Meeting Rinpoche 20 Years Ago
My name is Chia Song Peng. I was born to a large family of 10 siblings in a small village in Johor called Muar. My family were very simple people. My mother worked hard to keep the family fed, tending to the farm that belonged to my father’s family while my father worked in Singapore for long periods of time.
Much of my childhood was influenced by the care of my grandfather, my mother and my siblings. It was my grandfather who took on the role of teaching me to read and disciplining me when I was mischievous. My father played very little role in my life and usually came home only during Chinese New Year, to my grandfather’s displeasure. My grandfather was a strict, traditional Chinese man. However, seeing how dedicated my mother was to the family, he left all his wealth and property to her and my elder brothers after he passed away; a very rare occurrence in a Chinese family.
I remember a tough but joyful childhood with my family. We were very poor, so poor that my mother’s hard work could barely put food on the table for everyone. We reached the point that my parents considered giving a few of us up for adoption. I was told that when I was five years old, I was supposed to be adopted by my childless uncle, but I refused to go as I was old enough to know that he was not my parent. While I was never very close to my father due to him always being in Singapore, my brothers were loving and kind. They were the father I never had.
When you’re born into a family such as mine, tending to the farm is the norm. I started helping my mother pick vegetables from a very young age. We would wake up at dawn and head out to the farm when the time is right for picking. When I was in Primary 4, I got my first paid job to earn my own pocket money. My mother was an incredible woman who I admire and love very much and I just couldn’t bear to see her working so hard for so many years. I felt that as a son, I should lessen her burden by earning what little I could at that time, instead of taking pocket money from the family.
Time passed quickly and I soon graduated from high school (Form 5). At that time, my best friend and I received sponsorship to further our studies in Singapore in an Engineering course. Both of us left for Singapore and enrolled in college. However, it wasn’t long before I decided to quit my studies and enter the job market. I found that engineering was not my interest, and on top of that my poor command of English made it very difficult for me to catch up with my classmates. So I dropped out of college and took up a job just to earn money.
A few years passed and my best friend graduated from college and landed a great job that paid well. I was so happy for him; after all we grew up together in the same village. It was a great joy to see someone I personally know from my hometown having a bright future ahead of him. However, no one could predict that just months after graduating, he would get into a fatal motor accident and pass away.
My friend’s sudden death shocked me greatly, although I didn’t realise until later just how much his passing impacted my life. Whilst I previously had a nonchalant approach to life, his death made me begin to examine my life and I realised that I didn’t want to live a meaningless existence.
A few weeks after that, I quit my first job at which I had been working for a few years, and took up a job that I knew absolutely nothing about, to be a chef. I thought that this was the first step to live a more challenging life, to engage in something with the reward of new experiences and skills, and at the same time have a secure job. After all, a chef is highly employable.
Having no culinary experience except for some exposure to the industry as my father and brothers were chefs, I started in the lowest kitchen position – an assistant chef. What I thought would be a new exciting experience ended up being a repetitive job that involved killing fish every single day. Of course, it was not something that I enjoyed doing but at that time, I did not think too much about it. It was just part of the job and a step towards my goal of being a chef.
I was satisfied with my new job. I made many new friends and I knew I had a good future ahead. Everything went smoothly until one day, one of the restaurant’s chefs failed to turn up for work after visiting his hometown for the weekend. We were worried and soon found out he was in a coma due to a terrible accident.
We barely knew each other but I felt the need to offer my help. I remembered my neighbour, Ms. K, talking about a monk who helped her paralysed husband regain mobility. Thinking that there was no harm trying, I contacted my neighbour, explained the situation to her and requested her to ask for help, all of which she kindly did.
I received a reply and instructions on how I could help my colleague. According to the monk, who I was told was a master of divination, my colleague’s consciousness was wandering outside his body. This was the cause of his coma. I was told to recite Green Tara’s mantra and to call for my friend’s consciousness to return to his physical body. At that time, I had no idea what a mantra was. Although I was a Buddhist and had some interest in the subject, my exposure and knowledge of Buddhism was limited. However, with faith in this monk whom I had never met, I pocketed the paper with the mantra written on it and took a bus to Johor Bahru to visit my colleague in the hospital.
When I arrived, my colleague’s mother was in his room. By that time, he had been in a coma for a week. I introduced myself and told her I had received some instructions from a Tibetan Buddhist monk to help her son. We chanted the mantra together. My colleague’s mother was illiterate so she just followed my lead as best as she could. Not knowing how many times we should chant, we just continued until we felt it was enough. I can’t remember exactly how long we chanted, maybe about an hour or two. After the visit, I returned to Singapore.
The next day or perhaps the day after, I received news that my colleague had woken up from his coma. At that time, I thought, Wow! The mantra is effective and the monk’s diagnosis of my colleague’s condition was accurate. To soothe my worries, I made another trip to Johor that weekend. There, I was told that he had suffered a serious head injury which caused memory loss, and could not recognise anyone except for his mother. When I entered the room, his mother asked her son if he remembered me. To our surprise, not only did he recognise me but he even remembered my name! He could only remember the two people who had chanted Green Tara’s mantra when he was in a coma… I was surprised and thought, this couldn’t be just a coincidence!
I returned to Singapore that day with a happy heart. Although my colleague’s injuries were severe and half his body was paralysed along with a broken arm and leg, I was nonetheless happy that he was on the road to recovery.
Meeting the Lama
Although I had received help from the Tibetan Buddhist monk, I had never met him face to face. That all changed when the monk, His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche, decided to visit Singapore before returning to Gaden Monastery in India.
At that time, I was living in a three-bedroom HDB flat with my sister and her husband. Our neighbour, Ms K, had been tasked to arrange for Rinpoche’s stay. She approached my sister to ask if she could rent two rooms in our apartment for Rinpoche’s assistants, to which my sister happily agreed. A few days before Rinpoche and his assistants arrived, we spring cleaned the apartment and emptied out the two rooms.
I remember sitting in my sister’s living room when Rinpoche first arrived around mid July 1997. Rinpoche visited my sister’s apartment briefly to check out the rooms prepared for his assistants, making sure that they had everything they needed for their short stay in Singapore. It was my first time seeing Rinpoche in person, and the first thing that struck me was Rinpoche’s physique. I had never seen anyone so tall in my life! I had also developed a preconceived notion about Rinpoche – that he was clairvoyant, so I had better keep my thoughts in check when I was in his presence!
The meeting was brief, just a smile and exchange of greetings, after which Rinpoche retired to his room in Ms. K’s apartment. People often ask me what my first impression of Rinpoche was. Based on that first encounter with Rinpoche in that apartment, I always say that Rinpoche is a caring person, as he took care of the people around him and put others’ needs before himself.
My sister was later gifted with three photos of Tibetan Buddhist high lamas – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, H.E. Kensur Jampa Yeshe and H.E. Lati Rinpoche. Rinpoche said,
“It is important to put photos of high lamas in our homes, because that way we make a karmic connection with them to meet them in the future.”
