As a child, Venerable Shi You Guang was not particularly drawn to any religion.
His late great-grandmother, who lived with the family from time to time, was a Buddhist and he recalled her holding chanting beads and doing Buddhist chants in Teochew near the window in the morning.
The 35-year-old, who became a Buddhist monk 10 years ago, recalls: "She would have a serene expression on her face."
His parents, who run an embroidery business, had an altar for Tua Pek Gong (a Chinese god of prosperity) at home and also prayed at Buddhist and Taoist temples.
He studied at Mortfort Junior and Montfort Secondary, both Catholic schools, where he would join in morning prayers and Friday mass.
He became interested in Buddhism after he picked up a book on it in Secondary 3 and felt it answered many questions he had about life in a logical manner.
While pursuing a diploma in computer information systems, he volunteered at the school's Buddhist society.
But it was only after he encountered the Flower Garland or Avatamsaka sutra during a chanting session that he wanted to be a monk. The Mahayana Buddhist sutra gave various examples of the sacrifices made by Bodhisattvas, people who delay enlightenment to help other living beings, even those who have treated them unkindly.
He says: "I was like, wow, that's such a noble and extraordinary way of behaving."
During national service, he became a vegetarian and started volunteering at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery where he had the opportunity to help out at two novitiate or short-term monkhood retreats.
After his NS, he worked as a project executive at the temple where he helped organise one such retreat.
He says: "The desire to become a monk became stronger. I was just trying to find the right teacher to guide me."
He has never dated and says he has always been more drawn to people's inner character than their outward appearance.
After six months, he quit his job to study computer science at Nanyang Technological University. But in his first semester, a fellow Buddhist from his polytechnic days told him he had come across a good teacher and was planning to be ordained under his guidance.
Ven You Guang recalls: "He asked me if I would like to join him and I agreed, just like that.
"Even though I was in the midst of preparing for my semester exams, ordination had been at the back of my mind. I trusted my friend, so I trusted the teacher he had chosen and I didn't want to waste any time."
When he told his parents, they were caught off guard, as he expected.
Says Ven You Guang: "My dad asked if there's anything I lacked, but I told him, no, there's nothing material I lacked. I just wanted to transcend myself spiritually.
He adds: "They were influenced by popular media and thought I would disappear forever but I reassured them I would not."
It took him a few weeks to persuade his parents to come around. They attended his ordination in the Mahayana tradition at Fa Hua Monastery in Upper Paya Lebar Road in 2005.
He spent the next three years there receiving monastic training in meditation, chanting and Buddhist studies. He was then involved in the setting up of an affiliated temple in Pengarang in Johor, a two-hour bumboat ride away.
Now a spiritual adviser at Puat Jit Buddhist Temple in Sengkang, he conducts Buddhist classes, gives talks and meets people from different walks of life. He recently started a youth group to do volunteer work.
A major challenge, he says, is his asthma, which could be worsened by dust or the smell of incense. For the last 10 years, he has been hospitalised at least once every year for the condition and last year, underwent a procedure to bring it under control.
But he has never thought of quitting.
He says: "Whenever I feel tired, or don't wish to do something, I won't focus on myself. Instead, I will remind myself that there are a lot of people suffering out there and what I can do to help them. When you have this stronger drive behind you, you can go a long way."
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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