Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Simple and Pristine Lifestyle, Part II

Continued from where I left off, this second translation installment starts with the first simple lifestyle as enunciated by Venerable Hung I in his article, A Simple Life Is A Beautiful One, that appeared in the May 2007 (#153) issue of Dharma Garden.

A) A simple and pristine habit of living
Craving for material possessions and emotional longing form the basics of life for ordinary folks. These pursuits motivate us to work hard, to follow our careers and to bolster our financial wellbeing. When managed well, these earthly preoccupations, while not completely devoid of desires, are not likely to result in dire aggravations. On the other hand, when poorly managed, we could be severely scarred by the fire of delusion, consuming every iota of merits that we have amassed. Therefore, the teachings of Buddha always stress on less desires and more contentment. One who has overcome desire and cultivated contentment is one who holds the key to a happy life that is free from suffering.

The Dharma admonishes us to eliminate desires, which denote the so-called impure desires driven by the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that manifest in the craving for wealth, sex, fame, gluttony, and sloth. Instead, we should cultivate and nurture the pure/wholesome desires [a better term that is less tainted by the first reference to impurity could perhaps be intentions, in my humble opinion, in this context. The ten wholesome intentions are couched in the negative as in no killing, no stealing, no improper sex, no deceiving talk, no derogatory remarks, no gossip, no flattery, no greed, no anger, and no delusion]. These teachings are embodied in one of the Eight-Fold Path: Right Effort/Diligence [the following translated bulleted texts are taken verbatim from David Brazier’s The Feeling Buddha (Fromm International, NY, 1998, pg. 159)]:

1) to prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising;
2) to eradicate those that have arisen;
3) to bring about wholesome states not yet arisen;
4) to sustain wholesome states already arisen.

Once we are able to distinguish those desires that we need to curb and those that we need to augment, we have to put into practice the wholesale termination of these affliction-inducing cravings.

How to achieve a state of less desire and contentment? We have to do more than the superficially obvious such as staying away from such indulgences. Instead, we have to actually give up greed and practice detachment. For example, eating/drinking by itself is intrinsically a neutral activity with no memory function. If we ingest with moderation, the food nourishes our body. However, if we overdo it with abandon, then the food is going to hurt our body, leading to illness.

[From hereon I’m skipping the citation of an excerpt from the Buddhist explanatory text written by Venerable Master Yin Shun.] Suffice to paraphrase here that the teachings of Buddha focus on taming the mind so as not to succumb to the temptations borne out of our habits conditioned by the environment, and not on renouncing totally everything that living in this world entails. We are endowed with the five senses upon birth. Interacting with the environment through these sensory organs is inevitable. And to live is to engage in nourishing activities that keep our body going. Therefore, eradicating desires is not tantamount to rejecting these means of sustenance. It’s purifying our mind commensurate with both bodily and societal needs so that our mind is not dictated by the changing environment.

I will stop here for now and will begin the second element of a simple lifestyle in the next installment. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 27, 2007

First Think to Write, then WriteTo Think

Thought of not blogging today since it being a working day, I felt kind of exhausted. Then while making a small correction to yesterday’s post, I see that I’m just one short of the century mark. So, what the hack, now is as good as anytime to reach that milestone.

But what to write? Notice that I’m not asking how to write. After all the mechanics of writing should be behind me now, what with so many “literary works” to my credit, so I rationalize, smugly too.

Then again truth can be brutal, most of the times. And that hit me flat on the face when I attended the very first ASCE webinar on Writing – Producing action oriented documents, courtesy of my office. It was a two-parter, one hour each during lunchtime on July 18 and July 25.

The speaker, Dr. Stuart Walesh, gave a lot of writing tips over the two hours of virtual delivery, each of us given a copy of the printed slides to follow and to write notes on. And I find that I have been happily clinging on to a lot of the “heavy-handed” stuff that appeal to me more than the readers.

