Sunday, September 30, 2012

10-Day Retreat at Cameron Highlands

On 14 September 2012, approximately 140 yogis descended upon Sam Poh Buddhist Temple in Cameron Highlands for a 10-day retreat, led by Sayalay Dipankara from Myanmar.

Given the large number of participants and limited space in the temple, we were allocated in groups of between 9 to 20 to a room. Some were lucky to get beds while some had to share a single long mattress with several others. Limited living and toilet facilities shared by 140 people were stretched to say the least.

Amazingly, what could possibly be the reason for the absence of quarrels, fights or discontentment amidst such crammed living conditions during this 10-day period? It could only be the forbearance, patience and compassion exercised by all of us that created such a wonderful and peaceful environment for our practice.

We were there for one thing and one thing only - to focus and train our minds through meditation to achieve insight and lasting happiness in our lives.

Temperatures in Cameron Highlands were very low, especially during sunset hours. Sometimes, even during the day, I could see my breath condensing to join the low-hanging clouds in the highlands.

Our days started at 5.30am with the first sitting and ended at 9pm with the last sitting. The 1.5-hour sittings were interspersed with walking meditation and meal breaks. Effectively, we spent 10 days mostly eating, sleeping and meditating and nothing else. While it might have seemed arduous for the uninitiated, all of us felt that we had benefited immensely from this intensive focus on the mind and austere lifestyle for the sennight-plus duration.

Noble silence was practised throughout the retreat to maintain the peace and calm conducive for our practice. The only talking was done during interview time with Sayalay who advised us on the problems and development of our individual meditation practice.

During the fourth day of the retreat, Sayalay humorously spoke about the various wondering thoughts that distracted us from our breath, which was our object of meditation. Oh yes, she knew our secret desires even though we did not speak of them to anyone else! She must have sensed our longing for some non-vegetarian food, given the vegetarian diet we had to undertake for the 10 days. I was guilty of thinking of tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlets) during the retreat and had even started planning for the dishes that I wanted to cook when I come back home.

So, it was fortuitous that Sayalay warned us not to think about fried chicken too much. Otherwise, we might end up as a chicken (or pig in my case) in our next life!

During her talks held on alternate nights, Sayalay traversed a variety of topics from Winston Churchill, Jackie Chan, meditation techniques, rebirth, six realms of existence, the importance of sending metta to Lord Yama of the hell realm, renunciation, the teaching of Dhamma during this world epoch to arahantship.

As Sayalay described how she had defeated her various illnesses, including cancer, using vipassana meditation, tears welled up in many yogis' eyes at her determination to continue teaching the Dhamma even in the face of such adversarial physical conditions. Despite her obvious tiredness, she spoke without pause and gave us so much wisdom during those talks that not one heart could possibly remain untouched.

Personally for myself, this retreat had helped me to put the various relationships in my life in a clearer perspective. I could understand my emotions, wants and cravings towards various people and objects with enhanced clarity. Of paramount importance is the reaffirmation of my faith in the Dhamma that continues to guide, benefit and inspire me towards the attainment of enlightenment.

Many thanks to the committee in Malaysia that organised this retreat, which was a humongous and complex task by any measure. Many thanks too to Sister Henrietta Wong and volunteers from Singapore who arranged for two busloads of people from Singapore to participate in this meritorious event. And finally, my deepest gratitude to Sayalay Dipankara, who advised us to "never never never never never give up"!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's the Government for?

Recently, there was some furore over Lee Kuan Yew's (former Singapore prime minister) call for Singaporeans to  procreate to raise the sinking birth rate of the city-state. His precise words were "If we go on like that, this place will fold up..."

It seems that it is one's national duty to procreate and ensure that one has created a new being to take his or her place so as to ensure the continuity of the nation.

With LKY's lament that Singapore will fold up if Singaporeans do not have children, is he indicating that the state should come before the people? If so, he has strayed from the primacy of people's welfare to the welfare of the state.

The purpose of the state is to protect, help and benefit the people who make up the jurisdiction of the state. The state is created for the people; people are not created for the purpose of the state. We should be careful about putting the cart before the horse.

In the Agganna sutta, Buddha described the beginnings of a state. A fair, strong and capable person was selected as the Maha-Summata (meaning Great Elect), as a preventive and corrective measure against prevailing crimes, on grounds of his qualifications and attributes. He served the people by ensuring safety, security, law and order amongst the people, who supply him with a portion of their income for his duties. That was the origination of Income Tax.

