Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Preamble to the Bodhi Path, an Effort at Translation and Actualization

An Anthology on Middle Contemplation and Life, a Chinese Buddhist book by Mr. Huang Kuo Tat, printed by the Buddhist Association of the United States (2005) has been in wify's collection of Buddhist books for some time now. We could not recall how the book ended up there, but chances are we must have picked it up at an exchange service of free Buddhist books, which is an integral part of many Buddhist centers.


Anyway, when we started to participate in the activities of the Middle Way Buddhist Association (MBWA), I started to delve further into what Middle Way entails. One obvious reference is Wikipedia, which casts Madhyamaka (the Sanskrit term) as “the rejection of two extreme philosophies, and therefore represents the "middle way" between eternalism (the view that something is eternal and unchanging) and nihilism (the assertion that all things are intrinsically already destroyed or rendered nonexistent”. While this is precise enough as definition goes, I wanted to understand it better as a lay believer.

And the first paragraph in Sub-section A (The Wisdom of Middle Way) of Section 1 (On Middle Contemplation) in the First Chapter (The Chan Practice of Middle Contemplation) of the above-mentioned book, as available online here, but I first saw it here, definitely put me on the right frame of mind. An excerpt of the text, translated in English, follows:

Buddhism speaks of the Middle Way as the avoidance of extreme views and behaviors. What then is the true meaning of the Middle Way? The Middle Way is defined as following the middle of the path as appropriate, without landing on either side. In this respect, Shakyamuni Buddha had cited the following illustration:

For a timber log to be transported smoothly from upstream via a river to a downstream destination, it has to follow the flow of the main stream so as not to be grounded in the shallows near the bank, nor sunk to the bottom. Middle Way is also akin to playing a harp, the sound is discordant when the strings are either too taut or too loose. Melodious sound will only ensue from strings that are neither taut nor loose.

In practice, Shakyamuni Buddha demonstrated the Middle Way as seeking neither suffering nor happiness. Neither the fruitless self-afflicting way of the ascetic, nor the indulgent, carnal way of the hedonistic can lead to liberation of the mind, which can be accomplished only through living the wisdom embodied in the Middle Way
.”

I particularly like Section 3 of Chapter 3 (Integrated Discussion) entitled The Unperturbed Mind/The Bodhi Path with the tag-line, On Freedom and Responsibility. Both are deemed important human attributes in Buddhism but neither is absolute nor driven by a sense of mission borne of chauvinism. Both are relevant, if not integral, to the many personal struggles that we undergo on a daily basis, as well as to the intra- and inter-national and racial conflicts befalling the world today. Through dealing with life's challenges, the section expounds on how cultivating the Unperturbed Mind and actualizing the Bodhi Path can help bring the conflicts to some satisfactory resolution.

And that, meaning doing the English translation of Section 3, I will do in the next several blogs because of its length.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

From Calm Abiding to Insight, Meditation-wise

We drove to St. Pete yesterday morning to attend the Meditation Retreat for a Dialog with our Minds conducted by Bhante Upananda organized by Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center and held at the Southwest Florida Buddhist Vihara. But we were there only for part of the time, staying to listen to the Dharma talk on How to move to Vipassana from Samatha.

We have been to the Vihara several times before, recalling the majestic outdoor model scenes depicting the various momentous events in the life of Syakyamuni Buddha, all in sparkling white. We note that several mini wooden crossings have been added since then.

We first handed over several vegetarian dishes to the kitchen, and tiptoed into the main hall where Bhante Upananda had already began his Dharma talk.

Bhante likened our life to being on a psychological marathon, always on the move. And we are lost amidst the tremendous technological advances that we have forged, mechanically moving forward but perhaps spiritually deficient. To fill this void, we need dialog, and talk to ourselves. Hence the purpose of the retreat, which is to try to look at ourselves.

Bhante notes with concern the fixation of college students on cell phones. They are often seen fidgeting with the cell phone in hand, scrolling up and down for someone to call. The outlook is often one of seeking pleasure from without, rather than addressing the inner turbulence that is constantly brewing, bordering on bursting at the seam.

In this respect, the word meditation as is commonly understood fails to convey what it is meant for. In Pali, the word is Bhavana, which means to cultivate, to enhance, to increase, through reducing turbulence.

Samatha (an English translation is Calm Abiding Mediation) is then aimed at emptying our mind of negative feelings, akin to clearing out the garbage that is occupying space in the kitchen, as a tool for fulfillment.

All Buddhas profess to do no evils, do all good, and to purify the mind, achieved by removing moral garbage. We inherit 52 types of tendencies by birth, the majority of which is negative. And good tendencies feed on good feelings, and vice versa.

While meditation as a practice predates Buddhism, Vipassana (an English translation is Insight Meditation) is where true Buddhism/Dharma begins.

Bhante believes that the word "religion" fundamentally carries cultural connotations. A preferred alternative term, which is increasingly used in US, is spirituality, which is perceived to be culture-neutral.

He also believes that there is no religion other than emotions, which are the functional aspects of the mind. One particularly pernicious emotional display is a deep level of helplessness, sometimes manifest in our crying out for help.

Thus, Samatha deals with the inner turbulence engendered by our emotional upheavals so that in the process positive tendencies would pop up, leading to good results. What Buddha did was to change the Samatha meditation as practiced then by not surrendering to some unknown higher level/source. The Buddha taught us to seek internal divinity instead, by internalizing and humanizing the God within us.The Buddha then rediscovered Vipassana, the insight meditation that permits us to see things as they truly are through letting the dust settle such that the water is no longer troubled. Otherwise it's like trying to see through a pond of troubled water but we cannot see because there is no way to see.

He cited a personal example of a back pain sustained during a fall in Toronto in 2002. While the doctor can prescribe clinical relief, he had to deal with the pain by seeing the pain as it is, to transform the pain as is often cited by Dalai Lama.

The easiest avenue to Vipassana is through dealing with aches and pains. By believing in the ability to deal with the pain, we can realize our inner potential. Scan the body, identify the pain as one whose primary existence is in the mind, recognize that we are mortals, are in a state of perpetual change, and hence, impermanence, thereby educating our mind in the process.

Vipassana connotes discernment and wisdom, and entails diving into the mind to see its beauty. While he does not encourage everyone to do so, Bhante engages in seeing his own skull as a way to understand impermanence. As an analogy, a medical practitioner has an anatomical understanding of the body, but the Buddhists need to have a spiritual understanding of the same, peeling off the robe, the skin, the flesh, the bone, the marrow, and ultimately nothing, the ultimate emptiness.

At this point, Bhante concluded the session on the Dharma talk and the attendees then adjourned to a scrumptious vegetarian lunch prepared by volunteers. We left soon after lunch while the other attendees continued with the afternoon session on walking meditation, earning a well-timed respite from their busy schedule by engaging the mind in a dialog through meditation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The 11th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Love is in the air

“ ... Love is nature's way of giving; a reason to be living ...”

For those of us who belong to the so-called baby boomer generation, this is likely to be familiar lyrics; otherwise the tune itself, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, may also evoke a trip down the memory lane. Love can indeed move mountains. At the same time, love can be the source of untold misery too, when its twin brother, hate, comes to the fore. But it does not have to be that way, when we subscribe to the Buddhist notion of love, as expounded by Bhante Dhammawansha at the occasion of the 11th Dharma session of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MBWA) held on December, 15, 2007 at its Pinellas Park venue.

This was to be the first of the three topics that Bhante would speak on, immediately following the mutual introduction of fellow attendees, the other two being cause and effect, and compassion, two of the central tenets in Buddhism.

Broadly, love can be conditional or unconditional. The former lies within the purview of us mere mortals, it being the preoccupation of the mundane world, be it between married couples, among family members, friends, leaders and followers, etc. On the other hand, unconditional love is a particular rarity in this time when materialism reigns supreme but is professed by the Buddha and Bodhisattvas nonetheless.

Conditional love is characterized by the duality of love and hate, the line of division being often tenuous at best. It is selfish, driven by self benefits, and is loaded with expectations. It is carnal in nature and fixates on the ego. Since “I” is in the thick of action, negative emotions like anger, fear, worry, and doubt abound, thereby accentuating the negative feedback to the extent of destroying the lives of others. This proliferating trend has turned the world into a time bomb, a catastrophe in waiting.

The only way to defuse the dire situation is to propagate unconditional love, one that is fulfilling, healing, uplifting, and reinforcing. It nips hatred in the bud. Unconditional love starts from within, by changing our mind. It is said that the difference between a murderer and a saint is only one thought away.

