Coming into Kechara: A Journey to Find My Spiritual Self
A Wasteland of Materialism
In the years before Kechara, my World was a Wasteland of Materialism and Spiritual Materialism.
“All the years before Dharma have been good and successful only in a mundane sense. Nevertheless, they are empty and meaningless.” ~ Tsem Rinpoche
Worldly success can take you to a peak, where, for a moment, you think you have conquered all and the world is at your feet. But those “peaks” are just moments where you delude yourself into thinking “I have achieved!” “I am great!”
Afterwards you fall back again into a world of strife and competition, where all your negative traits of aversion, anger, hate, jealousy and insecurity rear their ugly heads and you are dragged down into a quagmire of unending hurt and suffering. In your hurt and pain, you will just lash out at others and blame them for your unhappiness, finding no ultimate solution or way out.
Nonetheless, I continued to be lured by the false promises of mundane success. I had reached yet another “peak”, when, in July 2002 (a year and a half after my retirement), I attended my graduation ceremony at Leicester University, UK, for my Masters of Arts Degree in Education. I had planned to continue with my studies to obtain a doctorate, as part of a long term program to continue my career in Education. However, the course of my life changed after a tragic event occurred. This led me to abandon all notions of continuing with my career. Instead, I began to search in earnest for a meaningful spiritual path. In mid- 2005, I found Kechara and my Spiritual Guide.
Spirituality and Spiritual Materialism
Before I came into Kechara, my idea of spirituality was rather vague and unclear. My engagement in spirituality had been typically that of a Malaysian Buddhist, bound by the dictates of tradition and upbringing. I visited a Buddhist temple of the Theravada lineage, once a week, with my family. I would go to a Guan Yin temple once in a while too. Then I found a Thai temple with a Guan Yin shrine. From then on, it was visiting this temple weekly to pray to Buddha Shakyamuni and Guan Yin with my family!
Besides our weekly visits to this Thai Buddhist temple, we also observed Wesak Day by joining others in the special Wesak Day prayers, receiving blessings from monks in the temple and lighting candles. I observed the three feast days of Guan Yin – her birth, enlightenment and renunciation – by visiting the Guan Yin temple, with the family, to pray and make light offerings.
My prayers to Buddha Shakyamuni and to Guan Yin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), my favourite Buddha deity from young, were very simple. They were prayers invoking their blessings and protection, as well as propitiating their help to solve my problems and overcome my obstacles. When I was young the praying was done infrequently, and only when I visited the temple. Before being introduced to their mantras, I would just verbally make prayers of request to Buddha Shakyamuni and Guan Yin and propitiate them for their help, blessings and protection.
My mother had passed on to me the ‘traditional’ practice of requesting the nun in our hometown Guan Yin temple to light candles or to chant mantras for each member of our family, for a whole year, starting from the 1st day of the Lunar Year. We would also request the nun to pray for our children before they sat for a major examination or for any friend or loved one before undergoing an important surgery.
In return, we would make a regular donation or contribution to the temple. The rationale behind this practice is that the nun, a member of the sangha, spends her entire life in prayer and taking care of and maintaining the shrines in the temple; hence she would be filled with pure motivation when she performs the prayers or lights the candles for us. Hence the prayers and candle lighting would be more powerful and efficacious.
Guan Yin My Spiritual Mother
From a young age, I had been “adopted” as a Spiritual Child of Guan Yin and given into her care. As a Spiritual Child, I was told by the nun who had performed the rites that I would receive her special protection until I reached adulthood.
Then a friend, a Guan Yin devotee, kindly introduced me to the mantra “OM MANI PADME HUM“. From the moment I received her mantra, I have chanted it, whenever I prayed to Guan Yin. Over the years, up to this very day, I have held Guan Yin close to my heart. Now when I chant her mantra daily, I chant it as a mantra of compassion visualising white lights from her going out in the ten directions to all beings of the six realms of samsara and blessing them; and I visualise her relieving them of suffering.
Coming to Kechara House
Changing Course: In Search of My Spiritual Path
In December 2000, I retired from a 30-year career with the Ministry of Education. For a couple of years after that, I was working on furthering my studies in order to prepare myself to continue my career in Education.
