Nowadays, it is common for people to love and care for their pets like their own children. However, not all can take persistent, tedious care of the pets when the latter fall sick. Such inequality arises from the perceived difference between animals and human beings. Teng Swee Ueng and his wife used to have such perception but having turned vegetarians had made a shift in their perspective towards life.
Volunteer Teng Swee Ueng and his children decided to raise a dog for safety reasons after their house was broken in twice. However, it caused vexation to his wife, Ng Boon Ngoh, who is particular about cleanliness and fears dogs due to a bite during childhood.
Unable to fight her family’s insistence, Boon Ngoh could only settle with conditions that she will not bathe the dog or clean up its excrement, and will not allow the dog into their house. So in 2008, Swee Ueng bought a Dobermann and named it “Rocky”, hoping that it will be as strong as Rocky the boxer. He also sent Rocky to the training centre to be taught to better play its role in guarding the family.
That same year the family adopted Rocky, a massive earthquake hit Sichuan, China. Swee Ueng, who had just joined Tzu Chi, was shocked to see in the media scenes of devastation and injured people, with some trapped under rocks. Following Master Cheng Yen’s call to mitigate disasters through collective kindness, Swee Ueng pledged to observe a vegetarian diet for three months during the Buddha’s Day Ceremony in May.
To his surprise, he managed to uphold vegetarianism to this day, despite his many previous failed attempts. He said, “I think Tzu Chi uniform gave me strength. When many people were doing the same thing, I became more vigilant; and the more I learnt about the significance of a vegetarian diet, the more determined I became. In fact, it’s not hard to convert to a vegetarian diet. It’s all about the mentality.”
Swee Ueng revealed that his lack of persistence in vegetarianism was due to his belief that organically-breed livestock and deep sea marine lives are safe for consumption. His wife on the other hand, felt that meat was important for the growth of their teenage children. But later, Swee Ueng learnt from the Internet that even the deep sea had been polluted by heavy metals, plastics and other disposals; and through Master Cheng Yen’s preaching, he gradually understood that vegetarianism was imperative in protecting Mother Earth.
His wife, however, did not commit herself until a volunteer training session in January 2009. Prior to the training session, she told fellow volunteers that she would just pledge to observe a vegetarian diet for a week. But she ended up with a year’s pledge after learning about the food war between humans and animals, and the urgency to protect the Earth through vegetarianism. She related, “I did not make a lifetime commitment abruptly to allow myself some time to learn and adapt.” Nonetheless, she upholds a vegetarian diet until today.
Respecting all life forms
Initially, the couple would burn mosquito repellent incense every night at the yard to keep Rocky from mosquito bites. But worried that the scent might affect its smelling senses, they eventually let Rocky into the house and tied it at a corner at the back part of the house. After some time, Boon Ngoh decided to free Rocky as she pitied it being confined to a small space. As a result, she had to clean the floor several times daily to remove the hair and odour.
With Rocky being constantly by her side when her family members were out at work or in school, Boon Ngoh gradually grew fonder of Rocky, thanks to its obedience and intelligence. Swee Ueng also started treating Rocky as a family member instead of a guard dog. He said, “Rocky is just like our third kid. I talk to it daily and feed it with whatever we eat instead of leftovers. It would fetch the newspaper from the delivery man to me every morning.”
The practice of vegetarianism slowly changed the couple’s mindset and deeds. They no longer see Rocky as an animal, feeding it food and expecting it to guard their home. With growing sense of compassion, they would also take pity on stray dogs and cats exposed to nature’s elements.
Having been a vegetarian for 11 years now, Swee Ueng felt that compassion is inherent in all of us, only that it might not have been evoked or is clouded by external circumstances. Had he not been a vegetarian, he would still think that animals raised are meant for food and would not feel sorry for eating them, or feel bad for setting pets free when he no longer wants to keep them. His switch to a vegetarian diet also helped reduce his desires, for he understands that all life forms are equal and only when they coexist harmoniously will the world be peaceful and free from disasters.
Thanks to his personal experience, Swee Ueng could better grasp Master Cheng Yen’s urge for everyone to respect all life forms and to nurture compassion through vegetarianism.
