Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Gainesville Here We Come!

We thought it would be good to bring the newest addition to our family, Dan, to Gainesville to have a feel of the environment that his wife has grown up in as a kid. At the same time, it too afforded an opportunity for WJ (our elder son) to walk down the memory lane, one where he has spent his formative years, the Corry Village, a student family housing located just next to Lake Alice.

However, it turned out that WJ was busy touching base with his SiHeng, Anthony, whom he has acquainted through SiFu Wong Kiew Kit. Anthony conducts Shaolin Kungfu and Chi Kung classes in Gainesville. He is a self-assured young man and in that respect, WJ is in good company.

For lunch, we decided to try the lunch offering at the Buffet City, which we learned about on a previous trip. It was not a disappointment: the food galore, the reasonable pricing, and the exquisite wall d├ęcor.

A mosaic of framed painting and wall calligraphy complete with 3D floral/light design hung on the wall. The left panel: galloping toward success;
the right panel: a peaceful home leads to flourishing business;
and the bottom panel: Bon voyage.

Corry Village looks about the same, except for the absence of the basketball court that has been converted into a part of a kindergarten. We toured Building 276, one which we stayed for just over four years, and walked along the paved path to the playground, down some steps, and ended at the laundry room.

CY (our elder D) used to roller-skate around with her friends along the sidewalk and also down the slope next to the steps. At times, she would complain of chest discomfort (heart palpitations) at night but my wife ascribed that condition to being the lingering effect of being “over-challenged” by her peers to glide down the slope during the day, a case of physical and mental agitation transforming into physiological disorder, albeit transient.

As events would prove it, CY either mentally tamed the fear of roller-skating down a slope or actualized the adage that practice makes perfect for the complaints just kind of tapered off. So that’s a bit of child psychology for young parents.

Then we swung by the Reitz Union, the hub of the student center, making a brief stop at the Bookstore and the duck pond behind. There was an assortment of parents and would-be freshmen moving around the Reitz Union, to my surprise. Then we found out that it was Preview Week. My wife even showed a parent from Maryland where to buy bottled water.

To each his/her own?

No nostalgic trip would have been complete without a walk by Lake Alice, retracing our usual stroll in the park on the boardwalk. And while there, we were able to witness some fascinating instances of peaceful co-existence in the animal world, putting to shame perhaps the dog-eat-dog world that we inhabit.

By Lake Alice, stopping for a well-deserved shot.

A turtle and a young alligator: a blossoming friendship in the making?

After picking up WJ downtown at the end of his meeting with his SiHeng, we dropped by Mdm Huang’s place (read here for a previous visit), to introduce Dan to our dear friend. Then it was time to hit the road again to return to Tampa, in time for Dan to overcome his awe at the UF campus (presumptious? maybe, but that is one of the privileges of being a father-in-law).

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Kings and the Spidey, at Channelside

Prior to the "assault" on the Clearwater Beach, thrice over the 10-day stretch that made up our D and Dan's visit to Tampa (read here for one of these visits), we also brought them to the Channelside where we watched Spidey the Third (inspired by Shrek the III) on IMAX. My bro and elder S (who has seen the movie in Malaysia, and yes, the film premiered overseas first before it was launched here in US) deciced to give the movie a pass. Instead, they took the tram to Ybor City.

While there, we also had a earful of Elvis's songs serenaded by Elvis-wannabes, who were there for the Elvis Song Contest. I remarked to my wife that I've never seen so many sideburns at one place. There was even a kid Elvis, but minus the sideburn, who gyrated with a mini-guitar in hand.

Huddle time, with sun glasses to boot.

Not sure whether this particular singer won the contest, but he sure can move like the King.

Toby Mcquire, variously aka Peter Parker and Spidey, was great. Topher Grace, on the other hand as Venom, was too much pointy teeth for me. My wife complained about the sound effect being too loud, but otherwise enjoyed the movie that shows that we are all fundamentally good people, but do succumb to external agents, in this case, some alien fluid-like substance, now and then.

