Since March 2013, Master Cheng Yen has been earnestly calling on Tzu Chi volunteers to attend her Dharma lecture on the Lotus Sutra at dawn, in order for them to grasp the Dharma and Jing Si Dharma lineage, thereby attaining the innate tranquillity of untainted Buddha nature. However, for volunteers who do not understand Mandarin and Taiwanese Minnan dialect, the language barrier has compounded the challenges they have to face.
With great determination to learn the Dharma, a group of English-speaking volunteers from Tzu Chi KL & Selangor initiated the “Weekend Dharma Session in English”. Now, at 6.30 am on every Saturday, volunteers in charge of the audio and visual systems at the 21 designated centres would prepare the online Dharma session with Tzu Chi Taiwan Headquarters, which begins at 7 am punctually. More than 100 volunteers from Klang Valley, Ipoh, Penang, Johor, East Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Nepal, USA, Australia and Hong Kong will attend the session.
From one to infinite
A key person to this initiative is volunteer Wong Siew Ching, who was certified as a Tzu Chi Commissioner in Taiwan in November 2015. As she is not well-versed in Mandarin, she has made the efforts to take down notes of Master’s Dharma in English. After glancing through her notes, the Master entrusted Joe Huang, a lay cultivator at the Abode, who is well-versed in English, to assist and encourage her in her spiritual pursuit. Their first joyful meeting had quietly led to the affinity of the “Weekend Dharma Session in English”.
Upon her return from Taiwan, Siew Ching learnt from a staff of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor that staff had been using videos from a hard disk containing Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s Teachings on the Lotus Sutra – Chapter 1 Introduction with English subtitles for their weekly Dharma study sessions. Thus, she bought the hard disk and started to invite other volunteers, especially the English-speaking ones, to join her for an English Dharma session at the KL Tzu-Chi Jing Si Hall every Saturday.
In December 2015, the first English Dharma session on the Lotus Sutra was conducted with 16 volunteers in attendance. Siew Ching later invited Joe Huang to share more about the Dharma with the volunteers and to host the Q&A session at the end of the Dharma session via video-conferencing.
On June 11, 2016, the contents of the Dharma study were switched from the Lotus Sutra to the Sutra of Infinite Meanings to align with the book study organized by the community groups. An invitation was also extended to Joe Zhang, another lay cultivator at the Abode, to share about the Dharma with the attendees.
As Joe Huang felt the urge of the volunteers, who had been attending the Dharma session on the Lotus Sutra, to continue listening to the Master’s commentaries on that sutra, he suggested that apart from the Saturday’s session on the Sutra of Infinite Meanings, he would give a weekly recapitulation of the Master’s daily Dharma lectures on Lotus Sutra on every Sunday morning. Thus, on August 14, volunteers gathered at Tzu Chi centres nearest to their neighbourhood to attend the first English Dharma session on a Sunday.
Use modern technology with good faith
Considering the availability of venues on Sunday, and that all episodes of the Sutra of Infinite Meanings videos with English subtitles had been played, it was decided that commencing September 3, the weekly Sunday Dharma session would be rescheduled to Saturday again.
By sending out invitations through WhatsApp (a mobile communication application) and with enthusiastic response from volunteers from various locations, 21 centres (from the initial 4 locations) are now open for the “Weekend Dharma Session in English”.
At Joe Huang’s suggestion, real-time English translation for the Master’s Dharma lectures at dawn has also been provided using Google Docs application on every Friday and Saturday. This is to enable more English-speaking volunteers and public members, who attend the Dharma session via video live cast, to gain a better understanding of the Master’s lectures.
Hence, starting from October 21, volunteers could listen to the Master’s lectures in the Taiwanese Minnan dialect, and also view the real-time English captions appearing at the bottom of the screen for easy reference.