A social contract between the Maha-Sammata and the masses was thus formed; the people paid him to do his job. His duty was to serve the people, not the other way round. If he should renege on his duties or become unsuitable, a new Maha-Sammata would be chosen by the people as he had to be accountable for his duties.

However, as time went on, this role began to be passed down from father to son, or within the family. Descendents of the current ruler automatically ascended to the role after the passing of the old one. Hence the electoral process took a hit and even if existing, had descended into a farce. Those who were aligned with the next ruler would ensure his ascension to the throne to obtain the continuity of their power and privileges that sprung from their greed.

The Buddha had encouraged the spirit of consultation and the democratic process within his Sangha community which was a significant precursor to the democratic parliamentary system used today. Serious questions and issues concerning the community were put forth and discussed openly.

The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.

In the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta, the Buddha said that immorality and crime, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, could arise from poverty. Kings and governments may try to suppress crime through punishment, but it is futile to eradicate crimes through force.

In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha suggested economic development instead of force to reduce crime. The government should use the country's resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. It could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to entrepreneurs and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with human dignity.

In the Milinda Panha,it is stated: 'If a man, who is unfit, incompetent, immoral, improper, unable and unworthy of kingship, has enthroned himself a king or a ruler with great authority, he is subject to be tortured‚ to be subject to a variety of punishment by the people, because, being unfit and unworthy, he has placed himself unrighteously in the seat of sovereignty. The ruler, like others who violate and transgress moral codes and basic rules of all social laws of mankind, is equally subject to punishment; and moreover, to be censured is the ruler who conducts himself as a robber of the public.' In a Jataka story, it is mentioned that a ruler who punishes innocent people and does not punish the culprit is not suitable to rule a country.

Going back to the original point, the purpose of the ruler or government is to do what is in the best interest of the people, as opposed to the best interest of the economy, state or its own pocket.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Relationships End

Upon learning that the Buddha was about to pass away into parinibbana, Venerable Ananda leaned against the doorpost and wept, saying, "I am still but a learner. I still have to attain perfection. But alas, my master who is so compassionate towards me is about to pass away."

When the Lord Buddha heard of it, he sent for Venerable Ananda and said, "Enough Ananda, do not cry. For have I not taught that it is the nature of all things beloved that we must suffer separation from them and be severed from them? For that which is born, come to be and compounded is also subject to dissolution. How could it be otherwise?"
The ending of a valued relationship (e.g. romantic, platonic, kinship etc) often brings sadness, grief, sorrow and tears. As the Chinese saying 天下无不散之宴席goes, all merry feasts must come to an end, regardless of whether the end is premeditated or natural.

There are many reasons why relationships may end, such as unresolvable conflicts between both parties, physical separation, objections from other parties, death etc. Leaving aside death, let us investigate how we can seek a harmonious separation from a relationship.

Buddha identified several factors that lead to the appropriate termination of a relationship: the other party's continued wrong conduct which goes on unchecked, danger arising from the relationship, or the identification of the futility of continuing it.

In deciding to end a relationship, Buddha does not support hasty, adamant and lopsided conclusions; rational and ethical evaluations should precede any final decisions. One must make sure that one's decision will benefit, rather than adversely affect, the people involved in the relationship, including oneself.

Buddha also advised that one should first leave aside hatred and revengeful thoughts toward former companions even if they have caused distress in a relationship as one would never find inner peace as long as one clings to the misdeeds done by another person in the past. Taking appropriate actions against maltreatment is always recommended. However, pursuit of hatred would only aggravate the agony that has already sprung from an unhappy relationship.

People make their lives miserable by dwelling on broken relationships, but they may find harmony in life by learning to forgive and forget. Also, numbing ourselves from our feelings with intoxicants or addictions (e.g. shopping, eating, gaming) will not help to alleviate our suffering. If we can cultivate a mind of loving kindness and be grateful for what the relationship and the other party has taught us, that will be most beneficial.

In his final words to Ananda, the Buddha praised the former's efforts and showed him the way out of grief: "For a long time have you, Ananda, served the Tathagata with thoughts, words and deeds of love, graciously, pleasantly and with your whole heart. You have gathered great good. Now you should put forth energy and soon you too will be free from the defilements."

