pick the chicken, and you work from there ,and it leads back to the egg and lead back to the chicken. It sounds like that. Unfortunately, that’s why you just got to start somewhere.
Kai Xin 36:07
I know because some people would say I need to be peaceful first, and then I do all this, you know, good causes, but some people say okay, I do causes first and then eventually I will feel more at peace right then that’s where the chicken and egg comes.
I think it does require some kind of patience, isn’t it? To kind of go through that bump to say, I’ve tried so hard, but I’m constantly getting it wrong. And then dealing with the guilt that is very intense. How would you then advise people to be a bit more patient when they’re trying to be good?
I always try to start on the side choice because that part you can control. I mean, to the degree that you can, “Do I scold or do I not scold?” “Do I speak out, or do I not speak out? ” At that point you still have a choice. The condition of your mind at that point you didn’t choose. I mean you get angrier and angrier and angrier, it just happens. You didn’t choose to be angry. But once the anger starts, you can choose to react or not. If you have clarity, that if you give into anger today thinking that it’s temporary venting. Now it doesn’t work like that, for whatever choices that you make, it would leave some kind of an imprint on the mind leaving similar imprints for stretches, means those imprint very hard to erase.
That’s why we must start somewhere if you want to overcome anger and become a more peaceful person, you must make a determination to say anger hurts, it causes problems for physical form for the body for the mind, it causes problem, it leaves lingering effects. Therefore, I will learn to moderate my anger, I will learn to tame it, make the determination that you must get started, every time anger peaks its head out, you must smack it back and say, I will not give it to you. I will now bring up friendliness, you will choke on trying to cough up friendliness initially. But if you link these two, I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness. At some point, that balance will tilt, it becomes easier to bring up friendliness than anger. And it all started with you saying you know what I have enough of this anger, I would get started.
Kai Xin 39:02
Does that require some sense of wisdom and internalisation; otherwise it can sound quite wilful, right? Like we are just clenching our teeth and say, I will be friendly, I’ll be friendly. I mean, speaking for my own experience, when I started walking on the path, I was picking myself up a lot. And there’s a lot of agitation in the process. And sometimes I kind of just want to throw in the towel, you know, and it’s like, how do I do it?
How do people do it? Why are they so nice, you know? How do you balance striving to be good? But then at the same time not being too wilful and just like you know just accepting things as they are and have that restful state.
You know, in the method right in the training for lay people I always talk about four mental states that you need, sometimes the Buddha mentioned five, but sometimes he mentioned four. You have faith, morality, generosity, wisdom, and you notice wisdom tags number five, four or five. If it’s five, it will be faith. I use the Pali word Saddha which means having confidence, conviction having faith in the teaching the teacher and so on, then morality, and then he introduced one more Sota which is learning the doctrine. I repeat, it can be four, or it can be five mental states. When it is 4 mental states, it is faith, morality, generosity, wisdom. If he talks about 5 mental states the third one, faith, morality, learning, generosity, wisdom. The extra one is learning. Now, why these five mental states right, when you have faith, faith in itself is a pleasant sensation. Very powerful, very pleasant. If you have faith in Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha.
The Buddha, his teaching, the monastic practice. If you have faith, people carrying that mental state will experience a pleasant sensation will be pleasant. Will not be painful. Then you say, but sometime faith is painful. Nope. Faith is not painful. What is painful is something else. Depending on the individual got to figure out what it is, but it’s not faith, faith in itself is very pleasant.
You believe it or not, if you don’t believe me, you just sit down there at where you are. You say to yourself “I have faith, I believe” and you just pause awhile to look at the mind. You will see the mind as either neutral or for those of you with very strong faith you will immediately experience a surging joy. That’s how powerful it can be. This is not difficult to polish for a Buddhist, every day, you go before the Buddha statue, the Buddha Rupa, you take a bow, and you say to yourself, I have faith in you. You just have to do this every day, momentarily, you will experience joy. And this joy, this faith, is very important. It’s very inspiring, motivating. It keeps people saying, I know it’s difficult, but because I have faith I can continue.
Kai Xin 42:59
Would it be different if we turn it inwards? I mean, for those who are non-religious, can they say, ‘I have faith in myself to be a good person or to be happier, to be more at peace.’? Would that be a difference?
