Monday, July 30, 2007

A New Blogger in the Family

We have a new blogger in the family, Dan. He would be sharing his thoughts, his ideas, and conspiracy theories (this I can't wait to read) through his writing, on a variety of issues that a typical (maybe not) American youth is facing. But I thought he would be also in a unique position to share with us his life’s journey, albeit it's just getting started, being juxtaposed in the confluence of the West and the East streams of values, outlooks, and philosophies.

But I must admit that my D is not exactly the bastion of Eastern culture, having spent a greater part of her life in US at various stages of her life. But we try our best to instill in her some of the fine traditions that we have embraced from our parents, through both word and deed. Things like filial piety, sibling harmony, family unity, respect for others, and more recently, compassion.

These values are actually universal, and are by no means the exclusive domains of Eastern families. The difference is perhaps the degree and the manner through which these values are expressed.

So this is the closest to the Ying and the Yang that we will ever get, which in our case here is more like the Yinn and the Yan (for Dan). And Dan’s is only one click away (on the left side bar) from here.

Have fun! I know I will.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

University Access VS Academic Excellence: The Floridian Battleground

The state university system here in Florida has been in the news for some time now. First, several of the top echelon of public universities, my alma mater, UF, included, petitioned to the State Legislature to raise the tuition fees, citing the fee differential in comparison with other states (Florida charges the least tuition fees for public universities of all states) as the primary stumbling block to achieving the status of a premier university. For example, UF ranks 47 in one university ranking list that focuses on academic excellence. In contrast, UF is ranked quite high in terms of the greatest bang for the buck.

The universities argue, not unconvincingly I suppose, that the increased revenue will pay for the hire of top-notched professors, better facilities, and smaller class size. This in turn will attract highly achieving students, and the virtuous cycle repeats itself. Even the student leaders echo the same sentiments, foregoing short-term benefits (affordability) for long-term gain (academic recognition).

The newly minted State Governor, on the other hand, values access more than academic excellence. This is a classic battle between egalitarianism and elitism. On one hand, the former is a popular social agenda, especially in a democracy where political victories are won by the electoral vote.

On the other hand, the frontiers of knowledge are not pushed by averaged students whose preoccupation could easily have been the economic benefits that would be conferred on them upon earning a college degree. Thereafter, they will likely remain as the users, rather than the innovators, of technologies. For that, the scientific enterprise will need a critical mass of advanced thinkers, designers, and innovators to push the wheel of civilization further along.

Just when things are coming to a head, a compromise, as always, emerges: a tiered university system. The highly regarded of the lot such as UF and FSU will get to charge higher tuition, leaving the financially needy to be catered by the second tier universities.

In a way, this tiered system is already in use in states such as California (the UC and the CSU system), at least in terms of academic prestige where the former outranks the latter. So the Florida universities are not treading on uncharted territories.

But hiccups, teeming problems, are bound to accompany new initiatives, more so when the parties involved (the governor and the State legislature on one side, and the Board of Governors of the universities on the other, who have seen (perceived) their decision making role being usurped by the State administration) are brought to the table rather grudgingly.

The latest twist of event has the Governor postponing the implementation of the tiered tuition system to the next academic year. In turn, the universities initiated an austerity drive in the form of hire freeze and program cuts, citing worsening budget deficit that has snowballed over the years as the reason. The universities have even resorted to the legal due process to decide once and for all, who (the State legislature or the Board of Governors) has the power to change university tuition.

Personally, I’m for both university access for deserving students, they being not denied their rightful place in the haloed ground of universities because of a quirk in the social milieu that they have no control over, and academic excellence that can only accrue from top-notched professors and students banging their hands together in the best equipped facilities. That means revenue, a big portion of which is from tuition collection.

Also, implementing a tiered system seems a sensible compromise, pushing forth with the social agenda of leveling university access and the agenda of par excellence in academic pursuit.

In the interim, some innocent folks may fall by the wayside. And I came to realize this unpredictable nature of life this morning when I was talking to my neighbor on my way out to run some banking errands. He was polishing the chrome wheels of his SUV, part of his weekend routine. The conversation started rather casually with “how are you this morning?” After some perfunctory exchanges of niceties, I ventured to ask him what he was teaching at USF (I have learned previously of his vocation from the sales office in our development).

Well, I teach a course to the first-year students [I did not catch the name of the course]. But next week will be my last week as they cut my program.” Huh? So he is the first casualty I have met of the hiring freeze and program cuts mentioned above.

He seemed unfazed by the whole thing, merely adding that he would take some time off to think about the next move, and continued to wish me a good day.

How to you express your condolence to one who has just become unemployed? What about his family? All I could muster was “tough luck”, knowing fully well that luck has nothing to do with his predicament at all.

How would I react under the same circumstance? One that I have no control over? I guess the real answer will only surface when I come to the bridge. But it does prompt one to think ahead, and not to take things for granted, and to prepare for rainy days, by networking, and by not burning any bridges.

