Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Day at Channelside but a Night at the Museum

Channelside is one of the popular places in the Tampa Bay area and boasts of the Florida Aquarium and the IMAX theater, which is located within a courtyard area. The courtyard, accessible via a tunnel-like passage way, is surrounded by stores, eateries, and a bowling alley, Splitsville, on three of its sides. The remaining side admits an unobstructed view of the Cruise ship terminal beyond. So while relaxing at the many tables that rim the courtyard area, visitors can view the departure of cruise ships, transiting ever slowly through the channel out of the Tampa Port Area and into the Bay proper for their onward journey to many Caribbean and other destinations.

We have never been inside the Florida Aquarium, with its flashy animated display of quick-stepping penguins at its entrance. But the courtyard is no stranger to us, the most recent visit being to watch Happy Feet. But this time we arrived early, with about two hours to kill before the evening screening of Night at the Museum. Shown here is the biggest bowling bin in the world (really, that's the small print below Splitsville that you couldn't read), extending beyond the upper floor level and towering over an obviously over-matched bowling ball by its side. The IMAX theater is located on the upper level.

Having exhausted the stores to window-shop, we (actually the wandering party excluded me as I for one do not fancy expending the leg work in that manner but more importantly, I could not put down the book that I was reading: Blowback by Brad Thor, who has the plot thickens by the pages) bought some ice-creams to share, and planted ourselves on the chairs surrounding one of the many tables spread around the courtyard, while watching the cruise ship sail by one by one. After the ice cream feast was over, the siblings continued with their discussion of the Chinese song offering from the IPOD while those in the party who are more chronologically challenged lazed around, affording me some opportunities for executing several Kodak moment-like photo-shoots.

Then it was time for our date with IMAX. Initially our search for the 3D goggles turned out abortive, only then did we realize that the advert says Come and Enjoy the Movie on the BIG Screen, but the 3D part was purely our own leap of imagination.

Night at the Museum, is about the museum exhibits coming to life at night, due to the magic power bestowed by a golden tablet, which dates back to the days of King Pharoh of Egypt but was a recent archeological find. The museum exhibits included Theodore Roosevelt (played by the redoubtable Robin Williams), the 26th US President, or rather his waxen look-alike; Lewis and Clark, the famed explorers; a Roman Legion led by Octavius; a posse of cowboys led by a maverick played by Owen Wilson, the last two being cast as tiny people (think Lilliputian); Attila the Hun and his cohorts; some Cavemen; and Christopher Columbus, which concludes the human exhibits.

Then there are the non-human and animal exhibits: a Moai, which is a stone statue carved from compressed volcanic ash now located along the coastline of Easter Island (but in the movie it can mumble “dumb dumb”, “gum gum” and “run run”); a horde of wild animals including Dexter, the primate that managed to steal the limelight from the human actors in several scenes; and a skeletal dinosaur that responds to the dog name, Rexie (from T. Rex, get it?).

But the movie actually revolves around the father-and-son theme in which the father tries to live up to the son’s expectations as being a symbol of stability, respect, and one the son can stand tall with in front of his peers and friends.

You see, Larry Daley, played by Ben Stiller, is a divorcee and in between jobs. And Nicky is his ten-year old son, whose disappointment with his father’s inability to be gainfully employed was starting to slide into the proverbial bottomless abyss. Then Larry landed a job as a night guard at the Museum of Natural History and with that came the last chance for him to salvage his last remaining vestige of respect that his son so desperately clings to.

Through all the ensuing actions, starting with Larry bringing Nicky to work one night, which I shall not bore you with, or rather spoil the fun of, Larry was able to take command, which he has so often in his life relinquished, and showed Theodore Roosevelt what he was made of when an earlier prodding using the famous adage ‘Some men are born great; some have greatness thrust upon them” did not seem to work.

Suffice here to say that it has a happy, one that warms the heart of a father, ending. The movie did not win the highest box office last weekend for nothing. I strongly urge you to watch it with your children, on an IMAX if there is one nearby. Perhaps some of the enhanced appeal of the movie could have been due to the unique cinematic effect only an IMAX can deliver.

