Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Remembering Garma CC Chang: A Buddhist Scholar-cum Practitioner's Quest for the Universal Truth, the Buddhist Way

Yesterday was Memorial Day here in US, a day devoted to honoring all military veterans. To me, it's also a befitting day to hold in memoriam of a great Buddhist scholar-cum-practitioner whose single-minded quest for the universal truth has illuminated the path for those who come after him, especially those who wish to learn more about the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism relevant in the milieu of western philosophy.

He is none other than the late Garma Chen-Chi (CC) Chang (Garma being is Dharma name in Tibetan), whose passing exactly twenty years ago almost to the date marks yesterday as a special one of note. I first came upon the name several months back from an email invitation from Sister Nancy to attend a talk to be given by his surviving wife, Mrs. Helena Chang as blogged here. The talk was later postponed due to unforeseen circumstances, until two days ago on May 24, 2008.

Until two days ago, I was still scouting the Internet on any form of biography that could afford a glimpse into this great man of scholarship and selfless contributions in propagating the teachings of the Buddha despite formidable odds at the personal level. The best I could find is this biographical sketch (in Chinese) that is more factual than on what drove Garma CC Chang on his epic quest, with occasional anecdotes of how his way has influenced others most fortunate to have crossed paths with him and excerpts from two eulogies written by the late CT Shen and Venerable Ri Huei. However, I was not able to find the full texts of the two eulogies online.

The other valuable online source in this regard is CT Shen's 1996 talk on his learning sojourn in Buddhism, again in Chinese, wherein he paid a glowing tribute to his mentor and friend, Garma CC Chang. In his talk, CT Shen, another great Buddhist practitioner whose philanthropy in bestowing to the Buddhist cause is legendary and who passed away recently in 2007, attributed Garma CC Chang as the second most important personality in influencing beneficially his own somewhat similar journey, second only to his own mother.

Thus, I began to piece together in a somewhat rudimentary manner the man behind the name who had brought one of the original works in Tibetan Buddhism to the western world, the translated text entitled The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa as early as the 1950s. But a more complete picture did not emerge until I attended the rescheduled talk given by Mrs. Helena Chang on May 24, 2008, at the clubhouse of the residence of Peter and Nancy Kau, amidst the serene setting abutting a placid pond teeming with life, both botanical and zoological, in the company of like-minded Buddhist practitioners and lay followers gathered on this auspicious occasion, the soft and unhurried tone of Mrs. Helena Chang silently reverberating through the room, resonating with the rapt audience who could only marvel at both her lucid memory of events dating back to the first half of the 20th century and her systematic narrative of her husband's epic journey through life's vicissitude but never harboring for a moment a single doubt on his personal quest to help humanity understand the universal truth embodied in the teachings of Buddha.

Through it all we also gained a better perspective of the woman behind every great man, the unsung pillar of support, both in spirit and in deeds, a woman whose slight build belies her fortitude, her silvery hair and knowing eyes unveiling a lifetime of wisdom, seemingly at ease with the personal trials and tribulations that pulsated through her verbal account.

The comfortable clubhouse setting before the talk. The man standing at the back is Mr. Yang who took the group picture shown toward the end and hence was not featured there.

At slightly after 10.30am, we first observed a one-minute silence, offering prayers for the recent disaster victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and Sichuan Earthquake in China. After a brief introduction by Peter Kau, we settled in to the one-hour-and-a-half long delivery in Chinese by Mrs. Helena Chang, seated facing us in the front.

Mrs. Helena Chang, stressing a point during her delivery.

She preambled her talk by informing us that there has only been another occasion when she spoke on a similar topic, lasting 15 minutes at Penn State where her late husband was a professor of religious studies. So we were indeed blessed and honored to have partaken in this rare event, thanks to Nancy Kau who had kindly made all the arrangements for the event.

