Rachel Tham Sin Mun (心敏 )
Even though it has been 10 years since I graduated from the 14th English Dharma Class at TMBS, I have not stopped learning the Dharma. To hear, to contemplate and to practise the Dharma are important stages in Buddhism. Truly practising the Dharma is to incorporate the teachings into our daily lives.
Looking back, my fondest memories were from the lessons I learnt during a three-day retreat to Taiwan before our graduation.
The first lesson came even before the retreat started. As a result of a misunderstanding between the travel agency and the airline, we were unable to have vegetarian meals on the plane. That caused great inconvenience to those on a strict vegetarian diet but alas, there is no point in arguing and pointing fingers.
First lesson: tolerance and non-attachment. If we are not attached to the notion of self, then we will not get angry. To whom is this happening to and who is being angry? When things are beyond our control, we should practise tolerance as whatever we face now is the effect from a previous cause that has ripened under the right conditions. Then we can let go of whatever unpleasant feelings we have and will be free from the emotional attachment to the event.
Second lesson: patience. There were about 50 participants in this retreat, most of whom were elderlies. In such a large entourage, there is bound to be a lot of waiting time. Whether it is because someone had gone to the washroom, or forgotten the time, or just plain late, we had to wait for everyone before setting off. When we arrived in Taiwan, there was a long queue at the customs. While waiting, some decided to go off for a quick bite and drink before boarding the bus to take us to the temple.
It was the beginning of winter in Taiwan. The wind was billowing outside and the air was dry and chilly. It felt miserable to be cold and hungry. When we arrived at Hsiang Shan Temple, these feelings vaporized immediately before the warmth and affectionate welcome, with the delicious dinner spread laid before us. Everything was thoughtfully provided for and was the result of the efforts of many volunteers. Another lesson we must learn from the people in Taiwan – generosity – to put others before oneself and to be genuinely concerned for the well-being of others.
The following day, the retreat started at 5.30 am with a morning recitation followed by breakfast and cleaning of the premises. The daily schedule included recitation of the Diamond Sutra, lunch, meditation, more chanting, dinner and Dharma talk by Master Hou Zhong. Lights out at 9.30 pm. In between each activity, there was plenty of time for rest and quiet reflection.
There was only one important rule which was to refrain from talking. Why? Because humans have scattered minds which are fuelled by excessive speech. Without exercising restraint, we talk non-stop, often about unnecessary things that spring from the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. We do not stop to think before we open our mouths, thus creating bad karma.
Third lesson: precepts. Knowing the reasons behind the precepts help us to increase our conviction when keeping them. As human nature goes, some find it really hard to keep this rule of not talking. It has become such an unshakeable habit. But I believe it is a matter of training and will. If we are constantly mindful of this rule, we will be able to achieve it.
Mindfulness is key to our practice during the whole retreat. Even when doing a seemingly mundane job like cleaning up, I was mindful that this act of making the temple premises tidy and orderly ensures that people coming to the temple to make offerings to the Buddha or to hear the Dharma will feel comfortable and at ease. Hence, I did my chores with joy and delight.
While chanting, it is of utmost importance that we know what we are chanting about – whether it is paying homage to the Buddhas and Maha-bodhisattvas, or praising their virtues, or contemplating the Buddha’s teachings. By taking refuge in the Three Treasures, we remind ourselves of their goodness and that strengthens our vow to work towards the goal of attaining the Bodhi-mind. We have to be mindful even when eating.
Dining at a retreat is a very structured affair. To the untrained mind, this may seem like a lot of rules. Again, this is to stop our scattered minds. We chant Shakyamuni Buddha’s name while entering the dining hall. The food is placed neatly in front of each participant. Vegetable, soup and rice; each has its own place. There is a specific way to move the dishes closer to you before eating, which we had to learn the day before. We had to eat without noise, without wasting any food. All is still and quiet so you can be mindful of the food that is nourishing your physical body; mindful of all the causes and conditions for them to appear in front of you; mindful that we have to repay the gratitude of everyone involved in this process by making good use of our time during the retreat. This is how to live the Dharma.
No matter how nice the food is, its appeal to the senses only lasts for a while. To the body, it is only protein, carbohydrate or fat. Taste is merely a perception of our minds. Contemplating the food as dependently originated without an inherent existence in the first place, I know I should not be attached to the taste. Nonetheless, I still found the mee sua so delicious!!! But at least I am aware of this shortcoming. It may appeal to my palate, but I will enjoy it for the moment and then let go.
Trying to live harmoniously with 8 other people in the same room and sharing the toilet with 16 others is also a form of practice. There is always something we do not like or see eye to eye. Too noisy, too messy, too this, too that. Whydo such feelings arise? Because of the self! This ego is something that we attach to strongly. This person did this to “ME”. “I” do not like it. We have to first be acutely aware of such feelings when they arise. Realising it, we must then learn to let go of the attachment to the self.
Finally, this retreat has taught me how to live. Being mindful in whatever you are doing and stopping the scattered mind, you will be surprised by what you notice when your mind is still. I noticed the shuffling of feet when we walk, people fidgeting about and hard to keep still, the rustling of the leaves, the cool breeze, chanting the Buddha’s name in my mind, the chirping of birds. Stillness can then give rise to quiet contemplation of the Dharma. So we can train our minds in every action, whether we are eating, walking, sleeping or bathing. When your mind is clear, you will feel lighter, more at ease, more alert and even your posture will be better. You will become more aware of your actions.
I began to be aware that when using water, you do not have to open the tap all the way but only enough for your own use. Such a basic action can lead to saving water and the practice of giving. Carefully placing your things down instead of letting them drop will prevent noise from being created. This is how we can live the Dharma every minute of the day.
Last lesson: diligence. Knowing all these is only the first step. Putting in the effort to practise is something we have to do deliberately and diligently.
10 years after attending this life altering retreat, the lessons I learnt are as relevant today as before. Practising the Dharma is not just doing it at retreats and temples but living it in our daily lives.