TRIGGER ALERT WARNING The write-up below contains allusions to death and dying, which might be uncomfortable and cause some people to become enlightened.
I love the Economist’s Obituary section: it’s the first (and sometimes only) part of the magazine that I read. A few weeks ago, I wondered “what would my own Obituary look like, if I were to write it in the style of the Economist?”
So I wrote up a hypothetical Economist Obituary for myself, as part of my regular spiritual practice of death contemplation, which emphasises the unreliable impermanence of life, but also conversely helps highlight what is actually really important to the individual.
This exercise was quite refreshing: it really forced me to look back at my life, and also to ask myself what is really important to me. And I think I might rewrite this once a year, as a way to remind myself of the impermanence of life, & to nudge myself to always act to remove regret. 🙂
Peijing “PJ” Teh, pioneer in applying Buddhist principles & human centred design to digital apps, died on May 21st, aged 42
Like his favourite joke, the end came “peacefully in (his) sleep”, instead of “screaming in terror like (his) passengers.”
But the end was expected, even if the timing wasn’t. After all, didn’t he spend much of his time reflecting on his limited time & the unreliable impermanence of everything?
During his year in Copenhagen, he was to be found every Sunday, rain or shine, for two hours at the Assistens Kirkegaard, a nearby cemetery. He relished looking at the tombstones of the famous (Søren Kirkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen are buried there) but also of the everyday person. And then there was the tombstone of the musician and composer Nicolai Munch-Hansen, who died just short of 40 on 20th Feb 2017; it struck a chord, since he was almost 40. And it also left him feeling peaceful, for he had no regrets if he died then.
He was born in _ February 1981, the youngest of two. He had almost been named after a Japanese supermarket in Singapore (Yaohan). Instead, his father gave him the name “Peijing”, whose Chinese characters 培净 meant to cultivate purity, a name which became more apt over time.
As a child, he was hyperallergic and a childhood asthmatic, a combination which led to a ban on soft toys and animals in the household, despite his love for both. He could not run or exercise much, but that didn’t matter.
He loved reading. When he was five, his elder sister introduced him to “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators: the Mystery of the Screaming Clock”. He had initially despaired: the words were too small, the book was too thick! Just read it one word at a time. If you don’t understand the sentence, just read it again, said his sister. With that encouragement, he plucked up his courage and finished the book in a week, thoroughly enjoying the story, and moved on to the next book, and then the next book, getting hooked. For the rest of his life, he was never without a book at hand, even while waiting for friends, public transport or events to start.
He found school to be variously interesting or tediously boring, depending on the teacher. English and writing came easily to him; Chinese was always a drag, feeling foreign, despite speaking only Mandarin Chinese to his father.
During national service, after his first heartbreak, he lamented to a friend about the emptiness in his heart, and how Buddhism was right that everything was empty. His friend, a former monk, quickly corrected him that emptiness was really about the lack of an intrinsic permanent essence in each sentient being’s physical form, sense feelings, perceptions, will and consciousnesses. That same friend also mentioned a Thai forest monk who “looked like Kermit the Frog”.
A few years later, while he was procrastinating in his American university library, he came across the book A Still Forest Pool, and saw that the monk Ajahn Chah, did indeed look like Kermit the Frog. He read the book, laughed, marvelled at the depth of Ajahn Chah’s wisdom, and promptly forgot about it. Life intervened: after all, why keep the fifth precept (of not imbibing intoxicants) when he was the Co-Founder of the Rice University Wine Society? But there was a spiritual side which he never ignored: he regularly went to the Jade Buddha temple in Houston, and also attended his first meditation retreat with the SN Goenka tradition in the Himalayan foothills of Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj in 2005. Yet, he mostly went with the flow of lay life: travelling, studying, graduating, working, drinking wines and enjoying life.
4-5 years later, after he had worked three jobs in three years, life intervened in a different way. He came across a CD of a talk titled Finding Happiness in Life by a disciple of Ajahn Chah.
Then he joined the retreat by this Ajahn Brahmavamso (“Ajahn Brahm”), organized by a Singapore Buddhist organisation at a five star hotel in Chiang Rai. He had started a job with the Economic Development Board (“EDB”), and needed a break.
He followed Ajahn Brahm’s instructions to be as kind as possible instead of pushing himself, and quickly experienced a level of peace and calm that he had never experienced before.
And throughout the retreat, Ajahn Brahm would speak about some deep meditation state; he mentally dismissed the possibility of experiencing that state; surprisingly, he would experience it in his meditation; and then he would read the exact description of the phenomenon in the meditation book by Ajahn Brahm.
This culminated in a meditation session which changed his life. He was in the meditation hall that afternoon, comfortably focusing on a very intense bright white light which appeared in his mind.
All of a sudden, the light appeared to dim, and was accompanied by a sensation of falling into an infinite pit, before an explosion of bliss. The bliss was unlike anything he ever experienced: afterwards, he said “it was like all the orgasms I experienced in my life, compressed into a moment, multiplied by a million”
He came out of the meditation with two immediate thoughts. First, that the Path laid out by Ajahn Brahm was definitely the right way: there was absolutely no doubt left in his mind on this. Second, this was why monks didn’t need sex: they had something so superior!
However, he didn’t ordain. He couldn’t explain why, but he needed to marry his eventual-wife: when he first saw her on their blind date, his first two thoughts were “I am going to marry this woman”, and “What the hell am I thinking??”
Over time, the focus on the spiritual side became stronger: he kept the five precepts, even avoiding the killing of mosquitoes and ants. Every Sunday, he dedicated at least two hours reading and listening to Dhamma talks on Buddhist texts. He also kept a log of his meditation habit, eventually building it up to a twice-daily-50-min-each meditation practice.
He also started applying his learning of Buddhist principles at work, & found them to be very useful: he started focusing on the positives, since the Buddha had once said that “whatever the mind dwells on, that is what the mind inclines towards”. And since kindness was the core essence of the teachings, he started signing off “with kindness” on his work emails, which served him well: in an email dispute, a colleague pointed out that despite his signature, the previous email from PJ was definitely not kind. He was horrified that the colleague was right, thanked the colleague for pointing it out, and made it a point to watch his mind even more closely.
By and large, he found the Buddhist teachings to be an extremely rich and untapped vein of wisdom for the modern age. The mindfulness movement had pointed the way, but there was so much more there to be shared! What if he was able to bring out the wisdom, out of the religious packaging that prevented other people from accessing it? This motivation became even stronger, after he was sent by the EDB to complete the Interaction Design Programme in Copenhagen. He found himself wondering if interaction design and digital technologies, combined with the Buddhist principles he learned of, could create powerful tools to reduce human suffering. Was this something that only Singaporeans deserved, and nobody else? Clearly, no. Hence, he made up his mind to leave the EDB after serving his bond.
His wife was supportive of his efforts, giving him a two-year timeline to explore his “triple D: Dharma, Design, Digital”.
So he had de-risked, by selling their home of five years and their plan to shift to a government-subsidized flat. He also started doing freelance work to pay the bills. And he had started learning programming in earnest, while concurrently starting a design research project into the needs of budding practitioners. He was also passionate about ageing, seeing ageing as a core area of Buddhist practice and of reality, and was again optimistic that the combination of Dharma, Design and Digital could address this long-neglected area.
But while he was starting all this, he also knew there was always a chance that he might never see things through. Afterall, he often said, there was a chance that we could die tomorrow or we could live to a hundred years old, and it was important not to regret when we die. And he had no regrets.