Sunday, April 27, 2008

The 15th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Dependent Origination in Our Daily Life, Part I (my breakthrough in Meditation)

April 19 was the occasion of the 15th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) held at its venue at Pinellas Park on a monthly basis. For the first time, we and all the attendees commenced the pre-Dharma talk meditation on our own, the absence of the guidance by the designated Dharma teacher of the day did not dampen the attendees' enthusiasm nor readiness. Also for the first time, the occasion was graced by a venerable Bikkhuni (Buddhist nun), rather than the usual fare of a venerable Bikkhu (Buddhist Monk) or a male Buddhist lay-practitioner thus far, not that it mattered anyway.

Our Dharma teacher for the day was Venerable Chueh Fan, Director of Guang Ming (Buddha Light) Temple, Orlando, who has graced our home previously.

She was going to deliver a Dharma talk entitled the Dependent Origination in Our daily Life, and was unable to be with us for the meditation session because of her morning duties at Guang Ming Temple. But first, my meditation experience for the morning.

Recently, I have developed a coughing tendency that occurs sporadically. It's a dry cough and usually starts with an itchy sensation at the throat that is relieved by coughing for a brief period, sometimes in a quick succession of loud coughs ending with an involuntary sneeze. I have never tried to fight it but merely cover my mouth to muffle the ensuing noise while in public. It could be just an allergic reaction to the pollen season though I have always thought I'm immune to it.

Sometime during my meditation, I had a bout of tickling sensation at my throat. I tried to suppress the usual relief of coughing for fear of disrupting the enveloping quiet, but the sensation seemed to be gaining the upper hand, building up its intensity with time. At one point, I did open my eyes and wanted to leave the hall so that I could just get the cough out of the way. But something deeper in me was also trying to stay put, and to let the mind exert its control over my bodily function. So I tried to put the ever mounting physical sensation out of the mind, a duel of mind and the body if you will, by focusing on the meditation and elevating my level of mindfulness.

After a time, gradually the physical sensation subsided and slided into oblivion, without me actually knowing its retreat. A victory of the mind over the body, in this instant. But before I could feel smug about my little conquest, the next challenge surfaced. During the duel, a stream of tears started to roll down my cheek, prompted perhaps by the reaction of the body mechanism to seek relief elsewhere.

If you ever have tears rolling down your cheek, you will understand that tickling sensation it generates on the skin in the path of the rolling motion driven by gravity. The natural response would be to use the back of the hand to wipe it off, thereby eliminating the source of the irritation. That would also be a rational move given that no noise is generated. But I was on a roll, and decided to stay motionless, hence initiating another mind-and-body head-to-head clash. And 2-0 for the mind.

While these may seem small conquests in the grand scheme of things, it was no mean feat at the personal level, convincing myself that everything (within reason) is possible if we just put our mind to the task.

Before it was all over, the third challenge arose, again not unexpectedly as I have been “afflicted” before with similar physical stimulation. This time, the battleground moved to the stomach, the often embarrassing and yet seemingly insurmountable physical response. I'm referring to belching, which I will put in the same league as sneezing and yawning as far as involuntary body reactions go.

This time though, the physical phenomenon is so involuntary (spasmatic is perhaps a better word) that there was nothing I could do. Like a knee jerk reaction, the motor muscles just flex beyond the reach of the mind.

Well, two out of three isn't bad. Life is about picking the wars to fight (the strategic frame) while conceding the battles where the outcome is inevitable and more important, inconsequential (the tactical frame). I would consider myself having experienced a small breakthrough, an incremental improvement achieved through constant practice, in my relatively brief journey on meditation thus far.

Do tune in for the concluding part of the Dharma talk proper, featuring Venerable Chueh Fan, in a subsequent blog.

The moment just before the arrival of Venerable Chueh Fan, the attendees, sitting expectantly, suitably refreshed after the meditation session, while listening to Sister Lily on the morning's program. Brother Tom was away helping out in the Change Your Mind Day organized by the Tampa Bay Buddhist Peace Fellowship held at Philippe Park, Safety Harbor on the same day. Some of us would join the blissful activity after the MWBA Dharma session, including Venerable Chueh Fan who was one of the speakers. The proceedings there as I see it would be the subject of yet another blog, thus completing a blogging trilogy of the blissful day of April 19, 2008.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

So how much do you make ?