There is a slight difference. Because if for the longest time you were not exactly the nicest person, you say, I have faith in myself to be a nice person. Great. At that point, you enjoy a little “Yes, I do feel good about this”. Then you don’t know how, if you don’t know how, you only say I can do it, but you don’t know how to do it. At some point, disappointment, doubt, will start.
That is why you need other mental states. Faith is step one, right?
And step two is morality then generosity, then wisdom, right? These are the mental states, they work collectively, to inspire you and keep you on the practice. You take away the other mental states, and you have only faith, nothing else. Then this faith is not strong. It’s not sitting on some foundation. It is where that individual say, I believe in Buddha, then when life hits you all kinds of curveballs and you at some point, your faith will wear thin for sure because you have nothing beyond faith.
If you have faith, and you are a good person, so morality right, I’m a good person I learned to do good avoid evil etc. Then I practice generosity, and generosity is another lecture by itself. But let’s say that you practice generosity, giving is just one small part of generosity, generosity of spirit, generosity of its forgiveness, generosity, embracing another’s generosity, giving up your views and your biases is generosity, etc. You have generosity and then you have wisdom.
Wisdom is understanding the transient nature of life. Understanding mortality, so to speak, learning not to hold on to things because holding on will only give you pain, so all these as a whole there is yet another series of talks there. But all these understanding of the nature of mind, all these put together that then you have the relevant tools that will keep you anchored to being good doing good. You are only occasionally true. Because you’re overwhelmed by emotions, and then you tripped a bit. But you basically hop on to the train again, and you are okay. On this wholesome adventure, you’ll be fine.
Kai Xin 46:25
Do you have a mantra or a sentence to help people who are too harsh on themselves?
You said earlier was correct, patience. But having said that, I will be a bit careful here. Patience must not be used as an excuse. I’m patient, and therefore I can forgive myself anything. It should not be used as an excuse for laziness or for giving yourself a discount on the practice. Patience is to me it’s more like you moderate the harshness moderate part of you that is very judging that you hold yourself to very high standards, and you judge yourself to fall short of that standard that you set. And you tell yourself, it’s okay to moderate. Patience to me, is moderation. It’s accepting that there are some conditions that are hard to overcome. And you moderate expectations. And you at every step, when you do well, you tell yourself now, this is the correct thing to do. Well done, good job. You learn to pat yourself on the back so patience lead to this kind of practices.
Patience is powerful because if it sits on wisdom. Understand that, in our practice in our cultivation, the mental states are not held in isolation, they must work in conjunction with others. Which is why if you look at the Buddha’s teaching, very often they tell you about seven factors of enlightenment, or the five powers of the mind, or the four Iddhipada, superpower states of mind, etc. It’s always a few mental states, all of them are mental states. And all these mental states are always taught as a cluster. Because alone, it doesn’t work. You need a few to hold together a set of conditions conducive for practice, conducive for staying good. Why? Because you are overcoming habits and instincts, and habits and instincts have been formed through a millennium a long time, you cannot overcome these states overnight, can’t be done. When I said earlier about patience, moderation, lowering your bar and all those things, is in recognition that whoever you are, whatever you are, today has been form through millennium. If you don’t even remember all the conditions in the past that led to a takeaway. Set baseline that now, centuries later still surface, you don’t remember what was the condition. But now you got to bear with it. When you understand enough that who you are is the result of conditions from a long ago, therefore it needs time. To understand yourself better, you need time to learn to overcome or overwrite an earlier setting of your instincts, you need to overwrite the earliest software to create new software.
Kai Xin 50:29
So, it can’t just be a sit back and see what happens kind of patience, but it requires an active and deliberate effort to say I forgive, and now I’m acting with certain mental models or framework to be better. How do we know when it’s okay to give in to our desires, say if I have a stressful day at work, I know meditating will help me relieve stress. And it’s good for me. But I don’t have the mental capacity and energy to sit on the cushion. I would rather watch YouTube videos. And then again, the cycle repeats. Oh, guilt trip. ‘Why do I do this?’
Is it more helpful to say it’s okay for me to just indulge in sensual desires and pleasures for just one day until I have the capacity to be more spiritual again. How do you know when to give in to desires and when to not give in to desires?
