Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Diamond Sutra: A Brief Encounter

The 2007 Thanksgiving holidays are now part of history, for most people that is. But mine would last for one more day, the following Monday, so that we could attend the Dharma talk by Ven. Jian Hu under the aegis of Middle Way Buddhist Association and held at its Pinellas Park venue. This is a return visit by Ven. Jian Hu since his first visit here in July. Conducted in Mandarin, the Dharma talk was scheduled from 9.30am to noon.

We left home just after 8.00am, joining the morning commute toward downtown. The usual traffic congestion only slackened after we were on the I-275 Bridge over the Bay. We reached our destination just before 9.00am, being the first to arrive. Being early birds have its advantages, for we got to savor the blooming flowers, the scenic landscape that surrounds the neighborhood, and the quiet moment save for the lone eagle soaring in the sky above us.

Sights and, well, more sights around the venue.

Then the attendees started to show up and the Dharma talk soon got underway as scheduled. Ven. Jian Hu chose to speak on the Diamond Sutra, one of the most profound Buddhist scriptures. Written in seamless prose, the Diamond Sutra is a favorite text for recitation. More important, the Diamond sutra is a unique text the understanding of which opens the gate to Buddhist wisdom that can be applied in our daily life.

Divided into 32 chapters, the seeming repetitions therein are a consequence of our coarse mind, misconstruing the need for detailed elaboration to ease understanding. The dichotomy into an over-arching theme and various differentiated sub-themes is analogous to our mastering of arithmetics where the rule of addition forms the core algorithm and the subtraction, multiplication, and division follow suit, being the derivatives of the former and hence forming the differentiated products.

The first chapter admonishes us to take care of everyday life, and not to neglect any matter because it is simple. It highlights the importance of practicing, and cultivating a mind of equality, just like the Buddha going about his business of holding the alms bowl, going from house to house in no particular order, for a simple meal, and returning to his residence, cleaning himself, and meditating. All done with mindfulness, focusing on the present and now, the stillness in the mind secure. The message: do the thing, then return to the original ground, mind serene and without discrimination. No attachment, none before, none now, and none in the future.

For lay followers like us, however, meal time can be a challenge as our mind is fixated on choice, often agonizing over which menu to select for the day. Similarly, it seldom rains in Southern California (or never as the song goes), and most people are so used to this phenomenon that they find it hard to deal with the rain when it comes, often lamenting and declaring the day ruined. Unlike Taiwan where precipitation can occur every other day and occur unannounced, the local people are prepared for this eventuality by bringing along an umbrella with them whenever they go outdoor. When the rain comes, open the umbrella. When sunshine returns, tuck the umbrella. No hassle, no bother.

This is the way of no discrimination, or Wu Wei. The mind is the source of all worries, and all troubles. All natural phenomena are transitory, just accept them as they come to pass, no thought arising.

The other way to handle matters is to cultivate appreciation. When the boss hands you a tough assignment, do not fret. Instead, appreciate the opportunity to grow, to learn.

Ven. Jian Hu then related the story of Subhuti, a disciple of the Buddha who looked for wealthy hosts in his alms round. While this may seem as a discriminating act, he did have a purpose. He wanted to induce these wealthy people into giving thereby gaining meritorious rewards for themselves. On the other hand, the rewards will be even more when we help those in dire needs and are destitute. However, the greatest reward will accrue if we harbor no expectations when giving.

The second chapter deals with making great vows to attain the Bodhi mind. Instead of making personal vows that are confined to our family circle like education/career goals for children, why not make great vows, for enlightenment, for nirvana?

To do that, we need to tame our mind. But where do we anchor our mind? On our children? On earthly matters? So doing does not guarantee liberation, as long as our mind is narrowly confined. We need to hop out of this attachment to the daily grind. It's not apathy, but seeing the bigger picture.