Today (April 13, 2008)'s issue of PARADE, which is delivered every Sunday as a supplement to the St. Petersburg Times, carries a survey of how much American people earn (How does your salary stack up? by Lynn Brenner, pg. 3-17). This annual survey of a sample of wage levels spreading across the various occupations serve as a barometer on the state of the economy as well as a personal guide to career prospects and rewards for those newly admitted into the University of Hard Knocks.

A cursory glance of the various personal incomes earned reveals a disparity that can be perhaps described as yawning, traversing several orders of magnitude. On one end, there are people earning 8- or even 9 digit income while the other end bottoms out at barely making 5-digit, annually.

Thus, people in the entertainment and showbiz industry and professional sports comprise the elitist group by financial standards. Included therein are also the captains of industry, their managerial finesse and business acumen at a premium.

On the other hand, the blue collar group that makes up the main bulk of the working populace languish at the bottom scale, though some with well-sought-after skills manage to elevate themselves to be in the white-collar realm, comprising mainly professionals, including teachers.

I guess this stupendous disparity of earning potentials, or what the society is willing to reward, is to be expected from a capitalist society. There is basically nothing wrong in capitalizing on one's endowment, be it natural talent, physical attribute, or entrepreneurial spirit. Also, we tend to be clouded by the affluence as to blind us to the fact that this wealth is gotten at great physical exertion such as training and preceded by a history of mundane struggles just like anybody else.

It's only through perseverance and seizing upon every opportunity that came along that these high income earners have broken through the rank. Nothing is more inspiring than a rags to riches story, which is what the same capitalistic milieu has made possible.

So looking at the bright side, instead of a feeling of deprivation and injustice, the annual tally of what people earn, a commendable effort by the PARADE magazine, is actually an impetus to spur us on to greater heights and to carve out our own niche in the process.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Taking a shower, or taking a bath as is more commonly spoken of from where I came from, is as natural as sleeping. The former is like a work-over for the body while the latter, the mind. So when we saw this movie title on the 4-in-1 DVD, the temptation to find out what the director can possibly cook up from this mundane aspect of life was too much to resist. And we watched it next, after the first.

The film, made in China, revolves around the operator of a public shower facility situated in a small town. Widowed, he lives with his younger son (Er Ming, meaning the second clarity), who is intellectually challenged, while his elder son (understandably he would be Ta Ming, the first clarity. Those days, for simplicity, parents liked to name their children in the order that they were born. Presumably if the operator has a third son, he would have named him Shan Ming, and yes, you guessed it, the third clarity) has gone to the city to seek a better life.

The public bath facility is what one would call a full-service one-stop center as far as one's bathing needs and body grooming are concerned. The range of service extends from standing bath, soaking in pools, communal style, to body massage, mani- and pedicure, and traditional Chinese cupping to relieve minor discomforts, all rendered with a personal touch, by the operator himself. [In the image below, Ta Ming is to the left, then, the Dad, and Er Ming, in that order.]

The simple maintenance routine, cleaning the pools, scrubbing the floor, and running other simple errands amongst the patrons also suits the younger son to the hilt. And it is within this warm (both in terms of the physical comfort and human interaction) that the story of the small town unfolds. It's a man's world in there but apparently those privileged to be admitted because of their gender are not immune to gossips, hitherto regarded as the exclusive province of the fairer sex. [This would be a good time to pause to consider whether you would like to check out the movie first before you read on, for vivid descriptions of moving scenes may follow.]

We learned of a man having connubial problem, precipitated by him hearing his wife being the talk of the town, having run out, butt-naked, to the street in pursuit of a thief who had the audacity to steal her gold pendant while she was bathing, little realizing that a lady would just throw caution, and propriety, to the wind for a worldly possession. Then how the couple patched up, right in the public bath facility, after closing hours, at the behest of the operator, playing the role of a Samaritan.

Then there is another young guy who suffers from stage jitters. He likes to sing, and belts out soulful notes to serenade his cohorts, while in standing bath, with water raining down on him from the faucet above. And his most ardent fan is none other than Er Ming, his child-like complexion inspired by the singing. But, apparently, this is the only time he is in his elements. Fast forwarding, the next scene placed him on stage, in a carnival of sort. Grasping the mike nervously, all he could do was donning a red face, maybe even some blood vessels bursting at their seams but otherwise remaining invisible because of his plump countenance.