The last business of the day was a dinner at the Carrabba’s Restaurant along Dale Mabry Highway. Perhaps it was the carry-over effect from the movie, the nearly one-hour wait did not dampen our spirits, though I did close my eyes for a brief period to tide over some of the fatigue that had started to creep in.

It was our second visit to the restaurant, except for CY and Dan. I ordered Pasta Carrabba, my wife Pasta Rambo, Dan a pizza, CY another Pasta dish, CE Lasagna, and WT, a bowl of spicy chicken soup (don’t ask my why). But the bread condiment was fabulous. The portions were big and so the three ladies had to box their remaining portions.

I hit the sack soon upon arrival at home, which explained why there was no blog yesterday.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Clearwater Beach: Sandy, Windy, and Crabby

“Clearwater Beach is the Best City Beach on the Gulf of Mexico according to Dr. Stephen Leatherman ("Dr. Beach"), a Florida International University professor who has been ranking America’s beaches for nine years.” So says the website of Clearwater, Florida.

Since we moved to Tampa, we have heard so much about Clearwater Beach. And we did visit it a couple of times, though not really with a view to enjoying its wide expanse of white beach sand, the panoramic view of the wide surf, and its scenic beauty as I shall explain. The first visit, on a weekend, turned out to be a non-starter as we were overwhelmed by the tremendous traffic that literally clogged up the SR60 road leading to it from Tampa. So we decided to turn back at the point the road narrowed to two lanes, with a seemingly endless line of cars ahead.

The next two occasions were in conjunction with the releasing life activity. So dropping by the Clearwater Beach was like an after thought one of which I had blogged here.

So when our D (CY) and her boyfriend, Dan, from Oregon visited us during the Christmas Holidays, we decided to head out there, ostensibly to let Dan, who has not seen another ocean body other than the Pacific Ocean, which Oregon abuts, to have a taste, or rather a smell, of GOM (Gulf of Mexico).

The moment we disembarked from the car and stepped onto the white beach, we were hit by the swirling breeze that brought a chill down my spine. Both CY and Dan felt especially at home, as this is the usual winter beach condition over at Oregon, perhaps even chillier.

The beach sand felt firm, and hardly any sand got into my shoes, unlike previous visits. Perhaps the air was damp, and the sand particles were held together by the moisture.

And the surf was energetic, evidenced from the white foam and the lapping sound of broken waves running up the wide beach. However, no evidence was more forceful than the color of the flag raised in front of the life-guard house shown here: Orange.

After a group huddle, we fanned out. As we trudged along the beach, heads down, hands in pockets (see who is the odd one out?) and bodies slightly leaned forward, we came across a group of seagulls who have perfected the art of standing motionless in the wind gust. Facing wind, wings tucked back, tail erect, one after the other, and leeward of a steel trash bin, all in the effort to present as small an area to the wind as possible.

On the pier, the first view that struck us was the display of brightly colored parasols, but placed with the surface in a vertical position to act as a wind break. But for what purpose? We soon found out that these are used to shield the vendors who peddle their wares from the wind. They are ornamental items made from shells, shark and alligator teeth. Here you can see CY picking up a pair of erring while Dan was looking for something for his brother.

And we have to have something to show that we have visited, and had a good time, at one of the premier beaches in Florida. And here is the photographic proof.

Then we adjourned for a hearty meal at Crabby Bill's Seafood Restaurant located just around the bend as we exited the road that is parallel to the beach. I had a broiled grouper (6 oz, see bottom left), my wife a broiled salmon (4 oz), and we traded some. My younger D had a land lubber dish: beef burger while my S decided to dig in to Jambalaya. CY and Dan shared a dish of king crabs (top right), which required some work of breaking with a pair of pliers and extracting the meat encapsulated within the hard shell. But no venture no gain. And the tasty meat that ensued (bottom right) soon made the labor all worth it.