Even the sandman was a victim of circumstances, and junior Green Goblin realized his vengeful pretenses. While the Topher Grace character was perhaps pitiful, being consumed by his own craving for recognition through chicanery, I really don't see the point why he should be made (by the director of course) to plunge himself back into the fold of the evil black ooze, a symbolic and poignant act of self-destruction, after being "rescued" by Spidey. Well, maybe the director is just being realistic to the fact that in this imperfect world of ours, some of us are bound (or doomed?) to fall through the crack.

But to me, the take home message is clear:

We make a lot of choices in life, but we always have the choice to do good.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sunset over and under the Gulf of Mexico

Watching sunset, especially at the horizon, unencumbered by terrestrial obstructions, is an activity that requires the observer to be at the edge of a vast body of water to the west. And that geographical location is found at our backyard, at the Clearwater Beach across the Bay. And that was what we set out to do yesterday. After checking the Internet earlier in the day, my bro announced that the sun would set at 8.15pm.

So we left our home at 6.30pm, driving along I-275 and then S60, crossing the Clearwater Bridge, and arriving at our destination at 7.30pm. It was still bright, but without the torrid afternoon heat, purportedly reaching a high of 91 degree F.

Some of us frolicked in the surf, while others preferred the dryness and soft feel of the beach, scanning the scenery seaward, landward, skyward. When the moment came, we marveled at the sun dropping out of sight under the Gulf of Mexico, but still illuminating the sky with a crimson orange glow. Here then are the pictorial moments, our moods captured, and the wonder of nature frozen in time.

The belles of the Lee Family, taking to water like ducklings.

On the other hand, the men (except for yours truly and Dan) staked their claim on dry land, perhaps keeping a lookout for ...

The love birds posing at the water edge

The setting sun silhouetting, the surf caressing, and the lone bird gliding.

The lady of the house holding the sun in her palm, achieving the seemingly impossible.

The horizon forming a tangent to the sun, a fleeting, but recurring, moment of geometrical touch.

And then it's twilight, ushering in sun rise on another part of the world.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Class of 2007: It's now official

Last year, we (meaning the graduating seniors and their parents) were forced to queue up at the main gate of the Florida State Fairground until the line spilled over to the cross roads, creating a kind of traffic hazard. All because the main gate did not open at 1.30pm due to some miscommunication. This time during rehearsal, the Principal (or rather the ex-principal, read here for further details) took pain to explain that the same thing would not recur).

This afternoon, the gate did open earlier, though we were still given the runaround between the three gates (the first two were still locked when we first arrived). But this time we were kept waiting outside the hall entrance (only the graduates were allowed to go in), under the hot sun, and were told that we would be allowed in only at 2pm.

After some loud words were exchanged between some impatient parents and the gate official, we were allowed in 25 min earlier, much to the relief of the majority of those who suffered in silence.

The cool air inside the Hall was more than a welcome change, what with the comfortable seats. As in the morning rehearsal, events unfolded in a similar way, but in a full-dressed manner, from those on stage, the invited guests, the graduates, and the audience, and to the accompaniment of Pomp and Circumstance performed live, by the school band. Not to mention the actual speeches delivered by the Senior Class President, the Salutatorian, and the Valedictorian.

The Senior Class president, reporting on the class history, characterized the four years undergone by the graduating seniors as, successively, the year of uncertainty, the year of enlightenment, the year of dedication, and the unprecedented year, in terms of the championships won and also in terms of bereavement (a disproportionate number of students suffered from family deaths).

But all came through with flying colors, despite the emotional traumas. As announced with pride by the ex-Principal in his welcoming speech, the class of 2007 garnered $9 million worth of scholarship money, 60% of the class have a GPA of 4.00 and above, 97% are college-bound, and 10 gained admission into Ivy league universities.

For the first time, the speech by the salutatorian was interspersed with partial songs strung together that tells a vivid story of the four-year sojourn, a tapestry of emotions ranging from frustration to jubilation.

In the same vein as Dr. Seuss’s famous mantra, the valedictorian proudly proclaimed that the world is not ready yet for the graduating class for the multi-talents that they have displayed.

