Lee Yu Ban
Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
From the head to the heart
By any standards, I must say that I’ve lived a very blessed life. In my forty years, I’ve never experienced any deep suffering or unhappiness for a prolonged period. Sure, there were the usual growing pains during the teenage years, the usual frustrations of working out a career, the odd problem, but my life so far has been pretty smooth sailing with no major disappointments or periods where I’ve been truly unhappy.
I grew up in a middle class family in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. My parents were happy and very loving; to each other and to their children. They brought up their children on a foundation of strong moral values, kindness and consideration for others and a deep respect for the strength of family ties.
Childhood memories often are of long, idyllic holidays at the beach, family gatherings and such. We were not particularly religious and although we are Chinese, we were not particularly observant of the many customary rituals and practices. My maternal grandfather had accepted the Theravada form of Buddhism in his youth and he had imparted a love for this tradition to my mother. I remember accompanying my mother to the vihara on nights of the full moon, bringing with us offerings of orchids, to listen to the saffron-robed Sri Lankan monks chant the discourses of the Buddha in a gayly painted hall, with candles on the altar and a large Buddha image smiling benignly down at me. The chants were in Pali, the ancient language of the Theravada texts, and although I understood none of it then, I remember clearly the beauty and serenity of those sounds, the magic of those warm nights, and the kindness and calm composure of the monks.
It was largely through such familiarization that I learnt the basic teachings of Buddhism or more correctly, the Buddha-Dhamma. Requiring a minimum of faith, the teachings appealed to me because they were so reasonable. Even at a young age, I had agreed with the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught. The teachings of karma and of rebirth took some mental exercise to grasp but I managed to arrive at a fair understanding. On the other hand, the teachings of the fundamental characteristics of life; that it was impermanent, empty and imbued with dissatisfaction seemed to be self-evident. But what I found most wonderful about the Dhamma was its lack of emphasis on faith, replacing that element with a promise that one who practices the Dhamma will find conviction in the results that can be experienced in this very life.
In secondary school, when students were first introduced to the subject of world religions, I was selected to represent the Buddhist point of view. Later, I took pleasure in debate with others of differing religious views, poking at weaknesses in their belief systems and confounding them with skillful arguments, reason and a knowledge that many did not expect I possessed. That was what my religion was to me then, an intellectual exercise, a knowledge used to prop up my view of myself. It was strong in my head but weak in my heart.
But that was to change early one morning in 1980 when I was 21. Across the street from where we lived, we had a neighbor who was my father’s childhood friend. He was suffering from lung cancer and we watched as he grew progressively thinner and weaker. His wife had approached my father with her expectation that her husband’s life will not hold out much longer, and she would appreciate my father’s help in the event of his death. Early one morning, our telephone rang. A few seconds after my father had answered the phone, he rushed back to his room to grab a shirt and was soon out the door to my neighbor’s house.
It was quiet for a while but about ten minutes later, the wife came running to our house breathlessly saying that something had happened to my father. We all ran back across the street. I ran up the steep, dark stairs and entered the room at the front, followed closely by my mother. The scene that met me appeared surreal. In the barely furnished room was a bed with a thin man in his pyjamas; his eyes, lifeless. I immediately knew he was dead. Lying sprawled at the foot of the bed was my father, wearing the shirt he had hurriedly thrown on this morning. I wondered why he had not buttoned it. His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. As I knelt down beside him, I thought I noticed they tried to focus but rapidly lost their strength until the last moment of life flickered away from those eyes. Just then, my mother came into the room. She hesitated for a moment, then knelt down beside me and called my father’s name. I remember her strange tone, as though she thought my father was playing a joke and she was embarrassedly calling him to stop. I was strangely calm at that point. I looked at his chest. It did not rise nor fall. It was then that a very deep fear struck me. “He’s not breathing” I yelled out. Just as I knew that the frail looking man on the bed was dead, I knew then that my father, so full of health and happiness the day before, had also passed away.
