Saturday, June 30, 2007

There is no I in Happyness

Finally, we got to watch the Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith and his real son, Jaden, who also plays his son in the movie. [Note that the y in Happyness is not a wrong spelling, but the actual title used. More on the title, or our take of it, later]. It's a pre-viewed DVD that we bought from BlockBuster, at a discounted rate.

The movie is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, who struggled to make ends meet earlier on, resulting in the estrangement of his wife who decided to move from SF to NY to work there. While I do not subscribe to what amouts to a wife abandoning his husband in his greatest time of needs, instead of enduring together through thick and thin that life throws at them as their marriage vows go, I certainly can understand her disillusionment, after being let down so many times. But this movie is not about Gardner's wife, it's about how he turns his dire circumstances around through true grit: perseverance and never give-up attitude.

Despite his arduous journey through life, he never deviates from the path of moral uprightness, never consigning himself to a doomed life of crime, to delirium, to escapades from reality that "down" people are wont to taking substances to numb themselves, driven to become "out" people in the process.

And his messages to his son are clear too: never let anybody tell him that he can't do something, not even his dad; and never even think that Mom left because of him (son), but rather Mom left because of Mom.

The movie also highlights how an affable personality will evoke the best response from others. Gardner always sounded cheerful and grateful even when a cold call turns out to be a rejection. But he also never pushes the issue, respecting the negative responses of the day with grace, believing that he could always come back another day. The moral of the story is not to make any enemy out of any relationship, even a business one. So often people just turn nasty when a deal falls through, thinking that that would be the last they see each other, foolishing burning the bridges that they might need to cross in the future.

I believe the movie has many lessons for those in the telemarketing business, even though I'm not a fan myself. Finesse, courtesy, and poise in the face of potential rejection. Warmth and eagerness to help. All make for a lasting social networking milieu where inter-personal skills reign supreme.

The movie also shows a human side of Gardner, succumbing to expediency, like the time he ran away from the cab driver when the guy he shares the cab with forgot (purposely?) to pay his share after the guy alighted from the cab first.

Coming back to the different spelling, Gardner actually pointed out the erroneous spelling as it appeared on the graffiti outside the childcare center in Chinatown that he sent his son to, with a y instead of an i in Happyness. In the movie, Gardner agonized over the use of the term pursuit in the Declaration of Independence: the unalienable rights of men to life, liberty, and happiness. To him, there is a subtlety implied in the use of "pursuit": happiness is not a right, but we do have the right to pursue it.

Anyway, back to my take of Happyness. Consistent with the teaching of Buddha, I think that word as spelled has a much greater connotation: that there is no "I" in happyness, as happyness will only ensue if we give to others. As Gardner asserts, he wants his son to know his father. And that motivates Gardner to push his son's needs above his own (granted this is a much narrower sense of no "I") and that he finds happyness in the process.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The 5th Meditation/Dharma Discussion of MWBA: The Five Aggregates

The 5th meditation-cum-Dharma session under the aegis of the Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) was duly held on June 16 (Sat.) at its Clearwater venue.

Bhante started the meditation session promptly at 9.30am, gently prodding the attendees to relax, to wish all beings to be happy, calm, healthy, and peaceful, to instill universal kindness for oneself and others, and to cultivate calmness, which is a powerful inner force.

In the ensuing silence, I fought a personal battle to banish all thoughts from my mind, while taking note (observing) of each passing sound: cars passing by; coughing; chair creaking; door closing; ringing tone; fan blowing, air-cond humming; distant whispering; feet shuffling; chair hitting the floor; and some of my own shallow breathing with occasional deep breaths; swallowing saliva and feeling facial muscles twitching.

I also tried mentally chanting Amituofo in rhythm with my breathing, for a while. Then my mind wondered off to thinking of my medical exam appointment next week. After making a conscious effort to resume the chanting, this time the mind drifted to tennis greats and I remember enumerating the south paws: Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and now, Rafael Nadal. Then it was back to chanting and before I knew it, Bhante’s voice came back on, signaling the end of the meditation session.

