Monday, December 31, 2007
Personally, I still have some way to go in terms of temperament, the failure to put a lid on it often manifest in raised voice and impatience, principally because I still cannot let go of the self. And the person who feels most keenly my lack of self control is none other than wify. Somehow we seem to be more patient with friends and colleagues, and not those closest to us. If a question gets asked once too many, we bark the answer back, the delivery of which becomes a rude awakening even to ourselves in hindsight.
So this will be my first resolution for 2008. In fact, let it be the only resolution. Because everything else will fall into place once we stay on even keel. But that's the easy bit, setting the resolution. The tough part is realizing it. Just merely mouthing or penning the resolution does not mean that it will come to fruition on its own. I need to set strategies, think them through, thinking ahead is forearmed, while reacting only invites tension and strained relation at best.
First, I would have to think less of myself, diminishing the propensity for self-centered thinking. Removing the self from the mix often changes the perspective, enabling the reign of rationality leading to considered response.
Second, I would have to put myself in others' shoes. In that way, it becomes easier to understand why an action will evoke a particular response, thereby engendering empathy and facilitating the forging of compromises.
Third, I would have to listen more. Since one can't possibly talk and listen at the same time, it will curtail the time of admiring one's own voice, and in the process, make communication a decidedly two-way process.
Last but not the least, I would have to discontinue my tendency to indulge in wise cracks and sardonic remarks. Such utterances may seem innocuous at the time, but a feeling hurt is sometimes so camouflaged as to escape our notice during the heady moment. And instead of establishing rapport, they might just alienate people.
All these can best be summed up in a word: compassion. In a nutshell, I resolve to be a compassionate person in the Buddhist sense of the word, not merely for the sake of feeling good. Not only for the new year, but from this very moment onward, rendering it a life resolution.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
It's fortunate that I have listed a litany of things that I would like to see accomplished in 2007, a kind of new year resolutions made at about the same time but one year removed. So it becomes just a matter of going down the list, checking the item off one by one. Here I go.
a) Non-smoker: Checked. Thanks to the fact that most, if not all, establishments impose a “No Smoking” policy. Now the most I would encounter is the occasional arm stretched out of the window, a burning cigarette dangling from the fingers, while trailing in traffic. Other times I may step on some cigarette butts on the ground. But most often than not, it's the virtual variety, meaning those seen in TV or the movie.
b) Non-drinker: Checked. While I have visited the area liquor shops several times, these visits were made with wify as consuming wine is one of the ways she fights off the cold weather. Also, it conforms to the social norm here when wine is being served so that my abstinence would not seem too out-of-place. Since wify does not drive, our arrangement would ensure that drinking and driving does not mix in our household.
c) Conscientious blogger: Checked. Our blogs have always been based on our personal journey through life, and personal reactions to actual events, with increasingly more works of English translations of Chinese Buddhist articles. Proper attribution is always given when third party materials are used. In the year, we have also added an interactive blog devoted to wify's drawings, and another two non-interactive blogs focused on the English translations of wisdom gems embodied in Buddhist verses and Chinese literature. Here, interactivity refers to whether the readers' comment facility is enabled.
d) Giving: Checked. In line with one of the six paramitas (perfections) advanced in Buddhism, we have been supporting area Dharma events both in cash donations and in kind. Admittedly, with our limited resources, we have given less to the needy outside of the Buddhist sphere, but that's a balancing act one would have to reconcile for oneself.
e) Photo scenes: Checked. Photo images of nature and life' ongoings continue to enliven our blog pages, digitally, and also fill up our photo books, in prints, enhancing our memory stores considerably.
f) Making good relations: Checked, with a small red flag. While this may be a rather subjective assessment, I do feel that I have become a better human being to those around me in terms of controlling my temper. While feelings of dislikes, irritations, displeasure do creep up once in a while in my consciousness, I was able to contain them where they belong, in my mind, and let them pass by contemplating their empty nature in the grand scheme of things. But I still have to work on my body language (the body reflects what the mind thinks) and the urge to feel smug through making witty (in my naivete) retorts. I find that taking deep breaths and reciting Buddha's name silently help in those situations, even during the occasional bouts of insomnia.
g) Actualizing the Bodhisattva Way: Checked, with a fluttering red flag. I still find it hard to dispense with the discriminatory way. The mind habitually calculates the personal benefit and loss columns and tallies the mental ledger. But at least I am beginning to realize such thought arising and to deal with it there and then. We have started observing the Ten-Vegetarian Day mode of food intake, finding that vegetarian cuisine can be as tasty too, thanks to wify's culinary repertoire.
h) Environmental Consciousness: Half-Checked. That means more can be done. Our energy saving measures include changing the light bulbs to the CFL kind, by replacement as they wear out, switching off lights when not in use, relying on natural conditioning (but heating is better managed than air-conditioning. It seems the body is better able to withstand cold and dry than hot and humid condition), planning car trips, and for myself, driving economically, which means easy on the pedal.
i) Healthy Diet: Checked. This is a desirable outcome from (g) above. Others include less sugar intake, going for wholemeal bread, using olive oil. And above all, drink more water.
j) Exercise: Half-Checked. I have been parking at the multi-level parking garage that involves some walking to my office. But this is incidental in the sense that that remains the closest, legal one anyway, parking facility. It's the promenading part (along the Bayshore Boulevard) that I have failed wify. But our infrequent trips to the Lettuce Lake Park, one that makes more sense logistically after our move from South Tampa to next to USF, did help ease her disappointment somewhat. For some time now we have also started a daily morning routine exercise, Lifting the Sky, thanks to wify's insistence and WJ's letting us into his exercise regimen. This is a simple body exercise involving moving the out-stretched hands in circular motion, first upward from the downward pointing position, frontally, holding the skyward position over the head for a while (hence, lifting the sky), and then side-way to both sides of the body in the downward swing, slowly. Breathe in and breathe out on the upward and downward swings, respectively. We usually do it ten times. A Malaysian friend who has started the routine reported disappearing body aches and less tendency to succumb to fatigue.
k) Balancing Work and Life: Checked. Other than the occasional checking in at the office on weekend, accompanied by wify of course, to make sure that the numerical modeling runs are not abortive, my work has stayed at the office. More important, I am increasingly able to detach the mind from work-related matters during off-work mode. Any such thought that happens to arise would just pass with me merely observing.
l) Prayer for global peace: Checked. This is a resounding one, it being the least I could do.
