Saturday, January 26, 2008

An Afternoon of Compassion and Appreciation

We attended the 2007 Year End Appreciation and Blessing Dinner (well, perhaps a misnomer of sort since the event was held in the afternoon) organized by Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation U.S.A, Orlando Chapter held at USF today. This is our second time, the first being in 2005, a dinner held in the evening.

Themed Gratitude, Respect, and Love and Reverence to Heaven and Earth for Merit Accumulation, the event included dispensation of Words of Wisdom from Master Cheng Yen, the founder, the Review of 2007 Community Service and Tzu Chi Events, both as documentary films, and live performance of the sign language troupe, culminating in the Light Up Your Heart Ceremony.

The Themes in Chinese, with the bylines: Use the eyes of compassion to contemplate the various forms of all sentient beings; Use the ears of wisdom to discern the voices of all sentient beings.

Abiding by their motto “First to arrive, last to leave”, Tzu Chi volunteers have been over in 47 countries, rendering assistance, both medical, mental and physical, wherever and whenever calamities hit: earthquakes, fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, as documented in the films. Their first priority is to provide personal assistance, through physical presence and demonstration of great love.

Seeing them in action, selfless and expecting nothing in return, the documentary nearly brought tears to my eyes. And here I am, lamenting about the inconveniences in life in relative affluence, mouthing compassion and yet staying within my comfort zone. One can pray and transfer merits as much as one so wishes, but nothing is more welcome to the victims of misfortunes than personal care and immediate relief. The Tzu Chi Foundation is deservedly a movement of compassionate relief, actualizing and propagating the Buddha's teachings in saving humanity from hardship, especially those who are least able to fend for themselves, transcending creed, ethnicity, and status.

It's patently clear that their relief efforts harbor no religious overtones nor overtures, with compassion as the sole driving force, as evidenced by their universal acceptance wherever their footprints cover. While its dedication to helping the aggrieved is beyond question, the Tzu Chi Foundation, led by its far-sighted leader, Master Cheng Yen, has also recognized the potential disasters that await the Earth in the not-so-distance future, a rather warm and wet one as projected by the International Panel on Climate Change, in the form of sea level rise and extreme meteorological events.

Mother Earth's inhabitants, the supposedly thinking ones, are spewing greenhouse gases, chief among which is carbon dioxide, in unprecedented amounts, thus setting off a chain of events that start from global warming, to ice sheet melting, to sea level rising, and to the loss of the coastal fringes, even entire islands. One of the messages in Master Cheng Yen's dispensation has to do with carbon reduction, and that it's everyone's responsibility. Everyone matters in this bid to save the world, and there is no better place to start than right from the very home of each and everyone.

Saving electricity by switching off unused lights, electrical appliances, and computers. And yes, those computers in sleep mode are still consuming electrical power as we speak, or I write to be specific about it. An attendee informed that merely by switching off the water heaters when not in use and having them turned on just half and hour before shower time saves his household electricity bill by $50 a month. And to think that the hot water in our home is always on demand, the electricity that is, I realize that I have played my part in contributing to the rise in energy consumption, and by extension, carbon loading.

Carpooling or even bicycling. Human energy is the most environmentally friendly, not to mention the health benefits accrued from pedaling. The majority of us are indeed pampered so much by technological advancement that we have to resort to indoor gyms to exercise, a classic case of using technological fixes to shed the extra pounds gained from eating gourmet food, again made possible by advances in amenities.

Using washable utensils. Tzu Chi volunteers always carry metal/porcelain chopsticks, spoons, and containers wherever they go. Even when they are not, they do not use disposal items.

Indeed as lamented by Master Cheng Yin, we have neglected the wellbeing of Mother Earth, abdicating our duties as responsible children of Mother Earth by sucking out every last ounce of her resources, and succumbing to greed, to grandeur that blinds us to the injuries inflicted on Mother Earth. Hence, the exhortations to cherish the treasure that we have, and to use the resources wisely.

Another message is that doing good and doing filial piety are two things in life that cannot wait. We must be grateful, respectful, and loving to our parents, our elders, and our teachers. We must curb our personal cravings, and reinstate/revive the filial way, observing decorum.