After a brief break, Bhante commenced the wisdom session by introducing the Five Aggregates (skandhas): form, feeling, perception, volition (another term that has been used is mental formation), and consciousness. Form (rupa in Pali; incidentally this has the same spelling and meaning in the Malaysian language, and this is not the first such link that I’ve come across) refers to the physical body and environment, and has the distinguishing feature of being constantly changing, i.e., impermanent. But often times we cannot see nor feel these changes taking place, and become attached to form and its various manifestations: I, me, my, mine, etc. Our failure to detach from form is a cause of suffering as clinging to and grasping form makes our existence a painful and stressful one.

Once we understand impermanence, just like Khema, a beauty queen who used to take great pride in her charming self, but realized impermanence when she witnessed the transformation of an angel through the ages created by the Buddha, we can then practice detachment.

On Feeling (vedena in Pali), there are three sensations: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Our habit is to grasp happy things and reject unhappy/painful things. But pleasant sensations, though positive, are impermanent as well. Therefore Buddha taught us not to attach to either, but just be realistic. When a feeling surfaces, just let it rise, then let it stay a while, and then let it vanish.

Bhante then narrated a story of a man who after inviting the Buddha to dinner, blamed the Buddha for anything that went wrong at the dinner. But the Buddha just smiled at his tantrums. After the man had vented his anger, the Buddha asked, “what if there has been a last-minute cancellation of your dinner invitation, what would you do?” “I’ll enjoy the food,” said the man.

And that’s what the Buddha did. He ate the man’s bad words and his good food too. The moral of the story: do not react.

Bhante’s teacher once gave the following answer when posed the question: Why are you born? To die. Because while birth is uncertain, death is certain.

From discipline comes concentration, and wisdom ensues. One of our problems is not having enough discipline. There are various techniques to deal with a difficult situation (e.g., inter-personal friction) such as stay like a log, let it pass, read spiritual books, chant Amituofo, have compassion, say thank you.

A body has 32 parts. Next time when we are faced with an enemy, consumed with anger, just think about which part of the enemy that we are angry about. And our anger will subside.

On that note, Bhante and the attendees adjourned to a hearty vegetarian lunch, thanks to all who brought along a dish or two to share.

Sister Lily making an announcement prior to the vegetarian lunch.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mindful March or Mad Rush?

Rat race is a common term used to describe the hustle and bustle of life in our efforts to realize our life’s aspirations: fame, fortune, status, power, etc. Implicit in the term is a mad goal rush to the oblivion of others, the motto of many being the end justifies the means. At a personal level, this mad rush may also manifest in other worthy endeavors, at least in the eyes of others who are brought onto the bandwagon.

While this single-mindedness pursuit may describe a focused approach, it often lacks the comprehensive planning and due recognition of inter-personal skills that are vital to attaining the intended objective, even one that professes to help others.

Blinded by the zealots’ own grand vision, they often bulldoze through what they see as indecisive, and worse, ignorant compatriots, relegating them to mere peons who do everything as told. Furthermore, this primacy of attaining the goal, no matter how noble it may seem, at such a torrid pace that it outstrips the ability of the other members of the team to flank the team’s progress, is counter-productive to say the least. This is especially so in an enterprise that relies primarily on the spirit of volunteerism.

This myopic way has at least two drawbacks. Firstly, it leads to disharmony as nobody likes to be ridden roughshod over and treated as a mindless drone. Secondly, it brings on added stress to the team leader, who in turn may compensate by relying on the few who are deemed as high performers, further contributing to chaos in an already highly volatile situation, instead of bringing out the best in each and everyone in the team to bear on the enterprise.

Then there is the alternative approach that maintains the same focus but at the same time is mindful of the individual strengths of the team members, making efforts to bring everybody up to speed, and cutting slack where necessary for some others so they may achieve the same leap, thereby pulling the whole enterprise along a mindful march.

