From everywhere to nowhere 

Aging (Jara)

Today I had a 14-hour crash course about aging (jara).

My grandmother suffered a dislocation of her right arm, with slight fracture. From 8am this morning, the whole household was busy, and waiting. First waiting for the chinese physician to make a housecall, then waiting for my aunt to bring the wheelchair, then busy transporting a very delicate grandma to get an X-ray done, then waiting for X-ray report to be faxed to chinese physician; waiting for chinese physician to come back from lunch break, busy deciding what to do next; waiting at A&E for 1st doctor; waiting for second doctor, third doctor; waiting for arm to be fixed; waiting for admission procedures; waiting for nurse to bring grandma to ward; waiting for doctors to come; waiting for uncle to come visit; waiting.... and finally home. 2215hours.

What struck me most out of this 14-hour episode was the word "AGING" and its implications.

"The body cannot be a refuge. It is not dependable" - How did the dislocation happen? My grandma merely reached out her right arm to support herself to stand. "Cluck"! And she winced in pain. The arm had come out of position. There was no fall. There was no warning.

"Emotional helplessness & fear" - Within 30 minutes after the dislocation, my grandmother repeated continuously, "Old already, no use. I think I better stay in the hospital like the last time. The missy can take care of me at night. It's troublesome to go toilet, at home will bring trouble to you. Stay hospital better. I want to stay there a few days. I might fall again at home." Considering the fact that this was my grandma's second dislocation in a year, after 3 falls with blood spilt, the phobia of losing control of her body and the pain haunts her constantly.

As I sat waiting outside A&E, I was reading an article by Venerable Khemmadhammo on"responding to pain". This particular paragraph stood out for my contemplation:

" all means take care of your body, but reflect that whatever you do it may still be easily broken and one day it is sure to die. Of the two, a healthy mind is of much more use than a healthy body. If you're in wondrous physical shape, but your mind is disordered, you're in bad trouble. But if your body is wasted, eaten up with disease or otherwise beyond repair, and your mind is bright with wisdom, you'll be all right."

I appreciated that timely reminder, and at that moment, my eyes were tired, and I decided to act on the advice, dwelling on compassion (karuna) as an object of meditation with my grandmother in mind. I diligently kept her face in my mind, repeating 'may you be free from suffering'.... as i kept on thus, i reflected that there was nothing i could do really for her. Slowly, the image of her face gave way to her skeleton... all bent over... and for the first time, I saw that the skeleton, the bones were brittle.. they were on the edge of breaking, even at the slightest touch! They were not the solid, hard and dependable matter (rupa) that I used to discern when I focused on the skeleton within myself.

Today I learnt that even the skeleton, the hardest part of our body, what i always reflect as 'holding up' or 'framing' the body can also give way. And it can give way very easy. How fragile it was. I kept my mind focused on that set of bent over, brittle bones that represented my grandma. When I opened my eyes, I saw people with broken legs in cast being wheeled around by friends and relatives, a broken arm there... how fragile this body is! Even the hardest part is so easily fractured, broken, prone to giving way. I've always reflected on the bones as repulsive, but solid. Today, i learnt that they were also fragile.

Bones are so fragile. Life is also very fragile. Our untrained mind is also very fragile.

We cannot stop our body from aging and falling apart no matter how much exercise, balanced diet, health insurance, chanting, meditation, supplements we do and take. It happens.

But what we can do is to train our mind to accept and prepare for such a happening here and now. For me, today was a reminder that brought this teaching of aging close to my heart. I am not immune from aging. I will age. Aging spoils this body. Let it not spoil my mind. Let me use this body while it stands, let it help me cultivate while it lasts. When it decides to stop working, we've lost our vehicle for enlightenment in this life.

I never know when it will fall apart. So let me strive on diligently now, every moment towards the path of liberation. Let me have compassion and patience to others who have already come to this stage. When I look at them, i see myself. They are me.

let me develop the courage and honesty to face AGING upfront, not avoiding, not cheating myself, not thinking that i'm any exception.

This body is not dependable. It cannot be a safe refuge.

let my only refuge be with the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Till the day i attain nibbana, i take firm refuge in the Triple Gems.

28 feb 2005

Through many births I wandered...

Through many births I wandered in samsara; seeking, but not finding
The builder of this house, painful is repeated existence!
Householder! You are seen now, you shall build no house again.
Your rafters are broken! Your ridge-pole is shattered.
To dissolution goes my mind. Achieved is the destruction of craving.

Buddha, Dhammapada 153-154

*Builder of the house = craving (tanha), the cause of rebirth and suffering

***********(In Pali)**********
Anekajati Gatha

Anekajati samsaram, sandhavissam anibbisam
Gahakaram gavesanto, dukkha jati punappunam
Gahakaraka ditthosi, puna geham na kahasi
Sabba te phasuka bhagga, gahakutam visankhatam
Visankhara gatam cittam, tanhanam khayamajjhaga

Cleaning my glasses

Sitting at my study table, I notice a few specks on my glasses.

Removing it from its position perched upon my nose, I hold it up against the light to find that there is not just that few specks I had seen. There were also some botches that I had not seen until I had held my glasses against the light source.

So what's new? Everyone's glasses get dirty and smudged from dirt and handling sometime or the other. And I was thinking that it didn't really affect my vision because when I looked out from behind these frames and plastic, I still see because those little clouds were insignificantly semi-transparent.

It suddenly struck me how similar this process of taking off my glasses to remove the smudges was like learning and practising Buddhism in our daily lives.

Periodically we need to take off our glasses, or the viewing instrument that we use to see the world and check to see if it's still clear and unclouded. Many times like I just found out, there are smudges and blotches, but we are not aware of them, unless we step back, and re-examine our perception in the greater light of the Buddha's teachings.

And many times, these smudges in the form of perceptions, values and in the ultimate sense - ignorance, exist but we look through and dissolve them into our overall field of vision. Unknowingly, unaware, and unfortunately.

