Advice at a Funeral
Our Ah Ma was a wonderful lady. Kind, gentle and soft-hearted, she was extremely forgiving and always accommodating – whatever we grandkids wanted to do or eat, wherever we wanted to visit, she would do her best to make sure it happened. It wasn’t until years later that I realised financially, things weren’t always easy for my grandparents but they never let us experience it. We only saw them a few times a year, during school holidays when trips to Penang to visit them was the highlight. Our grandparents doted on us and they wanted to make sure we had a good time, and leave with good memories.
So when we did something that deserved a scolding, Ah Ma would help with the cover up so our mischief wouldn’t be discovered, and she did it with a twinkle in her eye. Once I got into a bad bicycling accident and fluid built up in my knee. It swelled up horrendously and I was left unable to walk, and no amount of treatment would get the swelling to go down again. The hospitals and even her acupuncturist brother were unable to help. Ah Ma spent the next few days seeking all kinds of treatment for me, getting on the phone with friends and coercing Ah Kong (my grandfather) to drive her here and there. Finally, a Pakistani neighbour told her to rub a boiled egg on my knee every day for 20 minutes which she did lovingly until the swelling subsided and I could walk again.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Ah Ma shuffling from the kitchen to her bedroom, hot and bothered from cooking up a storm. She’s wearing her loose Nyonya batik kaftan, her hair rolled up in green and pink plastic curlers. Her feet are clad in hotel slippers one of us stole from our last holiday and they slap against the tiled floor as she walks. I can see her leaning in to the mirror to carefully apply her make-up, her hands steady and still soft from her nightly moisturising routine. And in another memory, there she is, bent over the bathroom sink, carefully applying dye to her hair. It wasn’t until many years after her passing that I realised I never once saw her with any grey hairs.
You would be forgiven for thinking this immaculate, well-dressed lady was only about parties and having fun, but in reality she was a spiritual person who loved Buddhism and Rinpoche. One of our favourite activities to do with our grandparents was to visit the Burmese and Thai temples in Penang, and the Kek Lok Si Pagoda. Ah Ma was the first person to teach me the meaning of the refuge prayer “Namo Guru Beh, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya”. She was open to all religions, keeping an altar for Sai Baba and encouraging us to explore spirituality. One of the first times I ever went out on my own in Penang was to, at her encouragement, a Hindu yoga and meditation centre. Meanwhile, it was Ah Kong’s nightly ritual to clean the altars, and offer incense and fruit, before settling down with a sigh in front of the TV, cigarette in hand (and nosy grandchildren just behind him, spouting the dangers of smoking hehe).
Some of our best moments took place in the hour before bedtime. We grandkids shared a room and a bunkbed with Ah Ma; she had the lower bunk with my brother and sister, who took turns sleeping with her or on the floor on a mattress. As the older one, I got the upper bunk. Ah Ma would try her utmost best to get us to fall asleep but we never wanted to because back then, being grown up meant staying up as late as possible. So for an hour, she’d chat to us then ‘realise’ she was falling for our tricks, pretend to be frustrated then burst out laughing and say, “Okay, okay, that’s it, you need to sleep now”…and then start talking to us all over again.
Ah Ma’s death in 2002 was sudden and totally unexpected. Early one morning, Ah Kong went to wake her up in her bedroom and discovered that she had had a stroke sometime in the night. He asked if she wanted an ambulance; she was still responsive and tried to speak but everything was garbled. She could only nod yes but shortly after she arrived at the hospital, she was gone. It was not something any of us could have predicted, especially since she had just undergone a full medical check-up the week before and nothing unusual was spotted except for slightly raised blood pressure.
Our parents pulled us out from school for the week and we immediately drove to Penang where the funeral was being held. We were silent most of the way, a rare occurrence when you put three boisterous and often-arguing siblings in one car.
