Sunday, March 30, 2008

Father-and-Son, a Relationship Etched Through A Thousand Mile Trek

I'm usually attracted to action/thriller movie flicks when it comes to cinematic exploration. Seldom do I, or so I thought, have time or stomach for docudramas which I find to be slow moving. However, lately this notion of mine has undergone a paradigmatic shift as evidenced from some of the films in this genre that have been a revelation: Turtle Can Fly, A Bright Moon.

This altered impression has been considerably reinforced in the past week when wify's Arts teacher, Mrs. Fan, loaned us a 4-in-1 movie DVD, in the DVD-9 format (According to this source, DVD-9, also called Single Sided Dual Layered, contains 8.5 GB of disk space and is popular in Asia, as opposed to DVD-5, called Single Sided Single Layered containing 4.7 GB of disk space commonly found here. Hence, a DVD-9 is able to hold the 4 movies in one.).

Over a span of a few days and nights, we watched the movies one after the other, one at a time, non-stop. How did we decide on the order of the movies? By familiarity, either with the title or with the acting cast. And by the movie synopses, starting with the easy-going mirth and ending with the sad and the sorrowful. Here we were helped by Mrs. Fan who singled out one of them as fitting the latter category. So that was an automatic choice for the last we would tackle, I mean watch.

The first one in our list is Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, because I recall having seen the title somewhere before. At first, we did not recognize the lead Japanese actor, whose face was partially obscured by the cap he was wearing on the profile shot shown on the title image. But in the first few minutes after start, we knew we have seen him before, vividly recalling him as a middle-aged world weary cop in Japan opposite Michael Douglas, his US counterpart, on a gang bust, in Black Rain, one of our favorite movies. Then he looked younger. Hence the throw off. He is Ken Takakura, but his name in Chinese precedes him as far as I'm concerned. I also learned that he has been dubbed the Clint Eastwood of the East because of his brooding mannerism and laconic oral delivery. Also after the fact, we learned that the film was co-directed by Yimou Zhang, one of the few Chinese directors who have been recognized in Hollywood, two other notable examples being Ang Lee and John Wu.

Ken Takakura, as a father on a lone quest to rediscover his affection for his son, reazlied through his interaction with Yangyang, another son of China whose father was on the same trek, emotionally that is (the image is taken from here).

The movie depicts the throes of inter-generational relationship between a father and his son. After the passing away of the lady of the house, they drifted further apart, the father (played by Ken) relocated to a rural town and spent his time brooding by the coastline, if he was not otherwise engaged as a commercial fisherman. [From hereon I would be in my spoiler role. So be forewarned.]

One fine day, he was called to the city by his daughter-in-law, supposedly to visit his ailing son, his impending visit unbeknownst to his son. Still harboring resentment, the son refused to see his father (the son actually did not appear in the entire movie and his presence was only known through his voice.) Rejected, the father returned forlornly to the fishing town, but not before the daughter-in-law handed a videotape to him, showing his son's visit to the Yunnan area of China last year where he met up with his idol (and so his father thought) of the famed Chinese face opera.

The son had promised to return the next year to make a film of a famous episode, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, the title namesake, from an epic Chinese literary masterpiece. [Being one who has done some Chinese translation as an amateur, I have my own take on the English title. It is, Alone on a Thousand Mile Trek, which is what the movie is all about, a personal quest by a father into uncharted territory in a far-flung nook on the earth, terrain-wise, language-wise, culture-wise, as well as those on a mental plane, the perennial inner collision of the value systems that if reconciled, will lead to the emergence of a new self, with new world view.]

Two aspects captivated me: the breath-taking and rustic landscape of the village setting, largely barren of green vegetation and yet being a geographical wonder of giant pillar-like stone columns, and the simple, down-to-earth life style rich with neighborliness and esprit de corps. On one scene, the village residents had an open air feast with tables joined end to end to stretch along the attire alley separating the two rows of house. Such congeniality, such conviviality, which is hardly seen these days, has been etched into our psyche. We really miss those spontaneous moments of celebration, not for any festival or special occasion of victory, of success; but just for the plain pleasure of living, and rejoicing.

