In the center of the room, a group of artists are hunched over their work stations, each focused on his or her individual task. With a steady hand, Chee Meng is skillfully laying down the lines of a complex artwork with wax, oblivious to what is happening around him. Fadhil is mischievously sketching his favorite anime character, away from the watchful eye of teacher Catherine. Qiao Qi beams with pride as she lifts up a painting to pose for a photograph. Like all artists, she has every reason to be proud. The three are some of the creative talent behind Colours of Life, an art exhibition presented by Arts@Metta. But this is no ordinary art exhibition—nor is Arts@Metta an ordinary art project.
The artists of Arts@Metta are from Metta Alumni, graduates from the Metta School, a facility that caters to students with special needs. The school is part of the Metta Welfare Association (慈光福利协会), an organization founded in 1992 by Venerable Shi Fa Zhou, abbot of the Golden Pagoda Buddhist Temple and president and abbot of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, in Singapore.
Altogether, the Metta Welfare Association runs nine welfare centers, which serve more than 1,200 beneficiaries of diverse ethnicities and faiths. It is one of the few Buddhist organizations in Singapore that has undertaken the challenging task of caring for the physically and mentally disabled. Despite its affluence, there are pockets of the population in this tiny nation state that are less privileged and for whom compassionate care can make a world of difference.
For founder Venerable Shi Fa Zhou, the heart of the Metta Welfare Association lies in The Great Compassionate Vows of The Medicine Buddha. The charity’s mission is to provide dedicated welfare services for the community regardless of ethnicity or faith, based on the motto “Compassionate love to share (慈仁疗众苦), Brightens hope for those we care (光照困中人).”
From a Buddhist point of view, a human birth is very precious, being the only birth in which we have the potential to achieve Enlightenment. The Buddha did not discriminate against any form of disability or give up on anyone, seeing the latent potential in all. Even someone with a dull mind, like the monk Ksudrapanthaka, was capable of the highest attainment. Because he was a slow learner and could never memorize any of the teachings, Ksudrapanthaka was always jeered at by the other monks. When the Buddha saw this, he took Ksudrapanthaka under his wing and instructed Ananda to guide him, but Ananda also gave up because Ksudrapanthaka could not remember any of the gathas (stanzas). So the Buddha instructed Ksudrapanthaka to simply recite the word “broom,” and assigned him to the daily chores of sweeping the floor and dusting the other monks’ clothes and shoes. Ksudrapanthaka conscientiously devoted himself to carrying out the Buddha’s instructions, and after some time, was able to memorize the word “broom.” In time, his mind also became brighter and clearer, and he eventually became an arhat. (All Phenomena Are Empty)
Just like the great compassionate Buddha, Shi Fa Zhou strives to draw out the potential of each and every individual through his charitable mission. In 1995, also under the auspices of the Metta Welfare Association, he started the Metta Day Activity Centre for the Intellectually Disabled to promote a better quality of life for individuals with learning difficulties. Partially funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the National Council of Social Service, the day care services cater for beneficiaries aged between 18 and 55 who are diagnosed with intellectual impairment such as Down syndrome, autism, or developmental delay. Such disorders often result in co-occurring conditions like impairment in adaptive and executive functions, which impedes communication, self-care, and cognitive learning abilities.
Shi Fa Zhou well understands that to live a quality life, more is required than just satisfying material needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. In order to give meaning and purpose to life, we require spiritual and emotional enrichment and a sense of belonging and self-worth. “Through our work, we want to give aid, love, and happiness for everyone,” he says. “From the young to the elderly, the infirm to the terminally ill, we transcend racial and religious barriers to enhance their quality of life. It is a challenging task, but our driving force comes from the satisfaction of seeing them receive proper care and lead fulfilling lives.”
Through a comprehensive training curriculum covering areas such as daily activities and community living skills, beneficiaries learn to function adequately at home and integrate better into the community. Besides their immediate needs, the Metta Day Activity Centre for the Intellectually Disabled also caters for their social and emotional well-being. Organized group activities, such as excursions, keep them actively involved in the community, and creative pursuits like arts and crafts, gardening, sensory stimulation, and singing promote constructive hobbies and useful life skills to enhance and enrich their lives.
The Metta School was established in 2001 with the support of the Singapore Ministry of Education and National Council of Social Service to provide special education for children aged 6 to 21 with mild intellectual disability and autism. Centered on a mission to empower students to reach their fullest potential by providing a quality and holistic education, the curriculum comprises basic education and functional skills as well as specialized vocational training leading to national certification. Shi Fa Zhou hopes that this will be enough to enable students to lead independent lives and find appropriate work upon graduation.
Since 2014, the school has implemented the “School-to-Work Transition Programme” to provide support for its students as they move towards open employment. The program offers customized training pathways and work options such as Arts@Metta for students who may not benefit from the existing national vocational certification programs.
Initiated in 2007, Arts@Metta provides a safety net for graduates with an artistic flair but who are unable to find work in open employment, to utilize their talents to carve out a living for themselves. Under a sustainable framework, the program leverages on commissioned projects and retail sales to create training-cum-employment opportunities for these graduates so that they can be financially independent. In the process, the youths also learn to uphold proper decorum and assimilate concepts such as good attitude, work quality, punctuality, task completion, handling of workload, and time management.
Above all, the artists at Arts@Metta have a sense of accomplishment and dignity. Despite the challenges and difficulties they face, their world is not dull and gray, but filled with the colors of life, vibrancy, fun, joy, and happiness. It is this difference that drives the Metta Welfare Association in its dedication to reach out to create a more caring and compassionate community. In Shi Fa Zhou’s words: “Every human being has the same potential for compassion; the question is whether we realize that potential. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our sense of well-being. Real compassion comes from seeing the suffering of others and feeling a sense of responsibility to help them. My hope is that more and more people will realize the value of compassion and so follow the path of altruism. With the benevolent contributions of everyone combined, we can make the world a better place.”
Arts@Metta artworks are on display and sale at the Colours of Life Exhibition at Raffles City from 11–13 March 2016, and at the Metta Charity Carnival 2016 at the Metta School on 20 March 2016.
All images courtesy of the Metta Welfare Association