Right efforts must be complemented by right speech, which is not reserved only for those in the target group, but more so the team members who collectively view the enterprise as a worthy cause, regardless of their individual motivation. In this respect, constructive criticisms are always welcome, but if those could be couched in a non-criticizing tone, no matter how justified and self-righteous those dishing out the criticisms may deem these to be, those at the receiving end may just take these less personally rather than reprimands, and thus feel motivated to amend their ways.

There is really no band-aid remedy for disgruntlement in an enterprise. Each deserves a case approach to its resolution. But whatever the source/cause, an amiable but yet firm tone of dispensation, be it advisory, didactic, or even reproachful, will surely go some way in soothing frayed nerves.

In the same vein, the obliquity assumed in this blog article is intentional in consonance with the Chinese saying that there is no need to draw the intestine in a cartoon sketch. In a similarly analogous manner, it too fits the Malay proverb that whoever consumes the chili will feel the hot spice.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Sand Mandala: A Buddhist Symbol for Impermanence

We read about another Vesak Day celebration in the Bay area, scheduled for June 10, 2007, on the June 7, 2007 issue of St. Petersburg Times (Tampa & State, pg.4B).

This time, the venue is Chua Phat Phap Buddhist Temple in St. Petersburg, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple that we have visited earlier as blogged here.

However, this one has an addition: the display of a sand mandala. According to Wikipedia, while mandala is Sanskrit ("circle", "completion") and has a Hindu origin, "in the Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, mandalas have been developed into sandpainting. In practice, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically, a microcosm of the universe from the human perspective."

The Wikipedia article further adds:

"To symbolize impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism), after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern, the sand is brushed together and is usually placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the Mandala."

"The visualization and concretization of the mandala concept is one of the most significant contributions of Buddhism to religious psychology. Mandalas are seen as sacred places which, by their very presence in the world, remind a viewer of the immanence of sanctity in the universe and its potential in his or her self. In the context of the Buddhist path the purpose of a mandala is to put an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is a means to discover divinity by the realization that it resides within one's own self."

As shown in the following scanned copy of the St. Pete news, Venerable Tashi, a Tibetan monk based in Bradenton and who was also present in the last two Vesak Celebrations featured in my blog, is a picture of rapt concentration, deftly guiding the tiny flow of colored sand grains issuing from a small tube by rubbing a metal object against the tube's notched surface to form an intricate design of a mandala, which was gradually taking shape as shown in the bottom picture. What a painstaking undertaking indeed.

Today, we made a beeline to Chua Phat Phap Buddhist Temple. The completed mandala was placed in front of the stage in the sanctuary, which was slowly being filled by a constant stream of Buddhist practitioners and other attendees, patiently waiting for the service to begin. We were informed by the usher that indeed the sand mandala will be destroyed after the service and the sand, filled in small bags to be given to the attendees.

Mom and son at the front compound of Chua Phat Phap Buddhist Temple.

I was able to take a picture of the sand mandala before the service, which looked much more vivid than its black and white half-completed counterpart in the paper. However, I take heed of the significance of the symbolic act of creating and destroying the sand mandala, it being the impermanence of things.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Space-Land Nexus: a Chanced Encounter

While CY (our D at Oregon) and Dan were here vacationing recently, we had plans to bring them to the nature trails at Lettuce Park off Fletcher, just next to the Hillsborough River. But somehow we never got around to doing that (somehow is a very powerful and convenient English word. Used judiciously, it can convey a sense of "while many things are left unsaid, somehow (that word again) the reader will understand and empathize"). So was their plan to amble to the USF campus. So two rain checks.