In the following months, I often reflected on this event. It was then that the truth of the Buddha’s teachings really struck me. How all life, be it that of a sparrow, a child or an old man is so fragile, that it can vanish like a flame of a candle. And how all of the world toils daily, either blind or ignorant to this fundamental truth. It was this singular event that led me to explore the Buddhist Teachings more deeply, and the more I reflected on what I learnt, the more I was convinced of its relevance to my life. It seemed to me that it matters so little where one stands; what religious label one chooses to identify with; whether one is poor or rich, successful or not. For we are all afflicted by the same disease; the disease of mortality. And not finding the cure, we distract ourselves, often by indulgence in our senses, but sometimes, sadly, by celebrating our differences in quarrels and war.
Several years after my father’s death, I took a backpacking pilgrimage through the Ganges valley in India, visiting the very sites hallowed by the Buddha’s presence. In Nepal, I watched the sun rise over the forests of Lumbini, the place of his birth and visited the ruins of the palace where he lived as a prince. In India, I waded across the river Neranjara and trudged up the hills where he meditated and visited the cave where he practiced as an ascetic. I visited the bustling town of Bodh-Gaya, and sat under the tree at the spot where the Buddha was enlightened. At Sarnath, I exulted as I walked round the stupa marking the site of his very first sermon. And finally at Kusinara, the sad little village at the foothills of the Himalayas, I knelt at the shrine, a hundred candles lighting the spot where he had laid down to pass away two thousand four hundred years ago.
It was a magical trip. Not only did the pilgrimage vividly evoke the presence of the Buddha, but India itself was a tremendous lesson in life. Every step had the potential to nudge one to see life from a different perspective. The beggar girl pleading with big brown eyes for a few rupees. The naked old woman, deformed by age and disease, lying in the street. The smoking remains of a cremated corpse on the riverbank, its ex-relatives having a chat and tea just a few feet away. Pilgrims of some unfathomable sect, doing a fire puja in the middle of a bridge. A suited man in a rickshaw weaving its way through a herd of cows. And away from the city, the timeless toil of men and their beasts in fields of mustard or dhal, a scene as old as recorded history. How many generations have lived their lives here?
I returned from that trip, and a second one a few years later with a deep respect for that ancient land. But more importantly, the teachings of the Buddha, which I had pretended to understand all this while, moved from my head to my heart.
And what has understanding the teachings and practicing them done for me? This will always be a difficult question to answer as the practice of the Dhamma is not one that happens overnight. Rather, its influence permeates my thoughts and guides my daily actions. If I had been a happy person all along, now I have even less reason and incidence to be unhappy. I am more accepting of people, understanding that we are all so alike, that all our actions are motivated by the common desire for happiness or the avoidance of pain. I am more accepting of what life brings, looking askance at disappointments. Although I actively enjoy the pleasures of life, I am aware that they are all ultimately empty and short-lived. But underlying all this is the certainty of how the world works and a resulting confidence that there is no situation that will confuse me with doubt.
It may seem disappointing to some that I do not speak of any religious ecstacy. Yet, this is what I appreciate about the Dhamma; that it does not fry my mind with unquestioning beliefs but fills my spirit with understanding and kindness. But the Dhamma is more than a blueprint for a suffering-free life. Among my friends, there are some who, inspired by the vision of the Dhamma, have seriously taken on the challenge of attaining the goal of Enlightenment. A few have ordained as monks but most pursue this objective as laymen. They are my constant reminder that there exists an alternative lifestyle; one that does not subscribe to our society’s “normal” expectations or measurements of success. Like them, I share the conviction that Nibbana is very real. It is not a paradise that one attains after death but an experience that can be gained in this very life itself, an attainment that represents the pinnacle of human achievement, setting one free forever from this conceptual reality we call existence. Like them, I am also inspired by this ideal but for the moment it remains a vision on the horizon to which I lift my eyes when I am less preoccupied with the mundane concerns of daily living.
And thus, this life goes on calmly and smoothly. May it be so till it ends.