Having done the stock taking on the penultimate day of 2008, it leaves the last day, which is tomorrow, for my 2008 resolutions. Let's see what I can come up with.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
However, apparently some did, breach the unwritten rule. This is the only reason why I think some businesses include the gratuities in the check presented to the patron for payment. From my personal experience, I note that this latching on applies to parties exceeding a certain number, say 5, or 10.
Conceptually, I have no problem with tipping, it being a kind and appreciative gesture from one who receives the service, that it is not a free service notwithstanding. But I do believe it has to be voluntary, and not forced upon the patron. Compounded with the practice being pegged to the size of the party, it behooves the patron to examine the check whether gratuities are already included, and not parting with unintended cash unwittingly.
This was what happened to me some time ago, and I only found out that I actually paid double the accepted percentage when I casually scanned the receipt after the fact, at home. Of course I have nobody else to blame except myself since I failed to read the fine print thereon. While I certainly can live with the extra expenses, I did not feel that the service rendered was above the norm as to justify the 40% tip.
Then more recently, it almost happened again, when I had already scribbled out the twenty percent tips on the check when my eyes caught the word, gratuity, as a line item further down, the industry standard of 18%. What would you do under the circumstances? Be magnanimous and in the process make the waitress happy, though she might not have realized it? Or stick to the principle that a generous tip above the industry standard is a just reward for service par excellence?
I compromised, I struck out the tenth digit, and kept the additional single digit dollar tip unchanged, effectively giving a total tip of close to 25%.
Then this morning I was doing a transaction at a local Bank of America office. While lining up at the counter, I noticed this poster with the big caption, “You're the Boss”. That got me thinking, am I really the boss when a gratuity amount is included in the check, without any input from me save to decide whether the service is deserving of more? What ever happened to the hitherto sacrosanct adage that “the customer is right”?
To a degree, this pondering over tipping would seem petty, even frivolous. Have we been living in such comfort, oblivious to the much larger challenges in life, that we even have time to indulge our precious time and thinking faculty in the matter?
Buddha taught us to live in the moment, and to let go when the moment passes. But only the moment, and not the lessons that it bestows.
I too shall let the moment go, but will be circumspect in the future, not just when tipping, but in all matters. Above all, I will do good, not just feel good when seen to be doing good.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
When his latest offering, I Am Legend, came out, this month, the kids have been clamoring to watch it in cinemas. And we gladly obliged, yesterday, at the Muvico venue in New Tampa. This is our very first visit to the complex, one devoted solely to movie screening. The seats are spacious, well cushioned, and arranged with the best incline so as no patron's line of sight would be obstructed regardless where one sits. So we settled in to a fabulous treat of sight and sound.
It has been a while since we were at a cinema, being contented to the home setting, watching DVDs the progress of which can be controlled at the finger's tip. A call came in, no problem, pause and wait. Need to answer the call of nature, no problem there, the pause key is always available, though at the expense of continuity. Then again, it's just a movie, nothing earth-shattering there. There are much larger irritations in life that we need to worry about, or fuss over.
So we were pleasantly surprised by the varied pre-movie entertainment provided by ScreenVision, not the usual fare of static displays that we had grown accustomed to. As patrons started to trickle in, the screen alternated between film clips and slide advertisement, interspersed with movie trivia for those who need to be challenged. Soon it was time for the feature presentation (from this point on there maybe some plot spoilers, even though I have omitted any reference to details, but focused on some broad features), Dr. Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) and Sam (his canine companion) against a whole colony of mutated human beings who had lost the last vestiges of human behavior, thanks to the wondrous cancer drug-turned-viral scourge that decimated close to 99% of world's population through aerial spread and contact. [The image is from here.]
The last 1% of Homo sapiens who possessed natural immunity were gradually being annihilated by this pack of mutants who roamed New York City nocturnally. And light remained the greatest ally of Dr. Neville. But he did not give up, tirelessly looking for the medical vaccine in his basement lab, and conducting trials, first on rats, and then the captured mutants, if it proved promising. Dutifully, everyday he broadcast using a radio frequency to others survivors, and to meet him at a dock, at noon, when the sun is at its highest. “You're no alone,” he concluded his daily broadcast.
Somewhere along the way, he lost Sam, whose immunity was only against air-borne propagation when it was mauled by a pack of infected canine. In the end, he was forced to killed Sam in his embrace, tears streaking down his face, when Sam started to exhibit rabid behavior.
That's when his resolve broke, and he rampaged over the mutants at night, when he knew better to stay indoor, trying to kill them all with his SUV, but to no avail when he was up against a stampede. I guess he was being human after all, after more than three years of talking only with Sam and mannequins, both unable to respond in kind. To bring home the point, he even remembered the lines of Shrek and the donkey in the movie.