And live in the moment, and do our very best everyday.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Life in Its Many Forms and Realms: Release, the Departed, the Buddha, and Contemplation

My wife and her Buddhist friends held a release life activity this morning next to the Veteran Memorial Park just off the bank of the Tampa Bypass Channel. This is the first time we entered the park ground as unbeknownst to us, the opening hour of the park coincided with our time of arrival, 10.00am. Before that, we stopped by a bait and tackle shop to buy juvenile fish and earthworms.

Instead of chanting the sutra at the river side, Yu Huei decided to hold the chanting session at the shop there and then on two considerations. Firstly, some of the small animals may not survive the trip from the shop to the river side. So this would ensure that they would get the good merits transferred to them while alive. Secondly, this would benefit the entire animal collection within the shop.

Indoor chanting amidst the angling gear and the entire collection of small animals.

While at the shop, a curious onlooker’s interest was piqued by the chanting. I explained to him the gist of the release life as an act of compassion toward all sentient beings. “Not pity, but compassion,” I corrected him. “God moves us in many ways,” he replied, radiating sincerity.

On the drive to the Veteran Memorial Park, I almost ran over a squirrel dashing across the road, my sudden reflexive braking motion scuttling some stuff around me. But no harm done.

At first, we were worried that the steep descent down the earth slope from the bridge to the river side may prove to be a slippery, and hence, dicey operation. But the park was just opened, and we were able to park inside the park. And the good thing is the slope to the river edge is very gentle here, at the bottom of which are scattered rock pieces to provide a firm foothold. Those must be the remnants of a rudimentary bank protection measure against erosion: rock slope. The other meritorious aspect of this particular site is the absence of preying birds that are known to swish down on the small released animals as we have learned painfully from our experience at other sites. The fish fries were released into the stream, and the earthworm, into hand-dug holes by the river side.

The outdoor release life activity, first the aquatic kind and then the burrowing kind, momentarily confined within the two brown bags in the hands of Sister Annie.

Then something else happened. A group of ducks were swaggering toward us while we were about to drive off. So the ladies alighted again, palms joined, and started chanting away at the approaching ducks, presumably sensing food from their past treatments. The merits thus transferred so that in their (the ducks') next life they would be reborn in the human realm, the realm at which Buddhahood is most reliably attained, the ladies thanked the ducks and we were soon on our way to our next destination, a Thai temple along Palm River Drive.

Transferring merits to the swaggering kind

But not before we made a slow drive around the park. It being a Veteran Memorial Park, there are many displays of war paraphernalia: helicopters, and artillery equipment. A small plot in the back was stacked full with miniature American flags, in memoriam of the many casualties of wars. The apparent irony of holding a release life activity in a park dedicated to the many soldiers perished in wars was not lost on me. But in a way, what we did could also be considered as a way of transferring merits to the departed consecrated in the park.

The Thai temple is a sprawling complex amidst the tree-lined river bank, with timber boardwalk over some of the soft ground. The temple’s inside is both regal and solemn. Next to the temple is the canteen where temple helpers were busying packing up the food orders for the expanding crowd of visitors.

Top left: A painting of a Young Buddha teaching to the Five disciples on the foreground.
Top Right: A view of the temple from the river bank.
Bottom right: the Buddha statue inside the Temple.
Bottom left: A view of the river bank from the front of the Temple.

We did the same and adjourned to one of the many tables dotting the river bank to partake of the food offering. A point to note is that the food served is a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian, a departure from the norm at Chinese temples where only vegetarian food is served. The rates charged for the food were very reasonable indeed and would only be possible due to the unfaltering show of volunteerism from the local Thai community, at the same time providing a steady source of revenue to maintain the temple to contribute to the well-being of all sentient beings.

A serene view from our table of feast, and contemplative too.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

72107, 3440, 784

No, I’m not into the number game. But if you are a Potter fan, then you would know what I mean. That’s Harry Potter for those of you who don’t follow the fad started ten year ago by a then unemployed writer by the name of JK Rowling. And the rest is history, or rather, her own fairy-tale story in the world of literary works where many more writers have been left by the wayside, as they would say.

72107 is today’s date: July 21, 2007, a momentous day for the Potter maniacs as today is the day the seventh, the very last installment (of course some will demur as who in his/her right mind would abandon such a lucrative enterprise) in the long-running saga of the magical sojourns of Harry Potter and his gang of magician wannabes is slated to hit the bookstores worldwide. But alas, because of the different time zones, some lucky souls will get to the “truth” of the much-hyped demise of some important characters in the book series earlier than others.

3340 then is the total number of pages of the last six installments and 784 is the number of pages in the seventh and last installment: Harry Porter and the Deadly Hallows.

I’m no Potter fan. And I have the proof: I’ve not read a single one of the installments, and it looks like this one is not going to be any different. But my kids are. So I did what a good father would do in this instance: I made a reservation for 2 copies in Barnes and Noble, several weeks ago, priced at $18.89, a special deal for pre-order topped up with further membership discount, which I’m entitled to.

