Sunday, April 29, 2007

From Speaking Muar Chinese to Freeing All Malaysians: The Rap Video Way

Muar is a coastal town along the west coast of the State of Johore, my home state, which borders Singapore to the south. Muar is also the very first place that I worked, then a freshly minted civil engineer (i.e., with a recognized first degree) thrust into the University of Hard Knocks. That was way back in 1978. And I was still driving my varsity companion, a 125cc Honda motorcycle with a booming exhaust.

I first lived in a small rented room tugged at the end of the 5th road, I think, as it is known colloquially. My first impression of the Muar town is it has many cinemas for a town its size, five in all. So that’s as much as entertainment went. And every other night would find me in one of these, whiling away the time in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned environment, alternating with watching the movie as the primary driving force for the visit, with my then girl friend by my side.

Then there was what fellow Muarians affectionately referred to as the Glutton Street, right in the town, where hawkers’ food lined both sides of the street, enticing would-be patrons to fulfill their gastronomic urge. Our two favorite dishes were fried oyster omelette and otak-otak, a kind of grilled fish wrapped in leaves as shown in the image below, a mosaic of images taken from here and here. [Muar is encircled in red while the two blue boxes denote my home town (YongPeng, literally meaning peace forever in Chinese) and my wife's (Paloh)]

The thing that I did not understand was despite the throng of people practically rubbing shoulders looking for a table to retire to an evening of delicious platter of culinary delight and tables/chairs spilling on to the road, the road was never closed to automobile traffic so as to be turned into a pedestrian mall for safety. I had had some harrowing experience, either while seated with cars brushing by inches away from my back or me inching along the congested road in the car [yes, you would thought I had the good sense to avoid the street at all cost. But most of the town roads in Muar are one-way streets and sometimes as a result of the lack of either foresight or decisiveness, or both, a driver could easily be led by the flow of the traffic into the wrong street] with pedestrians sauntering nonchalantly from one side of the street to the other or alongside the crawling cars.

The last place that I had any memory of, other than my work office, is the Tanjung Club located next to the Muar river mouth. This is a favorite hangout for government officers with pool tables and pinball machines. But it’s for members only. I was not a member but some of my colleagues were. After some time the novelty wore off and I think I just kind of stopped going to the place.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot about the Rest House. The rest houses are government run hotels making use of old-styled buildings that were built by the British Administration and usually perched on top of a knoll with a commanding view of the surrounding. Stories have it that there were also used by the Japanese Army during the Japanese Occupation during the 2nd world war as detention and torture centers for POWs or local informants. And some of these lost souls still linger on to these days, looking for closure at their untimely and perhaps inhuman demise, which translated into haunted houses.

My first two nights were spent in a room of the Muar rest house, a designated accommodation for government officers invariably those days. The thought of gossamer apparitions pirouetting in the room did cross my mind, but I soon dozed off, and woke up none the worse the next day. Later I learned that the ‘spirits” were wont to dwell in certain rooms and it so happened that mine was not among these.

Two years later, I moved on transfer to Raub, another town rich with its local folklore as regards government rest houses in the State of Pahang, but this time nestled in the thick of jungles accessible by winding roads. But that will be the subject of another blog, laced with its individual allure and unique adventure.

Since then, I have made several trips back to Muar, but never staying for the night. And it has gradually regressed into the deeper recesses of my mind, until I came across this self-made song video, performed to a rapping beat, several months ago, Muar Chinese (accessible at YouTube here). The lyrics are crude no doubt, but it does bring back memories of my two-year sojourn there, including the idiosyncratic Chinese and Hokkien (Fujian) dialect spoken locally, marked by the infusion of several less than flattering terms from the latter into the former, yielding a peculiar blend of street-smart lingo that is distinctly, eh, Muarian, or Muaresque. One must admit that there is certain poignancy to poking fun at one’s own heritage, and yet displaying a pride that is unmistakable.

More recently, the same guy, who claims to be a Hainaese, has come up with another rap video, Muar Chinese II – My Friends (accessible at YouTube here), with its trademark blend of Muar languages, six in all (actually 3, English, Malay, and Chinese, the remaining three being dialects: Cantonese, Hokkien, and TeoChew). Its theme has also evolved into one of social concern, lambasting the racial polarization that has split Malaysia down the middle, and then some. However, the video took pain to explain that the brunt of his castigation is not race-based, but rather all his friends who hail from different racial backgrounds.

This is a political statement of sort. The problem is, being the rap genre that the performer has seen fit to adhere to, including the use of uncouth language, albeit rhyming, it may remain as a street-wise personal ranting that is unlikely to be taken seriously, much less so as a mustering call for change. However, it does hit a chord, a rather discordant one, in me. Can we take it that the disenfranchised has spoken? Are we ready to change lest the country continue on its downward spiral to the point of no return, to the dogs, and what have you?

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Trip Down Memory Lane (Part 3B [Concluding]): A Mentor-Colleague-Friend During my UF Days and Thereafter: Prof. Robert G. Dean

This is the concluding part of the recollection of my interaction with Prof. Dean, which I penned at the occasion of his retirement from UF in 2003. It continues from where I let off here, chronicling events that occurred after I returned to Malaysia in 1995. Read on.