No hard and fast rule about these things. It’s individual maturity. And this is what the Buddha had said that if you truly understand through direct knowledge and understanding, we truly understand impermanence meaning, mortality and the pain of birth, if you truly appreciate that and truly get it, that can generate its own momentum for not letting up on practice.
It’s true understanding and wisdom, that then you won’t cave in. The rest of us are not to that level of direct knowledge and understanding. In fact, for many of us, our embracing of the Dharma and the practice is abit of I want my cake and eat it. What do I mean, I experienced Dukkha periodically, I find it so frustrating, life is so Dukkha, I agree. Therefore, going to the Dharma, in anticipation that we practice, my experience of Dukkha diminishes. We go into Dharma to raise the pleasure quotient to reduce the Dukkha quotient.
And because of that, actually, we are still attached to pleasure, we have never really understood, we just want our cake and eat it. We want to enjoy sensual pleasure and life as we always do without the punishment. That sense of pain that comes about because we don’t understand dhamma. For most of us, we fall into this category. And that is why in our practice, our so-called meditation, the putting time aside for meditation, right? It’s always lower on the list of things to do. Most of us are like that meditation, oh gosh, it’s like upstairs, my mind just going to be so boring. Because on the list of pleasurable things, meditation doesn’t usually rank really high. Meditation becomes like duty, which then adds on to the unpleasantness of it, and we equate practice with meditation, which is really jialat because that’s not true.
Practice is not meditation. Meditation is one part of the practice. If you have true wisdom, true insight, true understanding, you will never let up. Because if you don’t have true wisdom, true insight true understanding, then practice is just a list of things you want to do. And sometimes it’s higher (on the list) because you’re inspired. Sometimes it drops to rock bottom because on these games, the world beckons, it is just like that.
Is there a right or wrong? There is no right or wrong, I would like to say right means: no press on full steam ahead! But we are laypeople. And laypeople means priorities a little different, and the priorities will start to change only with growing understanding and wisdom. The wisdom is what will cause you to reprioritise at some point because you now rank practice very highly. Because of that, your progress, your insight, your understanding, will take on a new momentum.
And then it will spin in that wholesome and very energetically in the Dhamma way by itself. It’s like you’re driving on the floor. Initially, you have all these road bumps, so you cannot go very far. But at some point, you have overcome the road bumps. And now the road is clear here. And you can speed up and how fast it takes for you to speed, depends on how fast you want to get there, how fast you set the condition in place. And how fast you want to set the condition in place depends on how much pain you are now seeing.
Kai Xin 56:23
What I understand from your explanation on wisdom is that when we truly internalise that, this is something that can be more sustainable than the fleeting pleasures, then it really just propels us there’s no sense of like willpower, I have to do it. It’s a chore. And that’s a very important quality, right? Because I also noticed that some people can feel very gung-ho at the start and say, ‘I want to meditate’. It’s all about clocking the number of hours of meditation. And of course, that’s just one part of the practice.
Or some would say, ‘oh, I am so good at keeping my precept. What is this other person doing? Why is he not living up to that particular moral standard?’
But that itself might lack wisdom, because it’s not so much about transcending Dukkha and it’s not so much about being more at peace and that then becomes like the yardstick isn’t it?
Wisdom is the essential mental quality to really help us be on the right track. And then circling back to where we started. In the process, when we have wisdom, we will naturally feel pleasant, when we’re doing a good act or doing a good cause, did I get it right?
Wisdom is a very deep mental state. And you can approach this from a different angle, when there is wisdom, there is understanding, understanding of the concepts taught by the Buddha. Correct understanding at a deeper level, when there is wisdom, there is not just understanding, but there is an ability to notice that in your daily life, you form a conclusion that correlate with the teaching. Oh, I can see this. This is what the Buddha meant when he said all these things, capture in this Sutta or this is what the Buddha meant. Wisdom is an enabler, it enables you to understand the teaching, be able to observe the phenomenon in daily life, in direct reflection of the teaching. And wisdom also enables you to make the right choices, it means the choices that will help you grow in understanding, be a more peaceful and calmer person, more content, more at ease. Wisdom enables you to pick wisely, choose wisely. Focus your attention correctly, all gearing you towards realising the driving forces of your mind, how it works. And so you continue in daily life, you continue to do the thing that will enable you to be happier.