The performance by the sign language troupe was well executed, exuding warmth and softness of touch. This was followed by the lighting the candle and transmitting the light ceremony as a symbolic act of Lighting Up the Heart. The day's event ended with the making the vow ceremony and gift giving, after which the attendees adjourned to savor refreshments comprising various tidbits.

The sign language troup performing, transmitting the universal language of love and compassion.

The Song of Great Love: Thank you for the warm embrace, helping me to tide over the ebbs in my life. A heart filled with love to the brim, is not swayed by forceful wind. Learn to lend a shoulder for support. Smile with sincerity and understanding, and solve your worries by your side. Seeing the halt in your crying, even for a fleeting second, when you raise your head, envelops me in warm feeling through and through. I believe there is love in this world worth bidding. A heart long sealed is bound to open up. Understanding and forgiving will undo hurt. And loving kindness will remove suspicion. The most moving kind of love is trust.

The gift giving ceremony.

And these are our gifts: healthy non-meat powder food and packets and coins with inscriptions of wisdom gems, the former to ingest and the latter, to digest.

Drum roll ... the Tzu Chi volunteers, in the same resplendent and distinctive wear that is the hallmark of the Tzu Chi troupe.

Seeing is believing, we came home deeply moved by the experience, and at the same time thankful that there are such noble people amongst us who brave the elements, who traverse the uncharted territory far and wide, and who render assistance in far flung corners of the Earth just at a moment's notice. While wify and I have not committed ourselves to following their peerless paths, we do resolve to help out in their local assignments any way we can, both financially and in kind.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The 12th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Karma & Causality

One of the three unthinkable subjects in Buddhism (an assertion that Bhante Dhammawansha has repeatedly told in his Dharma talks that I have attended) relates to the immutable notion of Cause and Effect. Variously known as the Principle (some have used the more forceful term, Doctrine) of Causality, Conditioned Arising, Dependent Origination, Dependent Co-Arising, and the related widely popular Karma, the original Sanskrit term that has been absorbed into the English lexicon, which is simply translated as Action, the notion encompasses the ramifications implied in many of our common sayings such as “you reap what you sow,” “crime does not pay,” and much more since its payback, in the present-day parlance, is not restricted to the present life, but over the so-called Three Life Interpretation (see Figure below).

A concomitant belief is Rebirth, which I personally prefer over another oft-used term, Reincarnation. Both beliefs predate Buddhism but have become two of the central tenets in Buddhism and are inseparable in the sense that denying one makes it that much harder to accept the other. Both constitute a huge mental block for lay believers as empirical evidence of their manifestation in our daily life within the lifespan as we know it is indeed far and between. Living counter proofs abound: rampant poverty and other social scourges, the bad guys got off scot-free while the good guys, victimized. Even those who have taken the Three Refuges may still harbor reservations as amply blogged here.

This apparent incongruence that may seem to require a leap of faith, a rather stupendous one at that, to bridge was explored in the 12th Dharma Session of the Middle Way Buddhist Association held yesterday (Jan 19, 2008) at its Pinellas Park venue, led by Bhante Dhammawansha.

As usual, the session started with sitting meditation, each attendee electing to sit cross-legged on a cushion or on a chair in accordance with personal preferences and perhaps the dictates of physical condition peculiar to each. I assumed my position on a chair and tried to lose myself in mental liberation from random thoughts.

Even though I have several such feats under my belt accumulated since day one (March, 2007) of the formation of MWBA, my mind was still drifting in and out of brief clarity (the tick-tocking of the wall clock was all I heard, and actually counted), and what seemed like an eternity of muddled state where different sounds/noises vied for my attention, from which I was awakened, thanks to gravity, by my body sensing an imminent forward lurching motion (or was it all in the mind?), a warning that the mind was heading toward stupor thus losing control over the body. Anway, I was relieved when Bhante's calm voice came into my consciousness, signifying the end of yet another tussle in the on-going saga of my journey on the path of meditation.

Bhante started the Dharma talk by observing that we don't like to take responsibility. We deem gifts from others as ours, even borrowed ones. But once they are broken, they are no longer ours. This refusal to take responsibility runs counter to the very fabric of causality that every action begets a reaction as embodied in the law of physics governing Nature, and has consequences in human interaction.