As predictable as any movie, help had to come from somewhere at the brink of his demise. The company of one soon expanded to three. But events took a nasty turn when the mutants found out where he stayed, a brick building fortified by metal doors and windows and rigged with explosives and spot lights all around. In the final battle between the good and evil, he was systematically outnumbered by the mutants, guided by their animal instincts and single-mindedness to destroy all humans without regard to their own lives. Just like in an animal herd, a lead of the pack stood out, and seemed to be able to marshal a concerted attack, even replicating a trick used by Neville to trap one of its own.
The end is almost inevitable, that the hero would have to sacrifice his own life for the salvation of humanity, but not before he realized where the cure lied, the blood of his human trial, but at low temperature, and he passed a vial of it to the other two survivors who continued on to reach the survivor colony up in Vermont (it seems the cold temperature there has rendered the virulent virus inactive). Thus a legend was born, and his legacy remained.
The doomsday scenario as painted in the movie is a scary one, and seems more plausible than the nuclear winter, the climate change-induced calamities, and certainly alien attack that have typified the disasters movies of note to date. What with genetic engineering, the biological warfare, coupled with human greed that is always at the center of things, the viral scourge would seem more imminent than the other threats to the human species as we know it.
But I doubt this “concern” would ever stay in our consciousness for long, knowing full well this movie would be just another make-believe cinematic stimulation that would not go beyond the confines of the five senses. It's more likely most people would just marvel how Will Smith alone could carry the entire film on his broad shoulders, reminiscent of Tom Hank's role in Cast Away.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
While this remains a vicarious experience, the compassion it engendered and the Dharma bliss it imparted, are no less contagious. It also marks the first time that the release life activity has involved a large animal, and not the usual petite beneficiaries that are only larger in number.
This time, it's a baby cow, released to be in the care of a farmer caretaker. And here are some photos, courtesy of Bhante, to commemorate the occasion.
The farmer, palms joined, was thankful for being bestowed the opportunity to do a wholesome deed. And the baby cow, with a touch of white mane on its forhead, seemed to be bowing its head in gratitude for the freedom to roam the rural landscape.
Bhante Dhammawansha, second from right, sitting atop a huge rock, eyes gazing into the distance, the luxuriant green as the backdrop, with his fellow Sangha members.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Recently, we learned that he has decided to publish his first book comprising various short articles, poems, and a daily journal on his stint of self-confinement. We received the book , appropriately entitled Plain yet Tasteful (loosely translated), as a gift sent through Sister Yu Tze, one of wify's Buddhist friends, some time ago.
And for the past week or so, I have been poring over the book, a few articles at a time. I note that the article that I have translated is in there. So is one of the stanzas he recited to us that I have not had the chance to write them down. It's really a hilarious piece of writing, poking fun at our excuses for not learning the Dharma. Here I have attempted to provide an English translation, hopefully injecting some of the jestful humor and more important, the earnest admonishment embedded therein. But I can assure you that in no way it will ever match the witticism in simplicity and rhythmicity so obvious in the original creation. Such is the beauty of prose written in its native language that it is invariably lost in translation.
Here then is the translation (for the original stanza in Chinese, please contact Venerable Master Hui Zhen via his website for a copy of his book. He would welcome any support to defray the cost of publication):
Listen But Don't Understand
Listen But Don't Understand! Listen But Don't Understand!
Not because I don't come to listen,
but that I never wish to understand.
Listen But Don't Understand! Listen But Don't Understand!
How could one understand without listening?
Not understanding is precisely the need to listen.
Listen But Don't Understand! Listen But Don't Understand!
Not listening does not make you understand.
Not understanding does not relieve you from listening.
Not listening nor understanding removes you further from understanding.
Listen! Listen! Listen! Understand! Understand! Understand!
You will only understand after you have listened.
It's imperative that you listen more after you have understood.
Understand! Understand! Understand! Listen! Listen! Listen!
Listen carefully, understand with all your heart.
Eventually one day you will understand what you have listened.
Then I came across a couplet that describes the serenity, the expanse, the quiescence imparted by a majestic mountain range, much like a Zen practitioner, not moving even though there is coming and going, as experienced by Venerable Master Hui Zhen whose abode snuggles on a hillside. Another occasion for wify to practice her Chinese calligraphy and brush painting to match the mood engendered by the couplet, which says, in English translation:
The sound of the pine, the sound of the bamboo, the sound of bell chiming and drum beating, all are carefree sounds.
The mountain scenery, the water scenery, the colorful tapestry of the misty dusk, all are emptiness of form.
Note that the couplet is to be read from top to bottom and right to left.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Of course it's a family affair, CE having hers done two days earlier. This is because the optometrist has a rule that at most two family members can be seen on the same day. Apparently some patrons renege on the appointment without informing, thereby ruining the optometrist's business for the day when the block reservation turns out to be a no show, en masse.
Wify's appointment was actually on Saturday, and WT and mine, today. But we were told by the optometrist two days ago that she could come as a walk-on, and would be seen if time permits. The moment we stepped through the door, Dr. Church announced that wify's slot was assured.
Wify was the first to be seen, then WT, and I brought up the rear. We were first examined by the technician, at a counter upon which rests three table top contraptions. All are equipped with a head size frame that supports the chin (bottom) and the forehead (top).
I first looked into the first machine, and had the feeling of lights being shot at my eyes. At the second machine, some bursts of air were shot into my eyes alternately. The technician explained that it's a pressure test. The last requires a bit of interaction. I was asked to hold a joy-stick kind of thing (minus the pad) and to press a button on its head whenever a light shows up on a screen seen by each eye in turn. I did that dutifully, noticing the light coming up all over the circular screen, one at a time. Apparently, it's a test for peripheral vision (I overheard the technician explaining to wify earlier).