Since my return to Malaysia upon my graduation with a Ph.D. degree in early 1995, I’ve maintained an e-mail link with Prof. Dean. One of these culminated into the very first visit of Prof. Dean to Malaysia in Oct 1999 during which he delivered a keynote address in the Conference on Coastal Environment, despite his tight schedule. In fact, his visit was concluded in very short notice, much to my surprise and noting then that I was just trying my luck.

During his 3-day stay in Malaysia, I had a lot of one-on-one opportunity with him, especially on the field trip in my car to look at some of the beaches and shore development taking place along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. We talked about the old times at UF, the shape of coastal engineering to come in the future, and UC Berkeley from where Prof. Dean obtained his first degree, in 1954, the very year I was born. I just realize this is another link between us, in addition to the UF and Association of Coastal Engineers (ACE) connections, me having graduated from UC Berkeley with a Master’s degree in 1987, more than three decades later.

One of the spots we visited was a coastal resort development fronting the open sea
(Straits of Malacca) with two breakwater arms extending into the sea and enclose a yacht marina. I remembered showing to him a desk-top model of the proposed future development that displayed proposed houses built on the two breakwater arms and was making comments to the effect that it was sheer folly trying to build on breakwaters that bear the full brunt of the wave attack. To my totally unprepared mind, Prof. Dean, with his vast experience in coastal development, especially his 3-year stint as the Director of Shores with the State Government of Florida, started to expound on a different philosophy to coastal development, one that provides added values to coastal protection and blends it into coastal tourism. In this paradigm change from one of separating the coastal protection function from economic activity to one on integrated development, all uses of the coast are merged to facilitate a systematic development of the coastal resources.

I met Prof. Dean again in Cardiff last year [2002] at the occasion of the 28th International Coastal Engineering Conference during which he gave a touching thank-you speech to Prof. Billy Edge. More exchanges of coastal engineering matter took place during the conference.

Till this day I still have a guilty feeling when his name crops up, be it during a conversation or more likely during a technical discussion. It is then I remember that I’ve yet to send him the profile data that I promised when Prof. Dean posted an e-mail in the Coastal_List requesting for profile data for his continuing work in the analyses of beach profiles, to which I readily e-mailed back my commitment but have yet to send in the Malaysian profile data to him [To my embarrassment, this remains outstanding]..

Not too long ago, I e-mailed him again to act as a reference for my US job application and in his usual helpful manner, he replied back, “I enjoyed hearing from you. I would be pleased to provide a reference for you.” Concise and warm as usual.

As Bob Buford said in his book, Half Time: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance, “One characteristic of a person who is nearing the end of the first half is that unquenchable desire to move from success to significance.” Here I note that Prof. Dean has already marched into three-quarter time, perhaps taking comfort in knowing that he has achieved both success and significance. To my mortal mind, I really cannot visualize what further legacy Prof. Dean will leave us with. But knowing Prof. Dean, I won’t be surprised that he already has something cooking.

I would always remember Prof. Dean, a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. And I would like to take this opportunity to wish him a happy retirement from UF, and a happy beginning to whatever he chooses to do in his post-retirement life.

(Penned in Malaysia, April 2003 to commemorate the retirement of Prof. Dean from University of Florida.)

Post Script: I met Prof. Dean once more, soon after I moved to US at a conference organized by the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association held in Orlando in 2004. He remained his smiling self, always eager to impart his vast store of coastal engineering knowledge and to interact with the next generation of coastal engineers, yours truly included.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Trip Down Memory Lane (Part 3A): A Mentor-Colleague-Friend During my UF Days and Thereafter: Prof. Robert G. Dean

Continuing along my trip down memory lane (here and here), I have two outstanding academicians to thank for my successful journey along the Ph.D. route at the end of which I could proudly declare, I’m Phinally Done, yet without the trauma often associated with Permanent head Damage, both being plays on the word, Ph.D.

The first is Prof. Ashish J. Mehta, who served as the Chairman of my Ph.D. supervisory committee. And the other is Prof. Robert G. Dean, then the Chair of the Coastal and Oceanographic Department at University of Florida (UF). In a way, I had the best of both worlds in the continuum of coastal sediment dynamics. While Prof. Mehta is renowned in fine-grained and cohesive sediment research, Prof. Dean’s expertise in coarse-grained and cohesionless sediment transport as applied to sandy beach processes is legendary.

Today’s segment will be devoted to Prof. Dean, as a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. And there is a very simple reason for that choice of order. Back in 2003, I became aware of the Coastal Engineering Today meeting organized to honor Prof. Dean on the occasion of his retirement from UF. I also noted that a commemorative collection of letters and photos would be prepared for the meeting. The image, taken during the Waves 2001 conference, shows Prof. Dean to the extreme right with Prof. Tony Dalrymple, the organizer of the Coastal Engineering Today meeting and now with Johns Hopkins University and from whose personal web page this image is taken with thanks, to his left.

