What reason would convince you to wake up at 4.30am every morning? Perhaps for work, or perhaps due to insomnia or other health reasons? If I tell you that there is a group of people in Singapore who voluntarily get up at such an unearthly hour every day to listen to a monastic expound the Dharma, what would your first reaction be? The old me will probably say something like: “That’s crazy… Who would do such a thing?”
Indeed, it has been a crazy journey for me in the past three years, and even now, I still have reservation sharing with my friends my experience of watching Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma talks before dawn breaks, for fear of being labelled as a “weirdo”. But I know that deep within me, I have nothing but a heart full of gratitude.
“Dharma Incense Permeation" is the English translation of a Chinese term “Xun Fa Xiang” coined by Dharma Master Cheng Yen in 2008 to describe how a group of Tzu Chi collegiate youth members motivated one another to wake up early (before dawn broke) to watch her Dharma talk programme, “Wisdom at Dawn”, on (Tzu Chi Taiwan’s) Da Ai TV. The youths would also engage in an online discussion of the Dharma after that.
Master Cheng Yen has continually expressed her wish for all Tzu Chi volunteers to get up early in the morning and gather to listen to the Dharma. Eventually, “Xun Fa Xiang” evolved into a live Dharma talk by the Master in the morning at 5.20am—volunteers in Tzu Chi offices all over the world can watch the talk via video conferencing.
I must confess that I was initially very cynical about “Xun Fa Xiang”, and thought that it was really silly to wake up in the wee hours of the morning just to listen to a Dharma talk. On this current day and age, we can easily tune in to talks with the touch of our fingers (on our smartphones), at any time of the day at our convenience. Why must we make life difficult for ourselves and sacrifice our precious sleep for it? It simply made no sense to me at that time…….
Taking the plunge
However, being part of a community of diligent Tzu Chi volunteers, I soon started to take a little interest in “Xun Fa Xiang”. I also recalled a campaign initiated by Taiwan’s Tzu Chi volunteers a few years ago, to greet one another with a simple question asking whether fellow volunteers had watched the Dharma talk in the morning or not.
The Tzu Chi volunteers around me whom I respected started to encourage me to join them in this endeavour. Some offered to give me a lift to Jing Si Hall (Tzu Chi’s premises) in the morning, while others were eager to share with me why they attended the live Dharma talks. One volunteer even went to the extent of saying that even if she had slept throughout the whole Dharma talk, it was still worth her trip. And she would make herself stand up while the Master spoke the Dharma to prevent herself from dozing off.
My curiosity grew, so I convinced myself to attend two sessions to find out exactly what it was all about. Unfortunately, I was unable to understand Master Cheng Yen's native dialect that she used in her morning Dharma talks, and did not find the talks particularly helpful. Thus, I did not follow through. It was only in Year 2015 when Dr Chiang Li Wei, a respectable senior from the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (Singapore), urged me to listen to the early morning Dharma talks, when I started to reconsider my decision.
He encouraged me to watch the recorded videos of “Wisdom at dawn” (previous sessions of the talks), with both Chinese and English subtitles, and even asked me to share with him what I had learnt from my daily “Dharma sessions” with him via WhatsApp. Thanks to his overwhelmingly encouraging praises for what I had shared on WhatsApp; it really boosted my confidence. I remember him commenting once that he actually learnt more from my short messages (sharing about the Dharma talks) than what he did from his own readings—how flattering!
Such an arrangement really spurred me on to continue my daily Dharma video watching and sharing. It was not easy getting up half an hour earlier every day, and to take time to reflect and type out what I wanted to share with him. However, I was determined not to send him unthoughtful reflections. I recalled a few incidents when I dozed off multiple times while typing on my mobile phone at night, so that I could submit my “homework” to him in time.