As we bid farewell to Clearwater Beach, a visit marked by high wind, strong surf, parasol protected vending, and great crabby meals (though I had fish), we were again reminded by the relentless push of development, supplanting the pa-and-ma run beach front operations with high rise condos.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Joyful and Blessed Christmas Eve

The eve of 2006 Christmas is now history in our annals of events. And it was spent in a typically joyous fashion: thoughtful presents, great food, convivial company, and blessed atmosphere.

Earlier in the day, I had received this great book gift from my D in Oregon, Positive Thinking, which set the mood for the rest of the day. Then a friend of mine from Malaysia emailed me this gift: Playa Cofi, an online jukebox comprising the best of the top 100 from the golden years of popular music, including the 1970s and the 1980s, my favorite song periods. While the gifts are simple and may seem “cheap”, they do not render the thoughts behind the gifts any less meaningful. On the contrary, I really appreciate the considerations that have gone into the gift selection, with the particular liking of the recipient in mind.

So often these days gifts are selected (by those giving) and evaluated (by those receiving) on the sole basis of cost, the higher the better, that they give rise to feelings of dissatisfaction and ill-will, instead of as a token of appreciation of mutual admiration and collegiality.

This reminds me of a rerun episode of Office, the popular NBC TV sitcom, that I watched recently on DVD. The boss, Michael, bought an overly expensive gift for Ryan, a temp, during an annual Christmas gift exchange. On the other hand, Phyllis, a female employer, knitted an oven mitt for Michael. When Ryan opened his gift, everybody was like agog over the gift. And Michael was himself a picture of smugness bordering on conceit. When he found out what his gift was, he instantly transformed into a spiteful low-life, bad-mouthing Phyllis for her audacity to even consider such a cheap gift. That Phyllis has spent countless hours laboring over the knitting handiwork did not enter his thick skull nor matter a bit to his warped sense of self-importance.

Then he invoked his veto power as the boss to change the rule of the game, to one that is conventionally called a white elephant game where the participant, in the order of a number drawn, chooses a gift from a collection that is anonymously “donated” as per the pre-set rules of the game (as was the case in my office party). Michael called it the Yankee Swap while another ventured the more sinister moniker, “nasty Christmas game”. But nobody demurred as the office dynamics played out according to the hierarchy.

From then on, the game degenerated into an open grab for the most expensive item in the bounty: the watch. The considerations that have gone into the gift selection and destined for a particular recipient all but dissipated and instead, the most basic and base human emotion now governed: greed.

Sorry for the unintentional rant but I do feel strongly that the gift should be appropriate for the occasion and for the intended recipient as well. Anyway let’s continue with my joyous ride for the rest of the day.

We were invited to a dinner at Brian and Connie’s house, one which we frequent the most, primarily because it’s the venue for the monthly Buddhist group chanting session that my wife participates.

See here for a whole array of food served, thanks to the kind efforts of Brian, Connie, and Tammy, their daughter: roasted turkey, ham, tofu, and a smorgasbord of numerous dishes that are beyond my very limited range of cuisine as far as names are concerned, but definitely not food tasting and ingestion.

As for the company, the occasion was graced by a Bhante and a Bhikkhuni from St. Pete. In addition to several fellow Buddhist friends, I also met, for the first time, Joe and Steve.

Joe is a post-doc at UF and naturally our conversation centered around Gators’ performance in football and basketball, including the one-sided victory over the Buckeyes last weekend. Joe is also a soccer referee and used to play in the forward position. So we also mutually tested our recollection of soccer greats (Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, etc.) and found that some are common in our lists.

Then there was Steve, who has just moved from Utah to Tampa, from a closely knit community of Mormons to a networked metropolis of creative people that Tampa is renowned for. Together with Brian, whom I have known for some time now, the conversation of the ostensibly male group kind of gravitated toward energy sources: from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming, bio fuels such as methanol that accounts for about 85% of the energy consumption in Brazil where land is aplenty, to nuclear energy that Europe seems to embrace while there is a guarded wariness in US in the aftermath of the Three Mile Islands and Chernobyl accidents. Then the topic switched to hybrid cars where the primary concerns relate to car maintenance after the warranty period and handling the cars in emergency situations, say, fire after a collision (electric shock?).