So we started for Barnes & Noble at about 11.30pm last night, a leisurely drive of about 20 minutes. Before that, we watched some of the actions on the TV night news. Not as bad as the I-Phone line, but a more varied crowd of young and old, presumably the old is there to chaperone the young. It was near mid-night anyway, way beyond the curfew hours set by responsible parents I would say.

The carpark was full, so we had to park at the adjacent lot in front of Office Depot. Upon entering the store, the lines were already formed, the throng weaving among the book shelves. We took our spot, got a color wrist band (yellow), and numbered 292. Dee (my younger son) found the group, each group of 50 identified by the color of the wrist band assigned being allotted a particular corner in the store.

Mom and D looking fresh while waiting for the fun to begin, with Dee's back further afield.

Then the waiting game commenced. Soon the countdown started, and the line started to move, in a very orderly fashion. I joined Dee at his spot, but the tedium of waiting was ameliorated considerably by the presence of books on both sides of the line. So I passed the time by scanning the book titles: The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl that my elder daughter has read, The Art of Letting Go, but written from the perspective of one imbued with the Christian faith, to name a few that I managed to squeeze out from my memory the morning after.

At 12.30am, we were at the cashier, receiving our two copies, and were given some souvenirs on the way out. As soon as we reached home, Dee locked himself in his room (the door was closed), delving straight into the fantasy panorama of magic wands concocted by one of the greatest story tellers of our time.

The Pottermania paraphernalia: the colored wrist band (top), the key chain with tassel and a golden locket spotting 72107 (right), the poster, and the white goggle but without the lens (left), as a mememto of our very first nocturnal foray into a bookstore.

For some reason, my younger daughter, the rightful owner of the other copy, chose to watch some early morning TV programs with us. Then we moved on to Clint Eastwood’s The Letters from Iwo Jima. However, the movie did not, at least during the first few minutes, sustain me enough and my hand reached for Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, but only managed to claim it under the watchful eyes of my D, after surviving her litany of conditions of use: take off the cover, do not wrinkle the page, and above all, don’t say anything of whatever I will be reading.

Actually, I have no intention of latching on to the magical offering, though I do have my own sense of imagination (I think people who write, or blog, can’t have too dormant an imaginative faculty), but just wanted to jump right to the bottom of who survived, the means of which being not my concern really.

I flipped through the contents and note that it has a lot of chapters. Seeing nothing that appealed to me in particular, I settled at the last few pages that started with the page that says nineteen years later. The Potter family and Ron family were seeing their children off to the Academy of Magic where they have previously mastered their trade. Potter is with Ron’s sister (I only found out this morning in one of the online reviews) and Ron is with Hermione. So all the main characters were there. Who died?

Apparently, Rowling must have a change of heart in the last minutes. Anyway, in the world of MagicLand, I guess any untoward death can always be resuscitated should the need arise since living and dying is one continuous process. The last three words of the 4224-page epic are “All was well.”

All is well indeed, which makes for the interesting possibility that the second generation will start their own adventure in time to come. And I just can’t see the creator plugging any further flow of literary juice as yet. Perhaps the Potter tradition and legacy will still live on, in print.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Old Photos, New Realizations

Time flies. You just have to look at some old photos to realize the truism of that simple statement. That’s what I did today, starting with some old photos my brother emailed from Singapore. Then I dug further, and found some old photos that my wife packed with the stuff when we moved here more than three years ago.

Actually I seem to recall seeing a black and white photo of me with my brother (another one). I think it must be taken in the late 50s, before I even started school. But it’s no where to be seen now. So I would spare you, especially my kids, the shock of seeing how cute Daddy was once upon a time.

Anyway, on with the old photos, thanks to the wonder of technology that makes freezing time a piece of cake.

This is the class of 1992/1993 at the HeadStart level that included my younger S, who was a wildcat, the mascot of the William Elementary School, Gainesville, FL.

This is the Universal Studio of yore, circa early 1990s. This might even pre-date the previous photo from the look of the baby stroller-bound kids.

And the Kennedy Space Center of yore. I think the Rocket Garden remains the same (see here for comparison).

OK, I forgot to change my story line. My wife actually went upstairs and located this photo. Me and my elder brother were standing in front of our old house in YongPeng, literally meaning "peace forever" in Chinese. The partial image of an adult to the right must be my Mom. Notice the table-top implement to the left. It's a horizontal grinder made from granite rock. I remember helping my mom making rice cakes using this implement to crush the mixture of rice and water. It has a circular opening at the top into which the mixture would go and by turning the top part of the grinder with a handle in a circular fashion, the mixture would be ground into a light paste that would flow radially into a ring groove that would in turn drain the paste into a filling bag to go on a stove or somethings. It was one of the quality times that I had with Mom.
And now it's our time to yearn for quality time with our own kids.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Driving to Work: Observation in Motion

Now that I have a longer commute to work, which easily spans half an hour each way, I begin to find things to do while on the road. Of course my attention is still focused on the driving, especially when the pattern of the traffic movement is erratic at best typical of rush hour.