What followed was an eventful trek through space, a diaspora traversing across China, Tibet, India, Taiwan, Hongkong, US (New York, California, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia), and time covering a greater part of a century. Along the way, they were assisted by many friends and colleagues and in turn, had had a profound beneficial influence on those who crossed path with them, at the end of which lies a treasure trove of Buddhist scholarly works, both translated and original English and Chinese writings that bear testimony to the indelible contributions of Garma CC Chang in propagating Buddhism into the American sphere.

Their journey through life was riddled with constant struggles at the initial stages of settling in US, one perhaps not uncommon for Chinese immigrants in the 1950s who found the going tough. But as the saying goes that as the going gets tough, the tough gets going, those challenges, while seemingly daunting, did not deter them from embarking on their translation efforts, unshaken from their belief that Buddhism would show him, and along the way others as well, the way to the ultimate truth of life. Mrs. Helena Chang summed up five great handicaps that they had to surmount in their translation efforts:

- failing eyesight for both (it's only now that this debilitating ailment is recognized as glaucoma marked by an inability to focus);

- his back problem;

- their uncertain citizen status;

- his hereditary heart problem;

- and language barrier.

Theirs was a triumph over trials and tribulations, driven by a zeal etched in the teachings of the Buddha.

While Garma CC Chang was perhaps best known for his epic translation works that resulted in the publication of the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, what drove him to write the Practice of Zen, his first English Buddhist text, were no less onerous. For a time, he had been pondering the nexus between western philosophy and Buddhism as it emerged at its source in India, a thought process that prompted him to learn Sanskrit and Pali. He noted further that the Hippies movement then had latched on to the somewhat mystic appeal of Buddhism. But the prevailing Buddhist thought then among the westerners was dominated by the Japanese Zen school spearheaded by T. Suzuki. The over-emphasis on instant enlightenment to the exclusion of assiduous practice seemed to have created a hiatus that bypassed the preparatory imperatives intended in Buddhism.

So he set off to write the Practice of Zen, his first English Buddhist text. He approached Harper (then the Collins part was still not yet developed), giving them two weeks to accept his draft, oblivious to the need for prior review and daring in that he had no track record in publishing). And at age 40, he signed his first publishing agreement, receiving an advance from Harper.

In the words of Kenneth Ch'en, who reviewed this book back in 1961 that appears in Philosophy East and West, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Oct., 1961), pp. 174-176 (University of Hawaii Press), which still ring true today:

To the growing list of books on Zen Buddhism in English, Mr. Chang Chen-Chi has made a significant contribution. However, the author differs from many of the contemporary writers on the subject in that he has not been influenced by Japanese writers on Zen Buddhism. Again, he is not writing his account from secondary sources, but has gone back to the primary materials in Chinese. Finally, through his years of residence and study in Tibetan and Chinese monasteries, he has acquired a profound knowledge of the wider aspects of Buddhist philosophy that is fundamental to the proper understanding of Zen theory and practice... The author aims to show from these selections how Zen masters lived and worked – in other words, how they practiced Zen – in the hope that these might serve as examples for beginners at the present time. In addition to these translations, there are also discussions on the nature and problems of Zen. In the latter category, he seeks to throw some lights on such questions as, Is Zen completely unintelligible for the intellect? as Suzuki insists, and, What is Zen enlightenment? In answer to the first question, the author makes this sensible distinction between understanding Zen and realizing Zen, and that “to understand Zen through an intellectual approach is not reprehensible, but is the only way for the beginner, for who can get into Zen without having first some understanding or conceptual knowledge about it?” (p. 117) ...”

On Buddhist friends, one who stood up in particular is the mentor-mentee relationship he had with CT Shen, a great Buddhist practitioner and philanthropist whom he first met in India in 1950 and subsequently in US where he imparted Tibetan Buddhist teachings to Shen through several one-to-one sessions in the 1960s. But Garma CC Chang declined to be cited as his teacher, saying that he was only doing that on behalf of his Tibetan Master, the late Lama Gong Kar. [These interactions were recounted in CT Shen's 1996 talk of his learning journey following the Buddhist path.]

The Hundred Thousands Songs of Milarepa, the text of which was entirely typed, is now in its second edition in a two-volume hardcopy set. Selected chapters are also available in paperback, one of which, Sixty Songs of Milarepa, is available freely on the Net here.

