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Readying the Dharma Ship

The Singapore Indoor Stadium can seat 8,000 people and is Singapore’s largest performance venue. Over the last two years, as the Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) embarked on public presentations of segments of the “Dharma as Water” stage adaptation (a.k.a. sutra adaptation of the Water Repentance Text), they had to overcome multiple challenges such as securing an appropriate venue, gathering and training the teams of participants and recruiting members of the public to participate in the Dharma assembly.

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Liao Jia Wen (first from left) and Lin-Xu Yun Yu (second from left), part of the four Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan who came down to assist in the promotional efforts for the stage adaptation, could deeply feel the sincerity of the Singapore volunteers after watching the full-dress rehearsal.  (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

Like a pure drop of Dharma water rippling outwards, the seed of goodness that originated in Taiwan has not left the Lion City untouched.  

Preparations for the “Dharma as Water” stage adaptation began in May 2011, and the Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) organized study sessions in the communities, inviting members of the public to attend. Before the public presentation of the stage adaptation, participants were urged to observe a vegetarian fast, so that they can enter the Dharma with purified hearts and minds. Every month, the nine volunteer clusters would organize more than ten study sessions across the islands to encourage members of the public to attend the classes held in their own communities.

Yet, securing a venue that was big enough to accommodate all the attendees in multiracial Singapore, where religious topics could be a potentially sensitive issue, was the biggest challenge faced by volunteers.

The Problem of Location

The North Zone volunteers were in need of a place to hold the study sessions, and along the way, had experienced many hiccups. Sometimes, even if rental had to be paid for the use of the venue, they would be “invited” to leave by the security. “It all depends on good affinity. At that point, Sister Sang Mei Hua suggested that everyone move to a recently vacated unit that she had in the vicinity,” said Luo Shu Fen, a North Zone leader.  Everyone then made their way in an orderly fashion to the unit which had just had its electricity and water supply connected that morning. The study session then continued with everyone seated on the floor. When it ended, everyone made their way out quietly in batches in order to avoid creating any problems.

After having to “drift about” in this manner for one to two months, volunteers were subjected to the arrangement of having the study sessions conducted at the homes of volunteers in turn. Though the space afforded by this arrangement was small and cramped, it never lacked for warmth. In the later half of the study sessions, volunteers had to practice their sign language and thus required a larger space. A volunteer whose house was in the same block of flats offered the use of his unit and participants were able to split themselves between the two locations for practice. They would later come together after their individual practice and share what they had learnt with the others. Though it was inconvenient to run between two locations, no one complained and volunteers experienced the bonds between them grow stronger. Going through the process together made them cherish the opportunity to attend the study sessions even more.

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Since February 2012, the North Zone “Dharma as Water” study sessions started adopting a community-based format; however, it was a challenge to find a venue that could accommodate many participants. (Photo by Lai Tong Heng)

Making Do - From Park to Factory

From June 2013, as volunteers from all across the island commenced sign language practice with zealousness, spacious practice grounds became a must. As the Jing Si Hall could not accommodate the hundreds of volunteers, volunteers borrowed the premises of the beneficiary schools of the Tzu Chi “Seeds of Hope Financial Assistance Programme.” Thus, school halls, basketball courts, parks, and the grounds of other nongovernmental organisations, including even the steps of a HDB block, became the practice grounds of the volunteers.

Volunteer Yan Wen Yun says, “They (the nongovernmental institutions that Tzu Chi makes regular care visits to) appreciate our monthly care visits and were willing lend us their premises. Initially we wanted to pay for the use of it but they declined and offered it to us for free.”

Businessman Shen Sen Ping also offered the use of an open-air terrace at his factory for the volunteers’ practice sessions. Volunteer Liao Wei Jun shares that when they were practicing the segment “Overture to Dharma as Water - Perfect and Radiant Buddha Nature,” the open environment was perfect for enabling everyone to experience how dharma-nature pervades the entire universe.

Businessman Shen Xi Zhou on the other hand, allowed a makeshift stage, complete with steps, to be set up at his factory grounds. Tzu Ching and stage adaptation participant Lan An Ni attests that with every step she took on the makeshift stage, she felt her confidence grow as she had a better feel of the actual stage conditions. 

