Monday, May 28, 2007

Kennedy Space Center, Florida: A Thinking Travelogue, The Concluding Part 2

Other than watching the two IMAX movies as part of our visit to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on May 23, 2007, we also took the bus tour that brought us closer to where the action is. Starting at the Visitor Center, the bus first took us to the LC39 Observatory Gantry. On the way, we passed by the signature building within the launching facility, a block-shaped building termed the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), with the reputedly largest US flag hung on its side. We could even see some empty spaces where some of the wall tiles have fallen off the façade, presumably a legacy from the last hurricane season.

Left: The young and the young-at-heart crashing the space party!
Right: A view of the imposing VAB from the bus.

The observatory is a steel structure, rising four levels high. At the top three levels, viewing binoculars are available to render a bird-eye view of the launching pads further afield, one of which already has the Atlantis space shuttle in place for the scheduled June 8 launch. It was a breezy afternoon, and the sky was clear for miles, making our vista panoramic and spectacular.

Top: At the top level of LC-39 (the bottom left inset shows Launching Pad with Atlantis attached).
Bottom: A closeup of a launch pad, albeit a replica in the exhibition hall.

Next up was the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which depicts the Apollo moon missions, both pictorially and through replicas and scaled models. We were held in awe by the human ingenuity, the rigorous training, and most of all, the tight quarters in the shuttle, and the desolation of the moonscape with one-sixth of earth’s gravity that the astronauts had to contend with. As rightly presented, the successes are the outcome of a team effort: the ground crew, the various teams of fabrication, towing/transport, assembly, and the astronauts: a case of believing in dreams and daring to succeed.

Top: At the entrance to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a tired mom resting her head on the shoulder of one of her two sons.
Bottom: The bottom of the Full-sized Saturn V rocket, mom and son for size.

The final destination of the bus tour is the International Space Station, showcasing cooperation among nationals of different political regimes to strive for a common destiny.

Top: A replica of ISS hung in the exhibition hall.
Bottom: Mom in the ISS, to size

At the Visitor Center itself, we entered the Robot Scouts, and roamed the outdoor Rocket Garden. The former chronicles the role of robotics in facilitating and enabling the various exploration efforts, truly at the vanguard of discovery before mere mortals like humans could ever set foot on seemingly inhospitable terrain. Touted as the trailblazers for the human experiment, the various robotic probes talk about their interplanetary exploits.

At the Rocket Garden, sky-piercing historic rockets stand erect, testifying to their erstwhile brilliance in space conquest, evoking both a sense of adventure for the uncharted territory and injecting a dose of patriotism for a country where creativity roams unbridled and is valued intrinsically.

Top: Opposite the Rocket Garden where a Cantonese-speaking visitor offered to take our picture.
Bottom: Mom and son dwarfed by the erect rockets.

In contrast, while Malaysia has set up its own ANGKASA (Malaysian National Space Agency) in 2002, her fledgling efforts appear as minutiae at this stage. More important perhaps, the purported clamp on academic freedom may have put a damper on research that is so vital for this ambition of infinite spatial dimension to bear fruit. Would the following image remain a dream for Malaysia? And for how long, just to be positive about it? [Thanks to Jin Yeoh for forwarding the collection of space shuttle launch pictures to me, from which this image is taken.]

Since I started Part I of this thinking travelogue with a quote from JF Kennedy on choosing to land on the moon, it seems apt to end with a similar quote from another US president, the present one, on choice too, but in regard to the more encompassing space exploration, which is on display in KSC.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Celebrating Vesak (the Birth, Englightenment, and Nirvana of The Buddha)

May 26, 2007 is an august day for Buddhists, both practitioners and novices alike, from the Tampa/Clearwater/St. Pete area for they were able to partake of the Vesak Celebration organized/hosted by the Dhamma Wheel Meditation Center (DWMC)/the Unitarian Universalists (UU) of Clearwater, the 7th in the annual series. For the very first time, the Amitabha Buddhist Group (ABG), of which my wife is a member, was invited to present a condensed version of Chanting in praise of Amitabha. The Middle Way Buddhist Association, among others, assisted in organizing the event.

The performing members of the ABG first gathered in our home to refine the synchronization required for a well-orchestrated display of the chanting, complete with Buddhist sound accompaniment. Thus rehearsed, the group left for the venue at 4pm in our Minivan, and dutifully arrived at the destination with enough time for “site reconnaissance” and setting up seating position.

