Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning at a Tzu Chi Training Camp

We have participated in several local donation drives organized by the Orlando Chapter of Tzu Chi Organization, a world-wide Buddhist Compassion Relief headquartered in Taiwan, in the past years, as well as their roving tea gatherings in the homes of Tampa-based Tzu Chi volunteers. But this is our very first trip to their training camp focusing on the responsibilities and duties of Tzu Chi volunteers, and the conduct becoming and befitting of representatives of Tzu Chi in consonance with the teachings of Buddha. And that took place at the home of Brother Yang, who would later become Wify's teacher in Chinese calligraphy, on Nov 15, 2008.

Starting at 10am, it was to be an intensive 5-hour session till 3pm, under the able guidance and lucid delivery by the Orlando team headed by Brother James Huang. Using powerpoint presentation interspersed with videos and lively demonstrations, the team did a fabulous job of getting into the essence of what being a Tzu Chi Volunteer entails, subscribing indeed to a noble standard of moral conduct that is above reproach even from the standpoint of the most stringent critic, leaving no room for mis-interpretation. I had originally intended to write an account of the proceedings by referring to the snapshots of various slides that I had taken in sequence but thought that it might turn out to be wordy and dry. More important, I might have misconstrued the thoughts and intents of the dispensations in my zeal to translate verbatim. Therefore, I have decided to resort to a pictorial account instead, replete with the actual slides but with my English translations that I feel would transmit the gist of the messages by and exhortations from Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi. Hopefully, the clarion call encapsulated therein to help the suffering masses will motivate each one of us to join their rank, not necessarily as part of Tzu Chi, if we are not already enamored to doing so.

Meticulous preparation is the key to a successful training camp: complete presentation materials, functional computer equipment, appropriate venue lighting, friendly seating arrangement, and smooth delivery.

Neatly arranged reading materials, all are reflective of how an organization is perceived.

Brother James Huang started the ball rolling, under the watchful and yet benevolent gaze of Master Cheng Yen, not forgetting the session recording using both still photography and video taping for archiving and continuity.

Brother James Huang setting the tone by outlining the schedule of the day, covering the sequence methodologically.

A captivated audience, eager to partake of the Tzu Chi experience.

One of the many astute observations by Master Cheng Yen, going straight to the core of society's malaise, contributed in no small part by the sensationalized, while multi-faceted, reporting in the mass media, leading to the decay of cultural values and the erosion of moral standards such as the blind obsession of today's youth with hedonistic trends (hair coloring, body tatoos, etc.), ultimately resulting in a depraved lifestyle shorn of self-respect and moral character. Once the crux of the problem is identified and conditions arising discerned, Tzu Chi has developed a comprehensive suite of spiritual goals encompassing the Four Great Missions and Eight Great Footprints, Breathing in Unison with Earth/Discipling Oneself/Reviving Morality to reclaim the innate humanism in us.

Tzu Chi is action-oriented, steeped in the belief that actualizing Buddhist teachings in life is paramount to learning and discoursing on the precepts. Sutras are a way to attaining enlightenment and revealing one's Buddha Nature, and the way must be trekked, even trudged, which implies putting precepts into practice, diligently. Dharma is everywhere, therefore seeking Dharma away from our world is wishful thinking, an exercise in futility. Pureland is on Earth, so is Hell. And Tzu Chi manifests Buddhism amidst our society.

Attachment is our bane. So let go when we have given, only leaving behind the experience, the way, and gratitude, respect, and love to cherish.

It's better to respect the sanctity of life than to release life occsionally. Genuine holistic deliverance is one that bridges through all space and time, and over the schism between us to deliver us from suffering. The best holistic deliverance is exemplified through self love, humility, gratitude, and giving.

Tzu Chi promotes Disciplined Food Abstinence, and reveres life. At the same time, Master Cheng Yen admonishes all to persevere tirelessly and relentlessly. And in the smaller prints below: Being on a vegetarian diet is food abstince only, appropriate consumption is discipline. Therefore, we have to both follow a vegetarian diet and avoid consuming excessively.

This elaboration on Buddhist greetings and their parallel with western practice is self explanatory.

Do not relax in abiding by the ten precepts of Tzu Chi (No killing; No stealing; No sexual misconduct; No lying; No intoxicants; Obey traffic rules; No politics; Be gentle in speech and behavior; Respect your parents; and No gambling or speculations), nor indulge in image transgression. The innate beauty of Tzu Chi hinges on individuals meshing on personal conduct. May we endeavor to uphold the shared reputation of Tzu Chi. [Later, it was clarified that Tzu Chi volunteers should take heed of political developments, but not to participate in political affairs.]

Singing praise on Master Cheng Yen through hand signaling for being an exemplar and icon of delivering the humanity from suffering through Tzu Chi's action-oriented Buddhist Compassionate Relief. A translation of the lyrics appears below.

Delivering the Humanity
Your gait is like white cloud streaming across the azure sky; and your footprint, water encircling the green mountains; Sometimes concealed and sometimes manifest; sometimes near and sometimes distant; Criss-crossing with compassion and loving kindness, indefatigably delivering the humanity from suffering.

Your gait is like white cloud streaming across the azure sky; and your footprint, water encircling the green mountains; The epitome of modesty, the exemplar of ordinariness; Practicing Dharma mindfully, and doing virtuous deeds unwaveringly; Criss-crossing with compassion and loving kindness, indefatigably delivering the humanity from suffering.

