Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guess Who's Meditating?

The following is part of the transcript of the interview Seth Mydans had with the former long-time prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune on 1 September 2010.

Mr Lee: “Thank you. When you are coming to 87, you are not very happy..”
Q: “Not. Well you should be glad that you’ve gotten way past where most of us will get.”
Mr Lee: “That is my trouble. So, when is the last leaf falling?”
Q: “Do you feel like that, do you feel like the leaves are coming off?”
Mr Lee: “Well, yes. I mean I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality and I mean generally every year when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that is life.”
Q: “My mother used to say never get old.”
Mr Lee: “Well, there you will try never to think yourself old. I mean I keep fit, I swim, I cycle.”
Q: “And yoga, is that right? Meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Tell me about meditation?”
Mr Lee: “Well, I started it about two, three years ago when Ng Kok Song, the Chief Investment Officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, I knew he was doing meditation. His wife had died but he was completely serene. So, I said, how do you achieve this? He said I meditate everyday and so did my wife and when she was dying of cancer, she was totally serene because she meditated everyday and he gave me a video of her in her last few weeks completely composed completely relaxed and she and him had been meditating for years. Well, I said to him, you teach me. He is a devout Christian. He was taught by a man called Laurence Freeman, a Catholic. His guru was John Main, a devout Catholic. When I was in London, Ng Kok Song introduced me to Laurence Freeman. In fact, he is coming on Saturday to visit Singapore, and we will do a meditation session. The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts. It is most difficult to stay focused on the mantra. The discipline is to have a mantra which you keep repeating in your innermost heart, no need to voice it over and over again throughout the whole period of meditation. The mantra they recommended was a religious one. Ma Ra Na Ta, four syllables. Come To Me Oh Lord Jesus. So I said Okay, I am not a Catholic but I will try. He said you can take any other mantra, Buddhist Om Mi Tuo Fo, and keep repeating it. To me Ma Ran Na Ta is more soothing. So I used Ma Ra Na Ta. You must be disciplined. I find it helps me go to sleep after that. A certain tranquility settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping. I miss it sometimes when I am tired, or have gone out to a dinner and had wine. Then I cannot concentrate. Otherwise I stick to it.”
Q: “So…”
Mr Lee: “.. for a good meditator will do it for half-an-hour. I do it for 20 minutes.”
Q: “So, would you say like your friend who taught you, would you say you are serene?”
Mr Lee: “Well, not as serene as he is. He has done it for many years and he is a devout Catholic. That makes a difference. He believes in Jesus. He believes in the teachings of the Bible. He has lost his wife, a great calamity. But the wife was serene. He gave me this video to show how meditation helped her in her last few months. I do not think I can achieve his level of serenity. But I do achieve some composure.”
Q: “And do you find that at this time in your life you do find yourself getting closer to religion of one sort or another?”
Mr Lee: “I am an agnostic. I was brought up in a traditional Chinese family with ancestor worship. I would go to my grandfather’s grave on All Soul’s Day which is called “Qingming”. My father would bring me along, lay out food and candles and burn some paper money and kowtow three times over his tombstone. At home on specific days outside the kitchen he would put up two candles with my grandfather’s picture. But as I grew up, I questioned this because I think this is superstition. You are gone, you burn paper money, how can he collect the paper money where he is? After my father died, I dropped the practice. My youngest brother baptised my father as a Christian. He did not have the right to. He was a doctor and for the last weeks before my father’s life, he took my father to his house because he was a doctor and was able to keep my father comforted. I do not know if my father was fully aware when he was converted into Christianity.”
Q: “Converted your father?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Well this happens when you get close to the end.”
Mr Lee: “Well, but I do not know whether my father agreed. At that time he may have been beyond making a rational decision. My brother assumed that he agreed and converted him.”
Q: “But…”
Mr Lee: “I am not converted.”
Q: “But when you reach that stage, you may wonder more than ever what is next?”
Mr Lee: “Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody has ever come back. The Muslims say that there are seventy houris, beautiful women up there. But nobody has come back to confirm this.”
Q: “And you haven’t converted to Islam, knowing that?”
Mr Lee: “Most unlikely. The Buddhist believes in transmigration of the soul. If you live a good life, the reward is in your next migration, you will be a good being, not an ugly animal. It is a comforting thought, but my wife and I do not believe in it. She has been for two years bed-ridden, unable to speak after a series of strokes. I am not going to convert her. I am not going to allow anybody to convert her because I know it will be against what she believed in all her life. How do I comfort myself? Well, I say life is just like that. You can’t choose how you go unless you are going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, like sodium amytal. For just over two years, she has been inert in bed, but still cognitive. She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night. She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favourite poems.”

For those who may not know, Father Laurence Freeman is head of The World Community for Christian Meditation, which teaches a meditation adapted from Hindu and Buddhist techniques and the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

1 comment:

Joe said...

mm lee ought to read a copy of your GQGA booklet. i think he mentioned something about souls and linked it to buddhism.
but theories apart; there's zillions of meditation technique out there these days; some commercial gyms offer them as well.
but which ever the method that teaches equanimity and anicca gets my approval :)