The venue is the premises of UU, a building with an octagonal timber roof and circular seating arrangements. The road entrance was adorned with Buddhist flags and lanterns, fluttering in the strong breeze. A white Buddha statue sat at the middle of the hall, with a banner proclaiming Paying Homage to Buddha By Serving Humanity hung further back. Two baby Buddhas were emplaced to the side, which are meant for bathing of the Buddha ceremony.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Entrance road to the Octagonal roofed UU Building
(2) Electronic board display of Unity Church across the road
(3) Decorations adorning the hall entrance in the UU Building
(4) the centerpiece of Vesak Celebration in the hall.

The celebration commenced with the procession, led by the various Buddhist monk and nuns flanked by two Dharma wheel bearers and accompanied by a team of four drummers, making rhythmic, deep percussion beats. The march started from the premises of the Dhammawheel Meditation Center (DWMC) just across the road (Nursery), with Buddhist practitioners/attendees bringing up the rear.

While the attendees were filing into the hall and gradually filling up the available seats that slope upward and outward, the drum group continued its pulsating beats, alternating rising to a crescendo and subsiding, the acoustics seemingly enhanced by the high roof that extends downward in all directions.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Start of the procession at the premises of DWMC across the road
(2) Marching across the carpark area of the adjoining Unity Church
(3) The attendees marching across the carpark of UU toward the building entrance
(4) the 4-man drum group beating away.

Rev. Abhi Janamanchi first welcomed all attendees to the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and nirvana of the Buddha, noting that serving humanity as appeared on the overhead banner is to be construed as including all sentient beings. Seeing all the greed, anger, wars and destruction that have been engulfing humanity and environment, the Buddha would have pained; but at the same time the Buddha also would have had his work cut out for him, the Reverend added.

Bhante Dhammawansha then led in the veneration of the Buddha by chanting the homage to the Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha, first in Pali, then in English, emphasizing the need to practice well, rightly, correctly, and properly.

After an exquisitely executed classical Indian dance performed by Ms. Aishwarya Challa, Rev. Tashi, a Tibetan monk who has just moved to Bradenton about two months ago, delivered a heart-palpitating rendition of the Heart Sutra, in Sanskrit. The Heart Sutra encapsulates the essence of emptiness, and is at the heart of the Four Noble Seals in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

This was followed by Chanting of the Heart Sutra by the Clearwater Zen Center, in English, to the accompaniment of chiming sounds made by striking an urn and the thudding sound of hitting the wooden fish. Recognizing the interchangeability between form and emptiness, the constant waxing and waning, arising and disappearing of all things, the Heart Sutra enjoins:

Holding to nothing whatever But dwelling in Prajna wisdom, Is freed of delusive hindrance, Rid of the fear bred by it, And reaches clearest nirvana.

After a brief meditation session led by Bhante during which he admonished all to have happy and loving thoughts, the ABG took to the floor to demonstrate Chanting in praise of Amitabha, which is another name for the Buddha, meaning Infinite Light and Infinite Life.

In the words of Brother Brian, who preceded the group chanting with a brief expose of the practice, which he assembled from a host of online sources [texts in parentheses are mine]:

In Sanskrit, he is Amitabha Buddha. In Chinese, he is known as Amituofo [some versions appear as Amitofo]… With his deeds, he creates the conditions for beings to accumulate merits. With his purity, he has created a perfect land: one that has no pollutants, no anger or intolerance. It is a land of peace and serenity. It is a world of equality and joy, wonder and beauty. In comparison, our [mundane, in the words of Bhante] world is one of delusion and suffering, filled with worry and anxiety. [This Western Pure Land, as it is called, is the somewhat analogous Heaven in western religions.] … When we chant, the sound of Amituofo arises in our minds. And as we utter “Amituofo”, our minds focus on and embrace the sound. While chanting, we do so whole-heartedly and continuously. … When, in our chanting, we reach the level of single-mindedness with the sole thought of Amituofo, we form a connection with him. In that moment we are in his land. As we breathe our last breadth in this world, we can form this connection. With Amituofo, we will attain our next rebirth in the Western Pure Land, and leave all our suffering behind.”

With that preamble, the whole hall then settled into silence, broken only by the repeated chanting of “Amituofo”, in rhythm with the sounding of the Buddhist acoustic paraphernalia. It was as if a drape of serenity had descended on the hall, shrouding the attendees in a peaceful mood.

In the ensuing dharma talk by Bhante, he likened our existence in this mundane world to a lotus pond of dirty, muddy waters. But we should emulate the lotus flowers that spring forth, unattached to the mud that abounds in the environment. And we do this by cultivating our minds in consonance with the Four Noble Truths. Bhante also advised that we should think twice, and do not rush headlong into Buddhism. It’s an individual decision, and no conversion is necessary.

The dharma talk was in turn followed by another dance performance by Ms. Aishwarya Challa, Love Offering to a drumming based on a Swahili song by Steve Turner, Blessing for World Peace, and Giving of Gifts to the Sangha.