Then it was time to listen to a brief Dharma talk by Bhante followed by his utterance of blessing for the evening. Among other things, Bhante explained the virtue of giving and admonished that children are the wealth of the parents.

After bidding good night to the Bhante and the Bhikkhuni, the group broke down into threesomes based on gender. Connie, Claudia (Steve’s wife), and my wife engaged in an animated discussion of the various sutras such as the Platform sutra of the 6th Patriarch Venerable Hui Neng, in Mandarin, which is their mother tongue.

On the other hand, the men (Brian, Steve and me) held a general discourse on our respective work environments, the pros and cons of renting near the work place, commuting to work, and even tele-commuting.

What about our kids, you asked? Ooh, we lost track but were pretty sure that they must have occupied themselves in banter like siblings do.

We parted company around ten-thirtyish, and yet were alert enough to enjoy the night scene on the drive home. Some of the Christmas decorations were just amazing in terms of the scale, extent, and details, and the kind of efforts the owners had put in for this once-a-year festival.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Wisdom: Thinking; Wisdom; Charactrer Molding; Earnestness; Be Proactive

This is the third and the last installment of the English translation of the Wisdom series on positive attitudes. If you recall, they are presented in three installments of 3, 4, and now, 5 images, making a dozen. I hope you are able to benefit as much from these distilled lessons of life, and adopt them as your life-long guide, in combination with others that you may have picked up along the way. Definitely these do not have a exclusive claim on the “how-to” of handling what life will throw at you, but they will constitute a handy supplementary toolset to frame your philosophical outlook on life. I’am also appending a couple of quotes on positive thinking that I have picked up from the Mar/Apr 2006 issue of Positive Thinking, just to show that there is more than one way to express similar thoughts: different forms, same message.


Reading expands life’s horizon;
Thinking sublimates life’s quality.

What you encounter does not determine your life as much as how you respond to the encounter.

Character Molding

Waves become turbulent when their forward march is resisted by underwater reefs;
We become toughened when our mettle is tested by adverse circumstances.

Do not underestimate the significance of what you are doing now,
If you have put in your best efforts in everything you do, all will add up to manifest in opportunities.

Be Proactive
We are all endowed with different capabilities.
At the same time, we are handicapped by weaknesses to varying degree.
The proactive among us leverages on our strengths while the passive among us only laments about our weaknesses.

Last Friday, we received an USPS package from our D at Oregon. And the manner in which it was received was, well, unorthodox, as the mails are normally deposited in assigned mail boxes located on the ground floor of our block. You see, through our three years here we have got to know our postman, and apparently, vice versa, so well that mails destined for us with incomplete addresses, like missing the unit number, or missing the apartment complex number for one reason or another, have been promptly and correctly delivered.

On this occasion, we had exited the apartment gate to run an errand and were driving along an outside road that runs parallel to our apartment complex when I noticed ahead an USPS van parked by the road side. When we approached the van, a man in USPS uniform came round the van and was waving at us. We recognized him immediately and pulled to a stop. Apparently, he thought a package that he would deliver later to our apartment in the usual manner was important and perhaps time-sensitive enough to warrant an “interception”. What a kind gesture, going beyond the call of duty. We thanked him profusely, while wondering whether the festive season has anything to do with this display of kindred spirit. But we soon realize that this is the basic human do-goodness at work. People will always respond in like manner if we choose to be decent human beings.

Back to the package. It contained various books that my D has collected in the past year and sent them our way so that we too could enjoy them. Each book has been marked clearly to whom it is directed, though further exchange is encouraged. Mine is a little magazine, Positive Thinking (Mar/Apr 2006 issue, see the cover to the right with its mantra: Attitude is Everything). And these are what I’ve managed to glean having gone half way through the magazine:

You’re never too young to make a difference. It’s not the number of years of a life, but what someone does with them.” Arabella Uhry, 10 years old (p. 28)

The path is only linear in the rearview mirror.” Brian McAllister, RoadTrip Nation (p. 28).