And try as I did, there were still some blotches that refused to go under my persistent rubbing. If I were to stare hard enough at that pair of plastic circles hooked onto my ears, I could detect some of those clingy patches. But I could go cock-eyed doing that.

Maybe the solution would be to just remove those glasses and start rubbing them. But then I would need the light to tell me where the spots were.

Walking the path is like this little saga I have with my glasses today. Being aware of the flaws and blotches in my sadly shortsighted and clouded vision of the world, and then doing action to clear up this view. But not before holding up this pathetically conditioned frame of perception against the brighter clarity of the Buddha's insight.

1st September 1999

31 Oct 2004, Kathina@ Nibbana Vihara, Kajang

We had arrived slightly before 9pm the night before, and had spent the night in a giant outdoor tent, packed side by side with barely enough space to turn. But the atmosphere was joyous, and we had arrived in the midst of a training camp for Buddhist lay volunteers. The campers gladly gave up the giant tent to make way for us, a bus load of people from Singapore.

The day started at 4.30am as we woke up to the cold morning air to meditate. The air was particularly fresh as the Vihara was situated on a little hillock overlooking the surrounding private houses. It was housed in a grand mansion probably owned by a wealthy person before this. See pictures at their website:

Several features of NIbbana Vihara & Ven Kai Zhao left a strong impression on me:

1. Emphasis on the importance of the mutual support between the Sangha and the lay people

These were translated into several unique programs. First of all, Nibbana Vihara is the only Theravada centre I know of, which actually conducts annual camps to train laypeople in the proper way to uphold the Sangha and the running of the organisation. The message hammered in repeatedly was "Laypeople can uphold the Sangha by taking on the secular aspects of the Vihara. By doing so, they leave the Sangha with more time to focus on the spiritual duties of practice and teaching."

On the Vihara's notice board was very prominently displayed, pictures of demonstrations on the proper way to conduct oneself in the Sangha's presence. Around the Vihara, seats and platforms reserved for the Sangha were also duly labelled, reminding the lay people of the proper conduct and respect.

There were also opportunities for volunteers to sign up as 'kappiyas' (lay attendants) for short periods of time to support the Sangha's daily living.

2. Everything neatly in place

Everything at the Vihara was about order and system, though without the rigidity and restrictiveness. By contrast, the mood at the Vihara was always joyous and relaxed. The first scene on our arrival at the main shrine hall was two neat blocks of young people seated, listening to Ven Kai Zhao's teachings. All the men were similarly dressed in brown 'sarong' (cloth) and white t-shirt, and the ladies were dressed in brown sarong dresses, white t-shirt and with a brown sash wrapped loosely around the upper hody, the common dressing of Buddhist ladies in countries like Myanmar, and Thailand when they visit the monastery.

Every single pot of plant, stone, chair, Buddha images were meticulously matched, artistically arranged. The result was serenity and support towards the development of joy and concentration in all visitors. Yet in all of these, things are surprisingly simple. The main shrine hall only had a prominent Buddha image in the middle, and cushions were only placed when in use. Accomodation for the monks are wooden kutis (huts) built behind the main building, with two make shift attap roof huts for more accomodation.

3. Emphasis on education and understanding

Every aspect of the Kathina ceremony was explained without being too long-winded. While waiting for the ceremony to begin, emcees introduced the historical background of the Kathina ceremony and its significance. Before the Sangha chanted each blessing or proceeded to the next event, Ven Kai Zhao would give a short encouragement, explaining the benefits to be gained from such a meritorious event. The participants were guided through the ceremony in the way to set their attitudes and mentality.

4. Youths, more youths and talents galore

Just before the pindapatha (monks receiving offerings in their alms bowl as they walk out bare foot) the Kathina participants were usherd to stand along both sides of the slope leading towards the Vihara. As we waited patiently and painfully in our bare feet on the coarse gravel, I observed the Dhamma workers running up and down in between us and I was struck by the realisation. None of them looked beyond 30 or even mid 20s. Of the estimated 30+ helpers, only one or two were grey haired, and a few middle aged. The rest were youngsters bouncing with energy, respectfully and joyfully going about their tasks.

Even the ordained disciples of Ven Kai Zhao were young men. I was told most of them had ordained not long after graduation from the university.

All around the Vihara, products of the youth talent filled the place: the beautiful Vihara newsletter, decorated notice boards, administration office filled with young people...

It was a beautiful sight and a demonstration to me that Buddhist youth with good guidance (in this case by Ven Kai Zhao) can be the best and most respectful Dhamma protectors.

IT was very clear that the Vihara's objective of being an 'oasis' in the busy city is well set on the way to success.

31 Oct 04, Nalanda Buddhist Society & Buddhist House@ Serdang

Departing from Kajang after a morning baked under the sun, we arrived at Nalanda Buddhist Society at Serdang. This was a trip I looked forward to make after meeting Bro Tan (who initiated the set-up of Nalanda Buddhist Society) in Singapore early this year. I got more than I expected and was invited to stay a night at the Buddhist Houses. So I extended my stay in Malaysia for one more day and invited Hwee Chin to join me.

Nalanda Buddhist Society

The centre was set up to serve the needs of the small community, and after all the renovations and arrangements were completed, Bro Tan handed it over to the locals to manage. The humble little place can take up to 50 persons for talks and houses a small library of books. Recently, a seperate house across the road was obtained to function as a community centre, especially for the running of Sunday school classes for teenagers between 13-18years, an age group left out by most Buddhist temples. The initiative meant that space was running out at the original centre, which by now is barely a year old since establishment. Read more at

I had arrived just in time to witness the 'gotong royong' or community cleaning effort at the community centre which was still being readied for use. It was inspiring to witness the co-operativeness of the members as they busied themselves planting flowering plants, small trees, shrubs, digging a drain for water to flow, and cleaning up every little corner in the pleasant little house. Occassionally different members dropped by to chip in, and with the intermittent rain, the work continued for about 4 hours at a stretch. Nobody was complaining and I suspect the place had already been blessed by the good will and hard work of these people even before the monks arrive to bless the premises.