When Rinpoche arrived in Singapore, I was still working for the restaurant and, in the absence of my colleague, had been promoted to the position of chef by default. Working for a restaurant meant long hours and hard work – many people do not realise how much time it takes to prepare their meals. On a daily basis, I would leave my sister’s house as early as 8am and return home after 11pm. I thought my working hours were long but I was wrong. I would soon discover a person who worked longer hours than I could imagine, and he was not even paid to do so.
The very next day after Rinpoche arrived, people started flocking to Ms K’s apartment even before I left for work. I peeped in that morning and saw many people sitting in hall, waiting for their turn for an audience with Rinpoche. That night, when I returned after 11pm, Rinpoche was still engaged in audiences.
During those three to four weeks, Ms K’s and my sister’s apartment doors were rarely closed. The sheer number of people that came in and out, and the need for Rinpoche’s assistants to run back and forth between the two apartments would have made locking the doors very impractical.
Although Rinpoche was staying just next door and so many activities were going on in both apartments, my daily routine remained unchanged. I felt like a ghost standing in the middle of a busy street in Tokyo. Rinpoche’s assistants were constantly buzzing around, attending to Rinpoche’s instructions and personal needs. However, they occasionally had some free time especially when Rinpoche was engaged in a long audience, and it was during this time that I befriended them and got to know more about them as well as Rinpoche. It got to a point when I felt very comfortable around them and knowing how busy they always were, I volunteered to help in whatever way I could.
The number of people that came to seek audience with Rinpoche was incredible, especially for a relatively young and unknown monk. I would say that 99% of the people who came had major problems in their lives. After all, this is samsara and we are all trapped with myriad problems whether we realise it or not. The majority of the time, people came to seek advice for personal problems revolving around family or business matters.
However, there were also genuine cases which could only be resolved with divine assistance, for instance, spirit possessions. I never saw how Rinpoche exorcised spirits, but I saw a struggling lady forcefully carried into Rinpoche’s audience room by a few people. Her facial expression was inhuman, presumably possessed by a harmful being that caused her to inflict self-harm. While the possessed woman was in the room, I heard Rinpoche shouting repeatedly at the top of his lungs “GET OUT! GET OUT!” It was so loud that I could hear Rinpoche’s voice from my sister’s apartment. The young woman later walked out of Ms K’s apartment and as she stood at the corridor, she called her mother to inform her that she was fine.
With so much activity going on between the two apartments, I became curious. One day, after I had returned from work and showered, I decided to hang out in Ms K’s apartment for a while to see what exactly was going on.
It was past midnight when the last guest finally left and Rinpoche’s assistants rushed to serve dinner. Again, due to his tight schedule and the need to meet people, Rinpoche would often skip meals to help these individuals who came all the way to receive divination and spiritual advice.
As Rinpoche’s assistant went in through the open door, I caught a glimpse of Rinpoche from the hall. I didn’t meant to peep! It was just curiosity and perhaps reflex that my eyes followed the activity in the house.
Rinpoche must have seen me sitting in the hall too, and when his assistant exited the room, he passed me a Buddha image. I had never seen this Buddha before; he was definitely not Shakyamuni which was the only Buddha I was familiar with at the time. I asked “Who is this?” and Rinpoche’s assistant said he didn’t know.
After dinner, Rinpoche walked out of the room with two large bags filled with assorted fruit. We all stood up as a sign of respect when Rinpoche entered the hall and when Rinpoche saw me, he said cheerfully, “Oh you’re here! This is for you”. Rinpoche handed me one of the bags; inside there were easily 40 to 50 fruits which had been offered to Rinpoche that day.
Rinpoche sat with us in the hall and I finally got the chance to meet this mysterious divination master. We talked for a while and Rinpoche asked me to share my story, so I told Rinpoche about my life and career. After chatting for some time, Rinpoche asked me an unexpected question. “Have you ever thought of being a monk?”
The question caught me off guard but it reminded me of how I was inspired to become a monk after watching a TV program about the Buddha’s Enlightenment when I was still in school. I felt so drawn to it that I thought to myself, “I want to be just like that when I grow up.” So, I knew the answer to Rinpoche’s question but when? “Yes, I do think of being a monk, but not at this very moment,” I replied after thinking briefly.
Rinpoche smiled and seemed happy with my reply. “Good, when the time comes, you will be a monk,” Rinpoche said.
Due to the nature of my job as a chef which involved a lot of killing, Rinpoche introduced me to the practice of Vajrasattva. He explained the practice and mantras in a very simple way so that I, a beginner in Buddhism, could understand. Later, Rinpoche instructed his attendant to bring him a statue. It was so oxidised you could barely recognise what Buddha it represented.
Rinpoche showed me the statue and said,
“This is Vajrasattva. I want you to polish this statue and as you remove the dirt, recite his long mantra and visualise that all of your negative body karma is being stripped off as well. Once you’re done, bring it back to me and I will bless the statue for you.”
Although it was my first time receiving spiritual advice, I did not find the instructions strange. After all, I had enough Buddhist imprints to understand that there were benefits to symbolically bathing a Buddha statue. I happily accepted the task and soon found out that it was not easy to polish a severely oxidised statue! It took me three weeks to complete the polishing.
Engaging in purification practice within Tibetan Buddhism requires us to apply the Four Opponent Powers. In order to do that, one needs to take refuge with a qualified Buddhist teacher to enter the path of Dharma. I did not find it unusual that I needed purification practices. My job involved killing animals and anyone with a sound spiritual foundation would acknowledge the negativity of such actions. Thus, it was only natural that purifying these negativities was essential for my spiritual path.
When I learned the requirements, I requested Rinpoche to take him as my Lama. In fact, I was excited to have Rinpoche as my teacher after seeing so many people receive Rinpoche’s effective spiritual assistance. But Rinpoche knew I was an infant when it came to Buddhism and that I had no idea what Taking Refuge with a Guru is all about. I just thought it was a formal ceremony that makes you a Buddhist just like being baptised in church. Because of my lack of knowledge, Rinpoche told me to wait and later sent one of his assistants to give me a full explanation of what Taking Refuge is all about.
After I understood the meaning of Refuge, Rinpoche’s assistant said,
“Rinpoche has agreed to accept you as his student. But out of so many people who have met Rinpoche, you’re the only one taking refuge! You’re the only one that’s going to take refuge with Rinpoche.”
When I heard that, I thought perhaps it would be better to wait for more people so that we could do the Refuge ceremony together. After all, Rinpoche was so busy and I didn’t want to inconvenience him just for one person. I expressed this to Rinpoche’s assistant but received the reply, “Rinpoche said if you’re not interested in Taking Refuge, then you don’t need to.”
I felt my stomach fall to the floor and quickly said, “No, that’s not what I meant. Of course I want to Take Refuge.”
“So you want to Take Refuge?” the assistant asked.
“Yes,” I replied firmly.
A day was set and of the many people in attendance, only three people received permission to Take Refuge with Rinpoche.