Attracting Volunteers With Love

From the 2011 Year-End Blessing Ceremony, up to the 2012 ceremony, the number of participants presenting segments from the stage adaptation had increased from 143 to 784. Tzu Chi volunteers who were businessmen had invited their staff to take part in the 2013 stage adaptation, while volunteers earnestly invited friends, relatives, other Buddhist organizations and even friends from their community morning exercise groups to participate. In the flurry of calls that ensued, not only were new volunteers recruited, even volunteers who were active in the early days were also attracted back into the Tzu Chi fold by the outpouring of love to make up the 1008 participants needed.

In 2012, Zhang Yu Nian, a volunteer in the early days of Tzu Chi received a call from a volunteer that she had never met. The volunteer had obtained her contact from an old list. Zhang attended the study sessions out of curiosity, and found that she had benefitted immensely from the teachings. Since then, she has become actively engaged in Tzu Chi, even taking on the role as a teacher-facilitator.

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A volunteer from Tzu Chi’s early days in Singapore, Zhang Yu Nian, was invited via a telephone invitation to attend the study session from a volunteer whom she had never met before. (Photo by Kwek Jing Yi)

No Obstacles With Strong Aspirations

On 13 December 2013, 1008 sign language participants gathered at the Singapore Indoor Stadium for a full dress rehearsal.  It was a first for the stadium’s management, as there would be more than a thousand participants on stage, whereas there usually would only be a maximum of a hundred or so participants for other performances.

Chen Wei Ting, coordinator in charge of the event, marvelled at how orderly the Tzu Chi stage adaptation participants were, even though there were a thousand of them present that day. She was also surprised at the care shown by volunteers, who had placed about ten pairs of slippers outside the toilets for the convenience of the participants.

As everyone gazed at the stage shaped like Mt. Sumeru (which represents our karmic obstacles in Buddhism), they were also figuratively surmounting their inner “Mt. Sumerus.

Li Chun Yu, who had recently recovered from nasopharyngeal cancer, had to carry a small bottle of water with her to moisten her throat as she was suffering from the side effects of being unable to produce saliva.  Zhou Chun Hua suffers from a hearing impairment, but still manages to take on the role of a sign language facilitator. After accumulating a sum of money from saving on her consumption, she also managed to pay for a hearing aid which cost $3,800. 

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Cancer-survivor Li Chun Yu, who is still suffering from the after-effects of not being able to produce saliva, brings a small bottle along with her wherever she goes so that she can moisten her mouth and throat. (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

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Sign language teacher-facilitator and hearing impaired volunteer Zhou Chun Hua saved on 20% of her consumption to afford her hearing aid. (Photo by  Lee Kwong Seng)

Many of the participants also had to overcome a language barrier in order to stand on stage. Not having had the benefit of a Chinese education, they had spared no efforts in memorizing the Chinese pronunciation with the aid of hanyu pinyin.

As it was the first time that the participants were standing atop “Mt Sumeru,” everyone was a little nervous. Chief Director and Choreographer of the “Dharma as Water” stage adaptation, Sister Ci Yue, told them: “As we steer the Dharma ship,  everyone must look in the same direction and towards the same point, only then can we portray the feel of having a united Dharma ship.” Sister Ci Yue generously gave out pointers for improvement and reminded everyone to wear a smile, so that the audience would be willing to come on board.

Volunteer Chen Wen Zong expressed how much he benefitted from her pointers. He realized how important it was for a Tzu Chi volunteer to have a smile at all times, as this would evoke good feelings in others and they would be more receptive to the idea of becoming a part of Tzu Chi.

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Here, Sister Ci Yue is shown offering generous tips and advice to the stage adaptation participants. (Photo by Tan Cheng Hwa)

SG20131213 GNB CQH 023Singapore artiste, Nick Shen, shaved his head and undertook a vegetarian fast so that he could present the role of Dharma Master Wu Da with a purified mind and body. (Photo by Tan Cheng Hwa)

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The full-dress rehearsal on 13 December 2013 was also a media reception event; in addition, it was open to members of the public who had to show their tickets to enter. (Photo by Lai Tong Heng)

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