Equal compassion for all life forms
Back in January 2017, Rocky fell flat on the floor when Boon Ngoh asked it to get down from her bed. Boon Ngoh was heartbroken and panicked to see it mourning in pain and immediately called Swee Ueng for help. Upon diagnosis, it was found that Rocky had suffered from a cracked neck vertebrae. It was only then that the couple realized why Rocky would moan if its food bowl was not raised to a certain height – it was a sign that its neck hurt. The discovery left Boon Ngoh blaming her negligence, which resulted in delayed treatment.
Since the fall, Rocky had not been able to move any parts of its body except its head. To treat Rocky, Swee Ueng would take leave from work two to three times weekly to take Rocky on a 40-minute drive from his home in Merlimau to a veterinary for acupuncture. Handling a 27-kg Rocky during the trips was not easy for the couple, yet they persisted. They even bought some light therapy equipment when they heard that it might be of help for Rocky. They were willing to spend as much time, money and efforts as needed for Rocky’s recovery.
Due to its condition and probably a sense of insecurity, Rocky needed constant company or it would keep barking. Thus, the couple took turns to take care of it with the same care they would give to a paralysed family member. Initially, when Rocky was unable to defecate normally, they gave him massages, and when its condition improved, they would still massage it and turn its body occasionally to reduce its pain and prevent it from developing bed sores or muscle stiffness. They also had to wash more than ten pieces of cloths daily and clean Rocky and their home multiple times a day.
In addition, Swee Ueng had specially made a frame to support Rocky’s body and taught it to stand and stretch its muscles. He also made a bed with good airflow to improve Rocky’s comfort. All these were done out of a sense of equal compassion for all beings.
Although Boon Ngoh felt stressed and tired sometimes having to keep Rocky’s company constantly, and could not leave home for Tzu Chi’s work or run errands, she never gave up on Rocky. She said tearfully, “I did everything willingly. Rocky is a family member and I must save it.”
Despite the veteran’s advice on euthanasia and their friends’ suggestion to just replace Rocky with a similar dog, the couple hung on and set their minds to cure Rocky to their best ability and take care of it until it breathed its last.
Swee Ueng remarked, “We have no rights over the dog’s life. All beings are equal. Isn’t euthanasia the same as killing? Being a vegetarian, I would not even eat a bite of meat, let alone taking a life.”
All sentient beings have Buddha-nature
Even after Rocky fell ill, the couple did not stop bringing it to the living room to watch Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma talks on Da Ai TV together with them. They would also chant the Buddha’s name and share Master’s Dharma teachings with Rocky. Boon Ngoh would often tell Rocky to let go of worldly attachments and to return with a healthy body after its demise. “Make a good vow to be reborn in the Human Realm, only then will you have chances to perform good deeds,” said Boon Ngoh to Rocky.
They confessed, “Had we not been vegetarians and become disciples of Master Cheng Yen, we would not be able to go through this with the same mindset and apply Master’s teachings naturally when we are faced with this situation.”
Swee Ueng was impressed with his wife’s persistence in taking care of Rocky and sharing the Dharma with it. She also taught it to refrain from killing to consume meat, thus avoiding being reborn in the Animal Realm. A month before Rocky’s demise, they stopped feeding it with dog food and gave it its favourite apples and papayas. Thus, Rocky actually left this world as a vegetarian.
Boon Ngoh shared, “By relating the Dharma with our daily lives, I knew what to do when faced with Rocky’s condition. Seeing Rocky losing its mobility and that I had to excuse myself from Tzu Chi’s voluntary work to take care of it, I learnt to appreciate the opportunity to serve with Tzu Chi even more.”
Rocky’s life ended on December 18, 2018, and its carcass was buried in the yard amidst the chant of Buddha’s name. In recollection of the two years with Rocky around them, and the moment that Rocky shed tears before it breathed its last, the couple believed that all sentient beings have feelings and should treat each other with respect.
“Everyone is born with compassion, only that sometimes it is clouded by external circumstances. We may not be able to appreciate what it meant by equality of life and put it into practice have we not been vegetarians,” said Swee Ueng.