It was the official launching of our book The Buddha and His Disciples at Borders Bookshop. Our publisher had arranged for an interview with Susan (she did the illustrations) and I to appear in the Straits Times the day before to publicize the book. The launching was a great success with about 250 people lining up to have us sign the copies of the book they had bought. Towards the end of the book signing a man appeared before me, gave me his book and while I was signing it he said to me ‘Do you remember me?’ I looked up at him, rummaged through my memory for a moment, then smiled and said, ‘No I don’t. When did we meet?’ ‘You used to know my father Dr. Chee’, he said. Immediately memories flooded in although not of him but of his father.
Some 10 years before when I first came to Singapore an Anglo-Chinese doctor names Chee used to attend my talks regularly. He stood out from the crowd because he would often asked questions, sometimes even challenging ones, something Singaporeans rarely ever do. I liked him for this, it made my talks a little more stimulating, and we became friends. He took me out for lunch a few times and would often ring me up to ask for clarifications on aspects of Buddhist doctrine. He had been brought up by particularly narrow-minded Christian parents and this it had left him with a strong dislike for the religion, although he continued to have a spiritual yearning. During the years he built up a highly successful medical practice he had no time to explore other approached to spirituality but now that he had retired he did have and he had become fascinated with Dhamma. Despite his deep interest I noticed a strong restlessness and dissatisfaction in him. I encouraged him to do mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana and it helped a bit but I suspected that his mind was too ‘set in its ways.’ Then, after not having seen him for a while I got a telephone call from his son, the one who stood before me now, inviting me to his father’s funeral. A bit surprised, I asked what had happened to Dr. Chee and was told that two days previously he had booked a room overnight in an expensive hotel, ordered and consumed a bottle of the best whiskey and then hanged himself. I was quite shocked. I went to the funeral which was in a church and never having met his wife or children spoke to no one and as is typical with Singaporeans, none of them introduced themselves to me. It was a bleak affair and I went feeling rather down.
I handed back his book, asked him how his family was getting along and then said, ‘So why did you come today?’ He replied, ‘Well, I saw your picture in the paper yesterday and it reminded me that my father often used to mention you and say how much talking with you had helped him. Then I recalled that when you came to the funeral none of us even spoke to you. So I just came to thank you.’ He took my hand, looked me in the face and said ‘Thank you. Thank you very much’, turned and then disappeared through the crowd. I was deeply moved, so moved in fact that that tears welled up in my eyes. Even though there were still a few people waiting to have their books signed I had to take a break for five minute. Its funny but this ‘thank you’ was more important to me, more poignant and meaningful for having come after a gap of so many years. It was one of the nicest gifts anyone had given to me for a long time.