However, all that changed in September 2004: a friend’s 17-year-old daughter fell, hit her head, developed a blood clot and fell into a coma from which she never recovered. In late December 2004 she passed away. Her sudden fall, coma and death in rapid succession triggered questions in me about life and spirituality. It was then that I decided to abandon all thoughts of continuing my career. Instead, I began an earnest search for my spiritual path.
Reading Avidly on Buddhism
I had been reading books especially on Buddhism, as I had already been drawn to it in my adult years. I read books by a great Theravadan monk, the late Chief Reverend, K Sri Dhammananda, who had been the abbot of the Brickfield Buddhist Temple before he passed way. I also read books by great Buddhist teachers like the Venerable Ajahn Chah and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Then I began reading books by the Dalai Lama, and I was enthralled by his focus on Compassion and Kindness. Nevertheless, I was still responding to the teachings in these books on an intellectual level.
Attending a Teaching Retreat on Tibetan Buddhism
In December 2004, drawn by an advertisement in a local daily, I attended a one week teaching retreat by a visiting Tibetan Buddhist master, Gelek Rinpoche. The main course was a brief introduction to the Lamrim – entitled “Odyssey to Freedom”. Gelek Rinpoche also gave a short teaching of three days on White Tara. I learned much that was new and enthralling. I learned for the first time that suffering came from a negative mind of afflictive emotions. I learnt about the great compassion of Tara. According to Gelek Rinpoche, Tara and Guan Yin all had the same compassionate nature.
Towards the end of the teaching retreat by Gelek Rinpoche, my sister informed me that she was joining a group pilgrimage to Bodhgaya led by Tsem Rinpoche. A tsunami hit Sri Lanka on 26th December when my sister’s pilgrimage group had barely left the island en route to India and Bodhgaya. My sister was most deeply affected by Tsem Rinpoche’s compassion and how, through his powerful “clairvoyant” mind, Rinpoche was able to get the pilgrims to fly off from Sri Lanka, just minutes before the tsunami hit.
Stepping into Kechara
Then on Wesak Day 2005, she brought me to the Kechara House centre that was newly set up above a coffee shop in Sunway Mas – KH1 – to join in the prayers and offerings. A few weeks later in June she brought me for the first time to a Dharma sharing session conducted by a senior student of Tsem Rinpoche.
Meeting My Spiritual Guide
The profound significance of having a Spiritual Guide did not come to me immediately. I first met my Spiritual Guide H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche, in Kechara House 1. It was after my second Sunday Dharma sharing session at Kechara House, that Rinpoche walked into the centre. Then, when he spoke to me, his first words were “So it took you 12 years …”. Thinking back, I then recalled that I had met him before, and that 12 years previously, I did have a short audience with him in the home of one of his Malaysian friends!
I think something must have been sparked off then. I felt that my spiritual journey was about to begin.
Dharma Teachings and Dharma Classes
Upon coming into Kechara, I threw myself into all activities with great zest. I began attending all the Sunday Dharma classes, in Kechara House and wherever they were held (including in the lovely Vajrayogini Chapel of a student of Rinpoche). Later, two Sunday Dharma classes were started in Kechara House – the Dharma class for beginners and the Manjushri class for advanced students. It was in the advanced Manjushri class that we studied the “Fifty Stanzas of Guru Devotion” and the “Wheel of Sharp Weapons” Much later, the Lamrim class was started. I was thirsty for all that knowledge. I bought all the books and CDs on Tsem Rinpoche’s teachings that were available.
I also looked forward to Rinpoche’s talks and teachings. Rinpoche gave Dharma teachings in Kechara House especially on important occasions like Wesak Day and Tsongkhapa Day, as well as at the start of retreats or at the end of a big prayer project like the 10 million Migtsema-thon. Always, through his talks and teachings, Rinpoche would remind us about impermanence and death, about the workings of karma, about taking refuge in the Guru and the Three Jewels, about making meaningful use of our precious optimum human rebirths, about transforming the mind, and about the importance of engaging in Dharma practice and Dharma work to bring about the transformation of the mind.