The culmination of the Vesak Celebration is the bathing of the Buddha, with benediction from Dr. Frank Tedesco, who intoned that we are fundamentally enlightened. So by purifying ourselves through the Bathing of the baby Buddha, we are borne anew. The attendees then took turn, in pairs, to participate in the penultimate activity of the blessed program of Vesak Celebration, after which they migrated to the Social Hall for a sumptuous feast of the vegetarian dinner.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Indian classical dance by Ms. Aishawarya Challa
(2) Chanting of the Heart Sutra by Clearwater Zen Group
(3) Chanting in praise of Amitabha by Amitabha Buddhist Group
(4) Bathing of the Buddha

And we left the venue shortly before 10pm, appetite satiated, body relaxed, mood appeased, and mind filled with bliss.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Wify participating in the Bathing of the Buddha ceremony
(2) A pleasant surprise: a lotus flower in the UU Compound next to the Social Hall
(3) Attendees feasting themselves to the Vegetarian culinary offerings
(4) Wify receiving a gift in the lucky draw

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Kennedy Space Center, Florida: A Thinking Travelogue, Part I

We choose to go to the Moon, we choose to go to the moon …, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” That impassioned entreaty from JF Kennedy, which he made on a day in 1962 from the campus of Rice University, continued to resonate in me after we left Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL, last evening.

Nestled between Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean as shown in the image below, KSC occupies a sprawling marshland (used to be anyway and a sizeable of which is still preserved as a seashore and wildlife refuge) one fifth the size of the State of Rhodes Island. It’s operated by National Aeronautics and Space Administration, aka NASA, to further US’s space exploration.

Leaving our Tampa home at around 7.30am, we arrived at the KSC Visitor Complex about 10 past nine, a journey equivalent to a trip to Gainesville, but via Orlando. It being a weekday, we were able to park at the first row just in front of the complex.

In addition to the various exhibit halls featuring different themes germane to space exploration, there are two IMAX theatres. But the highlight of the visit should belong to the KSC Bus tour that would take visitors to the LC-39 Observation Gantry, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, and the International Space Station (ISS).

But first the IMAX movie offering, to which we first gravitated. It was IMAX 2, featuring Space Station 3D, which we watched with a pair of orange goggles.

Narrated by Tom Cruise (yes, the Top Gun who only managed to skim the edge of our earthly atmosphere), it recounts a multi-national effort to explore the outer space. Specifically, it’s a 16 country effort comprising USA, Russia, Japan (the lone rep from Asia), Brazil (the lone rep from South America) and member countries of the European Space Agency (Italy, Germany, UK, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.), constructing the International Space Station (ISS) modularly. For a time, the various astronauts/cosmonauts forget their national affiliations and coalesce together to sustain the international project. They work together, eat together, sleep together (but in separate sleeping bags), and yes, dream together that their efforts, 250 miles about us, would come to fruition for humanity.

Occupying an area about twice the size of a football field, Tom told us that it can be seen from earth as it passes over us. But the living/work space is, eh, claustrophobic to say the least. They sail effortlessly from one part of the ISS to another through conduits seemingly large enough for a person’s girth. They become Hercules, moving great weights with a casual push of the arm, a feat made possible by zero gravity that would otherwise be a physical impossibility back on earth.

Food is practically captured by the mouth, the consumer timing its course with the trajectory of the food traveling path. Water moves in near-spherical droplets, the most efficient shape in terms of energy minimization in the absence of gravity, which are gobbled up.

And they exercise by working out on stationary bicycles. They need to keep fit as each stint in space would last about half a year, doing what they are set out to do: researching every aspect of life/object response to a zero-gravity environment. The film shows a sprouting green onion plant kept in a plastic bag with soil and all, indicating that germination is possible.

Sometimes, they have to perform space walk, doing repairs to the external façade of the ISS, which invariably will experience damage. They have a body contraption controlled by a hand-held device that could kind of propel them back to the Mother ship if they become adrift.

As one astronaut noted, from space, it’s hard to see where USA ends and Mexico begins, a truly borderless world. It’s a perspective that would pale our earthly differences, and enable us to see the destiny of humanity as one, one that is linked intricately and inseparably to the environment as a whole. Perhaps those who wage wars and inflict hardship on others, driven by their parochial sense of “us versus them”, would benefit from a space trip, and become “unplugged” and work toward the inclusion of all, instead of the exclusion of some.

Since we started our visit with IMAX, it seems fitting to end with IMAX as well. That’s what we did, but reverse in order in the interest of time efficiency. For the sake of continuity, I would present the offering of IMAX 1: Magnificent Desolation first, and leave the bus tour and our interactions with the various exhibits to the next blog.

