Learning to Listen (Bonus Video Inside)

Sometimes what people need from us is a listening ear.

I know how that feels like, to really just need to share something with someone.  Ok, I felt that way like maybe twice in my whole life, but I digress.

A long long time ago, I read this interesting book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” and chuckled over the insightful note that men tend to be fixers while women tend to be listeners.  Almost any time women share with men the challenges or difficulties they are facing, men will put on their “Mr-Fix-It” hat and start offering solutions.  Meanwhile women feel a disconnect, that they are not being heard.  After awhile, the man tend to stop offering solutions, or in some cases just zone out.  Then women would feel even more strongly that the man in their life is not listening to them!

It does not really matter whether the solution is valid or not, ‘cos sometimes people, not just women, just want someone to talk to or be heard, to feel like they are not alone facing their problem.  Sometimes all we really need is that emotional or morale support really.

Those of us with a “Mr-Fix-It” hat glued to our hat, can learn to go easy with our hammer as well. Not all conversations are about a nail that needs hammering or a hole to be plugged.  If we really want to help with solutions, it is vital to first listen as well, otherwise we might be bringing a plumber’s wrench to fix an electrical wiring fault, or as some would say, to bring a sword to a gun-fight.

I share this not because I’m faultless, but because occasionally, I would do that as well.  Recently, a friend shared with me her experiences in active listening training on how various factors like postures, body language, eye-contact, affirmation can promote listening.

A key point was on listening without thinking.  Most people are lost in their thoughts without listening completely to what the other person has to say.  We are busy formulating our reply or answers and are just waiting for a chance to have our say.

Her sharing struck a few cords in me.  Besides the book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” I mentioned above, it also reminded me of the counselling training I had back during university days by Shan You Counselling Centre, the training in consulting earlier on, and how that’s exactly what I saw in people whom I was having counselling or discussions with.

Many people were indeed drifting away mid-sentence, either thinking about other matters or waiting for a chance to reply … or give advices!

So I was somewhat surprised when my friend told me that me jotting notes while counselling meant that I was not 100% listening.  It got me thinking whether I am a good listener.  Perhaps I’ve gotten jaded over the years and assumed that I know all the intricacies of people’s mind and the problems they face and so I stopped listening so much.  Or maybe I’ve become complacent and thought that I can listen and write without colouring my hearing?  While I like to think that I do listen, as with most things, it is probably a shade of gray and I’m probably somewhere in between.

It is a good reminder to listen, to listen attentively with our heart.

Perhaps the next time you drop by and talk to me, you will see my pen resting idly on the writing pad or book, while I listen to what you have to say.  And if you ask me any questions or need me to suggest a solution, then will I start writing, drawing, sketching and illustrating my point.

Be like Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa 觀世音菩薩, listening attentively to the cries of sentient beings in the world, ready to care, comfort and love all.

Happy Vesak Day!

Bonus Item

A very revealing video on how active listening is most important! :p

It’s Not About the Nail from Jason Headley on Vimeo.

Of Buddhas and Arahants

Someone asked a question in facebook

Can someone enlighten me? Arhat in Theravada achieved almost to Buddhahood while in Mahayana they still need to take the route of the Boddhisatva to attain Buddhahood. Does attaining arhat in Mahayana be able for the arhat to have the option of not taking rebirth or reincarnation.

My reply below (corrected for grammar)

Buddhas and Arahants realises the same Truth and attains the same Nibbana, but they differ in terms of their ability.

Consider a swimmer and a swimming coach. Both a swimmer and a swimming coach can swim, but a coach also has the ability to teach others how to swim.

However, knowing that a person is a swimmer speaks nothing about his intention or ability to teach others to swim. A swimmer might well be a swimming coach as well!

An arahant is no longer subject to the cycle of birth and deaths driven by greed, hatred and delusion. This is true regardless of the “yana” or tradition.

Should a person such as an arahant be moved by compassion to guide and teach others, then such an arahant may take on whatever forms needed to teach. On the surface, it may appear like the arahant has taken rebirth like everyone else, but it differs in that, such reappearance is not driven by defilements but motivated by compassion!

Consider a prison with inmates. They are not there by choice, although in a way, they are there due to choices they have made. Then there are those who go to do prison counseling. They are there by choice and not through their misdeeds; they are there out of compassion to help counsel the inmates.

The inmates cannot choose when to leave while the counselors are free to move around the blocks and when their sessions are over, they leave the prison until there is opportunity to counsel again.

Samsara is like the prison, unenlightened ones the inmates, arahants are those who are free of the prison. Like the counselors, there are arahants who voluntarily go back to the prison to provide counsel.

In the Mahayana tradition, we honour these Arahants as Bodhisattvas (Awaken / Enlighten Sentient beings) for they themselves having awakened 覺(自)有情, are taking that step to 覺(他)有情 awaken others by teaching the Dhamma!