Later Rinpoche invited me to join the monthly book-club sessions which he conducted in Dhamekhang. These were very powerful moments of learning from our Spiritual Guide. We studied about Guru Devotion and about Chogyam Trungpa in the bookclub sessions that I joined. The last session was a close teaching and discussion on Vajrayogini, by Rinpoche, to a very small group of us.
During the pilgrimages to Gaden Monastery in April 2006 and then to Nepal in October 2008 that were led by Tsem Rinpoche, I received much precious teachings from Rinpoche which he gave to all the pilgrims.
Then, the Lamrim classes were started. They were conducted by a senior student of Rinpoche. A small group of around 15 of us went on to complete two courses of the Lamrim.
In looking back at this part of my spiritual journey in Kechara, through the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, many of us received a strong grounding in Dharma knowledge owing to the continuous Dharma sharing on Sundays in Kechara House. I am deeply indebted to the senior students who shared the Dharma with us Sunday after Sunday. We have continued this beautiful tradition of Sunday Dharma sharing in Kechara House to this day.
Finding the Mahayana Path in Kechara
1. Why the Mahayana Path?
The Mahayana Path is the path to Full Enlightenment, or total freedom from suffering or ultimate peace and true permanent happiness.
2. The Mahayana Path as presented in the Lamrim
The Lamrim that we study in Kechara House is “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. The Lamrim comprises the 84,000 teachings of Lord Buddha arranged as “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment“. This Path is the Mahayana Path that I found when I came into Kechara. The Lamrim combines both the Wisdom Lineage from Manjushri and the Method Lineage from Maitreya. It is presented in Three Scopes. The Lamrim comes down to us through Atisha and Lama Tsongkhapa.
As is clearly explained in the Lamrim, as Mahayana Buddhists, we share the Path with the Hinayana practitioners in the Small Scope and in the Medium Scope, until the attainment of Renunciation. The Mahayana Buddhist continues on the Path into the Great Scope of the Lamrim. Following Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Fundamental Principles of the Path, Mahayana Dharma focuses on the attainment of both Bodhicitta and the Correct View of Emptiness in the Great Scope, after the attainment of Renunciation in the Medium Scope. Mahayana Dharma in the Great Scope also focuses on the attainment of the Six Perfections – Giving, Moral Discipline, Patience, Joyous Effort, Concentration and Wisdom.
To meet the teachings of the Lamrim in the easily accessible form of “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand”, which is Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche’s transcript of the 24-day teaching of the Lamrim by the great Lineage Master, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche (who had mastered Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo in ten intensive years of study and retreat), is the rarest of the rare of fortunate circumstances! I must have accumulated tremendous merits to have met my Spiritual Guide, who had brought to Kechara the Lineage of Lama Tsongkhapa and the Lamrim!
3. Kechara House Pujas and Retreats
I was also introduced to the weekly pujas in Kechara House and attended them regularly too. They were the Protector Puja, the Medicine Buddha Puja, and the Dzambala Puja. Furthermore, there were big group retreats like the Setrap Retreat, the Medicine Buddha Retreat, the Black Manjushri Retreat, the Dzambala and the Tara Retreats. There was a Migstema-thon to collect 10 million Migstema mantras. All these retreats and the Migstema-thon were dedicated to Rinpoche’s long life, the growth of Kechara and the spreading of Dharma. There were also prostration retreats as well as water offerings and Lamrim recitation retreats. All in all, participation in all these retreats and pujas was a time for accumulating merits and purifying negative karma for us to remove obstacles to move on in our spiritual practice.
A group of us became members of the first puja team of Kechara House, when we received intensive training in many pujas so that we could serve and benefit people who regularly requested pujas to be performed for them or their loved ones.
I learned that pujas are ritual offerings and prayers to specific Buddha deities and Dharma Protectors to invoke their compassionate help, blessings and protection. It was from the pujas that I was performing on a daily basis then that I learned that there were two circles of compassion that intertwined – the compassion of the Buddhas for all and the compassion of those of us in prayer for others.