Buddhist Houses

Before my arrival, I was told that there is plenty of space for me to stay but it was not as I expected - a small room in the centre perhaps? It turned out to be three rented houses for me to choose from. The fore-runner of the Nalanda Buddhist Society were these Buddhist Houses. As the name suggests, they were houses where Buddhist youths studying at the nearby UPM could stay, instead of in the university hostel. At the peak of its development, there were 5 houses in all (possibly housing at least 20 people in total), and a daily schedule would include waking up at 6am to do group puja & meeting again in the evening for puja and talks/ courses by Bro Tan. Since the Houses started 5 years ago, some of the residents had graduated but were still staying on. The pujas and discussions were re-scheduled to take place over the weekends instead, to cater for the working group.

It was a wonderful concept to me. A good way to experience the benefits of living and learning with kalyana mittas (spiritual friends), and being guided by an excellent teacher who lived among your midst.

The talks and programs started off being activities of the Buddhist Houses which the residents were free to invite their friends. After some time, when the numbers grew, the idea of having a registered entity to serve the needs was conceived. That was the beginnings of Nalanda Buddhist Society. The entire set up process was also assisted by the group of young residents at the Buddhist Houses.


I was totally inspired by the behaviour of the resident brothers and sisters. They were polite, attentive, hardworking and eager to learn the Dhamma. On Sunday evening (being weekend), we had the good fortune of joining the group puja and sharing by one of the sisters. While the sharing about a Buddhist article she read went on, many of them were attentively taking notes. At the end of the sharing, additional commentary was provided by Bro Tan and those present asked their questions to clarify any areas of doubt.

What a beautiful gathering it was! Though I was already exhausted and probably dehydrated by the morning's Kathina festivities, I stayed alert throughout eager absorbing every bit and observing what was going on. This was a model we have yet to see in Singapore, so everything is so refreshing and inspiring.

Many of the residents were disappointed that I was staying only one night, and I too felt the loss that I could only spend so little time with my new found Dhamma 'family'. I promised to come back, and I think I will. So many things to learn from Bro Tan, and excellent company.

There is a kind of pureness in the hearts of these people that I met that day that left me desring for more contact, more association. Perhaps more visits and time with them will let me discover the secret behind that beautiful atmosphere.

24 Oct 04 - Checking out Bekok for our retreat

It was a little bit of an adventure yesterday for Bro Goh, Joey, Jessy, Fenny and myself when we went to do a recce of the Bekok temple. We had liased with the Bekok Guan Yin Temple to use the premises for the retreat by Sayalay Dipankara between 25 December 04 and 2 Jan 05. See more retreat details at

The trip was very fruitful. In the short 30minutes that we met up with Venerable Zhen Yi, abbot of the temple,
all our answers melted away with his gentle and full of metta answer:

"No worries, it can be arranged. We will follow your schedule and make sure you will not be disturbed."

I had prepared a long checklist before we went, and the other 4 of them were witness when I ran through the list in 10 minutes, and then helpless, turned to them and remarked, " I don't have anything else left on the list! Is there anything you need to ask?"

We were truly at a loss of words for the genuine hospitality of the temple, and the wonderful facilities available.

All we need to do, is to arrive at the temple on 24th Dec to firm up the sleeping allocation, get to know where equipment are, and to put up notices.

We arrived at Bekok at 12.45pm with a heavy downpour, dashed across the railway tracks and sat in an old coffee shop (all the shops there were old!) drinking tea and coffee waiting for the rain to stop.

After lunch, we did some grocery shopping including rice, biscuits, soap, toothpaste, etc, our dana for the temple. The shop owner gladly offered to send the things we bought on a motorcycle to the temple. She added, "You're coming back again? Buy more the next time!"

Shifu was resting when we arrived, so a nun told us to do what we want. So we meditated for about 30minutes before shifu came out. The meeting with shifu was over in less than an hour. Then we just sat around discussing some other points for the retreat. By 3pm, the nun shifu had got a private taxi to send us the nearest Bus station at "Chaah" (near Segamat).

On the way, diligent Fenny asked the uncle if there were buses serving Bekok town, and whether we can take a bus from Chaah to Bekok. The uncle's interesting answer, "There is a bus, but sometimes it doesn't run. That Indian driver works as and when he likes it. Most people in Bekok have their own vehicles anyway."

So we can literally wait till tomorrow for a bus in Bekok. =)

When the uncle slowed his car, I thought we had reached the bus station but there were no buses in sight. Uncle said, "Wait a minute. I will go and see if the ticket seller is at home. If he is not here, then he should be outside."

See if ticket seller is at home?

Uncle came back, apparently not finding the ticket seller. We arrived straight at the bus station, which was strangely empty of buses, but we could see uncles sitting around chatting on the railings and benches. It looked more like a community park then a bus station.

Helpful uncle helped us to ask for a bus to JB. One company's tickets were sold out, another one went to look for the ticket seller at home (again!), and another one told us to change a bus from Ayer Hitam. There was a bus coming at 6pm, but being only 4pm, we quickly opted for a change of bus at Ayer Hitam.

We paid uncle RM12 for the 20 minutes ride in his private taxi, and he ushered us up the 'slow bus' that had just came into the bus station, talking to the bus driver in malay making sure he knew where we wanted to go.

All set, we paid RM3 per person for the 1 hour bus ride to Ayer Hitam. From Ayer Hitam, we quickly jumped on a bus called the Causway Link which would terminate at Larkin. It cost us RM$6.50 per person. The journey took another 2 hours.