Wisdom fundamentally, enables you to live happily, there is no unhappy, wise person. I mean, you can have bad conditions. But when there is wisdom, you don’t feel too bad about your experience. Not great. But it’s okay, I can live with this. Wisdom helps you to accept, and therefore you’re okay. Even though the conditions are bad, this person knows how to let go. He may not know how to articulate to you how he managed to let go but he knows how to. Buddha is just so brilliant. He captured it into a training formula, DIY for everyone. Buddha wisdom is superior to everyone else because he knows how to sum up the driving forces that leads to growth of wisdom. Therefore, growth of happiness.
Kai Xin 1:00:45
I have one last question to wrap up this episode. Talking about wisdom, do you have any actionable tips that the listeners can take away to grow in wisdom and happiness?
What is this wisdom that, I think, would really help is to constantly remind ourselves whatever is transient, whatever is impermanent, feeling perceiving from mental polishing or activities and so on so forth. For everyone, they last for a mere nanosecond. The state itself lasts for mere nanosecond grief, pain, anger, frustration, lalalala. Whatever it is, all that short in a snap of a finger, it’s over. The only time you really realise the meaning of this teaching, right? That in what is impermanent, it is painful. It’s when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness or someone you love is dead. But the reality is, it’s always a condition of life. It is a condition of life that we will all die. But you see, we will happily blindly roam through life completely oblivious, of what is an inevitable situation. In what is inevitable, we are oblivious. Aha! that’s our problem. Because of that, we have the delusion of control. What are you talking about? The illusion of control, I can control people’s mind, I can convince people, so I can get the outcome I want, isn’t it? It’s all about control. When you are mindful of this, its transient and impermanent, and therefore actually, the reality is to Dukkha. And because of that. You don’t have control. Control is a figment of our imagination. Then why is it so important to get this, internalise this, why is it so important? So that you have an incentive to avoid evil, be good? And why is that important? Only then can you be happy, only when you can build your life rich with kindness, compassion, patience, etc. Then moment to moment, you are at ease, not disease, dis-ease, you are at ease you are peaceful.
Kai Xin 1:03:46
To remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of life, we can do it through reflecting on death. And also in the process, we would see the first noble truth which is, there is suffering, that is Dukkha. And that will propel us to then do what is beneficial, what is right. And through this cycle. That’s where we become wiser. We are more aware and mindful of our actions, and it is like rinse and repeat. Correct?
Kai Xin 1:04:48
All right. Thanks a lot, Sister Sylvia. It’s been such a pleasure to hear from you and alot of insights. Thank you.
Thanks, listeners for tuning in. I hope you got as much value as I did. Please share with us what is your biggest take away, you can do so on our telegram channel or wherever you are listening to this podcast. Please give us a review because it would really help us to reach more people. And please share if you know anyone who can benefit from this. In the next episode, my co-host Cheryl and I will be touching on this topic a little deeper, exploring perspectives of how we can stand up for what is right in the Buddhist way, and whether Anger is ever justified. How can we treat a person who has committed a bad deed?
Stay tuned for the next episode. Meanwhile, stay happy and wise.
Special Thanks to:
Sopisa for helping with the transcript
Key Seng Tan, and Lynn Leng for sponsoring this podcast
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: As religious or spiritual people, we can sometimes get unknowingly self-righteous, giving unsolicited advice. It’s much more skillful to respond to the needs of the person we are speaking to with equanimity, mindfulness and a sense of “right timing”.
A type of question I often hear during Q&A sessions with Dhamma teachers goes like this:
“How should I advise this person about this thing they are doing that seems problematic?”
“How should I advise my friend /family member to be more [insert good quality]?”
This is interesting because from how the question is framed, it sounds like the asker is less concerned about what their friend/ family member should do about their situation than how to advise (or persuade) them in a way that makes them want to take up their advice.
This can seem like it comes from a good place – but actually, what is the intention here?
Are you collaboratively helping that person to work out their issue, or are you trying to “correct” them based on your opinion of what they should be doing?
Sometimes the desire to fix other people’s problems can come from righteousness and judgement – aka the ego. But in fact, they might not need (or want) your advice.