The only way to be truly free from grief and sorrow is to truly see our feelings for what they are and to reduce our attachment to them. In truth, our mind loves misery for that leads to pity for ourselves and thus reinforces our false sense of a lasting self as we believe those transient feelings are ours. Let us be able to call our feelings bluff for they are but ephemeral emotions and thus steadily progress to a state of peace and equanimity.

May we accumulate wonderful wholesome karma for the attainment of nibbana and be liberated from grief and sorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Twelve Bowls of Rice

At the Sunday puja at Buddhist Library today, Bhante Dhammaratana spoke of renunciation in lay life. He elaborated that renunciation is not all about giving up lay life and donning the monastic robes. Renunciation in a more significant sense is the abandonment of harmful practices and eradication of craving.

In his humorous manner, Bhante told the story of King Pasenadi and his overeating habits to illustrate his point.

King Pasenadi of Kosala was a very devout and loyal supporter of the Buddha. He often visited the Buddha for his teachings when the Blessed One was residing in Jetavana Monastery in Savatthi, the capital of Kosala.

King Kosala was an ardent pleasure-seeker, particularly where food and drink were concerned. Well known for his huge belly, he developed a close friendship with the Buddha. Once after a huge meal, panting and visibly discomforted, he visited the Buddha.

Buddha asked the king the contents of his meal and the king sheepishly admitted that he had twelve bowls of rice in addition to a multitude of other savoury dishes, which was his usual intake.

Observing the king's situation, Buddha smiled and spoke a verse that praised eating in right measure, and he stated that one who knew the right measure of food would get rid of physical discomfort and enjoy a long and healthy life. The Buddha then advised the king to cut down to eleven bowls of rice initially. After the king was used to eleven bowls, then he could reduce to ten and so on.

Buddha's compassion was evident from not asking King Pasenadi to go cold turkey and stop at one bowl of rice immediately. Having understood that change takes time, Buddha taught King Pasenadi to reduce his craving gradually so as not to discomfit the mercurial king and run the risk of him giving up altogether.

Heeding Buddha's advice, King Pasenadi gradually worked his way down to three bowls of rice! Having lost some weight, he now presented a trimmer and fitter form in front of the Buddha. He also became more energetic and healthy as a result of his moderate diet.

This story again illustrates Buddha's teaching on the Middle Path. The enjoyment of sensual pleasures in our lives through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body is not wrong in itself. However, when we stray from the moderate path and become ensnared and addicted to those pleasures, many problems will ensue. Therefore, the key phrase here is "right measure": right measure is what keeps one within the zone of physical comfort and health, mental well-being and social acceptance.

Before he attained enlightenment, Buddha as the bodhisattva then experienced two contrasting types of diets: ambrosial delights in the palace and one grain of rice per day as an ascetic. Having discovered that both diets were not satisfactory, he discovered the Middle Path and proceeded to demonstrate an exemplary life based on the view of not falling into extremes.

Is there any sensual pleasure you are particularly fond of and might be in danger of taking it to the extreme?

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Retreat at Buddhist Library

The Buddhist Library organised a free meditation retreat on Singapore's National Day, 9 Aug 2012. About 40 yogis participated in this one-day event to develop one's loving kindness (metta) and mindfulness (satipatthana).

Observing eight precepts and noble silence, yogis started the morning with a puja and offerings to Buddha. Following that, we cultivate and radiate a mind of loving kindness to the whole world, including ourselves. Throughout the day, we were instructed to observe our breathing and walking with mindfulness.

After lunch, the yogis were given a one-hour break to rest and digest the nourishing food. You can see some yogis relaxing and observing their breathing in the corpse position here.

During the Dhamma talk, Bhante Dhammaratana pointed out that people who are impolite, selfish, inconsiderate and crude are difficult to get along. He gave the example of some people who are so troublesome to travel with that nobody wants to travel with them at all! It is also difficult to converse with someone who uses harsh and crude language for that is disturbing to both the minds of the listener and talker.

Bhante emphasised that we should reflect on our own behaviour and be moderate in our speech and actions, thus developing a polite and considerate nature.