Ever noticed that the poisons in animals are confined to certain parts of their bodies: the tail of a scorpion, the fangs of a venomous snake, the skin of some animals? But all five senses of a human body are poisonous, but they can be controlled, with the mind. Think no retaliation, practice forbearance. When in a group, do only one of two things: spiritual discussion or noble silence.

A pre-requisite to embracing unconditional love is self love, the ability and capacity to love ourselves. It may seem paradoxical, but is like having a bottle of water, you can't give it to others if you don't have one. Through self love, we will be able to give love to others. This is one way to develop the seed of unconditional love. One other way is to appreciate life, going above and beyond the oft-quoted raison detre: eat, drink and be merry.

Cultivate the right understanding, and hold the right view. Let go of clinging, avoid emotional roller coaster, talk to “anger”, without giving it plus or minus, be friendly with negative emotions, not hiding or rejecting, but accepting, observing. Be mindful, focusing in the moment.

How to be detached from the 5 senses? When seeing, just see. When touching, just touch. We need to control our senses, just like the turtle retracting its head and limbs into the shell when it encounters a tiger, leaving the tiger no choice but to walk away.

Satisfying our desires only brings temporary relief, after which they will continue to fester to become long-term afflictions.

Bhante concluded the meaningful session on love by passing on another gem of Buddhist teaching:

Worldly things are always ready for our needs, but not for our greed.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Tenth Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Consciousness and Self

Venerable Jiang Hu made a return visit to Middle Way Buddhist Association's venue at Pinellas Park at the occasion of its Tenth Dharma session to deliver the Dharma Talk entitled Buddhist Analysis of the Mind: Consciousness and the Self. As was the case during his first visit in July, the session was preceded by meditation at 7.00pm, and concluded with a Taking the Three Refuges ceremony at 9.30pm.

We left home around 6.00pm and found the evening commute on I-275 to be bearable, enabling us to reach the venue before the scheduled time of start.

The attendees in place, seated variously on chairs and on the carpeted floor, with cushions, Venerable Jian Hu first gave a brief introduction to the essentials of meditation, it being a way to tame the mind, distracted as it is by our endless search for happiness, not realizing that our preoccupation is actually a delusional facade and is the very source of our unhappiness.

Through understanding the mind, which is by nature restless and constantly seeking, we can begin to understand ourselves, the truth of others, and the problems that surround us. This insight can come from within, uncovering our potential to realize the highest level of happiness and freedom.

Meditation is a fruitful practice that begins with the right posture, one that is upright, centered, and relaxed. While the full lotus position is deemed the most stable, beginners can opt for other less “difficult” position such as half lotus, or simply cross-legged, or even sitting on a chair, if physical limitations prevent one from assuming the preferred position. This is followed by paying attention to our breathing to follow a natural unhurried rhythm, and our mind to be fully aware of what's going on. The salient points in this regard are covered in Venerable Jian Hu's first visit and would not be repeated here.

Venerable Jian Hu then led us through a sitting meditation, followed by a walking meditation to experience mindfulness in motion.

Brother Tom introducing our Dharma teacher for the night, Venerable Jian Hu.

In the Dharma talk that followed, Venerable Jian Hu cited meditation as one approach to calming the mind, to render it non-seeking and not desiring. The focus is to clear ourselves of self, the mind in pure awareness, no thoughts arising.

Another approach is a contemplative one, by analyzing consciousness. He related a parable of a group of blind men trying to make sense of what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of the animal: its tusks, its trunk (snout), its body, its tail, and its leg. As a result, each “sees” a partial and incomplete picture. This is analogous to our perceiving the world using our limited senses.

In Buddhist analysis, we have eight types of consciousness. The first five of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are similar to the five senses known in western psychology. The sixth consciousness is our thinking faculty, one that categorizes, and assigns names to objects the first five consciousnesses come into contact with and therefore co-arises with them. However, this is not sixth sense or extra-sensory perception (ESP) that people in the west are wont to invoke.

As a result of the co-arising, our perception of reality through the five sense consciousness is often colored and distorted by our sixth consciousness, with accompanying good and bad thoughts. These then lead to good or bad karma, and retributions. In this regard, it is the one most responsible for our fate. The principle of causality enshrined therein is a central canon in Buddhism, and is somewhat akin to the western refrain, what goes around, comes around.

A good example of our sense limitation is we can only see a tiny range of the entire electric-magnetic wave spectrum, the visible light. Outside this visible light range, a wide assortment of EM waves ranging from microwaves to X-rays that we are blind to have been tapped to maintain and advance our well-being. But when we do not understand the limitations of our senses, we become ignorant.

Venerable Jian Hu then related a personal story of talking a little girl out of consuming meat. The girl was holding a puppy and admitted to not wanting to hurt it when asked. But her eyes swelled with tears when she was asked whether a chicken would feel pain when its leg is cut off. So often we are so used to seeing a small part of reality, in this case, a golden yellow drumstick on our dinner plate, we become detached from it. But if we are able to see a bigger picture, through a larger window to the world if you will, we can generate compassion within us and behave compassionately toward others.

The 8th consciousness is the Alaya or storehouse consciousness. It is also a field, akin to one from which farmers can reap harvest. It always metamorphoses, changing our perspective. As a storehouse, it is a repository of “karma seeds” created by the first seven consciousness. As a field, it can preserve the karma seeds, and when the conditions are ripe, the seeds will grow and bear fruits (karmic retributions).

The 7th consciousness is the Manas or self consciousness. In everyday lingo, it's the ego, a rather irrational one, through clinging to the 8th consciousness. Unfortunately, it's not the real self.

On the other hand, awareness, that fundamental perception that lies at the base of consciousness, does not change. We are equal at the fundamental level, but diverge through alterations by cultural conditioning. To realize your true self is to empty yourself.

Venerable Jian Hu concluded the talk by offering the following advice:

Your can only convert your enemy through compassion.
Work as a way to serve humanity.
Life is impermanent. Accept it.
Do something for the departed by doing good deeds and dedicating the merits to them.

We left the session at the conclusion of the talk and did not stay to witness the Taking the Three Refuges, but I'm sure those who did have had a very blessed night.

Here I would like to conclude with one of the two poems on consciousness from the handout of Venerable Jian Hu:

There are eight brothers from one womb,
One is smart, one is dumb,
Five are out there doing business,
one stays home keeping the account book.

Can you name each of the eight consciousness as described?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dharma in Multimedia Format

I have taken to viewing Dharma talks on DVDs with wify, a habit she has cultivated for some time now. Previously I did stop briefly about my business and sat down to watch with her. But it was never sustained. This time, though, is different, largely because the delivery goes beyond the pedantic, the speaker often weaving life happenings into the wisdom lessons.

So for the past few days we were watching several recordings of Dharma talks given by Venerable Master Huei Lu when he delivered a series of Dharma talks over three days in early December 2005 at the Singapore Dharma Convention 2005. The three themes that he covered are: Delving into the Karmic Forces; Transforming Knowledge into Wisdom; and Understanding the Mind and Discovering Buddha Self.

The scanned DVD cover.

Ven. Huei Lu, who is domiciled at the Kaohsiung Wen Shu School in Taiwan, is a witty and erudite Dharma teacher who has a knack for freely sprinkling humorous anecdotes just at the right moment to emphasize a point, effortlessly drawing quotes from various sutras at will. Perhaps he was speaking in Singapore where English is widely spoken, he resorted to the use of some everyday usage of English to illustrate the ways toward detachment, or at least lessening the craving for fame, status, and keeping up with the Joneses.

A screen shot of Ven. Huei Lu delivering the Dharma talk.

One instance is to“shut up” when you have nothing new to say. He cited the example of a couple engaging in frequent squabbles. Each time the wife would say, “If not for the three kids, I would have left you long ago”. The way to marital bliss is for each party is to say what needs to be said, once, and then just walk away, ostensibly to cool down.

The other is the ubiquitous “so what?” as a repartee to any comments, the more glorifying the more potent it becomes. He is so rich. She is so beautiful. He is so famous. And a retort like “so what?” would help diminish, if not eliminate, conceit for those put on the pedestals and envy for those around the pedestal. For fame, beauty, and wealth are all impermanent. And the earlier we realize these simple truths, the earlier we will be enlightened, and be in touch with the proverbial happiness that has been so elusive for many.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Languages: the Lifeline of our Communication

Reading an English Buddhist text can be a revealing exercise, in the sense that some of the Buddhist terms appear familiar. I'm referring to their similarity to romanized Malay words that we have learned since young, both in spelling and in meaning.

The teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, who hailed from India, as embodied in the various sutras (scriptures) passed down through centuries, naturally would adopt the lingua franca of the day, Sanskrit. This only goes to show that some of the Malay terms have Sanskrit roots. Here is a sample, from the perspective of Buddhist terms, courtesy of this on-line Buddhist Glossary of Terms, and this Wikipedia source:

dana: Giving, liberality; offering, alms.
Dharmacakra: the wheel of Dharma (laws and doctrines), which means cakra is wheel or disc as in melontar cakra (discus throwing) as a field event in athletics.
dosa: Aversion; hatred; anger. One of three unwholesome roots in the mind. This generally means sin in Malay.
dukkha: Stress; suffering; pain; distress; discontent.
naga: A term commonly used to refer to strong, stately, and heroic animals, such as elephants and magical serpents.
rupa: Body; physical phenomenon; sense datum.
sukha: Pleasure; ease; satisfaction.

So in a way, we have learned some words from other languages that can be written in romanized forms. One exception that I know is Chinese, even when in the romanized form called Ping Yin as it is a system based on phonetics only. The Chinese characters are in block form made up of basic strokes, and they are mono-syllabic, one sound per character, which can be any of the four basic intonations.

Personally, I have not been very careful at enunciation when it comes to Chinese, often giving a word the wrong intonation, evoking earnest reprimand from wify, and perhaps silent demur from others. But I have tidied up somewhat. And having a chance to converse with Chinese from China and Taiwan in Mandarin since we moved here is a big help.

Not to say that my spoken English is flawless. I recall attending an internal seminar on presentation last year. Each attendee was asked to do several 5-minute oral presentations, once at the beginning, once mid-way, and once at the end, with critiques from both the course instructor and fellow colleagues. Guess what, I was told that the proper way to pronounce the first syllabus of the word “colleague”, or at least the American way, is like “call”, and not “curl” as I have been happily doing it before that day. Even CE, my youngest, is not averse to, in fact I think she is thrilled at, correcting her good old Dad's spoken English.

But that's OK since I'm not a native English speaker anyway. One thing I've learned though, is to speak slowly, making sure to enunciate each sound syllabus clearly, a far cry from my days of staccato machine gun-like delivery. I also find that speaking slowly helps to reduce my accent, an acquired trait that I just can't get rid of.

I marvel at the beauty of both the spoken and written word, and their inherent utility in communication. We should feel blessed that we are able to read, write, speak, and hear, and therefore be extra careful in wielding these tools of communication lest we be misconstrued. Similarly, we need to be extra attentive in listening lest we misconstrue others.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Three Buddhas

I recently finished Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra (HarperCollins, 2007), a feat stretching over several weeks of intermittent reading. The reading times occurred in relatively bigger chunks toward the end of the book, a reflection of perhaps my resolve to get to the author's conclusion as regards the epic journey of one of the greatest spiritual beacons there is.

At the outset, Mr. Chopra makes it very clear that this is a story, as evidenced both from the subsidiary title and his note right before the story unfolds when he writes “I wrote this book as a sacred journey, fictionalized in many of its externals but psychologically true ...”

In that respect, Mr. Chopra's Buddha is not unlike the unique manga work by Osamu Tezuka, entitled simply Buddha (English translation, Vertical, 2006) in which Mr. Tezuka took liberty with his own imagination manifested in graphic details.

I started with the first volume, Kapilavastu, which I bought from Barnes and Noble, but have yet to go beyond the first quarter. I used to like reading comic books, or graphic novels to be politically correct about it now. I think I made the switch, unconsciously though, to the written word, when I was in high school. I find that imagination is a very powerful ability, conjuring up myriads of scenarios, possibilities that a picture/drawing can hardly evoke. A mental movie would start to weave through my mind, in consonance with the flow of the author's concoction laid out in words.

Another namesake of the book is by Karen Armstrong (Penguins Group, 2004), which I checked out from a local public library a few months back. This book is much more matter-of-fact, and is a bit dry for my taste. That would explain why the book was returned hardly touched. However, I tend to have the same problem with most non-fiction works, or shall we say, books read for knowledge as they normally put a demand on your ability to understand. For fiction, one just hops along mirthfully, oblivious to the stumps/chasms that may cross the path.

Of the three Buddhas, I only finished Mr. Chopra's. Since I already have some familiarity with Sakyamuni Buddha, both the man himself and his teachings, gleaned from reading, usually only several sections, the buddhist texts that wify brought home after occasional visits to temples, Buddha did not leave a lasting impression in, or resonate, with me. I did enjoy some of the details that have eluded me in my intermittent reading of the subject, especially his interaction and characterization of his sometimes nemesis, Devadatta. Buddha's parting words (or rather Mr. Chopra's) on Devadatta is meant to be directed at the Devadatta in each of us:

When you're obsessed with hatred for someone, it's inevitable that you will return one day as his disciple. He [Devadatta] will still be arrogant and proud. But it won't matter. The fire of passion burns out eventually. Then you dig through the ashes and discover a gem. You pick it up, you look at it with disbelief. The gem was inside you all the time. It is yours to keep forever. It is buddha.”

May we all find the gem that has always been within us.

In terms of my personal benefits though, it has to be the six pages of questions and answers at the end of the book. Entitled The Art of Non-Being, Mr. Chopra expounded, albeit concisely, on the three ways to live the wisdom of the Buddha: social (forming groups of disciples into a Sangha), ethical (centered on the value of compassion), and mystical (taking to heart the message of non-self, necessitating ego death).

Admittedly, despite Mr. Chopra's valiant attempts, some notions are still too nebulous to sink our teeth to, so to speak. Example are the negative phrases such as “non-doing” and “no desire”. The former, in Mr. Chopra's words, “isn't passivity but a state of openness to all possibilities". Similarly, the latter is to be understood “in a positive sense, as fulfillment” whence “desire is irrelevant”. Then there is non-self, which does not mean that you lose yourself at all. Rather, “it's who you are when there are no personal attachments.”

It seems fitting to end this blog with an excerpt from the last page of the book (pg. 278):

Buddhism is a do-it-yourself project, and that's the secret of its appeal in the modern world. Don't we all ultimately concentrate on personal suffering and what our individual fate will be? Buddha asked for nothing else as a starting point, and yet he promised that the end point would be eternity.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The 9th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Spiritual and Medical Benefits of Prostration, the Buddhist Nexus

We usually cover our car journey from our home to the usual venue of the monthly Dharma session of Middle Way Buddhist Association at Pinellas Park on the other side of the Tampa Bay in less than 35 minutes. Our usual route is by way of I-275, which can be notoriously jam-packed on weekdays, or on certain weekends when the Bucs, and lately the Bulls of USF, are playing their home games. Yesterday was not a game day, but then again we have not taken this route in the afternoon before as the Dharma sessions are held in the morning of a saturday.

But to accommodate the schedule of the speaker of the 9th Dharma session held yesterday, the time was changed to 2pm. We left home at 1.15pm, and were 15 minutes late. That was even after we had decided to take a detour through SR60 via Courtney Campbell Bridge to the north to cross the Bay and then turned south along US19 to Pinellas Park after we were caught in a snail crawl just coming into the Tampa downtown portion of I-275. We wasted some minutes in “just going along” with the optimistic frame of mind that perhaps the backup was from traffic going to the Veteran Expressway and not the I-275 bridge over the Bay. We knew our optimism was misplaced when the exit lane at the turnoff to Veteran Expressway was empty.

So we joined the session while the attendees were in the middle of meditation, most seated on the floor carpet while some on chairs. I took my seat at the back, my usual position, and plunged into deep concentration, or at least attempted to. The usual spectrum of noises came up, and waned, accompanied by the usual allotment of extraneous thoughts that the noises engender. But I remained motionless, save for some occasional shaking which I knowingly corrected, or arrested, my awareness at work. Soon I heard the familiar chime of a bell, a cue to awaken to another reality, complete with sight and sound. And that would be the talk on Traditional Chinese Medicine by Dr. Peter Chang, a National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)-certified diplomat in both Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology currently based in Orlando.

This may seem as a departure from the usual theme of the Dharma sessions that revolve around the wisdom of Buddhism, but as is soon obvious from the Dr. Chang's delivery, the link is unmistakable, even though Traditional Chinese Medicine can be embraced in its own right as “a safe and effective alternative for [our] health” as the introductory leaflet on Dr. Chang's credentials recommends.