Arriving at Larkin, it was already 7pm+ and as we waited, discussing what bus to take back to the causeway, Joey stumbled upon a group of private taxis offering direct rides back to SIngapore, all the way to where we stay. 10 minutes of bargaining later, Joey came back and ushered us to the 7-seater that he had struck a deal with. The driver picked up 2 more passengers, and we were off. This cost S$10 per head.

By 10pm, most of us had reached home.

this is my personal summary:

- Train is the fastest and cheapest (S$6) public transport option for getting to Bekok!

- Sleepy little towns of Malaysia seem to offer a good and slow pace of life for keen meditators. You can disappear home for a sitting, and people know where to find you! =P

- Bekok is such a small town, that our two coaches are sure to turn heads when they arrive in December. Better be on best and most mindful behaviour!

looking forward to the retreat!


Making an aspiration

Dear Friend,

This is a little collection of essays, sharings and learnings that I would like to share with you. My emails get quite long sometimes, so by uploading them up here for you to read at your own willingness and leisure, I hope it brings you more convenience.

I have categorised my writings into different categories:

1) Reflections: These are episodes in my life that I had put to much contemplation and reflection, and had felt deeply as having given me some kind of 'insight' into the nature of my mind or the world around.

2) Fiction: Sometimes I do get inspired to write some fiction as a form of expression. These are extensions of reflections, but not necessary realistic!

3) Other categories: Over time, there may be certain articles I want to group under special events or a particular theme.

Please give your comments if any!

My email is

Thank you.

May each day of yours be a beautiful one.

With much love and appreciation

Getting off the samsara express - Prelude: The man with the light

I awoke to the perpetual darkness that resided in the train carriage. Nothing new. Sigh.

A piece of enchanting music filled the entire Samsara Express instantly. Soothing and arresting undesired moods like the one I had now. For a moment it drew me into its magnificence, the feeling of being part of its rhythmic movement, moving dramatically higher with the crescendo and landing softly when it dwindled into nothingness. In essence, it made me feel magnificent, beautiful and lasting.

When the music stopped for the Compact Disk player to change tracks, the silence gave me chance to think. And I wondered how it was that the music always came on every time, immediately after I start to think twice about the comfort of being on the Samsara Express. It was uncanny. Like there was someone who was watching me every moment, ready to pull me back into the 'lasting' bliss and satisfaction promised at the official launch of the Samsara Express. Can't even remember when that was now. It just seemed so long and beginning-less ages ago.

But when the Lobha, Dosa & Moha Universally Unlimited Holdings (LDMUU) had launched their concept of the Samsara Express, it caught the whole universe by storm. Some people were ecstatic at the thought of being the first on board this express train offering bliss and enjoyment and satisfaction for eternity, while constantly on an exhilarating run around the various realms. A great offer not to be missed, they chirped. There were the skeptics of course. They speculated whether it would turn out to be just another Titanic, the great promise of a spectacular adventure that dissolved, literally into the depths of the ocean. But most I dare say were NOT discouraged by this argument. I guess they got even more excited at the prospects of meeting Jack aka Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. IF it would be like the Titanic - only this time, on a train. What more, to get to journey with them for eternity. What a great offer!

And so, you've guessed it. Everyone wanted to get on. And I mean everyone! Even the dying man in the intensive care unit at the hospital couldn't bear to die alone. So, there's the story of how LDMUU Holdings built a temporary biodegradable railway track from the new train station to the hospital specially to pick up this dying man who was ever so grateful. Yes, that's the kind of service they provided. Together with a whole 60 carriages of hospital beds to facilitate the transfer of the entire medical service onto its trains.

LDMUU Holdings was out to market without failure. And their market was the whole of the six realms in the universe. Within days, everyone was registering themselves online. This sudden traffic on the Internet highways encouraged the birth of several new Internet Service Providers who functioned in brief for only a week, but retired, with enough money for a million weeks. And the LDMUU engineers worked their last assignment expanding the Samsara Express to fit everyone. They worked with great cheer though, for they would too enjoy eternal bliss and happiness once the Samsara Express started its virgin and eternal run.

The Public Announcement System chimed its cheerful little melody indicating an announcement coming through. The familiar voice of the morning DJ rang through.

Good Morning everyone! Welcome onboard the Samsara Express once more. Yes, you've heard this for an eternity. But hey, we're still having fun! Ha! Ha! Well, coming up are the programmes we have for you today at EnterTRAINment. In fifteen minutes, our very own talented dancers will entertain you with an exhilarating train-top tap dance. You can choose to watch from the Train-top Car OR, sit in the carriages for a different feel of tap music above your head! See you there! Come on, move it! Ha! Ha!

Sounds interesting enough, hopes no one falls off the roof. But then falling off the train may not necessarily be a bad thing. We never get enough light here to see beyond the corridors of the carriages anyway. Who knows, there may be better things out there! After being on the Samsara Express for like forever, any change could be a nice change. Oh well, I'll settle for a tap dance experience in here. Don't think I fancy getting my hair blown messy by big gusts of air up there.

Right on time, the performance started. The taps brought a hypnotic feel that seemed to paralyze yet excite my body muscles. All tensed up and sitting rod-straight, I listened enraptured. And there it came again! The familiar feeling of euphoria, Samsara Express style. It came slowly seeping in with each beat of the tap-a-tap-tap. It made me feel ecstatically happy. But somehow I had begun to feel the emptiness behind this euphoria. It almost seemed as if someone had put a beautiful garment on me and declared me spectacular. In truth, I didn't feel that way.

What was I thinking? This was precisely the kind of thought that I wanted to avoid when I got onboard the Express. The kind of sinking feeling like there was an anchor tied to your heart and it was being thrown out into the depths of the sea, pulling hard on that little, red, pumping and feeling organ. And it lurched as though out of my body now, and I felt separate. I could almost feel my mind and body siting opposite each other in the facing carriage seats. It was too real to be ignored now, and I could feel my tears coming through.

