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What Witnessing Suffering Taught Me

“It’s been around 20 years since I last saw my only child; he should be more than 20 years old by now…” said a Tzu Chi dialysis beneficiary. Volunteers lent him a listening ear as he grieved over his unhappy past…

I could not see the sorrow in his eyes under the dim light, but the despondency in his heart was loud and clear.

It was a stormy night when we visited the aid recipient, but we were unable to meet him in his flat. He had a sour relationship with his flat mate, so it was inconvenient for visitors to enter the unit. Moreover, he did not want many people to know about his story, so we respected his wish.

A divorcee of more than 20 years, he mumbled, “It’s strange… Why have I never bumped into them (his child and wife) along the streets after the divorce…” It was hard to tell whether he was asking a question or expressing a lament.

“Maybe it’s because you guys do not live in the same area, so, naturally, you won’t bump into each other. Don’t think too much.” These comforting words from a volunteer seemed so weak and helpless at that moment…

He had led a wayward and decadent life in his younger days, losing himself in indulgence and pleasure-seeking, and failing to rein in his desires. Time flew past in the blink of an eye. Now, he suffered from kidney failure and required dialysis thrice a week, and this had prevented him from leading a normal working life. He could only take up a simple job, such as dish washing, to earn a meagre income every day, and had to seek social welfare. Although his skin was prone to ulceration and could not tolerate chemical detergent or being soaked in water for long hours, he didn’t have a choice. No one was willing to offer him flexible working hours, except the owner of a coffee shop downstairs, who was willing to accommodate his needs and allow him to earn a meager living.

Tzu Chi’s home care visits like this allow volunteers to witness different real life stories and the ups and downs and vicissitudes of life. As I sat next to him, I had the opportunity to enter his life during that moment. However, I had mixed feelings and felt deeply about what he had shared. I couldn’t tell if he was missing his child because he was ill now, or if he was yearning for something that he had given up earlier on in life. Since he had missed the opportunity to cherish what he had, he might have lost it for good and was left to live his remaining days alone, feeling lonely and empty.      

What made him leave his family at that time? And how was he going to repent for it now? However, repentance may not be the only thing that one expresses for the rest of one’s life.

I have always been very grateful to Dharma Master Cheng Yen for opening the Bodhi Path of Tzu Chi, which allows troubled people like us to personally experience life’s truths through serving others in the community. This not only affords us opportunities to witness the suffering of others, but also helps us realise that it is a blessing to be born as a human being and to hear the Dharma, so we can work to benefit and help living beings. 

We should apply the wisdom of the Dharma as we interact and work with others in our daily lives. More often than not, all it takes to achieve everything lies in a single pure intention.

Although Master’s teaching of “counting our blessings and sowing more blessings” may sound simple, if we do not practise it by walking into the lives of the suffering, we will never be able to understand the profound meaning behind these simple words.

Initially, I started doing charity work out of compassion, as charity is the cornerstone of Tzu Chi. But now, I have come to a deeper realisation about life with the experience I gained from the work.

I have been persevering on the path of home care visits, and I get to witness and learn about the lives of many. This has spurred me to self-reflect, and it also strengthens my resilience and helps me develop compassion as I witness the suffering of people. And my wisdom to adapt and react quickly is also being tested by unexpected changes in life. In fact, it took many years for me to understand and realise these truths.

When I attended a pre-dawn Dharma talk by Master Cheng Yen recently, I heard her say: “Does everyone know why we say the phrase, ‘the billowing dust in the world’ (in Chinese)? Living in this world, we experience the complexity of people and things. This is why we describe it as ‘billowing dust’… ”

These words strike a deep chord with me! Because the realisations I gained from my life experiences and the people and things that I saw with my own eyes can never be adequately described with words. If I do not go among people to serve those in need, how am I to understand that the Dharma is very much about life?

Now, when I’m faced with challenges and setbacks, I’m able to confidently break away from the misery that I lose myself in, walk out of the confines of my own family, and develop a broad and expansive mind. This has filled my life with heart-moving joy and allowed me to feel more peaceful and at ease.

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