The sutra adaptation opened with a successive echo of clanging bell and sombre drum beating creating roaring sounds of thunder, as if to remind the mass that it is time to wake up and not to indulge in illusions and unconsciousness anymore.
A year of upheaval
2011 has indeed been a year full of upheavals where regimes collapsed and natural disasters raged. The year also marked the 45th year of Tzu Chi’s founding and seeing that the time has ripened, Master Cheng Yen declared ‘Deep Repentance’ to be the anniversary theme at the start of 2011 and urged all her disciples to diligently study the Water Repentance text, respect all living things and go vegetarian.
The Buddhist text was also arranged into a musical production titled ‘Dharma as Water’ for volunteers and donating members to perform in 26 public shows around Taiwan in August. After more than half a year of spiritual and physical cleansing through study sessions, rehearsals and abstinence from meat, the effect of the repentance practice could be felt among the 30,000 performers which also spilled over to the larger Tzu Chi community. Everyone became much humble and more accommodating to one another. Here in Tzu Chi Singapore, community study sessions were also held extensively since six months ago with volunteers inviting donating members and friends to delve into the Water Repentance text and together strive for self-transformation.
Throughout their three-month practice and rehearsals, many of the 143 volunteers who participated in the branch’s Year-End Blessing sutra adaptation devoutly adopted vegetarianism for at least 108 days. The four Year-End Blessing ceremonies held over 7 and 8 January 2012 saw close to 6000 Tzu Chi donors and families receiving Master Cheng Yen’s yearly gift of the ‘Red Envelopes of Blessings and Wisdom’ to bid goodbye to the previous year and usher in the new with sincere piety. The partial adaptation of ‘Dharma as Water’’s three-part Prelude also left a deep impression among the audience.
When the adaptation opened with the ‘An Eternal Pure and Perfect Nature’ part, the sign language and elaboration casts formed a sunset formation akin to the radiating Buddha light and later went into the Sumera (the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology) formation towards the end of the performance which echoed the closing line of the final part that reads ‘Eliminate Three Obstructions and all delusions (and) listen to the callings of all Buddhas’.
The second part of the Prelude was constituted by a true incident dated around 618-907 AD in the Tang Dynasty in which National Master Wu Da suffered terrible pain from a human-faced sore on his knee due to arrogance. After learning from a Venerable named Kanaka that the sore was the karmic retribution for the killing he had orchestrated ten lifetimes ago, he sincerely repented his wrong and retreated to a hut in the woods to compose the Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Sutra which touches on how the mind creates everything that is good or bad and how these are manifested in our speech and deeds which eventually bring about consequences.
Among the acting cast, 15 were actually college volunteers (Tzu Ching) and Tzu Ching seniors; though the Tzu Chings are relatively young, they were able to relate to the teachings of the sutra and present an excellent interpretation under the guidance of their seniors.
27-year-old Tzu Ching senior Lee Chun-hsien, who played Master Wu Da in the adaptation, was certified by Master Cheng Yen as a member of the Tzu Cheng Faith Corp in November 2011 and has taken up the guiding role in the community study sessions for months. While he got his head shaved on New Year’s Day for the Buddhist monk character, the volunteer’s eyes went reddened as he felt deeply moved by the opportunity he was given to play the noble character. He reflected candidly on his smooth-sailing growing up years since being enrolled in the Tzu Chi Children’s Achievement Class till now and how studying Master Cheng Yen’s explanation of the Water Repentance has served as a reminder against self-importance for him.
“Acting as Venerable Kanaka is definitely no easy feat,” says volunteer Goh Ling Chye.
Today, Goh and his pleasant disposition manage to hide his past. However intensely one observes him, one surely cannot tell he used to have a fiery temper, was prone to fighting, and was regularly spotted at police stations as well as in prison.
His turning point started when his aunt, Tzu Chi commissioner Jennifer Tan, “dragged” him to Tzu Chi’s Buddha Day Ceremony two years ago. There, a sentence by Master Cheng Yen got him thinking: “When disaster strike, we should quickly reflect upon ourselves and awaken from our deluded ways”. He started having second thoughts about what he had been doing with his life, and then decided to become a Tzu Chi volunteer with his mother.
Goh used to eat nothing but meat; he avoided greens at all cost. After thinking through what Master Cheng Yen constantly says about how it is our duty to “respect all forms of life”, he changed course to being a committed vegetarian. Eating vegetables alone was tough for him, let alone stop eating meat altogether. He admitted having to forcefully swallow down his vegetables when he first embarked on his vegetarian journey. However tough it seemed, Goh refused to give up.
Goh later on accepted the invitation to play Venerable Kanaka in the Water Repentance sutra adaptation. Not being very proficient in Chinese, he had trouble understanding the teachings of the Sutra. Furthermore, he was tasked with portraying a respectable and compassionate individual, the extreme of his past personality. Director of the theatrical production Sister Samantha Cheung shared with him that the key to doing this right was to have the mindset that “it’s for the good of the mass and not for personal interest”. Frequently reminding himself of Master Cheng Yen’s benevolence also helped him immerse in his role.
In the past, whenever he was hounded by debt collectors, without thinking he would shout at them, “I have nothing but my life, take it if you want!”