Health-wise, he had his first heart operation in 1974 at New York, and a second one in 1984. And he passed away on May 25, 1988, a passing missed by all who have crossed paths with him, either in person or through his writings.

In CT Shen's 1996 account of his own journey on the Buddhist path, he had described his journey by using a set of verses from a Chinese poem of the Tang Dynasty, about overcoming all odds and emerging that much fortified and wiser after life's litmus tests. I could not have done better in summing up the epic journey traversed by Garma CC Chang except by using the same two verses, but appearing in a slightly different version (taken from here) as appeared in the image at the top, using the Plum Blossoms as a symbol of rectitude, a no-less fitting depiction of his steadfast belief in the universal truth enshrined in Buddhism, and the unwavering support from his wife, to make their legacy available to all of us. Here then are my translation of the two verses, hoping that they would transmit the same gist in spirit as their Chinese counterpart:

Without the ordeal of the bone penetrating frigid cold,

absent the nose-thrilled fragrance of the Plum Blossoms.

The blessed group, including Mr. Yang, the photographer who is not in the picture but appeared in an image above.

Mrs. Helena Chang with wify at the residence of Peter and Nancy Kau, our gracious hosts for the day.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Celebrating Buddha's Birthday and Mother's Day Festival

The Month of May is a blessed month for Buddhists all over the world. It is in this month that Vesak Day is celebrated, commemorating the birth, the life, and passing of the Buddha. Hence, in May, Buddhist temples and centers the world over organize a rolling series of celebrations for local Buddhists and lay persons alike.

As in past years, we participated in a couple, and will be attending another one toward the end of the Month. Guang Ming Temple of Orlando is one such venue. To take advantage of the Mother's Day that also falls in the month of May, the organizers have combined the two into a Celebrating Buddha's Birthday and Mother's Day Festival on May 11 (Sunday). And there's where we headed last Sunday.

The day's programs included Buddha's bathing ceremony, Chinese book fair, and cultural performances. We arrived in the afternoon to join a throng of people mingling in the courtyard. This is our second visit to the temple, but the first after it has become fully functional. The first visit occured in July 2006 when wify attended the Taking the Three Refuges Ceremony conducted by Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan (the Buddha Light Mountain). Then only the Main Shrine (Precious Hall of the Great Hero, literaly translated from Chinese) was essentially completed for the ceremony to be held within its august bowel.

This time, the completed temple looks majestic with its gently upward curving roof line, like dragons on the verge of soaring high, and the architecture, elegant against the backdrop of azure sky. The morning service was already over when we arrived. So we helped ourselves to bathing the Buddha, after which we sauntered upstaris to view the Arts exhibition and visited the Book Fair held at the third floor. Here then is a pictorial chronicle of the sights as we sampled the events of the day on this auspicious day in the month of May.

The courtyard lined by food and souvenir stalls (just beyond the view to the sides here), the two tents providing shade from the afternoon sun for the audience enjoying the open-air performances. The small figurines standing on top of the roof edges are molded shapes of animal form (mythical? I can't tell).

A Kung Fu troupe just finishing performing and its protagonists of various ages lining up to deliver a traditional Chinese salute, the Shaolin style, a fist pressed against an open palm. According to the brochure on Guang Ming Temple, the geometric rectangles seen covering the floor of the courtyard "symbolizes rice paddies with weed growing around the edges. We meditate to help remove the weeds and desires from our mind so the harvest will be plentiful. It is also named "the great way to Buddhahood" because we need to walk through it to reach the Main Shrine (Buddha Hall). [Note that the courtyard is used for walking meditation.] Our mind is like the rice paddy. If we plant good seeds then we can reap merits and attain Buddhahood." Also, one of the two lions at each top corner of the courtyard is visible toward the back. "Lions represent bravey, strength and courage since the lion is the "king of all animals". Lions serve as guardians to ward off evil, and since the lions roar is very loud, it helps to awaken us from ignorance", the brochure continues.