The ceremony culminated with the conferring of the diplomas whence the graduates moved their tassels from left to right, and some throwing their mortar boards into the air just as seen in movies. At the conclusion of the eventful ceremony, it was time to bid farewell with photo sessions with all and sundry for remembrance.

On our own, the momentous day for our D ended with a graduation dinner at Macaroni Grill. For our readers, please enjoy the pictorial treat that best sums up the mood of the occasion.

The scene at about 2pm from our vantage seats procured by being the early birds, showing that the audience gallery across was still largely vacant. While the chairs at the center were still empty, their prospective owners were already lined up behind the curtains, ready to assume their place in history, the 88th graduating class of HP Plant High School.

The official souvenir program for the occasion, with the school song
(appropriately named Alma Mater) lyrics at the back.

The early birds getting ready for the action to roll.

A sizeable crowd has invaded the audience gallery across and the school band has just struck the first note, a cue for the graduates to commence filing in.

The graduates, in full regalia, were staking their rightful place in the venerable hall of fame
for high school seniors, two at a time.

The graduates, in full force, at 3.20pm, ready to take their pledge of allegiance,
the first business of the day.

Our D walking across the stage, after receiving the scroll from the Principal.

The symbolic coming of age, the tassel moving moment.

A mosaic of pictures showing our D with her fellow graduates (left)
and teachers (right) who have helped make today possible.

Class of 2007 (the rehearsed one)

We woke up with a start this morning, at 5am. Why? Our D’s high school graduation rehearsal ceremony. Yes, today is her school’s graduation day, she being one of the class of 2007. 400+ of them. Just from her school. And the venue is the Expo Hall at Florida State Fairground, a sprawling area of open space where State Fairs are held.

We left home at just after six, set on reaching the venue at 6.30am as instructed. After a few wrong turns, we eased into the parking lot on grass, which was slowly being filled. Entering the Expo Hall, we moved to a choice area like veterans, which in fact we are, having gone through the same process last year for our S.

Like a conductor, the Principal (or rather the ex-Principal, he was promoted out of the school early this year), choreographed the entire sequence, starting from graduates entering the hall in pair, to the accompaniment of the familiar music score of Pomp and Circumstance, the de facto official graduation song here in US., taking their positions at the cues from the marshals who are strategically located, and being seated in unison.

Then there is the protocol of filing up the central stage to receive the scroll (just a piece of paper and the real diploma will have to be claimed backstage at the end of it all), shaking hand with the principal with the right and receiving the scroll with the left hand, and walking toward the opposite end to have the graduation picture taken, with the American flag as the background, not forgetting to move the tassels from left to right that would symbolize the completion of the arduous (to some) academic journey from pre-K to 12.

Before that, there will be numerous speeches, including one each by the valedictorian and salutatorian, the pledge of allegiance, and singing of the national anthem, the school song, all making up the solemn ceremony that marks the point of breakthrough and the readiness of the graduating class to commence another chapter in their lives.

Being a rehearsal, the graduates turned up in all manner of attire, including shoe-wear. But we are assured that at the real thing, which is 3pm today, they will be in their most resplendent selves, gowns, mortar boards, regalia, and all.

So if for nothing else, the pictures that captured the mood of the rehearsal would serve as a contrast to the pomp and pageantry this afternoon, which we would chronicle in a subsequent blog.

Graduates in various poses just before the rehearsal. The seats for the graduates all face the central stage with spectator seats on both sides for the parents and friends, which will be filled this afternoon.

Up on the central stages, the various "directors" discussing the fine points of ensuring a smooth ceremony.

Graduates entering the hall in twos.

Taking up position in front of their respective seats.

Lead singers for the national anthem

The directors on stage demonstrating the way to sing "the Alma Mater", the school song, clasped arms in swaying motion over the heads.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Moment of Fright, but no Danger that ended in a Family Reunion

After more than 3 years of physical separation, we were united with our elder S in US last night. He flew in with his uncle (my Bro) from Malaysia, a flight journey that took about 25 hours of air time, i.e., excluding transit time. The route took him via Singapore, Tokyo, Minneapolis, and finally, Orlando, on NW Air.