I realized then that I do not have any memorabilia concerning Prof. Dean in my possession, except a cherished memory of interaction with him in a variety of ways. Therefore I decided to pen this memory in the form of a written recollection of our interaction in appreciation of his kind assistance along my chosen path of becoming a competent coastal engineer and researcher.

Along with others, Prof. Dean has been invaluable and instrumental in imparting to me a firm grounding on the fundamentals of coastal engineering in particular as well as living the life of a decent human being in general, and the recollection is my way of expressing my gratitude.

I have contacted the organizer recently and was informed that the commemorative collection has been handed to Prof. Dean but is not part of the proceedings of the meeting, which comprised technical presentations on coastal engineering advances inspired by the works of Prof. Dean. Since this recollection is my thoughts on my learning process, both professionally and personally, I have decided to blog it here, both as a life impacting experience to be shared, and perhaps as a benchmark to gage the progress of my writing skills, seeing that what follows represents my way of writing circa 2003, verbatim.

It is noteworthy that were it not for the Internet and an online mail account that I’m still keeping today, I would not have been able to locate the following article, which has stayed stored in virtual space all these years.

Since it is a lengthy piece, my recollection will appear in two parts, conveniently separated by the time I left UF. Here, then, is Part A.

Prof. Robert G. Dean, Professor Emeritus, University of Florida (A Mentor, A Colleague, And A Friend) [Part A of 2]

I first came across the name of Prof. Dean in the beginning of a counterpart attachment to the consortium of international consultants commissioned by the Government of Malaysia to undertake the National Coastal Erosion Study in late 1984. That 15-month attachment under the tutelage of the late Mr. Neill E. Parker, the project manager of the study, opened my vista to the fascinating field of coastal engineering, and the pioneering work of Prof. Dean.

At the end of that study period in mid-1985, and as a preparation of the Government of
Malaysia to staff the proposed Coastal Engineering Technical Center, I was offered a
Federal Government Scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in Coastal Engineering. Mr. Parker was then kind enough to write three letters of recommendation on my behalf to three US universities well-known for their coastal engineering education: one to Prof.
Robert L. Wiegel of University of California, Berkeley, CA, the second to Prof. Bernard
LeMehaute of University of Miami, Coral Gables, and the third to none other than Prof. Dean of University of Florida, Gainesville. Unfortunately, I could not locate my copy of the letter of recommendation to Prof. Dean; otherwise it would have made a nice memorabilia. That was my first “brush” with the legendary Prof. Dean, but I doubt he remembered the brief encounter as it was done through a letter, albeit from an old friend of his.

As it turned out, I never made it to University of Florida then. Instead, I’ve had the good fortune of landing in UC Berkeley where I studied under Prof. Wiegel, Prof. Joe Johnson, and others. It was during this sojourn that I suspected I first met Prof. Dean in person. That was the occasion of the symposium held at UC Berkeley to honor Prof. Morrough O’Brien in March 1987. I’ve no recollection of this personal encounter, but a check of the proceedings of the symposium (Shore and Beach, July-October 1987) confirmed his attendance as a speaker, and hence my presumption.

During my 18-month academic journey into the more theoretical aspects that underpin much of the practice of coastal engineering, Prof. Dean’s name popped up more often, much like a beaming beacon guiding the uninitiated like me in deep forays into the complex realm of coastal engineering. His much celebrated textbook that he coauthored with Prof. Robert Dalrymple, Wave Mechanics for Engineers and Scientists (a.k.a Dean & Dalrymple to the initiated), was a constant companion as a supplement to the comprehensive lecture notes of Prof. Rodney Sobey in the Wave Mechanics course.

I had to wait until the spring of 1991 before I could meet Prof. Dean in person when I enrolled into the graduate degree program of the Coastal and Oceanographic Engineering Department at University of Florida. His gentle smile behind black-rimmed glasses, his affable disposition, his firm handshake, and his never-failing words of fatherly concern left a lasting impression on me.

Through my four years at UF, I took every course offered by Prof. Dean, three in all
(Littoral Processes, Non-Linear Ocean waves, and Numerical Modeling of Beach System). The assigned text during the course on Littoral Processes was the draft copy of the now published Coastal Processes with Engineering Applications (Cambridge University Press, 2002), which he co-authored with Prof. Robert A. Dalrymple. Those days some of the texts were still hand-written, including most of the questions, and I would like to think that I had a small part in beta-testing some of the questions. And thanks to Prof. Dean, I’m now a proud owner of the “zero” edition of the soon-to-be-known-as Dean & Dalrymple II, as distinct from the Dean & Dalrymple referred to earlier.

Despite having spent more than three decades on the subject, Prof. Dean still managed to maintain his curiosity in the field. That was, to me, best exemplified on one field expedition that the class (Littoral Transport) made to the Atlantic coast. There he frolicked in the surf, coming in and out of the white waters, like a teenage boy going after his priced collection (to feel the undertow tugging perhaps), leaving me, about two scores in years younger, eyes dazed, agog, and on the shore, safe from the turbulent churning. While the surf image below is not along the Atlantic seaboard where our field lesson took place but rather the Clearwater Beach facing the Gulf of Mexico at the location of the St. Pete Municipal Pier, it suffices to demonstrate the peril of a high surf condition.

