Sunday, August 31, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Obstructive Karma that impedes (1); and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 09, 2008

One World One Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malaysian contingent, resplendent in traditional Malay dress.

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

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Belated Account of Vesak Day Celebration, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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