Earlier in the day, my bizarre string of events continued to unfold. First, I had a flat tire, the front driver side. It must be a slow leak over the night, though I did feel a bit heavy on the steering when I was parking last evening after I got home from work, but did not pay any attention to it as the minivan was just serviced a day earlier, with wheel alignment and tire pressure check and all.

So I called Triple A, of which I’m a member. I have previously availed of their tire changing service several times, free. This did not seem to warrant anything differently. I guessed it could be a busy Saturday morning, or maybe fewer Triple A road assistants were working. It took them about one and a half hours to reach me. That the developer has deemed it fit to change the address of our complex did not help matter too. For one thing, Mapquest could not find the new address, but the US Postal Service obviously has no problem delivering our mails.

Anyway, getting tired of waiting and also entertaining the half chance that they might not turn up after all and that we had a schedule to catch (to fetch my S and Bro arriving later part of the evening in Orlando), I proceeded to do the tire change myself, armed with some similar experience gained in Malaysia and also after witnessing the same thing done by the Triple A here. Back in Malaysia, the spare tire in my car was kept in the trunk, easily accessible. For the minivan, it’s stored below the engine chassis, and is accessible through a relatively elaborate, at least to the mechanically challenged, process by unscrewing a nut in the car compartment, which then releases the cable strap that keeps the tire in place, and gradually lowers the tire to the ground.

But first I have to find the tools (the jack, the long spanner, the jack handle, etc.), which are kept in a hidden side pocket in the cargo compartment. And yes, I have not touched, nor bothered to look for them in the past three years. So it took me a little while to release them from the grip/clamp, taking pain to memorize their positions, orientations, etc., so that I could put them back the right way, i.e., snugly.

Then it’s into the car compartment (middle row) under the floor mat to unfasten the screw that locks the spare tire in place, underneath the engine chassis as aforementioned. Just when the spare tire was being lowered, I got a call from the Triple A road assistant asking for direction (how come I’m not surprised?).

So my first tire change in US was stopped short there and then. And I have a little cut on my hand to show for that. The guy arrived 15 min later and completed the tire change in less than 10 min, using the power tool to unscrew the bolts, nary a sweat.

But that was not all. Driving with one spare tire (and one more thing, back in Malaysia the spare tire is the same size as the other tires, and the same rim size and width. Here the spare wheel looks darned thin, obviously that’s meant to be a spare, and not a replacement), I reached Sears Auto Center, the tire outlet nearest my home (about 1 mile away), related the problem (the serviceman went round the minivan, pointing out to me that some of the tires have suffered the consequences of wheel misalignment, even showing me pictures of the resulting uneven wear and tear, but I stayed true to my sole purpose: just repair the damaged tire), gave my particulars when asked, and settled into NEXT, the novel by Michael Crichton that I brought along, in the waiting room. Soon I was lost in the intrigue involving gene patenting, DNA testing, and academic dishonesty weaved by Crichton. One hour passed, just like that, and I got impatient. After all, the guy promised me an hour, a good hour, those are his words.

So I stood up, and scanned the work space which is separated from the waiting room by a glass window. Strange, I could not find my minivan from my vantage point that covers the entire work space, unobstructed. I next sauntered out of the waiting room, and saw my minivan parked on the outside. Going around it, I noticed that the flat tire has been put back where it belonged, properly inflated. So what’s happening? How long has it been sitting there, waiting for his owner to come and claim it? Questions and questions.

I walked to the front office, waited in line and approached the attendant (with some displeasure at being kept waiting), and popped the million-dollar question: Is my car done? The attendant bent down to a compartment below and pulled out a plastic bag soon after. He retrieved a form from it and told me, yes, your car is ready (and no, I did not ask him when that was) and there is no charge.