Prof. Dean also sat on my Ph.D. supervisory committee as my research topic of interaction of mud profiles with waves has some analogy with his well-known work on sandy profiles. I too derived a close-form profile equation for an alongshore-uniform mud shoreline with additional consideration of wave dissipation due to wave-soft bed interaction. This consideration leads to a different profile modality, one which is able to migrate from a concave upward to a convex upward form, depending on the wave dissipation characteristics of the substrate, as opposed to a monotonically concave upward form of the Dean’s profile.

I used a similar approach to evaluate the cross-shore sediment transport, and hence, the temporal profile evolution, it being a function of the degree of deviation from a target profile based on the equilibrium beach profile concept.

One other activity that has etched into not only my own memory, but my wife’s too (I guess my kids were still too young to cherish the memory, but not too young to relish the moments though), is the annual Christmas get-together in his house, which we attended without fail. I especially enjoyed the occasion as it fostered an atmosphere of “letting one’s hair down” that facilitated “getting to know you”, especially for new graduate students who may have left the comforts of their home countries and were thrust into this strange and unfamiliar, both physically and culturally, land for the very first time.

(Please stay tuned for Part B.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Buddhism and Christianity: A Cross-Faith Exchange, Part 1

I used to read Chinese comic books when I was young, way back when I was still in elementary school. But I have to admit that my first encounter with comic books, or rather magazines, is with the English genre, courtesy of my elder brother’s collection such as the Superman and Charlie Brown’s series. Then I was just enjoying the drawings and sketches, concocting the story in my own mind as I leafed through the pages as English was not my mother tongue.

Then I got hooked on to the Chinese comic books when I attended Chinese primary school. I remember spending a few afternoons a week in a teacher’s room, devouring his collection of comic books on the famous Chinese characters of yore, the ever loyal Ye Fei of the Sung Dynasty and his achievements in the battle field and his untimely death in the hand, or rather machination, of the number one villain in my book then, the heroics of the female warriors from the Yang family, and self-contained excerpts from several epic Chinese literary works such as the Annals of the Water Margin and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Probably the seed of my writing hobby was sown then.

Then I migrated to the works of the written word with sporadic reading, more like scanning/skimming, of other popular English comic series such as Archie, Shonen Jump, and the Japanese Anime that I happened to pick up around the house. And yes, they belonged to my kids.

Along the way, I chanced upon the works of the great manga master of Japan, Tezuka Osamu. Previously I have come across his works but did not associate his name in Chinese to him. And my curiosity was piqued when I learned that he has created a manga series on the life of Buddha.

From the Tezuka Osama at World website, I learned that the original serial works that encompassed Tezuka Osamu's biography of Buddha based on his unique interpretation commenced in September 1972 and continued until December 1983 variously in "Kibo-no-tomo," "Shonen World" and "Comic Tom".

The problem with reading manga works is obviously the language barrier for a non-Japanese like me. Granted I know kanji, the Chinese characters that have been incorporated into written Japanese with essentially the same meaning most of the time. But as can be seen from a preview page below taken from the above website, kanji is used sparingly indeed (examples from the preview page include emptiness, respect, death, practice) and it would be a huge leap of imagination to be able to “connect the dots” so to speak. Also, the limited collection of hiragana/katagana words that I picked up when I spent two months in Japan in 1985 under the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) training program have deserted me entirely, relegated my grasp of the Japanese language to mere greetings.

While I was contemplating a search for a Chinese translation of Tezuka Osamu’s Buddha, my old friend, Peng Leong, emailed the following to me, all the way from Singapore, and more important, he has agreed to share his thoughts with the visitors to this blog (Thanks, Peng Leong) [save for some editorial corrections, the following has been reproduced verbatim from his email where Tezuka Osamu has been abbreviated to OT by him, including the multiple dots]:

"I just came back from a company sponsored "Energy Workshop" in Mumbai ... it is amazing how 18 million people squeezing into such a small piece of real estate ... a land of extremes ... of a few extravagant and almost obscenely rich scattered among the millions of homeless poor ... almost like the OT stories I read when he wrote of Buddha's life in India...

I love OT drawings and telling of the Buddha story in his unique way ... Buddha sacrificed a lot in his pursuit for meaning in life ... even near the end Buddha was disappointed that his closest disciples, Ananda, and the rest could not grasp the essentials of his teaching ... but everything turn out OK in the end...

Reading these 8 books is like reading the book of Eccelesiastes which is credited from King Soloman ... everything in the "material world" is "vanity of vanities" it is like "chasing the wind" sigh!!! if you read Eccelesiastes again, you will find a lot of similarities in what Buddha is teaching ...

Many years when I was still in school, it was this book of Eccelesiastes that provoke me to think about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life ... I seek and after a long journey I finally in 1979 made a decision to believe that in Christ I can have eternal life (which is not the same as my life on earth). when I discourse with my Buddhist friends over the years, they said that I was in fact practicing the Buddha way of life from my sharing of the gospel taught by Jesus ... I believe there are many similarities except for the concept of sin and the divinity of Christ Jesus ... Buddha never claims to be God and the books showed that in the end all living souls (whether man or animals or birds or insects" will return to the "source" and be reincarnated again.