Narrated by Tom Hanks of the Apollo 13 movie fame, the film is about all the Apollo missions, and the US obsession with landing the first man on the Moon, a space race triggered by the two Russian firsts: Sputnik, the first satellite in space; and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The montage below displays a mix of the old (the Eagle has landed) and the new (Mom and son posing in front of a scaled model of the Saturn V rocket, and a replica of the moon buggy).

From the film, I know that there are 17 Apollo missions in all, the first few ending in abortive efforts or outright disasters with fatality. As our selective memory for the good would have us, we tend to remember the successful missions, the most memorable of which is Apollo 11. Who can forget the famous words of Neil Armstrong, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 21, 1969, as he first set foot on the lunar surface? The whole world was enthralled by that unprecedented achievement, though no unparalleled as we would learn from the subsequent lunar conquests.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that six more Apollo missions were launched, but only five were successful (yes, the Apollo 13 movie was based on actual events, highlighting the precarious nature of space travel where everything needs to be checked, and rechecked, and rechecked, and yet things can still go wrong).

So, on record, there have been 12 moonwalkers, minus Michael Jackson (sorry, I can resist taking a swipe at that), the last one being in December, 1972. So there has been a hiatus of 35 years, and perhaps more. As the last man on the Moon, Eugene Cernan said as he stepped back into the lunar module, "As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed the crew of Apollo Seventeen."

Perhaps there is a chronological rationale to the order of the two IMAX movies, the Apollo mission having preceded the ISS. But there is also a more important consideration, from national aspirations to international cooperation, a logical departure from the race mentality. The next step is perhaps leveling the playing field, so that space pursuit is not seen as the exclusive domain of the advanced countries by dint of their technological superiority, nor is it the playground reserved solely for the rich, as the widely reported travelogues of the two space tourists would suggest, each trip costing more than $20 millions.

Dubbed the next ocean frontier, I’m confident that space travel, or even interstellar travel, would vacate the realm of fiction in time to come. What I’m not so confident, though, is the ocean within us, or rather understanding the infinite mindscape within us. While the former is beyond us, at least most of us for now, the latter is not. Let’s, then, begin a journey of space exploration in each of us, and may we all succeed in this inner conquest.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The 4th Meditation/Dharma Discussion of MWBA: Vesak in May and the Genealogy of Afflictions

The month of May is one of special significance to Buddhist practitioners. It’s in the Month of May, 25 centuries ago, that Buddha (then known as Siddhārtha Gautama) was born (the Vesak Day). It’s in the month of May, 35 years later, that Buddha became enlightened. So too it’s in the month of May that Buddha first taught us to become awakened. [According to Wikipedia, "On Vesak Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: The birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama."]

The above were the opening statements from Bhante Dhammawansha at the Fourth meditation session organized by Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) on May 19, 2007 at the Clearwater venue. In likening meditation to medication, Bhante explained that while the latter is healing of the body, meditation is healing of the mind.

Through fighting the enemies within us which erupt like burning fires (metaphorically representing the negative emotions that we are wont to falling prey to such as anger, greed, jealousy, etc.) and engulf us ever so often, we can begin to tame the mind. By focusing on compassionate, calm, loving, and happy thoughts, we can begin to become peaceful. And by looking deep into us and practicing letting go and detachment, we can begin to experience inner peace, balance, equanimity, and tranquility. The attendees were then told to relax, close their eyes, and settle into meditation.

After a short break, the wisdom talk series ensued, comprising an English speaking class conducted by Bhante, and a Chinese speaking one conducted by Brother Shieh. There was also a children class conducted by my wife.

It was an especially fulfilling day for me because for the first time in more than three years, all my children were with me, in the same room, listening to Brother Shieh’s exposition on the great teaching of Buddha. In my mind, it’s important that we provide access and facilitate the exposure of all people to the teaching of Buddha in the form of attending dharma talks, in the language the attendees are familiar with, and at a level that is not way over their heads.

Especially for beginners, it’s ambitious, if not unrealistic to think that they will pore over sutras and other interpretative texts on their own. Thus, the tri-step learning process of listening, understanding/thinking (which to me should include further reading on one’s own), and practicing logically starts with listening, but subsequently, the sequence will become less important as the three steps intermesh into a coherent learning expedition dictated by individual circumstances and conditions.

There being two other attendees for the class (Sister Connie and Brother Zhang, a first-timer), Brother Shieh decided to open the topic of the day to the younger generation among us and settled on addressing the two related questions, from the Buddhist perspective:

a) How to be peaceful?
b) How to be happy?

These are age-old questions that have confounded us. The solution seems straightforward enough at first glance: No Worry (as encapsulated in the now-famous mantra from the Lion King movie, Hakuna Matata).