The First Dharma Teaching
Rinpoche’s initial plan was just to stop in Singapore for a while, but the stay was unexpectedly extended. Due to this, Rinpoche decided to give a Dharma talk each weekend. A total of three Dharma talks were organised and I attended all of them. The Dharma talks were scheduled on weekends to allow more people to attend. As the host, Ms K arranged everything, from planning the dates to inviting the attendees.
In the early days, Rinpoche was very much like a wandering monk. As he wasn’t affiliated with any Dharma centre in Singapore and the plan to give Dharma talks came up so suddenly, it was decided that the teachings were to be held in my sister’s apartment, as it was the larger of the two.
The day before the teachings, we would be busy setting up the two apartments for the Dharma talk. We moved all the furniture in my sister’s home to one corner so that there would be space for people to sit. We also arranged some chairs at the back for the elderly and even had a video camera hooked up to a live feed in Ms K’s apartment, just in case attendance exceeded our expectations.
The first Dharma teaching I received from Rinpoche was about ‘Death, the Process of Death and Impermanence’. I still remember vividly how packed my sister’s apartment was as people started pouring into the rooms and Ms K’s house due to a lack of space in the hall. However, I was lucky and got to sit near Rinpoche where I could listen to the talk clearly, uninterrupted. We had only spread the news of Rinpoche’s Dharma talk by word of mouth, so the large turnout was unexpected. More than 100 people had come for the talk! Thinking back, we were so naïve and at the same time lucky. We had absolutely no idea that such large gatherings were ‘illegal’! Thank goodness we had understanding neighbours that did not put up a fuss.
The Dharma talk blew my mind away; Rinpoche described the process of death so clearly. For most of us, death is just about a missing heartbeat, but there is so much more to it when explained in a spiritual sense. It was during this talk that I realised I was still holding on to my friend’s death which happened over a year ago. I was still bitter about losing my best friend because I failed to understand the nature of impermanence and that death is not the end.
I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. Who would have thought that understanding just a little about death could bring so much relief? We often think that listening to such a morbid topic will leave us heavy and depressed but in truth, it is the exact opposite.
This Dharma talk was one of the most important moments in my life as it shaped the decisions I made and gave me a strong conviction of how Dharma could help relieve the sufferings of others when delivered skilfully.
Heading to India
A few days before Rinpoche was scheduled to leave Singapore, Rinpoche asked me if I would like to visit his monastery. I was taken aback by the question as it came so suddenly. In my mind, I wanted to follow Rinpoche but at the same time I had other responsibilities. I answered, “I don’t know…”
Rinpoche must have realised my inner conflict so he advised me, “If you want to go to Gaden, make a prayer.” Which I did.
Not having time to waste, I went to my manager the next day to apply for leave. He asked the basic questions that any employer would ask and I said “I’m going for a pilgrimage to India for about two weeks”. Immediately my manager said “No,” and a long debate began.
“Why not? I still have leave that was brought forward from last year.” But he said I could not bring it forward.
“How about I take two weeks of unpaid leave?” Still, my manager refused to budge. So I played my ultimate card.
“If that’s the case, then I’ll resign!” Incredibly, my manager said I could not resign! I couldn’t believe my ears. I was getting desperate because I truly wanted to follow Rinpoche to Gaden. I had just met my Guru and I couldn’t bear to be separated from him so soon just because of my job. Knowing that Rinpoche would be leaving Singapore soon left me with deep sadness (for lack of a better word), and I didn’t want this new-found spiritual journey of mine to hit a roadblock so I was determined to go. I collected myself and attempted once again to reason with my unreasonable manager.
“On what conditions would you allow me to leave? I have already made up my mind to go to India.” At this, knowing that I’d be going either way, my manager softened up and allowed me to go on the condition that my salary would be held back and I gave him a $1,000 deposit, which I could get back when I returned to Singapore.
I agreed to the terms, paid the $1,000, put my resignation letter on his desk and happily waltzed back home to pack for my first ever pilgrimage to India. Along with some clothes and necessities, I brought with me my newly polished Vajrasattva statue that Rinpoche had gifted me. Rinpoche had told me to bring it to India and that he would request Kensur Rinpoche to bless the statue. I was eager to meet Kensur Rinpoche as Rinpoche had been telling us how great his Guru was. Rinpoche’s care and appreciation for his teachers left a deep impression on me.
The next time I saw Rinpoche was when we were about to take off. One of Rinpoche’s assistants, Irene, came up to me and asked “So, you’ve resigned. Rinpoche said if that’s the case, you can stay in India longer.” I asked “How long?” but I never got a reply.
There were 17 of us travelling with Rinpoche to India on that trip. We couldn’t get a direct flight to Hubli so we landed at Mumbai and from there, took local transportation to Gaden Shartse. It was a tedious and tiring 26-hour journey and by the time we arrived at the monastery, we were drained and had not slept for two days. The first thing that crossed our minds was to take a shower and sleep!
Rinpoche took one look at us and said, “We’ve reached a holy place. This is Lama Tsongkhapa’s monastery. Before you enter, set a good motivation and make three prostrations.” The mood changed immediately and everyone was reminded of why we were there in the first place.
As I stepped into the monastery grounds, I felt that I had come home.
Tsem Ladrang in Gaden
Rinpoche brought us to his house, Tsem Ladrang, in Gaden. I was told that the house was built and offered to Rinpoche by his father. Rinpoche lived in a small room as he had offered the best one to his Guru, Kensur Rinpoche.
The news of Rinpoche’s return to Gaden spread quickly amongst the monastic community and villages alike. For the next three days, throngs of villagers came to the Ladrang to greet Rinpoche. From the number of visitors, I realised that Rinpoche was a beloved and respected Lama in the community. They brought with them a variety of offerings, coconuts, fruits, etc. which meant a lot knowing how poor they were. Not long after Rinpoche’s return, the Abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery also visited Rinpoche in Tsem Ladrang.
When the Abbot arrived, every single monk in the Ladrang disappeared. According to Tibetan tradition, one does not crowd around a high lama (unless it is an official ceremony) as a sign of respect and reverence. At the time, I was new to Tibetan Buddhism and barely understood monastic hierarchy or protocols. So, although it did strike me as odd that the monks went into hiding, I did not think much of the fact that the Abbot came to visit a Lama who had just returned.
It was only later after learning more about monastic protocol did I realise that this was outside the norm. The Abbot had made an exception because he was extremely pleased that Rinpoche had been raising funds to help the monastery, Sangha, khangtsens and even the Tibetan refugee camps, and he knew that Rinpoche was extremely busy. Observing such events in Rinpoche’s life gave me much insight into his selfless deeds which, out of humility, were rarely spoken about.
It was also during this visit that the monks of Gaden offered a Long Life puja (tenshug) to Kensur Rinpoche. Simple explained, the offering of tenshug is the epitome of one’s filial piety towards one’s spiritual father. It was a grand and elaborate puja which Rinpoche had planned for months, not just the preparations but also finding the sponsorship for the expenses.