Entitled “Harmony Chinese Medicine”, the leaflet states further that:

Oriental medicine consists of acupuncture, Chinese Herbology, bodywork (tui na) [similar to body massage in broad terms], nutritional therapy, moaxabustion [the more usual spelling is moxibustion, which is “the burning of moxa or other substances on the skin to treat diseases or to produce analgesia], gua sha ["an immediate form of domestic "first-aid" intervention" and "involves repeated pressured strokes over lubricated skin with a smooth edge", "commonly a ceramic Chinese soup spoon was used, or a well worn coin, even honed animal bones, water buffalo horn, or jade"], cupping, and exercise based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Established as an energetic [I can't help but speculate whether "energestics" could have been a more apt description from a similar usage I'm familiar with in describing the movement of sediment grains in water in terms of flow energy] model, Oriental Medicine recognizes a vital energy behind all life forms. This energy, Qi, was discovered to flow along specific channels throughout the body knows as meridians. Each channel is associated and interacts with a particular physiological system and internal organ. A deficiency or imbalance of energy in the meridians is considered to be the cause of disease.

In the above, I have taken the liberty to look up some terms and reproduced the brief explanations from these cited sources. These are not alien topics to me, having come from Malaysia, a typical Far East locale where Chinese medicine was brought in together with the influx of Chinese immigrants into the country a century ago. While personally I have not undergone such medical treatment (however, I could only vouch for that as far back as my memory permits, which is my childhood days), but I have seen it applied to my own brother when we were young.

Dr. Chang started by citing some of the common physical afflictions resulting from car accidents, sports injuries and physical mishaps such as falling, and job-related ailments. Neck pain, whiplash, back pain readily come to mind while we are all too familiar with stiff neck (zero range motion), numb arms, pinched nerves from a sedentary job. So what better way to start the session than to look at our spinal structure and the uniqueness of each of its components in relation to its link to different internal organs through nerve connections.

Sister Lily handing out pencils for us to jot notes, back to the school days.

Dr. Chang then proceeded to enumerate the type of nerve connection to each vertebra of our vertebral column, aka spine, sub-divided into different sections as illustrated in the image below combined from the two handouts distributed during the session. Instead of putting these details in the handouts, Dr. Chang had opted for oral explanations, correctly rationalizing that active participation from the attendees, in this case listening, inquiring, and jotting down with understanding, would have served us better. And it did, as evident from my list here, complemented by the clarifications sought by fellow attendees and my own post-session Internet sleuthing:

Our vertebral column, front and sectional views (note that the Sacrum consists of five vertebrae fused into one, and the Coccyx is perhaps better known by its layman counterpart, the tail bone).

Cervical Section:
C1: development of eyes and ears
C2, C3: blood circulation to the brain
C4, C5: diaphragm, eyes, ears, nose
C5, C6: throat, thyroid, hand, heart
C7: heart and hand

Thoracic Section:
T1, T2: trachea [think asthma], heart, wrist
T3: lungs, heart [important for skeletal and muscles development in teens]
T4: lungs, liver
T5: lungs, eyes, stomach
T6: diaphragm, ribs, stomach
T7: kidney function, diaphragm
T8: diaphragm, pancreas, liver
T9: liver, pancreas, spleen
T10: kidney
T11: gastro-intestinal tract, uterus [women take heed]
T12: large intestine

Lumbar:
L1, L2: urinary bladder, intestine, liver
L3: lower legs, reproductive system
L4: lower extremities, lower legs, large intestine, bowel movement
L5: urinary bladder, lower extremities, prostate [men take heed]

Sacrum (five vertebrae fused into one):
S1: urinary bladder, lower extremities
S2: reproductive organs
S3: reproductive organs, anus
S4, S5: anus, urinary bladder.

There you have it. I'm sure there would be omissions and would appreciate any feedback.

Dr. Chang also touched briefly on the various points of the back as per a third handout (not shown, perhaps with anticipation for a thorough scrutiny in a follow-up session) with special mention of the Yamen (literally translated as the mute gate) point located just below C1, a point when correctly pricked can make a mute talk, but with the risk of bodily paralysis when incorrectly administered. Therefore, acupuncturists never take risks with this particular point for risk of losing certification.

Next to follow was the bending exercise, executed slowly from the head all the way to the lower back, working on each vertebra and its nerve connection from C1 to L5, and then backing up. This is done by visualizing each of the vertebra and reciting each one in turn as the bending proceeds and reversing the order while backing up. In this way, it's as if we are working on all our organs in one pass. The recommended number of repetitions is 5 – 10, any time, any place, the stretching exercise that promotes blood circulation imparting the benefits of “paying nothing and getting everything” as per the living motto of Dr. Chang.
Dr. Peter Chang demonstrating the traditional Buddhist hand gesture.

In Buddhism, the bending exercise forms part of the prostration ritual, one that is aimed at purifying the body, the mouth, and the mind. However, the prostration, just like the bending exercise, can be denomination-neutral in the sense that it could be done in paying homage to any spiritual guide that one is in tune to.

While the movement is best learned visually, I will attempt to verbalize the salient points here:

1) Joining palms, legs spread slightly, and head, spine and legs forming a vertical line.
2) Bending the neck, counting C1 – C7.
3) Bending the back, counting T1 – L5, loosening the whole arms, resting comfortably by the sides.
4) Bending the knees, hands reaching down to rest on the ground, palms faced down.
5) Flattening the feet, the hip sitting on the heels.
6) Lowering the head to touch the ground, palms slightly extended beyond the forehead and turning them face up.
7) Turning the palms face down, proceeding to back up by first letting the toes touching the ground.
8) Pulling the hands back just next to the forehead, raising the bent head/back and the knees.
9) Continuing to straighten the back, and then the neck, palms joined.
10) Repeat as needed.

A word of advice from Dr. Chang: back up with both knees together, not favoring the left or the right in the process. This would make the more difficult movement of backing up easier.

Now that we have learned the basic steps, it's up to us to practice at home, or at work, or anytime and anywhere where conditions permit, to master the movement such that it becomes second nature, and for those of us who are Buddhists at heart, a spontaneous manifestation of our awakening, conscious to the elevation of self introspection.

Back at home, wify showed me a Chinese Buddhist book, entitled Prostration and Medical Study in translation, that details the intimate link between prostration and medical benefits. Published by Kaoshiong Pure Land Buddhist Association (2002) and edited by Venerable Master Dao Zheng, the book details the underlying fundamentals of prostration as an avenue to conditioning our body and mind by infusing humility and to safeguarding our body and mind against stiffness and stress by imbibing compassion and forbearance.

The book cover, with English translation of the passage thereon.

The best feature of the book is undoubtedly the many pictorial illustrations of the Dos and Don'ts of the prostration, including an in-depth examination of the physiological merits of each sub-movement, and the Buddhist wisdom embodied in each.

A scanned page from the book, in black and white, of part of the prostration.

For example, both hands and knees in synchronized motion (another major sequence is adopted in India where the right side is considered the right way, hence right hand/knee first in that order, according to the book), both sides touching the ground at the same time, symbolize equal support for concentration (left) and wisdom (right), and equal application of kindness (left) and compassion (right).

Whichever noble spiritual underpinning that we subscribe to, let's practice the bending exercise and prostration as the fusion of Buddhist teachings and scientific principles of human anatomy, physiology, and physics.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mind's Medicine for Positive Living

Lately, I have been drawn toward the so-called buddoblogosphere, a term I first came across here with the definition "buddhist blogging outside walled social communities". On further exploration, I landed on several Chinese buddhist blogs, one of which has this great article, literaly translated, Mind's Medicine for Positive Living.

Succumbing to my translation bug, here I'm at it again. The writer started off with observing that life is rife with ironies, and it is easy for us to get lost in the vast ocean of humanity, being pushed around in circles, oblivious to the fact that we do and can have a say on where we are headed: feeding our mind with the right medicine. And herein is the writer's brand of mind's medicine toward positive living. Partake of them and decide for yourself that life can be what you make it out to be: a virtuous cycle.

Those of you who have seen my previous attempts would know that I have always exercised some liberty in paraphrasing the substance of the original work rather than literal translation of the form. And this is no exception.

Mind's Medicine for Positive Living

Our lives on this mundane world is full of contrast: short and yet circuitous; blessed and yet hapless; illustrious and yet forlorn; joyous and yet sorrowful; happy and yet disappointed; magnificent and yet despondent; wholesome and yet callous; magical and yet ordinary; beautiful and yet destitute; loving and yet envious; upright and yet petty; reaping and yet slipping away, etc.