Subsequent waves of disappointment in the form of anthropogenic barriers did not deter the single-minded purpose of Ken (from hereon I would use the screen name of Ken to refer to his character in the film, for simplicity) in fulfilling his son's dream, which he thought would help bridge the chasm separating them. Meanwhile, Li, the opera actor, was in jail and too distraught to perform the famed opera piece because of estrangement from his son, illicitly fathered.

The key episode, to me, has to be Ken's trek to another village in an attempt to unite Li and his son who have not seen each other (see the parallel, Ken's own predicament is as good as not being able to see his son, both physically and emotionally?). From total strangers, Ken and Yangyang (Li's son) developed a bond through the ordeal of living through a night in the wilderness, amongst the stone columns. That triggered a torrent of thoughts for Ken as regards his relationship with his own son. And all was forgiven and forgotten.

Ken's son, upon learning from his wife of his father's lone journey to China, penned his apologies to his Dad, at the same time revealing that his Dad had mistook his rather perfunctory response to Li to return the following year as his life-long passion, but appreciating his Dad's strange way of expressing his affection nonetheless.

Both Li and Ken's son did not see their wishes come through: the former seeing his son (the village elders respecting Yangyang's wish not to see the stranger who had fathered him, at the prodding of Ken to respect the young boy's wish. I can only imagine that Ken must have extrapolated this display from his own experience of shutting out his own son), but Li did get to watch the movie made by Ken of his son's expressive behavior, and the latter seeing his father, Ken, having departed because of lung cancer before his Dad's return.

But both fathers moved on, with clarity of the journey ahead: Li performed the opera, perhaps assured that he would get to see his son one day while Ken filmed it as a memoriam for his departed son. Both have also made the mental thousand mile trek, and have emerged the wiser, having awakened from their past misdeeds and self-imposed incarceration borne out of delusion, respectively.

The other movies, or rather my take of them, will appear in subsequent posts here. So stay tuned, if my idiosyncratic way of movie critique appeals to you.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tea Gathering, a la Tzu Chi

We attended a tea gathering (the literally translated version of “party” sounds a wee bit convivial while “meeting”, on the other hand, borders on matter-of-fact. “Gathering” then reflects both congeniality and informality) organized by the Orlando Chapter of Tzu Chi Organization, a Buddhist Compassionate Relief based in Taiwan and founded by Master Cheng Yen in 1966, at a Tampa venue today. This was the very first of its kind held in Tampa this year, having been held in abeyance for some time. The idea is to hold the tea gathering here in Tampa on a roving basis, rotating among the different residences, both to disseminate the dispensations from its founder on the Foundation's four great missions of charity, medicine, education, and culture, and to galvanize the local community into answering the clarion call for compassionate relief.

It was raining when we arrived at the residence of John and Adina, the hosts for the evening, their front yard filled with cars that spilled onto the road side, a tell-tale sign of identification for first-time visitors like us.

The meeting began with a video presentation on the dispensations from Master Cheng Yin, focusing on environmental protection and rallying the troop to help alleviate the ills that has befallen Mother Earth. The video highlighted the selfless actions of a Vietnamese lady who has moved permanently to Taiwan and an Israeli couple on a sojourn to the island. Both were undaunted by the language barrier, the physical exertion, and the sacrifice of time and effort, to become part of the Buddhist Compassionate Relief, signifying that compassionate relief transcends national borders and man-made boundaries.

Mr. James Huang, the head of the Orlando Chapter, then introduced the green bag and the bamboo piggybank as resolute symbols of compassionate relief and environmental protection. Actually the piggybank is of thin metallic construction, a replica of its bamboo precursor of yore. The video showed some old film snippets of how pennies and cents were saved in the bamboo piggybank, which was sawn open when full to provide funds for immediate relief, besides promoting the saving habit. It's like reliving the age of the bamboo piggybank, going back to the basics of compassionate relief.

The green bag and the symbolic bamboo piggybank (the small print of English translation of the two vertical lines of verse reads: Good deeds Everyday. Happiness and wisdom on your way.)