However, these consequences will only manifest when the conditions are conducive, or ripe. For example, our presence here in the morning was the convergence of many conditions: Tom organized, the venue was available, Bhante was committed to lead, and the attendees were informed and made the trip through the foggy weather. Thus, Buddhism denies that an action is the result of one condition alone being fulfilled. A simple illustration to understand the concept of dependent origination is the system of English alphabets where B comes after A, C comes after B and so on. If there is no B, then there is no A, and so on.

The Buddha rejected three reasons offered to explain why something happened:
a) previous karma;
b) external agencies/controller;
c) no reason.

In the Buddha's teaching, the Noble 8-Fold Paths, a mainstay of the Middle Way, serve to exemplify the working of the cause and effect:

First we must have the right view/understanding. Then we will have the right thought, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the eight effort, the right mindfulness, and the right concentration in that order. To bring out the human wisdom, we need to search, experiment, and investigate, step by step. It's like reaching for the light from the dark, slowly seeing the light for ourselves as we journey as per the admonishment from the Buddha for self verification, i.e., do not believe because He said it, because of fear, and because of scriptures. Indeed, this rejection of blind faith has continued to be echoed by such scientific luminaries as Sir Issac Newton, “In the fight between truth and untruth, truth always prevails,” and Sir Julian Huxley, a 20th century English biologist and humanist, “No reason to believe anything without experimentation.”

Bhante then went ahead to put in words the causal relationships (the twelve links) that lead to our suffering, starting from our body to the ultimate source: ignorance. Rather than transcribing verbatim what Bhante had explained, I found a graphical representation here that could perhaps illustrate the linkages in the same way, but entailing the three life interpretation as an amplification. Thus, it is said that ignorance is the greatest rust, while wisdom is the greatest gem.

Conditioned Arising - The Standard Model as applied to the Second Ennobling Truth (Fig. 1 taken from here. There is also a disclaimer in the source that "the above diagram is not a strictly accurate depiction of the 3 lives view." Click on the figure for an enlarged view.

A notable feature of the above figure is the cyclical process. Thus, life in Buddhism is viewed as an endless cycle of birth and rebirth with no beginning and no end, the wheel of samsara. And the ultimate liberation lies in getting out of the samsara through enlightenment. We can experience such a cycle in our daily life as well, a prime example of which is the hydrological cycle that traces out the path of water, for example, in the mighty Mississippi River.

In karmic terms, some may view the 2004 South Asian tsunami catastrophe as a contradiction. Then there are quarters who attributed the carnage to the absence of faith in God. However, in the worldview of Buddhism, the event is a natural phenomenon spawned by an imbalance in the four elements that constitute the world: water, fire, earth, and air.

The confusion arises from our inability to separate culture and religion, often seeing the world through lenses that are colored by our prejudices and obfuscated by layers of ignorance. Therefore, the Buddha exhorted us to go deeper to understand reality and as such, He had devised many ways to help put ourselves on the path to enlightenment, as befitting his exemplary role as a great physician for mental diseases.

In the interaction that followed during the vegetarian lunch, I was given an idea for my next reading project in trying to better understand how Buddhism that professes no self would be able to reconcile with the notion of individuality that is so deeply ingrained in the western ethos: Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Thanks, Olivier.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Bright Moon: The Buddhist Path of Venerable Hung-I

The extension in the title would have alerted readers to the fact that this is not a blog about the moon that is hung way up there in the nightscape, though its physical presence there has spawned many folklores and poems. Rather, it's about the legendary life of a man, a real one, who switched from living in one world to another world, albeit physically occupying the same space, seemingly just by flipping the mind. But as we shall see, the switch is driven by the same positive emotion that we all have, but a very much extended version: universal love.

I first heard of Venerable Hung-I from a Chinese Buddhist book that wify brought with her from Malaysia. It's a collection of Buddhist wisdom compiled by Venerable Hung-I from all the sutras that he had read but explained by Venerable Chin Kung.

Then I was told of the widely circulated account of his ordainment as a Buddhist monk at the rather mature age of 39. By then he already had a family and had earned rave reviews and established himself as a consummate artist and musician. In this respect, he much mirrored the way Shakyamuni Buddha had left his earthly wealth and beloved ones to seek the universal truth of our existence.