Kensur Rinpoche had been quite ill in previous years, so the offering of tenshug was very timely. Prior to visiting Gaden, I had only heard about Kensur Rinpoche through Rinpoche, who had nothing but praise for this great scholar. When I finally had the chance to meet Kensur Rinpoche for the first time, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I firmly believe that a great being’s energy and motivation can affect the people around them, and that was exactly how I felt in his presence. It was difficult not to be moved to tears in the presence of this elderly high lama who radiated compassion.
I felt truly fortunate to be present during the tenshug puja. The ceremony went smoothly and during the completion of the religious rites, Kensur Rinpoche wore his pandit’s hat. Remembering what Rinpoche had told me previously, that when the lama wears the pandit’s hat he represents the founder of our lineage, Lama Tsongkhapa, I made a wish that my parents too could have the fortune to meet the Dharma in this lifetime.
After 10 days, most of the people who came with us to Gaden had returned to Malaysia and Singapore. Rinpoche was still busy most of the time but he kept me occupied, giving me instructions to do my meditations with Kensur Rinpoche whenever I had time.
I would wake up early in the morning and enter Kensur Rinpoche’s room at around 5.30 am to meditate. Kensur Rinpoche hardly slept and whenever I entered the room in the wee hours of the morning, he would already be deep in meditation. So I would sneak in quietly, make three prostrations and hide in a corner of the room to do my meditations and prayers. Rinpoche would also assign spiritual practices for us to do for the rest of the day. Because we were so new, we were asked to do the preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism. Every day we would do thousands of water offerings at the shrine in Rinpoche’s Ladrang and make hundreds of prostrations outside Kensur Rinpoche’s room.
A month went by very quickly and it was time to return home. I had left Singapore in such a hurry that there were many loose ends I needed to tie up, especially since I had quit my job abruptly. Going to the monastery was one of the best decisions I had made so far. It totally changed the way I looked at my life and I was left with a sense of peace.
Return to Singapore
When I returned to Singapore in September 1997, the first thing I had to do was to cancel my work permit. I had resigned from the restaurant but they were keen to re-employ me as their new branch would be opening the following year. I thought to myself, why not?
I had a few months on my hands until I started my new job and I was excited to spend it all on Dharma activities. Back in Gaden, one of the projects that Rinpoche was occupied with was opening a new Dharma centre with a few Singaporeans. Rinpoche had also found a big sponsor to build a proper ladrang for Kensur Rinpoche. Rinpoche did so much work simultaneously but of course at that time we knew nothing about it; only with the passing of time did we see the fruits of Rinpoche’s labour.
By the time I got back to Singapore, they had already formed a committee and found a place in Holland Village for the new Dharma centre. For the next two months, we renovated the place so it would be ready before Rinpoche’s scheduled return on 31st December 1997.
While the committee did most of the paperwork such as registering a new Buddhist society, I did the physical labour in the centre. Painting the walls, moving furniture, cleaning and setting up the new centre was more my forte.
Rinpoche arrived at midnight and brought with him many sets of Lama Tsongkhapa and sons as gifts for the new centre. There were so many items and I have no idea how Rinpoche managed all of it by himself. We were so glad to finally have a centre, a proper place where Rinpoche could teach the Dharma. Gone were the days when we had to cram 100 people into two apartment units. Now that we had a centre, Rinpoche no longer needed to stay in Ms K’s house because three rooms were sectioned off for Rinpoche and his assistants.
Under the circumstances, I ended up becoming Rinpoche’s unofficial attendant. My daily duties were to take care of Rinpoche’s needs such as preparing his food, drinks and taking care of the centre. As the work stretched around the clock, I temporarily lived in the centre’s second bedroom.
News of Rinpoche’s return to Singapore began to spread and very soon, more and more people were ringing us up to make an appointment to meet with Rinpoche. In a matter of days, Rinpoche needed an assistant or secretary to manage his daily itinerary, a task I could not manage at that point of time. Communicating with Rinpoche in English was already a daily challenge; arranging his schedule and communicating with sponsors and visitors would be even more difficult.
Being Rinpoche’s close aide is not a job for the faint of heart. You must be selfless in giving your time to help others, as Rinpoche does daily, and quick on your feet. You must be familiar with the various practices within the tradition and be able to contact the monasteries if pujas are needed. Documenting each individual case is also essential, so that the advice given is not forgotten and a point of reference is available in the event the petitioner needs more advice. On top of this, keeping in touch with sponsors and visitors is part of the job. These are but a few of the tasks shouldered by Rinpoche’s secretary. Needless to say, Rinpoche does even more than any of his assistants.
Although Rinpoche now had a centre and a group of committee members, the most essential component that would allow the Lama to function at full force was missing – a good, dedicated assistant. Fortunately, Rinpoche had a few close friends in Malaysia and started making phone calls to fill that gap.
The very next day an elderly lady arrived in Singapore; she was the person that Rinpoche had called. Mama Jen was a personal friend of Rinpoche’s and despite not being affiliated with the Dharma centre, she dropped everything she was doing and came to assist Rinpoche. She was one of the few students who had met and assisted Rinpoche during his first trip to South East Asia in the early 90s. I was relieved to hear that she had the required skills, exposure and knowledge to be a good assistant.
With the increasing activity in the centre, my work as Rinpoche’s attendant also changed. Oftentimes, Rinpoche would have audiences with guests until the wee hours of the morning. As I was the one who locked up at the end of each day, I would stay on until the last visitor left… whatever time that was. I would also prepare food and drinks not only for Rinpoche but for his guests as well, as some audiences would stretch for up to five to six hours over lunch or dinnertime.
Often, audiences would also last longer than predicted and later appointments would have to be cancelled or postponed, to their disappointment. People often wondered why Rinpoche spent so much time with his visitors. Shouldn’t they just get their divination or advice and be on their way? However, Rinpoche always used the small window of opportunity to instil some Dharma into the minds of the people he was meeting. Likely, Rinpoche knew that this could be the only time they’d encounter the Dharma.
There would also be days that were particularly hard on Rinpoche. After a stretch of long audiences, Rinpoche would fall ill due to lack of sleep and rest. Rinpoche often spent hours talking and convincing people why it was important for them to do a little Dharma practice to solve their problems. By the end of the day, Rinpoche’s jaws would be aching and I would give him a massage to relieve the numbness and pain. I saw how much effort Rinpoche put into each and every person who walked through the door, regardless of their background, status or situation. To this day, I have never seen anyone practice equanimity as perfectly as Rinpoche did.
Most of the time, I would be hanging around outside the room, ready to attend to any requests from Rinpoche. People often shared very personal information with Rinpoche, so privacy and discretion was important. However, it was not always all about work and from time to time we would have precious moments to spend with Rinpoche. On one occasion, Rinpoche made me wear his robes! At that time, it was all fun and games and I did not give much thought to it. But in hindsight, that incident subconsciously strengthened my wish to be ordained.
Shortly after, the Malaysian Dharma centre moved to Sea Park. After the renovation was completed, Rinpoche was invited to the opening ceremony to consecrate the centre and to stay for the coming Chinese New Year celebrations. So, we only stayed in Singapore for a few weeks before heading up north to Malaysia. As Rinpoche’s personal attendant, I travelled with Rinpoche. It was my first time visiting Rinpoche’s Dharma centre in Kuala Lumpur. To be honest, I didn’t even know the centre existed until I met a few of its members in Gaden.