Now, what did I take home with me? Yes, I'm sure most of us are ennobled by these "ideals", which seem unattainable. They are put in quotation marks here to denote in the sense that they seem out-of-step with the rat race careening toward us at such great momentum that we hardly have time to be good samaritans, defenders of the public good and role models all rolled into one. Or the world is not in short supply of such angel guardians. Let them save the world while we cling on to every aspect of our materialistic world. However, at the same time, I believe we are born with goodness in us. We may be momentarily waylaid by the amenities of earthly attachments, but given time and exposure, we will come to our senses and start on the worthy cause in our own small way, one step at a time. As Edmund Burke put it poignantly (or others may have paraphrased him), "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." In my mind, the same goes with something as simple (but no less onerous) as helping fellow human beings in need.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The 19th Dharma Session of MWBA (Oct 18, 2008): The Buddhist View on Ghosts

The notion of ghosts has always been around in most cultures. While ghosts may be scary to kids, and make for excellent cautionary tales for the young, they are the subject of celebration too. For example, Halloween is a popular day of festivity in US while the Chinese have their own version of the Ghost Festival. In some religions, ghosts are not sacrilegious, but may have a different moniker when referenced. Such is the case in Buddhism, and to make the nexus between the Chinese society, particularly the Buddhist worldview, and the West, using Halloween as a proxy, as regards the ambivalence that ghosts are regarded in each was Venerable Chueh Fan from Guang Ming Temple, Orlando during the 19th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association on October, 15, 2008 at its Pinellas Park venue.

While Halloween, a largely secular celebration started as a Celtic tradition and brought into US by Irish immigrants, falls on October 31, the Chinese Ghost Festival occurs on the 15th day of the lunar month of July. In Buddhism, it's referred to as the Festival of Ullambana as cited in the Ullambana Sutra, a Mahayana sutra consisting of a brief discourse given by Gautama Buddha principally to his disciple, Maudgalyāyana, on the practice of filial piety. In a nutshell, the Buddha instructed “Mahāmaudgalyāyana on how to obtain liberation for his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm, by making food offerings to the sangha on the fifteenth day of the seventh month”. On this day, the Sangha community would emerge from the forest after three months of Summer retreat coinciding with the Monsoon season to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. Thus, the day is viewed as Buddha's Joyful Day as the incidence of attaining enlightenment among the Sangha community during the retreat was high.

While originated in India, the Ullambana Festival inevitably assumes an overtone of Chinese culture as practiced by Chinese.

In Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms into which rebirth can take place: the three higher realms of Devas/Heavenly Beings, Human and Asura, and the three lower realms of Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell, an occurrence dictated by karma.

Venerable Chueh Fan regaled the attendees with ghost stories gleaned from the Buddhist sutras.

Through a slide presentation, Venerable Chueh Fan elaborated on the traits of each realm as follows:

Devas/Heavenly Beings
Populated by godlike beings who enjoy great power, wealth and long life, and live in splendor and happiness. These privileges and their exalted status blind them to the suffering of others. Thus, despite their longevity, they still grow old and die, and suffer from the lack of wisdom and compassion. Eventually, they will be reborn into another of the six realms.

the only realm from which beings may escape from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. While enlightenment is within reach, only few open their eyes and recognize the potential. Rebirth into this realm is conditioned by passion, doubt, and desire.

These are strong and powerful beings, marked by their fierce envy, and are sometimes depicted as the enemies of the Devas. Hatred and jealousy would jettison a being into this realm.

Typified by prejudice, complacency, and lack of wisdom. They live sheltered lives, and avoid discomfort of anything unfamiliar. Rebirth into this realm is conditioned by ignorance.

Hungry Ghosts
Characterized by having huge, empty stomach, pinhole mouth, and thin and fragile throat. They always look outside themselves for the new thing that will satisfy the craving within. The realm is associated with insatiable hunger, addiction, obsession, and compulsion.

This is the most terrible of the six realms where inhabitants have a short fuse, easily angered. They drive away anyone who shows them love and kindness, and seek out the company of fellow hell beings. Unchecked anger and aggression can cause rebirth into the hell realm.

Venerable Chueh Fan then posed three questions for us to ponder, and briefly answered them as well:

Does everyone turn into ghost after death?
This is not taught by the Buddha, even though it is recognized as one of the realms. In short, karma is that which causes people to be ghosts.

Are our acts (karma) related to which realm we are reborn?
Yes, and the traits that preferentially condition rebirth into a particular realm are laid out above. As detailed in the Buddhist Karmic Rewards Sutra, these undesirable traits include:

The body has committed evil (Act Evil)
The mouth has committed evil (Speak Evil)
The mind has committed evil (Think Evil)
Fawning and Jealousy
Perverse ideas
Attachment and not letting go
Dying of starvation
Dying of thirst

How scary is a ghost?
There are good, and there are bad, ghosts, just like in the human world. While there are evil ghosts, the good ghosts number in the majority. More importantly, their “evilness” pale in comparison to the human atrocities that recur in the annals of our civilization. And ghosts are powerless against a kind human being of high morals as eloquently encapsulated in the Chinese saying: if we do no evil in the day, we need not worry about evil ghosts knocking on our door at night. On reflection, the ghosts outside of us are not nearly as frightening as the ghosts inside of us.