So regardless of whether you’re from the West or from the East, or whether the message is written in Chinese or English, certain things in life are just immutable.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wisdom: Humility; Growth; Contentment; Self-Assuredness

This is the second installment of the Buddhist Wisdom series, which started yesterday. So having mulled over them for the past, eh, several hours taking into count time for sleep, any thoughts? Lest you think that there may even be an iota of hedonistic streak in some of them as sometimes words like carefree tend to invoke, banish that thought right this minute. Being free-spirited does not imply a lack of self-control or getting a license for earthly indulgence. Rather, it’s a stamp of approval that one has come of age, an age that places others before self. Read on and you will find that these positive states of mind as embodied are mutually reinforcing, spirally upward in a virtuous cycle.

There is no need to show off, so that others could feel the touch of your magnanimity.
There is no need to seek fame, so that we could reserve the freedom to be flexible at will.

Keep friends at a distance, so as to grant each other space for uncluttered roaming.
Refrain from pampering, so that others might grow toward independence.

Accept our very own mediocrity and imperfection, then we would not stumble into a stonewall in this imperfect world.

When we are able to discover the inner moral compass in us, we don’t have to be fearful anymore; neither are we prone to self doubt. We can then accept, upgrade, reassure, and love ourselves.

Stay tuned for the last installment, and mull some more in the meantime.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wisdom: Be Carefree; Benevolence; Propitiousness

We first met Venerable Bhikkhuni Shing Yi when she came to Tampa to conduct a series of Dharma Lecture for the local Buddhist followers last December.

In between, she has also graced the group’s release life activity. On this occasion, the activity was held at Madeira Beach, Pinellas County, after which the party adjourned to the Largo Botanical Garden and then a park just across from where this photo was taken.

It was the day after Christmas and the weather was on the chilly side as evidenced from the fact that everyone was appropriately bundled up.

After her return to the west coast, we have kept in contact through email where both my wife and I have been benefiting greatly from the email attachments from her. These attachments encapsulate the Buddha teaching in the form of images with laconic verses but of profound meaning.

The latest "instalment", with the overall theme being Wisdom, is no exception and I've taken the liberty to translate the sublime messages to appear on the left for the benefit of non-Chinese readers who would like to partake of the lessons to lead a meaningful life. For completeness, I'm also attaching the original images with the original messages in Chinese on the right so that readers too can judge whether I've done justice to the messages intended. At the same time, I've to apologize for not being able to credit the images but I think they originate from Taiwan. To the creator(s) of the images and the associated verses, I would like to say many thanks for sharing your artistic expressions that are best summed up in three phrases: forceful words; splended rendition; and sagacious verses. Judge for yourself.

Be Carefree
Do not rush your journey;
allow yourself the opportunity to reflect and regroup.
Do not overwork;
give yourself some time to acclimatize and adjust.

A loving heart; A compassionate heart;
To all the people it embraces; and to it flows the merits like gushing stream;
A spiteful disposition; A derogatory gesture;
A bane to all; and misfortunes befall.

To honor the sanctity of life is like thirst quenching water and drought relieving rain, nurturing life and sustaining growth. If we truly embrace such benevolence, propitious shall be all occasions and long-lasting shall be our good merits.

Stay tuned for the next installment. Meanwhile. mull over them.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

To Endure/Tolerate is to Win & Win

Our primary sources of news in Chinese, be it about Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, or US, are online e-newspapers or e-journals. However, whenever we do grocery shopping at local Chinese stores, we always make it a point to take the free Chinese newspapers or buy printed copies of the same, one of which is the World Journal.

On the December 16, 2006 issue, I was pleasantly surprised to read s brief news coverage on the proceeding of the 2006 Venerable Master Hsing Yun Dharma Lecture held at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall that stretched over the period Dec 15-17, 2006 (p. A10). Subsequently, I searched the website of Fu Guang Shan Monastery and note that the event had been reported there as well. The Venerable Master Hsing Yun Dharma Lecture series started in 1975, and this year’s event marks his last public appearance at spreading the Buddha teaching, after which he will enter into a period of self-imposed solitude.