Then I found out that one of the songs in a Chinese Buddhist Song CD that we listen daily is by him, the lyrics that is. We listen to it so much so that we can even recite the verses of the song, Bidding Farewell, from memory. The elegance, the fluidity, and the profundity of the arrangement of the words conjure up the extreme gloom typically associated with saying goodbye, accentuating the impermanence of human interaction.

More recently, I chanced upon the news of a Chinese movie depicting his life, A Bright Moon, one that draws a sharp contrast between his earlier life of a wealthy prodigy of arts, covering nearly every major fields in artistic creativity: calligraphy, paintings, music, sculpture, and drama, and his later life as a highly venerated itinerant monk steeped in the school of precepts and morality. The transition from ebullience, fame, and accolades to solitude and serenity is phenomenal to say the least.

(Image taken from here.)

Since then I have been searching for the movie since it is a rarity indeed to find a movie made in the rarefied genre of Buddhism, especially a biography of a contemporary (we were born about sixty years apart) Chinese Buddhist monk that happened to share the same last name as me. And the prayer was answered today, when I watched the 99-minute movie with wify.

The movie started with a kid striking a spinning top with some kind of flexible stick (rattan?) ostensibly to keep it spinning (we have our own version of spinning top back home, one that's much more streamlined in shape released from a thin rope coiled round the top which is then left to spin on its own accord). That's Lee Shu-Tung, before he became Venerable Hung-I. And the next scene showed him reciting some verses from the Diamond Sutra, at the young tender age of four.

The top of the spinning top.

The first half of the movie is about his life in the mundane world, dabbling and excelling in various forms of arts, and his frequent clashes with the feudalistic way of his family (his biological mother was a concubine and he was fatherless at a young age). As an avant-garde in the realm of music and arts, he was credited with introducing music and the uninhibited art-form (using models in the nude) of the West into China, facing tremendous hurdles in the latter effort as one would image.

The transition occurred at the mid-point of the movie, when Lee related his wish to embrace monkhood to his best friend, Shia, who was understandably shell-shocked that a man of such good fortunes could just give them all up to escape into a world of pessimistic retreat as judged through the lens of one ensconced in the conventional world.

In the next scene, he relayed the same news to his wife, who was heart-broken. When she entreated him to go to Japan as Japanese monks could still have families, he proudly declared that he was a Chinese, that he had mastered his arts while in Japan notwithstanding. This patriotic leaning in him was weaved through the movie, especially toward the end when he admonished the sangha community that Buddhism was about loving and saving the country.

I must admit that I was waiting for some kind of life changing event that precipitated his transition to emerge, but to no avail. I guess the threshold was reached incrementally, that he was basically still an unhappy man despite all the niceties in life. There was a scene when he and his erstwhile wife met in the middle of a lake, in two different boats. She pleaded him, addressing him as Venerable Hung-I at his insistence, what love was. His reply: love is compassion.

I recalled an earlier scene when they were happily married and were boating in the same lake, on one boat. She had said then, “Paradise up there, and Su and Hang down here” (Su Chou and Hang Chou with their unparalleled scenic beauty were the two heavens on earth then). What a diametrically opposite contrast of life's mutability.

Apart from been a vegan, Venerable Hung-I actualized the edicts of precepts, of morality. One scene showed him removing a bug from under his head while planning to sleep and letting it go next to the bed. He had penned verses on pictures of releasing life (one of the scenes in the movie displayed juvenile fish being released into a lake), drawn and compiled by his students into a book collection.

The drawing entitled Sentient Beings and verses are from here. Chinese translation: All sentient beings share our body form, and we should be compassionte toward them because of their ignorance. Releasing life and refraining from killing are my advice to all, as to love them is to not consume their meat.

He spent his remaining years delivering Dharma lectures and composing Buddhist songs, educating the next generation of the Buddhist flag carriers to propagate the Buddhist teachings. The last scene showed him refusing his physician's prescription while seriously ill so that the needy could benefit from the medicine, accepting the inevitability of death totally.

From the halcyon days of artistic achievements, the pioneer in invigorating the arts scene in China, a beaming icon of unparalleled talents, to the stillness of a monastery, a full devotion to emptiness, and a complete abstinence from all worldly pleasures, that's the path that Venerable Hung-I had traversed, one that would forever illuminate the path for generations to come, like a bright moon.