Be it material or spiritual attainments, it’s natural for us to seek the best. And when it comes to viewing highly elusive creatures such as birds, we earthlings strive for the closest distance to catch a glimpse of them.
At the “King of The Skies,” show at Jurong Bird Park yesterday, we had been assigned seats that would bring us up close and personal with raptors, vultures, eagles and kites.
But noting my walking cane, the young usher kindly suggested that my friends and I took the upper tier of the spectator stand. The “good” seats would require us to descend a number of steps.
I took the usher’s advice and my friends gamely gave up their choice seats to join me.
And this was how we came to settle under a beautiful tree whose emerald branches laced the sky of azure blue.
I remember thanking the tree silently as I took pictures of my friends smiling against his verdant backdrop.
When the show started, one by one, the Brahminy Kite, which was one of my friends’ favourite birds, flew from their handlers and came to perch on the branches right above us!
Raising my face, I saw the underbelly of the Brahminy Kite. Holding my breath, my eyes drank in the distinct markings of warm browns, black linings and pristine white torso of the creature.
We couldn’t have gotten better seats than these, I screamed inwardly.
Over the years, my weakened leg has taught me to see clearly and not to feel bitter or shortchanged by the limitations that come along with it. Speed is important, but it’s not the only thing or everything to worthwhile living.
As the ancient poet Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you,” and in my case, regardless of physical barriers, has happened to me many times before, and yesterday at the Jurong Bird Park again.
And because I’ve experienced the grace of this particular Rumi wisdom, extremes such as the fastest, and the latest or even the best cannot make me feel unseated easily.
Last week we visited Jurong Lake Gardens where parts of it were still being landscaped.
The lake joins the Jurong River (Sungei Jurong) which passes my flat on its way to the sea.
16 years back, this park had few footpaths. Its relative inaccessibility & mosquito presence was ironically an ideal gathering place for former farmers or elderly labourers who had much time and some money on their hand, but not many places to go.
Under the banyan trees that skirted the water, these old men sat on roots and decaying trunks to play chess, chat quietly about their kampong childhood or just smoked in silence.
But most of all, they showed kindness to Margo & Mikhail, two stray dogs that had sought refuge in the relative wildness of the undeveloped park. Like these old men who had been forgotten by progress, these dogs also had no place to go.
The female stray dog had a delicate frame and would prance gazelle-like to her food when I whistled for her. Sometimes I could see her stretch out in the moonlight when my taxi passed by. So I named her Margo, after the british ballerina, Margo Fonteyn.
The male stray was more cautious and would only come to eat after I had walked away. I named him Mikhail, after Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West.
When Margo’s life was under threat from complaints lodged against her by joggers and cyclists who felt threatened by her barking, one of her elderly protectors who loved her the most asked me to find her a real home.
And my friend and her husband gave Margo a home, and doted on her till she passed on at a ripe old age.
For a week after Margo left the park, Mikhail still turned up for his meals. Then he was never seen again.
Today both old men and dogs are gone. But the banyan trees that listened to happy chatters and bore witness to kindness to two homeless dogs are still there.
So on this recent visit, I thought I would name two old banyan trees, Margo and Mikhail, in honour of the blessed encounters between Man & Nature, long before the Jurong Lake Gardens was accessible as a place of leisure.
Today we visited an animal shelter for cats & dogs.
I’m beginning to see life as a series of crossings all sentient beings have to make. Some crossings are very hard. Besides providing food and care for animals, we might help them cross from sickness and fear to more auspicious states through our prayers and personal rituals.
So I brought sage leaves and prayer flags with me to the shelter in hope that they might be of service.
After wiping down the cats, I came to the end of the shelter corridor where a stupa stood on a metal trolley.
A stupa is sanskrit for a dome structure used for buddhist meditation or for holding sacred texts and relics. Stupas vary in size. Some are small enough to be placed on dashboards.
I think the stupa at Boudha in Kathmandu, Nepal, is probably the largest on the planet. Walking around it can cultivate wisdom and compassion. The stupa that needed cleaning today was about half my height.
As I was removing dust from the stupa with a wet cloth, a large orange cat suddenly hopped onto the trolley top. He began weaving around the stupa as if he was making a circumambulation with his body!
When I managed to peel him off the stupa, he wrapped his paws around my neck and started purring and rubbing his face against mine affectionately.
I lit a sprig of sage leaves and passed their white plumes of aromatic smoke over and around the stupa after the cleaning was done.
Then holding the burning sage, I walked down the length of the corridor and paused at each animal enclosure.
The cats were fascinated. Many came towards me and lingered at the wire mesh to be closer to the smoke blessings.
Even their 17 year old dog snoozing at the doorway got up and joined us.
At the section that housed the dogs, we were barked at. Then as their eyes followed the smoke and their ears picked up the prayers, many calmed down.
A girl dog with gentle eyes wagged her tail merrily at us and wouldn’t let us out of her sight.