The anecdotes on the encounter and conversations between Maudgalyayana and the ghosts in the hell, as contained in the Maudgalyayana Sutra, enable us to glean the operation of the law of cause and effect (causality). For example, if we hit with a stick, we will have headaches. And if we do not help others when we are wealthy, we will sleep outdoors in the cold and rain.

A distinct feature of Halloween is the many different costumes. It is as if people already know what ghosts look like, extending their human perception and experience into the ghostly realm. By association, there are then as many different ghosts as there are different human characters. However, according to Abhidharma-nyayanusara, there are three kinds of ghosts: wealthy, not so wealthy, and poor. Then in Abhidharmamahavibhasa-sastra, ghosts are categorized into those with dignity and prominence, and those who are lacking in them. Then there are large and small ghosts, beautiful and ugly ghosts, and noble wealthy and lowly impoverished ghosts.

When concluding her Dharma session on the Buddhist view on Ghosts, Venerable Chueh Fan admonished us not to think about ghosts, but about Buddha, and about turning the human realm into Pureland. And this can be achieved by honestly and diligently working toward meaningful goals in life, rather than battling over superficial glory and illusory fame and ending up with a heap of old bones and a handful of dirt.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Differentiating Among the Four Urges to Have

Continuing from my previous post on Calming the Mind from Master Sheng Yen's book, I Send You My Blessings, this post deals with the Four Urges to Have as he further dissected the social psyche that has muddled our value system despite the advances we have made on the technology front. The flourish of materialism and the rapid upheavals in social structures result in our poor understanding, bordering on ignorance, of the four urges to have: need to have; love to have; able to have; and ought to have.

Instead, oneupmanship and herd mentality become the order of the day. The ensuing social ills are already a foregone conclusion. And in his lucid style, Master Sheng Yen went on to elaborate on the right frame of mind one should bring to bear on each of the urges: the courage, the wisdom, and the serenity to know their differences with clarity.

Need to Have versus Love to Have
Need to Have is meeting a genuine need the absence of which will compromise our continuing existence. It includes both material provisions such as the basic means of food, cloth, and shelter, and equally important, spiritual endowments such as happiness, peace of mind, and compassion, to name just a few.

On the other hand, Love to Have is nothing more than the expression of greed, our covetous nature coming to the fore. In a word, such wanting is superfluous, pandering to our vanity for cosmetic luxury at best. These wants are numerous, and the temptation is formidable. Then again, there are certain wants that are appropriate in the context of etiquette such as presentable attire and technological enhancements that help us to continue functioning in a modern world such as computers and mobile phones. The key word here is aptness in consonance with social norms but not flaunting.

There are really not too many needs that would make a life meaningful. Often it's subjectivity that makes us feel empty, unfulfilled, when we are devoid of them. When faced with a decision, it's easy to confuse the Need to Have and Love to Have. A simple example will suffice here.

When we are well to do, the natural inclination is to acquire things based on our perceived taste like purchasing a new model of shoes even though the ones we have are very much wearable, elevating a Love to Have to becoming the Need to Have. However, when we are financially strapped, we realize that life goes on as usual without having to keep up with the Joneses.

Able to Have versus Ought to Have
Able to Have is met through our efforts, earning and deserving the fruits of our labor. It's well within our capability, and is distinct from forcing the issue with chasing after fame, status, power, and the like. No doubt such social recognitions can be enticing, and have driven many up the social ladder. But wait a minute, do we really have the wherewithal to deserve such accolades? If we have not earned them, or the enabling conditions are inadequate, but we continue to delude ourselves as deserving, we will only end up being miserable and hurt.

As to Ought to have or not, it can be put into context when quoting a popular refrain among the youth of today: I like it, so I ought to have it. This is muddled thinking at its height. Our likes are boundless. Therefore it's imperative to ask ourselves instead: Do I ought to like it? Do I ought to have it? Fame is illusory when it's not due, and wealth is mere ill-gotten gain when it is not earned. Conversely, a deserving case can serve as an motivation.

How to balance these four urges to Have? Master Sheng Yen advised us to start from the environmental protection of the mind, insulating our mind from external pollution and strengthening our inner immunity against encroachments from without. At the same time, rid ourselves of envy, anger, second-guessing, selfishness and similarly negative thoughts that would only aggravate our predicament, and learn to monitor and introspect each arising thought, understanding our Need to Have, and dissipating our Love to Have.

If and when we are able to differentiate among these four urges to have, we will have a clear direction in life toward peace of mind and harmony.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Calming the Mind

We often use the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots to illustrate the chasm dividing the affluence and the destitute present in our society, even internationally. The underlying simmer of the malcontent is all but waiting to flare up given the slightest provocation. Thus, concepts such as spreading the wealth, prospering thy neighbor, affirmative action have emerged to correct such imbalance viewed largely from the standpoint of economics.