Quickly I took a few quick breaths and calmed myself for I knew the mood detector present in the carriage would likely be activated soon if I persisted in my depressive mood. And if activated, it meant a visit to the in-house psychotherapist whom in reality, I would prefer to term the clown. All he did was to make you laugh and forget, and then throw you back into the whirl of activities - of wining, dining, enjoyment and a general mindless engagement of total indulgence.

So the train continued on its journey. To nowhere, yet to everywhere.

Everyone was happy just to be on it. To be part of all the sensual engagements feasting the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and lounging the mind on layers and layers of positive moods and feelings.

I had no friends. I had lost them to the Samsara Express and its attractions not long after we got on board, and there's no way I can get them back now.

I suddenly laughed out loud as I remembered how the skeptics used to refer to the Samsara Express as another Titanic in the making. The theme song was "My heart will go on." And didn't that remind me of something here?

And yes, we were 'going on' here. And on and on. If the Samsara Express was to be de-railed today and immortalized as a movie, the theme song might well be "The Train will go on". Only that there will be no audience for this movie. The whole universe was at this moment ON the Express.

Where to? I don't know. We were just going on and on and on and on and on and on and on. As far as I remember and as far ahead in the future as I can see.

Forever? The hard reality sank in.

Heck! I raised my fists in anger and crashed them into the tough leather cushion of the opposite seat. The impact brought pain to my knuckles but my head hurt more with all this thinking.

The blood in my body surged ferociously through the arteries into the narrower veins and back again. The same cyclical route. The same unbreakable motion.

And for the first time, I felt. I felt... It's been such a long time that I couldn't allow the word to come out, but I felt....


Where's the end of the journey? Will we ever stop? Will we ever get to see things at a stronger light intensity than that we have now? Where are we going? Where am I going? Will I know where I am going? Can I decide where I want to go? Are we moving at all? Or are we just going around in circles? For eternity? Is there really no way out? No way out? Where's the emergency stop button? Where's that trigger to stop the train motion that I always see in the movies? Where's the intercom to speak to the driver of the Samsara Express?

Heck! I want to get off but I can't find the door. There's no door!
How I wish I haven't got onto this train which had looked so enchanting with its glinting windows, rich decor and beautiful crew in service. How I wish! How I wish?

But I can only wish.

Hell, here I come. I guess. If there's anywhere we are going to on this meaningless journey. I don't really want to end up there, but that seems the most likely destination now. There are no road signs. I see no view outside the window. It's total darkness as always. Why do I always feel like there?s a never-ending stretch of tunnels that the Express is going through? It blocks out all the light.

Where's the light at the end of the tunnel? Barely possible now I suppose.

I sank hard into the deep comfort of the seat and turned on the in-built massager hoping to cajole myself into Sleep. And hopefully, when I wake up again, the familiar euphoria will occupy me completely as it had for the eternity till now.

I shut my eye lids tight and started counting tap dancers falling off the roof of the train. At the number 50 scantily dressed tap dancer screaming and falling off, my eyes caught something from beyond the tightly shut eye lids. It was something very different and yet there was a strange, old, familiar feel to it that called to me.

No. It couldn't possibly be! Light! Is that clear, white light I see?

I bolted upright and pulled my eyelids back with such force and velocity that the incoming light scorched my vulnerable pair of eyes that had not seen brightness for an eternity. It took me a while to adjust to the spin of white light that was coming through the window.

We were approaching a station! I squinted and tried to focus on the station coming into view. We slowed and I caught a glance of the station. It was bright but spartan.

A lone man sat cross-legged under a magnificent tree with symmetrically out-stretched branches.

Meanwhile, the speakers came on and there was some hushed, angry buzz of a whispered conversation in the background before the familiar cheery voice came on (he sounded less cheery now though).

Well, well, what do we have here? Just a tiny shopping stopover for everyone on our journey to nowhere?! Ha! Ha! Just joking! Hang on everyone, we'll be off as soon as the fellows up there at the controls find their glasses. Ha! Ha! Enjoy the song coming up next?

I continued to focus on the picture of the lone man sitting cross-legged under the tree. He looked like he had been there forever too, but there was a comforting feel to that type of eternity. I was completely taken over by this man I observed from a distance of about 200 meters.

Suddenly, he looked up from his meditating position and noticed me looking. He smiled warmly and parted his lips slowly, "Come and hear what I have learnt!" It seemed almost like a whisper, maybe just a wisp of air that flew in with the lazy breeze, but it reached and landed softly on my eardrums. I knew it was meant for me. His smile reached right into my heart, scooping it back up from the depths of the ocean where I had left it earlier, and I was taken over completely.

On a sudden impulse, I rose from my seat. My ex-friends came into the carriage at this moment conversing frivolously, obviously having wanted to invite me to join them for some fun. They fell into hushed silence when they saw me standing and watching the lone man earnestly. They knew.

One of them jeered,

What are you doing? There's only wilderness out there. You can get NOWHERE. Even if you get somewhere, you're going to have to walk. It's going to be a hard journey. Don't be a fool! Ha! Ha! Stay on board the Samsara Express! There is so much happiness and comfort here. Why bother to even get off?

His words threw a lasso around my erect body and I felt myself bounded again by some force, back onto the seat. Could I take the hardship? I don't even know where I wanted to go? Am I just being stupid? How do I know that it's not just a whim, an impulse of an agitated moment - that it's not something I will live to regret? It's only a man smiling to me, for goodness sake! Am I going to take the tough road to my destination (where ever I want to go to) just because of some light I hunger for and one man who beckons me? What if he does not have what I really want? I may lose all the comfort offered on the Express. It may be mindless happiness, but what if I lose that too?

I sat down slowly.

Seated, I turned and looked out the window of the Samsara Express. The man was gone from under the tree. At that instant, my heart sank. Where is he? It had given me such comfort to just gaze at his profile, which oozed comfort and a peaceful kind of joy. I scanned the barren station desperately.