I will continue to read the teaching of other religious teachers as there is much wisdom in them and it is helpful in our journey on earth ... and one day we will return to our eternal home and there will be no more tears, no more suffering ...”

While a devout Christian, Peng Leong is not averse to learning the teachings of other religions, Buddhism included, though some could argue that reading OT’s Buddha may not be the best source of Buddha’s teachings as even the above website acknowledges that "In the story, many people surrounding the hero, Sittarda, are fictitious, and historical figures are significantly dramatized.”

But I have no qualms in recommending OT’s Buddha to followers of other faiths if that is what it would take to propagate the teachings of Buddha so that others could benefit, notwithstanding the fact that I am yet to read them.

So my next reading project will be OT’s Buddha, the English translation, eight volumes of them. But first I would have to lay my hand on them. A search at the local public library turns out empty. Perhaps the USF library ... Then there is always eBay, Barnes and Noble …

Since this blog is already quite lengthy by my normal standard, I decided to blog about my response to Peng Leong's musing in the next installment. So stay tuned.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

DIY: The Way to the Upkeep of Our Own House

Our D’s adventure into DIYdom (see here) has prompted our efforts to translate thought into action. Since we bought our house as-is, there are several non-structural “defects” that we have to attend to on our own. Also, in the midst of moving by hired help, we have found some of our furniture pieces to be less than satisfactory, stability-wise. On further examination, we found the following wanting:

1) Some cracked tiles on the stair steps.

2) Two missing vertical blind pieces for the sliding glass door in a 2nd floor bedroom.

3) Missing screws from the affixed wooden frame mirrors to the dressers.

4) Missing bolts from the affixed backboards to the beds.

Item 3 was addressed early on by a trip to the hardware section of Target with the purchase of boxes of nails, long screws, and a hand-held power drill-cum-screw driver. Single-handedly, I moved each dresser around, made a pilot hole with a nail and hammer at each location of missing screws, and tightened each screw using a Philip screw-driver. I did try to use the power drill that I just bought but the clamped screw seemed to turn eccentrically. Perhaps the screw is not meant to be clamped by the drill directly. So much for my DIY experience with a power tool.

And to be on the safe side, I decided to use the human-powered Philip screw driver, still DIY, but now with some perspiration. And yes, my D did help by holding the gingerly attached wooden frame, which was held on to the dresser by two screws only on the vertically aligned connecting metal piece (there are 24 such perforations), one on each side, while I screwed on the missing screws, seven on each compared to just two before. The result: a non-shaking (almost anyway) mirror on top of the dresser, which hitherto just seemed about to topple over at the slightest touch. See the right image for the attachment details. Yes, the thought of completing all the 24 screws did cross my mind. But in the end practicality convinced me that it would be an overkill in redundancy, though the fact that I was running out of screws did help nudge me toward that decision, vindicated by the ultimate test on completion.

After the heavy duty DIY, my wife attended to the less physically demanding but intrinsically more challenging chore of fixing the cracked tiles (item 1). Being clumsy at household repair, primarily because of the lack of experience as our first abode was a rented apartment where all repairs were just one call away and all the associated costs were included in the monthly rental anyway, we decided to try out a patch job instead of a full-blown remove-and-replace (which means breaking the cracked tiles, very carefully so as not to damage any adjacent tiles, re-lay the cement base to present a level surface at the same height as that of the surrounding tiles, emplace the replacement tiles, though finding tiles with the same texture/design/shine, or rather a kind of faded shine because of the passage of time thorough use, may prove next to impossible, and caulk the joints) operation. The solution: look for a self-adhesive plastic sheet with a surface design that mimics that of the tiles and thick enough to bridge over the cracks.

Scouring from memory, we tried our best to match the available surface patterns/designs of the plastic sheets on sale at Target to what we thought is the one we have been stepping on in the past week. Truth be told that we did have some disagreements over which presented the best match but as any loving husband will do, I deferred to my wife for the final choice.

Upon return, my wife did the patch work for the first step and then only it hit upon us how unreliable our supposedly differentiating and discerning eyes and memory recall can be (a classic refutation of Seeing is Believing?). See for yourself.

But I doubt anyone can do any better under the circumstances. At least the utility part has been met: now the covered tiles do not present any risk of injury to a bare foot that comes into contact with them. But the rest of the cracked tiles (there are several more) would have to wait for a better match of the surface design.

To address item 2, my wife first did some preparatory work involving measuring the length of the door blinds. But since we could not find the tape measure, suspected of being thrown away as trash with other kitchen items during the move, my wife decided to use the papers from a note pad cellophane-taped together to represent the actual length.

Thus armed, we sourced the Internet for the nearest Home Depot, and found one along Bruce B. Down, a couple of miles distant away. This is like a huge warehouse, with rows and rows and stacks after stacks of a variety of building and household materials. It took us some time (we went one full round the premises but to no avail) plus some inquiry (the Home Depot helper was most helpful and knowledgeable about the whereabouts: aisle 4) before we were at the right spot.