While not discounting the potential for remediation of such externally driven measures in social engineering, the Buddhist outlook on life stresses the right views as the foundation of a calm mind as succinctly embodied in the Heart Sutra and eloquently captured in the booklet (in Chinese) translated as I send You My Blessings by Master Sheng Yen who has amalgamated the gems of Buddhist wisdom embodied in the Heart Sutra, the Pu Men Pin and the Greast Compassionate Mantra. These are:

1) The three-generational causality
His Highness Dalai Lama was once asked why those who have committed wrong deeds did not receive karmic retribution while those who have done virtuous deeds have not been showered with karmic blessings, to which he replied, “That is because you don't believe in the past and the future life. When you do, you will realize that all the pieces will fall into place when the apparent injustice is viewed from the totality of the three-generational causality whence your indignation will subside.”

Other than accepting the karmic fruits due to us, the notion of three-generational causality also includes making vows and their attribution, which behooves us to always persevere and do our best regardless of our circumstances.

2) The Pseudo combination of the Four Great Elements
Our life is comprised of five elements, divided into the physical and the spiritual. The physical category refers to our body that is made up of earth, water, fire, and wind. These do not exist before birth, but are formed when we are born, from the fetus to the adult form. The Pseudo combination refers to the continuously evolving state of our body, constantly changing.

In addition to our body, all matters are typified by impermanence, contrasting life and death, possession and loss. Precisely because of the carousel of life, death, possession, and loss, our life continues to grow. Therefore, regardless of whether we are here to receive our karmic dues, or to actualize our vows, we must manage life beneficially by being at ease with ourselves, joyous at what life throws at us, and facing life's challenges come what may.

3) The Emptiness of the Five Aggregates
The Five Aggregates or Skandas (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness) are not intrinsic by themselves. Because of our egos and selfish nature, our life as constituted by the five aggregates is thus formed, and so is the ensuing numerous karmic retributions. However, Buddha knew that life itself is no better than the five aggregates, being plagued by impermanence, constantly shuffling between life and death and changing between thoughts. In this life of mutability, only wisdom remains invariant. Hence, it is admonished in the Heart Sutra that we should use Buddha's wisdom to see through the emptiness of the five aggregates.

However, a great majority of us are blind to the universality of impermanence, ignorant of causality, oblivious to conditional arising, and hence are afflicted by attachment that is manifest in wanting the unnecessary, coveting the undeserving, and chasing after the unattainable. As a consequence, crime abounds, ushering in the next generation of karmic retribution.

Conversely, a man of wisdom would not forcibly acquire things that are beyond him, nor obsess with wishes. If by chance the wish comes true, one would readily give to others in an effort to alleviate others' suffering. This is compassion born out of wisdom, one that puts others' benefits before anything else and one that would ensure absolute peace and harmony.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Kathina: A Robe Offering Celebration

We attended the robe offering celebration organized by Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS) at Clearwater on the morning of Nov 8, 2008. Unlike the previous year when the event was held outdoor under a makeshift tent, this time it was held in the premises of Unity Church located next door, thanks to Leddy Hammock, Spiritual Leader and her congregation.

In his opening speech, Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of DWMS, welcomed all attendees to this auspicious occasion, which was preceded by healing chanting held last night and which would also include Taking the Refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Precepts Ceremony. The Kathina Celebration is held for the laity to venerate the Sangha after the traditional three-month raining retreat stretching from June 15 to Sep 15, the Monsoon season in India by giving alms to meet their basic needs so that the Sangha could devote fully to practicing and propagating the Dharma. Such provisions could include clothing, food, and shelter. Hence the robe offering celebration. The robes are a 25-century old tradition for Buddhist monks, a noble and humbling attire that underlies the simplicity of their existence.

It is also an occasion for sharing between the Sangha (spiritual experience) and the laity (providing a conducive environment for the spread of the Dharma), and at the same time for exulting the inter-dependence and unity between them. The robe offering celebration is also meant to remember the departed and to offer blessings for the sick and needy.

While we value rights, Buddha focused on duties and taught that when we carry out our duties, rights are automatically imputed.

During the occasion, eight attendees also participated in the Taking the Refuge in the Triple Gems (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) ceremony by taking vows to abide by the five precepts (no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxication), which constitute the five basic Buddhist code of ethics. In practice, Taking the Refuge is actually taking refuge within oneself by becoming virtuous. Each refuge taker was given a certificate of appreciation that bears his/her Pali Dharma name with special connotation for wisdom, rightfulness, loving kindness, etc., traits that are embraced and held in high regard in Buddhism.

The Sangha filing out from the premises of DWMS on their way to Unity Church located across the carpark.

The devotees lining up to give alms, in this case, food, to the Sangha, each with an alms bowl in hand.

Bhante Dhammawansha delivering the welcoming speech.

The lunch in session, the devotees delivering various food items by turn to the Sangha.

The devotee's turn to feast.

Gift offering.

The Taking the Refuge in the Triple Gem ceremony.

The devotees receiving the blessed water and string bracelets.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Living Right

Due to the schedule conflict of our Dharma teacher, the monthly Dharma session organized by Middle Way Buddhist Association for September has to be canceled, leaving a kind of momentary void in my journey on the Buddhist path. Fortunately, I have started reciting the Heart Sutra, a highly condensed version of 260 Chinese characters that captures the essence of Buddhism, every morning. For now, I still need to refer to the text but am in the process of committing the full text to memory. That will enable me to recite the Sutra any time I want: during driving, a break in work, lying on the bed prior to sleep, etc. In fact, at all occasions.