Just when I was thinking, yay, they must have realized the inordinate delay that I had suffered and was about to give me a free work order, you know, like some eateries who promise that the food order is on the house if it is not delivered within a certain time frame, the guy said nonchalantly, because we could not find the leak after the water tank test. This is the usual test when a tire suspected to be leaking is placed under water after inflating and one just looks for the tell-tale air bubbles that rise to the surface. The conclusion: no air bubbles, no leak. So did somebody let go of the air intentionally?

This is not good. I would rather it be due to some mechanical causes. Sensing my apprehension, the shop assistant ventured that sometimes dirt particles could collect around the valve, preventing it from being closed completely after air inflation through a spring mechanism. So the slow leak. And he advised me to keep monitoring and to come back if the same problem recurs.

Half believing his seemingly rational explanation (the mal-intent found in the alternative explanation is too much to stomach), I drove home to tell wify about the good news. Yes, they did not charge me for the work not done. And yes, there are honest operators here too, thus restoring my faith on human integrity.

No, that’s not the end of the twist. The best, and should I say, the scariest, was yet to come. We left for Orlando around 5.30pm, via Interstate 4. There was some weekend traffic, perhaps because of the Mother’s day weekend, but we were able to cruise along, with wify settling into a mild slumber on the passenger seat next to me.

Then lo and behold, a thing (it looked like a dark container or something) just jumped out from the back of a pickup truck in front on the middle lane (I was on the outer lane on a 6-lane dual carriageway), my preferred position when overtaking.

I tried to swerve around the fallen obstacle, which was then bouncing in front on my lane, but failed. So while keeping my foot on the brake pedal, but not in full press so as to lose control of the minivan, I tried to run over the thing, hoping for the best.

Thomp, Clomp, Sizzzzzz.......

Instead, the thing got stuck under the front bumper and was dragged along the whole time I was trying to steer the slowing minivan to the emergency lane, noticing that a SUV was approaching my rear at considerable speed through my rearview mirror, and actually cutting into the emergency lane (perhaps seeing, from his perspective, that I was struggling to stop the car on the outer lane). I managed to stop the car about, oh, may be a hundred meters or so from where the first encounter occurred, and after what seemed like an interminably long time, in the emergency lane. The SUV must have reverted back to the outer lane and passed me by when I was trying to catch my breadth. I may have stopped breathing during that few seconds of hell.

However, I soon recovered my senses. First, I put on the hazard lights, and then opened my trunk cover to indicate approaching vehicles that my car was immobilized. Then I went to the front to survey the damage. It’s a black plastic container that had been partly broken by the “ordeal”, but otherwise staying pinned under the front bumper, between the two front wheels. I called out to my S to help me extricate the intruding object while I lifted the front bumper, maybe by several inches. Unusual times call for unusual display of strength, the adrenaline push doing its job no doubt.

The unwelcome object thus removed and disposed of down the slope next to the emergency lane so that it would not be in the way of traffic, we continued our way, at first cautiously to check whether there was any other damage to the car handling, feeling blessed that we have emerged from the duration-limited but definitely high shock value adventure none the worse. I shudder to think if it were a metal container, my front wheel bursting in contact, and sparks flying, igniting a conflagration …

And the pick-up truck did not even stop, probably its driver did not even realize the mayhem he has caused, which is unlikely as we drivers are always watchful of scenes behind through the rearview mirror. [My Bro just raised another possibility after I related the mishap to him this morning: the container could have been filled with liquid that could promote hydro-planing, a phenomenon whereby a moving vehicle is sliding along on a wetted road, without any steering control, or worse, filled with petrol or some highly inflammable liquid. How a human mind can just think of the worst of worst.]

The rest of the journey ended without any more untoward incident. Instead, the mood was expectant, playful, and excited as seen from the following series of photos taken at the Concourse A of the Orlando International Airport with some famous imaginary characters. Well, it's Orlando right, where DisneyWorld and the World of Make Believe hold sway?

The Spidey connection: Mom's Medusa touch

The goofy Dad, belied by his facial expression that borders more on seriousness,
than, well, goofiness.

The Lilo kid in our D. And obviously
our younger S was not game for the photoshoot with fictional characters.