Then it was into a dark chamber where lenses were alternately inserted into slots through which I tried to read the small prints on the frame. At the same time, I would tell the optometrist whether the No. 1 or No. 2 lens was better, i.e., the letters were clearer. As I recall, this seems to be the only part I was tested on when seeing an optometrist back home.
The last part of the eye examination was dilation whereby several eye drops were introduced into my eyes. After about half an hour, I was called into another chamber where the optometrist shone a pencil of strong light into my eyes when they were focused on different directions, the point being for the optometrist to look into the pupil and the back of my eyes to look for tell-tale sign of cataracts, glaucoma, and impaired tiny blood vessels caused by widely fluctuating levels of blood sugar common to diabetics. Except for some increase in the power, the optometrist has declared me to be otherwise enjoying a clean bill of health for my eyes.
Wify was diagnosed with cataract, a clouding of the natural lens of the eyes. It seems that's an eye disease that comes with aging, though it is a bit early for wify's age. The optometrist has referred her to an eye doctor since it would require surgery, or rather a surgical procedure, for its treatment. So the prescription for her glasses would have to wait since all she needs might just be reading glasses after her surgery.
As if to allay our anxiety, the optometrist explained that it's an under-an-hour procedure that involves sucking out the brownish growth that covers the pupil and replacing it with an implant.
On the way home, we were each given a piece of sun glasses to help ease temporary blurred vision because of the eye dilation. It's actually just a simple cut-out that one inserts between the glasses and the eyes (see right image). It may look comical on one's face (that reminds me of the two Men in Black but I would not want to be seen in this, hence the image would have to do) but it's definitely practical. And it's free too and we would put them in the glove compartment in case we are driving into the sun (because then nobody would get a good look when we zoom by).
And our normal vision was only restored when I was typing out this blog several hours later. But that did not deter me and wify from joining Mr. John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) for a two-hour escapade in the first Die Hard movie, a rerun courtesy of HBO.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
After the mind invigorating meditation session, which by now most of the attendees are comfortable with, Brother Tom and Sister Lily convened the succeeding Dharma session by having everyone sitting around in a circle, as opposed to the usual classroom style, and, here comes the interesting and, though in hind sight (to me), rewarding difference: mutual introduction.
Thus far, most of the getting to know you and getting to share experiences with others on the path to Buddhist wisdom among the attendees have been ongoing on an individual basis conducted before the start or after the end of the session. Invariably, that gravitates, at least for me, to a rather personal selective process of interacting with anyone in immediate proximity. I have not been adventurous enough to actively seek out every attendee and engage everyone in sharing individual takes on this rather personal spiritual journey.
So, I was hesitant at best when Sister Lily started the ball rolling, and, one by one, everyone related the many varied motivations each has been driven by, and the as many paths, but ultimately converging, each has traversed. It reminded me of the scene of a typical AA meeting seen in movies, each participatant owning up to the reality of addiction and taking positive steps toward sobriety.
I have never been comfortable in spilling out my inner thoughts in a public setting, not the least of which is the specter of public speaking despite many years of honing the skill in my work, albeit still rather restricted to the professional side of my life. And my blogs are the first platforms, though still with a modicum of anonymity, that I have started sharing experiences that I believe can be beneficial to others.
But by the time my turn came, I was ready. After having listened to others' personal anecdotes, some rather unreservedly, my mental speech draft, in outline form, took shape. All I needed to do was filling the oral gaps with a bit of extemporaneous exploration. Here I would rather not try to paraphrase what others had said to obviate any inaccuracy on my part, but a recollection of my own delivery, with some judicious expansion befitting a written rather than a strictly transcribed format:
Coming from Malaysia, I grew up in a multi-racial setting within which different religious faiths are practiced. While I have stepped into temples and churches on many occasions, back then I did not subscribe to any particular faith, contented to be associated with the moniker free-thinker. Some of my sisters and brothers are devout Christians, but their religious affiliation did not rub on to me as I was preoccupied with worldly pursuits just like any other normal kid/teen/adult as I advanced in age, and so I thought.
On the other hand, wify was brought up in a traditional Buddhist environment, the influence of her paternal grandmother being instrumental in this regard. Since she does not drive, I became the designated driver for all her trips to temples and Buddhist centers, and believe me that adds up to a lot of trips over the years. The practice carried over to US when we came here in January 2004.
I like reading. So while waiting for wify to do her “things”, I naturally passed the time by picking up Buddhist books, of which there are usually aplenty in any temple. Introductory texts, interpretive Buddhist scriptures, both English and Chinese, became the fodder of my avid foray into the spiritual world of the printed word.
I started to identify with many of the core values enshrined in Buddhism: compassion, wisdom, universal love, thinking of others before self, and giving. Above all, I'm in tune with the Buddhist world view of self-determination, of internalization of Buddhist teachings through one's practice, and inner peace as the way to go.
In many ways, the virtuous acts mandated by the Five Precepts (no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying, and no intoxicating substances) are already suffused into my subconscious to become part and parcel of my daily life. Admittedly, I still have some way to go. For example, sometimes I have to constantly remind myself not to harm any ant that happens to crawl across my work desk (it used to be just a mere act of lifting a finger and be done with it). At other times I still have to resort to some white lies in order not to worsen an existing situation (a kind of delaying the truth telling if you will, but all in the absence of mala fide).
So I see myself as a Buddhist at heart, though I have yet to undergo the Taking the Vows ceremony to formalize the transition. But I will do that in due course, when I feel the time is right. I'm what and where I'm today in my relatively short sojourn of spiritual pursuit that terminates in the ultimate wisdom of the Buddhist teachings due to wify's steadfast adherence to Buddhism as a central guidance in her life. And for that I'm thankful.