I used to tail-gate when I drove in slow traffic, literally bumper to bumper kind of engagement with the vehicle in front. But that was back in Malaysia where most drivers abhor space between vehicles, and cutting in front is the norm. You can say is like the saying, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Since I moved here, I have started to cultivate a habit of maintaining a respectable separation space from the vehicle in front. Not so much as a consequence of a declining reaction time on my part, but rather because Americans value space, and I mean that in the territorial sense, even in a moving vehicle.

Several times when I relapsed into my Malaysian driving habit of getting a tad too close to the vehicle in front, the driver has deemed it fit to poke his hand through the window and flash a finger in the air. Granted I may not be the intended target, but it’s always prudent to err on the presumptuous side in this case.

I used to get upset over the unfriendly gesture. But now I realize that I’m actually the provocateur in the interaction and would just back off. Now come to think of it, there is a 2-second rule for following a vehicle in the Highway Code issued by the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles. And from the looks of it, most drivers do take this to heart.

The other challenge is merging into the Interstate 275 from a feeder road in heavy traffic. Actually it’s a no-challenge at all as all drivers on the Interstate will always yield, though they don’t have to, by slowing down sufficiently enough for merging to effect in a seamless manner. There is no need to honk, or to wave wildly. It’s courtesy at work.

So with one eye on the road, one ear on the radio (Magic 94.9 being my favorite radio station), I use the other half of the visual and audio senses to observe the environment: towering sign posts, fluffy clouds in the sky, or perhaps unfamiliar noises that may herald something untoward.

Once merged into the Interstate, I always work my way to the outermost lane (it’s a six-lane carriageway) so that I only need to pay attention to traffic on the passenger side of the car. Occasionally, I will glance at the side-mirror or the rear mirror to get a sense of the traffic from behind, especially when the traffic in front slows to a halt.

Once I spotted a rather erratic driver behind me, weaving in and out of traffic and trying to get ahead in the heavy traffic. I started to pay attention to the car, keeping a safe distance from the car in front so that I could ease to a stop when necessary and at the same time not having this guy breathing down my neck not being able to stop in time and rear-end me.

And he almost did, but was able to swerve into the emergency lane, almost paralleling my car. After that I immediately moved into the innermost lane, watching for traffic of course, and that’s the last I saw of him.

While traffic accidents are rare, I do witness my fair share of them, but usually after the fact, except for one instance when I heard a screeching sound followed by a loud bang. But it was on the opposite side. Sometimes I see violators being pulled over by traffic cops, the tell-tale blue revolving light warning the traffic to stay clear.

Once in a while, a siren will emanate out of nowhere, and believe me, it’s not easy to locate where it comes from and make appropriate adjustment for it to pass.

Sometimes I scan for interesting bumper stickers. Other times I would note down interesting number plate designs, for example now I know Rhode Island is the Ocean State. But rarely do I look at the drivers just to avoid unnecessary contact and misunderstanding. An innocuous look may be misconstrued as defiant and even challenging.

Maybe tomorrow I will bring along my digicam to record some of the morning scenery. Then again, maybe not. People may think I’m on to some kind of reconnaissance mission with ill-intentions. It seems a lot more safer just to blog about it from memory.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Sixth Dharma Discussion session of MWBA: Buddhist Talk, Taking Refuge Ceremony and Q&A by Venerable Jian Fu

At the heel of our attendance at the 2007 Buddhist Summer Camp in Orlando, we congregated, this time closer to home, at the Pinellas Park venue of the Middle Way Buddhist Association on the evening of July 9, 2007 to attend the Buddhist Lecture, From No Self to Liberation: The Paradoxical Wisdom of Emptiness, given by Venerable Jian Fu, the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sunnyvale. We were there too on the following night, July 10, for the Q&A session during which Venerable Jian Fu cited personal anecdotes and experiences to help illuminate the path to enlightenment. A Taking the Refuge in the Triple Gem ceremony was also held on July 9 at the conclusion of the Buddhist talk and I look forward to reading the personal experiences of those who have embraced Buddhism that very night formalized by their participation in the ceremony that included reciting the repentance verses and the Four Great Vows.

The participants of the Taking Refuge Ceremony with Venerable Jian Fu

Using his uniquely measured tone and even mode of delivery in a slightly accented English suggestive of many years of American education, Venerable Jian Fu started with a simple definition of the Buddha, it being the enlightened one. That state of ultimate bliss, actualized through liberation from suffering, is not beyond us as all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature. What separates us from the Buddha is the concealment of Buddha nature from our own selves, under the cloak of greed, anger, and delusion.

To illuminate the above message, Venerable Jian Fu cited the famous Chan/Zen (Zen being the Japanese word for Chan Buddhism in Chinese) poem attributed to the Sixth Patriarch, Venerable Master Hui Neng:

Bodhi is no tree;
Nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
There is nothing to begin with;
Where can the dust alight?