But on our returning journey, when turning into Fowler from the Interstate 75, I temporarily lost my sense of direction and ended up going around for 10 min before I found the way to our home. Things have a way of interfering with one’s perspective when driving at night.

The night ended with us catching up with our S and my Bro after all these years. And I slept soundly through the night, knowing that Mother’s Day would beckon in the morning, which it did, and that will be the subject of another blog.

Mom reunited with her elder S, equally missed by his two siblings.
Soon the remining sibling will fly in from Portland, OR on coming Thurday.
Our first family reunion in close to four years.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Carpe Diem! And They Did, In Style

Wify (that’s an endearing term for my wife, in the same vein as hubby) called me in the office yesterday morning regarding her planned outing to the Bay waters with Sister Yu Huei, Sister Connie, Venerable Hwei Chen’s Mom, and Mama Soon. It was a treat for Venerable Hwei Chen’s Mom on the occasion of her visit to the Tampa area. Included in the road/boat trip, a short one from where we are across the Bay, was a Releasing Life activity.

Chauffeured by Sis Yu Huei, the entourage braved the hazy condition and arrived at Clearwater around 3pm. Then they immediately boarded a launch boat for a leisure cruise around the Bay. There was another lovely couple from Ohio (wify always manages to strike up a conversation with almost anybody) and that’s it.

It’s not very often that wify gets to be around places in my absence. But I have learned to let go through the years. Not that I’m possessive and not able to trust her instincts (one can never be too careful), but rather I always get worried for her safety when she is out of my sight. But she promised to keep me posted through mobile telecommunication. And I have learned to suppress negative thoughts, at first consciously. Now the negativity only visits sporadically and fleetingly.

The cruise took them scything through the calm Bay waters, kicking up regular trains of boat waves and wakes emanating from the moving boat from both sides. The boat spots a leaping dolphin on its top, and they did catch some glimpses of dolphins swimming not too far away (but perhaps too far to be shot, with a camera that is). Wify was also not able to catch the lovely sounds that the dolphins are known to make either. Just the droning of the boat engine and the serene sight of the dolphins going about their business in their natural habitat, broken perhaps by the occasional verbal exchanges among the spectators.

The cruise made a brief stop on what looks like a sandbank in the middle of the bay. Like lost souls marooned on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere (use your imagination), the ladies frolicked at the water edge, were perched on top of washed up tree stumps, and just generally enjoyed the piece of heaven on earth, away from the hustle and bustle of city life (actually that only becomes a backdrop and out of earshot only).

Then it was back to the shore for the Releasing Life activity, followed by a vegetarian dinner at a Vietnamese Chinese restaurant not too far away. Do you know that many Vietnamese Chinese speak Cantonese? And the lady proprietor of this restaurant is no different. And it so happened that wify can speak a smattering of Cantonese (she is Hokkien/Fujian, similar to the Taiwanese/Mingnan dialect but perhaps her Cantonese was honed by interacting with my late Mom who only spoke Cantonese, and also the old lady helper around the school where she lived while young, come to think of it). And the two talked like two long lost friends who have just found each other, aided by a common thread revealed during the conversation.

The lady proprietor had spent a year on a transit camp when she left Vietnam in 1978, and that transit camp was Pulau Bidong, an island offshore of the State of Terengganu, Malaysia that was designated a refugee island by United Nations during the height of the Vietnamese exodus. So that’s the common link. She was first dispatched to Holland and later wound up in US following her husband. It’s a small, small world, the famous refrain made popular by the DisneyWorld people.

Wify reached home about 10pm, still in high spirits nary a trace of fatigue. That’s what a good company does to you. Thus concluded a memorable outing, a lady's day of sort, the moments, many, caught in the pictorial journal that follows, the befitting manifestation of the spirit of Carpe Diem!

Yummy! Nothing beats having some delicious chinese dumplings
to start the day, or in this intant, evening (Mama Soon to the left
and Venerable Hwei Chen's Mom to the right).