Of course the simplicity of the solution does not translate directly into ease of application. Because that would entail understanding the mind, and how it works, and how it’s influenced by the myriad relationships in the human network, Brother Shieh added.

In a nutshell, we need to steer away from unhappiness and to attain happiness in the process. Conventional happiness is temporary, is transient, and changes with the environment. For example, the euphoria of a promotion can transit into the depression brought about by a layoff, the change precipitated by the changing demands of the volatile employment market beyond the control of individual employees.

In Buddhism, happiness denotes the ultimate truth, one that is unchanging, irrespective of the environment. And that only comes with the purity and stillness of mind, without the emotional roller coaster ride that we seem to be unable, or unwilling, to forego/disembark from. But lest this be misconstrued as perfect stillness, one where nothing ever moves, Brother Shieh cited the example of a tree, or a rock that would have fitted that bill to the letter, if that were the intent.

Instead, a better analogy would be transplanting us from a sea of waves into a placid lake of ripples, symbolizing the presence of responses, and yet small enough as not to lead to upheavals.

In practice, this departure from emotional peaks and troughs can be facilitated by electing to target the matter at hand, and not the people, as often trivialized by the mantra, Nothing Personal.

Next, we need to refrain from attachment. However, no attachment does not equate to the “don’t care” attitude, but rather one of not denying the existence of anything. In the same vein, we ought to recognize that all matters are not permanent, but we continue to cherish, and to enjoy the good times together.

Then we need to believe the cause and effect relationship, and the associated conditions, or the lack thereof. This wisdom is manifest in the following statements:

When conditions are there, things happen.
Likewise when conditions are not there, things disappear.

After expounding the underlying goals we need to embrace on the road to peace and happiness, no doubt in simplistic terms commensurate with the call of the occasion, Brother Shieh continued to enumerating the following ways:

1) In Chinese character, it’s the character of a knife/dagger over a heart, and it means forbearance, and perhaps more narrowly, tolerance, enduring a dire condition of peril. The very first way is to exercise forbearance toward all beings. A more accurate translation of a synonymous term used in Buddhist texts is “to reside in peace”.

2) The second forbearance is toward the environment, recognizing that it’s in a state of flux, hence subjected to a process of change. It cannot be prescribed, each of us has to feel it him/herself.

3) The third forbearance is at a higher plane and is the natural outcome from the first two, featuring no occurrence, nor ending.

While we sentient beings are still weighed down by a combination of illusions and wisdom in various shades, we also focus on the effect while we ought to focus on the cause, as Bodhisattvas do. To do that, we need to be familiar with the domain of afflictions, and their various categories, a fertile learning ground for psychologists-to-be.

At the primary/basic levels, there are six such roots:

P1) Greed (the urge to possess, defying the bounds of sufficiency)
P2) Anger (a supposedly natural response when things do not go our way)
P3) Illusion/Ignorance (the absence of wisdom)
P4) Arrogance (beyond being prideful)
P5) Doubt (unhealthy/excessive skepticism/suspicion)
P6) Bad views/understanding.

On P4: Arrogance, there are seven further sub-classifications characterized by a range of prideful feelings, from faked pride engendered by either superiority or inferiority complex, to just bloated ego, self-denial and one that may be best approximated as “for no apparent reason bordering on psychopathy”. Since it’s difficult at my level of understanding to differentiate the nuances inherent in each, I feel it’s best that I reproduce the list in Chinese for those who wish to delve further into the phenomenon.

On P6: Bad View, there are five sub-groups:

P6A: Self view: one based on bigotry
P6B: Side view: one that is off the mainstream, so to speak, comprising two contrasting viewpoints: permanence and ephemeralness, the former regarding all things as immutale while the latter, we live only for today, so carpe diem, or seize the day mentality.
P6C: further views that arise from personal views
P6D: views spawned by following unreasonable rules (usually ones that were invoked at a different epoch necessitated by a different circumstance)
P6E: Evil views such as those without regard to the concept of cause and effect.

Then items P1 to P5 and P6A to P6E are named the Ten Primary Afflictions where items P6A to P6E are termed as the Five Sharp Messengers, implying that we can work with them readily to accomplish right understanding. On the other hand, items P1 to P5 are termed as the Five Blunt Messengers that require much more efforts on our part for elimination, i.e., thinking.

Then there are the afflictions that arise following the basic afflictions, or secondary afflictions if you will. There are twenty of them, comprising ten in the minor category, 2 in the middle, and eight in the major categories.