If one should be striving to be well-mannered and thoughtful but encounter others who are the opposite of those beneficial qualities, how should one deal with that? Bhante advised that if one is in a position to correct the other party gently and at the right time, one should do so. If not, it will be better for one to avoid such people. Until one's practice is strong and compassionate enough to be beneficial to oneself and others, it is not advisable to engage with unhelpful influences.

Indeed, Buddha had emphasised that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. One should seek the company of noble friends (kalyana mitta) who guide and galvanise us on the spiritual path.

What do you think are the qualities of a kalyana mitta that inspires us towards enlightenment?

You can check out more events from the Buddhist Library at

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Four Boys and a Genie

On a hot sunny day, four boys were trudging up a hill in the sweltering heat. Suddenly, one of them stumbled on a hard piece of metal on the ground which turned out to be a dirty gold oil lamp. Now, having read of the story of Aladdin and the Genie, they promptly rubbed their hands on the lamp and summoned him. Lo and presto, the Genie appeared!

As per previous custom, the Genie asked each of them to wish for something as a reward for their good luck in stumbling upon him.

Boy A, feeling the sweat dripping from his head to his waist, asked for a large ice cream immediately. The Genie made a wooosh and his wish was granted!

Boy B, on seeing Boy A's wish granted, asked for an ice cream factory so that he can have ice cream whenever he wanted. The Genie made another wooosh and fulfilled his wish!

Boy C, who had been observing both boys' actions, decided he could do better. He asked for an ice cream factory and a fast food restaurant to satisfy his favourite food urges anytime he wanted. On top of that, he asked for another three wishes to be used at his pleasure and discretion. In this way, he would have a never-ending supply of wishes!

How do you think Boy D could top Boy C's audacious requests?!

In our materialistic world of never-ending wants, even two Mount Everests made of gold would not be enough for one person. The Buddha had advised us to know that and thus live accordingly.

Kitchen UtensilsUnfortunately, knowing that did not stop me from salivating at the rows of gleaming, new utensils temptingly displayed at our local supermarket!

I am a mediocre cook at best but I've always envisioned having a state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen with all the fanciest cooking gadgets at my disposal hahaha...

With sheer willpower, I only selected a pair of tongs for easy pan frying. I quickly turned away before succumbing to further temptations!

Having safely made my way home, I surveyed the utensils I had in the kitchen - stove, rice cooker, convection oven, microwave oven, steamer, toaster, refrigerator, blender, pans, pots and numerous hand tools. Was I short of anything? No. In fact, I genuinely love all the stuff that I have and they are all that I need for my cooking!

A wise meditation teacher once gave me an excellent piece of advice: "Do not be obsessed by what you don't have. Want what you have instead."

I do not take this to mean that we should rest on our laurels and not strive for anything. We should certainly still aim for the best within our ability. However, cultivating a heart of gratitude for what we already have is important in reducing our attachment to worldly possessions which are not permanent. At death, we can't bring anything with us on our next journey.

May we learn how to strike a balance between our pursuit for a better life with a sense of gratitude and contentment at whatever comes our way.

Have you guessed what Boy D asked for? He wished to be so content that he would never need to wish for anything again. And that is the Buddha.

The story of the four boys was shared by Ajahn Brahm, spiritual patron of Buddhist Fellowship ( during one of his talks in Singapore.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Anger Blows Out the Lamp of the Mind

Ingersoll once said, "Anger blows out the lamp of the mind." How true it is.

Our anger results from a perceived threat to our ego. When we have angry thoughts, we are usually unable to think clearly and thus react mindfully or in a non-harmful manner. More often than not, we will say or do something that worsens the situation. Even if we are not the provocateur but the provoked party, we should be mindful and not let our anger escalate into a situation that gets out of hand which may end badly for everyone involved.

From the media, we had come across cases committed in the heat of anger and passion, such as the father who chopped off his child's fingers in a fit of anger as his child had scratched the side of his new car and the incensed man who murdered his ex-lover after being dumped. All these crimes had occurred due to the perpetrators' inability to manage and reduce their anger.

The words we speak out of anger are often injurious and creates more negative thoughts in the other person. We think we may have won the scuffle with our harsh speech but we will do well to remember what Buddha said: "The fool thinks one has won a battle when one bullies with harsh speech, but knowing how to be forbearing alone makes one victorious."

Anger is one of the three roots of evil that causes us to suffer endlessly; the other two being craving and delusion. How do we train ourselves to control, diminish and eradicate our anger?