A kind Mind, loving kindness and eagerness in giving.
Everyone is naturally endowed with kindness. There is no pretension, nor feigning. Once imbued with kindness, we will have to live by principles. No longer is minding our own business an option, neither is aloofness, regarding everything else being beneath us, a compatible frame of mind. Rather, we ought to voluntarily put “a good deed a day” into action, reaping the richness in the merits accrued. Loving kindness emanates within us without coercion, a natural outpouring of genuine caring, a self-driven manifestation of the earnest desire to give. A kind disposition makes for harmony and begets reciprocity, the wholesome merits that ensue permeating our world with love.

A broad mind, its expansiveness all-embracing.
As the Chinese saying goes, broadness of mind and the girth of body goes hand in hand, therefore a perpetual smile is the trademark of one who is thus equipped, caressing everyone he/she coming into contact with like a spring breeze. The seed can't be as big as the tree; the tree can't be as high as the mountain; the mountain can't be as huge as the ocean; but the ocean is not as infinite as our mind is.

An upright mind, like a beacon illuminating the righteous path.
Uprightness of mind banishes all selfish thoughts, accentuating a steadfastness toward transparency. Being upright is not taking chances when opportunity knocks, but embracing humility at its core. Neither is it a cunning employed to coax compliance, but is an outright offer of help. Being upright is not scheming to collude, but is dealing in the open, transparency being paramount. Neither is it trickery, but intentional scrutiny to ascertain shortcomings for timely redressal. The last but not the least, being upright is not short-changing on impulse, but determining to be even-keeled.

A tranquil mind, like still water.
Tranquility comes from an equanimity of mind, unperturbed by life's ongoings. A tranquil mind manifests in being comfortable at laughing at the vicissitude of life, and is the epitome of our ascension to a new us.

A carefree mind, one at ease.
A carefree mind is a unique optimistic yearning for the better.

A peaceful mind, one not changing with the environment.
Peace of mind is the fulfillment that comes from accomplishments, and the stability in the face of adversity.

A sincere mind, earnestness unchecked.
Sincerity is a mirror, reflecting our culture, our knowledge, our taste, our personality, our character, our poise, our upbringing, our innate qualities, etc. Without a sincere heart, it's futile even to find our own space in this world. Obviously, sincerity is a direct expression of inter-personal relation. At the same time, sincerity is what binds us into a coherent whole, underpinned by a sense of mutual trust. A sincere mind is a befitting goal the attainment of which is sure to define our moral compass.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

2 Seconds, 3 Seconds and As Long as It Takes

What is 3 seconds? That's about the length of time it took me to type out the question. Well, it's also the title of a book I'm reading now by Les Parrott (Collins, 2007).

At first read, it seems a compromise between Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and what has been touted as its flip side, Think by Michael R. LeGault.

The spectrum of thinking encompassed by the three books becomes apparent if we were to justapose the three titles and their respective taglines in the order of increasing time horizons:

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
3 Seconds: The Power of Thinking Twice
Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can't Be Made in the Blink of an Eye.

The first book deals with the first two seconds, the thinking characterized by a flash, a gut feeling. The second book deals with the 3rd second: first impulse is always debatable at best. And the last book, well, as long as it takes but presumably still abiding by the practical constraint of time.

But I think the end is the same: considered decision making, or to borrow from 3 Seconds, “to move from whatever to whatever it takes.”

I find 3 Seconds to be highly readable. Hardly two pages (that's what we see when we open up the book: two opposing pages) go by without a heading or sub-heading, in bold face. Relevant Quotes are sprinkled throughout the book, in boxes. Here is a typical one:

Man who says “it cannot be done” should not interrupt man who is doing it.” Chinese Proverb.

Hard as I tried, I just could not recall coming across this adage in Chinese. This may be my Blink speaking. Perhaps I have to settle for Think.

I'm an engineer by training. Analytics is my forte. So I fashion myself after Think, because the consequence of a mistake is downright unacceptable. Engineers do resort to judgment, what some would call educated guesses or calculated risk, but really they are usually borne out of experience. We also have heuristics, the rule of the thumb, again honed through results of practical application, a shade above trial and error.

That's at the societal level where public safety is paramount. Within the personal realm, I usually act on impulse, especially on buying, including books. The lady of the house would really shop, manifesting the fine balance between elegance and affordability. On the other hand, I would usually pick the first item that meets the criterion of functionality, unwilling to invest more time in idle search, and disbelieving the truism of some that the fun is in the searching.

As I mellow with advancing age, and dare I say, accumulated wisdom, I have relented somewhat. Now I view shopping not merely as a pecuniary decision, but rather as a joint activity, a shared moment of discovery (as in chancing upon something unexpected, in the good sense), with loved ones.

As much as our life is marked by constant change and inter-connectedness, there is no one particular strategy of thinking that would suffice for all occasions as embodied in the oft-repeated refrain: there is no one-size-fits-all, Band Aid, cookie cutter approach to living. The three would come in useful during one time or the other, and to limit ourselves to just anyone of them is as good as curtaining the range of our repertoire.

So happy blinking or thinking, or whatever it takes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Remembering A Father Figure

There has been a loss in the family. Wify's dad passed away yesterday, the unexpected news received via her brother on the other seaboard of US. Even though he had just undergone an operation to address the hernia problem recently, he seemed fine and was well on the road to recovery. The night before, he had complained about stomach pain but the next morning when he was preparing to be driven to the Hospital, he lapsed into unconsciousness and never woke up.

My father-in-law would have celebrated his 80th birthday next year. In fact, our plan was to return to Malaysia next year for the occasion, both for him and his wife. But it was not to be. Wify spoke to him over the phone a few days earlier, and never suspected the end could be so near.

Impermanence. That's what's life is all about. We can plan all we want, but life seems to steer its own course. It punishes the procrastinators among us, whose ubiquitous refrain is there's always tomorrow. Little do we know that tomorrow will arrive in ways that bear little semblance to what we have hoped for.

I have known my father-in-law as long as I have known my wife, but his personality only came forth after we had gone steady, when I started spending more time at his home than at home. Early on two of his traits struck me as his defining qualities.

The first is a strong sense of right and wrong, embodied in his disciplinarian self. This is perhaps not surprising because of his position as the headmaster of a primary Chinese school. Wify and her siblings were well-coached since young, any untoward behavior being severely dealt with.

The second is filial piety. He personified the eternally grateful son, especially to his mother, who was instrumental in getting him an education that put him in good stead for his vocation later on.

Upon retirement, he continued to move around on his own, scrambling with young passengers half his age to gain a foothold in the then popular mode of public transport, the Mini-bus, which was often filled to capacity and beyond. He often went downtown to attend talks, to run his errands of submitting his articles to Chinese newspapers. Oh yes, for a time, he was a textbooks vendor too, visiting schools to notch up a sale.

As he aged, he gave up his book vending business, much to the relief of his children. Then he gravitated toward newspaper cutting, and solving Chinese word puzzles, sometimes enlisting our help in the venture.

He made periodic trips back to his hometown where he had taught for a couple of decades, a journey requiring several hours by train, when he was still the Chairman of the local chapter of the Clan association. He was instrumental in organizing the annual Respecting the Seniors dinners, busy with calling potential donors for prizes to be given away.

He was a well-respected community leader, often leading in charity drives, and donating whatever amount he had managed to save through leading a frugal life to worthy causes, especially those related to education. He has made known his wish to set up an education trust fund under his parents' name.

Now he has departed to another world, leaving us with plenty of fond memories to cherish for a lifetime. But his legacy of frugality, of filial piety, of uprightness, shall remain in our consciousness, forever illuminating our own path to the same ideals. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yeh, My First Annual Anniversary in Blogging

This is a baby step for me in blogosphere ... So in humility, let's start the ride together.”

The date was Sep 30, 2006, and the above are the starting and ending sentences of my first blog, aptly entitled Maiden Blog. One year since on the very day, it seems an opportune time to reflect on my virtual journey, and to project what the future holds, both as an individual and as a member of the digital commons.

First, some statistics. In the past year, I have written a total of 288 blog entries here and a companion blog here. At the beginning, there were some common entries, then subsequently each going on its own way following a rather loose division of musings on my personal/family setting in the other blog and beyond to the global dimension in here.

Sometimes the division may become blurred as exemplified by entries on Buddhism in both, driven by my personal desire to share the Buddhist edicts, and also at times dictated by the need to ensure that the duration of inactivity between blogging does not become glaring. That yields an average blogging frequency of about 0.78 per day. This fractional number of course is merely an artifact, because blog articles are counted in integers: you either write one or none. But it does give one some satisfaction as regards how engaged one has been in an endeavor, a surrogate of sort for commitment.