Fast forwarding again, there he was at it again. But despite his valiant attempts with all his might and willpower, there was still pin-drop silence. Then rain started to drip upon him from above, and instantly he was transformed, serenading the cheering crowd. Those discerning among you may have surmised, yes, it was Er Ming, who ran up to the side of the stage, a hose in hand, and sprayed the issuing water on to the stage, providing the conducive environment for the singer's ability to take flight. Just to show that empathy and the ability to connect are not contingent upon one's intellectual development. It's ingrained, hard-wired in all of us. Sadly though, our delusion, which seems to correlate well with one's intellectual development, tends to cloak our true nature such that it would not see the light of the day.

Then there were snippets of bathing folklores criss-crossing the film. At a certain place in China, which is arid all round the year marked by water scarcity, there is a custom that girls need to take a bath on the eve of their wedding as a sacred pre-consummation ceremony. So the parents were seen trudging long distances to barter their precious food staples for water, tumbler by tumbler. And they managed to acquire enough water just to fill a tub, for the bride-to-be to complete her obligation.

Such is the profundity of a parent's love, transcending the bounds of physical constraints, just to honor the duty that attends to bringing a human life into this world.

At another place in Tibet, two human forms were braving the elements on a long trek. There were a grandmother and granddaughter, on a pilgrimage to fulfill a life-long dream: to bath in the sacred lake, Lake Mansarovar. According to Wikipedia, Lake Mansarovar, at 4,556 m above mean sea level, is the highest fresh-water lake in the world. "It is a place of pilgrimage, attracting religious people from India, Tibet and the neighboring countries. Bathing in the Manasa Sarovar and drinking its water is believed to cleanse all sins," the same source continues.

So whether doing it everyday, on the eve of one's wedding, or once in a lifetime, bathing has a therapeutic, customary, and spiritual side to it.

Back to the movie theme. Upon receiving a hand-drawn image from Er Ming, who was not able to write because of his intellectual impairment [I have been careful to distinguish between the cognitive part of mental development from the affective part, two terms I picked up from reading Daniel Goldman's works. As is obvious from the above, Er Ming is only deficient in the former but not the latter], Ta Ming rushed home, to find that his Dad was well and sound. It was later we learned that Er Ming had drawn a man sleeping on a bed with him standing by. What Ta Ming interpreted as his Dad passing away was actually Er Ming's conception of him standing next to his sleeping Dad.

Anyway, there were revealing scenes of the Dad wishing very much for Ta Ming to stay back and yet did not want to tie Ta Ming down, curtailing the latter's own ambition. On the other hand, Ta Ming was also torn between filial piety, taking care of his ailing father, unbeknownst to Ta Ming then, and Er Ming who seemed unable to be on his own, and venturing on his own in his yearning for city lights and presumably a better quality of life.

There was a little twist in that Ta Ming had not brought his wife home, ostensibly ashamed of his brother's condition. Seeing that his father really enjoyed tending to his business, and sharing a life with Er Ming whether scrubbing the floor together, or jogging together which always ended up in a last-stretch duel to see who sprinted to home first, Ta Ming tried to prolong his stay as long as possible.

Then tragedy struck and he was forced to make a decision. The dad passed away, and sending Er Ming to a professional care center did not help him because of the new environment. To Er Ming, the public bath facility was the only place he had known, and there too he was most at ease, and was productive, and able to help others. So the brothers took over the business, presumably Ta Ming would one day convince his wife to join him (this conjecture was made from a scene that showed the other line just went dead when Ta Ming was confessing to his wife about his brother over the phone).

I felt warmth, clarity, and serenity at the end of the movie, assured in the belief that despite all the reported human atrocities, there are people who care and in whom human decency is sacrosanct. I leave you with this couplet seen on the door frame to to the public bath facility:

Couplets are traditional Chinese poetic displays of verses that embody good human values. They are popular especially during Chinese New Year when they adorn house portals or interior rooms and boast of both the elegance of the Chinese calligrapy and the profound messages embedded there in. I have not seen this particular one that conveys the message that wholesomeness of thoughts and deeds confers propitiousness on the left, and that decorum is the epitome of etiquette on the right.