According to the web news from which the image is taken, the event was in the form of “a talk [dialog] between Venerable Master Hsing Yun and Chief Executive Officer of The Landis Taipei, Stanley Yen, about [entitled] Sea of Wisdom – [on] Business Management and Personnel Management [the insertions in square parentheses are mine as replacements so as to better describe the event]. The sage words of Master Tsing Yun, juxtaposing the application of the Buddha teaching in everyday management are legendary to me as I’ve blogged here.

Therefore, I was eager to find out how the Buddhist and corporate perspectives on management could be blended, mutually reinforced, and marshaled for the benefit of humanity. However, the web news went on to describe briefly what both personalities did, but nothing on what actually transpired, or at least a gist/summary so that people like me can take home some message as well.

Fortunately, the coverage by the World Journal did a better job in that respect, even though the headline used is a critique of the present political leadership of Taiwan: The leader vehemently denies any wrong-doing. In his words, integrity is paramount among the many qualities required of a leader, which the present leadership lacks. Honestly, I’ve to admire his candor in rebuking the political leadership of the day as most religious figures would deem such outbursts as beneath their stature. The image scanned from the World Journal news shows an animated Venerable Master Tsing Yun gesticulating to make a point about having a forgiving heart.

The news report highlighted an exchange during the Q&A session in which a participant inquired as to the how of self-management, noting that managing people is inherently more complicated than managing matters despite the emphasis on communication.

While nobody wants to be labeled as a loser, Venerable Master Tsing Yun reminded us that there is always a best even among the best. Therefore the best approach to endure/tolerate such proclivity among us is to be flexible in our dealings while leaving all options open, including acceding when mutually beneficial. But how to put it into action? Venerable Master Tsing Yun offered three steps:

1) Firstly, endure through the countenance by spotting a smiling face (note that countenance has another positive spin meaning consent); failing which
2) endure through the mouth by refraining from speaking ills of others, and if there is also not attainable;
3) then endure through the heart as in being big-hearted and forgiving.

At the end of it all, the very matter that has precipitated the "contest" ceases to be of concern anymore.

Here I would like to close with a brief discussion on the Chinese character that means to endure/tolerate (note that there really isn’t an equivalent word in the English lexicon that encompasses the full extent of the Chinese character, and the best I can come up with is a combination of to endure and to tolerate as used above). The image to the left is from here.

For one, it can be considered as a combination of another two Chinese characters: the dagger over the heart. It’s also the same word used to denote a ninja (nin, ja meaning person/practitioner), a highly skilled warrior who is able to endure the severest test/punishment. Some common Chinese proverbs associated with the character are, literally translated, "on top of endurance hangs a sword", which implies that a moment of inability to endure can bring about dire consequences, and "a hundred times of endurance turns one into gold", which means endurance makes us a better person.

So contrary to western thinking, to endure/tolerate in the psyche of the Chinese and the ethos of Buddhism is not an admission of defeat and thus to be shunned, but rather a virtuous display of one’s magnanimity that truly results in a win-win situation.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dharma Learning, Thinking, and Practicing

Today is the monthly Buddhist mantra chanting session for the Tampa Buddhist group of which my wife is a member. It is usually held at Brother Brian and Sister Connie’s house from 10.00 am to noon, followed by a vegetarian lunch. However, the group decided to have a post-lunch Dharma talk given by Brother Shieh, who came all the way from Orlando with his wife and son to share his Dharma learning with the group. I later learned that Brother Shieh was to continue his journey to Gainesville to deliver another Dharma talk in the evening, which speaks volume of his readiness to spread the Buddha teaching the best way he could. We would also soon learn that his enthusiasm for the subject matter is contagious, infusing perhaps everyone (at least from I can discern from my vantage position, being seated with my back against the wall) with a similar degree of fervor.

Our appetite satiated, the eager group gathered around Brother Shieh, who sat cross-legged comfortably and faced the group. Brother Shieh elected to adopt a bi-lingual delivery: Mandarin and English, since they are some among the group who are not well-versed in Mandarin. Also, Brother Shieh wanted to polish up his English delivery as several times in the past he has appeared before an English-speaking audience.

