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Wednesday, 28 September 2016 00:00

Three Tzu Chi’s Journals Marked Three Rounds of Challenges

Written by  Tan Kim Hion, KL & Selangor / Translated by Chew Chiau Ping

Lee Kim Tong and Chow Yet Lan were exchanging notes in training class. After getting the third journal this year, the couple has finally overcome all obstacles propelled by a strong determination. [Photograph by Chan Tuck Meng]

There is an old saying that “men seldom live to 70”, but for volunteer Lee Kim Tong, his new chapter in life begins at 80. In October 2016, he returned to Tzu Chi’s spiritual home in Hualien to be certified as a Tzu Cheng Faith Corp by Master Cheng Yen. That ceremony marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment, as he can no longer muddle along through life.

It was a rainy September this year. As sunny skies gave way to heavy downpour, 81-year-old Lee Kim Tong opened the window and a cool breeze of air swept through the house. Seeing the plants outside thriving luxuriantly in the rain, he felt as if the rain had purified his mind as well, just like the Dharma water.

Back in the living room, three Tzu Chi’s journals (note 1) were visible on table. However, he no longer sees them as an immense challenge. “These three journals marked three rounds of challenges. Finally, I’ve overcome all obstacles. My wife, second daughter and I will be receiving certifications (note 2) from Master this year!” said Kim Tong with joy to the visiting volunteer.

Despite the sound of rain, he began retracing the journey of his life in a sonorous voice.

Two crazy fools

If our destiny is predetermined in the previous life, then Kim Tong would attribute his misfortune to not accumulating enough merits before. Born in 1935 to an impoverished family, his birth parents had no choice but to give him away through a middleman. The one-week-old Kim Tong was adopted by a man who was a Chinese opera performer.

Although his foster parents loved him dearly, that blissful moment only lasted briefly when his father passed away six years later. Then three years later, the demise of his mother dealt another hard blow to him. Homeless and miserable, Kim Tong returned to his birth parents with the help of the same middleman.

Besides studying, he worked many odd jobs along with his father, from rubber-tapping, to pig and fish farming. When his father saw no future in rubber-tapping, he convinced the 12-year-old Kim Tong to train as a car mechanic. Life was not a bed of roses for him.

At the age of 23, he started a family, and was blessed with four children. To make a living for his family, he ventured into auto repair business. When their business suffered due to low demand, the couple jumped at every opportunity to make a living, from welding, motorcycle repair, tiling, factory jobs to selling fruits and juices. His wife even worked as a part-time housekeeper for extra income.

As their children grew up, Kim Tong let his auto repair business to start a logistic company offering truck services. With more time to spare, he picked up casual fishing, hoping to train his patience while staying healthy.

Kim Tong recalled, “My wife and I were very much into fishing. Our initial spot was ponds nearby. But as our appetite grew, we started fishing in jungle rivers, and eventually in the open sea. It had become our weekend activity, leaving on Saturday morning and returning on Sunday night.”

He even bought a 4 by 12 feet wooden boat for his fishing trips. Every weekend, he would strap the boat to his car and pack food for the trip. They would spend a night on the boat, and continue fishing the next morning. Sometimes they were so absorbed in fishing that they forgot to eat.

Although friends called them “crazy fools”, the couple was enjoying every bit of it. They even fished outside Selangor waters, sometimes going as far as Johor for prawns. With limited pollution back then, they always returned with a huge catch of fish. Those catch would end up on their dining table, or be given away to friends and neighbours.

“Back then, we didn’t relate our hobby to killing, as we fished with the intention to relax our mind. Looking back at what we did, we could not repent enough for those lives that slipped through our fingers,” Chow Yet Lan, the wife, said regretfully.

Yet Lan recollected their ignorance with a strong sense of guilt. Luckily, the wake-up call finally came 20 years later. One day, Kim Tong tagged along his friends who were visiting a fortune teller. Before they left, he suddenly turned to Kim Tong and said, “Sir, I can sense much negative forces in you. Be careful!”

Those words immediately sent a chill down his spine. Frantically, he tried to recall any harm or crime he committed unknowingly. Then it became clear, at once, that fishing might be the reason. Since then, the couple had given up fishing for good.

Took a different path in life

To fill the void, Kim Tong started going on nature trips in his four-wheel drive. As all their children had grown up, and auto repair business was taken over by their youngest son, Lee Kok Keong, the couple began living a leisurely life. With much time to spare, they enjoyed going on nature trips, be it camping in the jungle, or hiking in the morning. Soon, another ten years had rolled by.