Reciting the Heart Sutra grants one serenity. More importantly, one should incorporate these gems of life into one's daily life, as befitting the role of a practitioner. Refrain from craving, live for the here and now, but in the sense that we appreciate what we already have, and maintain mindfulness and not sway with the changing environment in a wild goose chase.

Just like an old automobile, I'm now approaching the equivalent stage when the effect of wear and tear, the grind of living, is surfacing at an alarming rate. The scourge of old age such as hypertension, diabetics, all manners of cancer, now looms large.

In these trying times, periodic health examination is essential to detecting any such health impairment from rearing its ugly head, with dire consequences both emotionally and financially.

Equally important is the need for controlled nutritional intakes and well-executed exercise regime. I have now realized that hitherto my food has been overly loaded with carbohydrates, sugar and fats, though I also consume enough food high in protein and fiber. So, for sometime now, Wify, my chief and only nutritionist, has adopted the following regimen:

Breakfast: two slices of whole grain bread spread thinly with Omega 3-rich butter and organic peanut butter, half a cup of unsweet coffee.

Lunch: fried brown rice/porridge cooked with celery, mushroom (when on vegetarian diet) and bay scallops, accompanied by a small serving of vegetable, taufo, and sometimes, scrambled egg, a cup of green tea, and later, a combination of seedless grapes, an over-ripe (one that displays black dots on the skin) banana, one organic apple and other fruits of the day.

Dinner: brown rice, more vegetable, a serving of Coho (wild) Salmon fillet or farmed-raised Tilapia or chicken breast (white) meat, and water. All the food is prepared with Olive oil with minimum seasoning.

Supper: one organic apple or other fruits (star fruits, grapes, pears).

We cut down on eating out, or at most going for vegetarian fried rice, for me, from Chinese Food outlets. And for me, no cakes, no ice-cream, no Sodas, no candy (OK, maybe indulge in some teeny weeny morsel of dark chocolate).

Talking about on vegetarian diet, I'm now following Wify's regimen of ten days in a month as recommended in Buddhist practice, with the ultimate aim of going full-time on this positive life habit, not only at the personal level, but also for the greater good of the environment, one day.

Mentally, one needs brain food too, and maintains an even keel. That means no temper flashes, no petty squabbles, to speak kind words, harbor kind thoughts, give to others, be happy for others, be grateful of what one has, and engage in wholesome and mind simulating hobbies (I read and write while Wify draws and paints).

I'm now realizing the long-term benefits inherent in the above life style: losing weight, feeling lighter and more alert, controlled glucose level, less incidence of short breaths, heart pounding, and the like, not to mention a drastic reduction, if not total elimination, of face turning red, heated spousal arguments, and temper flaring. In place, there is general family bliss, amicable working relationship, and courtesy on the road (I used to feel outraged when a car cuts into my lane and would attempt to “even the score” so to speak. But now I just wave the driver to go ahead, rationalizing that the driver obviously has more pressing matters to attend to. Also, I have stopped my habit of tail-gating, preferring to follow at a respectable distance from behind.).

It really can be a life-changing experience, literally. Try it sometimes, if you are not already on it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Atom Smasher

Many people are familiar with the manifestation of physical principles at work, the simplest example being perhaps gravity that enables us to stand firmly on ground. But we may only have a hazy idea when it comes to the theory underlying the principle, let alone being able to explain how it works. In fact, the surest way to kill a conversation is to invoke physics in a social setting, unless one is among like-minded people, like physicists.

Sure, wet get a dose of physics in high schools. Some may even have taken some introductory physics courses in the college. But that's as far as it goes, within the confines of academic environment.

Take that up another level, say, particle physics, even a Ph.D. holder in engineering like me will start rolling the eyes and spotting a glazed look. But that does not prevent me from being awed by the breakthroughs achieved by the science elites of the world, through my reading of Physics Today, a monthly magazine received as part of my membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers. Not that I'm able to grasp the gist of the articles therein, which I normally just gloss over anyway, but I do like reading some of the features like Letters, which is replete with witty remarks in fluent prose. Apparently, physicists, at least those who write to Physics Today, are excellent writers too. Occasionally, there are articles that deal with topics that intersect with my professional field such as fluid dynamics. Invariably, my interest is piqued and I pore through them.

Talking about physicists, one of my favorite bloggers happens to be a physicist, an astro-physicist to be exact, teaching at U. Southern California. Clifford's blog, Asymptotia (read his blog for his take on the blog title, which on first encounter seems like a variant of Asymptotic, a mathematical concept that we learn in high schools meaning increasingly approaching but never touching), deals with all matters science, but primarily from the human interest's angle. His recent blogs have been on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) [Hadrons are a bound state of quarks such as protons and neutrons], and the excitement engendered by the very first test conducted therein on Sep 10, 2009, 10.28am.

The good people at Google has done it again, this time in commemoration of the momentous event described above.

Sequestered at 100m underground near the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, LHC is essentially an elliptic tunnel reaching a length of 27km. It's the culmination of decades of planning of the international community of physicists under the aegies of European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). According to its website, LHC “is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things. It will revolutionize our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe”. I'm sure some of us will wonder what aspects of our life can be unraveled by particle collisions approaching the speed of light. But make no mistake, it's huge. As some may incline to marvel, in like fashion to the first lunar landing in 1969, “One short trip for a proton, but one giant leap for mankind!”