Mr Huang showing off the green bag. Ain't the background picture on the screen to the side, that of a dozing young monk, serenity inspiring?

Mr. Huang conveyed the concern of Master Cheng Yen that time is running out as disasters, epidemics, and famine continue to plague the Earth, casting a morbid pall on the once verdant Mother Earth made fragile by man's intransigence, systematically chipping away her lifeline out of greed. Therefore, it's high time to create merits, to plough back to the community, instead of exhausting our blessings.

The second video, 50 minutes long, captured the Bodhi essence, as part of the series on Bodhi on Earth that epitomizes the Dharma Path of the Still Thought, featuring perennial affection and great love. The main bulk of the video, which was made on the occasion of the 41th anniversary of Tzu Chi Foundation last year, focused on the translation of the Sutra of Measureless Meaning into a hand sign musical. The Sutra of Measureless Meaning is considered a prequel to Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra, first learned by Master Cheng Yen early on in her monastic career when she hand-copied the latter. It has now become the Dharma essence of the Still Thought School as embodied in the Making the Vow Verse that was sprinkled throughout the video. You can listen to it here while an English translation together with the full text of the Verse appears below:

Our hearts and mind interweaved, we pass on the Dharma core
Our determination steadfast, we propagate our tradition
We cherish the conditions that help spawn Tzu Chi
The Sutra of Measureless Meaning as the core of the Still Thought School
Shall underpin our ethos as disciples
We sincerely beseech you our beloved Master to worry not.

Master Cheng Yin was put under the tutelage of Venerable Yin Shun from whom she took to heart the following teaching:

For Buddhism; For all sentient beings.

Providing the narrative, Master Cheng Yen spoke with an inspiring tone, a diction rich with compassion and empathetic of the human suffering. I thought I heard a few sniffles and saw several hand-wiping-off-the face motions. It was that moving.

Next up was a hand signal demonstration of the theme song of the 2007 Year End Appreciation and Blessing Dinner. In the span of a few minutes, we were taught the rudiments of hand language, for gratitude, for respect, for love, and for others that make up the lyrics shown below with its English translation.

Gratitude, Respect, Love
Love yourself well, then give in gratitude
Loving yourself is repaying our blessings, giving is displaying gratitude.
Respect others, for there is no they, you, or we
Harmony accumulates small love, respect spawns great love
Gratitude is water, respect is river of water, love is the wide expanse of ocean into which rivers debouch
Nurturing life, vitiating darkness
Gratitude is water,
respect is river
Gratitude and respect, together shower the world with love.

The gathering concluded with a free sharing of experience in volunteerism among the attendees. An attendee put it best as a three-stage sequence of intention, vow, and actualization. Some were initially put off by the wrongful notion that Tzu Chi is for those who have the wherewithal and the luxury of time on their hands but realized later that at least they do it while others only act as armchair critics. Still others may be overwhelmed by the enormous scale of it all and feel inadequate. The take home message is no good deed is too small. One can always start from the immediate environs, dispensing loving kindness and selfless care for those close at hand, the purpose being to inculcate this noble act of volunteerism into our collective psyche so that the spirit of volunteerism becomes an integral part of our ethos.

Last but not the least, we were treated to a sumptuous collection of finger food and tidbits that would satisfy the most fastidious palate. Kudos to the Orlando Chapter and our gracious hosts, John and Adina, not forgetting those who made it happen by being in attendance, for a tea gathering, ala Tzu Chi, well-planned and superbly executed. That's a baby, but a necessary first, step for imbibing a sense of volunteerism into the local community.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The 14th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Suffering and Impermanence

As part of our monthly routine, we drove to Pinellas Park last Saturday to attend the 14th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA), in a continuing series of Dharma discussion of Buddhist wisdom, this time on suffering and impermanence. The discussion was to be led, as usual, by Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS). However, we were informed by Brother Tom at the outset that Bhante has been taken ill in the past week, having succumbed to the recent spells of cold weather that have engulfed the Tampa/St. Pete areas.