But cultivating a mind of loving kindness and friendliness towards all. We start by first sending love to ourselves, followed by our loved ones, then to casual acquaintances. The next part will be more trying as we'll need to send love to those we dislike or hate, and finally to the whole world.

Naturally, it's easier said than done. We will encounter roadblocks right from the start and from time to time in our practice. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. We can start by sending loving-kindness with an open heart for half an hour every day before bedtime. Creating a mind full of love is the only antidote to eliminating our anger and avoid harm to ourselves and others.

We can take heart that there can be redemption for all. Angulimala, the serial killer, who murdered almost a thousand people due to wrath and a misguided notion, was taught by the Buddha to cultivate love and compassion for all. After suffering much ridicule and hardship due to his past reputation, he renounced his ways, attained arahantship and even became a protector of pregnant women!

Of course, he had previously accumulated a huge store of meritorious karma to encounter the Buddha himself and receive his teachings. Therefore let us practise loving kindness every day to accumulate good karma for the eventual eradication of anger and suffering.

"Whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal one-sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving kindness. The liberation of mind by loving-kindness surpasses the light of the morning star and shines forth, bright and brilliant."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yes, I Want More!

I bought a new walnut bookcase recently to replace the smaller beige one that was bursting at the seams literally - the last shelf had collapsed due to the weight of the books! Coincidentally my mum also procured a better coffee table to replace the aging and creaky glass-top that we currently have.

For the past few weeks, I had been clearing out what I construed as unnecessary and cumbersome household items from our small flat. Needless to say, my mum and I had several run-ins as we disagreed on what should be disposed. I was aiming for a spartan look but she preferred stock-piling.

As I rummaged through our belongings, I couldn't help but marvel at the dreadful load of things we have! How much stuff do we really need to maintain our life? A roof over our heads, clothes, shoes, beds, pillows, bedsheets, tables, chairs,  television, radio, computer, tablet, lamps, books, stationery, files, air-conditioners and fans. And let's not forget our kitchen appliances and utensils such as rice-cooker, slow-cooker, refrigerator, oven, steamer, pots, pans, bowls, cups, spoons, knives, forks, chopsticks etc.

As you can tell, this list is by no means exhaustive. I'm sure there are many more fancy items you can think of that are used in everyday life. And we spend at least a third of our life (8 hours a day) slogging to provide all these material needs for ourselves and our family. What strikes me most deeply is that we need to procure so much to sustain this life, this body of ours.

Even after we had satisfied our need with the basic model, we will next aim for an even better model that comes with more switches and functions than we know how to use. How about a rice cooker that can be programmed differently for white rice, brown rice, black rice, sweet rice, sushi rice, porridge, congee, gruel and tells the time to boot!

Our craving for the sustainability of life is endless and this is suffering. Our craving is what keeps us recycling in samsara, life after life as we believe that we will be happy with all these material wealth to keep us going. We keep on accumulating material wealth, people and experiences just to keep this body of ours going in a somewhat satisfied state.

Our delusion keeps us clinging on to this mind-created ego that perpetuates our false sense of a solid self that is manifested in our corporeal body. To break away from this ceaseless cycle of rebirth, the only way is to eradicate our craving. It is our craving that constantly feeds on the fallacy of a concrete being. 

For that, Buddha had taught us a method that can quench our thirst for perpetual existence and that is looking deeply and realising impermanence in the world and our existence. When we truly see that nothing in this fluctuating world is permanent, including our own bodies, only then can we be free from the suffering of rebirth.

Let us learn how to look deeply within our impermanent selves and quit samsaric suffering and attain nibbana.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Four Types of Marriages

I received a message from a Dhamma friend, C, today informing me that another mutual friend of ours, M, had gotten married. C expressed his surprise as he thought that M was more likely to become a monk than a married man! However he agrees with me that we will never know when destiny or our marrying karma will creep up on us (不知缘分几时找上门) hahaha...

Marriage in Buddhism is not considered a sacred or a holy union. It is simply a formal social union of a man and woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.

More than 2,500 years ago, Buddha had provided much advice on how a marriage should be conducted for the benefit of both husband and wife and their extended family. It is not surprising that his advice is still eminently relevant today for we still face largely the same type of issues in modern marriages!