Ideally, we should set our mind on the triple learning of Precepts, Concentration, and Wisdom. But this is beyond us most of the time. But all is not lost as there are different paths we can embark on and tread on one that is compatible with our natural endowments, one that evokes a sense of synchronicity, a congruence both in time and in substance.

Regardless, foremost in our mind should be the emphasis that we are to tame the mind, and not the environment. In this respect, the Diamond Sutra emphasizes reiteration on constant practice in its approach, progressively dishing out in simpler terms the gems of Buddhist wisdom.

Oftentimes our vexation can be traced to our reluctance to accept reality, i.e, we eschew suchness, the reality that thing is as it is, or as is. This is not the same as fatalism, as we are enjoined to take care of matters as they arise through circumspection, with a discerning mind, and most of all, with compassion. As we embrace suchness, we can see with clarity karma at work, and subscribe to the notion of dependent origination and the principle of causality. All these will help ease us into a frame of mind that would treat any action of enmity, often the source of distress, with equanimity, and loving kindness.

The third chapter is making vows to help all sentient beings to be enlightened. We can all facilitate the attainment of such vows by striving for the six perfections (Paramitas) one of which is charitable giving.

The merits accruing from giving are generated by three considerations:

1) What is the state of mind? Do we expect something in return? Do we look at the ledger and act only when there is positive return? Or perhaps prompted by tax exemption given to gifts? The best approach is to practice no attachment, and to treat it as a simple act of giving, of helping others.

2) What is the object of the giving? Certainly if we are vegetarians who actualize compassion for animals, we would refrain from offering meat, and we should not worry about negative responses should they arise, which sometimes do either out of ignorance or habitual dietary pattern.

3) Who is the beneficiary? Certainly those who can least afford the gift, and the most needy. However, in a larger context, the ultimate target of giving is the triple gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. For they in turn are the most direct, the most extensive, and the most lasting media through which our liberation from suffering is realized. The world needs more places of worship, more Buddhist monks and nuns in order to reach a greater proportion of populace who are constrained by the lack of opportunity to seek an end to their suffering.

Due to time constraint, Ven. Jian Hu ended the Dharma talk by fielding some questions from the attendees before the whole class adjoined to a nice treat of vegetarian lunch courtesy of the volunteers.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Traveling on the eve of Thanksgiving

We relived the gridlock nightmare yesterday when we drove to Gainesville to fetch WT back for the Thanksgiving holidays. The going trip was not as bad, and we reached UF about half an hour later than the ETA of 3pm. The campus was kind of deserted, most classes in the afternoon having being canceled to give more time for the students to head home. So was WT's last class of the day.

Just before we hit the road on the return leg.

Matter turned for the worse on the return trip. Just getting on to I-75 via the Archer exit from the Campus took us about 20 minutes compared to 5 minutes during normal times. Then it was crawling all the way to Ocala, taking us more than an hour to cover 30 miles. Fortunately, traffic improved slightly after Ocala and significantly after the turnoff to Tampa at the turnpike entrance. But we still reached home about one hour later than usual.

The seemingly endless caravan, like a slithering serpent winding its way forward.

Traffic on the northbound lanes were less congested. We surmised this could be due to the fact that most people prefer to leave for home after lunch. So the wave of northbound traffic could have passed Gainesville by then (4.30pm) while the southbound traffic just about joined us at about the same time (say, those coming from Atlanta/Tallahassee).

Anyway, the “ordeal” seemed more bearable than last year's. Perhaps this has to do with a change in my attitude consequent upon my immersion in the teachings of Buddha during the intervening year. The Buddha taught that everything is a reflection and creation of the mind. Therefore the changes in our emotional state, from sad to happy, from elation to despondency, from being on the top of the world to the gutters, from accolades to unfair criticisms, all have their roots in our changing mind.