Unlike speaking, writing lacks the tonal nuances, the body language, the deliberate pauses, the props and the room setting that play to the speaker’s advantage in sustaining the interest of an audience. Writing depends solely on the verbal route to bring home a point, to entice the reader to stay, to linger on, every step of the way.

But oftentimes we are the guilty ones, leaving the readers no choice but to abandon ship. There are only two things one has to master in order to write convincingly: learn the fundamentals, and practice, practice, practice.

One obvious shortcoming that I still have not surmounted is the tendency to be verbose. Taunting less is more, the speaker challenges us to throw away words that do not add anything meaningful, except perhaps our own boasted ego, confusing flowery renditions for substantive and elegant prose.

For example, how often have we penned “someone has the capacity to do something”, rather than simply, “someone can …”? Or “in the course of our discussion” than “in our discussion”? The most egregious is perhaps the wanton assertion of “currently” all over the place: We are currently doing this and we are currently doing that. Just take out “currently” and you will find that the present continuous tense is intact.

My colleague defended that uncontrollable fixation on “currently” on the mentality of the consultant, which is our line of work, who needs to justify to the client that we are always doing things for the client.

The other apparent writing flaw is the abundance of articles (either a or the) that start a sentence. The speaker suggests the use of transition words to soften the visual wordscape, again having the readers at heart.

Another significant text saver is writing in the active voice, rather than the passive voice. It has been determined by numerical modeling that alternative A is the best approach. Now try this: Numerical modeling determined that alternative A is the best approach. I rest my case.

After learning the fundamentals, albeit rudimentary, it's practice time. There's where you will find writing actually help clarify things. Hence, write to think.

Actually a lot of this verbiage can be caught if only we proofread our writings. Not once, but several times, and don’t just depend on the spelling checker of your word processor. Sometimes even leave it aside for a day or two, and revisit after it has been mulled over by our subconscious. For more important writings, we may even get our friends to proofread. How many times have you proofread your writing and declared it to be error-free only to be unsettled by a brief glance from a friend who easily spots one that just jumps out of the page, after you have been told? My wife can certainly vouch for the many wrong words (the spelling checker only tells you whether the word is correctly spelt, but not whether it is the right word for the job) that she picks up. And she is not even trained as a proof reader.

So, less is more, transition words are good, active voice is better, and, yes, leave plenty of space around such as using lists and paragraphing. A cluttered text is symptomatic of a cluttered mind of the writer, and the reader then simply un-clutters by looking elsewhere.

OK. Mission accomplished. #100.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Behind Every Failure Lie Many Successes

My elder daugter’s blogging about her meeting with Matthew Pearl, the author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, her very first in her third sojourn in US, reminds me of a similar experience that I had, oh may be more than ten years ago, back in Malaysia.

It was a technical talk organized by the Institution of Engineers, Malaysia of which I am a member. And the speaker was Prof. Henry Petroski (it took me about 5 minutes to scour the depth of my mind recess to dig out the name during this morning’s drive to work, no small feat for a man past the half century mark).

But I could not recall where he is from. So a google-check shows that he is teaching at Duke. He is a rarity among engineers who write books, let alone a popular one at that. As a group, engineers are probably the least literary inclined. I suspect that has something to do with our training in the analytics, though by no means engineers form the only professional group well-honed in the business of analytical thinking.

That’s perhaps the reason too why engineers are seldom featured in novels, TV series, and movies. Engineers are too stoic, too matter-of-fact, or even sedate to instill any excitement, despite having an integral role in making the world turn day in and day out.

Engineers are the proverbial back-room boys (and girls). Unlike lawyers, doctors, and even architects who come into constant contact with people in their line of work. To quote Marilyn vos Savant of the Ask Marilyn fame serialized in the Parade Magazine, Engineers are an unappreciated lot.

Anyway, I digress. Back to Prof. Henry Petroski. He has written many books and the one that I have read then, which became my only autographed copy, is To Engineer Is Human. Obviously this is a play on the famed adage: To err is human, to forgive divine". I have forgotten the contents of the book, other than the byline in the title: The Role of Failures in Successful Design.