That's from a very personal viewpoint. A more objective assessment of the impact can also be made based on the number of comments, in my case mostly from personal acquaintances, and also the hits as tracked using StatCounter. I keep tab of the former as I treat them as valuable feedback that warrants my response and acknowledgment, at best I could. I can say that the number never goes beyond double digit, most of the time staying within the grasp of one hand (hint: count the fingers on one hand).

On the other hand, checking the StatCounter on a daily basis lies within the purview of wify. Sometimes, she would inform me if there has been an unusual spike in the hit histogram, exceeding 50, say. At times, she would let me know from which “esoteric” location my blogs have been accessed in an attempt to assure me that my messages, if there are, do reach far and wide.

But I take all these in my strides, writing my blogs as the urge arises in me, not seeking gratification. Since I have a regular income from employment, there is no need for me to resort to Google Adsense that pays on a per click basis in exchange for displaying targeted advertisements in one's blog.

Personally, and this is my personal view, these are distractions that I can do without in spaces that I can control, such as my own blog. Just like I'm free to decide on the format of my blog, within reasons, others can equally exercise their discretion to do likewise. No rationalization is needed, and nothing is imputed. One does what one is comfortable with, no horde mentality, no false sense of aloofness and sublimation, or rising above the materially driven masses, self-professed or otherwise.

The problem with taking a too personal approach to blogging is that one tends toward spontaneity, breeding haphazard topic selection (practically anything under the sky), seemingly hopping from one spot to the next without any attempt toward categorization. I have seen blogs with articles grouped under topics on the side bar, which is a boost to readers enamored of methodological searches. The best I have done is to provide label tags, filling the need in a somewhat more detailed fashion.

But one constant in my blogs are the hand-drawn pictures of nature (mostly parts of plants and flowers), the handiwork of wify. Some of the entries are also heavy on the pictorial side, another attempt at heterogeneity to promote a varied appeal to the blog design. But most of all, I try to vary my writing style, sometimes experimenting with words/phrases that have just entered into my lexicon.

These I will continue to do, as I look forward to the second annual anniversary of my foray into personal journalism in the cyberspace. I hope you have had a great ride, at least not a bumpy one on account of my “free-wheeling” style, and look forward to your continued patronage, to borrow a cliché.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Knowing the How/When of Talking and Listening

Conversation is a human activity between two people: a speaker and a listener, during which their roles can interchange. That much everybody knows. Some are good speakers, while some are good listeners. We learn that too through engaging in our own share of conversations. But are we both a good speaker and a good listener rolled into one?

I found some simple answers, not entirely surprising as we know them but somehow do not put them into practice, in this brief Chinese article, which I chanced upon while Net surfing. As usual, I was hit by the translation bug, thinking that sharing it here, in English, might prompt some of us who are wont to talking more than listening, into recognizing the peril of listening to our own voice too often, and hence becoming ones who know how to talk by listening well. Read on then.

Knowing the How/When of Talking and Listening
[This title is a tad more explicit than its Chinese counterpart would suggest.]

When one learns to talk, one needs to learn to listen as well. They form the two sides of the same coin, encompassing the full range of the ability to talk well.

Our ability to talk hinges on two pre-requisites: unbiased thinking and patience. Talking is a two-way communication, and is not a monologue; and patience is required in facing up to others’ inquiries and opinions, no matter how naïve or ignorant they may seem. A simple question should beget a simple answer from us; likewise for a complex question.

Talking is for conveying our thoughts, and not for finding faults in others. Therefore, refrain from imputing on the weaknesses of others. Such an inconsiderate action will only bring about undesirable consequences, much like what one would expect from poking somebody’s eyes.

Sometimes, you don’t need to expound on some principles, but just listening attentively can convey an understanding, an agreement, an acceptance. At other times, people just need to be listened to, and not seek any profound treatise.

Talking too much dilutes the significance of the intended message. It also runs the risk of disclosing irrelevant and inappropriate contents by encouraging the proverbial loose tongue. This is often construed as bragging, consequently diminishing the worth of the communication. Therefore, know what to talk and when to talk, so that our talks are not relegated to mere restroom graffiti, compromising their worth.

Lying leads to cheap talks, their values severely discounted. The lying may at first be prompted by specific circumstances. However it may easily develop into a pattern if we are not cautious, turning us into habitual liars regardless of the circumstances. But a liar cannot hope to escape detection, and will be branded as unreliable, both in speech and as a person.

Sometimes, we would like to offer constructive views. But the timing of the delivery, and whether the mode of the delivery is acceptable to others, become prime considerations.

When we come across rumors, we, like judges, should not view than as absolutes. Instead, try to understand their points of view, which are likely borne out of their peculiar set of circumstances. We should listen objectively like judges do, from different perspectives.

Even when you understand the real issues, you might not need to defend the truth. Explaining the truth that is not acceptable to the other party is not going to change his/her perception. It might even lead to further strain and misunderstanding. We are all different, and some of us are more prone to misunderstanding others.

Arguing can mutually motivate each other to greater understanding provided both sides have the right frame of mind. Otherwise, arguing becomes meaningfulness if it is stalemated by entrenched polemics.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Zen-like LIFE

This is a busy week for TV series premiers. Some are new seasons, while some are brand new shows, trying to earn our loyalty. I knew Criminal Minds, on CBS, was slated to premier last night. It being one of my favorite shows, having won me over in the last season, I made time for it at 9.00pm. And the usual BAU members were in their elements, profiling unsubs and catching criminals.

When it ended, I channel-surfed awhile and chanced upon this new series, Life, over at NBC. Straightaway I was hooked, no less because of the Zen-like statements made by Crews, the main character, a detective-turned-prisoner-turned-detective trying to take his life back. Besides, I like the name of the series, simply LIFE.

The guy with the Zen look is Crews ...

The very first few scenes already set the tone: Crews reading The Path to Zen in his prison cell. I can't quite make up the author of the book but the picture at the back of the book seems to be that of a lady. Perhaps I would try googling later.

Obviously this is a well-read book, crumpled and all at the edges ...

Among other things, the website of the show features a Zen guide. It contains a brief description of Zen meditation, and the emphases among the different Zen schools.

Open at your peril ... Just kidding.

I managed to transcribe this statement of Crews (by watching the video, repeatedly) made to the face of a prison guard who was trying to provoke him to become an angry convict:

Anger ruins joy, steals the goodness of my heart, forces my mouth to say terrible things. Overcoming anger brings peace of mind, a mind without regrets. Overcoming anger, I will be delightful and loved by anyone".

"The universe makes fun of us all," the hero intoned sagely. Go figure.

On another scene, while he was speeding along a road in a car, he professed that he was not attached to the car. And true enough, he was shown here about to take a big bite off his favorite food, a fruit, after watching his car go under the back-tracking tractor driven by his erstwhile cell-mate.

"No attachment whatsoever."

I think I will add this to my to-watch TV Series list. If you missed the premier, you can check out the pilot here and make up your own mind about it. But be prepared to be interrupted by some commercials from the sponsor, TARGET. But this would pale compared to the strings of TV commercials during the actual show last night.

[The images are all screen captures of the website, except for the first one, which was downloaded from the same site.]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The 8th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Zen - A Life of Wisdom by Master Jian Zong

The 8th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association was graced by Master Jian Zong, a Dharma instructor from the CT Zen Center of Sunnyvale, CA. Held on Sep 15, 2007 at the Pinellas Park venue of MWBA, the session followed the usual format of meditation , commencing at 9.30am sharp, followed by a Dharma discussion led by the guest speaker of the day, Master Jian Zong.

Master Jian Zong first prefaced the meditation session with dispensing some Buddhist wisdom, which he aptly titled Inner Kungfu [Chinese Martial Arts]. Different than the usual connotation of taming the enemy/opponent, a physical entity, Inner Kungfu here aims at taming the mind, which is the foundation of our love.

Brother Tom introducing Master Jian Zong at the beginning of the meditation session.

And Zen is in the heart of Inner Kungfu. It is recognized as the mind of the Buddha, and conjures up a self-driven endeavor to get enlightenment, through getting rid of stress, pressure, and anxiety.

We all need a good (re)charge now and then, which is facilitated by undergoing a high quality of rest, engendered by meditation. And relaxation is the first step to meditation, imbuing in us positive thinking and thoughts.

Master Jian Zong then enumerated the three basic steps to practicing sitting meditation involving our posture, breathing, and mind.

