Like many ethnic Chinese Singaporean, I come from a family that practiced a mix of Buddhist, Taoist and Chinese folk religious practices. I remembered that when I was very young I would follow my mother to visit Chinese temples, worshiping various deities, hoping that they would protect us and bless us with good health. That was the “Buddhism” I was brought up with.
When I was in Primary school I had a few friends who were Christians. I remembered talking to them, inquiring what they believe in. In my first “inter-religious dialogue” with them, I learned that in their belief only those who were of their creed and believed in their God gets to go to heaven, everyone else would go to eternal hell. Even as a child it struck me as being unfair and it did not make sense to me. Even today as an adult, having understood Christianity more deeply and with greater appreciation, what I learned then as a child still struck me as unfair.
I was in my teens when I got to know Buddhism better. I felt that if I wanted to call myself a Buddhist, I should know what the religion is really about. So I started reading books on the religion. Like most informed Buddhist, I was surprised that Buddhism is actually very different from what most common folks had identified as Buddhism.
I would say there were 3 defining moments for me as a Buddhist. The first was when I joined Singapore Poly Buddhist Society. It was the first time I met other practicing Buddhist. During my 3 years there, I learnt a lot from my seniors and I am very grateful for what they have taught me.
Looking back, I am amazed at how 18 and 19 years old students could organised themselves so well. But at the same time I am a little apprehensive because it is not always possible to have strong leadership among the students. Thus it is important to have a strong alumni present to provide guidance and support. I am not sure if such support were always given to these Tertiary Buddhist Societies (Buddhist societies on the campus of the universities and polytechnics in Singapore).
The second defining moment for me was the experience of deep meditation; the experience of peace, bliss and purity of mind that is possible through meditation. What I’ve experienced as an “amateur” meditator who spent only a small part of my time on meditation has convinced me that those monks, nuns and lay people who dedicated their lives fully to meditation and following the Buddha’s teachings are indeed capable of great spiritual development.
The third defining moment for me as a Buddhist was reading the suttas for myself. In my first few years as a Buddhist I’ve only been reading the works and thoughts of various Buddhist masters. While reading these books or listening to these talks are useful, I found reading the suttas directly to be most beneficial.
(The suttas are the recorded discourses that the Buddha gave to his disciples over a period of 45 years. In those 45 years the Buddha faced many different situations and people from all walks of life. People. from his most enlightened disciples to common-folks, would asked him questions on various issues. By reading the suttas myself, I was able to learned first hand how the Buddha dealt with each of these situations. This process of learning the Dhamma has helped me enormously to both clear up doubts and misunderstandings that I previously had as well as to apply the Dhamma in my daily life.
Over the years Buddhism has benefited me greatly. I felt that I have become more compassionate and generous person because of these teachings. Rather than blind pursue of material wealth or caring only for my own welfare, I have become more sensitive to the plight many less fortunate people are experiencing around the world.
I joined Firefly Mission in 2006 and participated in their overseas trips to help the less fortunate in Myanmar. That experience was one of the highlights of my life. When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, Firefly Mission was able to activate its resources quickly and helped alleviate the suffering experienced by thousands of people. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play a small part in their relief effort. I felt that my life have been enriched by these experiences.
Since I have started actively volunteering with various Buddhist organisations, I got to know many like minded friends who shared similar values as I do. This is also one of the benefits I’ve experienced over the years as Buddhist.
On the intellectual front, I feel that Buddhism offers a very balanced approach towards religion, spirituality and morality. Rather than emphasising on a almighty God that we need to pledge our allegiance to, Buddhism encourage us to question (rather than accept things on faith alone) and do not settle until we are satisfied with the answer. Ironically since I did not have to pledge allegiance to any one God, as a Buddhist I could embrace all that is good that is found in the world, irrespective of religious affiliation!
Since Buddhist morality is based on the idea of what creates the most benefit and least suffering for all, there is room for us to debate and question on what we should do rather than rigidly follow what was found in religious book that were written many hundreds (or thousands) of years ago.
I also feel completely comfortable with the scientific knowledge, like notion that the universe is billions of years old or the Theory of Evolution because they are in line with what the Buddha had said about the world we lived in.
I am also proud of our 2600 years of shared Buddhist history. During this time, Buddhism spread to almost every corners of Asia, yet relatively little violence or wars have been fought in its name. Very early on, Buddhism understood the importance of cultural sensitivity, thus Buddhism frequently adapted to the local culture and customs as it spread across Asia rather than imposing its own cultural standards.
Lastly, I am very aware that Buddhism, like everything else in this world, is conditioned and depends on many factors in order to prosper. We cannot take for granted that there will always be good Dhamma teachers, experience meditators and lay Buddhist to support the religion.
Thus as a Buddhist, I feel that I have a role to play in protected the religion. Protecting Buddhism is not done through the edge of a sword or loud angry protest. Rather it is through clear and calm communication, and education. In this way we help ensuring that the Buddha’s message is heard and expressed in a way that is relevant to each new generation of Buddhist. It is with this wish that I started my blog, A Handful of Leaves.