This is the second time I have attended a Dharma talk by Brother Shieh and this time was no difference: the same earnest self, captivating our attention with his down-to-earth explanation, practical analogies, probing questions, enthralling story telling style sprinkled with a judicious dose of humor, though he may not have realized it.

I hope I could do justice to Brother Shieh’s masterful coverage, both in depth and in breadth, spanning several aspects of the Buddha’s lessons, both from the transcription of my notes and my memory of the emphases. Any perceived inadequacy is a reflection of my limited understanding of both the Buddha teaching and scriptures, and their precepts.

While Brother Shieh’s delivery was coherent, inter-weaving a tapestry of the different lessons that comprise the Buddha teaching, here I would have to focus on the gist in point form in keeping with a blog format lest it become unwieldy.

1) All occurrences/births and terminations/deaths in earthly matters arise/depend from/on conditions. Therefore the Buddha teaches us not to be attached to the conditions, nor to the occurrences and terminations. As the 6th Chan Master, Venerable Huai Neng explained, attachment leads to affliction while detachment becomes a matter of wisdom. While affliction is often likened to wisdom, they are not the same; instead they can be viewed as two sides of our palm, which one facing up depends on our thoughts/mental response. In other words, by flipping our thoughts around, afflictions can be replaced by wisdom. For instance, we feel irritated when the air-conditioner is malfunctioning, a mental response brought about by the environment that is beyond our control. However, if we think again we would realize that it’s a temporary condition and also we could help ourselves to a cup of cold water. Then the sweltering heat would not bother us anymore.

2) Everything in life is Dharma teaching, provided we can learn from the experience and change our mental outlook for the better because of it. For example, somebody fetches us a cup of coffee and we complain that it’s too hot after taking it. So next time we would ask first, or perhaps take a very small sip first. [This reminds me of the story told by Venerable Huai Zheng during one of his Dharma lecture series on the Consciousness Only School (Wei Shi). A man always takes a particular way to work. One day while walking the same route he falls into a hole, which he has not realized before. The next day, he walks the same route again, apparently forgetting his mishap yesterday, and falls into the same route. The third day, he vaguely remembers the accident but decides to take the same way. The same result ensues. From then on he avoids the route altogether and takes a different one. So the first three occurrences are merely habitual while those after are the Dharma teaching at work.]

3) The Buddha teaching can only manifest when the inner self understands and is congruent with the teaching. This transformation presupposes that we understand our inner self and are able to change it in accordance with the Buddha teaching. This actualization requires the triple elements of learning, thinking, and practicing. Without the ability to think or not exercising our faculty to think, we cannot and would not be able to understand the Buddha teaching. And it has to be the right thinking or right view as well, one of the Eight Noble Paths and arguably the most important. A jaundiced view breeds more of the same in a vicious cycle and is the source of ignorance. On the other hand, a right view spawns new views that would lead to a purification of the mind.

4) We must especially guard against the apparent dichotomy between learning the Buddha teaching in abstract terms and when actually encountering the situation in real life that most of us tend to develop naturally. The former can misguide us into a false sense of enlightenment while we become illusionary in the face of reality. Brother Shieh always takes to heart the above tendency as a caution when conducting himself in life.

At this point I think I’ve reached the right length for a blog stuffed with enough food for thought for several nights. As Brother Shieh has expounded, we have to think for ourselves and reflect on the happenings so that we could draw Buddha lessons from each of them. Each of us has been able to accomplish what we set out to do primarily because we do not have second thoughts about it. The same applies to learning the Buddha way. We must place Dharma learning as a priority.

Stay tuned for the next installment of what Brother Shieh has imparted as I see it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reunion at Gainesville

Time has a way of slipping by when you’re not watching, such as when you’re having fun working and busy blogging. So, before I know it, my S has completed his first ever college semester and was due to come home for the winter break.

We woke up just after 5 am this morning and before 7 am, we were already on the road, cruising along I-275 and then I-75 heading toward Gainesville. When daylight broke, we could see that both sides of the highway were shrouded in a low-level fog hugging the ground and veiling the scenery in a translucent white drape. Fortunately, the road visibility was fair with the headlight on, the backlights of the car in front visible like pairs of crimson beads tracing out the road alignment. Coupled with the thin traffic, it was a relaxing drive all the way.