Coincidentally, Master Cheng Yen said the same phrase in the ‘Tzu Chi 2011 Year in Review’ video: “I have nothing but my life to give; but I have faith in the value of my life, for my intentions are selfless. Likewise, I believe in the value of every single person’s life, for everyone has the capability to love and care.” This got him thinking of his previous mentality: “Back then I underestimated the significance of my existence, or anybody else’s as a matter of fact; nonetheless, Master chose to make the best of her being by dedicating her whole life towards the betterment of society.”
Without doubt, Goh has learned a lot through playing Venerable Kanaka. He came to the realization that in the past, not only had he wrecked himself, he had also hurt the people who loved and cared for him. He unashamedly admits his regret, and promises never to go back to his unruly habits. He is thankful he had gotten to know about Tzu Chi, and how it has since illuminated his previously dismal life.
Goh’s grandmother also attended one of the Year-End Blessing ceremonies. Looking at how her dearest grandson is now starting afresh, she is pleased beyond words, “My grandson is finally back!”
Grateful of his grandmother’s acceptance, Goh tells us, “Loving yourself is a form of filial piety. I let down my grandmother for 18 years but from now on, I’m a new man.”
“I hope we’re not regarding this as merely a stage performance, because we should all treat this as a dharma assembly and be very earnest in our gestures,” said Sister Branda Ng to her team of sign language performers during the pre-performance practices.
One of them, Liang Ying, feels very much rejuvenated and at peace with herself having been part of the sutra adaptation.
With a thirty-year-old son who is not only mentally challenged, but also a victim of schizophrenia, Liang was constantly drained beyond words. She worked hard to find the best help for her son, running around looking for suitable care centres as well as institutes where her son could learn basic life skills. No doubt it was both mentally and physically taxing on her. She had once even considered leaving her family temporarily, but in the end she could not bear leaving her son. She had no other choice but to tolerate her pain all along. Those long, hard days gradually nurtured bitterness within her.
Nevertheless, after reading Master Cheng Yen’s explanation of the ‘Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Sutra’, Liang has accepted that “everything happens for a reason” and that this is just a challenge life gave her. She used to hate it whenever her son threw tantrums. Now, she has learnt to let go; no matter how seemingly dismal the circumstances, she only aims to make her son happy. “Since he is my son in this life, I will just provide him with the best care possible,” said the loving mother.
Liang found ways to relieve her stress. She became actively involved in various Tzu Chi volunteer programmes. Whenever she is free, be it on a bus or during lunch breaks, she would be buried in her Water Repentance book. Even though she stopped education at Primary 4, it does not prevent her from trying to understand Master Cheng Yen’s elucidation of the Water Repentance text. She has faith that if she studies it hard enough, she will eventually come to comprehend its wisdom.
The volunteer constantly reminds herself of the need to do good, for everything happens for a reason, and good things come to those who are virtuous.
Live rendition of Sutra encourages repentance
“I don’t want to leave,” said 15-year-old Song Jia Yang who just attended her first Tzu Chi Year-End Blessing. Jia Yang and her mother Song Xiao Hui migrated to Singapore from Tianjin, China last year. Towards the end of the heartwarming ceremony, they respectfully receive the red packet that carries Master Cheng Yen’s gratitude and well-wishes.
Venerable Shi Kong Yi from Mani Abode was seen wiping her tears time and again as the footages of Tzu Chi volunteers sending aid and comfort to disaster victims around the world flashed through the screen. Apart from praising Tzu Chi volunteers as ‘living Bodhisattva’, the Venerable also acknowledged our effort in studying and comprehending the Water Repentance teachings before interpreting it through the sign language drama. “This helps the public appreciates and understands the Sutra more easily,” said the Venerable.
Also at the audience seat was hairdresser Lin Chu Xian and her husband. The Tzu Chi donating member offered help in making hair for the volunteers who performed in the sutra adaptation when she learnt of the event. After watching the rendition a few times, Lin came to understand the law of karma and decided to let go of her unhappy past. She does not hold grudges against her husband anymore and gradually changes her attitude towards him.
After ending a difficult marriage, she met and remarried to her current husband who turned out to be a gambler. Lin was asking herself why her life has been so hard. Now through Tzu Chi, she understands that she cannot change others but can only change herself and then influence others.
Lin invited her friends and most importantly her husband who agreed to attend the ceremony. After the ceremony, her husband Peng Zhen Qiang was very touched and vowed, “Doing bad things will bring bad karma. From now on, I want to be good and help others. I want to be a volunteer.”
When the ‘Prayer’ song was sang at the end of the ceremonies, 108 Tzu Chi Commissioners and Tzu Cheng Faith Corp members lit and raised their lamps. Combined with the sea of light in the audience seat, the atmosphere in the theatre was truly serene and solemn.
The events might have ended, but not the Dharma as the ‘Dharma Door for Repentance’ is now open. Master Cheng Yen hopes everyone will continue to sail the Tzu Chi Dharma-Ship, bringing more people on board “to cross the river of afflictions”. Master Cheng Yen also hopes that everyone who starts out as a passenger will eventually progress to be a helmsman, guiding many others onto this Compassionate ship.