Two of my great teachers in Buddhism, Bhante Dhammawansha and wify, who doubles as my better half in life too, taken in from of Bhante's residence at Clearwater, with the Bodhi Tree in the background.
Wify and I have been supporting the MWBA in anyway that we can since its inception in early March this year. And we will continue to do so in the future. In return, though I say that guardedly lest it be misconstrued as expectations, I have benefited much more from the great Buddhist teachers that we have had and am sure we will continue to have and the collective experience of fellow attendees.
What started off as a record of the day's proceeding, filtered by my own lens as it were, has kind of wandered off into an annotation of my personal journey of discovery in the vast seascape of spirituality. In the interest of maintaining an appropriate length for a blog article, albeit a subjective one, and more so for my own benefit of mulling over what Bhante Dhammawansha has delivered in an effort to better synthesize it into a coherent whole, I would stop here for now and leave this as an affirmation of my having found my true spiritual guide in life.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Mr. Fan and Mrs. Fan, both retired, greeted us at the door, and we soon settled into the living room. While wify and Mrs. Fan shared more arts tips, Mr. Fan gave me a useful lesson on gardening, especially planting orchids: terms like genus, species, hybrid, naming conventions and concepts like triggers for blooming and pigmentation (for example, a blue orchid is a relatively rare one), and thresholds for frost. I learn that the orchid is quite a robust species, able to withstand both torrid (up to 100 degrees F) and near freezing temperatures (32 degrees F), albeit for a short duration.
The three pots of flowers that have been moved indoor when they bloomed. The ice-cream stick in the lower right image bears the name of the plant following a standard convention.
There were several oil paintings up on the wall of the living room, which they bought from one of the many street artists that line along both sides of a river bridge in Paris. They are of very high quality in terms of the arts content, but I'm no arts aficionado and have to defer to him. That reminds me of my only trip to Paris in the late 90s as part of the fact-finding mission sponsored by the Government of Malaysia to gain insight into the design, testing, and application of the so-called Accropodes units (a kind of patented armored stone with a definite shape cast from concrete) that are arranged into a solid embankment called breakwaters for coastal protection (see image below for those who are scratching their heads).
From top left going clockwise: an Accropode unit; a river-mouth breakwater made from accropodes, Kuala Besut, Terengganu, Malaysia; a cast Accropode unit ready to be lifted into position (images courtesy of the marketing company, Concrete Layer Innovations.)
I remember sauntering along one such river bridge (Seine, I think) and marveling at these artists going about their business of manifesting an image in their mind on to the canvas on a propped easel.
But I digressed. Then it was time to be shown around the house to look at the paintings and calligraphy hung on the walls. Some are the works of Mrs. Fan while some are arts pieces bought or received as a gift. Our graceful hosts provided full narration on each and everyone, seemingly able to recall any details at will, a testament to the fact that these are their prized collections and that they have left a lasting impression on them. It took her about a month to complete one especially elaborate painting, reflecting the perennial truism in the saying that no pain, no gain.
Because of the lack of hanging space, most of her drawings of elegant Chinese ladies in traditional dresses are still rolled up and tied into a neat bundle. Mrs. Fan unrolled everyone of them for our benefits, the exquisite strokes, the impeccable color contrast, and the harmonious overall blending of the various elements, be it the lotus flower, the rock, the vertical column of the structure, the leaves of the pine trees, and the intricate design on the dress. These were all done back in her student's days in Taiwan. And now she laments that while she has the time, her eye sight and eye-hand coordination both work against indulging in the same.
Our hosts and us in a comfy setting, and CE did the rest.
Outdoor, we were shown more of Mr. Fan's hobby, which to me seems like a full-time devotion. The mountain tea flower, the staghorn hung from the tree, and other ferns in muck (see right image) or just a small wooden crate hung from tree branches. Some of these have thick roots that wind through the openings in the crate from which moisture and nutrients are gathered from the surrounding air for their sustenance.
On the way home, I can't help but thinking that both Mr. and Mrs. Fan have their retirement lives nicely cut out for them, each indulging in their hobbies and sharing them (Mr. Fan volunteers twice a week at the Arboretum in USF). That keeps me mulling on my own retirement plan, which is not exactly light years away. But when it comes, I think I will be ready.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
It is indeed that easy, a 3-simple-step operation as enumerated below:
1- Click on the children above
2- Read their story
3- Drop a card in the mail saying "Wish you well!!", "Praying for you!!", etc... Be creative, buy a cute card or make your own! You can also send a small gift along with your card if you wish!
All one needs is a compassion for humanity, kids especially, and a natural or acquired creative streak. Since wify has bountiful supplies of both as evidenced from her more than 25 years of dedicated service as an elementary school teacher, and her artistic leaning, she gladly undertook to make her own cards using arts materials accumulated over the years in the house.
Here they are, in no particular order, in trios. And she will hand over the completed cards to Yu Huei for onward transmission to the kids featured in the website.
Come on, you can do it too.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Our host's abode is at a corner lot, surrounded by plenty of green. We especially admire the luxuriant growth of bamboo, one species of which is Buddha's Belly, according to Bill. I guess it has to do with the rotund segments, though I must admit the difference escapes my novice eyes.
On arrival, we were greeted by the host, and met up with the family of Luh and Ning, which met last year under similar circumstances. Hong's was also a party of four, but spreading over three generations represented by Mrs. Chen (Ning's mother) and their daughter, Shan.
The lady guests, camaraderie in display.
The male version, individuality at show.