When we arrived, Rinpoche was greeted with great warmth and devotion from his students. We went for lunch together and everyone was “fighting” to be the one serving Rinpoche. I was so impressed to see such genuine students. After all, how we treat our teacher is a direct reflection of our respect for the Dharma.
New Year’s Eve
On the evening of Chinese New Year eve, while I was sitting idly in the middle of the centre’s hall, Rinpoche walked out of his room and looked around the centre.
“Where’s everyone?” Rinpoche asked, as he looked around for signs of people besides the two of us.
“I don’t know, Rinpoche,” I said.
It was getting dark, and for some unknown reason, the electricity had gone off. So we took out some candles to light up the hall and the bathroom as Rinpoche wanted to take a shower.
“I feel like I’m back in Mundgod! Except that I’m trapped in a centre with no lights and electricity,” Rinpoche said jokingly.
Logically, the centre should be buzzing with activity on the eve of Chinese New Year in preparation for the big day. However, Chinese New Year’s eve is also an important day for most Chinese as it is when all family members gather once a year for a grand feast. Year after year, Rinpoche would be left all alone on this day.
Rinpoche then suggested that we clean the altar and decorate the statues. From a cabinet, Rinpoche took out some clothes for the Buddhas called pangden and tule. The committee had been afraid to put the clothes on the Buddha images. Most Buddhists in Malaysia come from a Taoist background and there is strong superstition against touching deity statues for fear of offending them and causing misfortune for the family. Of course, this is a misconception.
“In the Tibetan tradition, we always make offerings to the Buddhas during the new year. During Chinese New Year, we wear new clothes so it would be nice if we offer new clothes to the Buddhas too!”
Rinpoche started to dress the Buddhas and even did some needlework to alter the clothes! It was during sessions like these that I learned a lot from Rinpoche, and on this particular occasion, I learned how to dress the Buddhas beautifully and how to set up altars.
I was also impressed and surprised that Rinpoche could do this type of menial work. It wasn’t something that most monks could do. People often have a misconception that monks can do anything related to spirituality but that is untrue. Rinpoche is special; he is incredibly artistic and over the years, I have seen how he uses this talent for Dharma.
Rinpoche then placed the offerings on the altar and cleaned the centre as preparation for the next day. In actuality, these are not the duties of the Lama but the duties of the students and Dharma centre. However, as with all things related to Buddhism, Rinpoche enjoyed making offerings to the Buddhas. After we completed the preparations, we had an early night to brace ourselves for the next day.
Early in the morning of the first day of Chinese New Year, hundreds of people poured into the centre to receive blessings from Rinpoche. In the Tibetan tradition, the first day of the new years is spent greeting and giving good wishes to our Guru. For the local Chinese however, it is auspicious to receive blessings for their family from a monk in order to have a good year ahead. Both Tibetans and Chinese spend their new year in the temple but the differences in their motivation tell us a lot about their priorities. Malaysia truly was a barbaric place in terms of Dharma.
The last audience ended at midnight. It had been a hectic day especially since there was only Mama Jen and myself assisting Rinpoche. Those early years were a huge struggle since Malaysian students did not know the proper protocol of assisting and greeting the Lama, including myself. It may seem simple to have the Lama come to the centre to teach and give blessings but in reality, there is a lot happening behind the scenes that normal students do not see.
The next day, we left for Singapore once again as Rinpoche needed to prepare for the Open Day in the Singapore Dharma centre. However, I only followed Rinpoche as far as Johor before parting ways, as I had to go back to my hometown and celebrate the remaining days of Chinese New Year with my family. At that point, I thought I had bid farewell to my Lama and that it was the end of my duties as Rinpoche’s attendant. To my delight, I was wrong!
I spent two days with my family whom I loved very much. Time went by very quickly and by the fourth day, I had to return to Singapore to prepare for my new job. I was scheduled to begin my role as chef in the new restaurant within the week. However, I wanted to go to the Dharma centre to assist Rinpoche for the open day. After experiencing the busy schedule in KL, I thought I should lend a helping hand as it would be equally busy in Singapore.
However, the New Year celebrations in the centre did not go as planned. When I entered, the centre was empty with only Rinpoche and a few members sitting in the audience room looking solemn. A monk that had come with Rinpoche from the monastery earlier that year had gone missing.
The young monk had misbehaved and was unhappy when he was reprimanded by Rinpoche. His disappearance was a problem and it worried Rinpoche very much. We had no idea what had happened to him. Did he run away? Did he take a walk and get kidnapped? Was he lost? These questions played in our heads. At the same time, we hoped that he was fine and unharmed.
Not knowing how else to locate him, Rinpoche did a divination and found out that he was in Malaysia. Due to this unforeseen situation, the Chinese New Year blessing in Singapore was cancelled and Rinpoche rushed back to Malaysia to search for the monk. Knowing that he was in Malaysia was a huge relief because it meant that someone we knew had snuck him away quietly.
I was told to follow Rinpoche back to Malaysia. My immediate thought was, “I just came back from Malaysia and now I’m going back?!” On top of that, I was supposed to start my new job the very next day! But Rinpoche was in a pinch and I couldn’t leave my Guru over such petty concerns. So once again, I forsook my job and followed Rinpoche to Malaysia.
When we arrived in the KL centre, Rinpoche started calling everyone he knew to find out if the monk was with them. After countless calls, we finally found him. Later that day, the monk returned to the centre and apologised to Rinpoche for his misbehaviour. Rinpoche was truly disappointed with both the monk and the student who took the monk away. Shortly after, we sent the monk back to the monastery.
It was only after this incident that Rinpoche recalled the advice given by Dorje Shugden in trance. You see, Rinpoche would consult the oracle for advice before bringing any monk abroad. In the case of this monk, Dorje Shugden had advised not to bring him along. However, as there were very few monks in Rinpoche’s Ladrang who could speak English, Rinpoche brought him anyway out of desperation. The result was a foregone conclusion.
Becoming Rinpoche’s Attendant
I still wonder how I ended up being Rinpoche’s attendant. I could hardly speak English! Yet, after the incident of the runaway monk, Rinpoche officially requested me to be his attendant. The possibility of my being Rinpoche’s attendant had been in my mind for some time but I never thought I was ready to take on the job. It was too important for someone like me to handle!
But at that time, we were in a situation where the vacancy had to be filled. And so, I placed my insecurities aside and took on the responsibility. To be honest, I really didn’t expect Rinpoche would stay in Malaysia long term. I thought that Rinpoche would return to India after completing his ‘work’ here, and then I could find myself another job. But of course, once again, nothing turned out as planned.