The greatest offering from a disciple to a Dharma Master
Faith had it that I started off my “Xun Fa Xiang” journey with Chapter 4 of the Lotus Sutra, “Faith and Understanding”. It uncannily felt as though Master Cheng Yen were talking to me personally! The Master expounded in detail on the “Parable of the Impoverished Son” from the chapter, which was about a rich man who lost his son for fifty years, and his son forgot that he came from a rich family.
Eventually, the son became a beggar and walked past the rich man's house one day. The rich man immediately recognised him as his long-lost son. However, when the rich man sent a messenger to bring his son to him, the son was in fear and refused to return home.
In order to convince his son, the rich man disguised as a lowly labourer, and gradually got connected with his son by doing the same manual labour as him in his own home.
After many years, his son finally trusted him as a friend. At this point, he revealed his true identity and showed his son all the riches that he would inherit from him, which were meant to be his from the very first day.
This parable was told by four of Sakyamuni Buddha’s chief disciples (Venerables Subhuti, Katyayana, Maudgalyayana and Mahakashyapa) to the Buddha, as they expressed their remorse for never realising that they, too, had the potential to become a Buddha.
They alluded themselves as the “poor son”, who was unwilling to believe his true identity as the heir to a “great fortune”, and the Buddha, as the “rich man” having to put himself down to a lowly level in order to build the trust with his disciples before he could eventually convince them that they possessed the innate Buddha nature.
It was a mind blowing lesson for me, having been a Buddhist for so many years and not believing that I too, have the same Buddha nature as everyone else and the potential to realise what the Buddha had realised. I was even more touched when I learnt about how the Buddha had to go to such great lengths and hardship to convince us of our innate spiritual wealth. My respect for the Buddha grew and I became more certain of the direction of my spiritual practice.
One day, a Tzu Chi volunteer from Taiwan, Guo Jin De, shared with the Singapore volunteers about how disappointed Master Cheng Yen was, when she learnt about the small number of volunteers who were listening to her morning Dharma talks every day, despite her great effort in preparing them. I felt really guilty when I heard that. Having received and benefitted so much from her guidance and compassion, I asked myself what I had done and what I could do for her…...
There is no doubt that I will never ever be able to repay the immense kindness that she has bestowed upon me during this life and lives after. At that point in time, I told myself that I wanted to become a “plus one” to the number of people listening to the Master's morning Dharma talks. It is an expression of my deep gratitude for her, and more importantly, it enables me to develop wisdom—the greatest offering a Buddhist disciple can offer to his/her refuge master is growth in his/her wisdom life through practising the Dharma.
Miraculously, when the wish of attending the Master’s live Dharma talks came to my mind, one of my fellow volunteers, Jane Chan, was also interested in attending the talks. She volunteered to give me a ride in her car to the Jing Si Books and Cafe at 5am every morning to watch the talks via video conferencing. Since 2016, I did the unthinkable of waking up at 4.30am regularly to attend the Dharma talks. Of course, I dare not say that I’m doing it every day, but I really do try my very best to attend every session.
A wonderfully inspiring experience
Through these three years, my perception about life and the world has changed tremendously, and my faith grew by the day. I began to appreciate how Master Cheng Yen used the teachings from the Lotus sutra to start Tzu Chi from scratch, in the rural east coast of Taiwan half a decade ago.
This appreciation also helps to give meaning to the volunteer work that I do in Tzu Chi, and it has also inspired me to work in Tzu Chi full-time as a doctor. Most importantly, this path of spiritual cultivation has helped me see myself and the world more clearly, and it has given me a direction for the rest of my life.
I can go on and on about the benefits of “Xun Fa Xiang”, and how awesome the Lotus sutra is. But, at the end of the day, I think it is a very personal experience, and it is up to you to experience and see it for yourself. I would like to take this opportunity to extend the invitation to everyone to give “Xun Fa Xiang” a chance, and come and experience the magic for yourself!
*Editor’s note: The writer is a resident doctor at the Lakeside Family Medicine Clinic run by Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) and an active volunteer with the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (Singapore).