His name was Hui Tian. He was the first person I felt a pure kindness radiate from. Actually, Hui Tian was his fa ming (法名), a name given to a monk on his entering monk hood. He had been a monk for over 30 years when I met him. Before that he was a military man from An Hui, China.
To me, he was Hui Tian Zhang Lao (慧天長老), Venerable Master Hui Tian, a man I felt scared of when I saw him for the first time.
I sat between my sister Lu See and my mother, robed in black as VM Hui Tian introduced ba guan zai (八關齋) to us.
He spoke of the rules, ba guan zai literally meaning a retreat with the closure of at least eight different desires. I already felt somewhat bored. No phones, no newspapers, no tv, no talking, not even whispering. Can I really survive here?
Though bored, I was nonetheless competitive and made sure that I was ahead in all the milestones the monks recommended. Daily 10,000 chants – checked. Daily 1,000 postulations – checked. Sleeping only three and a half hours or less a day to get these done – checked.
Strangely, boredom ceased as I became more interested in what I was doing. Sleeping at 2am, waking up at 4am, having only two meals a day, not busying myself with chatting, watching a single incense burn through in morning class – all these made me feel strangely peaceful.
Slowly I realised I was the one making myself feel restless. I was the one who let myself be angry. I was the one who let myself feel loveless.
VM Hui Tian explained, ‘Your thoughts control the very present. Look at the word 念 (thought) – the top portion is 今 (now) and the bottom portion is 心 (heart).’
I left ba guan zai with more peace than I ever felt in my entire sixteen years of life. I learned what loving unconditionally meant and what letting go would do for me.
Over the years, ba guan zai became something I did every year, then every other year, then something I avoided. It wasn’t because I didn’t like it. It was because I felt increasingly like a big fish in a small pond – what used to fulfil me made me feel increasingly numb.
Sadly, by avoiding these retreats, I also left my habits of meditation and reflection behind. I filled the time instead with activity after activity, working many hours a day, switching between family, sports and work, family, sports and work…
The effect of this abandonment was at first not evident. Over time, however, it has crept up on me and forced me to reconsider my lifestyle and the way I think.
I forgot the lessons VM Hui Tian taught me. I forgot what it meant to be unconditionally kind. I forgot what it meant to be at peace no matter what happens. I forgot to be okay with letting things go. I forgot to be joyful. I forgot to rest. I forgot my soul. I forgot to not worry too much.
VM Hui Tian taught me these in seven days. I thought I would never forget them but I underestimated how forgetful my mind was. It needs reminding.
It has been 11 years since my first ba guan zai. In my search for the true meaning of life in the last few weeks, I realise that I knew it all along. I just forgot about it. I forgot about it because I didn’t think it was important then.
I was too young. Now I know why VM Hui Tian taught us all those things. What he wanted to tell us was that life is simple, but we make it complicated through our desires. Too much ego, too much greed, too much thinking.
The less we take life and ourselves so seriously, the more we get to enjoy it and the more we can truly be kind to the people around us.
I unrobed myself seven days after the start of the retreat. I cried. I thanked the seven monks profusely for giving me the lessons.
Monks do not have the same desires as common people, but I have often found them interesting to talk to as a teen. Though they were serious about their search for salvation, they could talk to you about anything. They had an aura of peace and joy I have so far not found in anyone else.
Interestingly I spent the last 4 weeks on a desperate search for meaning. I thought I would end up concluding on a serious note; but instead I found myself leaning towards a simpler conclusion: desire less, think less and give away more.