And Brother Tom had acted swiftly to request the company of the Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center (SBMC) in the vicinity of the same locale, which has planned a half-day retreat at the same time. So it was an opportune moment for the two Buddhist groups to merge the two events in the spirit of Buddhist brotherhood. The SBMC group was led by Bhante Upananda, whom we have met previously, and Venerable Bhikkhuni Sudarshana, the Senior Dharma Teacher and Abbess of SBMC, respectively.

Wify and Shenghua arriving early at the lunch room, backed by the book shelf of Buddhist books for free reading.

Attendees taking their respective place before the start of the Dharma session.

At the start, we all prayed for a speedy recovery by Bhante Dhammawansha. After meditating as usual (meaning experiencing the usual struggle to stay mindful, at times I could sense my body wanting to go out of plumb; also, usual in the sense that just when I felt I had gained the upper hand, the end signal always came too soon), the attendees briefly introduced themselves. When Bhante's turn arrived, he told us that his ordained name (in Pali) is a combination of “close to” and “happiness”. How befitting.

[That reminds me of wify's ordained name (in Chinese), bestowed when she took the Three Refuges under the aegis of Venerable Hsing Yun last July in the Buddha Light Temple of Orlando. It translates as having the nature of cloud, roaming free in the wide expanse of the sky, whimsical and forever changing, signifying impermanence. Wify also chipped in with two other notable traits of cloud: it's everywhere and its original nature stays the same despite its many forms since it is water vapor.]

On the first of the twin subject of suffering and impermanence, Bhante first gave the Pali word for which the above English term was later rendered, Dukkha. The simplicity of the word belies the multiplicity of facets, levels, and aspects that the word connotes. It's at once ambiguous and deceptive, laden with many strata of human emotions that its English counterpart has found wanting.

Taken apart, the first part, Du, means no, in the negative, without essence. The suffix implies finding it distasteful or disgusting. Together then, Dukkha conveys the sense of being in despair because of the absence of essence/core, rendering it meaningless such that it's not good at all. In that regard, it's a feeling, a sensation.

[Here I recall that a similar word is used in a similar context, but perhaps lacking the associated profundity, in the Malay language. It's simply spelled as Duka, which is often used to preface a disappointment or rejection.]

Dukkha arises from many different sources, making our life hectic and yet never far from lethargy. The struggle to seek peace of mind and yet survive the rat race is an everyday dilemma that seems insurmountable. Split between two worlds where we alternately submerge and emerge, all we could aspire is to minimize the gap, compromising and treading the middle ground.

There are three levels of Dukkha. The first, Dukkha Dukkha, is the general everyday fare of discomforts like headaches, which most of the time can be alleviated through medical treatment.

Then there is Sankhara Dukkha, that which is created, arising from the conditioned world, the world of conditionality. It being unavoidable, we cannot stop the source, but can hope to block it.

[The notion of conditionality is best embodied in the twelve links that the Buddha taught:

Confusion conditions activity, which conditions consciousness, which conditions embodied personality, which conditions sensory experience, which conditions impact, which conditions mood, which conditions craving, which conditions clinging, which conditions becoming, which conditions birth, which conditions aging and dying.”]

In Buddhist cosmology, the world is comprised of whatever that is subjected to arising, breaking, falling, and changing. Since we are all part of this world, inter-dependency and inter-connectedness are the key words.

In the realms of matter, composed of all physical and material things that are reducible to nothingness, and mind, the mental state, we are brought up to think in terms of a fixed time frame, chained to the notion of time and space as it were, where we focus on what is made, couched in the present perfect tense. But conventional wisdom does not serve us well, pulling wool over our eyes and blinding us to the truth of suffering. Instead, our mind needs to identify with the state of being made, and thinks in the present continuous tense as everything is changing by the seconds.

The third level is Viparinana Dukkha, formed from the prefix Vi, meaning starting to go down, not able to be kept in its original state, and parinana, meaning evolution or formation of what has taken place within a time frame. It is noted that Buddhism only accepts evolution as part of a higher and deeper process.