Here “nothing” is an allusion to emptiness while “dust” is a euphemism for contamination comprising the three mental toxins cited above.

Our polluted state of mind, and hence suffering, can be traced back to our attachment to the entity, self, or more aptly, our misconceptions of our self.

Firstly, our understanding of ourselves is not correct as we often take our earthly possessions to be part and parcel of our image of self. Putting those possessions in the right perspective as affording us the temporary right to use, Venerable Jian Fu enumerated five groups that de facto own our possessions:

1) The Government and its institutions including IRS and banks.
2) Natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.)
3) Doctors
4) Thieves/robbers
5) Children.

One can also further add lawyers and the insurance group if the above list is not enough to shatter our illusion regarding our flimsy hold on our possessions at best.

Secondly, we act as if we treat our existence as a permanent one. Somehow impermanence is just beyond our comprehension.

Thirdly, we feel that we are in control, without realizing that living and dying are the same thing. We start dying the moment we are born.

Fourthly and lastly, we think we have an independent body, not realizing that inter-connectedness is the operative word. And Venerable Jian Fu illustrated the need for an attitude of sharing by telling the story of how denizens of the Hell and the Heavenly realms feed themselves. Both have the same setting: they all sit around a big table, full of food, and each has a three-foot long chopstick (let’s imagine these are the Chinese realms but the point is not lost).

Soon the hungry souls in the Hell realm are engaged in a chopstick war, each trying to knock the food off the other’s chopstick while unable to put the food into the mouth because of the length of the chopstick. And the day ended with none managing to get any eating done and the same scenario repeats the next day.

At the heavenly realm, the happy souls feed each other, putting their own chopsticks in other’s month. Soon everyone is satiated.

On emptiness, Venerable Jian Fu explained that the notion is not synonymous with non-existence. Rather, emptiness connotes that it is beyond description. It is awareness, and becoming mindful of what the mind is doing, the very essence of meditation in an effort to regain the self command, the discipline of the mind.

Venerable Jian Fu also expounded on the difference between love and compassion. Love is centered on the ego, the false self, and it has a flip side, hate. On the other hand, compassion is unbounded, extending to all sentient beings.

The contrast of love and compassion was elaborated further on the following night of Q&A by Venerable Jian Fu in response to a question from an attendee whether compassion is abstract. Answering firmly in the negative, Venerable Jian Fu reiterated that love, as conventionally used, has both positive and negative implications as exemplified by the roller coaster ride of a typical love-hate relationship between individuals. Compassion, in contrast, is love to all, motivated by a deeper sense of wanting to help others, to save others from suffering. We readily give, in efforts, in wealth, and in kind, to a worthy cause (e.g., victims of the 2004 South Asian Boxer Day Tsunami and the 2005 Katrina Hurricane). Those are tangible feelings and there is nothing abstract about them.

We need to control our mind so that we do not become slaves to our desires. In that respect, we want to live in the moment, which is distinctly different from living for the moment that only conjures up actions of doing whatever we want. But we don’t want to be a control freak either. The Zen practice aims to develop mindfulness, so that our mind is like a clear and still lake, and does not focus on the bubbles that may form on the surface. The freedom that ensues is in the sense of doing anything we want without making any wrong. In time to come with constant practice, we would transcend the duality of stillness and motion.

In responding to another question, Venerable Jian Fu explained that there isn’t any yardstick one can use to measure one’s progress, or even whether one is making any progress at all. But there are certain signs that when viewed together, do point to positive advances on the right track. These could take the form of being more at ease, of showing less agitation, and evincing an overall joyous disposition.

Venerable Jian Fu felt blessed that he has found a great teacher in his search for Dharma. While it’s OK to identify a teacher to guide us along, the important thing is to have faith in your teacher. In a similar vein, Matthieu Ricard, a French monk whose journey from a scientist to a Buddhist monk bears some uncanny resemblance to that of Venerable Jian Fu, has this to say about being under the wings of great spiritual masters in his book, Happiness – A guide to developing life’s most important skill (Little, Brown and Company, NY, First English Edition by Jesse Browner, 2006):

The good fortune of meeting with remarkable people who are both wise and compassionate was decisive in my case, because the power of examples speaks more forcefully than any other communication. They showed me what is possible to accomplish and proved to me that one can become enduringly free and happy, providing one knows how to go about it. When I am among friends, I share their lives joyfully. When I am alone, in my retreat or elsewhere, every passing moment is a delight. When I undertake a project in active life, I rejoice if it is successful; and if doesn’t work out, I see no reason to fret over it, having tried to do my best. I have been lucky enough so far to have had enough to eat and a roof over my head. I consider my possessions to be tools, and there is not one I consider to be indispensable. Without a laptop I might stop writing, and without a camera I might stop sharing pictures, but it would in no way impair the quality of every moment of my life. For me the essential thing was to have encountered my spiritual masters and received their teachings. That has given me more than enough to meditate on to the end of my days!