There he was! He had stood up and was making his way towards the Samsara Express. He held in his hands, a lamp. It was the most beautiful lamp I had ever seen. And the flame! The bright orange flame jumped, winked, and smiled at me.

Without thinking, I reached out of the window to receive the lamp he was offering with his arms out-stretched. I was just an inch short of getting the lamp. I stretched my arm out more, so much more that my left foot was lifted half off the ground and I leant precariously, halfway out the window.

"Just a little more! Come on!" I urged myself angrily. It struck me then, how desperately I wanted the burning lamp. A little of that light. How much it meant to me when I had seen or rather had been not been 'seeing', having been in all that darkness.

The train sounded its horn. I felt the engines gearing up to move off again, sending a muffled vibration through its stainless steel body.

Walk forward and give it to me quick! Please! The train's going off!

I shouted in desperation to the man who was now smiling but not moving a step forward.

He spoke audibly now.

I do not want to get on the train again because I had just managed to alight. Why don't YOU come down too? At least I have light here. You can see where you are going. Aren't you tired now? You've always been on the fast track. You don't know where you are going.

I knew he was right. I was weary right down to my bones. All of my life that I could remember, I had traveled and sat on the Express. To where I knew not. And it was the first time that there was a chance to get down, and not move ahead blindly into the unknown.

The train sounded its horn again.

The final warning.

The last chance.

MY last chance.

The train started moving off slowly and I was spun into confusion. This was my last chance!

I looked at the man again and his arms were outreached.

"Jump!" He urged.

With a quick intake of breath, I pushed myself out the window and closed my eyes in anticipation of the hard fall.

I landed softly and felt arms envelop around me protectively. The man had caught me.

I started to cry. In relief. In happiness. And yet there was some sadness and a muted sense of loss. I had been on the Samsara Express so long now, that it seemed weird not to feel its constant rhythmic sway beneath me.

The man stood up now and started to walk.

A few steps away, he turned and spoke again.

Come now. Get up and let yourself walk the rest of the way. Follow the light I am holding.

I braced myself and quickly stood up, falling in pace behind the man I knew now will be my teacher.

As the Samsara Express turned into the next hill tunnel, its horn sounded again. I half-turned to watch its pitch-dark carriages disappearing into an even darker tunnel. I raised my arms and waved.

There are some things I will miss...

But! As I rested my eyes onto the back of my teacher moving slowly ahead, I knew. There will be new things I will learn! New things to see. More things. And I can see these clearly in my newfound 'light'!

Elated at this new prospect, I laughed out loud - in so lighthearted a manner that I surprised myself. What a change!

Come. We do not have time to waste.

"Where are we going, my teacher? May I call you that? Will you be my teacher?"

"Yes, my child. Come. Come, I shall lead the way to an excellent place. And while we're walking I will teach you."

"What is that place called, my teacher?"


11 March 2000

The Little Girl's Dilemma

Once there was a little girl. She always had two voices in her head. One told her to go left, the other told her to go right. Sometimes the left voice was louder so she went left. At other times, the right voice was louder so she went right.

One day, both her voices came out again at the same time. This time, both voices were equally loud. She did not know which to follow. After five minutes, both the voices started screaming for her to take action. But the more they screamed, the more frustrated she became. She felt confused and afraid because she did not know which of the two voices was right. And they were torturing her every moment with language that became increasingly abusive.

The little girl broke down and cried. She was right there in the middle of the road junction, so people started taking notice.

They came up to her and asked,

What's wrong, my dear girl? Why are you crying?

When she heard this concerned remark more than once, she replied tearfully.

I don't know whether I should turn left or right! And the voices are driving me crazy! Can you help me?

Almost all at once, the concerned crowd chipped in their comments.

Of course to the left! That will lead you to the police station so you can get yourself sent home safely.

No, to the right! That's where I stay. If she comes with me, I will take good care of me.

No no, the right path is so isolated. What if she gets hurt? The left path is safer. Especially if I'm around

Slowly the comments started getting personal, and people began to feel that they were being challenged. One guy started a shove. He got a push in return. In a manner of minutes, the crowd became a riot.

The little girl became more afraid then she originally was. Now she had to make sure that the blows did not land on her. Tearfully and on all fours, she slowly crawled out from the fighting crowd.

When she was far enough from the crowd, she stood up slowly and rubbed her eyes. She felt so tired because she had been crying the whole day, and the crawling had hurt her knees. She saw a bench nearby and slowly made her way there. It was time to get some rest.

After a few minutes, she fell into a deep sleep. In her sleep, she felt safe. She did not hear the voices anymore. In front of her there was a bright stream of yellow light that seemed so warm and welcoming. She was drawn to it naturally. Floating through the air easily, she headed towards the light.

After a while, it seemed that the light had absorbed her and she was filled with bliss and joy just floating in that tunnel of brightness. She did not know where she was heading but one thing was for sure: the voices were not there!

Gradually she was able to make out the figures of a few people. Then it became more, and more and more! It seemed like she had come across an assembly of sort. These people looked very different. Most of them had no hair, but there were also others at the peripheries of the semi-circle who had. The little girl did not know why most of the bald people had a bare left shoulder. "Don't they get cold?" she wondered.

Now she was still floating towards the assembly and she became aware of a soft, cotton wool like cloud below her. It seemed that this cloud was bearing her weight and bringing her forward towards the front of the assembly.

Gently she was brought to the ground and left on a seat, which was empty. Interestingly, no one seemed to have taken notice of her arrival. She looked around in amazement. She had never seen so many people in her entire life! There seemed to be more than a thousand people in this assembly. They all looked beyond her to a figure seating on a raised platform. She followed their gaze and put her palms together like she saw them doing.

The person on the platform was emitting light so bright that at the first glance she was taken aback. On her second look, she became enthralled with whom she saw. The person sitting on the platform was tall and had sharp features, which told her that he was very intelligent and capable. His whole figure exuded so much love that the little girl suddenly remembered her mother who loved her so much.