Viparinana Dukkha is perpetual, constantly being created and destroyed, incessantly arising and falling. In a word, it is change. It is suffering because we cannot see the change. It's much more subtle than the second level, inhabiting our innermost space, and hence requires more education, and a much broader sense to understand. Seeing its nature itself is not enough; we need to see the nature of the cause. Through meditation, we can see the constant change.

On impermanence, Bhante brought us along a similar epistemological exploration, starting with the Pali word for it, Anicca. The prefix, Ni, denotes no or neither. The second part, nicca, connotes permanence. As one sees Anicca, one escapes Dukkha.

Bhante then enumerated the four divine abidings (also equilibrium states of mind) that in totality amount to Unconditional Love as:

loving kindness
sympathetic/altruistic joy, and
equanimity (equality in the social context).

Buddhism teaches us not to be judgmental, and to recognize that there is no quick fix nor band-aid solution.

An attendee raised an interesting question on whether enlightenment too is subjected to the immutability of impermanence. Bhante explained that there are two levels of meditations: absolute awakening (absolute is preferred to permanent here to avoid any inconsistency), and awakening into a moment (catching a glimpse as it were). Absolute awakening can be attained as a sudden realization, or as a gradual revelation. Bhante then cited two examples of the former: a nun noticing the bubbles forming and bursting on the ground while she was washing her feet; and of one seeing the mirage, which we know to be a optical illusion but an illustration of bogus reality nonetheless since what is seen as water is not water.

At this point, the attendees adjourned for a nice serving of vegetarian lunch, after which the Dharma discussion continued apace.

A moment of doubt, followed by a moment of clarity, facilitated by Bhante.

Everything is suffering in the sense that it remains as a source of suffering. Take the pen (though mighty it is said), a typical mindless inanimate object, as an illustration. We all know that a pen is not capable of suffering, but it is a source of suffering as when we lost it, or broke it. This is what is meant by the characterization in the morning that suffering is a feeling. Living beings are both the victim and the source of the suffering, even though animals suffer at a reduced level.

How to reduce suffering (implying that it's the best we can do)? Cut the cord, the fabric, a euphemism for clinging. To do that, we need a new perspective (Dassana in Pali), a sort of paradigm shift. But first we need to weaken the clinging by reducing the desire and dealing with preconceived notions some of which have been wired into our consciousness through conditioning, lest we concretize and solidify it. Dissolve the ego. Create an inner domain, an inner sanctum. And give a parallel impression that is equally mighty.

At this point, a glance at the clock made us realize that it was well past 2pm, and we bid a somewhat reluctant retreat from the patient Bhante, who continued to field inquiries from those remaining behind.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Propagating Buddha Light To Home

The attendees started to stream in before 4pm yesterday to our home. And at about 5 minutes before 4pm, while we were looking out into the carpark expectantly through the kitchen window, two Buddhist nuns in traditional Chinese monastic wear stepped into view. They were Venerables Chueh Yen and Chueh Fan from the Buddha Light Temple in Orlando. They were here to grace our home for the Propagating Buddha Light to Home (this may seem a mouthful but that's the best I could do with the Chinese translation and yet do justice to the significance of the term. Suggestions are welcome.) program, a facet of the humanistic Buddhism advanced by Venerable Hsing Yun, the founder of the Buddha Light movement.

The Venerables first led off with a blessing chant, invoking the Heart Sutra, complete with chiming. This was followed by a pray and vow recitation by Venerable Chueh Fan, praying for health, for loving kindness, for family bliss, for career success, for peace and equanimity, and for purity of mind and wisdom on the path to Buddhism and in the sea of Dharma.

Reciting the Heart Sutra.

Excerpts from the Pray and Vow Recitation.

Another purpose of the gathering was to seek feedback on the proposal to initiate a Buddhist study group in Tampa where interested lay Buddhists in the area can meet under the guidance of Venerable Chueh Fan to partake of the Buddhist teachings in an organized way.

Venerable Chueh Fan driving home a point.

A larger view of the setting.

Education in Buddhism starts from listening. By way of an example, Venerable Chueh Fan circulated a copy of an excerpt from a Buddhist text, The Dharma Forms, entitled the Three-Life Cause and Effect. She then led us through a reading of the text.

