Each year, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, healthcare professionals worldwide from the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) will return to Tzu Chi’s headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, to celebrate this joyous occasion with Dharma Master Cheng Yen and to attend the annual TIMA conference.
Prior to this year’s TIMA conference, a few of us (medical volunteers) flew to Taiwan earlier to spend some time volunteering at Jing Si Abode (the home of Master Cheng Yen and her monastic disciples) and the Tzu Chi Medical Center, both located in Hualien. Those two weeks spent in Taiwan were one of the best times in my life, nothing short of amazing.
As our train entered the country side of Hualien, we were greeted by verdant, towering mountains that stretched to the pale blue sky, as well as the vast, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and it made us feel relaxed as we do not have the opportunity to see such majestic beauty of nature in Singapore. We pulled into Hualien Station after a 2.5-hour train ride and then took a short taxi ride. In no time, we arrived at Jing Si Abode, our spiritual home.
As I stepped out of the taxi onto the grounds of the Abode, I was filled with an inexplicable sense of calm, peace, and joy, which felt like homecoming. The air was extremely fresh, with a slight hint of floral fragrance. The gardens were lush, green and perfectly manicured, the birds were chirping, and there was absolutely no jarring noise of the traffic, save for the occasional rumbling of a train zooming past. All my worries and tension just melted away. I was really excited to be “home”!
The next morning, we started our day early at 4.20 am, with a Dharma service. This was followed by Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma talk at 5.20am, breakfast at 6.20am and singing of the “Prayer” song prior to the Morning Volunteer Assembly at 7am. By 8.30am, everyone in the Abode had begun their daily chores.
Our task for the day was picking flowers. The nuns grow numerous plants and flowers in the gardens of the Abode. They are used for the in-house manufacture of organic soaps, essential oils, fragrances, herbal products and even food!
Off to the wild ginger flower field we went with Dharma Master Jiang, after putting on boots and a straw hat. It was the very first time that most of the people in our group stepped into a muddy field packed with plants that rose above our heads.
“How do we cross the field without a clear path ahead?”
“Are there any snakes around?”
“What if we get lost?"
“How do we find our way out?”
“Is it dirty there?”
Anxiety, coupled with a fear of the unknown, was certainly palpable as we gingerly stepped onto the soft mud, wondering how to proceed. Sensing our apprehension, Master Jiang chuckled gently at us, city folks, and reassured us that the place was as clean as it got, because the rain showers had just given the plants a “bath” yesterday. She then encouraged us to just walk straight ahead, but not forgetting to look back occasionally.
After a while, it did not seem so scary after all. I gathered up my courage, picked up my pace and trekked forward with a renewed sense of confidence. Halfway through, I decided to take Master Jiang’s advice and glance backwards.
To my surprise, I realised that there were still many flowers growing high above me and below my field of vision that I had missed! I had been so focused on my task of plucking flowers in front of me at my eye level that I failed to look up or down and notice the wider surroundings. I hurried backwards to pluck those flowers that I had missed, taking time to ensure that I look upwards and downwards as I moved on.
Within half an hour, the whole field of wild ginger flowers had been cleared, and we were rewarded with six huge bags of pure, fragrant white ginger flowers!
Next up were the butterfly pea flowers and baby roses.
“Since the flowers are so pretty, why do we have to pluck them? Can’t we just let them stay there, so that we can admire their beauty?” Some of us asked Master Jiang quizzically.
The nun smiled and explained that flowers are best picked when they are in full bloom so that they can be used for other purposes, which prolongs their lifespan. For example, if we plucked the roses prematurely, they would lose the opportunity to be in full bloom. If we waited for too long, they would wither and die.
Similarly, this analogy can also be applied to our lives. We, humans, should strive to “bloom”—to grow and reach the fullest of our potential, like a flower in full bloom. It is not right to prematurely end such a gift of life, when the flower has not entirely bloomed. Towards the end of our life, it may be wise to start thinking about how we can ensure that our value in this world persists even after our departure. Contributing our bodies to the Silent Mentor programme of Tzu Chi University’s medical school is one way. I am reminded of the Jing Si Aphorism (wise saying by Master Cheng Yen), “We do not have ownership of our life, only the privilege of using it.”
“Master (Jiang), there are so many centipedes and ants crawling all over the field How are we to cross the field to harvest the flowers without harming them?”
“Tread carefully” was the advice the Master gave us. She also encouraged us to whisper kind and positive words to the flowers as we were plucking them, such as “Amituofo” (homage to the Amitabha Buddha), “Please bloom brightly so that I can offer you to the Buddha”, “Please grow strong and healthy so that I can pick you to make Jing Si products,” etc.
Inspired by the positive impact of kind words on Mother Nature, another volunteer in our group decided to talk to our little insect friends too!
“Dear centipedes, I am walking over to pluck some flowers, and I do not intend to harm you. Please stay under the ground so that I will not accidentally step on you,” said the volunteer. And she declared that she did not see any more insects after saying those words aloud!
As we made our way back in the evening, we realised that the wild ginger flowers had blossomed again and turned the field into a sea of white! We happily rushed into the field and managed to harvest another four big bags of wild ginger flowers. The vitality of nature was indeed remarkable!
I was amazed at the ability of Master Jiang to teach us the Dharma in everyday life through a seemingly simple task of flower-picking. In just a day, I had learnt more about myself, especially my resistances, and managed to overcome some of my fears. I was indeed grateful to all the Abode’s Dharma masters in showing us the way and opening our eyes, such that we could see things in a different light.
Undoubtedly, everyone in our team had enjoyed ourselves tremendously, and also gained a deeper understanding of ourselves and life through this unique experience. We will definitely be back!
*The writer is a medical doctor and a member of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) chapter in Singapore.