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Life Is so Vulnerable, yet It Can Be Meaningful, Too

Life can be so vulnerable and fragile. Yet, the beauty of a cultivated person can be so touching and dearly missed. My acquaintance with Sister Bi Lian began many years ago, but I only got to know her in 2011, when Tzu Chi Singapore started its first massive outdoor Buddha Day event…

20191211 Life is so vulnerable 1During the author’s first visit to Sister Bi Lian (first from the right) in Taiwan, the latter appeared cheerful, despite suffering from a terminal illness.

My acquaintance with Sister Bi Lian began many years ago, but I only got to know her in 2011, when Tzu Chi Singapore started its first massive outdoor Buddha Day event. It was also the first time Tzu Chi Singapore approached almost every monastery and Buddhist organisation in Singapore, to invite Dharma masters to lead and grace the event.

Humility and sincerity with a sense of mission

We (Tzu Chi volunteers)had no prior experience at all as to how to go about starting this invitation process, but Sister Bi Lian bravely took on the task and went all the way to fulfil the “mission”. We went cold-calling from one monastery to another. Despite encountering many tough challenges in the process, Sister Bi Lian was not discouraged. During every visit, she would sincerely and patiently explain to the Dharma masters with a joyful smile, the purpose of our visit and the significance of the Buddha Day event.

I recalled some of the days when we were really tired from all the kneeling (while paying our respects at the monasteries), but Sister Bi Lian persevered with an indomitable spirit. She did her best to persuade and encourage the Dharma masters to join the event, while maintaining a humble and sincere attitude at all times.

Back in those days, we did not have any digital maps, so Sister Bi Lian made her own map by connecting many copies of small maps showing the directions from her home to each of the monasteries.

With sincerity, perseverance, and hard work, we managed to move the heavens —a large group of Dharma masters were present to grace our first outdoor Buddha Day event. Warm tears of joy rolled down our cheeks as we watched the Dharma masters walk down the “Bodhi Path” at the event’s venue. In our hearts, we were immensely grateful to the Dharma masters for gracing the event. They included very senior Buddhist leaders from Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan monasteries.

Every year, prior to Tzu Chi’s Buddha Day event, Sister Bi Lian would fully devote her time to the “invitation task”. I witnessed her living her life to the fullest till her last active year in Tzu Chi. That year, she was coughing very badly, but she insisted on completing her “mission” before returning to Taiwan (her home country) for her medical examination.

During every trip to the monasteries, she would bring along a flask of hot beverage to soothe her throat. She was often coughing non-stop while driving. When visiting a monastery, she would kneel down sincerely with a warm smile, humbly asking the Dharma masters to participate in our Buddha Day event.

There was a senior Thai monk who would pray for us whenever we visited him. And, Sister Bi Lian, despite her poor health condition, would kneel gratefully for several minutes and joined in the prayers.

As I accompanied Sister Bi Lian on the trips, she would take me to vegetarian eateries that sold nice and nutritious food as she felt that I was often too busy to eat well. She would also help needy monastics through personal means. Once, I was unemployed for half a year, and reached a very low point in both my career and family life. Sister Bi Lian felt for my plight and even cried while listening to me share about my challenges and setbacks.

Although we only met a few times a year, she was constantly showing me concern. Her caring and gentle words deeply touched my heart and really made me feel loved and treasured, like family.

Last moments of our friendship

When Sister Bi Lian was diagnosed with the terminal illness, I was one of the last people to know about it. I started to notice her sudden long disappearance from Singapore then. After learning the news, I flew to her hometown in Taiwan to visit her, with the hope of giving her some care and comfort.

On my first visit, she was, instead, the one comforting me, saying that she had come to terms with her condition. Thereafter, each time when we met, either in Taiwan or in Singapore, (to assuage my fears and worries about her condition,) she would comfort me, reassuring me that she was coping well. She even showed me some fun and interesting things that I could do. I would never forget her cheerful, and sometimes playful laughter.

My last visit to her was in her new home in Taiwan. She had insisted many times that I should stay in her home for at least one night, so I did that during that visit. She was her usual cheerful self, often laughing heartily—to comfort me and show that she was alright after a series of treatment. She even remembered to prepare a delicious vegetarian “steak dish” that I had missed on my first trip a few years ago. She was always so thoughtful in every detail and towards everyone she met.

20191211 Life is so vulnerable 2
The author (seated in front) with Sister Bi Lian (standing on the right) during one of her visits to her home

Sometimes, Sister Bi Lian would share about her worries and plans for her children, and I would share with her my opinions from the perspective of a younger generation. We confided in each other on personal matters, and she was often receptive to opinions from different angles.

A mother, teammate, close friend, and Dharma sister

Last year had been extremely busy for me, both at work and in Tzu Chi, thus, Sister Bi Lian and I had little chance to catch up. In October this year, I heard some brief news about her feeling unwell and thought that it could just be one of her many weaker moments. I waited for further news about an improvement in her health, so that I could visit her again.

Then, one day, came the sudden news of her departure…… I felt so saddened and painful that I cried uncontrollably as I recollected memories of my dear Dharma sister. She was also a mother, a teammate, and a close friend to me. Unknowingly, we had developed a close affinity with each other and bonded by heart over the short span of a few years.

Sister Bi Lian, we used to work together to earnestly request Dharma masters to join our Buddha Day event. As you embarked on your last journey, I wrote to a Dharma master with earnest sincerity, to ask him to come to Singapore and see you one last time. However, he was in Lumbini, Nepal, at the time. He replied that he would instead pray for you on the birth land of the Buddha and send you his blessings. I believe that you will feel very grateful and blessed as you receive the blessings, like you always did.

I will always keep in my heart the fond memories of our times together. You will be dearly missed, especially your cheerful laughter and gentle, warm smile!

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