Wify engaging with Sister Lana and an American attendee in front of a souvenir stall. In the background stood two Venerables looking at a game of rolling up balls along an inclined chute so that they would fall into holes at the top of the chute in progress. I guess this must be the brain child of the YAD, standing for the Young Adult Division of Buddha’s Light Int’l Association.

The tall urn, standing like a sentinel on guard at the entrance to the Main Shrine.

The Main Shrine fronted by a tableful of four baby buddhas facing each of the four cardinal directions amidst the floral arrangement. The centerpiece beyond is a porcelain white statue of the Buddha flanked by the Chinese inscription of the Heart Sutra, which in turn are abutted by about 80 images of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanyin Pusa), who is "the embodiment of great compassion for the troubled and suffering of the world. She will come to the aid of anyone who invokes her name sincerely and mindfully."

Wify doing the honor of bathing the buddha with a wooden ladle, rather gingerly.

CE's turn (actually this was taken about a week after when CE, and WT, came with us to attend the Dharma Talk delivered by Venerable Yung Han on May 17, but it did fit in with the occasion nicely, don't you think?)

The Gatha for bathing the Buddha in Chinese and English. They were actually pasted on two pillars opposite to each other but were combined here.

The significance of bathing the buddha described in English and Chinese. Again these appeared on opposite walls. You would have to click the image to be able to read the contents that would surely enlighten you appropriately.

Some of the drawings displayed on the wall at the Arts gallery on the second floor.

The entrance to the Book Fair on the third floor. Wonder what the parasols signify?

Wify leafing through a book at the Gardening and Hobby Section.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

2008 Change Your Mind Day, April 19, 2008

The third segment of the blissful day of April 19, 2008 (read here and here for the first and the second segments, respectively) comes in the form of our attendance at the 2008 Change Your Mind Day (CYMD) organized by the Tampa Bay Chapter of Buddhist Peace Fellowship held amidst the scenic setting of Phillippe Park, Safety Harbor.

According to the organizers, "CYMD began in New York's Central Park in 1993 and is now celebrated in over 30 cities. This is the fifth year that the event will be held in the Tampa Bay area."

Featuring a day of Buddhist meditation and much more, it is billed as "a joyful celebration of the diversity of Buddhist traditions", encompassing Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada, Tibetan and Zen. And the serene setting at the water's edge that Phillippe Park offers is just the perfect place for the blessed event, re-creating the environment in which "Buddhist teachings were presented in the time of the Buddha: outdoor, relaxed, and informal".

Our entourage included Venerables Chueh Fan and Chueh Yen from Guang Ming Temple of Orlando, and we left after our morning Dharma session held at the Middle Way Buddhist Association's venue at Pinellas Park, arriving at Phillippe Park after lunch.

The day-long schedule comprised 10-30 minute slots of presentation by various local Buddhist groups in a variety of formats: chanting, singing, discussions, introductions, bathing the Baby Buddha, and offering of alms food to the monastics.

We stayed long enough to partake of several post-lunch mind nourishments provided by the presenters on behalf of their respective groups and took home with us a real sense of the diversity of pathways that converge on the three pillars of Buddhist teachings: Precept, Concentration, and Wisdom, as summarized in the pictorial running log that follows (Please visit here for more images of the day's event).

Several tents put up by various local Buddhist groups around the Shelter area where the events were conducted.

Members of MWBA flanking the Venerables from Guang Ming Temple after arriving at the venue from Pinellas Park (from L to R: Wesley, Mary, Venerable Chueh Yen, Venerable Chueh Fan, Wify (Bee), Tom, and Jordan).

Steve Shealy of Flowing Dharma introducing Mindfulness Practice. For the entire 15-minute, Steve remained in that standing position, save turning the head gradually to scan the audience to observe their efforts at maintaing mindfulness and occasionally looking at his watch so as to remain within the alloted time span, actualizing what he teaches effortlessly. I too tried to emulate by remaining motionless while standing and locking my gaze on him when he started to invite the audience to follow his instructions about 5 minutes into his presentation, ignoring the mounting strain on my legs for refusing to shift weight that gradually evolved into a kind of numbness. Boy was I glad when his time was up.