While God forbide that engineers should design something purposely to fail, we do learn a lot more from a failed design than a successful one. The most famous engineering failure, not in terms of casualty because there was none, but in terms of the evolution of an actual engineering “catastrophe”, is the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State.

The Bridge was the third longest of its genre, suspension bridges, when it opened on July 1, 1940. It collapsed in a windstorm about four months later, earning the moniker the Galloping Gertie because of its rolling, undulating behavior during service. To get a taste, albeit, a vicarious one, of the “choppy” ride across the bridge, here is one version:

Motorists crossing the 2,800-foot center span sometimes felt as though they were traveling on a giant roller coaster, watching the cars ahead disappear completely for a few moments as if they had been dropped into the trough of a large wave.”

Top two: Swing it to the left, and swing it to the right!
Bottom two: Breaking up and a huge splash.
(Stills captured from the video referenced below)

The collapse of the bridge is due to a phenomenon called resonant excitation. Every structure has its own natural frequency and when the structure is vibrated, say by wind, close to its natural frequency, its response is magnified many times leading to structural collapse. The entire episode of the bridge deck going through its wild swings and eventual disintegration has been captured on film and can be viewed here. It has since become a popular demonstration of resonant behavior in schools and colleges all over the world.

The bridge was replaced in 1950, after a lapse of ten years, built to a better design that still stands today.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Global Guan Yin Dharma Ceremony, July 30 - Aug 1, 2007, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Political polemics on a variety of issues continues to rage in Malaysia: Islamic Nation vs Secular Nation, Freedom of speech vs ISA/OSA, etc. At the same time, the rising crime rate reigns unabated. Then civil servants, including pensioners, got a big boost, the financial kind, purportedly portending the impending arrival of the general election. This is followed by the furor over the tightening of rules governing teachers doubling as tutors, not the gratuitous kind, ostensibly to stem the “fall” of the wayward ones who dare to teach more diligently outside the school hours.

Amidst this mixed bag of development, I was elated to read about the 3-day Global Guan Yin Dharma Ceremony to be held in Malaysia from July 30 – Aug. 1, carried by an online Nanyang Siang Pau article (in Chinese). This could not have come at a more opportune time when the country is in dire need for blessing, in whatever form.

According to the news article, this is to be held in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the independence of Malaysia, a golden jubilee of sort. The aim is to propagate the spirit of compassion as embodied in the deeds of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is better known as Guan Yin among the Chinese community, and Goddess of Mercy in the west, in praying for the cessation of disasters, for the liberation of sentient beings from suffering, for ensuring harmony in and among nations, and for realizing lasting world peace.

To be held at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, the Global Guan Yin Dharma Ceremony expects an attendance of 300,000, and features a variety of Buddhist rites such as the repentance, the release life, the veneration of the sangha, passing the lanterns, mantra chanting, and meditation as well as a series of Dharma talks on vegetarian cooking and ecology, and Dharma song and dance performances. Many world-renowned venerable masters such as Chin Kung and Tsing Yun will grace the occasion. This is an especially auspicious event that emerges from the convergence of many conducive and enabling conditions, culminating in showing the path toward fulfillment through wisdom and compassion.

As stated by Rev Ratana, Chief Monk of the Maha Vihara temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is a blessed country as we can come into contact with Buddhism of different schools. This is unlike other countries that have a more homogeneous populace, and hence, are likely to practice the teachings propounded by a single school of Buddhism. In that regard, the ceremony will help channel a powerful flow of Dharma bliss, embracing all being in benevolence.