However, we could not find one that equaled the crude paper measure that we had prepared. It’s either too long or too short. Naturally, we went for the longer one. While my wife preferred to have the right length cut there and then, I confidently demurred, saying that nothing cannot be fixed with a pair of household scissors. After all, how tough would it be to cut aluminium foils? But at the back of my head I was already planning a contingency plan of buying a pair of metal cutting scissors.

My contingency plan soon turned out to be unnecessary when my wife called me from upstairs to look at her handiworks, using the household scissors for the work at hand. Now there is no more two gaping slits along the whole length (or height since it is vertical) of the blinds while in a closed position.

My mental perception of size again failed me when we approached the last item on our weekend to-do list: the missing bolts. The bolt diameter I had in mind was one size too big (5/16” compared to ¼” after the fact). But the length was spot-on (2.5”). So was that of the threaded part (to my credit, I did remember it is a partially threaded bolt). Also I have had the good sense (a common one?) to buy just one (we needed six for the three beds) because of the uncertainty that I had realized early on.

Moral of the story? Always measure when it comes to sizes (length, width, height, diameter, etc.) as it has been proven again and again that human perception of dimension can be way off. A handyman’s motto perhaps?

So two down, two more to go, I mean the to-do list, which means a revisit to Home Depot today (my wife is definitely not a procrastinator in this respect). Then the Home Depot’s Flyer that came with today’s St. Pete Times announced their giving away of free CFLs (which I blogged here) today in conjunction with 2007 Earth Day, which falls on today (April 22). So Home Depot it is.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The 3rd MWBA Meditation and Dharma Talk Session: Zen and Liberation of the Mind

Today we had our 3rd meditation cum dharma talk session organized by the Middle Way Buddhist Association and held at the St. Pete venue, but conducted and delivered by Brother Shieh as Bhante Dhammawansha is away in Asia. In the first session on meditation, Brother enumerated the following steps for beginners to heed:

a) adjust body position to achieve a physically stress-free state so as not to affect the focus (hence minimizing the benefits of meditation) by first bending the body, while in the single lotus (left leg on right or right leg on left) or double lotus sitting position, so that the bottom is partly suspended, then sitting back, thereby attaining a stable foundation.

b) Take care of the environment by having free air circulation, but not having the air stream directed at you, and placing shower towel over the legs to keep the knees warm.

c) Exercise minor adjustments by relaxing progressively various parts of the body, starting with the head, forehead and moving toward the bottom.

d) Focus on the breathing action.

e) Keep eyes slightly open to stay awake, mouth slightly agape and tongue touching the top of the teeth to facilitate air flow.

f) Other ways of keeping focused are staying fixed on one thought, though it’s better to try not to think, chanting Buddha’s name (Amitabha), and focusing on Buddha’s statue that evokes respect.

g) If the mind starts to drift away, stop and bring the wandering mind back. The most important thing is to realize where your mind is.

h) While any time is a good time to meditate, doing it in the early hours of the morning does have its advantages such as the environment is likely quiet and we just start on a new fresh day.

i) The length of time considered enough depends on the individuals. For Brother Shieh, his focus is beyond the sitting moment as meditation is one mechanism to help one to learn.

j) There is inherently more challenges to doing individual meditation as then a conducive environment may be at a premium.

In his introductory remarks during the ensuing Dharma talk, aptly named Wisdom Class, Brother Shieh explained that while Buddhism acknowledges the importance of self in the sense that we are to find the solution to our own problems, it also points out the problem of self attachment.

After writing down several terms associated with Zen: silence, still, and stasis, without elaborating further "of what", he invited the attendees to name the first thing that came into mind when the word Zen was heard. The candidates include: calm, peace, floating/suspended, question, lost connection, peaceful meditation. This diversity of views reflect the works of individual minds, each being a response born out of past personal experiences and conditioned by individual circumstances. In other words, each exhibits awareness of his/her own mind.

In the material world, we see things in the binary mode, a dichotomy of good and bad, of right and wrong. However, the essence of Zen, which is the heart of Buddhism, is non-dichotomy, or undichotomized dharma. We should distinguish, but without attachment.

Buddha teaching can be likened to a vessel/boat that would enable us to cross the ocean. However, once we reach the other shore, a proxy term for enlightenment, we should let go of the boat and not carry it onshore.

To learn Zen requires thinking. Therefore Zen is silence, stillness, and stasis of the mind, a state of being that is not restricted to when we are not in motion.

In the same vein, wisdom is free from annoyances and afflictions, a state described as the liberation of the mind manifested by having no attachment to the past, the present, and the future. This is Zen as enunciated by the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen School through his verses: Detachment from external appearances; Not to be disturbed internally.

Conversely, sin in Buddhism is that which leads to annoyance/affliction. It’s all in the mind, and the way to attain wisdom is to change the way we think.

Tolerance, which connotes a disparity in status between one who tolerates and one who is tolerated, is not a concept in Buddhism because all are considered equal in Buddhism. We do not heap accolades on the good nor do we condemn the bad. We just accept without enforcement or doubt.

