Sunday, October 21, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mind's Medicine for Positive Living

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

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

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

Mind's Medicine for Positive Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2007

2 Seconds, 3 Seconds and As Long as It Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So happy blinking or thinking, or whatever it takes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Remembering A Father Figure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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