Truly, they 自利利他 are of welfare and benefit to themselves and others! They are indeed 大人 Mahasattvas Great Beings! _/|\_


So would you like to be totally free of stress, worry and suffering? Are ready to love and care for others with no strings attached?

Do something worthwhile in life, be a Buddha! 😀

If You Need Help or Advice From Us, Please Ask Directly.

In the past few years, I’ve encountered an interesting phenomena.  When some lay devotees need help from us Sangha members, they do not ask directly, they come and ask us in an indirect fashion, leading to a round-about that sometimes lead to nowhere.

Scenario #1

A person A1 wishes to ordain
under Venerable B1.  He approaches Ven. B1 and asks a series of questions.  Relevant ones, mind you.

1. “How do I become a monk?”

2. “What should I do?”

3. “Whom can I ordain under?”

4. “Where can I find the right teacher?”

Now, it may be that A1 is really enquiring and have no intention to ordain under Ven. B1, in which case, his questions are fine.  But he actually wishes to ordain under Ven. B1, then he should simply ask the following pertinent questions:

5. “Can I ordain under you, Ven / Master / Shifu / Ajahn / Sayadaw / Rinpoche?”

6. “Shifu (etc), will you please take me as your disciple and give me the ordination?”

Questions 5 & 6 applies if and only if A1 wishes to ordain under B1.  If A1 do not make any of the above two requests, it is highly unlikely that B1 will respond to the above question 1 to 4 assuming that A1 wishes to ordain under B1.  In response to question 1-4, Ven. B1 would most likely give relevant advices but in most cases, would not suggest “Why don’t you ordain under me?”.  It does not quite work that way.

Scenario #2

Similar to the above, except that this person wishes to learn Dharma from Ven. B1.

1. “Ven, where and whom should I learn Dharma from?”

2. “Ven, can you recommend a Venerable to give a Dharma talk?”

3. “Ven, can you recommend Venerable to be our spiritual advisor?”

Again, you should be asking for Dharma directly and not asking such round about questions.  Surely you do not expect the monk to be recommending himself?

Scenario #3

In all other cases where person A1 seeks the services of Ven. B1, be it counselling, giving of Dharma, giving blessings, taking of refuge, taking of precepts, conducting a retreat, etc etc, one should simply make a sincere and direct request:

1. “Ven, I / we would like to seek your help to ________ .  Please let us know if it is possible.  …. …. ”

Simple as that.  In some cases, you may be redirected to send that same direct request to the monastery, temple or society that the venerable is presently resident in.  But again, it is the same direct approach.

Think simple.  Just imagine if you are asking a friend out.  “Who would you recommend to go watch this movie with?” … trust me, you are not going out any time soon! :p

Granted, there is the case where you really just need some recommendation, then this blog post do not apply to you.  Move along, this is not the blog post you are looking for … 😉

Sabbe satta sukhita hontu! ^_^

How to Decide on a Task, Project or Goal?


Today I’m going to share a simple simple way to approach a task, project or goal.  More accurately, I’m focusing on the initial decision process.

A project can be split into a few parts such as

  1. Envisioning & Planning
  2. Development & Implementation
  3. Testing & Feedback

Different project management methodologies are abound, and you may be familiar with others that are similar or different, each with different focus and strengths.  Take note that this post is not about project management, it is about making that initial decision to do or not to do the project.  This can be done at the Envisioning stage and should culminate with the Planning stage.

Since the very first meeting in secondary school I’ve ever sat in to discuss and decide on whether or not a project or activity be carried out, I’ve noticed a certain trend.  Most initial meetings start with someone sharing the bright idea for a project or something and quite quickly degenerates into a wack-the-mole exchange of debate over why the project will fail for various reasons.  If you have ever been in such meetings and would like a different (read: more effective) approach, read on.

The above trend actual happen in many club, society and sometimes even in corporate meetings.  Eventually, the project does get started, but not before everyone feel down and disheartened about how they are starting a project that is seen as doomed to fail.

Typical meeting:

Person A: We have this idea “A”.  blah blah … [details about what it is]

Person B: This will not work because of “B”

Everyone start thinking of how to counter B.  When B seem somewhat resolved, person C comes up with something.

Person C: But it seems like we will have problem with “C”, so we should not do “A” or that “B” will still fail.

One more nail in the project coffin.  All we need is someone to start the fire and we can cremate the project and go for a movie already.

Everyone start debating or arguing about C, D, E, F, G … .

This can go on for hours and the team will still not have decided on whether they wish to start the project or not.  No decisions  made, the meeting is adjourned.  The team members will disheartened or bitter while some become suspicious of each other’s intent and integrity.

What is happening here? What went wrong and what can be done instead?