I learned that every time I pray, I should visualise my mother on my left, my father on my right, those I find difficult in front of me, all mother beings of the six realms surrounding me in human form, infinite in number, and my friends and loved ones including my pets, behind me. All are in prayer and practice, alongside me, receiving the same purifications and attainments, so that the whole world eventually becomes a Buddha Land. This is a powerful visualisation that I do whenever I am performing my daily sadhana.
Volunteering in Kechara
I also began volunteering at our Dharma store in 1Utama every Tuesday. It was on one of the afternoons when I was volunteering there that Rinpoche walked in and gave me a short Dharma talk on the pure motivation of serving others with love and compassion, like a mother’s equal love and care for her children, even if only one child turns out well and the others do not. Hence even if only one person turns up to buy an item from the store, I should accept this with patience, compassion and equanimity. It is from their side, not from the side of the ‘giver’ of the service: it is a lack of merits on their part to fail to visit the Dharma shop and to make purchases of spiritual items. Rinpoche was introducing me to the first steps of mind transformation – we should never serve others on the basis of how they behave, but instead, we should serve them and benefit them unconditionally.
After Taking Refuge with Tsem Rinpoche on Lama Tsongkhapa Day 15th December 2006, Rinpoche advised that my sister and I join the Kechara Soup Kitchen weekly rounds. For a couple of years, we steadfastly served and learned much about compassion in action and about the nature of homelessness and poverty in urban Kuala Lumpur. I remember on one occasion, a small group of us, mostly family members and relatives, went on our rounds of food distribution on Chinese New Year’s Eve because our clients were expecting us to be there as usual.
Every encounter with a homeless person gives us cause to contemplate on how that person has been our mother in a previous life; or, in a previous life, how he/she has been the ‘giver’ and we the ‘receiver’. Then an aspiration should arise that by giving them food now “may we create the causes to be more closely connected with them in a future life so that we can continue to serve and benefit them more“.
The Significance of a Spiritual Guide
The special significance of having a Spiritual Guide manifested itself to me on the night Rinpoche invited me for dinner.
4th April 2004
Over a dinner to which he had invited me, Rinpoche said the following to me:
“You have the talent to write. Use it with Bodhicitta motivation to spread the Dharma. Write about the procedures of Dharma, write about yourself and how you came into Dharma. You can bring your experience and maturity into the writing.
All the years before Dharma have been good and successful only in a mundane sense. Nevertheless, they are empty and meaningless.
Now you must write for Dharma. In this way, you will gain tremendous merits. Rinpoche, you and others will die, but the written word will live on and on”
Back then, I did not realise the significance and import of Rinpoche’s words. They were words of advice to me to tap into my potential so that I could best serve the Dharma and benefit people.
Only our spiritual guide, who knows all our individual strengths and weaknesses, can design a Dharma ‘practice’ for us, that is tailored specifically to match our strengths and our needs. Rinpoche had found the means by which I could practise the Dharma to transform my mind.
Much to my regret now, I did not recognise the significance of this advice then, and did not pursue it. I worked, for a while, on presenting an article about how I came into Dharma. However, when my thoughts could not ‘gel’ together, I gave up trying.
Rinpoche’s Compassionate Practice of Lojong and Tonglen
What moves me most deeply about my Spiritual Guide, Tsem Rinpoche, more powerful than any teaching I could possibly receive, is the compassion he manifests in absorbing the sufferings of others including those of his students. I have personally witnessed how Rinpoche manifested this mind of compassion towards others, including those who had betrayed and disappointed him deeply.
On one such occasion, after patiently talking to a senior student who had been with him and worked with him closely for a long time, and seeing that student stubbornly refuse to give in and accept his advice so logically and painstakingly put across to him, Rinpoche finally saw that he had to admit “defeat”. Deeply moved and hurt as he was, Rinpoche quietly, and in a voice that shook with great emotion, recited the following verse from the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation:
“When someone I have benefitted
And in whom I have placed great trust
Hurts me very badly,
I will practice seeing that person as my supreme teacher.”
At that moment, I felt the blessings of a powerful lesson on compassion being transmitted to me.
