My late mother was a diabetic, and her final years saw her bedridden. Nevertheless, she was my constant companion. Just before my mother passed away, she was very ill and we all knew she was just marking time. At this point, the saddest part of all was that we were totally ignorant about the existence of the
Earth Store Sutra. To this day, I feel that the family could have helped to lessen my mother’s suffering had we known of this sutra earlier. However, on the plus side, a close relative did advise us to become vegetarians immediately for my mother’s sake. And the relative somehow managed to secure an English version of the
Earth Store Sutra just before my mother passed away.
When I broke the news that we were to become vegetarians overnight, it was like a thunderbolt to my family. We had been staunch KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken] and Pizza Hut supporters! Thank goodness, their filial piety surfaced and they doggedly stuck to their new diet. For nearly two months they held on, and at the end of the compulsory forty-nine days they found that they were now averse to having fish, meat, and eggs! It helped that they did come to the Way-place on and off during the forty-nine days. Therefore, we are now full-time vegetarians.
With her demise and with my three children either settled down or on the threshold of their careers, life promised to be lonely and quiet. However, our lives changed when my sister-in-law set up a plaque for my mother at the Way-place and invited us along. We were not even Buddhist then but more like atheists! When we walked in, a warm feeling which seemed to say, “Welcome home, everything is alright” enveloped us. On the morning of my first Buddhist assembly the participants who looked so adorned in their precept sashes and black robes awed me. The recitation of the
Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva was a challenge to this convent-raised being. Firstly, I did not understand the sutra. Secondly, I could not follow the recitation, and my tongue kept tripping over itself, trying to pronounce unfamiliar terms in Pinyin. Thirdly, trying to kneel through a morning’s recitation was an uphill task for a first timer, to put it mildly! However, something kept drawing me back weekend after weekend. Every time I was at the Way-place, I would make a beeline for the book distribution center and pick out English commentaries by our Venerable Master. I collected his books with the same fervor as a squirrel collects nuts for its winter store. Though I did not really comprehend all of it, that did not dampen my enthusiasm.
Three months later, I took refuge with the Triple Jewel and took the Five Precepts the following year. Almost immediately after taking refuge, I signed up for the Laity Training Program. This was the milestone in my cultivation. Because the program was conducted in Mandarin, of which I understood very little, I was rather upset and ready to find an excuse to opt-out. But something held me back, and instead, I went before Venerable Master Hua’s altar and bowed to him and asked very, very sincerely for help. As the days passed, I found that I could actually glean some of the principles of the talks, if not their entirety. That helped to reshape my outlook on life.
After the program concluded, I continued attending assemblies and joined the mop-and-broom brigade. During our sojourn here the senior disciples taught me Buddha Hall etiquette. Just as I was beginning to settle down to the routine, another disciple suggested that I take over the setting up of the lunch counters in the Five Contemplations Hall at the beginning of my second year. Working there offered me another view of the Way-place’s complexities. It was a fairly simple and straightforward job—set up the Dharma Masters’ places and buffet table, and send over food trays to the Sunday Dharma classes and the General Assembly buffet counters. Nevertheless, there were cliffhanger moments when the turnout surpassed the kitchen’s estimate for the day. Then harried volunteer staff would literally fly around in the kitchen whipping up extra food for the serving. At times like this, it was “Patience, Patience, Swo Pe He” all the way.
‘Impermanence’ seems to be the key word during my three years here. Towards the end of my second year, a Dharma Master asked me if I would like to join the Sunday Dharma Classes as a Year 1 assistant teacher. I accepted. 2003 saw me in Year 1 with a thirty-one bright-eyed, energetic seven-year-olds. They caught on very quickly to the fact that I could not speak Mandarin—so they took it upon themselves to correct me—and by my pupils I am taught! There have been many hilarious moments and equally frustrating times when I could not express myself as articulately as I would have liked to. However, I must say that my Mandarin-speaking partner has been fantastic and somehow we have managed to survive the year! Thus, I have embarked on the long, long trail a-winding to the land of my dreams.