Nice breeze! The four lady friends at stern (Wify to extreme left and
Sis Connie to extreme right).
Obviously the 5th member of the entourage,
Sis Yu Huei, is the photographer.

Staking a claim on the sandbank, with a solitary tree and a
rather extensive grass meadow to boot.

Instead of Tom Hanks in Castaway, we have four graceful ladies smilingly in distress.
But the backdrop is a dead giveaway.

What's with the boat captain? It seems a cruise would not be complete
without a picture with the captain. Perhaps for safely delivering
the entourage back to the shore? But I feel assured at the sight
of the stacks of life jackets at the ceiling. Shouldn't they be wearing them?

Life begetting life, the Buddhist Way.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Essence of Dharma: Compassion and Wisdom

Tuesday, i.e., yesterday, arrived with anticipation. And when it’s all said and done, it became a night of fulfillment and blessing, not only for those who turned up for the occasion at our home, but hopefully for all sentient beings as well.

Our home was graced by Venerable Hwei Chen last eveing, who has flown in from Taiwan to attend his commencement after completing the requirements toward a doctoral degree, accompanied by his mother. Many of our Buddhist friends made this possible: Sister Yu Huei picking up Shifu and his entourage from the Tampa International Airport, Sister Connie cooking vegetarian dishes, with others chipping in with their delicacies, and my wife and our S setting up the venue (me and our D were at work and school, respectively).

We first met Venerable Hwei Chen more than two years ago when we attended his Dharma talk held at USF. Then our paths crossed a few more times, one of which led to a Releasing Life outing at Clearwater, a year ago almost to the day, it being on May 7, 2006. I know that because I managed to locate photographic proof as shown to the right, right under the same date stamp in my digital album kept on my PC. How uncanny.

It was most opportune that the Tampa Buddhist Group (an informal gathering of like-minded Buddhist practitioners living in the Tampa area) was able to arrange Tampa to be the Florida landing point for Venerable Hwei Chen’s trip and above all, has kindly agreed to have our new home as the venue for his Dharma talk.

After partaking of the sumptuous vegetarian dinner (the main force behind it all, Connie, seen here standing next to my wife, both basking in the culinary offerings that would soon delight our taste buds. As several of the attendees remarked, the color, the aroma, and the taste, the three elements that a dish is judged by, were all present), Venerable Hwei Chen first conducted a blessing ceremony for our new home with sutra chanting by the attendees. Thus blessed, we then seated ourselves to listen to the Dharma talk by Venerable Hwei Chen, under the benevolent gaze of the image of Buddha hung high on the wall behind him.

Venerable Hwei Chen started off by first relating a remark that his colleague at Florida International University (FIU) where he was a guest lecturer, made: US needs Dharma. It seems that with all the technological advancements that cater to their material needs, people here are still in need of spiritual guidance, and in search of a moral compass for overall wellbeing, the attainment of which is fraught with vexations and afflictions.

Venerable Hwei Chen leading the blessing ceremony.

Citing the senseless killing at the Virginia Tech campus, which was precipitated by its own unique set of causes and effects, and conditions, Venerable Hwei Chen proffered the two keystone elements of Buddhism that would help ameliorate this aberrant manifestation of inhumane and inhuman behavior: compassion and wisdom.

These two character traits that everyone should cultivate also constitute the spirit of Dharma, forming its core that we all can relate to in terms of understanding. But practicing and actualizing them could prove formidable. In this respect, Venerable Hwei Chen would like to suggest two ways for each that could facilitate embracing, internalizing, and infusing them into our daily life. After all we are all creatures of habits, and naturally the right ways would imply cultivating good habits.

Venerable Hwei Chen enthralling an attentive audience with his ensemble of
personal anecdotes that illustrate the application of the teachings of Buddha.

On compassion, Venerable Hwei Chen recounted an encounter in a pet shop that affected him deeply. It was a scene we are all familiar with: the various animals, in cages/tanks, on display, and pegged at different prices. A rare pedigree could cost a bundle while some fish can be had for pocket change. Each is a life by itself, and in Buddhism, is considered equal and imbued with Buddha nature, intrinsically. In the material world, we are all being commoditized in a hierarchy of values, some lives being viewed as more “precious” than the others.