Instead of getting impatient at the snail's pace, and even raving and ranting leading to temperature rising, we could use the opportunity to take a breather, to engage in some much needed interactions with our passengers, take in the moving scenery lining both sides of the highway, a slow-mo of sort, or simply observe life as it unfolds before you. Hey, the driver in front has two dogs in the car, and the luggage filling up to the brim of the trunk (it's a SUV). Or the couple in the convertible was having an animated conversation, perhaps debating whether to take to the air come next Thanksgiving.

Would you believe it if I say the white speck is the moon? No kidding. Henceforth the myth that the moon only appears on the night sky shall hereby be debunked.

Amidst all these observations, until nightfall took over and all I could see were the taillights, like the red eyes of some prancing kids bouncing along on the highway, we reached home safely, tired but thankful for being able to put the feet up and engrossed in a captivating episode of Criminal Mind, featuring a group of profilers in the Behavioral Assessment Unit (BAU) of FBI, but this time involving a crime against one of their very own.

Here wify was trying to catch the setting sun, with her sunglasses on looking through the lens, and not seeing the sun through that aperture. Logical?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Robe Offering on A Crisp Day

As Fall is coming to a close, the sky has been getting cloudless, an azure tapestry seemingly stretching till the edge of the world, our visual world of course. Concomitantly, it gets chilly even during the day, prompting us to switch on the heater in the house. But it sure makes a good day to spend outdoor when suitably clothed.

Thus bundled up appropriately, we set off for Clearwater yesterday (Nov 17, 2007) morning, the entourage including CE and Yu Huei. We were on our way to attend the 2nd Robe Offering Celebration organized by Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS) under the auspices of Bhante Dhammawansha and his fellow Sangha from around the area (St. Petersburg and Bradenton) and as far as away as Washington DC, LA, Michigan, Canada, and Sri Lanka, 15 in all.

This is our second attendance, the tradition having started last year.

We arrived just in time, just when the sangha was entering the premises, wify bringing along a vegetarian curry dish, Yu Yuei several bunches of juicy bananas, me my faithful Canon Powershot A75, and CE, well, just herself, in a casual outfit topped up (pardon the pun) with a baseball cap.

As was last year, the solemn ceremony started with the Bhantes filing along the food table, alms bowls in hand ready to receive the food, symbolically, from the devotees. The actual food was served once the Bhantes were seated in the house. Then it was our turn to partake of the vegetarian food offering, a concerted preparation by all volunteers.

Symbolic food offering.

Serving the Sangha.

Our turn at the gastronomical pursuit, CE standing in her cool outdoor outfit.

Thus satiated, the Bhantes took their seats at the outdoor pavilion, the sun by then beaming down, illuminating the tent top in a magnificent hue. The ceremony commenced with devotees offering robes to the Bhantes in turn, following the cue from the MC who read off the names of offerees. Wify participated too.

The start of the robe offering ceremony, under the Sun's full stare, glistening the White Buddha Statue.

Wify's offering stance, full of humility and reverence.

After a brief welcoming speech by Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of DWMS, he invited Bhante Muditha to deliver a Dhamma talk on happiness and living now as summarized below:

Robe offering is a 25-century old Theravedian tradition. It's a ceremony, not a ritual, to mark the support for Buddhist dispensation. The robe is hailed as the banner of saints, worn by the monks and nuns who dedicate themselves to self practice and to deliver the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha.

It's an act of generosity that accumulates merits, the robe fulfilling one of the four requisites, cloths. The other three are food, shelter, and medicine.

Our worldly happiness, acquired by constantly looking beyond ourselves, is neither endurable nor long lasting. It's only by looking inward, by supporting the sangha, by generating metta, by engaging in meditation, by practicing good virtues and morality that we can accomplish the three acts of Dana, Sila, and Bhavana. Then we will be able to remove all the negativities and impurities, extricate ourselves from samsara, the circle of existence, and attain nibbana where true happiness resides, and which follows us like a shadow.