Rinpoche kindly came to Penang to conduct the funeral for us. A lot of people had turned up to celebrate the life of this wonderful lady. Rinpoche advised us not to cry, saying Ah Ma would be worried to see us upset and her mind would hang around, and this would hinder her taking her next rebirth. It was therefore our responsibility to make sure she knew we were okay so she could leave in peace. So as we did our best to stem our tears, we recited OM MANI PADME HUM or OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA which Rinpoche said would be good for her because those were Ah Ma’s favourite mantras. As Rinpoche himself recited prayers, a huge gust of wind blew on what had otherwise been an extremely warm day with no breeze. The door behind Ah Ma’s coffin slammed with a resounding bang, making everyone jump. After Rinpoche finished reciting the prayers, he said it was at that moment Ah Ma had left and it was a good sign. After the cremation, our family gathered in my aunty’s house, where Rinpoche called and spoke to all of us over for two hours.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reorganising my things when I came across my mother’s notes from that phone call. I still remember that call clearly. All of us were in my aunty’s bedroom, crouched and straining to listen to the speakerphone. Rinpoche spoke patiently and caringly, and waited for my mother to repeat his words so that everyone in the room could hear clearly.
I think the phone call and Rinpoche’s presence made Ah Ma’s passing a lot easier to bear because to be honest, her passing didn’t hit me until a few months later. On the way back from school one day, I realised I would never see her again and that’s when I started crying. I realised death wasn’t something people could come back from, and whatever sorrow I felt actually arose from regret – could I have called her more often, or written to her more? Could I have served her more and taken less from her? Was there anything I should’ve apologised to her for? And if death comes so suddenly, when would it be my grandfather’s turn and my parents’ turn, and my turn, and how would I be able to predict any of it?
Death is unavoidable and death is irreversible, and the moment of our death is uncertain. And not only is the exact moment uncertain but at our level, where we go after death is uncertain too. So we can play all the fun and games we want, pretending we will be young and live forever but the fact is that our mortality is very real, and anything else is a denial of the inevitability of death. At the point of our passing, the only thing that will help us and our relatives and take their pain away, is the Dharma. It will not be the good memories, the trips we took, the photographs we have, the meals we ate or the shopping we did with them. If we are Buddhist, those events do not determine our rebirth and if we are not Buddhist, well they won’t determine whether we get into heaven or hell (if that is our belief). So I share Rinpoche’s advice here hoping it will be useful to you. If we have real love for ourselves and for those closest to us, preparing for our death and theirs is the greatest gift we can give them.
Advice from Rinpoche
* all additions within [ ] are my own, intended to lend more clarity to my mother’s notes
He says he is honoured to be here and to be able to set her free and he says he is happy everything went smoothly in [such a] difficult situation and that everyone cooperated together so well. Whatever our family does is our own affair, not others’ business and whatever we do is our work together.
Since Rinpoche is the teacher of our family, it is his responsibility to relay some messages to us. Our parents have been independent [in] taking care of each other until now and the reason why they leave us alone is because they do not want to burden us in any way, shape or form and make their own lives. This is what he feels but it could be other factors too.
Now that the situation has changed and the grand matriarch of the family has passed away, the passing away of Ah Ma is a rude awakening and a shock to immortality and very sudden and makes us feel life is so fragile, short and quick to end and because it’s fragile, that’s why every moment we spend with our family is so important. There’s no guarantee who is older will go first or last. At this moment, we have the only oldest person left is Ah Kong. So we need to put our own wishes and needs and pursuits aside. At this moment, we need to concentrate on our father. None of the three sisters spoke to Rinpoche about it. This is [Rinpoche’s own] thought and Rinpoche is letting us know in this aspect, he is not pushing or ordering us but to please take care of Ah Kong for the next 49 days and thereafter do not leave him alone; not let him be alone. The husband and wife had a long life together and planned everything together. Ah Kong held up his strength and pulled through this ordeal. He held up quite strongly, but inside he is completely broken up.
His three daughters have the essence of his beloved wife so when he sees his three daughters and [their] offspring, it will remind him of his wife and make him closer to his wife. If his three daughters are gone and not around he will be broken emotionally.
Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, you must put that aside and think on [a] human basic level. He gives us life, fed us, he washed us and took care of us. Now we have to take care of him. Not because he is a baby and cannot take care of himself, but if we are human and remember kindness, we repay kindness. Ah Kong doesn’t expect this but we should act as human.
We can go see movies, see boyfriends, etc. but put all attachment aside, put personal comfort aside. All of us must have a harmonious, loving, unselfish forthcoming meeting, and work out a plan so that our sacred father is not alone. There is no point going to temple, churching, praying, etc. if we don’t take care of the father and mother who gave us life. How much we pray will be no blessing from God or Buddha or whatever we choose to believe. So if we repay them even without praying, the Holy Ones will bless us and [in the] later years, we will be alright. Naturally, good attracts good. Contemplate on this. Rinpoche requests us to take care of father and grandfather. It’s a natural thing some people will be more biased towards father or mother, but if you take care of father, won’t mother be happy? Think of Ah Ma and what she wants us to do at this time.
Whatever differences we had with them or not with them, put aside now, take care of Ah Kong. Do not think of our own staying place, our own comfort, our own entertainment. Sacrifice and repay back. This type of sacrifice is worth the sacrifice. Any time father can go off and be heartbroken and feel abandoned. A person’s mind is stronger than [their] body and if the mind goes, even if [the] body is strong, it will pass. Don’t let Ah Kong down or Ah Ma for 49 days. One must keep him company and take turns and do not do it grudgingly. Everything said is from Rinpoche’s heart. Some of us have been under the kindness and [have been] personally taken care [of] by Ah Ma. Whatever faith we believe, remember [the] faith of our mother and forefathers and never put down or disrespect them. One should not listen to peers and friends but to our grandmother who has taken care of us to heart. If she prayed to Kuan Yin and Buddha all her life and lived so well, definitely Buddha has the power to bless us. Family remains forever, friends will not. Friends are attracted to us by the way we talk, look, money, many different types of factors. But if one of these factors is gone, they will be gone.
All children remember – pray to Ah Ma’s Buddha. [For] ourselves we can do anything we like. If we love her, pray for her. Please respect Ah Ma and do as she has done and do what is best for our family without listening to outside peers because they never bathed and fed us. Do what your family does, be proud of your family heritage and proud of your religious traditions. Whatever our Ah Ma has done has made her [the] wonderful person she was. Whatever she has done is correct.
In conclusion, please do not allow father/grandfather to be alone. His motive is not to burden us. He is not someone stupid, crippled or cannot take care of himself. This is not the point. The point is to make him feel loved and cared about. Sacrifice your own comfort and happiness and take care of him. Do prayers with him. Those in Penang and nearby, do prayers with him together. It’s only for 49 days and make sure he is taken care of and someone stays there with him. After the crucial period of 49 days, we make arrangements that he is not alone because he is useful and necessary and [a] very important part of [the] family. More importantly [at] this time, be human first. Put your needs aside. [To be] human means compassion, kindness and sacrifice. Dedicate time for father/grandfather. Take care of him, see him often, call him all the time to make sure [he is] alright. Listen between the lines; he will always say ‘no’ so as not to burden us.
To our father: Rinpoche has the right to say this even though Rinpoche is younger and not to be disrespectful, but he says it as a spiritual teacher, in that capacity. Give [your] children/grandchildren the chance to serve you. Let them have the honour and be able to collect merit to serve you. Give them a chance. Don’t think you are [not] independent, you are. But help them so that they may collect merit, repay kindness, give them a chance to repay your kindness as [a] father/grandfather. If you don’t do this and you pass on, they will have guilt and regret. Don’t let them suffer like this. Rinpoche is telling us all of this as he has [a] close and intimate connection with us. He dares to take this chance to invade our privacy. Whatever he says is not meant to be disrespectful to anyone, but to bring benefit. Do not take offence to what he has said.
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