Here are the entries in the minor league:
i) anger, feeling of upset
ii) hate/dislike
iii) covering up one’s shortcomings
iv) irritations
v) deception/exaggeration
vi) flattery
vii) conceit
viii) hurt (slandering, derogatory remarks)
ix) miserliness
x) envy

The Middle League:
a) shameless/guiltless
b) no compunction

And last but not the least, the Minor League, which also constitutes the generic set of afflictions:
1) distrust
2) sloth
3) indulgence
4) lethargy
5) without fortitude/easily perturbed
6) non-discriminatory/loss of discernment
7) deviationist view
8) lack of focus

Given the time constraints, Brother Shieh was only able to enumerate the various groupings that form a coherent framework of afflictions with brief explanations of what each connotes. Similarly, my attempts at translation are also to be viewed as a first cut, a broad brush stroke that should be further refined to bring them into congruence with the Chinese text. Therefore, your feedback is most welcome so that we could arrive at a unified English lexicon that best exemplifies the teaching of Buddha for English-speaking people.

As Brother concluded, we can become carefree through learning. We should not worry about thought arising, but rather be concerned with knowing that takes time.

During the vegetarian lunch that ensued, Brother Shieh demonstrated the traditional greeting among Buddhist practitioners: Both hands raised to the heart level, palms joined, and uttering “Amitofo”. This greeting can be used for various occasions: hello, thankful, and goodbye.

Sister Lily then announced the Buddhist Lecture by Venerable Jian Hu on July 9 and 10 as well as reminded the attendees of the Florida 2007 Buddhist Summer Camp to be held on July 5 – 9 at Ramada Inn, Orlando. Pleases refer to the website of MWBA for details. And hope to see you all there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Ups (mostly) and Downs in Florida These Days

While yesterday’s rain has doused some of the haze hovering over the Sunshine State for the past few days, other issues loom large on the horizon. One pertains to the seemingly inexorable rise in the price of gasoline (or commonly called petrol in Malaysia).

I remember when I first arrived here three years ago, the cost of gasoline (regular) was about $1.70 a gallon. Now is close to $3.00, and summer, traditionally a period for a spike in the price of gasoline, is just around the corner.

Inevitably, people start talking about price gouging, perpetrated by individual operators, and racketeering and profiteering, by oil companies whose profits continue to soar beyond comprehension.

Without state intervention, it’s a far-fetched proposition that a business operator will rein in on his/her take when profit maximization is the sine qua non in a marketplace that preaches laissez-faire. That leaves the consumers themselves to adjust, to accommodate, and to innovate. Time-tested strategies include opting for fuel efficient cars, car pooling, human-powered locomotion (bicycles, roller-skates, and the number 11 bus ride), public transport, planning trips, and avoiding traffic jams. Then there are the options for tele-working, home office, Internet shopping, even at-home entertainment.

Another item in the rising basket is property tax, which has put a damper on home ownership, especially in high-valued areas, at the same time becoming a strain on existing home owners. The matter has seen some debate in the State Legislature but so far nothing is certain though some kind of percentage reduction in the rates has been bandied about. As usual, there are entrenched constituents (city and county governments?) who clamor that the revenue is needed for boosting the various services that they provide.

Yet another item under examination is the university tuition fees. At just over $3,000/= a pop (meaning an academic year), Florida ranks among the lowest, if not the lowest, in terms of tuition costs borne by Florida residents. The mantra from the university administrations is that places a premium on attracting top-notched faculties, hampering their ascension to the rank of elite universities.

On the other hand, the State Governor is known for his reluctance to accede to the demands of the state universities in this regard, citing affordable college education as the over-riding concern.

A compromise has come to the fore, in the form of a tier system with some better equipped universities (such as UF and FSU) be given the nod to charge higher tuitions. This differentiated system has received supports from some of the student leaders, rationalizing it as a means to reduce class size and provide better access to academic advising.

About the only thing that is bucking the rising trend is house prices. The housing market is undergoing a lean period, to say the least. And the doldrums may yet persist for a while. Yet mortgage loans are now harder to get, no thanks to the sub-prime loans transacted during the good old days of yore when borrowers with poor and even no credits were treated as valued customers. Now the adjustable rates have ballooned sky-high, forcing borrowers to default on their repayment and the lenders to go under.

In a way, we bought our new (but pre-owned) home at an opportune time when house prices were at an ebb and yet the mortgage market has not yet tightened as yet. Talk about good timing.

P.S. Did you notice something new on the side bar to the right?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day Greetings and Dispensation

One of the Chinese songs that we used to sing in school, elementary school that is, goes something like this when translated: In this world the only good thing is Mom. A child that has a Mom is like a treasure …

Yes, the virtue of Mom. The selfless sacrifice, the ever protective Mom, who nurtures us single-mindedly, who takes care of our well-being unconditionally, and who showers us with love and affection unquestionably.