I can definitely see some more parallels between what I have read in Matthieu Ricard’s books and what I have gleaned from listening to Venerable Jian Fu’s talks and the two CDs featuring him that I managed to pick up on the display table on the first night (The Wisdom of Zen Buddhism – A journey from computer scientist to Zen Buddhist master, an interview by Jean Ramacciotti, and Buddhism and Modern Science, Dharma talk by Ven. Master Jian Fu, Seattle, Winter 2005): giving up earthly possessions, seeing the connections between Buddhism and science, being under the tutelage of great masters, being grateful, practicing detachment, and sharing the Dharma.

And I’m blessed too to be able to cross path with both, be it in person or through writing.

My family and Yu Huei flanking Venerable Jian Fu

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Complementing Compassion with Wisdom

My wife received an email from a friend, inviting us to visit the Chinese Phoenix TV website. While surfing the website, I came upon an article that admonishes us to complement compassion with wisdom, via the example of a noble act, releasing life. I find it worthwhile to translate it into English to share in this blog. So here it is.

Releasing Life: We Must Complement Compassion with Wisdom
July 11, 2007 09:28 Life Forum

“Hey, boss, how much for the birds?”

“Three bucks each,” replied the pet shop owner. And when I pointed to another cage with a larger bird, the owner said, “Sorry, that’s not for sale. It has been reserved.”

“How come business is so good?”

“Because next week is the celebration of the birthday of Guang Yin [the Goddess of Mercy]. A lot of people have made their bookings, numbering in the thousands. So business is brisk indeed.”

My heart sank upon hearing the mass booking of live birdies. I and my friend bought some cicadas, small birds, and small frogs. Then we adjourned to the isolated riverside to release them. Small frogs are favored by anglers while fish aficionados feed crickets to their prized aquatic collections. The released crickets jumped onto the trees, incessantly devouring the leaves, a testimony to their famished state. The emaciated frogs frolic by hopping around, immensely enjoying their new-found liberation in a free environment they have been denied to for so long.

As a matter of fact, whenever the birthday of Guang Yin, or the First and the Fifteen of the lunar month is pending, those with vested interests are always busy hunting for these so-called hot items, the animals and the birds, for releasing life activities. Then they congregate at temples to sell their catches for quick profits. They always drive truck loads of these captured items and place them on parade at the temples nearby my house, their owners peddling to a captive market. Obviously some of these do not survive the trip. In this regard, both the sellers and the buyers are equally ignorant, and it is sad that both groups would have to shoulder some of the blame for the misdeed, and hence, suffer the karmic retribution.

A purely compassionate approach to releasing life is inadequate. It needs to be supplemented by wisdom. Then only then can any potential post-event harm be diminished. Making bookings for animals from pet shops for releasing life activities lacks wisdom. And compassion without wisdom is wasteful compassion. Just think about it. Pet shop operators will do their best to source for all kinds of animals to satisfy the demands and hence, maximize their profits. Thus, those doing the booking of these animals, albeit for a noble cause of releasing life, are indirectly abetting those performing the actual capturing. Would you consider this kind of releasing life as generating good merits? Maybe the birds are all screaming in their hearts: we all have to lose our freedom simply for people to act out their hypocritical rites of releasing life, and if such an expedient behavior is rewarded with good merits, where then is the natural justice in all this charade?

This is precisely why Venerable Master Lian Chi always stressed that we have to change the time, the place, and the animals in releasing life activities regularly, expressly to prevent those with vested interests from going on a catching spree in order to satisfy the demand. Those who subscribe to eating the three kinds of kosher meats (not killed because of me, the killing not seen by me, nor heard by me) are not supposed to make the booking. Instead, they should only buy those off the shelf, i..e, those already dead.

Of course, provided we adhere to the principles as laid down by Venerable Master Lian Chi, any untoward consequence after the event is clearly beyond our control. Regardless of whether there is any ready buyer, those who catch animals for a living will still engage in their daily business, the only difference being in the quantity. If there is a seasonal demand, and the market for certain animals is good, they will definitely catch more.

The targets of the releasing life activities are those fish, frog, turtles, cows, goats, chicken, duck, etc. destined for immediate consumption; and the juvenile fish, worms, cicadas, lizards, and small frogs in the pet shops. Then there are the birds caged in captivity. We buy these animals to be released into the wild precisely to eliminate their doomed fate because all animals and human beings are equal, endowed with Buddha nature, and hence have the potential to achieve buddhahood. They all can feel pain and are fearful of dying just like we all are.

We must always be mindful of the fact that just because they have their backs skyward, animals are not God’s gift to us as food. If such is the case, then animals should feel happy to serve our gastronomic needs. But the truth is worlds apart. There are reports of cows shedding their tears come slaughtering time, as if they could sense their immediate demise and are begging for mercy. In the wee hours of the morning, the shrill cries from pigs in a abattoir can make you stop eating pork for the rest of your life. As Confucius put it succinctly, hearing the sound alone is enough to move you to not eating the meat.

