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Prepare for the Worst

March 1st, 2015

There are two famous Chinese sayings, “Nothing is so certain as the unexpected”, and “Be the first to worry and the last to enjoy”. Indeed this should be our philosophy of life that governs our behaviour, the latter then governs our action, which governs our destiny. By reflecting on this sense of urgency, Buddhists train their minds to see the impermanent nature of all experienced phenomena.

Master always says that disasters are wake-up calls for everyone, to alert us of the reality of impermanence. However, this is not intended to make us live in fear or pessimism, but rather to remind us to understand the law of impermanence and prepare the mind for it. If we contemplate in this way, wisdom will arise and one would be able to practise it rightly in life. With a well-prepared mind, one is able to cope with ease, or be at ease in various situations in life, or in the face of impermanence.

At the end December 2014, Malaysia suffered the worst floods in decades, especially in the states of Kelantan and Pahang. The incessant heavy rains had caused mudslides, and the fast-rising water had flooded houses and farmlands, displacing close to 80,000 families.

Tzu Chi Penang and KL & Selangor immediately established a command centre and mobilized volunteers from various locations to assess the disaster areas, conduct aid distributions and provide relief cash. Under Master Cheng Yen’s instruction, a cash-for-work programme was launched after the water subsided. Within two weeks, a turnout of 10,000 participants had registered for it.

Although there were mountains of reeking debris everywhere after the disaster, the timely initiative started by Tzu Chi took effect, just like what was carried out in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Neighbourhood was cleaned up, homes were restored and local economy revived. This is utilizing both compassion and wisdom interactively to apply to the situation accordingly.

When giving talks around Malaysia in the past, I used to mention that Malaysia is a land of abundance and free from natural disasters. Even though there might be floods during the Northeast monsoon season, there were no major catastrophes.

However, the Buddha preached some 2,500 years ago that the three great calamities (fire, flood and wind) and the three minor calamities (wars, famines and pandemics) would be common in the current declining period of the Buddhadharma. It does not mean that disasters, which did not happen in the past, will not happen now; and that disasters, which are not happening now, will not happen in the future.

Unexpected major disasters had occurred at an alarming frequency from the Taiwan September 21 Earthquake to South Asia Tsunami, Japan March 11 Earthquake, Haiti Earthquake and Philippines Typhoon Haiyan, plus the recent MAS missing plane and plane crash, AirAsia’s flight tragedy, plane crash in Penghu and deadly gas pipeline explosions in Kaohsiung. Hence, the Master preached that we do not have control over our circumstances; as such, we must cherish our nature and always be vigilant and reverent.

With Mother Nature out of balance, we really need to think more deeply about the impact of our actions on Earth. If we keep exploiting nature and polluting our environment, there may be more large-scale man-made calamities. Only when people’s minds are purified can society be at peace and nature’s elements be in harmony.

 

During this worst flood in Malaysian history, I went to the affected areas under Master Cheng Yen’s instruction to assist and learn. It was a shocking scene, just like what I saw at Tacloban City in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. But then, I had come across the most beautiful smiles in the world from the disaster victims.

These people have been living in poverty and backwardness since young and have accepted their living conditions with resignation and even optimism, very similar to the victims suffering from long-term severe famine I met during the disaster survey and aid distribution in North Korea. Despite growing up poor, they never felt poor as they do not compare with others and bicker over triviality.

This tells us that the path to happiness starts from being disciplined, diligent, frugal and resilient. We need to develop the comforts of the mind not the comforts of the body. By developing seclusion from material and physical possessions, we get happiness and freedom of the mind.

 

Whether our problems could be solved or our karmic obstacles be eradicated, our “ability” and “merits” are sometimes irrelevant but depends on the effect of past karma. Two persons doing the same thing may not necessarily lead to the same results.

The Buddha once drew an analogy between the karmic effect and salt water. If a man was to drop a salt crystal into a cup of water, the water would surely be salty and unfit for drinking, because there is only a small amount of water in the cup. But, if the man was to drop a salt crystal into the Ganges River, the water would obviously not be salty and unfit for drinking, because there is a great mass of water in the Ganges River.

Likewise, the fruits of karma can be minimized through the right development of the mind. A developed mind is like the Ganges River, and an unskilful action, like a salt crystal in the river, will only produce a fruit which will be insignificant, and vice versa.

Therefore, we must always prepare for the worst by performing wholesome deeds to calm and purify our minds that has the effect of acting as a buffer to our unwholesome deeds. If we do many meritorious and virtuous deeds, we will be a person laden with blessings. No matter what trouble comes up, it will inconceivably turn out smoothly.

From the perspective of a country, a corporation or a proprietorship, a sense of crisis is essential. Always be on guard as if walking along a cliff or over thin ice. The sense of crisis will propel one to maintain a competitive edge to meet any challenges.

To quote Mencius: “A nation is likely to perish if there were no officials willing to voice criticisms inside the country, and there were no foreign threats or calamities outside.” This is akin to a country that lacks a sense of crisis. We can conclude that one thrives and survives under suffering and hardships, and withers if left overly-protected and contented with current situation.

In life, we must make the best preparation and be ready for the worst. In other words, be the first to worry and the last to enjoy. Then, we will be unsurprised by anything in between. Our world is characterized by impermanence because everything that exists depends on necessary conditions. Knowing that all conditioned phenomena that arise will cease helps prepare the mind for it.

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