Working as Rinpoche’s attendant is not only serving Rinpoche, but who and what he represents. Rinpoche represents the monks of Gaden Shartse and all his work ultimately benefits the monastery and our lineage. It was a precious opportunity to fill such a role, but I would be lying if I said I had no concerns about doing Dharma work full time. After all, Dharma work was not even considered a career choice back then. One of my main concerns was about sending enough money back home to support my parents. On top of that, I was unsure of how much longer my savings could sustain me on this path. Still, my priority was to ensure Rinpoche received the help he needed and I figured I would work the rest out along the way. Fortunately, out of Rinpoche’s compassion, Rinpoche had found a kind benefactor to give me a modest salary.
Living in the centre was not an ideal situation. Just like in Singapore, Rinpoche would be left alone with his attendants unless the members needed some advice from him. The committee were also far from being a harmonious bunch. They would fight over small and petty issues such as whose car Rinpoche would ride in or who would sit next to Rinpoche, and Rinpoche being a Dharma teacher would be displeased with their attitudes that bring no benefit to their spiritual path.
The Dharma centre, a public place of worship, also provided zero privacy for Rinpoche. People would freely come and go on a daily basis, and some would even sneak into Rinpoche’s room to ‘have a chat’. The attendants were available 24/7 but at times had to go out to run errands and such situations became unavoidable.
Finally, a few of Rinpoche’s older students and friends who were not affiliated with the centre grouped their resources to rent a house for Rinpoche in Bangsar. At last, Rinpoche could have more privacy and not be hounded by the centre’s members at their convenience.
The Arrival of an Oracle
Around the same time, Rinpoche invited one of his teachers, H.E. Gangchen Rinpoche to visit which he did and blessed the new Dharma centre in Singapore at Rinpoche’s request.
“In the future, among your students, an oracle will arise!” Gangchen Rinpoche said.
From that point onwards, Rinpoche instructed me to do the short Protector puja and make offerings a few times each day. In a matter of days, Ms K. started taking trance of our Dharma Protector.
It was a busy time for Rinpoche. A new oracle was a huge responsibility; what’s more Rinpoche had to juggle his Dharma centres and the students. Once Ms. K began taking trance, the Protector’s entourage would keep entering her body and she would lose control. It is the norm for an oracle-in-training to have the deities entering his/her body repeatedly, as this functions to clear the channels. However, what was happening to Ms K was too intense, so much so that she had not slept for days due to multiple trance sessions. At her breaking point, they rushed her to Kuala Lumpur to meet Rinpoche out of desperation.
When she arrived, she was brought to the hospital where she was sedated. As Ms K’s screams would echo throughout the neighbourhood when she was in trance, Rinpoche also sent me to reassure the neighbours and to let them know that everything was okay. At the same time, Rinpoche hastened his plans to send Ms K for proper training in the monastery, as it was not feasible to train her in an urban environment.
Due to her condition, training alone would be a challenge. Rinpoche foresaw this and assigned me to assist her throughout her training period. So I packed my bags and flew to India, this time with only Ms. K.
In India for the Second Time
We landed in Bangalore and waiting for us in the arrival hall were monks from the monastery. Back in those days, having a car or van was a luxury that the monastery couldn’t afford, so the monks had arrived much earlier by public transportation.
On this trip, Ms K and I had brought along RM50,000 in USD. They were funds that Rinpoche had raised for the monastery to build a water pump and upgrade a local refugee school. So the first thing we had to do before going to the monastery was to change it to the local currency.
Changing currency in India can be quite tricky. If you don’t know reliable money changers, you can end up losing a huge sum through incorrect exchange rates. This would have been very bad for us – every cent mattered as the money rightfully belonged to the monastery. Moreover, the sponsors had worked very hard to earn the money that they had entrusted us to bring to the monastery. Rinpoche himself also put in many hours to find the sponsorship, so we could not take this task lightly.
Fortunately, the monk who accompanied us knew the correct exchange rates for USD to INR. Unfortunately, he didn’t know a good money changer, and so we were brought to one who gave us a less than desirable rate. After some discussion, we decided it wasn’t worth changing the money there and left, which turned out to be a bad move.
As we walked down the busy streets of Bangalore, all of a sudden Ms K took trance, looked behind us, pointed to a few people and shouted “RUN!” I was shocked, why would our Protector ask us to run? I turned around and realised that a few men from the money changer had tailed us.
Ms K looked like she was hysterical. I was huffing and puffing, dragging our luggage as well as Ms K, who was twice my size. Although the Protector had told us to run, I could hardly go any quicker. I knew that there was no way we could outrun our pursuers and get back to the safety of our hotel, so we rushed into a nearby restaurant and sat there. The monk that had come with us quickly went back to the hotel to pack up our things and found a cab to take us to the train station. We were tailed all the way until we got on the train. I sighed with relief; even though we did not exchange the money in Bangalore, we could still do it in Hubli before we arrived in the monastery.
Later when I had a chance to speak to Rinpoche, I told him of our dreadful adventure. But instead of the sympathy I was expecting, all Rinpoche said was “Our Protector is truly great.” I was taken aback, but I understood later that Rinpoche was not worried as he had full confidence that our Dharma Protector would watch over us closely.
The rest of the trip was, fortunately, uneventful. We arrived in the monastery safely and distributed the offerings we brought according to Rinpoche’s instructions.
Rinpoche had given many instructions for the oracle-in-training including going to receive blessings from different lamas and doing various rituals. And because I was sent to look after her, I went through the same training and received all the blessings and initiations that Ms. K did.
Training with the Oracle
Ms K’s training began almost immediately after we arrived in the monastery. We visited various Lamas in the monastery as per Rinpoche’s instructions and received various blessings and practices from them.
One of the great masters from whom Rinpoche wanted us to receive daily blessings was Gen Nyima, a well known meditation master who was also a close friend of Rinpoche’s. During our time spent with Gen Nyima, he would mumble some words inaudibly, and Ms K would perform different mudras similar to the Buddhas’ iconography. I did not know what Gen Nyima was reciting but I guessed they were mantras. Sometimes Ms K would look like she was holding a sword or a book.
On a daily basis, Gen Nyima would perform a water blessing for the both of us, a ritual specifically designed to clear the psychic channels of the body. This is essential for an oracle as only with a clear psychic channel can trances proceed smoothly and the oracle speak clearly.
We also visited Kensur Rinpoche and received the necessary initiations to engage in extensive retreats. Receiving initiation from Kensur Rinpoche technically means that Rinpoche and I are Dharma brothers, as we have the same tantric teacher. However, Rinpoche will never be just a Dharma brother to me, as I have received so much and learnt so much from Rinpoche. For this reason, I have always viewed Rinpoche as my Root Guru, as spiritually I have benefited from Rinpoche the most.
One of the retreats we engaged in was a Lama Tsongkhapa retreat, where we were required to recite a minimum of 100,000 mantras. We estimated that it would take us at least two months to complete the retreat. The beginning was tough on Ms. K. Very often, her retreat sessions would be interrupted by sudden trances from the Dharma Protector and these took a toll on her both mentally and physically. By the time my own retreat had reached midpoint, Ms K could barely catch up with her mantra counts. It was a cause for concern so we contacted Rinpoche to explain our difficulties. We got the answer, “Request the Protector not to come too often.” We did as we were told and true enough, the Protector stopped taking trance and Ms K could proceed with her retreat with much ease.