But what caught my attention in the euphoria that followed is the negative ramifications, perceived or otherwise, that have appeared in the popular press. First, the safety issue. Speculation was rife that the event would spark off a micro-black hole, swallowing the entire earth in its wake. These doomsday scenarios have been categorically refuted by an international panel of independent scientists appointed by CERN based on the reasoning that the force field generated is so minuscule that the worst it can do is to impart a few holes in the tunnel. The recent spate of of earthquakes hitting Iran, China, Japan, and the Pacific islands is at best coincidental. I'm sure the scientists know what they are doing.

In US, the sentiment among the scientists is perhaps tinged by the diminished role of American scientists in this scientific endeavor. Billed as the rise of Eurocentrism in scientific research, some perceive the event as a signal of impending brain drain, sounding the death knell on the primacy of American scientific enterprise as we know it.

The way I see it, we live on the same planet. It really doesn't matter where the breakthroughs take place as long as they are done by the best minds, wherever they reside.

Now to those who are poetically inclined, read the LHC poem penned by Yvette Cendes (who else but another physicist) here (thanks to Clifford for the heads up).

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The 18th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Karma

The 18th Dharma session under the aegis of Middle Way Buddhist Association started off on Aug 18, 2008 as usual with meditation. The Dharma teacher of the day was again Bhante Upananda, who instructed the attendees to breathe in joy and to breathe out pent-up emotions as a release, letting go of worldly attachments.

The ensuing Dharma talk focused on Karma, a popular and yet confusing and poorly understood notion in Buddhism. Broadly, the universal attitude on Karma can be grouped as follows:

A) Karmic perspective
1) Slave to Karma
2) Master of Karma (mutual creation)

B) Non-karmic perspective
1. Efforts (everyday attitude) versus Karma (doctrinal treatment)

Bhante explained that while he was born and raised as a Buddhist, and hence is considered a cultural insider of Buddhism, he has tried to become an outsider to better understand the thinking of those who are not like him. He further asserted that nobody is an absolute of any of the three above, but one is considered on a case by case basis, i.e., everyday life is the inter-balance among the three. When one is too much into Karma (reality), a state termed as karmic downturn, then efforts are reduced.

He went on to relate a dialog between the Buddha and a Brahmin, who was a businessman though of the priestly caste. The Brahmin asked, “Would Karma come out and help me?” The Buddha replied, “If one's life is totally governed by Karma, don't give up your efforts.” Because efforts would re-enhance karmic energy.

On Efforts versus Fate/Fortune, which the uninitiated would tend to liken the latter to Karma, the advice is to rely on Karma as a last resort. While Buddhism fundamentally rejects fate, linguistically it seems reasonable to refer to Karma as fate or destiny in popular parlance.

While the notion of Karma in Hinduism is deterministic, the Buddhist view eschews fatalism [as embodied in the popular belief that everything that happens comes to pass according to a predetermined pattern and that we have little scope to change the course of events] and determinism. The two parallel tracks of Efforts and Karma can merge.

Going back to its definition, Bhante stated that Karma is volition (or intention as intoned by Wahula Rapola as informed by Brother Tom). A more popular definition is perhaps action, or coming into being of a certain force created by an actor (verbal, mental, physical). In the latter sense, it is karmic energy. Here action includes mental imprint as well, even before physical manifestation. For anyone seemingly caught in a karmic cycle/retribution, one remedy is to do something else, an advice often dispensed in prison counseling.

Buddhism does not agree largely with the concept of confession, but rather views the “counseling” as more like sharing to get a big relief/burden off, but the guilt stays. While there may not be a parallel to the western world view of sin atonement, resolution matters in Buddhism as reflected in a frequent word used in Sutras: Cariyahukulata. The prefix, Cari, means behavior, while the second part, to watch for. It's moral elevation.

Bhante proceeded to expound on the four categories of intra-karmic functionality (battles among Karma) as follows:

1. Generative Karma: This is a predominant/mainstream category. At the point of dying, all mental functions are reduced to the microchip where all projections stop and the loss of identity is complete. Then the microchip opens up again, erupting into millions of karmic seeds (inner big bang).

2. Supportive Karma: This is in the same camp as (1) but in a feeder role.

At this point, Bhante quoted Randy Pausch, the terminally ill patient of pancreative cancer who had become an Internet celebrity because of his Last Lecture but who succumbed recently, “Let the Karma take care of that and let me finish my mission!” That's a good exemplar of the attitude exhorted by King Kosala (a friend of the Buddha), “Don't blame on your Karma.”

Also, (1) and (2) lead to the phenomenon that the rich becomes richer, ushering in the notion of social/collective Karma.

3. Obstructive Karma that impedes (1); and

4. Destructive Karma that destroys totally/kills (1).

Bhante ended this most intriguing Dharma session by referring to King Bimbisara, another friend of the Buddha, who stated the two domains of legal prosecution and moral elevation in karmic affairs. Obviously, I did not quite grasp the message therein but surmised that perhaps our behavior can be guided by either legal prosecution, an externally imposed restraint, or moral elevation, an intrinsic propensity to do good, and in karmic terms, it's preferable to be governed by the latter.