We can go to any pet shop, an aquarium, or a market, to buy animals for the purpose of releasing life. But we should not set our sight on a particular shop for that purpose, nor should we request for a particular kind of animals. All we have to do is to look at the quantity and assess our capacity to pay. Never place a booking. Otherwise we will bring suffering upon the animals, and upon ourselves (through the tenet of causality).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Week of Dharma Bliss

Whew, what a week. No time to read newspapers, no time to blog. But what a fulfilling and revealing week too.

It started with last Saturday when we left at 6.10am for Orlando to attend the 2007 Buddhist Summer Camp with the theme Becoming A Buddhist Family. Practically too, I mean our entourage, except for our D at Oregon.

The camp actually started on Friday; however we could not attend then because of my work. It was solid eight hours of intense exposure to dharma teaching delivered by Venerables from as far as California. I attended the Chinese session on Friday, one of which is on Shurangama Sutra by Venerable Jian Hu, who is the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sunnyvale, California.

Mom and our three children looking forward to the shower of Dharma bliss.

It’s actually a series of lectures spanning over three days (we missed those on the first day) during which Venerable Jian Hu went through verses by verses with cogent explanations.

Before today, I have heard that Shurangama Sutra is one the authenticity of which has been called into question. This is a misconceived notion based on some of the sutra’s coverage on demon states. Actually that’s also the reason why it is the first sutra to disappear from this world, an era termed the dharma ending epoch.

We were taught that each of us is endowed with the Buddha nature that is unchanging, vis-à-vis consciousness that is impermanent. But I will blog about that later and for now, I would just give a rundown of the events in the past week, and some thoughts on the happenings.

Venerable Jian Hu in one of his rare serious, I mean as in non-smiling, moods.

The same night we were entrusted with sending Bhante Dhammawansha, a Sri Lanka Monk from Clearwater, back to his residence. So we reached home around mid-night, exhausted but mentally satiated.

We did the same thing the next day, leaving home at 6.00am for Orlando, about one and a half hour drive. However, I alternated between the Chinese and English sessions this time, and it also marked the first time I listened to Venerable Jian Hu’s delivery in English, a flawless one I would say. This time we reached home earlier, at 10pm.

Then for the next two nights, we attended the Dharma Talk sessions by Venerable Jian Hu organized by the Middle Way Buddhist Association at its Pinellas Park venue. On both nights, we were assigned the duty of ferrying Venerable Jian Hu from Clearwater back to his lodge not far from our home. On the first night, I also picked up two CDs featuring Venerable Jian Hu, which I listened to while driving to work the next two days. Coupled with the occasional citations of his own Buddhist experience in his lectures and talks, including the time prior to his decision to become a Buddhist monk, I began to realize that his Buddhist journey is not unlike that of Matthieu Ricard, a French Monk who left for India/Nepal/Tibet to search for his spiritual destiny, becoming a Buddhist monk, not long after he graduated with a Ph.D. and worked as a researcher in cellular genetics. I’m presently reading his book, HAPPINESS – a guide to developing life’s most important skill.

Venerable Jian Hu emigrated to US at the young age of 14 with his mother. And he went on to CalTech for his first degree and graduated with a Ph.D. in computer science (majoring in artificial intelligence) from UC San Diego. He got interested in Buddhism while still in college but embraced Buddhism fully after he returned to Taiwan to seek a deeper purpose to his existence.

Because of his academic training in the rigor of the scientific method, he was able to see the parallels between Buddhism and science, and more since science cannot explain the mind beyond the “reality” of the material world. In fact, Buddhism is the science of the mind. Such parallels include the wave-particle duality, the time-space continuum, and the matter-energy equivalency as enshrined in the famous equation due to Albert Einstein, E = mc squared, that heralded the arrival of the age of relativity, except that Buddha had already alluded to them more than two thousand years ago as referenced in the Diamond Sutra (Form is emptiness and emptiness is Form).

Always spotting a child-like smile, Venerable Jian Hu explains the timeless teaching of Buddha succinctly, and more importantly, right to the point, in his unique confident tone of voice, always even and measured. He shared many of his personal anecdotes with us, illustrating the usefulness and applications of Buddha’s teaching using everyday occurrences, for Buddhist practice is an empirical one, and its benefits verifiable, though not in the sense that it can be measured. But in attitude change: an outward manifestation of serenity, calmness, compassion, and giving to others. I would in turn share these wisdom-filled anecdotes in due course.

Yours truly and his better half flanking Venerable Jian Hu, his usual smiling self, at the Pinellas Park venue.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Music and Lyrics: The Art of Observing and Letting Go

There are not too many British actors in my favorite list. Sean Connery is one. Michael Caine is another. Pierce Brosnan is OK. But Jude Law and Clive Owen are a different story. Oh, Hugh Grant. I enjoy his comedy films too. But not until I watched Music and Lyrics (image below is scanned from the front cover of the DVD that we bought, pre-viewed, from Hollywood Video) that I find him to be a delightful actor with a sentimental singing voice.

