My friends often assumed that the rest of my family are devout Buddhists as well. Like many Singaporean Chinese today, however, my family were, and still are, pretty much areligious. My mum can even sometimes be irritated at my involvement in Buddhist activities.
For a period of time, however, we had a Guan Yin shrine in our home. My dad installed it after two unfortunate events that began when I was very young. First, my older brother was found to have a rare disease of the eyes, inherited from my mother. My parents were told that it was only a matter of time before the retina degenerates to the point that he would be as good as blind. Second, my dad was found to have what is commonly called “nose cancer”, despite being a non-smoker and non-drinker.
Upon the advice of some elders, my dad tried to take up Buddhism. The Guan Yin image was “invited” into the house, and he acquired some free Buddhist books. Although he offered joss every morning and night without fail, I don’t remember him reading those books very much. They were chucked in a drawer, and when I began to pick up reading as a child, I started on those books out of my own curiosity.
The first of these Buddhist books that I recall reading was titled “The Road from Man to Buddha” or something like that. It was a thin account of the Buddha’s life story, from his mother’s dream to his renunciation, self-mortification, enlightenment, and final passing. At the end of it was a quick summary of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
It must have been very boring for a primary school kid, but I remember reading all of it. And at that young tender age, my older brother confided in me of his fears of death and questions on the meaning of life, reminding me of Prince Siddhartha’s (the Buddha-to-be) concerns. Such fears I began to feel too, striking my heart cold in the dark of the night.
I also remembered reading, at around the same time, Enid Blyton’s “Stories from the Bible”. This book was fascinating to me too. I was only in Primary School, but I felt the tension between evangelists and the “Chinese religions”. I began wondering why the evangelists were so certain of the truth of their own religion, imported from the West, while denigrating our own traditional practices. Along with my own existential fears, these paved the way for a lifelong interest in religion.
And so it was that I frequently browsed books in bookstores on religion, geomancy, astrology and witchcraft. While my classmates in Junior College skipped lectures to play computer games at the nearby internet café, I skipped lectures along with them but holed myself in the nearby community library, looking for books on religion versus science. Most of my time was probably spend reading and re-reading the library’s Bibles. From my experience, many Christians assume that we Buddhists have never read their Bible. On the contrary, the most dedicated practicing Buddhists I know are familiar with at least some portions of the Bible.
Intellectually, I came to my own decision that Buddhism seemed to make the most sense. But I was still frustrated by something about Buddhism that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Was it its general reticence on metaphysics? - the endless cycles of rebirth, or the meaning of life ?
Unlike some of my Buddhist friends, I never attended any Sunday Dharma Classes or took part in any temple activities. At that point, I still very much considered myself a free-thinker, but inclined towards Buddhism and Taoism.
My entry into University was the real start of my education in the Buddhadharma (the Buddha’s teachings). Arrogant and self-assuming, I joined the NUS Buddhist Society, thinking that I would revolutionize the way Buddhism was presented. Nothing could be more wrong. I quickly learnt that I barely knew anything about Buddhism. And so, the true struggle began… arguing with seniors and peers about the First Noble Truth, about the veracity of rebirth, of the merits of discussing cosmology from the Buddhist perspective. I became more and more active as a committee member of the Buddhist Society, and tried to practice meditation properly under the guidance of teachers.
Throughout all these years, my father’s health deteriorated. Although his cancer never relapsed, his systems were breaking down because of the harshness of radiotherapy treatments over a decade ago. He became gaunt and weak. Resting was a vicious cycle for him. Because he felt weak, he had to rest, but the more time he spent resting, the weaker he became. Extended family troubles and his poor health led him to become more and more depressed. In his final years, he saw that I had become much more interested in Buddhism than he had ever been, and on one particularly desperate morning, he asked me, ’What is the purpose of living?’ Despite having read all those Buddhist books and heard all those Dharma talks, I couldn’t counsel him out of his negativity.
His suffering was emotionally heavy to live with as a family member. Salivary glands destroyed by radiation made the simple act of eating so much of a problem. In his final months, he would mash his rice with plenty of soup into a disgusting gruel, and make vomiting noises while trying to swallow. A small bowl took him more than an hour to eat. I could barely stand eating at the same table with him.
In mid-2006, his swallowing problems led to food bits in his lungs and hence pneumonia. There was no way his body could fight off the infection. In the hospital, I knew he wanted to die, but we couldn’t let him. He wanted water to quench the terrible thirst in his saliva-dry mouth, but the doctor advised us not to give it to him for fear of introducing more foreign objects into his lungs by accident. Out of pity, I secretly allowed him a few sips, but had to forcibly take back the bottle from him. Perhaps in delirium, he lifted his weak hand and hit me. It wasn’t painful; it couldn’t have been. The next day he slipped into unconsciousness.
Watching over him in his final days was more educational than all the Buddhist books and Dharma talks I had ever read or listened to. It affirmed all that the Buddha and the masters were trying to tell us. I abandoned the stubborn wish to dwell on the metaphysical aspects of the Dharma, and made up my mind that there was an urgent need to spread the teachings of the Buddha to as many young people as possible, so that we can all practise when our minds are still open and labile, so that we can better deal with life’s many challenges that come with ageing, sickness and dying.
I have never looked back since. The Buddhadharma and meditation helped me through my own hellish bout of depression later on, and further guided me on how to deal with everyday problems. But it was not all about problems, as the Buddha’s teachings allowed my heart to open and see the beauty of the world and of life. Instead of simply dealing with sober topics like suffering, anger and greed, there was an indescribable joy in the peace that it espoused. Above all, this peace was directly verifiable, and completely possible to experience, by ourselves if only we make the effort. My confidence in the teachings is Faith like no other that could be found.
To that I have two people to thank - my older brother and my father, without whom I would not have walked this path.
Chong Kwek Yan
Currently a PhD Student in Biology at NUS and former NUSBS President