So, to partake of the benefits and Dharma merits, be there.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Appeal of Buddhism

This is a translated excerpt from the article entitled Liang Qichao And Learning Buddhism that I just came across on the online Nanyang Siang Pau (many thanks to my wife for the alert):

Toward the end of the Ching Dynasty in China, many scholars turned their attention from the traditional Confucian focus to studying Buddhism. This was a common trend then. Among them is Liang Qichao, a Chinese scholar, journalist, philosopher and reformist during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), who inspired Chinese scholars with his writings and reform movements. And he listed several areas of Buddhist teachings that appealed to him (the Chinese text follows next):
  • Buddhist beliefs are founded on wise teachings and not superstition.
  • Buddhist beliefs emphasize the complementarity of all that is good, and not the exclusivity of good.
  • Buddhist beliefs cater to the needs of this world, the here and now, and not as an escape route out of this world.
  • Buddhist beliefs are measureless, and not bounded.
  • Buddhist beliefs are predicated on equality, and not disparity.
  • Buddhist beliefs are learned through self-motivation, and not driven by externalities.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Malaysian Citizen ThinkTank

One of the hallmarks of the knowledge era is the so-called leveling of the playing field, especially in the political arena, both in as much as the near instant revelation of any political shenanigans (the watchdog role), and the harnessing of public opinion to effect a desired political outcome (the community participatory role). Both are made possible by the decentralizing role enabled by the ubiquitous access to information at a mouse click way, the Internet revolution.

This citizen-, or rather netizen-centric enterprise first took off with the Wikipedia project, which lately has received some negative feedback, and the more recent variation, the Citizendium project, which may be viewed as a spinoff from the former but with a professed better transparency in terms of authorship and editorship.

Concurrently, the pervasive nature of the blogosphere has taken us by storm, with budding bloggers emerging by the minutes, ranging from the politically savvy to those who just want a convenient space to chronicle their inner feelings and interact with like-minded people.

Sooner or later, some enterprising quarters, tired of the mainstream offering of news commentary that are perceived to be slanted toward the powers-that-be, and afflicted with a profound disconnect with reality, or more aptly, things happening at the ground, would seize this opportunity to galvanize, to muster, and to marshal the discrete voices of discontent, of disenfranchisement, of disillusionment, into a veritable citizen/netizen movement.

The latest addition to this clarion call to political action, to my knowledge, is CitizenThinkt@nk, spotting “Route to Knowledge Democracy in Malaysia” on their website. It came to me in the form of an email from a friend back home, choosing to focus their awareness campaign in the form of a chain email. The email admonished each recipient, in turn, to forward the email to seven other friends. Why seven? To coincide with the movement’s birth on July 7, 2007.

I’m not a particular fan of chain emails. But I do subscribe to their reasons of being, and believe in the democratic process of effecting change through the electoral system, voting. Hence, this blog is my own way of helping to spread the word, so to speak.

To make an informed vote, we need to filter the information we are bombarded on a daily basis. And that can only be achieved if we explore all information avenues, even the alternative ones. I particularly like the politician rating initiative, culled from citizen’s opinions across the board. Granted there will be die-hards and lobbyists who would try to tilt the scale through mass mailings, but on balance the outcome will be an additional opinion poll that we can factor into our overall assessment of political reality. Gone are the days we are passive observers, unilaterally fed by the mainstream media, which are influenced to varying degrees by the government of the day.

The Internet Age and the ushering in of the knowledge era have afforded us an opportunity to be discerning, to be discriminative, to be better informed. And to quote Bill Gates in his 2007 Harvard Commencement Speech:

My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here - never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Indeed we have been given much, the ability to read and exercise our thinking faculty, and the ready access to an incredibly powerful tool, the Internet. It behooves us, then, to exercise these endowments with the utmost care, for the collective good. The twin goal of accountability and responsibility that graces the website of Citizen Thinkt@nk, is as much the one we set for the politicians as for ourselves.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Simple and Pristine Lifestyle, Part I

The Dharma Garden is a bi-monthly Buddhist periodical in Chinese published by Texas Buddhist Association, Inc. that we receive regularly. Each issue contains a featured theme that is explored by several authors from the Buddhist perspective, but shaped by individual experiences. The chosen theme in the May 2007 issue (No. 153) is A Simple Life Is A Beautiful One (my own translation of the theme).

Out of five articles under the featured theme, I have elected to make an English translation of the article written by Venerable Hung I, a resident monk at Jade Buddha Temple of Houston, Texas.