Before we could finish our retreat, Rinpoche returned to the monastery with a group of students from Singapore and Malaysia. I remember walking by the river near Drepung Monastery with Rinpoche and the group. Around midnight, Ms. K spontaneously took trance of the Protector. She had a fierce look on her face and gestured with the Karana mudra (to ward off evil) towards the river.
It was eerie. As we huddled around Rinpoche, Rinpoche told us stories about the hauntings that had occurred by that river. Our fears heightened when we heard the engine of a passing car stall when it attempted to cross the bridge over the river. It felt like a horror film! Looking at our scared and worried faces, Rinpoche burst out laughing and said,
“Don’t worry, my Protector will never allow these malicious beings to harm any of us.”
It was also around this time that a monk from Rinpoche’s Ladrang was having medical problems. Through Ms. K, the Protector advised that he should seek medical attention in Singapore. I was concerned because I knew Ms. K was far from completing her mantra count and the whole purpose of us coming to the monastery was so that she could engage in these retreats. Not long after, Ms. K flew back to Singapore with the sick monk without completing her retreat. On the other hand, I continued doing my retreat sessions alone.
Two and a half months after I arrived in the monastery, I finally completed my retreat. I was then instructed to return to Singapore to assist Ms. K as Rinpoche was worried about her.
I lived in my sister’s apartment which made it easier for me to attend to Ms. K’s needs while taking care of my duties at the centre. Ms. K assured me that she was doing her retreats and other meditational practices as instructed by Rinpoche. Unlike in Gaden however, I couldn’t be with her all the time so I did not know for sure if she completed her practices. However, I hoped that her trust and faith in Rinpoche were strong enough to carry out the instructions fully.
The Oracle’s Robes
Two months after I returned to Singapore, I received instructions to go abroad again. One of Rinpoche’s students had offered a larger premises in Geylang, Singapore to be turned into our new Dharma centre. Rinpoche had made plans to invite large statues for the new temple as well as a new set of oracle robes for Ms. K.
Together with one of Rinpoche’s new assistants, Ms L, we flew to South India where we had the oracle’s hat made and later travelled to North India, arriving in Delhi’s sweltering heat. Here, we visited factories that manufactured Buddha statues and ordered 10 three-foot statues to be brought back for our Dharma centres in Singapore and Malaysia. It was a tiring journey; we spent three days travelling by train as it was the cheapest mode of transportation.
Halfway through our stay in Delhi, we went north to Dharamsala at Rinpoche’s instruction. “Take a short break and go to Dharamsala. The weather is better further up north,” Rinpoche said. Rinpoche also advised me to make prayers and offerings for my parents whenever I visit monasteries. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Rinpoche over the years is to always focus out and care for others. Nurturing that selfless attitude starts by caring for the people closest to us, such as our parents and siblings.
When we returned to Delhi, we continued with our tasks. Ordering statues was just the beginning; searching for artists to paint the statues and tailors to sew the clothes was also in our bucket list. Anyone who has commissioned work from India will know of the potential problems if things are not well planned and fees are not mutually agreed upon.
After a long day of haggling, walking and talking, we returned as usual to our hotel in Delhi. That day however, things were different. The receptionist handed me a fax; it was from Singapore. My father had been diagnosed with 4th stage lung cancer.
The message left me with a heavy heart. Rinpoche had on countless occasions advised me to do more Dharma work to dedicate the merits to my father. Even Kensur Rinpoche had pulled me closer and told me to do Dharma and dedicate the merits to him; this happened right before I left Gaden on my first trip. I believe that both Rinpoche and Kensur Rinpoche knew through their clairvoyance that my father’s time in this world was short and wanted him to get the most out of it through me.
My father had not been well for the last few months. Prior to my trip to India, I brought him to the hospital for a check-up but left before the results were out. My siblings and I had also convinced our 70-year-old father to retire and return home to Johor, which he reluctantly did after the check-up. More recently when Ms. K took trance, the Protector told me to bring my parents into the Dharma especially my father. I had my suspicions that my father would have difficulties as there were so many signs. I just did not expect it to happen in a matter of months.
Everyone in the family knew the test results but did not know how to break the news to my father. At the same time, my father wanted me to return to Singapore and go with him to the hospital to get the results.
I called Rinpoche who was in Gaden. Telecommunication in India then was expensive and unreliable. The line was constantly disrupted but left with little choice, it was the fastest way of communicating besides telegram. Rinpoche immediately told me to pack my bags and return to Johor to care for my sickly father, the sooner the better. So I did. Later I received very detailed instructions on how to care for my father in a letter from Rinpoche. I took the earliest flight to Singapore the next day and arrived at my family home in Johor that night itself.
Spending Time with Dad
If you ask me what I had in common with my father, I would probably say our DNA. I hardly knew him as he was rarely present during my formative years. I remember Rinpoche asking me about my family and although I thought my father’s absence never affected me, that conversation revealed that I did have some bitterness and resented my father for his absence.
Rinpoche taught me to forgive and I am thankful for that as it was an important step in learning how to let go of disappointments and sadness. My father was wrong but it did not really matter anymore. I would think of the many lonely and difficult years my mother had to endure without much support, yet she stood by loyally and loved him till the end. I’m sure he was a good man in his own way, though I never got to see that side of him.
When I arrived at the hospital, it was clear that I would have to be the one to break the bad news to my father. As a 4th stage lung cancer patient in the 1990s, the doctor predicted that he only had six months to live at most. I was shocked; I didn’t expect him to have so little time left. My father had not even begun to enjoy retirement and he was already knocking on death’s door.
With my father’s medical report in hand, I travelled back to Johor to meet my father. How do you tell someone you care about that they’re going to die? I had no idea then and even today, I still can’t figure out what you can say to make the news more palatable. But regardless of how I felt, it was something that needed to be said and I broke the news as gently as I could.
Of course, like anyone finding out that they are going to die in a few months time, my father became very upset and worried. I also found out from my aunt that my father had deep regret and guilt for the many years he had been absent from our lives. Being the youngest child in the family, my father was particularly concerned about me. Perhaps due to this reason, he was not always supportive of my choice to pursue the Dharma.
“Why are you following a monk around? You should be working and saving up money to have a proper life!” He had once expressed such sentiments but did not pry further. In some ways, my father’s absence in my life was helpful because he would comment here and there, but never object strongly.
A few days after learning of his prognosis, my father asked me to contact Rinpoche so that he could Take Refuge. I was surprised; my father was a Buddhist but he was hardly a practitioner. Visiting temples on special occasions was the extent of his devotions.
I contacted Rinpoche and immediately, Rinpoche did some divinations for my father.
“He has a strong affinity with Medicine Buddha. Have him Take Refuge in Medicine Buddha, it will benefit him.”
Rinpoche then explained to me in great detail how to assist my father to take refuge; from setting up the altar, explaining the meaning of refuge, the vows he should take and also the practices he should engage in until the end of his life.
