It’s Vesak Day! The temples are thronged with devotees and the beaches in China are strewn with the freshwater fish. Let’s do good and do together. Sounds familiar? Yes, we’ll have to bid a tearful farewell to our beloved President Halimah. She has been a very inspiring figure to our comedians. We’re all going to miss her.
Yes, it’s Vesak Day and for all the naughty people out there, the act of 放生 is deemed a convenient way to atone for their sins. But naughty or not, we won’t run out of people eager to do something good so they could strike lottery. While judicious 放生 is indeed a meritorious act, it can also be a pointless or even malicious act when it’s performed by the ignorant.
Yes, in China, some folks have released tonnes of freshwater fish and turtles into the sea. Some have also released caged birds caught for this purpose and some have even released snakes into parks. Year after year, the same mistakes are repeated. The “seekers” want convenience, the “facilitators” want business and let’s not forget the obligatory blessings from our men in robes. Who cares if they’re doing good or harm to the environment? Not Buddhism.
To my knowledge, practitioners of Buddhism try to live simply (not in palatial mansions). Going against the cycle and balance of nature is unsustainable. The whole world benefits from avoiding needless exploitation. Everything in moderation. Thinking back, my life as a Buddhist has gone through several ups and downs.
Like Tashi in the movie Samsara, I was proud to be out of the rat race when I was in my 20s and 30s. In the 1990s, I was poor compared to my peers. I had no car and no property. Unlike sexually starved and distressed Tashi, I was happy. I wrote poems, wrote for the newsPAPer, published books, conducted interviews with people from all walks of life, wrote magazine articles and travelled solo as a backpacker and adventurer. With no social media back then, I would lug a few photo albums with me whenever friends wanted to meet for food, drinks and stories. Outside the sheltered walkways of Singapore, I saw and experienced life in the real world. Fortuitous meetings, inevitable parting, wealth and poverty, celebration and mourning, altruism and selfishness, joy and sorrow, chaos and harmony. The Buddha’s teachings calmed and guided me. I was a somewhat “unworldly” person, living a spartan yet meaningful and exciting life.
And just like Tashi who stepped out of his saffron robes, my marriage and family life put an end to all that. From the point of view of people like my parents, I had finally come to my senses. For me, it was quite the opposite. I had left the “dreamy” world of the romantic wanderer/explorer and settled down to a life of mortgage payments and childcare expenses. How real is this world?
Sad to say, I became so engrossed with the daily grind that I completely lost touch with the meaning and vigour of the life I used to have. But burning a candle at both ends proved to be patently unsustainable. A dreamer and thinker at heart, I’m just not cut out to be an average householder. My physical and mental health took a hard hit and I realised that something had to give.
That’s when I decided to quit the rat race, settle for less pay and took a step backwards towards my previous life, writing blogs, books and going on trips with my boys as independent travellers. I’ve become a little poorer but much happier. Poorer but happier? It sounds contradictory to most pragmatic and materialistic Singaporeans and I’m nowadays, I’m not really keen to convince them otherwise.
Prof Yi Zhong Tian 易中天 once said that Chinese people have no real religious beliefs. Temples are wishing wells and not learning and cultivation centres. Like the ritual of 放生 I mentioned earlier, the main purpose is a wish for personal gain and not save a sentient being from the kitchen knife.
You can say that I’m not that noble. I eat meat, I don’t 放生 and I make no bones about it. But I respect life, especially human life and I try my best to show patience and compassion towards fellow human beings. Sadly, I live in a society that is often merciless towards people who have made mistakes. I know a few former drug addicts and none of them had their lives destroyed by their addiction. They went on to lead very normal or even successful lives. However, I do know some gamblers whose lives have been totally destroyed by their habit; trapped in debt for life. It’s obvious to me which is the greater evil. That’s why I’m so against gambling. I don’t even know how to play mahjong, card games and I’ve never even bought 4D. Meanwhile some virtue signallers are recommending death for cannabis trade and long prison terms for users. I don’t know the true identities of these keyboard warriors, but I wish they would never make a mistake and be judged by the standards they recommend for others. 得饶人处且饶人. I steer clear of the mobs who are always baying for blood as long as it’s not their own blood.