Nurture the spiritual cultivators with mindfulness
During the Dharma sessions in English, Joe Huang and Joe Zhang would present the essence of the Master’s Dharma lectures using Power Point presentation slides. To make the contents more interesting and comprehensible, they would also include pictures, charts and comics to elaborate the Dharma. Such coherent method of explanation allows the attendees to capture the whole picture without getting lost in the minor details. The presenters’ changes in pitch and tone, as well as body movements, always make the attendees immerse in Dharma joy. Examples from daily lives or Tzu Chi events also enable the attendees to better relate the Dharma to their everyday lives.
When leading the Dharma sharing on the chapter, “Expounding the Dharma” in the Sutra of Infinite Meanings, Joe Zhang used the PET* and PET bottle as examples to explain the differences between “nature” and “form” – “‘Nature’ is true nature while ‘form’ is the appearance or use of something. PET bottles are processed into blankets but it is not the true nature of blankets. The raw material of a PET bottle is PET itself, which is mixed with other materials to create the ‘form’ of a PET bottle. It could also appear in other ‘forms’, such as, blankets, clothes, hats and so on.” Using this metaphor, Joe Zhang encouraged the attendees to be like the recycled PET bottles, which become something useful after going through the refining process.
Apart from sharing the Dharma, Dharma Masters from the Abode, Joe Huang and Joe Zhang would also clear the attendees’ doubts or confusions during the Q&A session. To a volunteer’s question: “The Lotus Sutra cited that everyone has innate Buddha nature. How do we know if we have attained it?” Joe Huang replied, “When I was young, I asked my mum how it feels like to be pregnant, and she answered, one will know naturally when one is pregnant one day. Similarly, when you have attained that level, you will know it naturally.”
While everyone nodded in agreement, Joe Huang continued, “Please let us know when you have attained that level.” Everyone present burst out laughing upon hearing this. The simple and easy-to-understand analogy, coupled with spontaneous and humorous response, does not only show the mindfulness of the team, but also help the attendees to understand the Dharma better.
Experience a broader life path
“Being an illiterate to Chinese language, Minnan dialect and the Dharma, there were a few times that I was on the verge of giving up,” said English-speaking volunteer Effie Kok, who has been attending the Master’s Dharma lecture at dawn daily since November 2015. Then in December 2015, she started attending the weekly English Dharma session at the invitation of a Tzu Chi staff. However, there was no improvement in her understanding of the Master discourse even after a few months.
When asked what motivated her to be persistent until today, she said, “Once, Master mentioned that if one quits half way, the path will become even more challenging. I wondered why the Master said that and which path was she referring to.”
Hence, Effie did an experiment. After attending the Master’s Dharma lecture one day, she walked alone from the back lane of the Jing Si Hall towards the busy road with vehicles passing by. The sky was still dark and whilst walking, she was worried of being robbed. For a few times, the oncoming cars stopped her from moving, and she kept turning her head, wondered whether to continue her journey. She said, “Going forward was difficult but I felt sorry to have to turn back, so why not just continue moving forward?”
Without setting her destination, Effie walked for a kilometre and reached a Catholic church at a junction. At that instant, she experienced a heartfelt joy from within. Indeed, the sutras points out a path for us, and we need to walk that path. A self-exploration experiment led Effie to the Master’s wisdom from the bottom of her heart, and further motivated her to overcome mental hindrance due to the language barrier and to be persistent in attending the Master’s Dharma lecture daily. Now, with the “Weekend Dharma Session in English”, she has learnt more about the Dharma, and will practise humility, eradicate her unwholesome habitual tendencies and uphold vegetarianism to safeguard the Earth.
Essence of sutra enhance wisdom
Volunteer Wong Yoke Mei, who is not good at learning the sutra in English, used to hold the opinion that it was very convenient for her to watch the replay of the Master’s Dharma lectures through the Wisdom at Dawn aired on Da Ai TV, as she could watch it online anytime she wishes.
It was only in February 2016, one Saturday after the Master’s Dharma lecture, that a volunteer invited her to stay for the Dharma session in English. Not many volunteers were present then, however, she could feel Joe Huang’s effort in preparing the recapitulation of the Master’s Dharma lectures, compiling the essence and summarizing them into a one-hour presentation delivered using simple language and explanations closely related to life. Watching Joe Huang explaining earnestly while the attendees, who did not understand Chinese language, listened attentively, posted questions, took notes and quenched their thirst for the Dharma, had moved her deeply.