Their chapter with Tzu Chi began when Kok Keong started volunteering after enrolling his child in Parent-child Bonding Class. By 2007, he brought his parents along to partake in recycling activities. As the couple set foot in the recycling centre, their lives were about to take a different path.

Those trips to recycling centre, free clinics, home visits and various organizations had unveiled the harsh realities of life. One aid-recipient case was particularly moving. The family of nine lived in abject poverty with the mother as sole breadwinner, while the alcoholic father had neglected his paternal duties. Despite all that, the children were courteous and hard-working. That family left an indelible imprint in Kim Tong, as he was once in that very position. Kim Tong then vowed to reach out to more needy families.

Slowly, their leisure activities were replaced by volunteering work in Tzu Chi. Both Kim Tong and Yet Lan were familiar figures in various Tzu Chi activities, from recycling, home visits, study groups, to community gathering.

In 2009, the onslaught of Typhoon Morakot disaster in Taiwan saw Kim Tong on the street to solicit for donations. As it was his first public donation drive, Kim Tong could not help but bury his face behind his donation box. Sensing his uneasiness, one volunteer reminded him that they were helping and saving people, therefore, there was nothing to be shy about! From then onwards, Kim Tong had participated in similar donation drives for Japan earthquake and Philippine Typhoon Haiyan, where he humbly approached the public members with donation box in hand.

A memorable incident happened in 2010 when he returned to Taiwan for Tzu Chi’s training programme for overseas volunteers. When group leader nominated him to share his thoughts in front of Master, Kim Tong rejected the invitation. With little education himself, he felt the task was beyond his ability.

But when the group leader encouraged him to “tell what he did, and do what he says”, he bravely took to the stage to share his stories, which was even aired on Da Ai TV. With much positive response from other volunteers, Kim Tong felt elated. But when he realized many people had witnessed his sharing, he vowed to keep up with Tzu Chi’s footstep more diligently, as there was no turning back.

From then on, Kim Tong and Yet Lan vowed to walk the Tzu Chi path with resolute steps.

Sickness a reminder of old age

As time and tide wait for no man, old age slowly crept upon him. In recent years, he began experiencing numbness, spasm and pain in both legs. He was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and was prescribed painkillers to relieve the symptoms. However, a full recovery was deemed impossible.

Sensing his declining years, Kim Tong wanted to undertake Tzu Chi’s traineeship and certification, as his son, Kok Keong, and wife had done. Seventy-eight-year-old Yet Lan hesitated when he told her about it. Kim Tong then explained, “With our age, we might regret later if we don’t do it now. Let’s go back to see Master, as time waits for no one.”

By 2014, Kim Tong received his Tzu Chi journal and began learning it diligently. Homework was least of his worries, as he was more concerned with the ten precepts of Tzu Chi, especially the first one – abstain from killing. For a food lover like Kim Tong, it was no easy mission. At one wedding dinner, when he accidently took some meat dishes, he felt he had deceived the Master and decided to postpone his plan for certification.

The following year, he received another journal. This time around, Kim Tong was more conscious with the food he consumed. He managed to stay away from meat when dining outside until one occasion on the eve of Chinese New Year. At his friend’s place, the family kept persuading him to feast on the food even though they knew about his dietary restriction. Overwhelmed by their enthusiasm, he gave in once again, so was his plan for certification.

After getting the third journal this year, he repeated his plea to friends and relatives as it was his third attempt. Armed with determination this year, he managed to steer clear of meat dish.

With the first precept checked, there were greater challenges ahead. One night, a sudden onset of pain in his legs kept him awake. With Yet Lan’s help, he felt slightly better after using hot water and medicinal ointment. The following morning, a doctor prescribed him some painkillers to relieve the symptom. As it was Tzu Chi’s monthly Recycling Day that day, Kim Tong had to endure the pain while driving the recyclables that were loaded the night before to the recycling centre.

After unloading the items, volunteers persuaded him to stay for Father’s Day celebration. Kim Tong stayed for the cake and photos, unaware he was wearing shorts that day. Later, a volunteer pointed out his mistake, for it was important to dress accordingly while carrying out Tzu Chi’s duties. He felt wronged at first, but then realized that they did it out of concern for him. To prove his innocence, Kim Tong even went back to the doctor for a medical certificate, which he showed to the volunteers.

Kim Tong’s reaction put a smile on everyone’s face, for he had humbly accepted others’ opinion. To him, one’s temperament was the hardest to control. Kim Tong was used to talking loudly, while his wife liked to nag him. Therefore, sometimes their disagreement would descend into argument.

Through Tzu Chi’s training programme and sutra studies, the Dharma teachings had instilled tranquillity in Kim Tong. He learnt to be mindful of his conduct, although occasionally his old habit would still get the better of him.

