The staff at Tzu Chi Singapore’s Jing Si Hall are provided with vegetarian lunch on weekdays, and the job of preparing the meals is undertaken by a team of kitchen volunteers. These volunteers are mostly middle-aged “aunties”, who will start getting busy at 10 am each morning. They will be spotted chopping vegetables and preparing ingredients at the kitchen area, and the oldest among them is 93-year-old Lee Sam Moay.
Lee Sam Moay, affectionately known as “Grandma Lee” by fellow volunteers, was born in 1926 to a poor family in Singapore. Due to poverty, she has never been to school. She was married at aged 19 and eventually became a mother to 15 children. Her husband ran a hardware store business, but life was rather hard as they had many mouths to feed in the family. Grandma Lee’s husband passed away in 1994, and she now lives with her second son, who is unmarried, in Tampines.
Grandma Lee’s eldest daughter became a Buddhist at a young age and regularly attended Dharma classes. Grandma Lee would tag along to attend Dharma services at the temple where the classes were held. One day, a Dharma master there encouraged her to visit Tzu Chi, but she turned down the idea as she was concerned that she might not get along with people in the organisation due to her bad temper.
Her karmic affinity with Tzu Chi ripened during Chinese New Year the following year. The same Dharma master visited her during the festive season and spoke to her about taking her to Tzu Chi again, and she finally agreed.
Subsequently, she joined the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers and became a certified Tzu Chi commissioner some years later. Having found her new purpose in life, Grandma Lee wakes up at 6am every morning, and travels to the Jing Si Hall from Monday to Friday every week to help out at the kitchen.
Whenever she goes to Jing Si Hall, Grandma Lee always brings along a bag filled with various first aid items, such as bandage, plasters, ointments, medicated oil, cough lozenges, etc. And she will offer to give anyone suffering from muscle pain a massage, with the sole intention of relieving the pain of the person.
“Her hands are very strong. If you don’t believe me, you can try it (her massage),” said Keng Lim, General Manager of Tzu Chi Singapore, who had received Grandma Lee’s “treatment” a few times.
He added, “Grandma Lee is like our Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. Whenever she sees anyone injured, she will quickly go and attend to the person, bringing along her “first aid kit” (her handbag) with her. Although she is already more than 90 years old, her strength easily exceeds that of many youngsters, and I’m not kidding.”
Being the oldest member in the “big family” of Tzu Chi Singapore, Grandma Lee is a motherly figure to all volunteers and staff, caring for everyone in Jing Si Hall like her own children and grandchildren. To show their love and appreciation for the elderly Lee, some of the volunteers or staff who drive often give her a ride on their way home.
Life transformed in the golden years
Since she joined the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers, Grandma Lee has also actively attended various volunteer training courses and helped at street fundraising events, apart from volunteering at the kitchen. She also volunteers at a Tzu Chi recycling point monthly.
In 2014, Lee travelled to Taiwan for her volunteer certification, and that was the first time she met Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, in person. She still remembered how soft and gentle Master Cheng Yen’s hands were when she held her hands and spoke with her. Her trip to Tzu Chi Taiwan was a wonderful experience that she is deeply grateful for. She has also pledged to follow the teachings of Master Cheng Yen for as long as she lives.
“Out of 100 teachings of Master Cheng Yen, I can remember at least a few. I often ponder over the Master’s words and what she is trying to convey to us,” shared Grandma Lee.
Despite being illiterate, she enjoys listening to Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma talks, and after listening to the talks for some time, she is able to understand her teachings about the Law of Karma. Since she joined Tzu Chi 11 years ago, she has been working hard to put the Master’s teachings into practice and gradually saw her habits change over the years. The most apparent change she sees in herself is the way she interacts with people, especially after she started attending the Tea Art Class at the Jing Si Hall.
“I know that (in the past,) I was used to speaking loudly and behaving in uncouth ways. But after attending the Tea Art Class, I have learned to be more gentle and polite towards others. I’m very thankful to the teachers for their guidance as I have learned a lot from them. Although I can’t read, I can understand what they say,” shared a grateful Grandma Lee.
Lee’s secret recipe to staying hale and healthy
Most people don't live to be 90. Those who do would probably be quite frail at such an advanced age. However, at the ripe old age of 93, not only is Grandma Lee free from any major illness, she doesn't even need to wear spectacles, nor does she need a crutch to move around. She is not only physically healthy but mentally fit as well, as she can remember the key points taught in the Jing Si Tea Art Class, as well as the names and uses of various herbs, which she had learned in her younger days.
“The doctor asked me (jokingly) why I visited the clinic and what medicine she should prescribe to me,” shared Grandma Lee, laughing heartily as she recalled a time she went to the clinic to have a health checkup. Her doctor told her that she was in the pink of health despite her old age.
She shared her secret to fitness at old age: She will drink a big glass of water after waking up each morning and drink the soup first before having her meal at lunch. She does not eat white rice for dinner as she is very cautious about her carbohydrate and sugar intake, and consumes “starchy” foods, such as rice, noodles, bread and even porridge sparingly.
Besides having a balanced diet, she gets a daily dose of exercise as she crosses the road by climbing up and down the stairs of a pedestrian bridge every morning to take a bus to the Jing Si Hall in Pasir Ris. And she has been tirelessly doing so for the past 11 years.
Population aging is a global issue that is affecting many countries around the world, especially in advanced countries where birth rates are declining. An aging population is a cause for concern as it leads to a decrease in manpower, and more health care resources are needed to serve a greying population. However, Master Cheng Yen thinks that the elderly can also lead useful lives like young people as they have richer life experiences and can serve as volunteers to continue to contribute to society.
To encourage the elderly to keep staying active and “feel useful”, the Master came up with the concept of an “age bank” where every elderly volunteer can deposit 50 years of their age into the “bank” and become “young” again. She reminds the elderly volunteers to remain young in spirit and not to feel confined by their age, as there is no age limit in giving of oneself.
After “saving” 50 years of her age in the “age bank”, Grandma Lee would be only 43 years old this year. The Master’s wise encouragement has kept many elderly people in Tzu Chi (such as Grandma Lee) motivated and helped them stay positive at old age.
Continuing the Tzu Chi Path till her last days
“I am very thankful to everyone, both the young and old, in the Jing Si Hall, for accommodating me,” said Grandma Lee.
She humbly said that she was just “an old lady who doesn’t know anything” and was unable to do much for Tzu Chi. But this is far from the truth as she is a regular volunteer at the Jing Si Hall and serves at Tzu Chi almost every day, rain or shine. She treats her work very seriously and likes to be diligent in everything she does. For example, she insists on completing her job at all times and does a good job at the kitchen cutting the vegetables into neat, equal-size pieces.
Grandma Lee truly enjoys coming to Jing Si Hall to volunteer on every week day as serving others makes her very happy. However, her weekends are reserved for her family so that her children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren can spend time with her.
Although she spends her golden years meaningfully, Lee still regrets for not having learned how to read and write. Because of her illiteracy, she is unable to write words of blessings that she wishes to give to Master Cheng Yen. However, she has her own way of repaying the compassion of her refuge master—by doing the bowing pilgrimage at the Jing Si Hall every year on the anniversary of Tzu Chi Taiwan’s founding, which also happens to be the Master’s birthday. And she has been doing that since 2013 without fail.
“I will keep walking the Bodhisattva Path till my last breath. I am very grateful (for the opportunity to serve in Tzu Chi),” said Grandma Lee, resolutely. Her unwavering conviction and perseverance serve as an inspiration to her peers as well as the younger volunteers. Indeed, one is never too old to serve others!