As part of volunteer training requirements, Yoke Mei was required to read some selected books. She claimed that due to her low capability, she would forget the contents she had read totally after putting down the book; and when she read the book the next time, she had to start from the first page again. At such reading rate, it was impossible for her to comprehend one book in a year, let alone the many books in the reading list. Filled with anxiety, she found it even harder to absorb what she had read.
So, at an English Dharma session, she tremblingly asked Joe Huang how she should read and comprehend the sutra commentary books. Joe Huang replied, “Don’t read sutra commentary books for the sake of fulfilling requirements for volunteer training. The purpose of reading these books is to be closer to the Buddha’s heart.”
It was also because of Joe Huang’s explanation of the sutras using visual aid that she finally understood the meaning of the verses, “With minds tranquil and clear, vows as vast as the universe, Bodhisattvas remain unwavering for countless kalpas”, which she always sang during the volunteer training session, but was unable to grasp the meaning.
Eliminate ignorance with the Dharma
Volunteer Siew Yuen Lan has attended the Master’s Dharma lectures at dawn for quite some time. Through the Master’s teaching, she is clear that one could bring nothing but the karma one has created when one leaves the world at the end of one’s life journey.
Yuen Lan revealed that she used to be bad-tempered and a perfectionist. She would get angry at those who did not perform to her expectation, and would not accept suggestions from others. She deemed that as her innate character and thought that change was not possible. But now, she has learnt that one should let go of one’s ego, be accommodating and harmonious when dealing with others.
Her transformation has brought her children, who used to be scared of her, closer to her. She made it her homework to attend the Master’s Dharma lecture daily. She described that just like a mirror that needed to be wiped clean daily to give a clear reflection, attending the Master’s Dharma lectures daily cleanses the layers of dust within our hearts, thereby enabling us to eliminate our ignorance, free our worries and grow our wisdom.
Yuen Lan’s English-speaking husband, Ong Boon Hock, realized his inadequacy in Buddhist knowledge. He hopes to improve his understanding through the Dharma session in English, so as to grow his wisdom. Through the Dharma sessions, he learnt that one must uphold right thought and right mindfulness because one’s mind would influence one’s speech, behaviour and action. When an ill thought arises, ill conduct would follow suit.
This group of determined volunteers with sincere and pure faith have broken through the language barrier and made good use of modern technology to transmit the Dharma across distance, hence enabling a solemn Dharma sharing session. The “Weekend Dharma Session in English”, which started with 16 volunteers, has now attracted participation from over a hundred attendees from seven countries, including Malaysia. It is hoped that more will participate in the Dharma session to cleanse tainted minds with the Dharma, evoke good faith and work together to create a pure land on Earth.
*PET is the abbreviation of a synthetic resin named “polyethylene terephthalate”.
Every Saturday, lay cultivators at the Abode would share in English the Buddha’s teachings expounded by Master Cheng Yen, and volunteers would listen attentively and jot down notes. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin]
Volunteer Wong Siew Ching is in charge of the audio and visual system for the “Weekend Dharma Session in English”. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin]
Joe Huang and Joe Zhang summarized the Joe Huang and Joe Zhang summarized the contents of Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma lectures over the past one week and presented them in English using Power Point presentation slides. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin]
Despite the introduction of the Dharma session in English, volunteer Effie Kok (right) has persisted in attending the Master’s Dharma lectures in Taiwanese dialect daily. After learning the Dharma, she began to humble and improve herself, and uphold vegetarianism to safeguard the Earth. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin
Volunteer Wong Yoke Mei (left) understood from Joe Huang that the purpose of studying the sutras is to bring one closer to the Buddha’s heart. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin]
Through the Dharma session, volunteer Siew Yuen Lan (centre) realized that one could bring nothing but the karma one has created when one leaves the world; and her husband, Ong Boon Hock (right), learnt that one must practise right thought to prevent one from doing unwholesome deeds. [Photograph by Low Mai Yin]