Here I would like to end this brief account with an excerpt from the online article, Destiny and Free Will:

Karma predestines nothing and no one. We, by our actions, create causes and feel the effects of those causes which are our teachers. Our spiritual progress is possible only by self-effort. We must assume responsibility for our actions and not try to evade it by religious sacrifices and ceremonies. When King Bimbisara was about to sacrifice a goat in a religious ceremony, with the priests invoking the gods to transfer all the sins of the king on to the poor, innocent, helpless animal, the Buddha intervened and counseled the king to stop the inhuman, superstitious practice. He spoke to the congregation about

The fixed arithmetic of the universe,
Which meteth good for good and ill for ill,
Measure for measure, unto deeds, words, thoughts;
Watchful, aware, implacable, unmoved;
Making all futures fruits of all the pasts.

Help, assistance and enlightenment will come to us in this Great Journey only if we strive towards the enlightenment and emancipation of all, and when we deserve and merit such help by our actions. Far from being fatalism, Karma places in our hands our own evolution. By knowledge of this Law of our being and of the essential and real oneness of all beings, we have to learn to act in harmony with Nature for the general weal and progress of all. It is only through knowledge of the Karmic Law in all its ramifications that man may fulfill his Karmic destiny

In a nutshell, past karma leads to present results; present karma leads to future results.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

One World One Dream

Yesterday morning, after much ado about nothing (NBC, which purportedly paid $900 millions for the exclusive broadcasting rights of the 29th Olympiad in US, decided to delay the televised opening ceremony by 12 hours), we resigned to waiting for the delayed telecast by trying to occupy ourselves with other gainful pursuits to pass the intervening hours. For example, both Wify and I blogged about the impending historic moments that would open China, its culture, its people, its sights and sounds, its charm, to a global audience through staging the world's greatest sporting event.

We planted ourselves on the sofa seats dutifully at 7.30pm to first watch the pre-opening segments on the local NBC station (Channel 7). It included an interview with Tom Brokaw on what it meant for China to be bestowed this honor to host the 29th Olympiad, starting from the moment when the announcement was made way back in 2001, to an euphoric eruption of applause from the host delegates.

The planning and construction of the many venues then started in earnest, and architectural wonders such as the Bird's Nest (for the opening ceremony that can seat just under 100,000 spectators), the Water Cube (for basketball that can seat 11,000 spectators), etc. gradually took shape, extending laterally and skyward, a convergence of form, beauty, and utility.

Inevitably, the segment also touched on the gradual opening up of China from its self-imposed isolation to economic prosperity of today, and the attendant environmental issues, primarily air pollution, which were addressed in greater detail in The Nightly News hosted by Brian Williams telecast earlier in the evening at 6.30pm.

I learned then that the problem of air pollution in Beijing has been aggravated by the presence of Gobi Desert to the west that acts as the source of aeolian sand as well as its geographical makeup, it being surrounded by mountain ranges that discourage air dispersion. I also learned that the Chinese Government has shut down more than 50% of the industrial operation in the Beijing area and imposed a moratorium on vehicular transport in the city during the three-week period of the Olympics to alleviate the enshrouding haze that hangs over the city, that these being stop-gap measures notwithstanding.

At 8pm sharp, the TV lens zoomed in on the Bird's Nest, with Matt Lauer and Bob Costas providing the running commentary. But first, there was a far-field view of the approach to the venue with bursting fireworks from the ground at discrete locations one at a time, simulating the marching sequence of 29 (since it is the 29th Olympiad) giant spatial steps that would culminate in their arrival at the Bird's Nest. And then the whole venue reverberated in pyrotechnics, signaling the start of the greatest show on earth, showcasing the 5,000-year progress of Chinese history, in two segments: Ancient and Modern China.

Some of the figures that are bandied about are staggering indeed, reflecting the gargantuan scale of the undertaking: just under 100,000 for the capacity of Bird's Nest; 15,000 performers, none of whom repeating; 11,000 athletes/delegates to take part in the Parade of Nations; and $300 million as total expenses, ten times the amount of the previous game opening in Athens, Greece in 2004. As one of the commentators put it, this is a scale befitting China's size.

Apart from the official logo featuring the Dancing Beijing above the Olympics' logo of five intersecting rings, and the mascots whose names would spell out the translated text of Beijing Welcomes You (as blogged here and here), of the 29th Olympiad, the theme of the Game is One World One Dream, a noble aspiration indeed, as calligraphed by Wify below:

The entire show is the brainchild of Zhang Yimou, a household name in China and also in international movie directing scene who has won numerous accolades for his screen works such as Riding Alone (2005) (read my review here), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Hero (2002). I read from an online transcript (in Chinese) of an interview with him that the show encapsulates the elements of passion, romance, and dream through pictorial representation that appeals to the affective faculties of the audience, thus moving them into an appreciation of the evolving beauty of the Chinese culture through snapshots in time.

Instead of providing a narrative of the show's progress, I thought it would be more telling if it were presented in a series of captioned images as visual symbolism of the convergence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, with a brief description below recounting my reaction to each scene. For this purpose, I have elected to use a combination of my own screen shots that are necessarily of lower quality, and images from the official website, with thanks (the difference between the two sources would be immediately apparent, obviating the need for further attribution). And action!

An inscription of the logo of the 29th Olympics on a hill side bidding a fond welcome to athletes, delegates, and visitors alike.