After a year's of not seeing each other, wify and Mrs. Chen, a vivacious lady despite her age, soon engaged in animated conversation that evolved into waltz, arms in embrace. Apparently, dancing is another forte of Mrs. Chen, mastered to complement her role as an erstwhile Russian interpreter, in addition to fluency in the Russian language.
The ladies of our house, the familial bond evident.
Wify loves dancing, and had performed at the elementary school level. But both work and the fact that yours truly is not exactly foot loose put paid to her dancing aspirations. When we were at South Tampa, she did attend a Scandinavian dance class at a local community hall and her fleet-footedness did not escape the trained eyes of the instructor. But she backed up after just one lesson when she could not find a dancing partner as instructed when the only one she is comfortable with happened to be not available by default, and that's me. Of course my eastern sensitivity also came into play for neither wify nor me could expect how I would react if wify were to dance with another man, even socially. And we are glad that we did not have to find out as life is much much more than dancing.
However, wify's other hobby, of drawing and painting, did find its own avenue of expression, not the least of which is the good fortune of knowing her good Arts teacher, Mrs. Fan. Not too shabby of getting one out of two.
Back to the lunch. We met another family from China when they arrived later. After some mutual introductions, we soon settled into enjoying the Turkey feast prepared by our gracious host. While we focused only on the vegetarian dishes then since the observance of the 49-day abstinence from meat in memoriam of the recent passing of my late father-in-law would only end at the end of the week, our host packed us some juicy Turkey cuts to be taken home and savored after the end of the observance.
The feast with the Turkey as the centerpiece.
At the end of the sumptuous lunch, we had to bid a premature retreat to attend to some matters when the party decided to adjoin to the nearby river walks along the Hillsborough River for a scenic promenade. But knowing how marvelous a time we have had the last time around, we are sure the party would have a wonderful outing, even under the threat of an overcast sky.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
We left home just after 8.00am, joining the morning commute toward downtown. The usual traffic congestion only slackened after we were on the I-275 Bridge over the Bay. We reached our destination just before 9.00am, being the first to arrive. Being early birds have its advantages, for we got to savor the blooming flowers, the scenic landscape that surrounds the neighborhood, and the quiet moment save for the lone eagle soaring in the sky above us.
Sights and, well, more sights around the venue.
Then the attendees started to show up and the Dharma talk soon got underway as scheduled. Ven. Jian Hu chose to speak on the Diamond Sutra, one of the most profound Buddhist scriptures. Written in seamless prose, the Diamond Sutra is a favorite text for recitation. More important, the Diamond sutra is a unique text the understanding of which opens the gate to Buddhist wisdom that can be applied in our daily life.
Divided into 32 chapters, the seeming repetitions therein are a consequence of our coarse mind, misconstruing the need for detailed elaboration to ease understanding. The dichotomy into an over-arching theme and various differentiated sub-themes is analogous to our mastering of arithmetics where the rule of addition forms the core algorithm and the subtraction, multiplication, and division follow suit, being the derivatives of the former and hence forming the differentiated products.
The first chapter admonishes us to take care of everyday life, and not to neglect any matter because it is simple. It highlights the importance of practicing, and cultivating a mind of equality, just like the Buddha going about his business of holding the alms bowl, going from house to house in no particular order, for a simple meal, and returning to his residence, cleaning himself, and meditating. All done with mindfulness, focusing on the present and now, the stillness in the mind secure. The message: do the thing, then return to the original ground, mind serene and without discrimination. No attachment, none before, none now, and none in the future.
For lay followers like us, however, meal time can be a challenge as our mind is fixated on choice, often agonizing over which menu to select for the day. Similarly, it seldom rains in Southern California (or never as the song goes), and most people are so used to this phenomenon that they find it hard to deal with the rain when it comes, often lamenting and declaring the day ruined. Unlike Taiwan where precipitation can occur every other day and occur unannounced, the local people are prepared for this eventuality by bringing along an umbrella with them whenever they go outdoor. When the rain comes, open the umbrella. When sunshine returns, tuck the umbrella. No hassle, no bother.
This is the way of no discrimination, or Wu Wei. The mind is the source of all worries, and all troubles. All natural phenomena are transitory, just accept them as they come to pass, no thought arising.
The other way to handle matters is to cultivate appreciation. When the boss hands you a tough assignment, do not fret. Instead, appreciate the opportunity to grow, to learn.
Ven. Jian Hu then related the story of Subhuti, a disciple of the Buddha who looked for wealthy hosts in his alms round. While this may seem as a discriminating act, he did have a purpose. He wanted to induce these wealthy people into giving thereby gaining meritorious rewards for themselves. On the other hand, the rewards will be even more when we help those in dire needs and are destitute. However, the greatest reward will accrue if we harbor no expectations when giving.
The second chapter deals with making great vows to attain the Bodhi mind. Instead of making personal vows that are confined to our family circle like education/career goals for children, why not make great vows, for enlightenment, for nirvana?
To do that, we need to tame our mind. But where do we anchor our mind? On our children? On earthly matters? So doing does not guarantee liberation, as long as our mind is narrowly confined. We need to hop out of this attachment to the daily grind. It's not apathy, but seeing the bigger picture.
Ideally, we should set our mind on the triple learning of Precepts, Concentration, and Wisdom. But this is beyond us most of the time. But all is not lost as there are different paths we can embark on and tread on one that is compatible with our natural endowments, one that evokes a sense of synchronicity, a congruence both in time and in substance.
Regardless, foremost in our mind should be the emphasis that we are to tame the mind, and not the environment. In this respect, the Diamond Sutra emphasizes reiteration on constant practice in its approach, progressively dishing out in simpler terms the gems of Buddhist wisdom.