On another occasion, on 27th December 2007, Rinpoche had become very ill halfway through a day-long pilgrimage of the city’s Kechara departments and outlets. However, he kept his cool and composure and even joked and teased various people. Only when we arrived at our second last stop, Kechara Saraswati Arts, did he finally pause to inform us that he had been very unwell for some time already. Nevertheless, he readily prayed there and then to take on all the sufferings of those in pain.
Meeting the Tibetan Guan Yin
Avalokiteshvara (who is actually Guan Yin in Sanskrit), the Buddha who is the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas, will appear in any guise and gender and in any realm to benefit all beings.
Coming into Kechara, I was introduced to the 4-armed Guan Yin or Avalokiteshvara – two hands folded in prayer and enfolding a wish-fufilling jewel at his heart (symbolising Bodhicitta), a third hand holding a set of crystal prayer beads and a fourth hand holding a lotus, symbols of altruistic love for all beings and his readiness to help in a multitude of ways to benefit us all. His four arms also represent the Four Immeasurables – loving kindness, joy, equanimity and compassion. As with all Buddhas, who are filled with compassion for all beings, he wears ornaments representing the Six Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, joyful effort, meditation and wisdom, thus inspiring us to practise them.
Praying to the image of Avalokiteshvara, as an image of Enlightenment, is praying to attain the qualities that he embodies. The iconography of such images represents the road-map to Enlightenment. This is the road map of the Mahayana or Bodhisattva path. When we have achieved his qualities, following this “road-map”, then we will become enlightened. Hence praying to 4-armed Guan Yin is to actually draw inspiration from her to walk the path to Full Enlightenment (complete freedom from suffering and ultimate peace) that she has achieved. Reciting her mantra of great compassion, we invoke her blessings of healing and protection for all beings. Praying to Guan Yin or Avalokiteshvara is praying to achieve Him/Her. Buddhas are free of concepts like gender, race, colour or creed.
Finding Lama Tsongkhapa
When I first walked into Kechara House, the statues of the Buddha deities that were there were those of Buddha Shakyamuni and Mother Tara. Four months later, a 6-foot Lama Tsongkhapa statue was installed in a strategic corner of Kechara House 1, resplendent in beautiful brocade and adornments. There was a most memorable ceremony to welcome Lama Tsongkhapa to his new home. We lined the road leading to the temple and sang the Migtsema mantra.
Lama Tsongkhapa, in long life form with his hand holding a long-life vase, became my Buddha deity, the focus of my daily sadhana. Lama Tsongkhapa is the founder and patron saint of the Gelug lineage, the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism brought by my Spiritual Guide from his monastery, Gaden Shartse Monastery in Southern India. As Tsem Rinpoche says in his book ‘Faces of Enlightenment’,
“…the Buddhas of wisdom, compassion and power (Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani) incarnated in Lama Tsongkhapa.”
He is the embodiment of three Buddhas. Through his penetrating intelligence and tireless scholastic pursuits and endeavours, as well as his utter humility and boundless energy, he was able to restore the holy Buddhadharma to its original purity. Indeed Lama Tsongkhapa brought about a renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism.
Lama Tsongkhapa’s Guru Yoga and his mantra – the Migtsema – became the mainstay of my daily sadhana. I was to discover the power of his prayers in bringing me out of anger into peace, and to pacify my outer and inner obstacles and negativities. Performing the Guru Yoga of Je Tsongkhapa, with its seven-limb prayer, is a daily exercise of purification and accumulation of merits.
The Migtsema is a mantra that embodies the three Buddhas and their qualities. Reciting the Migtsema and performing the Guru Yoga daily, with great compassion and altruistic motivation, will lead us to achieve a mind of peace, wisdom and great compassion.
Thus, pondering over this, I think I must be wonderfully blessed to meet Lama Tsongkhapa in this lifetime and receive His rare and precious practices, Mantra and the Guru Yoga, as well as the Lamrim and his lineage teachings. In fact, all this has only been possible because of the kindness and compassion of my Spiritual Guide, Tsem Rinpoche.