I wish to emphasize here that this is entirely my own interpretation of Venerable’s published work with the sole purpose of sharing his experiences of practicing Buddhism with like-minded people, and therefore, any perceived error in doing so is entirely my own. It goes without saying that I will value such feedback so that I would not repeat the same in the future. Also, because of the length of the article and also because I hesitate to summarize for fear of losing the continuity of the flow of thought, the translation will appear in installments. Here then is the first installment. But first, the scanned page of the featured theme in Chinese and the English translation.

A Simple Life is a Beautiful One

We yearn for things to eat and wear when we are destitute in condition;

But what would these yearnings become after those needs have been met beyond satisfaction?

It’s not a crime to be wealthy and all;

The only yardstick is how much we are attached to it a

A Simple and Pristine Lifestyle
by Venerable Hung I

We are brought into this world not knowing how long we will live. But as long as we breathe, we continue to labor in order to live. Regardless of whether one is rich and mighty, or poor and decrepit, each of us has ambitions and targets, hoping to live happily, meaningfully, during our brief sojourn on this earth. Some even go further as to seek ascension into the blissful realm after departure, or in Buddhist parlance, liberation from life’s sufferings.

Upon closer examination and apart from the above commonality in broad terms, we find that our hopes differ greatly, presumably as a consequence of the disparities in our karmic stores, the divergence in our individual thoughts, and the mismatch in our blessings. We follow different life styles, with different emphases conditioned by varying value systems to the extent that conflicts are spawned from the inevitable clashes of personal convictions. This is especially apparent in the domain of ideologies and beliefs.

But regardless of the way of life that we choose to embrace, the goal is basically the same: to live happily, peacefully, nobly, and with dignity. Nobody wishes for poverty, for worry, for solitude, for helplessness, and for a bleak future, not knowing where the future lies. Therefore, if somebody says he [this is deemed to include the female gender as well from hereon] has the whole world in view and plans to befriend all the heroes from every nook and corner, and aspires to engage in some earth-shattering ventures, we need to understand that he is driven by his own worldview, and that those are his raison d’etre.

On the other hand, there are those who find a socially active life stressful, consumed as it were like a proverbial dog chasing after its own tail. They view climbing the social ladder as unnecessary, and competition in a rat race as unworthy, and prefer the serenity of solitude. It’s really a matter of to each his own, each individual just has to find his own niche within the social milieu.

After years of going through life’s tribulations that are rife with every complexity imaginable, I have gradually gravitated, in dealing with all matters, from the initially comprehensive management focus to the present attitude of facing up to the demands of reality: less meddling, and cautious management.

Less meddling is a response born out of the perception that many things are useless to trifle with, a sunken investment in efforts to do so. Cautious management then recognizes that many efforts in resolving inter-personal issues is an exercise in futility at best, more so if we are driven by our own biases and preferences. Oftentimes it is the lack of enabling factors, the dearth of conducive conditions that prove wanting. Therefore instead of daily direct engagement for quick fixes, it seems prudent to motivate for incremental changes, and to cultivate the right condition over the long-term.

From the twin pronged approach of less meddling and cautions management, I find that persevering in uplifting our moral fibre and promoting an even-keeled temperament can do wonder too. Otherwise, merely saving on efforts without facing up to the real tasks at hand would be deficient in fostering our compassion and boosting our wisdom. In this connection, how to choose between saving and investing, or to optimize the combination thereof, remains one of life’s major targets.

I term these targets as a simple and pristine lifestyle, and from this notion I will venture some personal views for all to share.
In my thinking, simple connotes the antithesis of complexity while pristine conjures up a state of purity, shorn of all evils. What then, is exactly a simple and pristine lifestyle?