The falling twinkling stars collapsing into the Olympics' five rings on the floor and being pulled up like a virtual drape, imbuing the entire stadium with the sublime spirit of Olympism.

The unfolding of the giant scroll, which is in fact a giant LCD flat screen. This is the traditional Chinese way of storing an art form, be it painting, calligraphy, or a poem, as opposed to the two-dmensional framing popular in the west. The lone human figure on the as yet empty space is the start of the unique body painting that would soon emerge (see next image).

The human figures dressed in black in the midst of the well-coordinated and masterfully executed painting endeavor, one of the mountain and water genre (roughly equivalent to landscape painting), tracing out each brush stroke with hand sleeves (I suspect the hand sleeve is equipped with some kind of touch sensors that could enable lines to materialize on what is essentially a computer screen (scroll) upon contact).

This is like a giant dot matrix printer, the individual printing blocks rising and retracting to form different patterns or words, symbolizing the invention of machine printing by the Chinese that revolutionized the way the printed word and what it embodies is propagated. The Chineses character shown here is Harmony. Initially, I have thought that the block movement was powered mechanically, much like a hydraulic jack but perhaps with speedier response. That was debunked at the end of the performance when heads started to pop up from each block. It's actually synchronized human-powered movement underneath the mechanical facade.

This segment of the show continued with the grandeur of Chinese dynasties that climaxed during the Tang Dynasty characterized by an open society featuring the famous Silk route and various dances; but here the focus is on the maritime tradition, the Chinese naval history represented by the oar movement. One prominent figure during this age of epic forays on the high seas is Admiral Cheng Ho who was reputed to have made seven trips to Southeast Asia, including the then Malaya.

The 2,008 performers coalescing to form the dove, the universal symbol of peace.

The 2,008 Tai Chi performers forming concentric circles enclosing the open scroll upon which children study and frolick, sending out a message of health (the harmonious flow of Qi, the energy) and hope for the future.

This is one visual symbolism of contrast employed by Zhang Yimou to highlight the depth, the breadth, and diversity of the Chinese culture, in this instance, the tall (in the person of Yao Ming, a NBA player as the center of Houston Rockets who has become arguably the best known face of Chinese prowess in sports both in China and the world over) and the short (in the person of Lin Hao, a 9-year old survivor of the recent Sichuan Earthquake during which more than half of his classmates perished but he helped save two of the surviving ones). Both were seen here leading the Chinese delegation during the Parade of Nations that followed the performances. Other symbols of contrast include the dark and the lighted, and the black and the white.

The Malaysian contingent, resplendent in traditional Malay dress.

And the grand finale of the opening ceremony: the spectacular lighting of the Olympic Torch, the fire being first ignited at one end of of a long chute by Li Ning, an ex-Olympian and multiple gold medalist in gymnastics who entralled the crowd at the 1984 LA Olympics, hung in mid-air by a wire harness (the figure in the spotlight near the right of the image). Before this, he had seemingly sliced through air, torch in hand and legs making effortless strides around the top rim of the Bird's Nest while keeping pace with the unfolding scroll display around the same rim. All seemed like a page taken out of a Chinese martial arts series, my favorite genre of Chinese writing, where the hero levitates and zooms through air using the kungfu technique known as Qinggong (the art of speedy locomotion).

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Belated Account of Vesak Day Celebration, 2008

As mentioned here, we attended three local celebrations of Vesak Day, an annual occasion to commemorate the life, the enlightenment, and the passing of Buddha. Other than the one held at Guang Ming Temple, Orlando, which follows the Mahayana (The Great Vehicle) tradition, the other two were held at the St. Pete area that practice the Theravadan (the Hinayana or the Small Vehicle) tradition. Despite the allusion of sectarianism, the spirit enshrined in the Buddhist celebration is integral to both traditions, and the messages, equally uplifting and humbling at the same time.

The first of the latter was held on May 3, 2008 at the premises of the Unitarian Universalist Church, Clearwater under the auspices of Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS) located just across the road. The second, sponsored by Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center of St. Pete, was held on May 31, 2008 at Chinese Community Church, Clearwater, the venue of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA), Pinellas Park.

This brief blog, admittedly a belated one, serves as a succinct pictorial account of both joyous occasions, reminding us to aspire toward the Perfection of Wisdom that is beyond our conventional rational, dualistic mode of thinking, and that nothing exists independently as form and emptiness are but both sides of the same coin, to put in worldly terms, as exemplified by Buddha and underpinned by the Dharma. Read here for a more complete coverage of the May 31, 2008 event and visit the DWMS and MWBA websites for more photos of the two events.

A cross-faith electronic display put up by the Unity Church of Clearwater located just next to DWMS, symbolizing inter-faith harmony (May 3, 2008).

The pre-ceremony procession making its way across the road to the venue, led by the bearer of the Baby Buddha statue flanked by two bearers of the Dharma Wheels, followed by the Venerables and attendees (May 3, 2008).

Another angle of the procession, this time offering an unobstructed view of the community of Venerables who were to lead the celebration (May 3, 2008).

A pre-ceremony screening of a film on the aftermath of the Typhoon devastation inflicted on the Myanmar coastal area and the relief efforts (May 31, 2008).

The Venerables gracing the occasion (May 31, 2008).

One of the many spiritual performances, Devotional drumming by Marvin A. Sotoamaya (May 31, 2008).