As I prayed for the animals to be healthy and happy, and to be released from all causes of difficulties in life, I realised I was essentially praying for myself.
Towards late afternoon, my friend raised the prayer flags over the entrance to bless everyone.
We learnt that the shelter caregiver’s late mom had been wanting to get a set of prayer flags for their shelter since they moved here. But the daily upkeep of the place and looking after animals left them with little time or energy to go looking for prayer flags.
My friend initiated this shelter visit about 2 weeks ago. The sage leaves were given to me recently. The prayer flags were gifts from years ago. I learnt that today is the feast day of the archangels.
All these seemingly random occurrences have come together to facilitate my intentions to support animals and their caregivers. And it brings me comfort to know that the prayer flags put up today will be fluttering under the light of the mid-autumn full moon in a day’s time.
In our village home at Covent Garden along one of the Singapore canals, there was a fallen tree trunk by the doorway. Depending on who was using it, it was sometimes a bench and sometimes a table.
The tree trunk of nearly black wood was often my grandma’s work bench.
On it my grandma could often be seen crafting her much sought after anklets and necklaces made from embroidery threads of 5 colours.
These “Five Coloured Threads,” or “ngoh sek sua,” as they are called in our minnan dialect, were meant for babies and toddlers, especially those who cried for no apparent reason at night.
Judging by the visits of parents to our home, grandma’s handiworks must have some positive outcomes.
My grandma had suffered unexplained losses in her life. Yet she could provide this support to her community willingly & cheerfully, as she rolled the 5 threads representing the 5 elements into one wearable work of Peace to soothe a restless baby and to calm an anxious parent.
Years later when I wear rudraskha beads on my wrist and pass them over the head or back of animals as I pat them, my grandma’s hands were on me.
And who have known that my grandma’s simple blending of the elements to make peace would prepare me for my affinity with prayers flags 40 plus years later in Nepal?
Oliver came to sit on my lap during morning prayers.
Half way through my mala beads, the sky darkened, the wind rose and the rain fell. It was bright & sunny just a while ago!
I resisted the urge to get up and rush about to shut the windows in my home.
“What if the wind sends in more dust?”
“What if the rain wets my study table?”
The what ifs were threatening to unseat me.
Meanwhile, Oliver, the Grandmaster of Sleep, continued to nestle more comfortably on my lap, paying no heed as the sky darkened further and the wind swooshed about, sending hangers in the balcony clattering.
After I decided to let them be, I realised maybe Rain and Wind had come to assist me to scatter my prayers further to reach more sentient beings! It was a precious moment in my practice.
With that thought in mind, I stay put and completed the morning dedication.
By the time the prayer ended, the rain had also stopped and the sun appeared again. It was all so brief!
Oliver did not protest when I put the mala beads over his neck. He simply went onto another cane chair and continued his morning nap. 😄
I thought of the occasions when non-action was my only option.
For example, holding an umbrella while walking is not possible for me. And when a light drizzle suddenly becomes a downpour in the midst of a traffic light crossing, I cannot run. But I’ve had strangers offering to share their umbrellas with me.
Then there are times I cannot make the crossing from the steps of a bus to the kerb. One time a youth with tattoos from his arm to his neck gave me his hand.
We’re often told to take initiatives, to be proactive, to solve problems, to eat lunch or be lunch, but sometimes staying put or not having any option, IS the way out.
So my wish is, if anyone is feeling trapped or lost, may he or she not panic and seek unhealthy distractions, but to try & stay put with the situation, because a solution could be just round the corner. 🙏
In mid April 2020, in the midst of lockdowns and stockpiling frenzy, a friend’s beloved dog passed away in the Middle East.
In her grief, my friend found lighting tealights, butter lamps and candles deeply comforting. She was also a little concerned that her supply was running low. Travel restrictions and curfews also made it hard for her to make purchases.
On 23 April I mailed her a box of butter lamps. My intention was for them to lift her spirit from the darkness of loss and to light a path for her departed Nepalese dog child.
It took a long time for the parcel of light to reach her. It had to first leave Singapore to go to the USA, and from there, it then made its way to the Middle East.
Two days ago, more than a month later, the butter lamps finally arrived at my friend’s home in the desert.
When she opened the parcel, it was also Day 49 of her dog’s passing.
Today on full moon eve and on the Tibetan holy day of Saka Dawa, my friend in the Middle East raises one butter lamp from Singapore for her Nepalese dog son. She puts it in a holder that has followed them from his country of birth.
I like to think that the butter lamps that I sent out on account of a humble dog must have blessed many postal workers and handlers as they passed oceans and deserts in time for his 49th day observation.
And I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious timing for my friend’s gloom to be lifted as she celebrates her beloved companion’s entry into the full moon and into Saka Dawa.
May we continue to be Bearers of Light for one another, regardless of what forms we take and what kind of crossings we make.