Next up is reflecting, mulling over the content. At the initial level, questions are framed such that the answers are readily available from parts of the text itself and require a rudimentary understanding of what different sentences in the text mean, and their inter-connections. For example, the text says:

The Buddha has given two analogies to characterize karma: seeds and habits. The karma is akin to a seedling undergoing germination, growth, fruition, seed propagation, emaciation, and decay. After some time, the new seeds, under the right condition, will sprout forth and the cycle of Life is repeated. The effects of our action are similarly manifested.

As an analogy to habits, we can visualize a bottle of perfume. Once depleted, the fragrance stays with the bottle. This analogy underscores the efficacy of karma: once the karmic seed is planted, all it takes is the congruence of the right conditions for the seed to bear fruit, an euphemism for retributions

So a direct question could be: what are the two analogies for karma? This requires a mere cognitive response, the aim being to let the concepts sink in. An advanced level of questions would go beyond the superficial terminology recognition to tickle the mind, to stimulate more in-depth thinking such as to draw parallels from personal examples.

A case in point is my interaction with an American friend newly introduced to Buddhism. It's often said that Buddhism is rationality-driven, dispelling blind faith and dogmas as belief conduits. For a westerner to accept the Buddhist teachings, the toughest hurdle would be the apparent absence of a clear nexus linking the facets of the teachings while trying to make sense of and reconcile with what is perceived in the world around him/her.

While karmic retribution is easily understood in the context of the present life: one can see with one's own eyes and relate to instances of crime does not pay and you reap what you sow. But then Buddhism also adds another element: the conditions. When conditions are not ripe, the effect will not materialize until the next moment, or even next life as embodied in the doctrine of Three-life cause and effect. But I'm sure we can cite personal cases when bad things happen to good people (to borrow from the title of a book that I have checked out but have yet to read, by Harold S. Kushner, Schocken Book, 1989). Thus, many life instances of a crooked person living in longevity while a compassionate one meeting an untimely demise can be cited to render the concept fallible.

This was the question the American friend posed to me: If such is the case, how would one in the next life, seemingly having done nothing bad, rationalize that one was paying for what one did in a previous life, when mishap struck since this would require that he knew what he has done in a previous life? Would that even be possible, knowing or remembering that one has lived before and done things?

Honestly, I was stumped. And the lacuna presented a blind spot to me too. Until yesterday. I was telling wify after the fact that Venerable Chueh Fan seems to have telepathic power, able to sense what was troubling my normally clear chain of thought. Because the plausible explanation lies in the very first set of verses appearing in the circulated excerpt, which reads when translated:

“To know the cause of a previous life, just look at those who are experiencing the effect in the present. To know the effect in a future life, just look at those who are causing it in the present.”

The text of Three-Life Cause and Effect, with the set of verses translated above in blue box (please click on the image for clarity).

In a nutshell, the three-life notion is not necessarily a rigidly compartmentalized time horizon of the previous life, the present life, and the future life, all in generational sequence. Rather, it can be interpreted as an inter-year sequence as in last year, this year and next year, or an inter-day sequence, even inter-moment sequence. That is, the three life embodies the past, the present, and the future, irrespective of the chunks of time involved.

Also, I have been clinging to, as with most people, with the notion of self/I. I do this, so I must get this, a rather linear and individualistic way of life as it is, as if nothing else or no other matters. Once we suspend this illusion of self/I, clarity reigns and blind spots dissolve. That, to me, is the realization of the day and I would remember to transmit the message to my American friend when I meet him next.

To complete the learning process, there are the actualizing/correcting phase and the verification phase. After all, Buddhism is the practice of life, in a wise and compassionate way, and that one can only realize the benefits of Buddhist teachings by self-application. As Venerable Chueh Fan intoned, "whatever I teach and talk in a session remains mine". And yes, absent actualizing and verification, the wisdom embedded therein remains embedded, unable to be invoked at will to serve us well in life.