Husbandly Duties

Just how should a husband behave towards his wife properly? By treating the wife with tenderness, courtesy, fairness, loyalty, honesty, moral support, fidelity, companionship and respect. He should also hand over authority on household matters to her and provide her with the adornments (read diamonds and gold) as befit her social status.

Wifely Duties

In reciprocity, the wife should shower love, attentiveness and sweetness on the husband. Providing childcare and meals, being hospitable to kin, protecting family possessions, administer household expenditures thriftily and being faithful are also part of the equation.

In addition, Buddha advised the wife to study and understand her husband's nature, character, temperament and activities, serve her parents-in-law as lovingly as she does her own parents and discharge all duties with skill and industriousness.

Four Types of Marriages

Buddha had humorously described the four kinds of marriages that exist:
a) A wretch lives together with a wretch
b) A wretch lives together with a goddess
c) A god lives together with a wretch
d) A god lives together with a goddess

A wretch is the husband or wife who destroys life, takes what is not given, engages in sexual misconduct, speaks falsely and indulges in wines, liquor and intoxicants which result in negligence. He or she is immoral, of bad character and dwells at home in miserliness. A wretch abuses and reviles ascetics and brahmins.

A god or goddess abstains from the destruction of life, from sexual misconduct, falsehood and intoxicants. He or she is moral, of good character, generous and supports and praises holy people.

Can you think of any examples for the four types of marriages around you? Hopefully you can find more instances of the fourth type of marriage than the other three!

Lastly, congratulations to M who has found someone to share his life and his Dhamma interest with. May they live like a god and goddess in their blissful marriage.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Building & Protecting Wealth

Pain, Pain, Pain

My youngest sister, Y, had accompanied mum to the hospital today for a specialist to check on her swollen foot. She reported that mum was flat-footed and had to undergo physiotherapy every two weeks. In addition, she must do exercises every day, correct her standing posture and wear a pair of custom-made shoes to ease her condition. 

The doctor pronounced that my mum's condition is not curable and all we can do is to delay the wear and tear until eventual incapacitation. Apparently, this is a very common affliction among the elderly. The silver lining is that her condition is still in the early stages of degeneration and with the prescriptive measures in place, she can still have a moderate quality of life albeit with less mobility than before.

The Buddha had advised that health is the highest gain, the greatest wealth one can have. His followers were exhorted to strive for good health and to sustain good health.

How do we define good health? Good health is when one is in full possession of her psychological and physiological faculties without impairment.

However it is impossible to be in good health all the time. Due to a variety of factors such as karma, environment, diet, genetic dispositions, climate, stress etc, all of us will fall sick at some time or other. Even Buddha was not free from back pain and stomachaches.

How do we face our illness? Normally, when we are sick, we feel pain, discomfort and a heightened sense of suffering. This usually lead to irritability, irrationality and frustration as we are unable to operate to the best of our ability.

During times like this, it is especially important to focus on one's breathing and be aware of the renegade feelings and notions churning within us. Awareness is the only tool in our mental arsenal that enables us to arrest the unwholesome speech and actions that result from our runaway mind.

Just like how we save funds in case of emergencies, we have to accumulate our fortitude and mindfulness through daily practice in meditation so that we are prepared for health crises. Learning how to stay in the present moment helps to prevent us from being completely submerged in our negative thoughts and emotions that are more prevalent during times of illness.

How do we achieve mind over body? Practise awareness of the breath for an hour every day. If you're not sure how, find a meditation centre near you and obtain instructions from a skilled teacher. Most of all, be present, be aware.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Serenity in Stone

Some years ago, I visited the Peranakan Museum with some like-minded friends who were interested in the Qingzhou Buddhist Art Exhibition that travelled from China.

The exhibition showcased a small part of a collection that was unearthed in China in 1996. Several hundred Buddhist sculptures featuring images of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were excavated, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

The visiting group was immensely entertained by the irrepressible guide Kyle who possessed a wonderful sense of humour and an in-depth understanding of Buddhist culture.

What amazed me was the soothing aura of calm that emanated from each and every stone masterpiece that was displayed. The piece that evoked the greatest serenity for me was the life-sized Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva piece featured here on the extreme left. The majestic strength and compassion exuded by the sculpture was almost palpable.

These sculptures evoked memories of other stone sculptures I had encountered in India, Sri Lanka and South Korea.

This veritable masterpiece blew me away the moment I laid eyes on it in Sarnath Museum, India.