The usual questions or factors that come up are usually the “Who, What, When, Where and How”.  We learn in secondary school, the five W and one H right?  The above are the implementation details.  I’m not saying that they are unimportant.  They are important, but only when you have decided to do the project.  If you have not even decided yet, why even bog yourself down with the implementation details?

“But how do you decide whether to do a project without knowing if it can be done?”

To that, I say, you are mixing up “How to do it?” (Implementation) with “Why we do it?” (Mission, Reason, Motivation).

For example, consider a group of friends going for a meal.   This is their weekly gathering and they decided to meet on Friday at 6pm for a meal at Suntec followed by movies at 9pm.  They will meet at the new Zen restaurant after work.

  • Who: Group of friends
  • What: Outing – Meal and Movie
  • When: Friday at 6pm
  • Where: Suntec, Zen restaurant
  • How: Travel – drive individually, Food – Zen, Movie – Eng Wah Cineplex (it’s been years! What is at Suntec??)
  • Why: This is part of their weekly gathering.  Friends meeting up weekly.

In this case, when they decide to meet up, it is because of friendship, because of the company they enjoy with each other.  They don’t necessarily meet up or not because it is cheaper or not.  Although, having decided that they want to meet up, they may later decide that they cannot do so because of the ‘implementation details’.  Maybe the restaurant or movie is not ideal, or the timing is bad etc.  These are reasons why they are unable to have their outing, and not that they do not want.  While the results are the same, that the outing did not happen, the reasons are different.  They may decide that they do not want to meet up or that they are unable to meet up.

If they decide that they do not want to meet up, then even if they can, they would not.  Whereas, if they are unable to meet up, they would try to make adjustments to the ‘implementations’ and finally still meetup.  In the former, the ‘implementations’ often end up as excuses for not meeting up while in the latter, the ‘implementations’ become something they resolve to reach their goal of meeting up.

Going Somewhere

Let’s look at another scenario: Going on a vacation.  The reason we want to go on a holiday is one thing but the 4WH will influence our decision on when, where and how our vacation will take place.

If you want to go on a holiday, then the 4W+H will be adjusted to fulfill this goal.  Otherwise the 4W+H will become reasons why you do not go on a holiday.

Which statements do you make:

  1. “I’m not going to Singapore because I cannot afford it!”
  2. “I want to go to visit Singapore, but because of the cost, I will save up for the next 3 ~ 6 months and be able to go on my vacation then!”

Is it Feasible?

By now you should be very clear with the distinction between why one would want to do something as compared to how it can be done.  The former in general comprises the “benefits” of achieving that goal while the latter is the “cost” of doing it.  The benefits gives people reasons for doing a project while the costs helps them consider the feasibility of achieving the project.

Wanting to achieve a goal, one then consider the present conditions to find
out how feasible it is to do so.  After that, he then make plans to solve implementation details to make the plans feasible.


When we come into Buddhism, a common situation is that we may become overwhelmed by the precepts and practices.  This can sometimes dishearten us when we consider how difficult these precepts and practices are.  Other times we may not know why or how the practices and precepts are even relevant at all.  While we may try very hard but we are actually approaching Buddhism with the same approach mentioned above.  Instead of considering the qualities and benefits of the goal, we are being bogged down by the “feasibility factors” and “implementation details”.

For most people, it is helpful to know the proper path and goal of Buddhism, and appreciate the goal and destination of Buddhism before even embarking on the “project” itself.  That to me, is how the Buddha deliver it to us, in the form of the Four Noble Truths!

Current Situation – Noble Truth of Suffering, Noble Truth of Cause of Suffering

Goal – Noble Truth of Cessation of Suffering

Solution – Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering

While the Four Noble Truths are often taught as Basic Buddhism, I consider it as the core, the essence of Buddhism.  If one truly understands Suffering, its Cause, and how wonderful Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana) is compared to our present state, then the path becomes part of our ToDo list and not the reasons why we cannot take refuge or observe the precepts.  We won’t say “we cannot do it because it is too difficult” or unknowingly dismiss the Buddhist practices as irrelevant if only because we had become a victim of self-defeating attitude.

So the next time the thought “it cannot work or be done” pops up in your mind, think again.  First ask yourself “Why am I doing it?” and not “How difficult is it?”.  When you have decided that the goal (whether worldly or supramundane) is worthwhile, then find out how feasible your present conditions are and determine the variance between the required conditions and your present conditions.  Finally, set a doable todo list to narrow the variance.

Then it becomes “I’m doing it because of this and in order to achieve it, I need to do A, B, C, … … “.  The obstacles become the path.  Then there are no obstacles, only choices and steps towards our eventual goal, Nirvana.

Attitude on Practices

Below is an excerpt from an email I wrote, some thoughts about practices.  Thought it may be useful.