The Dzogchen Buddhist Society of Tampa chanting A Short Sadhana (Formal Tibetan). The chanting, in Tibetan, was fluent and calming, despite my ignorance of the language.

The two Venerables chanting the Heart Sutra in Chinese. This is a familiar chant to us and I could sense that Wify was following suit. Later I confirmed with her that she did, together with Sister Lana from Orlando who drove the two Venerables here.

The two Venerables reciting A Prayer for the People Who Listen to the Dharma, in English. The full text follows.

Venerable Chueh Fan explaining the Humanistic Buddhism of Master Hsing Yun, founder of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha's Light Mountain) with the four-fold mission of Propagating Buddhist teachings through cultural activities, Nurturing talents through education, Benefiting societies through charitable programs, and Purifying human hearts and minds through Buddhist practices.

Richard Weissman of Ratnashiri Sangha of Tampa Bay speaking on Vajrayana: "Good in the beginning, good in the middle & good in the end", which he elaborated as Establishing altruistic motivation, Practicing Chenrezig Mantra and Daily Yoga, and Dedicating merits to sever attachments as an antidote for clinging and self-grasping. Chenrezig is the Tibetan Buddhist Buddha of Compassion, and is also Buddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and is more popularly known among Chinese Buddhists as Guang Yin Pusa, the Goddess of Mercy. The Chenrezig Mantra is also one I chant on a daily basis, OM MANI PEME HUNG. However, I learned more on the meaning of each syllabus that day from Richard:

OM - HUMILITY, antidote to PRIDE;
PE - WISDOM, antidote to IGNORANCE;
ME - GENEROSITY, antidote to GREED;

[According to Wikiepedia, "Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayana, Mantrayana, Mantranaya, Esoteric Buddhism, Diamond Vehicle, although these terms are not always regarded as equivalent, is an extension of Mahayana Buddhism consisting of differences in the adoption of additional techniques (upaya, or 'skillful means') rather than in philosophy."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The 15th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Dependent Origination in Our Daily Life, Part II (The Dharma Talk)

The Dependent Origination in Our Daily Life. That's the topic of the Dharma talk delivered by Venerable Chueh Fan from Guang Ming Temple, Orlando, on April 19, 2008 on the occasion of the 15th Dharma Session organized monthly by Middle Way Buddhist Association and held at its Pinellas Park venue. It was after our meditation session in the morning. Amidst our usual mutual introduction session, Venerable Chueh Fan and her temple assistant arrived, lugging some high-tech equipment that one rarely associates with the dignified aura of solemn gathering enveloping a Dharma event: laptop, slide projector. Just to demonstrate that while Buddhism is steeped in tradition, it also embraces the advances of the time and moves in tandem with the social changes. In other words, relevant to society as befitting the outlook of Humanistic Buddhism advanced by Venerable Hsing Yun, the founder of the Buddha Light school.

The mobile screen was set up, the slide projector connected, the laptop whirred into action, and a smiling Venerable Chueh Fan scanned the attendees who were rapt in attention, with bated breath. Thus rolled the first slide into our view, and more, unloading an aspect of the profound teachings of the Buddha, highly condensed into nuggets of wisdom, into our consciousness.

All phenomena do not arise out of nothing.

They cannot exist alone by themselves.

They arise out of causes and conditions.

The simplest to the profound teachings say that all phenomena do not exist by themselves.

Phenomena are the product of a combination of causes and conditions.

Causes and conditions are the basic factors underlying all phenomena.

The recurring thesis, and in fact, truism, in the above succinct statements, is clear, is beyond doubt. To borrow an oft-seen commercial on TV, it's clarity clear. To illustrate simply, causes are the primary factors, for example, a seed, while conditions are secondary factors, such as soil, sunlight, the ambient environment that is conducive for the germination of a seed.

An affable Venerable Chueh Fan engaged the audience instantly.

And the attendees gave their undivided attention to the lucid illustration of dependent origination in our daily life.