Oftentimes our vexation can be traced to our reluctance to accept reality, i.e, we eschew suchness, the reality that thing is as it is, or as is. This is not the same as fatalism, as we are enjoined to take care of matters as they arise through circumspection, with a discerning mind, and most of all, with compassion. As we embrace suchness, we can see with clarity karma at work, and subscribe to the notion of dependent origination and the principle of causality. All these will help ease us into a frame of mind that would treat any action of enmity, often the source of distress, with equanimity, and loving kindness.
The third chapter is making vows to help all sentient beings to be enlightened. We can all facilitate the attainment of such vows by striving for the six perfections (Paramitas) one of which is charitable giving.
The merits accruing from giving are generated by three considerations:
1) What is the state of mind? Do we expect something in return? Do we look at the ledger and act only when there is positive return? Or perhaps prompted by tax exemption given to gifts? The best approach is to practice no attachment, and to treat it as a simple act of giving, of helping others.
2) What is the object of the giving? Certainly if we are vegetarians who actualize compassion for animals, we would refrain from offering meat, and we should not worry about negative responses should they arise, which sometimes do either out of ignorance or habitual dietary pattern.
3) Who is the beneficiary? Certainly those who can least afford the gift, and the most needy. However, in a larger context, the ultimate target of giving is the triple gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. For they in turn are the most direct, the most extensive, and the most lasting media through which our liberation from suffering is realized. The world needs more places of worship, more Buddhist monks and nuns in order to reach a greater proportion of populace who are constrained by the lack of opportunity to seek an end to their suffering.
Due to time constraint, Ven. Jian Hu ended the Dharma talk by fielding some questions from the attendees before the whole class adjoined to a nice treat of vegetarian lunch courtesy of the volunteers.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Just before we hit the road on the return leg.
Matter turned for the worse on the return trip. Just getting on to I-75 via the Archer exit from the Campus took us about 20 minutes compared to 5 minutes during normal times. Then it was crawling all the way to Ocala, taking us more than an hour to cover 30 miles. Fortunately, traffic improved slightly after Ocala and significantly after the turnoff to Tampa at the turnpike entrance. But we still reached home about one hour later than usual.
The seemingly endless caravan, like a slithering serpent winding its way forward.
Traffic on the northbound lanes were less congested. We surmised this could be due to the fact that most people prefer to leave for home after lunch. So the wave of northbound traffic could have passed Gainesville by then (4.30pm) while the southbound traffic just about joined us at about the same time (say, those coming from Atlanta/Tallahassee).
Anyway, the “ordeal” seemed more bearable than last year's. Perhaps this has to do with a change in my attitude consequent upon my immersion in the teachings of Buddha during the intervening year. The Buddha taught that everything is a reflection and creation of the mind. Therefore the changes in our emotional state, from sad to happy, from elation to despondency, from being on the top of the world to the gutters, from accolades to unfair criticisms, all have their roots in our changing mind.
Instead of getting impatient at the snail's pace, and even raving and ranting leading to temperature rising, we could use the opportunity to take a breather, to engage in some much needed interactions with our passengers, take in the moving scenery lining both sides of the highway, a slow-mo of sort, or simply observe life as it unfolds before you. Hey, the driver in front has two dogs in the car, and the luggage filling up to the brim of the trunk (it's a SUV). Or the couple in the convertible was having an animated conversation, perhaps debating whether to take to the air come next Thanksgiving.
Would you believe it if I say the white speck is the moon? No kidding. Henceforth the myth that the moon only appears on the night sky shall hereby be debunked.
Amidst all these observations, until nightfall took over and all I could see were the taillights, like the red eyes of some prancing kids bouncing along on the highway, we reached home safely, tired but thankful for being able to put the feet up and engrossed in a captivating episode of Criminal Mind, featuring a group of profilers in the Behavioral Assessment Unit (BAU) of FBI, but this time involving a crime against one of their very own.
Here wify was trying to catch the setting sun, with her sunglasses on looking through the lens, and not seeing the sun through that aperture. Logical?
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Thus bundled up appropriately, we set off for Clearwater yesterday (Nov 17, 2007) morning, the entourage including CE and Yu Huei. We were on our way to attend the 2nd Robe Offering Celebration organized by Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS) under the auspices of Bhante Dhammawansha and his fellow Sangha from around the area (St. Petersburg and Bradenton) and as far as away as Washington DC, LA, Michigan, Canada, and Sri Lanka, 15 in all.
This is our second attendance, the tradition having started last year.
We arrived just in time, just when the sangha was entering the premises, wify bringing along a vegetarian curry dish, Yu Yuei several bunches of juicy bananas, me my faithful Canon Powershot A75, and CE, well, just herself, in a casual outfit topped up (pardon the pun) with a baseball cap.
As was last year, the solemn ceremony started with the Bhantes filing along the food table, alms bowls in hand ready to receive the food, symbolically, from the devotees. The actual food was served once the Bhantes were seated in the house. Then it was our turn to partake of the vegetarian food offering, a concerted preparation by all volunteers.
Symbolic food offering.
Serving the Sangha.
Our turn at the gastronomical pursuit, CE standing in her cool outdoor outfit.
Thus satiated, the Bhantes took their seats at the outdoor pavilion, the sun by then beaming down, illuminating the tent top in a magnificent hue. The ceremony commenced with devotees offering robes to the Bhantes in turn, following the cue from the MC who read off the names of offerees. Wify participated too.
The start of the robe offering ceremony, under the Sun's full stare, glistening the White Buddha Statue.
Wify's offering stance, full of humility and reverence.
After a brief welcoming speech by Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of DWMS, he invited Bhante Muditha to deliver a Dhamma talk on happiness and living now as summarized below:
Robe offering is a 25-century old Theravedian tradition. It's a ceremony, not a ritual, to mark the support for Buddhist dispensation. The robe is hailed as the banner of saints, worn by the monks and nuns who dedicate themselves to self practice and to deliver the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha.