She was moved to tears.

But this time, these were tears of joy and gratitude. She did not know who this man was. But she knew that she liked him and perhaps he could tell her which way to go.

A gentle yet firm voice suddenly filled the entire space. She sat up in anticipation that her question will be answered. She strained her ears, and even cupped both hands over her ears to make her hear better.

The voice continued in its melodious way. No matter how hard the little girl strained, she could not catch a single word!

She began to get a little upset. At first she thought the person teaching did not see her, so she knelt a little higher hoping he would see her. When that failed, she tried a tiny wave with her right hand. Still, the voice floated by like melodious music without words.

The little girl got impatient and prepared to speak. She cleared her throat nervously and put up her hand like she was taught in school.

But sir, which direction should I go?

The cool breeze suddenly swept past, waking the little girl with its chill. The little girl had woken up. She felt deeply disappointed and upset with the person in the dream. Even if it was a dream, she felt betrayed and angry towards the man who first gave her such a good impression.

Her hot tears rolled down her cheeks and she sobbed with resentment, her little figure trembling in the dusk.

Down the road, an old man came by and cheerfully cried out to her,

Aren?t you going home yet, little girl?

The angry little girl retorted,

How do I know if I should turn left or right? Nobody bothered about me. Not even that man who had so many students! They are all so selfish!

The old man was silent for a while as if trying to recover from the shock of that harsh retort.

You sound like someone has made you angry?
He tried tentatively.

Of course! They all bully me!
The little girl sulked and crossed her arms.

A little grin started to break out on the wrinkled, seasoned face of the elderly passer by. He leant down to touch her arm and with the gentlest voice, asked her.

But did you tell them where you wanted to go?

What do you mean where I wanted to go? It's either left or right! And they could not answer me!

Now the old man took a more serious tone and squatted next to the little girl.

You know, it's not about left or right all the time. It depends on where you want to go. After you decide the destination, you choose the path. The path sometimes turns left, and sometimes turns right. Sometimes you need to turn more than once on the path!

The little girl looked up from her arms and met the eyes of the kind old man. She said nervously,

So I don't have to decide whether it's left or right?

Already she felt a huge burden heaved off from her chest. She touched her chest as if to find something there, but it was only a feeling. She felt better already.

So where did you want to go?

The little girl felt her face warm up with embarrassment.

I... I wanted to buy myself an ice-cream.

The elderly man could not take it anymore. He burst out laughing and wiped away the tears from his eyes. He had not felt so much cheer in a long time.

The little girl laughed along, relieved that her secret was out and she did not have to decide between left and right anymore.

Still laughing, the old man took that little girl's hand and said,

Oh well, let's go and get that ice-cream and we'll send you right home.

As the twosome walked down the road towards the junction where the riot had broken out, the little girl had no problem deciding which way to turn.

She knew only too well, that the ice-cream uncle lived at the house to the left of the junction.

27 July 2003

Potential, kamma and renunciation

These past 3 days, I've been to Dhamma talks one after another by Ven Robina Courtin, a nun from the Tibetan tradition, Ven Mahinda, a Theravadin monk and listening to Ven Ri Chang, a Taiwanese Mahayana monk's tape expounding kamma. It has been a bombardment and total immersion in the teaching of kamma which has left me quite speechless as I compare it closely with my experiences these 3 days. Let me now attempt to sort out my thoughts and insights as I share it with you.

Please forgive me for the confusion, and I hope sincerely that the Venerables have not been misrepresented by my poor memory.

Some of the teachings that I've been throwing around in my mind are:
1. Kamma can directly or indirectly explain everything that happens to you. Kamma cannot be lost and will stay with us..
2. We have the innate potential to be good, and when we purify our mind, this potential will emerge.
3. When we decide to 'renounce', let go or to want to be free, we must start facing up to the situation. And this means we have to be prepared to get our hands dirty as we face up to the 'dirt'. It is not about running away or hating the dirt. It's about finding a way out.

Kamma can directly or indirectly explain everything that happens to you. Kamma cannot be lost and will stay with us.

Both Ven Mahinda and Ven Robina said this in different ways: We always ask "Why me?" when bad things happen to us, but we don't ask 'why me' when good things happen to us. We seem to take good things for granted because we are attached to them. And we push away those, which are not good. But all these are all results of our kamma! If somebody blames you this life for something you did not do, then you might have done something to that person in a previous existence! We are all linked to each other by cause and effect. Kamma is about planting seeds in our consciousness and once these are planted, they WILL ripen in the future.

On kamma and tradition of practice?

I asked Ven Robina a personal question about practice and finding a tradition I will be comfortable with, and she shared how she became a nun. She did not know there were so many schools of Buddhism, she did not know what are the different sects of Tibetan tradition, she just met people whom she feels are her teachers and she has plunged in. She said that's her kamma with her teacher! Her advice was at the end of the day: whom you choose as a teacher is a matter of kamma, whom you feel closest to. Just give up choosing and go with what feels most natural for you. She said, "just commit to one tradition but continue to be open with the teachings of other religions and other traditions. But it is important to commit to one."

Ven Mahinda had his take on practice methods and schools of practice. When asked if practising metta or breath meditation alone could lead one to liberation without vipassana (insight meditation), he refuted quickly. All these are later marketing ploys! The Buddha never separated his teachings in this way, into samatha or vipassana. These are useful later for scholars or students to study when they categorise the different methods. When he traveled in different countries, he met masters some of whom only taught meditating on 'buddho' or insisting that it must be pronounced in a certain way. He realised that there are different methods, but as long as the individual has faith and practices consistently it will all lead to enlightenment. Everyone has a different inclination. He shared that his own inclinations to be a monk was apparent even when he was young: he could not sing, he was not interested in the material, and his health was best when he visited or stayed in temples (he said in jest). For him, he was just continuing this tendency brought over from the past life.

We have the innate potential to be good, and when we purify our mind, this potential will emerge.