Cast as a has-been in the music industry, having being unceremoniously dumped by his singing partner of the Pop fame, Hugh’s movie character found a revival of sort, precipitated by what else but the power of love. Drew Barrymore as a budding lyricist, honed by her writing talents that came with her own set of demons, is believable and refreshing.

Of the many songs in the sound track, I particularly like Way Back Into Love and Don’t Write Me Off. The first one is a duet, but I much prefer the first version he did with Drew, a catchy tune sung with love in the air in the little world of theirs to the elegant accompaniment of piano.

I recall a scene where Hugh and Drew (I prefer to use their screen names rather than the characters’) argue over the relative importance of the melody and the lyrics. And I kind of agree with Drew that melody only captivates one at the first instant but lyrics are the memory that endure. At the same time, I must also admit that we can always hum a tune or two but will have a hard time remember the lyrics, except for the chorus.

The movie is rife with repartees, kind of like a banter where both parties want to have the last word, like the following exchange:

Hugh: The best time I've had in the last fifteen years was sitting at that piano with you.
Drew: That's wonderfully sensitive... especially from a man who wears such tight pants.
Hugh: It forces all the blood to my heart.

See what I mean? Then Hugh made a reference to Florida where nothing grows except for oranges, or something to that effect. This must be the portrayal of the Sunshine State as a retirement colony.

About the only aspect that I find discomfiting is the song Buddha Delight (though I must admit that there is such a HongKong delicacy, literally translated as Buddha Jumping Over the Wall, presumably to savor the delicacy) being sung by Haley Bennett (as a teen singing sensation) amidst the gyrating males that smacks of something that is beyond the bounds of family entertainment. But the worst is yet to come: when Haley appeared from the bowel of a giant Buddha statue on stage, to perform among the dancers who wore saffron garments reminiscent of a monk’s outfit (I don’t seem to recall whether they are bald).

I think Buddhist people really practice forbearance for I am not aware of any outcry of such an undignified treatment of a great teacher. Actually, I did not even know there is such a scene in the movie. Otherwise I most likely would have refrained from watching the movie, or at least fast forwarded that “ill-conceived” segment.

This will be the only time I will gripe about this for Buddha taught us to observe and let go. That reminds me of a story of two monks crossing a river when they were accosted by a lady for help in crossing the swift flowing stream. The older monk readily carried the woman across the river, put her down, and went about his business. The younger monk, steeped in the tradition and mindful of the Buddhist code of ethics that there shall be no touching between a male and a female, was aghast at the perpetration of the older monk and could not resist confronting the older monk at the next stop on the latter’s impropriety. The older monk’s response? “Yes, I did carry the woman across the river, and have since put her down upon reaching the other side. But it seems you are still carrying her all this while.”

So observe and let go. Do not react. But meanwhile, I would enjoy the melody and the lyrics of Way Back Into Love and Don’t Write Me Off for a little while longer.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Haven't I Seen This Before?

Denzel Washington is one of my favorite actors. I don’t think I’ve missed any of his films starring him in the lead role. And he can always be counted upon to deliver a solid performance, be it as a young first officer in a US Navy missile sub standing up to his captain in Crimson Tide (1995), or as a quadriplegic homicide detective tracking down a serial killer in the Bone Collector (1999), or as a Sergeant/major investigating the truth of a bravery act that he was involved but has been leveraged for political mileage in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), just to name a few. All are stellar performances.

So it was with unabated breadth that we watched Déjà vu, with him again in the lead role as an ATF agent investigating a bombing incident that occurred on a ferry in New Orleans. Those who love to see the application of advanced technology before it enters the real world will have plenty to root for, not least of which is the ability to go back in time, sort of.

The movie did make an attempt to undergird the new-fangled scientific breakthrough by having the characters muttering something to the effects of “Einstein-Rosen bridge”, “Wheeler boundary” and “wormholes”. Of course in our case, they fell on deaf ears. With dead-pan expressions to boot. I thought of googling the terms after the movie but thought otherwise. Surely my time could be more gainfully employed, such as reading.

Various imageries are merged to yield life’s proceeding in real time, except that it’s four days late. The good thing is, depending on your perspective, there is no playback, but one could record. Go figure. And using a combination of infrared and thermal tomography plus some algorithms, it can even see through walls and concoct life-sized human anatomies engaging in day-to-day activities. Take my word: privacy as it exists now is goner.

Outside, our hero wears a goggle-like contraption and is able to literally chase after a shadow, like some kind of virtual reality flick. And he has no qualms in causing all those pile-up, leaving mayhem at his wake.

Just like other time travel genre such as Back to Future, our hero is able to change an outcome that he doesn’t like, interfering with fate if you will. And he lives to tell about it, the happy ending that is, with the supposedly happened human carnage having been averted thrown in.

For sheer entertainment value and ignoring the numerous continuity violations (not that I noticed them but there is a huge list somewhere in the Net), this is vintage Denzel Washington.