Yesterday evening we decided to pop in at the Lettuce Park, bringing along WJ (our elder S), a kind of vicarious experience for CY and Dan if you will. While coursing through the entrails of the Park, we learned that the Park closes at 8pm at this time of the year, and the boardwalk, 7.30pm (seems kind of early when the sun does not set until past 8pm), is inhabited by venomous snakes (after all it is the wild, but there are posters to help visitors recognize these species), that Sheriff’s Vice Squad has a occasional presence (perhaps a caution to the passionate?), and that the speed limit is 13mph, not 10, not 15, but 13 (sounds ominous?).

We took one of the entrances to the boardwalk, elevated about a few feet off the ground, winding through trees covered with Spanish Moss, with sparse undergrowth and not a whole lot of canopy compared to that at Alice Lake, Gainesville. Perhaps it was the season of summer drought, the ground was dry, evincing some dampness because of some rains in the past days.

While promenadng on the boardwalk, we skirted a shallow wide creek in which several birds were feasting themselves (the sign by the boardwalk railing shows a picture of blue Heron, but we doubted that’s what we saw as they looked like turkeys). Then we came upon the Visitor Center, which is built like a timber lodge like those seen somewhere in the thick wood on a postcard. It features vertical timber panel walls and deep upstairs windows that jut out like tubes (see the pictures that say much more than my bald pen (a Chinese expression) can do justice.)

The bunch of "rowdy reptiles" (the term was inspired by an inscription on WT (our younger S)' T-shirt that he wore yesterday. Obviously that is in reference to the Gators, but it would do as well here).

A pavement path lined with plants with needle-point leaves leading to a resting shed.

Just to show that I'm not making this up ...

Approaching the start of the timber boardwalk.

The relatively dry terrain, sparse undergrowth, gnarled and knotted tree trunks ...

Shallow wide creek teeming with roosting avarian kinds.

"Plane, it's a plane ..." Seems reminiscent of a WWII movie with a lone bomber plane roaring through the sky over a lush forest ... But it's just a shot through the tree canopy with what looked like a cargo plane gliding by.

The timber lodge that is the Visitor Center with vertical wood wall panels and deeply recessed windows upstairs.

Then wify pointed excitedly to the sky, exclaiming “rainbow, rainbow”. Sure enough, a band of colors arcing across the sky, blocked partially by the tree canopy. Wify said this is the first time we were able to witness this natural phenomenon, a result of light refraction by the water droplets in the atmosphere, scattering the normally white spectrum into different colors in accordance with their wave lengths.

Then outside CVS, our favorite place to shop for non-food grocery (Publix would hold a similar distinction for food items), we had a complete view of the colorful sky bridge, set against the overcast sky. View the picture and marvel at the rare glimpse of the natural world at work.

My feeble attempt at a rainbow composite. Somewhere, over the rainbow ...

While we were back at the CVS car-park after our shopping around 8.30pm, we saw another contrails-like smoke column extending from the darkened edge of the overcast sky zigzagging back to earth. Several thoughts went through my mind: smoke from burning on the ground, a burning plane falling off the sky???

Back at home, I was looking for clues from the TV night news. It reported a million dollar home on fire at St. Pete, possibly due to lightning. But direction-wise, it did not seem right as we were facing east at CVS while St. Pete is to the west of us.

It was not until this morning when I saw the picture of the rainbow and the smoke column side by side on the St. Pete Times, and the caption, that it hit me that I had shot the evidence of a successful liftoff of the Atlantis shuttle launch. Cape Canaveral is east of us, albeit at more than 100 miles away, and the launch time was 8pm. So that explains it. Unwittingly, fortuitously, and imbued with an uncanny sense of placing ourselves at the right time and the right place, we were able to catch that historic moment of man’s quest for space, a gargantuan one at that. “Next time we can have our own private viewing gallery for a shuttle launch right here,” wify quipped.

The space-land nexus, through the billows from the Atlantis Shuttle.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Sarasotian Vesak Celebration

On the heel of our attendance at the 7th Vesak Celebration on May 26, we headed for Sarasota yesterday to attend a similar celebration organized by Mitreya Center and held at Unity Church, Sarasota. The occasion was graced by Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of Dharma Wheel Mediation Center whose members greatly assisted in organizing the propitious event.

