In this opinion piece, young Chinese writer Nikki Chen questions orthodox views of religion and the emotional journey of caring for a loved grandmother.
My grandmother passed away as a religious Buddhist last year. Back when she was healthy, her daily life was based on the religion. The first thing she did every morning was to go to the worship hall located on the top floor of her house, light incense for the ancestral tablets, and pray for things like a beautiful day, or if any of her kids or grandkids were about to negotiate a business, or had an exam to go to, she definitely wouldn’t miss your name in her prayers. Same routines repeated for two to four times a day, plus one hour of chanting every late afternoon, or whenever she felt like it. Then she fell ill a few years ago, every day she became weaker and weaker, but her beliefs grew stronger than ever. Whenever she was too weak to get off the bed, she would put CDs of the religious chanting on repeat, and let her mind wander in the arms of her God.
She died with tremendous pain. Thousands of nights’ prayers didn’t ease her pain, but it probably brought her peace though – at least that’s what I would rather believe. I happened to be back in Taiwan for the holidays and my relatives said, “She picked the right time to leave this world, when her beloved granddaughter is back at home.” But for me, death is death, it always comes when you least expect it. Her funeral was a very traditional ceremony, it lasted 49 days in an eight by six meters room, we even had a roster for her 10 children so grandma’s body was never alone.
In The Four Noble Truths it says: Life is suffering. My father is a living example of it. My grandfather passed away when my dad was young, but as the first born son, he had to do whatever it took to raise the whole family with my grandmother. He has made her proud, built a family business that’s big enough to feed not only his nine siblings, but their children, and their children’s children. However, he is never happy. “Life is suffering, my child.” My parents still live in the same apartment from 20 years ago, dad is still driving the same old car, he wears pants and clothes that have holes in them. So often when he has a fight with my mum, he would shout to her, “Sorry, I have made you suffer, please suffer with me for this life, and I will pay you back in the next.” Buddhists believe that if you have done wrong to someone, you will have to pay it back the next life, becoming the sufferer. But how could you suffer more, dad? He has trapped his heart in this religion, and my mother often says only he can save himself from it.
Two weeks after my grandmother passed away, I came back to Australia. Not long after that, dad and his siblings started to fight over the house and the money my grandmother left behind – pretty typical for a family that owns a business together. Things were really bad, and that’s when I found out I suffered from anxiety. I experienced a panic attack for the first time, my whole body was shaking, palms sweating, body rocked back and forth, and had a loss of speech, as if my brain just wanted to shut down immediately. That’s when I started to practice mindfulness, a Buddhist psychological tradition. It really helped me through one of the most difficult period in my life. So many forms of meditation, spiritual activities came from Buddhist tradition. This is when I realised that I will always be a spiritual person, I believe in the balance of mind, body, soul, but I will never believe that practicing a religion would bring me, or people around me, happiness. Buddhism is here to stay, but we no longer need it as a religion, because we deserve more, my grandmother deserved more. She deserved more than being in a body fridge for 49 days after she passed away. My father deserves more than believing life is suffering. If Buddha could hear me, he would agree.
By Nikki Chen