Finding My Dharma Protector
It was also through the kindness and compassion of my Spiritual Guide that I found my precious Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden. From the moment I found him, he has unfailingly come to my aid and the aid of my loved ones in all moments of dire need. He was there to help my mother in the last moments of her life. He was there when a loved one went into a state of manic depression. This Wisdom Protector has helped me in my Dharma practice and all Dharma engagements, creating the necessary conducive conditions and removing the obstacles that stood in my way .
How Kechara Transformed My View of Buddhism
True Spirituality is about Mind Transformation
Meeting my Spiritual Guide and coming into Kechara has been a journey of profound discovery of true spirituality. True spirituality in Dharma is about transforming the mind from an ego-centric mind – a mind that is totally absorbed in ‘self’ – to a mind that is filled with compassion and universal love, a mind that altruistically cherishes others and would see that others are free of suffering. This is the mind of ultimate bodhicitta, which is an enlightened mind or a mind that is completely free of suffering and disturbances of any kind.
Mind Transformation: The Process
This process of mind transformation is encapsulated in one of the main practices of Kechara House – “The Eight Verses of Mind Transformation”. It takes you on an eight-step course in mind training and transformation – from the powerful motivation of wishing to attain enlightenment for the sake of each and every sentient being, whom you hold most precious and dear to your heart (more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel), to offering every happiness and benefit to all beings, your mothers, and taking upon yourself all their harmful actions and suffering, without these practices being stained by the eight worldly concerns. By such practices will you release all beings from suffering and its causes – the disturbing unsubdued mind and karma.
It is essential, as Verse Two says, that we begin by viewing all beings as Buddha and respectfully hold them as supreme. Only when we lose our ego can we find true spirituality and peace in the Dharma.
An initial step of Mind Transformation is described in Verse Three. This is to always examine our mind and the moment a disturbing attitude or negative emotion arises, we should firmly confront it. As these negative attitudes and emotions are transient in nature and essence, we should check and control them before they seduce us into negative actions that harm others and ourselves, and bring suffering.
Verses Three and Six are also about guarding our mind against negative projections, perceptions and expectations. As Tsem Rinpoche has taught us, mind transformation is training our mind to accept every problematic or challenging situation, recognising them as being karmic in nature. These difficult situations are also a means by which we can develop compassion and the Six Perfections to bring us forward in our spiritual practice. We have to let go of all negative perceptions, projections and expectations from the mind, as they are the real causes of suffering.
With a mind that is open to love and compassion for all, we forgive, let go of negative projections of people and situations and take responsibility, and in this way we will find peace. Transformation of our mind begins with taking responsibility and not blaming others. Thus Verse Three and Verse Six train our mind to develop a positive disposition towards others and towards all situations we encounter. Only then will we start to experience true peace.
Every one of our actions should be motivated by a wish to benefit and serve others – which will lead to peace – and never by a wish to benefit ourselves, which will only bring suffering. We learn to view ourselves as the lowest of all and respectfully hold others as supreme. We learn in mind-training to offer the victory to others and accept the defeat. We also learn to view someone, whom we have benefited and in whom we have placed great trust, and who disappoints us, as our supreme teacher. If we follow the eight steps here carefully in our mind training, we should see our mind shifting towards viewing others with greater empathy and compassion. Ultimately, we will develop a mind of altruism, great love and supreme compassion. This is the mind of Bodhicitta, the mind of Enlightenment, that will bring the ultimate peace and permanent happiness that we seek.
Tsem Rinpoche, my Spiritual Guide, is the embodiment of all the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation. Every day of his life, he faces a never-ending onslaught of difficulties and attacks, especially cyber-attacks, with a mind of great compassion, always showing only respect for his attackers. Thus does he show us the way to develop a mind of Bodhicitta, which is our ultimate protection.
A journey of a thousand steps begins with the first. Today, I feel most thankful that I made the decision to come into Kechara and begin my spiritual journey here, with the kindest of teachers, H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche, my most reliable spiritual guide for all times. My heart is filled with deep love and appreciation for how my spiritual guide has patiently pressed my buttons and pushed me to become more and more the real ‘me’ – that being of kindness, clarity and commitment – that resides deep inside me.
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