Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dharma in Multimedia Format

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

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

The scanned DVD cover.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Languages: the Lifeline of our Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Three Buddhas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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