Upon reaching UF, we revisited Lake Alice, but did not bargain for the morning chill and therefore did not see fit to bring along sweaters. So we half jogged along on our exploration, hoping to generate some body heat to offset the dipping temperature. We did not take the jungle trek that surrounds the lake, but stayed on the side of Museum Road, and at a respectable distance from the edge of the lake at that, paying heed to the two dire warnings posted.

The Hume Hall seemed deserted. My S was already packed, checked out, and ready to leave. The only other student outside the Hall was a female with her pet tarantula (so we thought) by her side, safely secured in a glass container, but no other luggage in sight. So it was hard to speculate on her next move, and we wisely refrained from doing that.

Before we set off on our return journey, we first had lunch with a long-time friend originally from China, and her twin daughters, to a dim sum lunch at Mr. Han’s Restaurant, opposite Oaks Mall. We arrived early, about 10 minutes before the opening business hour for the day at 11.30 am. While at the waiting lounge, we were greeted by this smiling Buddha flanked by a pair of Chinese mythical animals, which are symbols of prosperity and flourishing business, and paragon of good feng shui (the Chinese art of geomancy).

Unlike the dim sum lunch we had at Tampa last Sunday where the dishes were pre-prepared and rolled out on carts for patrons to select (read here), the offering here is similar to ala carte, ordered from menu and then prepared. So the waitress made sure we ordered enough for the party at the first go, advising against additional orders at mid-course if found necessary due to the time taken in the preparation.

The dining hall was dimly lighted, save for those tables next to the windows that benefited from the external light. On the walls were hung several pieces of Chinese calligraphy of Buddhist themes. This one, obviously written on some kind of cloth material as evidenced from the many folds, giving it a wavy texture, is the most common Buddhist mantra, Namo Amitabha. The red character, written in a recursive form, is an alternate name for the Buddha, the Englightened One.

We know Mr. Lin and his wife, Mdm. Huang, way back when Lin and I were both grad students living at the Corry Village in the early to mid 1990s. Being home-makers, my wife and Huang became close friends. However, we lost touch with them after my return to Malaysia in early 1995 after graduation. Then we thought farewell was for good, not expecting to cross path with them again. But they were always on our minds as good memories seem to last forever.

A year after we moved to Tampa, we bumped into a mutual friend, from China too, Mdm. Chen and her husband, Dr. Yao, all Corry Village-mates. Then she told us that Lin and Huang have settled down in Gainesville. Contact telephone numbers were sought, and the call made, and the reunion consummated when we paid them a visit last year. The image is taken in front of their house in Gainesville during the visit. And they returned the favor the following year, on Gasparilla Day.

So fate works in its own mysterious way, and I’m glad my wife has found an old friend, compatible in so many ways, that she can confide in, diminishing some of the initial tedium and feeling of solitude that had been gnawing at her during the first one year or so when we were here.

Then, her twin daughters were just born a few months before we left Gainesville, bundles of joy really. Now they are in the 6th Grade, bubbling and chatty. We can’t tell Fanning from Ginnie, but I do know that the order is determined alphabetically. Hence, Fanning is the elder one, albeit by a mere minute, and is the one on the right, with the pony tail, while Ginnie, is on the left, letting her hair down. Or did I mess up? Well, I’m sure they will tell me if I goofed.

As for the dim sum dishes, well, we seemed to feel more bloated this time eventhough we ordered less. Perhaps I was busy talking to Mr. Kim last time around while this time the man of the house, Lin, was not able to make it as he had to work, leaving my wife to engage Huang in a more animated conversation, and by deduction, less food ingestion. So I had to cover the difference. Make sense? But my wife likes the sesame coated bun with red bean paste where the crust was prepared to a crispy consistency that just melts in the mouth with the slightest of jaw pressure. I would have to say both are a delight to savor, though I much prefer the food trolleys weaving in between tables and the dim sum dishes ready to be assessed visually and partaken on demand, any time.