Gift of life

Buddhist monk Ming Yi glad kidney recipient has second shot in life

Venerable Ming Yi, the abbot of Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery, is focused on recovering fully from the April 27 surgery.
Venerable Ming Yi, the abbot of Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery, is focused on recovering fully from the April 27 surgery.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

He was the headliner for the once-popular Ren Ci Charity Show with his death-defying stunts, but these days, Venerable Ming Yi lives a far more quiet existence.

Every morning, the 53-year-old abbot of Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery begins with prayers and exercise, then dives into paperwork, meetings and religious classes.

Occasionally, he takes short work trips to Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan to spread the teachings of Buddha.

Even when it was revealed last month that he had donated his left kidney to a stranger, he tried to stay out of the spotlight.

He only decided to holding a press conference last week - one which he organised himself as he does not have a personal assistant or secretary these days - because "reporters really wanted to know".

"They came to me in the hospital and visited the temple daily," he said. He said he never saw the point of publicising what he had regarded as a personal decision to help kidney patients. "I'm not trying to get people to donate," he said.

He has not shut the door on performing stunts for charity ever again. He said: "If it is really for a good cause, why not?"

But before committing to anything, he would want to "weigh the whole situation" - a lesson learnt from six years ago, when he was convicted of charges involving an unauthorised $50,000 loan from Ren Ci Hospital's coffers to his personal assistant Raymond Yeung.

"In the past, I was more naive and I really wanted to help people. I easily believed whatever they told me," said Ven Ming Yi.

He has a system in place to make sure there is no repeat of such an incident, and it includes having a group of people at the temple to evaluate requests for help.

"If you tell me you cannot afford to pay your water and electricity bills, I will ask you to bring me your bill and I will make the payment for you.

"I would rather do that than give you the cash. I don't know what you will do with the money," he told The Sunday Times at his temple's office, which has few adornments except for his wooden table with an Apple iMac, a rack for his robes, and a row of Buddhist figurines.

"Rules and regulations have to be set. It's not so much to deter people from seeking help but to make sure that we can find the best way to help them."

Ven Ming Yi was born Goh Kah Heng, the son of a bank officer and housewife. He attended Raffles Institution and has a doctorate in philosophy. He helped to raise more than $33 million for Ren Ci Hospital.

He rose to fame in 2003 by abseiling down Suntec City Tower 2. The following year, he was chest-deep in 1,000kg of ice cubes for almost 23 minutes.

His most notable stunt was a walk across beams suspended outside the 66th floor of Republic Plaza in 2006.

But in 2007, the Health Ministry found gaps in Ren Ci's corporate governance. The next year, Ven Ming Yi was charged and he stepped down as chief executive officer. After an eight-month trial, he was sentenced to 10 months' jail while his former assistant was jailed for nine months.

An appeal reduced the monk's sentence to six months, after Justice Tay Yong Kwang took his work for the poor and sick into account. He served four months before being released early because of his good behaviour in prison.

He came out in October 2010 and resumed his duties as abbot, although a year later, the Public Service Medal he had been awarded in 1996 was forfeited. "The number of devotees remained more or less the same," he said.

He has had little to do with Mr Yeung since, but bears no hard feelings. "I know where he is. There's nothing wrong with that. Why have so many enemies in these short decades of life? Everyone's been punished."

During the trial, it was revealed that he bought a multi-million-dollar condominium here, properties in Australia and Seattle, a luxury car and even a racehorse - raising concerns about his lavish spending

Asked how his lifestyle now compares with the past, he said: "There's no need to talk about that. Whatever's in the past, just let it be. If I keep harping on it, I will never move forward.

"If I keep worrying that someone is looking at me differently, I'm the one who is suffering."

As for his decision to donate a kidney, which came after he read about the shortage of donors, he said he does not need to know more than that the recipient, a young woman whose identity remains unknown, no longer suffers.

"I'll be more than happy to know that the person is recovering well and has a second shot in life," he said.

For now, he is focused on making a complete recovery after the surgery on April 27. "I haven't fully returned to work yet. I do some paperwork here and there, but have not taken part in religious activities... But I'm a restless person."

He believes he will be well-rested by the end of the month.

"The temple will celebrate Buddha's birthday then. It's a big festival, and my first major activity since the surgery. I cannot wait."

awcw@sph.com.sg