The pious ceremony concluded with the acknowledgment of appreciation by Richard Baksa and a closing blessing from the Bhantes. Thus blessed, and a bottle of blessed water in wify's hand, we embarked homebound, secured in our fulfilling yet another meritorious act toward Dhamma bliss.

Devotees lining up to receive the blessed water.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Shopping With Brain

We dropped off some grocery items at Bhante Dhammawansha's residence at Clearwater today. He was not in and later on we found out that he was in LA to attend a robe dedication ceremony. On the way back, we decided to swing by the newly open Michaels Arts and Crafts along W Hillsborough Ave near Oldsmar as wify wanted to stock up her arts supply. Earlier in the morning we had read that the store was giving a two-day store-wide discount in celebration of its opening.

The store is brand new, with rows and rows of items neatly arranged for the taking. Posters advertising price cut and discounts were everywhere. And right by the front is a class-room dedicated to conducting all kinds of arts lessons.

We ambled along each isle, eyes looking out for items that would appeal to our sense of most bang for the buck. I wanted to buy a table-top mini easel for wify so that she could set it up on the table for painting. But she felt that the prize was a bit stiff (the cheapest is $20) for her present level of attainment. And she wanted to wait for some more time when she feels that she is ready to migrate to the use of easel as judged from her progress in drawing/painting. Chances are she might just skip the mini easel and go for the full-sized one.

Here wify was rummaging all by herself through the drawing papers to locate ones that are suited to her watercolor painting (we did find one, but not at this isle).

I saw the flexi-foam sheets, 12” by 18”, on sale for a dime each. And ended up buying 17 of them, one for each shade of color on display. I have no immediate use for them but just thought they would come in handy when wify wanted to experiment with some craft-work. Anyway having them means wify would think of something to do with them, that they can be gotten for peanuts undoubtedly featuring prominently in my purchase decision.

Wify bought six 50# packs of mini candles in aluminium containers, which can cost three, four times as much during normal times. She lits these candles every morning as part of her paying the homage to Buddha ritual, which means the candles are a regular consumable that requires periodic restocking. So those are a good buy. Actually, the limit per customer (usually the store will impose quantity limits on highly discounted items to ensure fair distribution among the patrons) for this item is ten, but wify wanted that monetary benefit to reach a wider circle.

She also bought two fuzzy posters for Yu Huei's niece, and two cute little precious (this is as stated in the bill) pig banks for our two daughters. These items are displayed below, so that those interested could make some comparison with similar items in Malaysia.

From top left going clockwise: the candle packs; the posters; the flexi foam sheets; the tote bag (Oh yes, this is a free gift worth $15 for purchases exceeding $25, and we qualified, by design of course); and the cute piggy banks. The back drop for the last is the front cover of a 2008 scenery calendar bought at the same store, arranged in such a way that the piglets seem to be enjoying a nice day out at the beach.

Shopping can be a wonderful experience, satisfying our primordial urge to own things. But budget shopping can be an equally exhilarating experience too. Not that we are living on a shoe-string budget, but just to bring home the point that we can, and should, foremost, live within our means, and that a lot of things of great practical value and no less in terms of durability can be had with a decent budget, as long as we don't fall into the trap of the brand mentality.

All these items are $1 each, wify's favorite hunt as these items are statements of creativity. But look carefully, See, Spot, Save, just on top of the shelves. Those are the famous tagline of the Target Store, which is next door.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Some things are directional, some are not ...

This is a special request from wify to post her drawings here, as opposed to her own, as purportedly mine seems to enjoy a wider readership (or visitorship?). Her affinity for drawing has escalated to such an extent that she plans to draw on a daily basis, which means a busy time ahead for me. But who is complaining?

This installment of drawings is still based on (but see exception below) A Book of Cut Flowers by Sheila Okun (Gallery Book, 1988). Perhaps in time to come she will venture out on her own, like the orchids below, which she drew on her own. But I think that is a logical progression, even though I'm your typical guy outside the door (this is a Chinese phrase liberally translated) when it comes to drawing.