The above preamble is aimed at introducing one way to instill compassion: be a vegetarian. A central belief in Buddhism is rebirth (or samsara in the universal sense). The type of rebirth that arises at the end of one’s life is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of the previous life; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy, grouped into six planes or realms. The Six realms are the six possible states of rebirth: a deva (the realm of bliss and pride, or the god-likes to distinguish them from the omniscient God in monotheistic religions and also from the next realm), an asura (the realm of the demigods), a human being (the realm of the homo sapiens), an animal (the realm of the nonhuman animals), a hungry ghost (the sentient beings who are unable to enjoy food or drink), or a being in Naraka (hell). [excerpted and recombined from the Wikipedia article, here and here.]

In other words, in our past lives we could be in any of these realms and, hence, be related to a “reincarnated” being in the present life in any of these realms, including animals. Viewed from that perspective, the chance of consuming an erstwhile relative does not seem remote as one would think.

Furthermore, we should always strive to maintain good relation with all sentient beings, regardless of what realm they are presently at. And that is easier to manage if we were vegetarians to begin with. Compared to vegetarians, meat eaters tend to be easily provoked, and less tolerant of dissenting views (Once upon a time I was too guilty of the same propensities. But advancing age is playing the role of being a vegetarian, you know, getting mellow with age. But I’m cutting down on my meat consumption and look forward to be a practicing vegetarian, full-time, in the not too distant future. As they say, habits die hard, especially the bad ones, I hasten to add.)

The second way to becoming a compassionate person is to speak no evil, only kind words. More people are hurt by mere words than resulting from physical action. And it takes much less efforts to deliver the former, and hence harder to restrain. If look could kill, word can totally annihilate. Conversely, word can heal too. And we should focus on the latter positive aspect next time we feel like launching a tirade.

In a nutshell, becoming a vegetarian and speaking no evil are the manifestation of compassion. And if we can do the latter beyond our circle of friends and acquaintances to strangers, that will be the epitome. Come to think of it, if we can practice compassion on those immediately around us, what so difficult about doing the same for others twice or even umpteen times removed?

Turning to wisdom, Venerable Hwei Chen let us in on one sure way to attain wisdom: become selfless. Who is “I”? The body? The Mind? Or is there a separate entity other than the body and the mind? Venerable Hwei Chen tried to provoke us into some kind of response. Essentially, to become selfless is to let go. We need to always contemplate, introspect, and ruminate on selflessness, on letting go, and on helping and facilitating others.

This introspection and reflection on being selfless is easier said then done, we have to acknowledge. So Venerable Hwei Chen recommends the second and easier way: chanting Buddha’s name. If you think about it, the flip side of chanting Buddha’s name is to bring us out of our consciousness by focusing on the chanting. So the two ways are mutually reinforcing, paving the way toward wisdom.

Buddhism values practice, and it is through constant practice that we can break out of our habits, our mold. Like shooting hoops, an analogy used by Venerable Hwei Chen, we can become compassionate and wise by infusing the four ways into our daily life, thereby transforming our daily grind into a life of compassion and wisdom just like shooting more hoops would likewise improve our accuracy.

Thus fortified, I approached my bedtime with clarity and equanimity. And today, I successfully negotiated my fork away from the meaty components of the dinner dishes (both breakfast and lunch were the vegetarian foods remained from yesterday). The not too distant future that I speculated above may just arrive sooner than I thought.

And if you still have doubts/reservations/qualms/skepticism regarding the practice of compassion and wisdom, I would like to leave these words by Chan Master Sheng Yen with you, taken from a pocket-sized pamphlet entitled Wake Yourself Up: Finding Inner Peace, which Sister Nancy brought last night:

With compassion, one has no enemy; with wisdom, one has no vexation.”


Venerable Hwei Chen interacting with some of the attendees after the Dharma Talk.

Venerable Hwei Chen catching up on some earthly matters, using the same tools just like us.