One day, he learnt from his friend that a poster of him was displayed along the Dharma ramp in KL Tzu-Chi Jing Si Hall. When he went over to find out for himself, it was a photo taken by his son, Kok Keong, when he was pushing a trolley loaded with recyclables.

He was delighted to see his poster paraded in Jing Si Hall, yet nervous to be under the watchful eye of others. He told Yet Lan, “My dear wife, we should be mindful of our actions from now onwards. No more talking loudly or bickering in the market.”

Before becoming volunteers, they had no qualms about doing that. Now that they are part of Tzu Chi’s family, they had to learn to be more gentle, understanding, forgiving, content, and grateful. For them, to speak softly was their priority.

To help those in need is one’s greatest blessing

Despite all those challenges, Kim Tong never thought of giving up. He said, “If we do not transform ourselves in this life, when are we going to do it?” For him, the ability to help the needy in his 80s was his greatest blessing.

He still had fond memory of a relief operation for Pahang flood victims in 2015. One Malay villager from Kuala Krau was extremely grateful to receive help from a Buddhist organization. As he greeted Kim Tong, he was stunned by Kim Tong’s seniority.

When he pulled out his identity card to prove his age, that villager was completely dumbfounded. He said, “I can’t thank you enough, for helping us despite your age.” As they were getting ready to leave, he even came out to send them off.

Kim Tong was grinning from ear to ear as he recalled that incident. Master has established Tzu Chi as a platform for every individual to give selflessly. It is indeed a blessing to be part of this family. Therefore, he was even more determined to be certified by the Master.

That certification signified a pact between him and the Master, as well as, a pledge to follow the Master’s footstep on the Bodhisattva Path for many life times.

As Kim Tong recalled his journey thus far with much enthusiasm, Yet Lan did not share similar sentiments. Although she was looking forward to be commissioned by the Master, she felt that with her limited ability, she might not be able to assume more responsibilities.

An avid recycling volunteer herself, Yet Lan was willing to help out in the kitchen as well. After Kok Keong and his family became vegetarians, she has become quite good at vegetarian dishes. Therefore, she would like to do her part for Planet Earth, by promoting vegetarianism to greater audiences.

To have a life partner is hard to come by, and what’s more to share the same passion in life. This was indeed the most joyous and ceremonious moment for Kim Tong and Yet Lan, as they embarked on the Bodhisattva Path together.

Note 1:    Tzu Chi’s journal is meant for individuals undergoing volunteers’ training to record and reflect on oneself. It includes ten precepts of Tzu Chi, ways to greet and prostrate, and Master’s aspiration for Tzu Chi Commissioners. Individuals will record their thoughts and progress in the journal.

Note 2:    Certification is part of Tzu Chi’s volunteer system to instil a spirit of selfless giving in volunteers as they serve society. It also signifies commitment and duty one has to uphold. The three-step programme (apprenticeship, training and certification) was introduced in 1995, and has continued to evolve overtime. The aim is to cultivate volunteering spirit in Tzu Chi Commissioners, as well as, the ability to adapt to changing times. With that, they would be able to help more individuals in need.


In their younger days, the couple was called “two crazy fools” for their passion in fishing. [Photograph provided by Lee Kim Tong]   Lee Kok Keong and his wife (3rd and 2nd left) started volunteering in Tzu Chi after enrolling their child in Parent-child Bonding Class. Soon after, they introduced Tzu Chi to their parents. This family photo was taken at the 2012 Buddha Bathing Ceremony. [Photograph by Sam Pin Fook]

In their younger days, the couple was called “two crazy fools” for their passion in fishing. [Photograph provided by Lee Kim Tong]
Lee Kok Keong and his wife (3rd and 2nd left) started volunteering in Tzu Chi after enrolling their child in Parent-child Bonding Class. Soon after, they introduced Tzu Chi to their parents. This family photo was taken at the 2012 Buddha Bathing Ceremony. [Photograph by Sam Pin Fook]
After setting set foot in the recycling centre, the couple has since embarked on a new chapter in life, and become more involved with Tzu Chi’s activities. [Photograph by Lee Kok Keong]   The onset of the great flood devastating East Coast in 2014 sent Lee Kim Tong (left) and other volunteers to deliver love and care to the flood victims. [Photograph provided by Lee Kim Tong]

After setting set foot in the recycling centre, the couple has since embarked on a new chapter in life, and become more involved with Tzu Chi’s activities. [Photograph by Lee Kok Keong]
The onset of the great flood devastating East Coast in 2014 sent Lee Kim Tong (left) and other volunteers to deliver love and care to the flood victims. [Photograph provided by Lee Kim Tong]