Am I doing this for them or for me?
Something I’ve noticed in myself and other Buddhists is that we can sometimes become quite deluded, clinging to a “Buddhist identity” that we’ve fabricated over time.
We can be quite self-righteous, thinking we have all the answers and if only they knew better, if only they did this thing that the Buddha said, they would be so much happier. So, we go around advising our friends and family, trying to “fix” everyone’s suffering.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find that this is less about them and more about us, compelled by a neurotic desire to fix someone’s problem as a projection of our own ideals. A telltale sign is when we feel a strong desire for the other person to take up our suggestion and a sense of agitation when they are not willing – that disappointment comes from an expectation.
Probably another defining quality of unsolicited advice is when it is given at the wrong time. You could very well be right about what the other person needs to do about their situation, but they might not be ready to receive it just yet.
What you are saying might be true, but if you say it at the wrong time or in the wrong circumstances, it becomes “wrong”. This is because we are not being receptive to the needs of the other person; our words are not in line with the way things are right now.
Instead, we are strongly attached to our views about the situation and are more concerned about getting them across and validated.
We want our thoughts and speech to be thought of as right and true.
That validation gives us a nice ego boost, making us feel that our opinions are right and true – which is a very nice and lofty way to perceive ourselves.
I am a wholesome and good Buddhist.
I am someone who helps improve the lives of those around me.
This sounds wonderful, of course. Better than being a murderer.
But if we begin to cling to that image of ourselves, then our actions become less about generosity and goodness for their own sake and more about egoistic self-interest. More importantly, we may not be not truly serving the other person at all.
Drop the preacher mentality
I used to have a strong tendency to go around preaching about Buddhism until I met people like my Ajahn – a very unsuspecting monk of the Thai forest tradition.
He always keeps a low profile but sometimes drops these mind-blowing nuggets of wisdom when the situation calls for it. Even though he’s in robes, he doesn’t go around preaching to every person he speaks to – which is ironic because he’s probably one of the most qualified people to do so.
He mainly just listens and only gives advice when asked or makes comments at the appropriate time.
I think this is a sign of true humility (and Right Speech) – as opposed to when you feel like you have the right to “teach” or “correct” others, which automatically comes from a place of superiority.
You’re trying to fix others, change them, make the world a better place – all according to your ideals, which are really just ego projections. Again – true but not right, right but not true.
Observing Ajahn’s behaviour, it’s apparent that despite his many years of diligent practice, experience and knowledge, he never really views himself as a “teacher” and therefore never puts himself in that position. He’s not on a profound mission to create world peace or save humanity or spread Buddhism.
He just wants to live out his life as a simple monk practising the Dhamma.
The irony of that is that turning inwards and focusing on ourselves is often the most impactful or inspiring thing for other people. Watching the skillful conduct of Dhamma friends like Ajahn has been the most effective thing for me in changing my behaviour and views for the better – they didn’t have to push or persuade me.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lend our support to our friends and family when they need it – it would definitely be good if we did. But there’s a difference between supporting someone appropriate to their needs, and being generous for our benefit.
It’s the same principle behind donating tons of food to an established food bank that has an oversupply of food, rather than donating to a lesser-known one that is really in need. The former may make us feel good for being generous, while the latter is generosity with attentiveness to the recipient and their needs, which is more beneficial and truly “self”-less.
I think another important lesson to learn is that we can’t change people (and it’s not our business to anyway) – we can only support or encourage them. I believe people change on their own accord when they have their insights, and those definitely cannot be rushed or forced.
When we understand this, we realise that trying to fix others is a waste of time and energy. We become more equanimous and in turn focus more on ourselves – which is where we can truly bring about change.
Focus on yourself. Most of what the Buddha taught was aimed at going inwards and cultivating wholesome qualities and abandoning unwholesome qualities within. If we realise this, there would be fewer problems to “fix” in the world.
If you’re not sure what your friend or family member needs, ask how you can best support them. Do they need advice, encouragement, or just empathy, etc.?
Be supportive, not compulsive. If you feel the impulse to give advice, ask yourself if it is appropriate for the other person right now and check if you’re just doing this to satisfy your ego. Agitation is a sign that the ego is at play.