The refuge ceremony was arranged immediately, and there in front of the holy image of Medicine Buddha, my father took refuge and confessed all his negative actions through applying the practice of the Four Opponent Powers. I found out then that my father had been praying to Medicine Buddha all his life, as the central Buddha in the temple he frequented was this healing Buddha.
From that day forward, my father engaged in mantra recitations. Although he prayed profusely to the Medicine Buddha, his physical condition deteriorated very quickly. His body was beyond help; however he received tremendous spiritual healing. I witnessed my father’s mind strengthen as the days passed. His initial fears, anger and worries disappeared. Instead of worrying about the inevitable, he spent the remainder of his time preparing for death through spiritual practice. Eventually, he had to live on respiratory support and totally lost the ability to speak, but he continued to chant the mantras silently. Our family members were also very supportive and made offerings to the Buddhas and chanted mantras for our father daily.
A few weeks after, I received a call from Singapore that the statues we ordered from Delhi had arrived. I was torn between taking care of my father and receiving the new statues. However, I did not want to abandon my responsibilities at the centre. So I travelled to Singapore and left the care of my sickly father to my nine other siblings, hoping that I would only be gone for a few days.
Receiving the statues was quickly dealt with, but the preparations for the statues were a different matter entirely. We called all our members to volunteer and spent the next few days rolling mantras and organising the consecration.
I had initially planned to oversee the invitation of the new statues to our new centre in Singapore, but my trip was unexpectedly detoured to the centre in KL. There, we held a relatively large gathering where Ms. K took trance of our Dharma Protector who then blessed the centre and also consecrated the new statues.
As I stood next to the oracle in trance, assisting with the session along with other members of the Dharma centre, the Protector looked at me and asked, “Why are you still here? You are supposed to take care of your father!”
The Protector then took a packet of loose incense, blessed it and handed it to me.
“Go back now! When the time comes, recite my name and I will come and take him.”
I wasted no time, and went straight back to my family home in Johor. The Protector must have known that my father’s time was very short. Two weeks after I returned, my father passed away.
It’s ironic that I spent the most time with my father during the period when he was dying. Taking care of a terminally ill patient is a round the clock responsibility, and that was what I did. As the days passed, I could see my father slowly fading away. Occasionally, he would lose consciousness and be in a coma-like state.
Two days before his passing, all my relatives gathered at my father’s house. They had heard the news that my father would not live much longer and wanted to see him one last time before it was too late. I was worried that my father would be weak that day as he had been showing signs of extreme fatigue. Surprisingly, he was wide awake and looked incredibly well for a terminally ill person.
I had been trying to get my father involved with Dharma practice for many months now, but who would have guessed that it was illness that triggered him to start practicing Dharma? Although the duration of his practice was short, I noticed many positive changes. It was very nice to see my father chatting happily with the rest of the family. We all knew it was the last time we would meet in this life, and knowing this gave some the courage to enjoy every second of these precious moments, while for others it was almost impossible to contain their grief.
That evening when everyone was supposed to return to their respective homes, it was quite apparent that they were all reluctant to do so. Looking at his relatives, my father said with a big smile, “Don’t worry about me! I have taken refuge in the Buddha, I will be fine.” I was surprised that my father was in such a positive state of mind even in the face of death. Just less than two months after becoming a real Buddhist practitioner, he gained so much peace of mind, something that not everyone can achieve even after a lifetime of practice. As I watched the people who came to comfort my dying father be comforted by my father instead, I felt deep gratitude for Rinpoche’s help and advice. My faith in the Dharma strengthened as I saw clearly what a sincere practitioner can achieve with only a little bit of Dharma practice. That totally blew my mind away.
The next day, my father could no longer sit up or eat his meals. The following day, his condition worsened. I knew his time was close so I asked my sister-in-law to gather the siblings for the final vigil. I had given strict instructions in preparation for this moment and prohibited anyone from crying inside the room. A crying relative can be a bad distraction for one who is dying.
I held my father in my arms, feeling his long and heavy breaths grow scarce. I chanted Setrap’s mantra and kept reminding my father to think of Medicine Buddha. As the smoke from the burning incense was billowing, I felt a chill run down my spine and at that moment, I saw my father breathe his last. I think I must have held my father for two hours before he passed away.
I placed my father’s body respectfully on his bed and performed the funeral rites according to Rinpoche’s advice. I then made a call to Rinpoche to inform him about my father’s passing to which Rinpoche said, “Okay, we’re going to do a puja now.” I hung up after the short call and attended to the necessities of my father’s funeral.
Later that evening, Ms. K called to ask if everything was okay. It was during this conversation that she told me Rinpoche did a divination for my father and according to the results, my father had taken rebirth, this time as a female. I also learned that Rinpoche had just arrived in Singapore that day, and had just completed setting up the offerings when he received my call.
Everyone will have to face the inevitability of death someday. At the time of death, it doesn’t matter if you have millions of dollars in the bank or if you are surrounded by family and friends. None of these will ensure you a painless and peaceful death. But I believe my father had the best death possible and the great merits to pass away peacefully and to receive Rinpoche’s blessings and help.
At that time, I still didn’t know much about Buddhism and about the 49-day bardo period that people go through after death before reincarnating into one of the six realms of samsara. But Rinpoche’s clear instructions and advice allowed everything to proceed smoothly for my family and most importantly, for my father. This incident not only gave me a chance to serve my father, but it also taught me how I could use the Dharma to help others.
Most of my family members were Taoists so we hired a local Taoist master for my father’s funeral rites. Through Rinpoche, we already knew that my father had taken rebirth in a new life so his funeral was more to help the living move on in his absence. Rinpoche had advised us to make prayers and offerings on behalf of my father so that he could accumulate merits for his next life. So, although we had hired the Taoist master to conduct the prayers, due to our blood connection with our father, it would be more effective if the family was involved in the prayers.
For this reason, I set up my own Buddhist altar and did pujas according to Rinpoche’s advice,
“Your karma with your father in this life has ended, but he is still your father. Do these pujas for him and dedicate the merits to his future life.”
I was initially worried that some family members would object. According to Chinese tradition, the funeral rites are a privilege usually reserved for the eldest son. However to my surprise, my brothers and the rest of the family were incredibly supportive and I was allowed to set up an additional Buddhist altar during the funeral. I am very glad that I was able to carry out Rinpoche’s advice without much dispute. Perhaps, seeing me care so closely for my father in the last two months of his life gave them the confidence that everything I did according to Rinpoche’s advice was 100% in the best interest of my father.
Looking back today on the events that took place in my life that year, I don’t know how I could or would have managed without Rinpoche. I still shudder at the thought of not being able to assist my father at the most important point of his life – his death – if I had not met Rinpoche just a year earlier. I am so glad that I had chosen the wiser path, a path that could bring benefit to my family in a deeper way. If I had to repeat everything, I would most certainly abandon my worldly job and choose to follow Rinpoche once again.
The funeral lasted for four days, after which I immediately made my way to Singapore to resume my duties as Rinpoche’s attendant after my long absence.
To be continued…
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