Today’s Mother’s Day. A special dedication to a special person, whose womb encapsulates us, whose hands cradle us, whose unflinching devotion envelopes us, and whose memories we dearly cherish when she has departed.

So don't take Mom for granted. Her words (aka nagging to most, and unsolicited advice to some) are not meant to pique you, nor are her actions (aka control to most, meddling to some) meant to frustrate you. She might seem like a resident cook at times, and a gratuitous help around the house at some other times. Yet other times, she may behave like a despot, imposing the most draconian rules and regulations (curfews come to mind) a teenager could possibly cope with, from your perspective.

Most of us realize the folly of our warped sence of justice, of betrayal, of interference until we have our own family. But Mom continues to do what she does best, leapfrogging the generation hiatus and caring for her grand children, sometimes reliving the same cold shoulder treatment meted out by her own children. So repay Mom when she is still with us, when she is still able to enjoy what we shower on her in return, and then we cherish our memories of Mom in our every living minutes.

So today’s blog is about my late Mom, wify, and all the great Moms and Moms-to-be in the world, and their mutual interactions. A week ago, our D’s mother-in-law sent wify a Mother’s Day greeting card from the Pacific seaboard as shown below, with a capital M surrounded by a tapestry of roses and an intricate embossed floral design.

Then our D, from the same Pacific Coast city of Portland, sent us a self-made Mother’s Day greeting card, with the patented stamp of a cat face, that of Bacon. Treasure, Cherish, Nurture (in red), Love, Laugh, Learn (in yellow), Honest, Pure, Simple (in green), and Peace, Tranquility, Serenity (in blue), the four clusters in a square formation representing the four pillars of values epitomized by Mom.

Then her friend, Lily, emailed her a e-greeting card on this auspicious occasion: a butterfly fluttering around a blooming flower. Simple elegance.

Not to be undone, wify also gave a bouquet of pink roses to Mrs. Kim, our erstwhile Korean neighbor who has taken care of our D for the past one-and-a-half months since we moved from South Tampa (but our D still has to go to school there until next week and she has been lodging there every school day after school until I could pick her up on my way home after work at 4.30pm). The brilliance of the flowers was only matched by her radiant smile and sincere thanks, from one Mom to another.

And to top it all, we had a late dinner at the nearby Perkins Restaurant. Wify ordered grilled salmon and I had crispy atlantic cod, with herb rice and brocolli, and carrot. I did not remember what the kids and my Bro had, but everyone reached home satiated.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Haze: the Antithesis of What the Sunshine State Stands For

Just like that, it seems like I’m back in Malaysia. I’m referring to the haze that shrouds the entire length of the Sunshine State, turning it into the Sun-shorn state for the last couple of days, and the next few as well. And to complicate matter, the first tropical storm sat threateningly just offshore, even before the official beginning of the hurricane season on June 1.

First, the cool air that has descended on us, bringing cool relief, was making matter worse by a physical phenomenon called temperature inversion. We all know that hot air rises (enabling hot balloon rides) and cold air sinks, thus driving air circulation. That is an unstable atmospheric condition. But during a temperature inversion, the already cool air just sits at the bottom, i.e., closer to ground level, and the particulate matter in the air follows suit and stays hung in the air. One instance when stability is not the preferred state.

Then we were told that the weather system, Tropical System Andrea, now demoded to a sub-tropical system, is still strong enough to fuel wind that blows the burning ashes from the forest fires in the northern and eastern parts of the State (even South Georgia) our way. So the low visibility condition as seen below may yet last over the weekend.

Smoky skies return
Cars northbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge brake as traffic slows due to a heavy
pocket of smoke this morning.St. Petersburg Times photo: Sherman Zent

The unusually featureless sky outside our home with a pallid tone.
Gone is the normally bright natural lights at this evening time in spring.

However, my olfactory gland did not pick up any burnt smell. Perhaps living with the recurring haze problem in Malaysia in the last few years before we moved here has kind of “acclimatized/dulled” my sensory organs to be able to withstand the onslaught of a relatively harsh environment, unlike my colleagues who may not have had the “training”.

Here they are called forest fires, perhaps with the implicit understanding that it’s Nature’s way of replenishing its landscape. Back in Malaysia it’s called open burning, alluding to the anthropogenic origin of the resulting haze problem. It seems this is a traditional way of preparing for crop replanting, agriculture being the main source of livelihood for this part of the world. And the replanting season coincides with the Southwest monsoon that jettisons the elevated level of burst particles toward Malaysia and Singapore, which is compounded by illegal burning of refuse and felled trees in our own backyard.