It's an act of generosity that accumulates merits, the robe fulfilling one of the four requisites, cloths. The other three are food, shelter, and medicine.
Our worldly happiness, acquired by constantly looking beyond ourselves, is neither endurable nor long lasting. It's only by looking inward, by supporting the sangha, by generating metta, by engaging in meditation, by practicing good virtues and morality that we can accomplish the three acts of Dana, Sila, and Bhavana. Then we will be able to remove all the negativities and impurities, extricate ourselves from samsara, the circle of existence, and attain nibbana where true happiness resides, and which follows us like a shadow.
The pious ceremony concluded with the acknowledgment of appreciation by Richard Baksa and a closing blessing from the Bhantes. Thus blessed, and a bottle of blessed water in wify's hand, we embarked homebound, secured in our fulfilling yet another meritorious act toward Dhamma bliss.
Devotees lining up to receive the blessed water.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The store is brand new, with rows and rows of items neatly arranged for the taking. Posters advertising price cut and discounts were everywhere. And right by the front is a class-room dedicated to conducting all kinds of arts lessons.
We ambled along each isle, eyes looking out for items that would appeal to our sense of most bang for the buck. I wanted to buy a table-top mini easel for wify so that she could set it up on the table for painting. But she felt that the prize was a bit stiff (the cheapest is $20) for her present level of attainment. And she wanted to wait for some more time when she feels that she is ready to migrate to the use of easel as judged from her progress in drawing/painting. Chances are she might just skip the mini easel and go for the full-sized one.
Here wify was rummaging all by herself through the drawing papers to locate ones that are suited to her watercolor painting (we did find one, but not at this isle).
I saw the flexi-foam sheets, 12” by 18”, on sale for a dime each. And ended up buying 17 of them, one for each shade of color on display. I have no immediate use for them but just thought they would come in handy when wify wanted to experiment with some craft-work. Anyway having them means wify would think of something to do with them, that they can be gotten for peanuts undoubtedly featuring prominently in my purchase decision.
Wify bought six 50# packs of mini candles in aluminium containers, which can cost three, four times as much during normal times. She lits these candles every morning as part of her paying the homage to Buddha ritual, which means the candles are a regular consumable that requires periodic restocking. So those are a good buy. Actually, the limit per customer (usually the store will impose quantity limits on highly discounted items to ensure fair distribution among the patrons) for this item is ten, but wify wanted that monetary benefit to reach a wider circle.
She also bought two fuzzy posters for Yu Huei's niece, and two cute little precious (this is as stated in the bill) pig banks for our two daughters. These items are displayed below, so that those interested could make some comparison with similar items in Malaysia.
From top left going clockwise: the candle packs; the posters; the flexi foam sheets; the tote bag (Oh yes, this is a free gift worth $15 for purchases exceeding $25, and we qualified, by design of course); and the cute piggy banks. The back drop for the last is the front cover of a 2008 scenery calendar bought at the same store, arranged in such a way that the piglets seem to be enjoying a nice day out at the beach.
Shopping can be a wonderful experience, satisfying our primordial urge to own things. But budget shopping can be an equally exhilarating experience too. Not that we are living on a shoe-string budget, but just to bring home the point that we can, and should, foremost, live within our means, and that a lot of things of great practical value and no less in terms of durability can be had with a decent budget, as long as we don't fall into the trap of the brand mentality.
All these items are $1 each, wify's favorite hunt as these items are statements of creativity. But look carefully, See, Spot, Save, just on top of the shelves. Those are the famous tagline of the Target Store, which is next door.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
This installment of drawings is still based on (but see exception below) A Book of Cut Flowers by Sheila Okun (Gallery Book, 1988). Perhaps in time to come she will venture out on her own, like the orchids below, which she drew on her own. But I think that is a logical progression, even though I'm your typical guy outside the door (this is a Chinese phrase liberally translated) when it comes to drawing.
As an aside, we gained an hour last Sunday, an annual ritual of spring forward and fall back, the time that is. So we are now 13 hrs behind Malaysian time, a fact to bear in mind so that we would not disturb the Malaysian folks from sleep when we call.
Oh yeah, WJ reached home safely, though delayed by two hours in LA. He managed to get air-borne in the wee hours of the morning, on a flight that would take him practically half way around the world. I just checked the world map on our wall, we are at Longtitude 82 deg W, and Malaysia is about 101 deg E, a difference of 183 deg, about half of a round trip. That means, distance-wise, going back via the Atlantic/Europe/Middle East would cover about the same distance. But I was told that any flight that goes through Europe is likely more expensive.
Talking about a trip round the world, of my several trips to US, only once did I go through the Atlantic. It was in 1989 when I flew to Washington DC to participate in a 2-week EPA-sponsored study trip on climate change. But I did make a round trip, though with breaks. It was 1996. I first flew to Orlando across the Pacific to attend the International Coastal Engineering Conference. At the end of the week, I continued across the Atlantic to Zurich to attend the Hydroinformatics Conference, and came home to Malaysia going eastbound.
Anyway, back to wify's drawings, where the imagination can fly just in any direction. Enjoy!
Centaurea. Looks like dandelions, but perhaps not bluish.
Euphorbia. Could have been euphoria for all we know.
Lilium. I call it our family flower. Li, Lee, get it?
Monkshood. A buddhist flavor, perhaps?
Zantedeschia. This is wify's favorite. So elegant and graceful.
Orchids. I guess if you have seen and drawn enough, the hand just traces out what's in the mind.