The Buddhist worldview is one of connection as nothing occurs just from this moment. While the past has gone, we should learn from the past.

Detachment is understanding that all occurrences/disappearances are based on “conditions”. There is no need to point fingers in a relationship that has gone sour, but we do need to work hard to improve the conditions, and to stay away from the wrong/bad conditions. In this respect, it’s imperative that we observe the Five Precepts, the basic Buddhist Code of Ethics, which stipulates no killing, no stealing, no misconduct, no false speech, and no taking alcoholic drinks, so as not to generate bad karma.

Before adjourning the 3rd session, Brother Shieh reiterated that Buddha nature is in all of us, and that what differentiates us, the laymen, from Buddha, the Enlightened one, is that we have not eliminated all illusions and attachments.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Great Beings, Great Master, and a Great Teacher

In place of Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society, who is on an Asian trip, Brother Shieh has started his series of Dharma talk on the Sutra of the Eight Realizations of Great Beings at the Clearwater venue last Sunday (April 1). But we were unable to make it to the talk then as we were in the midst of moving. After settling in, and armed with the ensuing peace of mind, we drove to Clearwater to attend the second one in the series this Sunday evening (April 8), not worrying about continuity as we had earlier attended the same opening talk but in Chinese delivered by Brother Shieh as blogged here.

At the outset, Brother Shieh reiterated that while we are layman Buddhists, we should strive to do what Buddhist monks and nuns do. Then continuing with the First Realization, he explained that while the five skandhas (or aggregates), they being form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness, occur in a definite sequence, i.e., thought follows feeling, the ascension from one step to the other is instantaneous. In addition, while the notion of self is important since only I can make it happen, it is also a barrier in the sense that any sense of control that it engenders is illusory at best.

In Buddhism, “unreal” connotes impermanence, but does not imply non-existence as Buddhism does not deny anything.

On the difficulty of drawing the young generation to Buddhism as they tend to be concerned only with the present circumstances, Brother Shieh advised that everyone has the potential to learn Buddhism and we just have to keep providing the conditions that would nudge them along in the right direction. But in order to help others, we have to take good care of ourselves by helping ourselves to learn. And this is far from being selfish. Brother Shieh then quoted the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen School, Master Hui Neng, whose Altar Sutra (or sometimes termed as the Platform Sutra) is a comprehensive compendium of his Buddhist teaching, “while I’m in illusion, I still need help from my Master. After I’ve realized, I will be able to help myself.”

Of the Five Aggregates, the first, form, relates to the body, while the other four are functions of the mind. Therefore, we should not try to discriminate between the mind and the body. According to Master Hui Neng, Zen can be succinctly characterized as “Detach from external appearances; and not to be disturbed internally”.

Another oft-repeated phrase from Master Hui Neng is “Affliction is wisdom.” And negative condition can lead to progress in a person as well.

Brother Shieh then related a famous story of how Zen Master Hui Neng, at the age of 17 and being an illiterate, was recognized for his ability to realize the teaching of Buddha as manifested in his spontaneous response to the following Chinese verses written by a brother Buddhist monk, Master Shen Xiu, who was widely acknowledged for his depth of understanding the ways of the Buddha (however, in order to do proper justice to the translation, I've elected to quote from here):
'The body is the tree of enlightenment,
The mind is the stand of a bright mirror.
Wipe it constantly and with ever-watchful diligence,
To keep it uncontaminated by the worldly dust.'

- Zen Master Shen Xiu

'Originally there is no tree of enlightenment,
Nor there is a stand with a bright mirror.
Since everything is primordially empty,
what is there for dust to cling to ?'

- Sixth Patriach Hui Neng

And a great Buddist monk had come of age.

Before the Dharma talk was adjourned, interspersed with a lively exchange of views among the attendees, Brother Shieh spent some time on elucidating the concept of “wu-wei” as introduced in the Second Realization. It’s not No Action, but acting without following the condition. For me, this is one instance where word starts to fail me. So the best I could do is to reproduce the excellent annotation by the Buddha Gate Monastery:

Wu-wei : free from forced effort (but not necessarily no-action), free from clinging and attachments, unconditioned, absolute. It also means inner peace obtained by having no desires, understanding that we are intrinsically complete and lacking nothing.

And Brother Shieh will continue with his third Dharma talk in the series on the coming Sunday (April 15) at the same time, i.e., 6pm. See you all there.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Solar Blast From the Recent Past

Three years two months and some change. That’s how long we have lived near Old Hyde Park. During the last week of stay there at the end of March, my wife took pictures of the different hues of sunrise along the Bayshore Boulevard. And as a memento of us ever setting foot on this place on earth, we would like to dedicate this blog to the many moods of nature as a befitting montage (though in separate pieces) of images that we would like to remember our brief visit there by.

Now that we are no more living next to the Bay’s edge, we will have to drive some distance to experience a similar visual tapestry at the distant horizon. But we can always revisit this blog, the vivid mood swings of the skyscape, sometimes azure, sometimes darkened, and at times cloudy captured in still form, frozen in time, and yet dynamic when viewed in succession. Here we go, in no particular order, chronolohically or otherwise:

At day break, a gradual transition of the orange shrouding the land boundary layer to the azure sky as the backdrop to the sentinel lookalikes, seemingly standing guard over the automobile stream.