After reading your email, here are some thoughts to share with you on Om Mantra chanting.

Over the CNY period, I met a couple of lay buddhists and while chatting, we touched on the topic of practices. It turned out that one was learning the lam rim teaching while others were doing Om mantra chanting. So I quizzed them about their practices and asked them something. While we do all forms of practices, be it Mantra or Buddha name recitation, Buddha recollection, sutra recitation, meditation (Samatha or Vipassana) etc, we may want to consider how it is linked to our daily defilements and our learning of Dharma.

Let’s leave non Buddhist and nominal (Read: non-practising) Buddhist aside for now. When some people start attending Dharma classes, they get caught up with the knowledge of Buddhism and Dharma, but fail to see the application or link of Dharma in their daily lives. Then there are those who busy themselves with chanting, offering and even meditation without grounding themselves with the teachings. Sometimes, we may even do all forms of practices but not be able to link it with our lives, with our defilements, or rather, the reduction or removal of our defilements. Granted, these are phases that most people go through, but it is important not to get stuck in them.

Ask ourselves this simple question: How have my practices helped reduce the defilements? How does the four preliminaries help in the reduction?

Don’t start thinking of model answers. I know them. We all know them. We must ask honestly and answer honestly whether our present experience is actually so. If it is, we should (hopefully) know how it helped, and if it is not helping, we should also know why. That way we then know what other practices we lack, and need to do.

Sometimes we still do not know after reflection. Then we should seek our teacher for advice and guidance. Again honesty helps. If you give your teachers model situations, your teachers will only give you model answers. Give your teacher the actual situation you are in, and you are more likely to get the right advice for your problem.

Besides our practices, we should not forget the teachings of the Buddha. Again, we should strive to see the defilements, the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness in our daily lives, our interaction with people and our experience throughout the day. Then we should try to apply the teachings and see how our experiences and responses changes. That way the teachings become linked with our lives.

Further, the teachings ARE linked to our practices as well. Depending on the practices we do, we should know whether it is linked to one teaching or the other, whether it is a preliminary or primary practices, whether it is supportive to definitive. Take Om chanting or Dabeizhou chanting for example. As I understand it, both are linked to Great Compassion and Great Loving Kindness (usually flipped in Chinese: 大慈大悲). At the preliminary level, we chant, focusing only on the sound or the words. Doing this can helps us develop some form of concentration. If we only do this, it is better than not. But if we can move further to reflect on loving kindness and compassion, on why we should have both, and actually develop both, then it is better. Then when we chant either Om Mani Padme Hum or 大悲咒, we first immerse our mind (some like ‘heart’ better) with loving kindness and compassion, then proceed to chant, we slowly connect with the
teaching of loving kindness and compassion. We start to embody both qualities.

But being unenlightened, we are forgetful and selfish. So while we can embody both qualities while chanting, we forget soon after and think only of ourselves. So why 1M or for that matter, 1 billion? So that we strengthen these qualities in us through repetition and effort. It might as well be a trillion times or it can be just ONE. If we can embody these qualities with just one recitation, it does not matter. But most of us (like say, ALL of us unenlightened beings) cannot, so it is helpful to chant for long continuous durations. As Mike put it succinctly, the number of times don’t really matter. As I know it, what matters is whether we embody 大慈大悲.

If a person actively reflects on his body, speech and mind, and embodies 大慈大悲 within his three karma, then he is chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. An mp3 player can ‘chant’ a trillion times of it and be nowhere nearer or further from Buddhahood.

Remember, whether you 念(chant or recite) or 唸, you need to use your 心(heart or mind).

And again, Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu on all your endeavours on the path to Enlightenment!

With smiles & metta,

Shi Chuan Guan (Bhikshu)
aka ZhiXing

I Don’t Know

When we are asked for help to do something, sometimes we reply with a “I don’t know”. Why?

I’ve been observing this amongst people around me since young and I wonder why.

I’ve always been curious about how things around me work, and so whenever someone ask me for help which involves something I do not know about, I would reply that “I can try”. And more often than not, just making an attempt to try to help is comforting for people, much less when you do succeed. The upside is that you not only help someone, you also learn something new along the way.

Saying “I don’t know” is really not just a statement reflecting the present moment. To me, it is a reflection of how in the past I didn’t know and didn’t get to learn / try to learn / want to learn, hence I don’t know now. It can also be a reflection of how in the present, I don’t know, I am not getting to learn / I am not trying to learn / don’t want to learn and hence in future, I will continue not to know. Or even both.

My dear friend, we have so much potential in us. Please don’t let this potential fade into oblivion with the IDK (“I don’t know”) reply.

Starting today, try replying with a “I don’t know YET … but I can learn, I can try and I want to know!”

Can you do it?