But as a matter of fact, I do support the death penalty for ruthless murderers and serial killers and perhaps the threat of death is a good deterrent for drug offences, but how many billionaire drug kingpins have we hanged? We are obviously not getting to the root of the problem. Before we even consider taking someone’s life, we have to be absolutely certain that he will be a grave threat to society. I know I will make a terrible president for Singapore but if I had the power to pardon, I would pardon anyone if M Ravi can raise doubt over his guilt. Then again, I’m not as lovable as President Halimah or as noble in a foolhardy way as M Ravi.
What about the folks who wish death on others and have their wish granted? Do they practise 放生? How many fish for one human life?
I have friends from all walks of life. Ironically, many people who follow me on social media know me a lot better than members of the fraternity who are much better at keeping their sanity with their noses to the grindstone. Very few of them have time or even bother to read this blog and occasionally, when one of them chances upon something I’ve written, he would be shocked and ask me” you dare to write about these things ah?”. Make no mistake, these remarks are often made with a smirk.
When I sent my kids to school, I learned that nowadays, bullying is taken very seriously in our schools. But when they enter the adult world, are they going to turn into hypocrites and keep quiet when they witness bullying and sometimes even stand with the bully for the sake of personal gain? If there’s an immediate threat to personal safety, then I can understand it as an act of 求生, but what if the threat is merely imagined and progressively magnified? Someone gets bitten after patting a crocodile and you wouldn’t even dare stand 100 feet from a caged crocodile?
Yes, I’m proud to say that I’m braver than most kiasi Singaporeans, but I don’t see it as being holy or unholy. It’s just not in my nature to accept someone’s argument just because he has a bigger and harder fist. My father has often warned me not to talk about China’s scams, lies and fakes news. It’s very “辱华” and the Chinese authorities’ arm has reached overseas. But wait a minute. Isn’t it egregiously out of line for them to operate overseas police stations? It boggles my mind how anyone thinks that we should fear them instead of rooting them out.
May is the believed to be the best month to climb Mt Everest. In May 1953, the highest piece of real estate on earth was reached by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. It has been a tragic season this May. Experts say this is likely to be one of the deadliest years on record on Mount Everest, with variable weather caused by climate change being blamed as one of the main reasons for the deaths of up to 17 people, one of them being Singaporean climber Shrinivas Sainis Dattaraya. One of those “experts” happens to be Yuba Raj Khatiwada, the director of Nepal’s Tourism Department. I would say that it may have more to do with the 479 permits liberally issued by the Nepalese Tourism Department this year; the highest number ever. Crowds mean traffic jams and oxygen gets wastefully whittled.
Whether it’s for personal glory, self actualisation or business card for life coach, it’s a personal choice and achievement. We have no right to judge that the money is being wasted on a vain pursuit. I used to make fun of beauty pageants until I’ve met beauty queens who used their influence not only to raise funds for charity but also to set an example by getting their hands dirty on the ground. But rescuing people from the death zone is something else. At that altitude, even the Sherpas are gasping for air. Some people have even abandoned sick or injured teammates.
This season, Gelje Sherpa gave up his own summit attempt, risking his own life to save the life of a Malaysian climber. The act is many, many times more meritorious than 放生, but obviously, it’s not something that many people can do. Heroes like Gelje should be fairly compensated. At the very least, he should get more attention than some dancing “influencer” on TikTok.
For the rest of the mere mortals like us, there are many little things that we can do or not do as Buddhists to cultivate merit. The positive and negative examples are everywhere. Observe a little more, care a little more, want a little less. Happy Vesak Day.