My wife went for a sea outing yesterday (yes, without me) with her friends to show Venerable Hwei Chen’s Mom (read here for their visit to our home) around the Bay area (a timely gift for the impending Mother’s Day don’t you think?). And the tour took them on a boat cruise around the Tampa Bay to witness the dolphin in their natural habitat (stay tuned for another blog on their adventurism). And the view from the boat was not that much better.

The lone defiant tree seemingly breaking through the hanging smokescreen

The weather forecast calls for some rainfall during the weekend. Hopefully these precipitation events, which are most welcome both for the haze and the drought problems we are presently facing here, would occur at the right places to reinstate the sunshine that has momentarily been incarcerated behind the hazy envelope.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Buddha's Life In Various Depictions

Our D alerted us to an archeological find of an ancient wall mural depicting the life of Buddha in an inter-connected cave system up in the mountainous region of northern Nepal.

The ancient mural purportedly dates back to the 13th and 14th century, and its relatively intact condition is attributed to the remote location of the cave system, helped no doubt by its high altitude at 4,300m. This is a 2D rendition of Buddha’s life.

I have been scouting the Internet to locate images of the mural art and found one here as shown below.

Then I located another in the Chinese World Journal newspaper, today (May 6, 2007)’s issue, as per the scanned image below.

Earlier on I have already blogged about the depiction of the different phases of Buddha’s life from birth to nirvana in 3D, one in Clearwater, and the other one at Portland, Oregon, both sited at a much more down-to-earth elevation as well as contemporary in time.

I’ve also previously alluded to the Buddha, a manga (Japanese comics) series by Osamu Tezuka. And I bought the first volume, out of 8, about a week ago from Barnes & Noble, in the graphic novel section. After going through the first few pages of it, I admit that I must reevaluate my earlier recommendation in the above blog, when I said:

But I have no qualms in recommending OT’s Buddha to followers of other faiths if that is what it would take to propagate the teachings of Buddha so that others could benefit, notwithstanding the fact that I am yet to read them.”

Not from the perspective that OT has willfully intertwined fiction into the story telling for dramatic effects, but more so from the graphic rendition. More specifically, the graphic details of certain anatomy of a human body deemed private have been taken too liberally by OT that they might infringe on the sensitivity of certain class of readership. Let’s put it this way, it will be ill-advised for them to be used as assigned children reading. But I will read on to arrive at a balanced view of the manga series, albeit my personal one.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Calling of A Professional

A practitioner in a professional field, be it medical, engineering, or legal, is distinguished by several qualifications that the public can reasonably expect such a professional to have attained prior to delivering the professional service sought for. One is the education achievement at a tertiary level as proof that the professional has acquired the specialized knowledge that underpins the delivery of the service. Another one is passing the professional licensing examination, e.g., the Bar exams for lawyers and the P.E. exams for engineers, evidencing the competence required to practice after some period of “apprenticeship”.

Yet another one is strict observance of a code of ethics that governs the professional life of a practitioner, running the gamut from avoiding conflict of interest, to subscribing to the tenets of environmental sustainability, to outright prohibition of fraud.

Since I’m an engineer by training and is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I will use the publication, Ethics, Standards of Professional Conduct for Civil Engineers, by ASCE as an example.

The first of the seven Fundamental Canons in the publication states that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.

So I was rather taken aback to read the accusatory editorial title, Engineers scheme put lives to risk, that appeared on the May 2, 2007 issue of St. Petersburg Times in the Opinon section.

On closer read, it became apparent that the editorial is referring to the US Army Corps of Engineers and its role in the aftermath of the Katrina debacle. While the corps has previously borne the brunt of the public outcry on its failure to protect the residents of New Orleans, notably, but for the wrong reason, the collapse of the flood levees during the passage of the Hurricane, now the corps is “being accused of rigging a $32 million bid last year for massive drainage pumps on the city canals.”

Not knowing the facts of the case, it is not my intent here to pass judgment on the alleged impropriety, but rather to highlight the tendency, or propensity if you will, of the public to fault the collective community for the wrong-doing perpetrated by some of its members, the so-called black sheep, even in this land of individualism. While it is illogical to assume that the corps as a whole participates in the “chicanery”, it is even less tenable to imagine that the corps will likewise abandon the fundamental canons as aforementioned to knowingly inflict harm to the public whose protection is their raison d’tre in the first place.

Viewed in that light, the editorial, in my view, is a clarion call to the community, in this case the corps, to discipline its wayward members, if that is shown to be the case. The collective accountability of a professional community rests on the individual accountability of its members. Therefore, while being a member of a profession confers a sense of belonging and helps garner the esteem that the profession deserves, it also places an onus on the member to uphold the code of ethics and professional conduct lest the good name of the profession is tarnished as embodied in the 6th Fundamental Canon: Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.