The sunrise just about to break loose from below the horizon, streaking the cloud formation and backlighting the sea gulls on their morning forays.

This is a rare occasion of (barely concealed) calm before the tempest,
the lone centurion steadfast against the intricate interplay of gossamer apparitions.

Then it's back to the white fluffy softness underscored by linear horizontal tracks of gray, evincing a rather mixed emotional state.

The still linear but increasingly thicker gray gradually angling upward,
now enveloping more of the sky but failing to block out the ever penetrating sun rays.

The ensemble of lights: artificial, the dawn, and a speck of moon.
And yes, that's the moon and the other grains are raindrops.
There was a light drizzle in the air, a rare sight in the morning.

Have had enough of the sunrise? How about a sunset just for contrast?

Going west toward St. Pete on an overcast day dominated by the low level gray clouds,
with sun rays streaking through fan-like.

So there you have it. The vagaries of nature, the vicissitude of life, and the mutability of life's fortunes.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Adjustments and Transformation

The recent moving further away from my office, but just next door to USF where my younger D will be enrolling this fall, has necessitated some changes to my routine. Gone are the days of leaving the home JIT (as in just in time).

For the past four days since I started the longer commute, I’ve been taking the Interstate 275, leaving our new home just before 6.30am. And the journey so far averages about 25 minutes for a travel that is best described as free flowing but at a controlled speed.

Here is a morning shot from our complex across to the USF campus. You can barely make out the name USF at the entrance pedestal.

The return trip, on the other hand, is a different story. I’ve tried three different routes, leaving the office around 5pm, and they all took at least 45 min. People are all just anxious to get home, clogging all the lanes at the same time. The I-275 way is shorter, but is a grid lock at several places where feeder roads join it, debouching near endless streams of cars into the over-stretched I-275.

The city road has too many traffic lights, ensnarling the traffic into a frequently idling mode. It seems a better solution could be to change the time of travel and not fight with the first wave of traffic, during both the morning and the evening rush hours. At the moment, I’ve no choice because my D has to get to school before 7.25 am. But she will soon be done with high school in another one and a half months, and counting whence I will experiment with the new time slot.

After more than three years of enjoying a single digit minute commute, I’m really not about to spend more time on the road than I absolutely need to. The aggravation of traffic woes, the increased chance of accident exposure, not to mention the apparent waste of valuable time and burning fuel. Except when this glorious vista comes into view, kind of driving (though galloping would be preferable) into the sunset.

Since school is off today for Easter, I arrived at the office about 10 min before 7am. So I was able to leave proportionally early, a practice known as flexi-time, which I did at 4.40pm.

And to my surprise, the I-275 route was relatively free-flowing. In fact, it seemed to be slightly better off than the morning’s commute. Then again it could be because the school is off and also because of the long Easter weekend. So it’s premature to generalize today’s ease of travel as being the rule.

I also located the nearest public library, which is my favorite book haunt. Actually, it’s even closer to our home than before. Then there is the huge USF library, which provides free access to the public, even though the loan facility is not likewise extended.

So tomorrow will be a busy day of exploring the neighborhood, which we first did by foot around the perimeter of our complex yeterday. It was around 7pm and the neighborhood road was quite deserted, save for another woman walking her dog across the street. So serene.

As for unpacking, just witness what the lady of the house has done, transforming an empty house into a comfy abode where many hours will be spent in leisurely pursuits.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Gators is the Best Collegiate Basketball TEAM Two Years in A Row

The game plan of Billy Donovan was brilliant and superbly executed by the Gators on April 2: Put different bodies on Oden but no double team; the result: a tired Oden, and a spent force toward the end. Play zone defense and restrict the Buckeyes to outside shooting; the result: 2 of 23 from long range. And both Donovan and the Gators believe in their perimeter shooting, grudgingly but wisely acknowledging the prowess of territorial Oden, but only in the paint.

As is often said, the lack of raw talent is more than made up by the team chemistry, putting the team before self. Most importantly, the players believe the basketball sense of the coach who sees the whole court and dissects the opponents’ weaknesses while leveraging on the strength of the Gators to exploit these exposed foibles.

Basketball is a team sport. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that a well-balanced team would always trump one with one or even two star players.

Now both the coach and the “Oh Four” group have a decision to make: the former whether to go for a three-peat, but in all likelihood with a different Gator team makeup or to try to duplicate the same success over at Kentucky while the latter whether to turn pro, having reached the pinnacle, twice, in their collegiate career and having understood the truism that there is no I in TEAM.

We have been riding high on the shoulders of this special unselfish group of Gators for the past two years and I say let’s leave them alone to make their next moves. Whatever it is, their contribution in putting the stamp of the Gator Nation in the American sport scene is the tallest order one can expect and certainly the highest honor, academically or otherwise, that one can garner as well. Thanks Billy and company for the excitement and for the memory.

Even the post-game interview was conducted in a TEAM fashion.