It was 6.40am. The sky was still grey when dozens of volunteers arrived at Jing Si Hall's multipurpose room to listen to Master Cheng Yen's daily sermon. When more volunteers arrived at 9am, the congregation moved to the Dharma Hall and began reciting Buddha's name while waiting for the simultaneous prayer service to start.
At around 9.40am, the congregation heard the voice of the Jing Si Abode dharma masters calling for all to put their palms together. With their backs straight up sitting cross-legged on hassocks, the 143-strong congregation began devoutly reciting the Medicine Buddha Sutra along with the dharma masters.
In the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the Medicine Buddha vows to eradicate illnesses, hunger, and all other physical and mental sufferings for all living beings. This is the spirit that Master Cheng Yen hopes each of her followers could cultivate in their life. The two-hour solemn chanting coupled with percussion of wooden fish and inverted bell filled the hall and everyone with immense tranquility.
After a short meditation, the congregation set their eyes on the screen to listen to Master Cheng Yen's message. The Master recollected about the first Medicine Buddha Sutra prayer service on the day Tzu Chi came into being in Hualien, Taiwan. It was the 24th day of the third lunar month in 1966 and there was only more than ten followers joining the service.
Today, there are volunteers at 128 locations in 19 countries chanting simultaneously via videoconference.
Since the founding of Tzu Chi Foundation, it has become a tradition for Jing Si Abode (the spiritual homeland of Tzu Chi) to host the service alongside its monthly relief distribution for the sick and needy on the 24th of each lunar month. By chanting the Sutra every month, the Master hopes to transfer the merits to all supporters of Tzu Chi to show her appreciation for their devotion.
Looking back, the Master is grateful that from the first 30 followers who saved 50 Taiwan cents (S$0.02) from their grocery money each day to help the poor, Tzu Chi has now grown into an international organization with nearly 10 million volunteers and supporters in 50 countries and has provided relief in 70 countries.
In view of the recent excessive natural and manmade disasters, the Master reminded all to widen their horizons through serving the needy and practise and promote Buddha's teachings in their everyday life.
Best time in life
Sister Loke Soon Heng managed to arrive in time to join the congregation before the morning service started. The veteran volunteer, who was one of the first few pioneering Tzu Chi commissioners, is under cancer treatment having suffered a relapse after recovering from the first bout more than ten years ago.
Reminiscing her journey on the path of Tzu Chi, Sister Loke said, "I must say it's the best time of my life. I found my sense of purpose here and I feel very much at home. Doing Tzu Chi's work gives my life meaning.
"I used to wonder if I had not met Tzu Chi, what could I have achieved? And I remembered Master's vow to devote her life to Tzu Chi's work till the last breath of her life and she used to say mental strength can overcome any physical constraint so I summoned my will to rise above my illness. I know I need to come back to fulfill my commitment to Tzu Chi."
Having missed several prayer services over the past few years, Sister Loke is elated that she is able to make it this year: "It's also Master's birthday today and I wish her good health and longevity."
Sister Qiu Wei Qin Ji is another commissioner who has recently rallied from her illness. The Taiwanese was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and after an operation and much recuperation, she finally returned to the Tzu Chi Singapore family recently.
"I think it was the Medicine Buddha who helped pull me through this," Sister Qin Ji related. "Before I had my operation, I went to Hualien to seek Master's blessing. I remember her patting on my shoulder telling me to hang in there. She said it thrice. I was deeply moved and motivated. Now that I'm back, I want to let our Master know I did it and I will be steadfast on the Tzu Chi path to share her burden and work towards her three convictions to purify people's mind, to harmonize the society, and let the world be free of disasters."
Tranquility from within
Khoo Lay Hong and her husband Chan Kheng Hua are new volunteers who just joined Tzu Chi a few months ago.
The day before, Sister Khoo's mother was admitted to hospital due to a sudden ailment. Given the situation and that the family needs to be with the beloved senior later in the day, she had Brother Chan took leave from work to join her at the prayer service that morning. During the chanting ritual, Sister Khoo couldn't help weeping thinking of her mother, but she did not forget to transfer the merits and blessings gained from the service to her.
"Before coming to the service, I had many things on my mind, including my mother-in-law's condition," confessed Brother Chan, "but focusing on the chanting has helped calm my mind. I can feel that my mind is cleared up and things don't seem that bad anymore."
The occasion money can't buy
At the back of the hall sat several senior volunteers whose degenerative knee condition disallows them to sit on the hassock for long. 85-year-old Lee Sam Moay was one excited participant because this was her first time taking part in a Tzu Chi anniversary service.
"I'm illiterate so I couldn't recognize the lyrics shown on the screen. I just follow what others are doing," said the agile volunteer with a laugh, quickly adding "I'm happy enough because I get to 'see' Master today on her birthday. I hope I could one day visit her in Taiwan but I know that won't be easy given my age. That's why I'm happy with just gazing at her on the screen."
Besides the amiable seniors, there were also close to ten entrepreneur volunteers who unanimously availed themselves for the prayer service that day. We always say "Time is money" for the business world, but to them, such occasion is something that money can't buy.
Brother Sim Hee Chew who owns a listed company mused on his first anniversary service: "For a long 45 years, the Master has stuck to her conviction and overcome numerous difficulties with her admirable perseverance. I feel I'm nothing compared to her even though I've been able to make my fortune with just S$5000 many years back.
"I hope I can expand my horizon even more through serving in this organization."
Sharing his sentiments was Yoshikazu Shaku who lives in Japan most of the year. The entrepreneur volunteer revealed that he was quite upset by the fact that last month's triple disasters in Japan had affected the entire Japanese society and his business, but after delving into the chanting, he felt at peace and has gained the needed mental strength to set off again.
We are delighted that the dignified service has helped renew the sense of mission amongst our volunteers. In exchanging thanks and blessing, we vow to remain steadfast on the Tzu Chi path and pave the way for world peace and harmony.