In the next installment, I will translate each of the three spheres of human activity that the author has in mind for application, they being simple and pristine living habits, simple and pristine inter-personal ethos, and simple and pristine Buddhist practice, one at a time.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Chinese Calligraphy on Non-Clinging

After close to a month of inactivity, my wife has picked her Chinese brush pen again (read here about her previous, read maiden, foray) and the result is the following rendition of several famous Buddhist verses condensed from the Diamond Sutra that form the very essence of the Chan School of Buddhism. I don’t suppose I fully grasp the profundity of the verses. Nevertheless I will try to perform an English translation, attempting to preserve the same crispness and conciseness that are the hallmark of Chinese Buddhist writings.

If you find the translation cryptic, well, at least you could enjoy the calligraphy. Here it goes.

Deftly combining compassion and wisdom
Brings purity of mind to our inner sanctum.
Seeing through and letting go as embodied in non-attachment
A Bodhi mind and buddhahood shall be our fulfillment.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Turtles Can Fly: The Forgotten Children

For most of us distanced from the ravages of wars, we grimace at TV images of human carnage and suffering, but the impacts soon fade into oblivion the moment we turn off the TV. The assault on our conscience is a fleeting one, soon overshadowed by our daily grind.

Consciously or not, we tend to shut off images of human suffering, presumably because such a state of mind is seemingly incongruous with us being nicely ensconced in the comfort of home. We have the luxury of making choices, preferring happy outcomes, both for us and for others. And that freedom of choice is exercised daily in movie selection, for example.

After a hard day's work, we can't be faulted with seeking a little outlet for our pent-up stress, and what better way to do that than in the form of an entertaining visual/audio escapade as offered by the celluloid screen, so we rationalize. Rarely do we choose a movie genre that is likely to prick our conscience, less so a docu-drama that brings us back down to earth, traumatically at times, unless per chance we bump into one. And this was the milieu in which we found ourselves one fine day not too long ago while channel surfing.

I think we just miss the starting credit and therefore did not know the title until the end credits came up. The first scene was a group of boys led by one precocious bespectacled kid haggling with the seller for a huge satellite disc in the shop. We could not understand the dialog, nor able to place the language origin. But the dubbing saved the day. The next scene showed the boys pushing the satellite disc on the kid’s bicycle, colorfully festooned with ribbons.

We had the urge to move along, seldom settling for a foreign movie, unless it’s Chinese. But for some reason we stayed on and by the time the armless kid with his somber-faced sister, with a little, seemingly blind, brother (and so we thought) in tow, appeared, we were glued.

The setting is a Kurdish refugee camp, somewhere at the border of Iraq/Turkey. The time was just prior to the US invasion of Iraq. The adults seemed to just laze around while the more enterprising kids scouted the area for intact land mines to sell.

There was a budding love story in there somewhere, but decidedly one-sided as the girl, the sister of the armless kid, hardly responded to the advances from Satellite (that’s the nickname of the leader of the marauding kid gang). Through several back flashes, we began to know the reason for the girl’s perennially depressed state of mind, and her silent struggle between caring for and rejecting her little brother, who turned up to be her son born as a result of soldier rape.

The poignancy of the wars waged by adults driven by ideological and geopolitical imperatives was laid bare by this microcosm of war-torn life eked out by a bunch of innocent children, by all accounts. In the end, the girl took her own life, jumping off from a high cliff, and receiving complete liberation from a life of destitute. Perhaps this is one facet of the symbolism projected by the film’s title: Turtles Can Fly.

On a more positive note, that the children, despite their dire circumstances, could still go about their business day in and day out must be a testimony to the indefatigable spirit of the young, who have not seen anything better (except for the MTV via satellite TV reception). For us removed from the scene of the specter, this must appear impossible. How could they still find meaning in life? I venture that these kids must believe that turtles can fly, and that tomorrow is another day to look forward to.

I think even the most callous of soul will be moved by the plight of these children. We complain about slow service, traffic jam, inconsiderate neighbors, scheming colleagues, unjust discriminations of all sorts. But all these pale in comparison with the portrayal in the film, revealing how petty we have become. The common refrain of not taking things for granted just sounds that much louder. And no matter how decrepit our life would become, there will always be people somewhere in the world much worse off and deserving of our compassion beyond mere empathy.