This is my first trip to Sarasota, the famed retirement community off South I-75 on the way to Naples. The venue, Unity Church, is located along Proctor Road within a picturesque setting of individual homes. The entrance road winds among statuesque trees all the way to the back with plenty of carpark lots scattered alongside the road at discrete places ending in a place dubbed the labyrinth. So is the main building, the sanctuary where the ceremony was to be held, which is interconnected to other buildings, e.g., bookstore where the vegetarian dinner was to be served) by internal corridors.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Looking toward the entrance at Proctor Road from the premises.
(2) Entrance to the Sancatuary adorned with Buddhist flags and symbols.
(3) The setting inside the Sanctuary.
(4) Attendees waiting outside for the procession to start.

As with the May 26 celebration, the ceremony was preceded by a procession from the Labyrinth to the Sanctuary, led by Bhante and three other Buddhist monks and accompanied by the drumbeat made from a single drum and two “outriders” carrying the Dharma wheels symbols.

After the welcoming speech by Karen Miki, the Unity Church Chaplain, Bhante led the attendees on a brief meditation session, admonishing them to instill happy and compassionate thoughts and to wish all living beings to be “well, happy, healthy, calm, and peaceful”.

In his subsequent Dharma talk, Bhante related the exchange between Buddha and a traveler who was in awe at the radiance emanating from Buddha. During the exchange, Buddha called himself a supernatural being, or superman, in the sense that he was the awakened one, attaining detachment in thought while finding himself in the material world that is fraught with wars, and other human miseries, much like the lotus flower that has blossomed in the lotus pond, unattached to the mud that breeds it. Bhante then passed on the following timeless, peaceful messages:

-- There is no need for us to find external agencies for our inner peace. There is no need for mediator, and we are our own savior. Buddhist teaching treats protecting our mind/thought as paramount, and has the universal law of cause and effect as one of its core canons. We are naturally fearful of dying, but that is so because we have not cultivated our mind sufficiently.

-- Calmness is not a weakness. It enables us to see clarity. Imagine driving along I-75 at the blinding speed of 80 mph. The scenes at both sides of the road would just swoosh by. But if we slow down, the ensuing calmness will enable us to see clearly, and be in better control of ourselves.

-- As a routine, we take our daily garbage collection out of the house, almost mechanically as we are driven to keeping our house clean. However, we do the exact opposite when it comes to our mind: we stuff our mind with mental garbage originating from outside the mind all day long. To cultivate the mind is akin to keeping the house clean, and not taking the garbage inside the house. Cultivating the mind takes efforts, requiring our utmost efforts at resisting the urge to react to our environment, but to accept. Mindfulness is observing and letting go.

-- We all have Buddha seeds in us. And we need to water the seed everyday, little by little, with mind food, i.e., good and wholesome thought.

-- Happiness is in your heart.

The attendees then witnessed a series of Indian Devotional Music and dance, a variety of soulful prayer and dance performances that display the richness of the Indian culture. This was then followed by Chanting for World Peace by the Buddhist monks. Closing remarks were given by Dr. Sasidharan of the Mitreya Center, a center that is denomination-neutral, being focused on studying the commonalities among all religions in line with the Center’s aim of discovering unity in diversity.

The ceremony in the sanctuary concluded with the Bathing of Baby Buddha, commencing with the Buddhist monks and then the attendees taking turn to symbolically purify their mind of extraneous thought.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) The start of the procession at the labyrinth.
(2) The trailing attendees along the procession route.
(3) Bhante Dhammawansha delivering the Dharma talk.
(4) The Bathing of Baby Buddha on the way.

The attendees then adjourned to the vegetarian dinner, served up by the volunteers and enthusiastically partaken by the attendees.

The "Tampa" delegation assembling for a group picture.