Therefore, an integral element of a beneficial Buddhist study group is participation. All need to relate to their personal life, and to share the experience. Venerable Chueh Fan also suggested that while she is committed to a monthly schedule, it will be instructive for the group to meet more frequently, perhaps fortnightly or even weekly, for the members to interact and to come up with a more advanced line of questioning that could be deferred to her.

In any case, it will be efficient to elect a convener to serve as a point of contact for her and to coordinate organizational matters, and to have a roving venue, each member taking turn to host the group, so as not to unduly burden one host and to help propagate the reach of the Propagating Buddha Light To Home program. In that regard, Sister Yu Tze has been given the honor to be the convener.

More interaction followed but I'm sure these and other matters would arise again in the subsequent group sessions to be featured in latter blog posts. For the occasion at hand, we all celebrated and shared in the Dharma bliss that permeated the gathering throughout the entire evening. We all partook of the vegetarian culinary delights that were served by all, including the Venerables who brought along a dish to share. Thanks to all for a blissful evening. We all have been enriched by the grace of the Buddha, in the persons of the Venerables, and may the Buddha Light extend to envelop the whole world with compassion and wisdom.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

For the love of reading

One of the benchmarks used to gage a country's development status, other than economic indicators such as per capita income, is literacy rate. In simple terms, it's the percentage of the populace who can read and write, two of the three Rs (the third being aRithmetics).

With increasing affluence and the advent of video games, it seems that the passion for reading is waning, being replaced by avocations that pander to sense pleasure. Hence the emergence of many efforts such as the Reading Month, the Literacy Week, Newspapers in Education, Bookathon, etc., in an effort to revive the reading habit. But the best place to start cultivating that is at home, in the same vein that charity starts at home, through inculcation and immersion.

Speaking from personal experience, I have to say that the luxury of a spontaneous development of reading habit in a child nowadays is non-existent, not if it has to contend with so many “distractions” that were absent during my younger days.

In the 1960s and 70s, TV had just appeared as both a novelty and status symbol. So none of today's incessant TV bombardment and the term, couch potatoes, was not even in the lexicon, as yet. Computers? Nada. So none of the video games that glorify sensual escapades. Granted libraries were few those days, but the dearth of competition for the children's attention meant that parents and children would gravitate toward reading to fill up the available time. By the time these children grow up, the reading habit is already ingrained in them, one that is not easily dislodged despite the later invasion of TV programs and computer games into their lives. I was one such beneficiary of the early environment.

Then along came my children. It was a nagging problem for wify and I on how to sustain the family tradition: reading. Two developments worked to our advantage as parents. Wify was a teacher. So having books was a given. And I was more than an avid reader. I collected and stocked up books. So the most popular piece of furniture in the house was the bookshelf. It was in the living room, in the dining room, in the bed room, even in the bathroom, within easy reach of anyone going about his/her business of answering the call of nature.

This ubiquity of books in every nook and corner of the house meant that the most natural thing for our children to reach for was a book. And through habitual action, instilled by our leading by example, our older children took to books like fish to water. In turn, the younger siblings learned from them. And soon reading just became second nature to everyone in the house.

Perhaps I should clarify that my children spent their formative years in Gainesville while I was a grad student at UF. Being a university town, bookstores were a fixture. We used to frequent Barnes and Nobles and Books A Million (those days there was no Borders), either to browse through their book collections or bringing the children to participate in all kinds of book- and literacy related activities.

We also frequented the downtown Public library en masse, checking out books that could last a lifetime for some people. Then there were the used book sales where we literally carted away boxes and boxes of heavily discounted books of all genres.

And yes, it does take investment, both time, and fortunately, limited financial outlay, to keep the reading enterprise afloat, at the family level. While the proliferation of easily accessible bookstores and libraries may help, I think parental role is instrumental in keeping the reading passion alive and burning. Parents who love reading beget children who would do likewise.

So if any parents are lamenting about the ebb of the reading tide, look no further but themselves. Personally, I think the greatest ability that one can wield is the ability to read. And by extension, the greatest legacy we can bequeath to our children is to help light up their fervor for reading, one book at a time. So why not start today? Pick up a book and read to your child. Better still, swamp the house with books if you can help it.

(This blog post has been inspired by People Reading.)