At Changi Women's Prison, Ven Robina asked the women at her talk to each give one good quality they can think of that they have. Shyly some of them said, 'soft-hearted'. Ven caught on and asked the rest if they all have this quality. All of them agreed. She then commented, "all of you have the quality of love and compassion. But is it also because of this that you got in trouble?" They nodded. She continued, "It's excellent that you have compassion, but you need wisdom to go along with it! It?s like a bird with two wings, you need both wisdom and compassion."

This is the innate potential of goodness that we all have. Do we recognise it? Where has it gone to hide? Do we know how to handle it?

Ven Robina continued, "Look at your current situation and problems and feel happy for it because you are now finishing off the bad kamma! When all this has gone away, you will be purified and your good qualities will emerge and you can strengthen them." On another stage, Ven Mahinda said, "It does not matter what our meditation object is. The more we focus our minds there, the more our minds are purified and the full potential of our mind will emerge; and we can begin to connect our minds to other beings, devas, Bodhisattvas, etc at a frequency with lots of love and compassion."

This afternoon I met a group of Buddhist friends as I passed by a coffee shop and stopped to chat. We had seen each other going for lessons at the same centre but rarely had a chance to interact. As they caught up on their curiosity of how I got to learn Buddhism and my own path, one of them commented, "Your progress is admirable!" For the first 16 years of my life, I was obese, frighteningly overweight with a strong, out of control attachment to food. But once I got to know Buddhism at 19, I became a vegetarian and shaved off a huge bulk of weight. About 2 years ago, I started to abstain from the evening meal and shaved off some more weight. While they amazed at what I had 'achieved', I reflected quietly that it had not taken me much to make these decisions. It seemed so easy and natural to me as soon as the dews of Dhamma had begun to nourish my heart. I reflected on how extreme my own path was: from a full swing from uncontrollable indulgence to disciplined abstinence. What had helped my potential emerge? And I say 'emerge' because I had not done much to train and beat these inclinations into place.

Every time I make a public presentation or share with others in a intense, focused manner (counseling), I always amaze myself with the things I say, the insights, love and calmness which seems to just flow readily and naturally from the heart. Some of the things I haven't thought about before just arise as naturally as if it had been residing in me all the time! My tone becomes measured, my voice calming and I become empowered with an amazing mental reflex that is able to satisfy others with an answer which is beneficial to them. Last two nights, I was the emcee for public talks by Ven Mahinda. Some people told me I was excellent as the emcee, some said I had 'character', and someone said they were totally impressed with my English, accent included. Where did my coolness come from? What accent? My family speaks Mandarin at home, I had never been inclined towards fluent English speaking, and certainly never took up any course in public speaking or presentation.

As I reflect, I am constantly amazed. Since I started learning Buddhism, I saw myself changing so much, so dramatically and naturally. The confidence and fluency and clarity of ideas just seem to emerge. And I realised that every time I let go of my own fears, hesitation and views, I was able to get into one of these amazing states of focus, calm and great compassion.

Is this the same as the inner potential emerging?

But I know for sure that every time I face a situation with mindfulness and just be with the moment, I naturally know what to say and what to do. Every time I try very hard to form a 'view', an opinion, that ability falls away. Perhaps all these are the defilements, and as long as they are around, my innate good qualities brought down from previous practice cannot emerge. It seems that the harder I try, the further I get away from this innate potential. I still feel awed and cannot explain this observation and share here with you so that you may help put some light to my experiences.

Sorting out my thoughts?

I'm not sure what kind of conclusion to give, but I feel in myself that a strong faith has arisen, or been rekindled in kamma, in our interconnectedness and in the striving for goodness. I am amazed at how much we are in the grasp and flow of our own kamma: negative ones binding with poor conditions for practice, possessive parents and partners, poor financial health; and good ones connecting us to wise ones, teachers, spiritual companions, life partners, practice methods, etc. BUT also similarly inspired by how kamma links us up to what we've been doing in our past lives, linking us up with unfinished practice, unfinished relationships, unfinished matters, and how it helps us build up on firm foundations of goodness and stability.

There is nothing that happens to us by chance, and that itself is a powerful reflection. "I am the owner of my own actions, the heir of my actions, being born from my actions, bound up by my actions and taking my actions as my refuge."

I also reflect that the simple two words 'let go' is so powerful when we continue to learn and find out about what our kamma is meant to be.

To negative and binding situations, we let go and face the music because this is a boomerang effect that comes back to us as a result of our own actions. I like this analogy by Ven Robina: She said when we want to get out of samsara, get out of this dirt, we have to be prepared to deal with it. And that means being able to put both our hands into the dirt and not hating the dirt, avoiding the dirt, or cursing the dirt. We just want to get out, and we recognise that this is a necessary step. In other words, we 'let go' of our resistance and accept that this is a result of our own actions. Not finger pointing at other people, not blaming conditions, but simply to see it clearly and accept it as our own mess, roll up our sleeves and begin to tackle our own mess with equanimity and happiness that it has now ripened and will not come again.

To positive seeds, potential, good tendencies, wholesome states, we 'let go' of control, of grasping, of wanting to dictate where it should go and how it should serve our sensual desires. Instead we let go of the 'I', the possessiveness of 'mine' and the addiction to 'wanting to be'. The moment we let go of all this self imposed states of attachment, ill-will and delusion, our potential and goodness emerges. And it carries us, just like a tide would carry a boat without much effort into the wide, boundless sea. It expands and liberates not confine.There is no room for fear, no room for hesitation, no room for other things, or even other people to come onboard. This path is an individual one, and a transient one. If we can be content and let things fall into place, we can sit back and relax for an amazing show and amazing insights into the workings of kamma: of how we are inter-related and how we can tap on our positive potential to bring us to the end of dukkha, suffering, samsara.

Liberation without trying...

Just recognizing.

With much humility, mudita and metta
24 July 2004

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