Good posture includes an upright body, sitting cross-legged in full or half-Lotus position, Diamond hand gesture symbolizing an unmoving mind, closed eyes or lowered eyelids but looking inward. Such good posturing totally centers the body and settles the mind conveniently.

A pure, clear, and still mind is what to strive for. That means doing constant battle with three mental states:

a) wandering thoughts: remedies include being in the present moment, letting go and leaving everything behind.

b) dozing: remedies include clarifying the mind, and physical interventions such as opening the eyes and massaging the head/face, gently rocking the body.

c) boredom: boredom breeds lethargy, and arises from a mind that is not focused. And therein lies the remedy: sharpening the mental focus.

On breathing, Master Jian Zong recommends the counting breath method, for its simplicity, and non-discriminatory premise. Counting variously to ten, seven, five, and even three, depending on one’s length of breath, the method helps us attain purity of mind, granting us the feeling that nothing can bother us now.

Master Jian Zong ended the session on Zen Meditation 101 with the need for post-meditation exercises entailing inhaling through the nose while maintaining a body upright posture, and then exhaling through the mouth while leaning the body forward, so designed to bring circulation back. He also cautioned: Do not let others push your body while in meditation.

The attendees also went through a walking meditation, guided by the cues from a handbell rung by Master Jian Zong. The take home message is embodied in the Principle of Zen practice: Wherever you’re, that’s where the mind is.

Entitled Zen - A Life of Wisdom, Master Jian Zong’s Buddhist lecture of the day was aimed at helping us find our own master key to open our closed minds, locked by our delusions and suffering. The master key has always been with us. So this is a rediscovery journey, finding the key that controls our mind in a state of stillness and tranquility. Two of the 48,000 Dharma gates, the avenues to unlocking our mind, are Zen meditation and learning Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching, each on its own, while constituting a necessary condition, is not a sufficient one.

Master Jian Zong interacting with the attendees during the Dharma lecture.

Zen, the Chinese word for which is Chan, is everywhere, is everything. To paraphrase Grand Master Wei Chueh, the founder of Chung Tai (CT) Zen Center, no matter how much the external environment changes, if we can see through the outer guise, we can let go of vexation, and maintain tranquility.

Master Jian Zong then introduced the 3Ts to attaining a perfect life:

T - Think wise

T - Think compassionate (the operative words being to tolerate and to forgive)

T - Think nothing (the absence of wandering thoughts leading to the development of wisdom and compassion), implying going back to ZERO, to clarity.

in the context of the 3Qs, the quotients:

IQ - conventional master knowledge and Intelligence that enable one to get a good job, say.

AQ - Attitude that leads to job promotion, networking

EQ - Emotion, the foundation of IQ/AQ that goes one step further to obtain wisdom.
And amidst this T/Q matrix sits Zen, the highest standard of EQ.

A life of wisdom presupposes a right view, a right understanding of which of the four kinds of wisdom that we are pursuing. There are the foolish kind and the erroneous kind that are borne out of attachment and craving, hence clouding our sense of right and wrong. Then there are the right wisdom and the pure wisdom, which is inherent in everyone’s original nature.

Master Jian Zong likens cultivating relationships to holding a sand grain in our hand: holding it loosely with an open palm, the grain will stay there. Try to squeeze it hard, the grain will slip away, so would a relationship. Therefore open your hand, and open your mind.

Giving another analogy, if we have been shot once by an arrow, don’t stick a second arrow on the same wound. Every time we think about the hurt, reminding ourselves of the negative experience, we are sticking the proverbial arrow into the same wound. Don’t think about it, and you can recover from the wound. It’s the self that benefits the most from forgiving and forgetting.

Another apt analogy is stirring dirty water in a cup. Let it sit, and the dirt will settle to the bottom, and we will see the problem clearly.


Wisdom and compassion are the essence of Buddhism, and are hence the goals of Buddhist practitioners. And wisdom without compassion leads to indifference.


To overcome greed, one of the three mental toxins (the other two being anger/aggression, and ignorance), think contentment. Being contented is a positive attitude that drives us to be amicable with others while fulfilling our responsibility. Like the old Chinese saying, standing on one mountain, one would yet see another higher mountain.

Turning to wealth, Master Jian Zong listed at least 5 groups that own our wealth, lest we be deluded into thinking that we are the sole keeper [for those who have attended the 6th MWBA Dharma Session conducted by Master Jian Fu on July 9 & 10, 2007, these would serve as refresher material]:

a) IRS
b) Natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis)
c) Thieves/robbers
d) Bankers/doctors
e) Children (think burden), and in US especially,
f) insurers/lawyers.

But we can also use the money in the right way: to shower kindness on our parents, our teachers, and all sentient being; to support and uphold the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; to help the three suffering realms (animals, hungry ghosts, and hell). We need to know our benefactors, and take responsibility for what’s bad.

To those who doubt that your life is a blessed one, be reminded of what you find when you wake up this morning:

- health
- absence of the savages of wars, the agony of imprisonment, the pangs of starvation.
- food
- money
- parents, being married and alive

- holding up your head and smiling

- prayers for family, friends, co-workers, dedicating merits to them.
- giving to others, which is more blessed than receiving,
- books to read.

You will realize that you’re so blessed in ways that you may not even know.

Oftentimes information dissemination is not governed by the right view/understanding. Therefore Buddhism advocates the 3 in 1 practice, the three being the studies of precepts (moral conduct), of Samadhi (deep concentration), and the wisdom (that arises from the attainment of Samadhi).

To do that is to go for QBQ (the question behind the question) , to know where suffering comes from; in Buddhist parlance, it’s VBV, the vexation behind the vexation, thereby enabling us to reach the highest state, Bodhi, which is both enlightenment and vexation.

We often hear the refrain, “Why me?” Playing on Chinese pronunciation of words, Don’t ask why [because “why” in Chinese pronunciation means “bad”], ask How [good in Chinese pronunciation] to resolve problem.

The Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” This is exemplified by a story of the 3rd Patriarch, who was asked by one of his students how to be free of bondage.

Who has tied you down?” asked the 3rd Patriarch.

Nobody,” replied the student. “If no body is tying you down, then you’re free. Why do you have to free yourself?” the 3rd Patriarch wisely counseled. The message, we are often bound by our own thinking.

As concluding remarks, Master Jian Zong explained the significance of the name MWBA, and the name of the venue: the Middle Way embodies the principle of the Zen Meditation that guides us on the path to true liberation, and Clearwater, in Chinese, means still water, a clear water mind.

To end the day‘s session that has been sprinkled with numbers and symbols, Master Jian Zong offered the mathematical symbol for infinity (see image on the right) as characterizing our mind.

During the ensuing vegetarian lunch treat, it was announced that the 9th MWBA Dharma session would be held on Oct 20, 2007, featuring Dr. Peter Chang on a discussion of the physical and mental aspects of Buddhist meditation as well as the philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine. But note a departure from the usual start time, 2.00pm instead of 9.30am. And we all bade Master Jian Zong a safe flight to Atlanta.

A group photo of Master Jian Zong with some of the attendees.

Here I would like to quote Grand Master Wei Chueh, taken from Chung Tai Koans: The Teaching Stories of Grand Master Wei Chueh, a publication for free distribution brought by Master Jian Zong:

"With respect, we eradicate arrogance;
with compassion, we extinguish anger and hatred;
with harmony, we eliminate violence;
with truth and sincerity, we eradicate deceit
."

"To obtain Middle Way Reality,
we observe the Four Tenet of Chung Tai
."

which are:

To our elders be respectful.
To our juniors be kind.
With all humanity be harmonious.
In all endeavors be true.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

An English Translation of Master Hui Zhen’s Mindful Dispensation # 19 (June 2, 2007

We first met Master Hui Zhen when we attended his Dharma Lecture series on the Consciousness Only School of Buddhism held in Tampa last December. Since then we have been visiting his chinese blog regularly and came to know of his rendition which we have literally translated as HuiZhen’s Mindful Dispensation. He has so far written 20 such articles in his typical free flowing style. And we found #19, which he published on June 2, 2007, to be especially germane to all of us today when oneupmanship seems to be the order of the day, oftentimes resulting in wasterful efforts and strained relationship.

In this respect, Master Hui Zhen has kindly agreed to share this particular dispensation of his in the form of an English translation. As usual any inadequacy that arises in the translation is solely ours and we hope you would be able to take home some of the messages that would put you in good stead in inter-personal dealings.

Master Hui Zhen’s Mindful Dispensation # 19 (June 2, 2007)
(An English translation)

Sometimes, it makes sense for us to be less smart, to have less complicated thoughts, and to be less scheming too. But we have to act wisely, at any time.

