A Pilgrimage That Changed My Life
Director Ruby Khong
A monk once told me that, “The day when the Tiger and Rabbit meet, that’s when your life will change…”
That fateful day turned out to be 23 December 1994. A few weeks before, my husband had broken the news to me that we would be visiting India with a group of Malaysian businessmen – they had already visited India five times, each time over Christmas. His rationale was that it would be easier to visit India with people who had been there before and were familiar with the place. I wasn’t keen but after much persuasion, agreed to go.
I, however, wanted to be back in time for a New Year’s Eve Party at Carcosa Sri Negara, one that I had “dutifully” attended for the last few years. Much to my dismay, when we checked in at the Air India counter on the morning of 22 December, all decked out in designer outfits, I found out that we would only be returning on 3 January! My husband had deliberately kept this information from me for he knew that there was no way I would have agreed to make the trip had I known I had to skip my annual party.
We arrived in New Delhi on the cool winter afternoon of 22 December. The next morning, we went to the airport to fly to Patna to begin our pilgrimage. Along the way, someone in our group casually mentioned that there were two monks who would be joining us on our trip and I thought, “Oh, whatever…” As I pushed my luggage trolley towards the check-in counter, I saw two young men dressed in maroon robes that were draped over one shoulder, while the other shoulder revealed what looked to me to be a sleeveless shirt. Their hair was cropped closed to their heads and one of them was very tall, and donned Armani sunglasses! What struck me in those few moments was that they were probably student monks taking time off their studies to go on a holiday.
Our flight was delayed for four hours which was the last thing I needed. As everyone in our group took seats in the waiting lounge, the taller monk started asking our names and which Chinese zodiac year we were born in. As it turned out, one of the older men in our group was born in the year of the Tiger, and the other in the year of the Rabbit… I sat there thinking of what the Chinese monk had predicted and wondering how that could change my life.
I come from a fourth-generation Buddhist family. Since the time of my great-grandparents, Buddhism has always been an integral part of our family. My maternal great-grandfather made a vow during the Japanese Occupation in the then-Malaya that if his family were spared the torturing and execution from the Japanese, he would convert the ancestral mansion into a temple. His prayer was answered and the temple still stands in Penang as a place of worship for many Buddhists to this day.
Despite my background, I was never really interested in religion. It seemed too ritualistic and rigid. We were not encouraged to ask why we carried out a certain ritual, and even if we did, no one was able to give us a satisfactory answer. It was based purely on blind faith and we usually prayed because a respected elder had said to do so.
We finally arrived at Nalanda Univerisity, the “biggest monastic university during Atisha’s time”. After a tour of the surroundings and much photo taking, the taller monk gave a talk. All I could remember from the tour was that we were in the stupa with the holy images surrounding us. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and just cried and cried. Even as I write this, I still wonder why I behaved the way I did.
From Nalanda, we travelled to Vulture’s Peak in the state of Rajgir, a notorious area known to be full of bandits, but we made it to the top, and back down again in the dark without any hassle. We received a commentary on Diamond Sutra, and as I sat through it all without any comprehension of what was going on, I thought to myself, “The only diamonds I ever knew were the three-carat ones from my jeweller!”
The next day, we travelled for 12 hours to arrive at Bodhgaya. Along the way, I asked the monk a few questions, which he answered with humour and interest; I later found out he was downplaying who he truly is. By the time we had reached our destination, I was beginning to feel drawn to his warmth, openness, quickness of mind, wittiness – he was seemingly unperturbed by even the most twisted and ridiculous questions I posed to him.
While waiting to be checked in at the hotel lobby, I still had many questions and doubts. I was at the crossroads of my life, and had just experienced what seemed to be a traumatic period. I thought to myself, “Here is a monk who speaks your language, don’t lose this opportunity, do it now!”
Without giving myself time to change my mind, I ran after him as he was going to his room and told him that I needed to consult him on a few personal matters. My mind was already filled to the brim with garbage and it needed to be cleaned out. I was openly emotional most of the time, my moods often swung up and down, and I responded to events through feelings rather than rational thought. He granted my request to the consultation.
What seemed to be just a consultation on my unfortunate predicament was, in retrospect, to be the turning point of my life. Every night after our visits to the holy places, I would visit the monk and he would always treat me with kindness, was always ready to listen to whatever I had to say. He embodies qualities that are truly admirable – besides possessing much intellectual knowledge, he also full of gentleness, wit, patience, tact and generosity. A new fascinating interest in the Dharma began to grow in me. He gave me the spiritual embrace that had been missing in my life. He taught me how to transform my ordinary life into on-going Dharma practice, to let go of my ugly memories, hang-ups, traumas and inhibitions.
He imparted profound advice on being mindful, not to mislead people, to try to understand them, not to cause them any harm and to be tolerant. From my limited perspective, he encouraged me to seek quality happiness instead of conventional happiness, which is different because the latter shatters and breaks as conditions change. He taught me that my ‘sufferings’ were just a passing phenomenon, for that is the nature of samsara and that if I applied the Dharma whole-heartedly, I would see the wisdom about that ‘traumatic’ period of my life, rather than dwelling in self-pity.
In traditional teachings, social activities such as dressing up and eating in fancy restaurants are presented as being inferior to a fully dedicated spiritual life. However, he said that one should strive to change inwardly, not outwardly – the battle is internal, not external. I do not have to renounce my present lifestyle, but to tailor the Dharma to the situation, and use it in a skilful manner that can be integrated into my life to benefit others. It sounded logical and practical, and I slowly opened my heart and mind to listen to more that he was to teach me.
The next seven days of my stay in India became more and more fun, in addition to becoming a learning experience for me. I had much to look forward to every night. Looking back now, I realise that there is a whole spectrum of ways teachers can relate to their students. Some are very authoritative and rigid, as in the more traditional schools of Buddhism, and some are “buddies” and supportive. Needless to say, I had met the latter. Despite their stylistic differences both are concerned for the spiritual development of their student.
I still have many negative states of mind like anger, worry, impatience and irritability but with Dharma, I am able to catch the afflictions whenever they arise and try to reduce them. I am still learning, and feel challenged at every level of my practice most of the time. Fortunately, I now have a more optimistic outlook even when things appear unpromising. I have introduced my children to the Buddha’s holy teachings, for I believe that loving kindness starts at home – only then can we include our friends. Slowly this will radiate out to those we meet, and beyond. This mission remains the most inspiring aspect of my life.
I took my refuge precepts on Christmas Day 1994 in the holy Mahaboddhi Stupa in Bodhgaya, the place where our Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment 2500 years ago. The ‘monk’ is today my Rinpoche, my spiritual guide, confidant, and my best friend. I believe that to be able to meet such a precious jewel requires prior karmic connections, and prayers of aspirations made during past lives.
However, I know I still have to walk the path with my own two feet. As my Rinpoche always says, “A doctor can only prescribe you the medication to heal your illness. It is up to you yourself to follow the instructions and get well.”
** Ruby is now the Director of H.E. Tsem Rinpoche’s personal affairs, the President of Kechara Soup Kitchen, a Director of Kechara Paradise and a member of the Board of Directors of the KECHARA organisation.