A closeup of Venerable Chueh Fan, at ease with the paraphernalia of a high tech presentation and expounding on Humanistic Buddhism. It reminds me of the title of John Naisbitt's book, High Tech, High Touch (Broadway, 1999).

On further expounding, Venerable Chueh Fan admonished us to develop appreciation for events as they occur, for things never occur twice. The enlightenment of the Buddha is merely having been awakened to the truth, that dependent origination is a universal principle. Hence, all phenomena are interdependent, and cannot be permanently unchanging, which leads to another truism, impermanence.

The mind is the focus of Buddha's teachings as it encompasses all ideas, thoughts, speech, and feelings. It's the mind that drives our cravings, consuming wantonly, adoring speed, always chasing after the latest, the newest, the biggest. Through these mindless pursuits, a litany of social problem erupts: family/child abuse, gunfire, killings, etc.

To stem the moral decay and the deterioration of social order, Humanistic Buddhism advocates harmonization and co-existence. In other words, we are in this business of living together. This is best exemplified by a simple parable, as eloquently presented by Venerable Chueh Fan.

One day, a farm mouse discovered that the farmer had received a package, and much to its consternation, it was a mouse trap. Frightened out of its wits, the mouse frantically sought help from its farm neighbors:

The rooster: “It's your problem.”

The pig: “It's none of my business.”

The cow: “It's not for me.”

The mouse was patently upset, for the lack of empathy from its neighbors. And it seemed it had to tackle the matter by itself.

The next day, a commotion broke out. Apparently, the mousetrap had caught something, but not the intended victim, but the tail of a sidewinder, a venomous snake. While trying to clear the trap, the farmer's wife was bitten, and subsequently developed high fever. What did the farmer do?

He took an ax to look for the rooster so as to prepare a chicken soup as a cure for his ailing wife.

When that did not help and his wife's condition worsened, his neighbors and friends came to offer him comfort and medical help, and he served pork to the well-wishers.

Unfortunately, the wife passed away, and the farmer had to slaughter the cow to thank those who came to offer their condolences.

The moral of the story: We all share the same boat. So step up and help.

Two essential facets of Humanistic Buddhism are equality and compassion. Ever wonder why monks/nuns shave their heads? Because in Ancient India, hairstyle was symbolic of social status. Hence, shaving the head signals equality, which facilitates integration. Similarly, compassion fosters co-existence.

On family bliss, live appropriately and develop good affinity. It takes ten years to share a boat, but a hundred years to become a couple. And note that grumbling is not suffering. Smile, pay regard, and show a little concern, and we will change the world.

Another story, this time between the dry wood and fire, over which is essential for the rice making. More wood, the burning is faster. Larger fire, the wood is burnt at a faster rate. In the end, both vanished faster simultaneously: the wood having perished, and the fire, extinguished.

The moral: sharing, not competition.

Understanding dependent origination in our daily life, we can begin to discern how changes take place, and identify the sources of human suffering. That understanding also brings joy to the mind as dependent origination shows us how to live, by teaching us that we are not helpless victims doomed to lives of misery, and that our future lies in our hands.

One of Master Hsing Yun's teachings exhorts us to just enjoy the moment of the thing rather than to own it.

Impermanence does not imply deterioration. It can be for the better! Imagine a box of white and black balls. By putting more white balls into the box, we will cover up the black ones eventually, but that does not mean that the black balls are not there. In this analogy, the white balls are good deeds while the black, past unwholesome deeds or bad karma. We cannot erase the past, but we definitely can strive to put more white balls into our karmic box.

Realizing impermanence, we become detached and cease craving.

On that note, the Dharma talk, and the ensuing lively discussion that it generated, came to a blissful end, and we all adjourned to a feast of vegetarian lunch during which more individual exchanges took place. A group of us, Venerable Chueh Fan included, bade an early retreat at the conclusion of the lunch and made a beeline to Phillipe Park at Safety Harbor to attend the afternoon session of the Change Your Mind Day organized by the Tampa Bay Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which shall be the concluding part of my blogging trilogy on the blissful day of April 19, 2008. Stay tuned.