Being smart is knowing how to deal with others, but being wise is understanding how to live with ourselves. Smartness is necessary in external exploration, but introspection is virtually impossible without wisdom. To be smart is nifty in doing things, but wisdom is manifested through poise. Smartness begets receiving while wisdom leads to giving. A smart Alec will not necessarily be happy, but a wise man will be at ease for sure.

A smart person is, well, smart. On the other hand, a wise man can appear ignorant on the surface out of modesty but erudite deep down. Why do smart people fumble? Simply because they are conceited, believing themselves to be above others. Frequently the supposedly smart way turns out to be less than effective, begging the question as to who really is the smart one.

A smart person always attempts to change others, often getting agitated in the process. A wise person will first conduct a self review, continuously seeking ways to improve/upgrade oneself, hence effecting liberation.

Basically, take the case of a man and a woman wanting to get married to each other, but their purpose for matrimony is diametrically opposite. A man marries a woman for her present fine qualities, wishing that these will remain true long into the future. A woman, on the other hand, marries a man with the hope that he will change into the perfect husband that she dreams of.

Therefore, those who want a wife wish for a perfect spouse. And those who want a husband hope to settle in with a perfect man. The answer is a foregone conclusion: they will never find each other.

A wise one tries one’s level best to accept others’ shortcomings in stride, and to uncover their worthy attributes. And that’s the surest way to lead a harmonious and fulfilling life.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Looking Up At The Universe

I chanced upon this Chinese poem written by Mr. Wen JiaBao, the Premier of China, here. According to the news story, Mr. Wen was meeting with university students and took the opportunity to dispense a few words of encouragement to the so-called future pillars of society, admonishing them not to focus only on the matters right “below their feet”. Instead, they should look up and around them, be awed by the vista that such a simple change in the frame of mind would bring. The whole world is your stage, Mr. Wen entreats impassionedly, and challenges them to scale greater heights, perform greater feats, and surmount greater odds, for humanity.


The poem is not written in the classical format, but rather the free format of today’s genre, whose easy flowing prose evokes resonation in the readers all the same. The contents have struck a chord in me, the message of which transcends national boundaries, and is equally poignant regardless of the country’s geography, demographics, and stage of development. Hence, this attempt at an English translation. May we all embrace the vision expounded therein and work for the global community.


Looking up at the Universe
by Wen JiaBao, Premier of China

I look up at the universe, so sparse and expansive, embodying infinite truth, and I labor to seek, to follow.

I look up at the universe, so solemn and pristine, evincing regal righteousness, and filling me with passion, with trepidation.

I look up at the universe, so liberal and serene, displaying boundless horizon, and cradling my mind, lending support.

I look up at the universe, so magnificent and luminous, emitting eternal warmth, and kindling in me a ray of hope, sounding a spring thunder.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Day of Compassionate Shower

Looking strenuously through the swishing movement of the front screen wipers and beyond that, a translucent sheet of pouring rain, I gingerly drove to Clearwater yesterday morning. The warning signs were already present early in the morning: overcast sky darkened by ominous rain clouds. My passengers: my wife and her retinue of Buddhist friends. And the mission: release life activity followed by a vegetarian lunch at a Largo Thai food restaurant to be graced by Bhante Dhammawansha.

Upon reaching Bhante’s residence and joined by Tom of the Middle Way Buddhist Association, we found ourselves confined in due to the seemingly incessant rain. The decision was then made, while I was browsing through the collection of Buddhist books on the bookselves (Bhante’s residence also doubles as the meeting venue of the Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society) to have Bhante deliver a Dharma talk to us while waiting for the rain to subside. [In what follows I would be paraphrasing what Bhante actually said as gleaned from my notes and my recollection, including those in quotation marks, which have been inserted to break the monotony and secondarily, to add emphasis. I have also taken the liberty to sprinkle my own thoughts here and there, to stretch the imagination a bit if you will.]

We congregated in the front room, facing a gleaming white stately status of the Buddha, with Bhante seated to one side. “When you wake up early in the morning to do something good, be it engaging in releasing fish, helping others, reading a spiritual book, or doing any wholesome activity, it’s always a very auspicious, very lucky day,” Bhante started the session. Forget about what the horoscope says as Buddhism has no place for superstitious beliefs. And we can change the prophesies of the horoscope by changing our mind, Bhante continued.

In view of the wholesome deed we had set out to do, one that resonates with compassion, Bhante elected to speak on compassion. It so happened that compassion was also what I had been reflecting on after I finished Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes as blogged here. I don’t think this is coincident, not even for a minute, but rather symptomatic of what the world sorely lacks, and that reiterating and reminding ourselves of this universal value would surely go a long way toward alleviating the world’s suffering, one step at a time, and one sentient life at a time.

What is compassion? In a nutshell, compassion is the ability to see the world’s suffering in its many manifestations: poverty, sickness, anger, difficult situations, etc., and to feel the warmth, the hurt that emanates from these observations, and to melt in the sea of suffering, and to act on these feelings, driven by the overarching desire to help the needy. At the fundamental level, Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, connotes compassion to all. Bhante further quoted His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: My religion is compassion. And King Asoka, one of the two great people of the world from India out of the seven listed by HG Wells of the History of the World fame, the other one being the Buddha, was credited with building the first hospital for animals.

How to be compassionate? We can cultivate compassion if we know the answers to the flip-side question: Why can’t we be kind?

Firstly, we are blind to suffering. We see, but we don’t notice. We hear, but we don’t listen. We read, but we don’t ruminate. We choose to personify the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, nor do we have any qualms in embracing the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) one.

Secondly, this detachment (I guess this is one occasion where detachment is less than welcome) translates into our inability to understand that one day we will be like them too (old, helpless and hopeless).

Therefore, we can be compassionate when we can identify with the suffering around us, and we can realize that we are not immune to suffering. Just like we need medical treatment for the sick, we need mental uplifting to relieve suffering, and compassion is that spiritual antidote that can work wonders for a troubled mind.

Why do we need to cultivate compassion? Because compassion does not come naturally while cruelty can be dispensed almost effortlessly. And one way to manifest compassion is Right Speech (one of the Eight Noble Paths). And no speech is part and parcel of Right speech too. When the Buddha was engaged in a discourse with his followers, he listened most of the time, always smiled, and seldom talked. We should do the same, especially when we are angry: Don’t talk and don’t react.

Bhante then related two stories to illustrate the point: first, the frog story:

The Buddha used honey words, not in the sense of sweet-talking, but words that are not hurtful, and his delivery can best be characterized as “the beauty of sound” that not only captivated the crowd of followers, but also animals, drawn in by the melodious renditions. One of these animals was a frog, which positioned itself to “listen” on one occasion. Then a man who had spent some time searching for a lost cow in the forest walked in. Feeling exhausted, he propped himself against the long stick used to herd cows, one end staked into the ground, without realizing that the stick had rested on top of the frog, which was engrossed in listening to the Buddha’s delivery. It was said that the dead frog was born into the deity realm in its next life.

The second, the parrot story:

It was said that one of the Buddha’s past lives was as a parrot. One day, two baby parrots, nestled in a nest perched up on a tree, fell off the tree in a wind storm. One fell into the community of ascetics, who practiced Right Speech, and the parrot picked up the same when it grew up. The other parrot fell among a group of thieves. Day in and day out it was bombarded with foul words that were meant to kill, to rob, and the like. So that became this parrot’s vocabulary, swearing and bad-mouthing.

The second story also brings forth the message that Buddhists teach by way of examples. That’s why Buddhists practice Buddhism, and they are Buddhist practitioners.

By way of another analogy, Bhante equated our mind to the blue sky, infinite in all directions. Sometimes there are dark clouds, which may dampen our spirits somewhat. But these clouds will come to pass. So just let them pass, and let go as they do.

We then stepped out under a blue sky, and proceeded to the Clearwater Beach for the release life activity. While there, the rain resumed, but in a drizzle. So armed with umbrellas, and led by Bhante, we accomplished the compassionate act of releasing life, under the watchful eyes of a pelican which had settled on the water surface nearby, but it was kept at bay by the group’s admonitions and shooing hand gestures, and the water canon shot from a hose by the owner of the tackle shop, who has grown accustomed to our regular release life activities.



The last business of the day was the vegetarian lunch at the Thai House in the Largo Mall. It turned out that the day of our visit also coincided with the birthday of the proprietor of the eatery, a Thai and a devout Buddhist. And to honor the presence of Bhante, he gracefully offered the lunch treat as on the house. So the day turned out to be one of compassionate shower all round.