Sporting the Dharmacakra mudra symbolizing the turning of the Dharma wheel, it utterly radiated the quiet power of wisdom and compassion. I could not come up with enough superlatives to describe its extraordinary presence.

While the picture may not do justice to the actual carving, it is a stunning tour de force if one sees it in person.

Sri Lanka, a country rich in Theravada Buddhism, has its own hoard of five colossal Buddha statues.

Shown here is the Avukana Buddha statue that measures 11.36m. It was carved out of living rock around the second half of the 8th century AD. The height of the body is 9 times that of the face.

This statue is conjectured to represent Dipankara Buddha, who came before Gautama Buddha who appeared in this world epoch.

The Seokguram Buddha in Gyeongju, South Korea, wore a serene expression of meditation. This is an exceptionally fine and commanding embodiment of Buddha's calm and concentration.

If time and space had allowed, my travel partner and I would have been ecstatic to sit ourselves and meditate in front of this awe-inspiring artifice for the entire day. Unfortunately, all we had was half an hour as we had to make room for incoming tourists and also to catch the next bus back to town.

Being able to experience the magnificence of the Buddha's qualities carved into stone is indescribable. If the master sculptors had represented only 10% of Gautama Buddha's persona, they had already given the world an inkling of a perfect person. These incredible monuments behoove me to emulate the qualities personified by Buddha.

The purpose of Buddhist art is to inspire us on the path of the Dhamma by reminding us it is possible to attain such levels of perfection as shown by the Buddha. Personally, it strengthens my faith and belief in the Triple Gem.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

99.99% Insurance For Life's Unpredictability

A friend had once told me her aim is to cover all aspects of a relationship to ensure that nothing will go wrong. She eventually settled on 99.99% as I objected that it is not possible for anyone to control and guarantee all outcomes in a relationship. Even 99.99% is an extraordinary super-human achievement in our universe of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss.

But… there is still the 0.01% that is unknown and unexpected. Is it possible to cover even this tiny percentage of unpredictability in life?

It can be observed that all phenomena in life are subject to conditioning by various causes, especially human beings. Buddha once said that nothing is as quicksilver as a person's mind. As we are always in a state of flux, how can there be any guarantee in life? Oh wait, I forgot that birth, sickness, old age and death are inevitable but I digress.

Instead of trying to cover external factors that are beyond our locus of control, will it be more fruitful to pad and strengthen our mind to adjust wisely and agilely to what life throws us? If our security and happiness is dependent on other people or things or circumstances, how much will we have to accomplish to create and maintain the kind of conditions that give us our temporal happiness? The trials and tribulations we undergo are mind-boggling at best. In everyday life, we can see for ourselves the amount of work we have to accomplish to keep ourselves happy, or at the very least, not unhappy. 

In the end, the best and strongest security that we can have under all circumstances is our mind.

As taught by many philosophers and thinkers, the best way to deal with life is to go with the flow and life in the present moment (活在当下). 

I do not take it to mean that one should not have plans and not prepare for life’s vicissitudes. One should still do to the best to one’s ability without being too obsessive or compulsive about getting everything perfect. A wise teacher once taught me that as life is ever-changing, it will be wiser to reduce one’s clinging to all worldly possessions, loved ones and feelings than to attempt to keep them in the state one likes. When negative changes occur, one may not suffer unduly due to one’s attachment. Similarly, one would not swing the pendulum towards ecstasy if positive changes take place. Vacillating between the two extremes is not conducive to one’s mental well-being. Again, it is about treading the Middle Way, living a balanced life and not falling into disparate extremes.

Far from advocating a laissez faire attitude towards life, we should strive for the best that we can without harming others. We should also prepare our mind and body to be ready to accept and adapt wisely to unexpected changes. Controlling our mind is far more fruitful and efficacious than trying to control the external world. We will make missteps and mistakes as we bumble and hobble through life's labyrinth. We will also learn and change for the better as we progress towards nirvana, even if it is only a nanometer at a time. For now, we do the best that we can at any given moment. 

In conclusion, I do not agree in trying to achieve perfection in external phenomena and factors that are insecure and unstable at best. Perfecting our mind is the only way we can be free from the chaotic, conditioned and fluctuating nature of life.

As exhorted by the Buddha prior to passing away into parinibbana: "All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"