As an aside, we gained an hour last Sunday, an annual ritual of spring forward and fall back, the time that is. So we are now 13 hrs behind Malaysian time, a fact to bear in mind so that we would not disturb the Malaysian folks from sleep when we call.

Oh yeah, WJ reached home safely, though delayed by two hours in LA. He managed to get air-borne in the wee hours of the morning, on a flight that would take him practically half way around the world. I just checked the world map on our wall, we are at Longtitude 82 deg W, and Malaysia is about 101 deg E, a difference of 183 deg, about half of a round trip. That means, distance-wise, going back via the Atlantic/Europe/Middle East would cover about the same distance. But I was told that any flight that goes through Europe is likely more expensive.

Talking about a trip round the world, of my several trips to US, only once did I go through the Atlantic. It was in 1989 when I flew to Washington DC to participate in a 2-week EPA-sponsored study trip on climate change. But I did make a round trip, though with breaks. It was 1996. I first flew to Orlando across the Pacific to attend the International Coastal Engineering Conference. At the end of the week, I continued across the Atlantic to Zurich to attend the Hydroinformatics Conference, and came home to Malaysia going eastbound.

Anyway, back to wify's drawings, where the imagination can fly just in any direction. Enjoy!
Centaurea. Looks like dandelions, but perhaps not bluish.

Euphorbia. Could have been euphoria for all we know.

Lilium. I call it our family flower. Li, Lee, get it?

Monkshood. A buddhist flavor, perhaps?

Zantedeschia. This is wify's favorite. So elegant and graceful.
Orchids. I guess if you have seen and drawn enough, the hand just traces out what's in the mind.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


We ferried CE to her friend's dorm in USF on Friday night. It was USF's home coming and the parade would wind its way through the campus, passing by in front of her friend's dorm. When I deposited her in front of the dorm just after 7pm, the campus police had already cordoned off the other cross road, and the parade had actually started, to the cheers of the throng of on-lookers filling up the road side pavement.

A round 8.30pm, we heard canon-like noises outside. And when wify opened the window drapes to investigate, the sky was illuminated, momentarily. We rushed out the door, me camera in hand, and bumped into our neighbors who were similarly drawn to the thunderous explosions. There we stood in the car-park of our condo, eyes zoomed to the sky, mouths agape. It was as if we had our own personal pyrotechnic display, the wavy ascent of the projectiles, the brilliance of falling lights in different patterns. For 15 minutes, we stood rooted to the ground, enjoying thoroughly one of the benefits of staying next to a university campus. And I put my camera and my timing of the shooting to work.

Later, CE returned, her hands full with colored beads that were thrown from the parade. And she was going to wear them around her neck for the home-coming football game the next day.

The next day (Saturday), we sent off WJ, on his first solo trans-Pacific flight (solo as in not accompanied by us, relatives, or any known acquaintance). He had stayed with us for close to 6 months, having arrived from Malaysia in mid-May for what started as a two-week sojourn. So this was a home-coming of sort for him, albeit in the opposite direction.

This being his first solo flight, we of course attempted to remind him of things that an air traveler should avoid (no liquid item in carry-on) and always look out for your luggage (always have your carry-on in sight). And he took them all in impassively.

I remember my first trans-Pacific flight, with wify, WJ and CY, more than 20 years ago, when I reported to UC Berkeley as a grad student, a rather green-eyed one I will say. I think it was around the Christmas of 1985, plus and minus a few days. We landed at SFO international airport, seemingly lost in the sea of humanity. Luckily, my brother had arranged for a friend to pick us up and ferry us to Albany, a UCB family housing village.

I forget the details, but I think we checked in with the village office, got the key. And we had dinner around a makeshift table formed from one of our luggage boxes and we slept on the floor (the unit was unfurnished), paved with winter clothing.

The next few days we scouted around The Salvation Army and other used goods stores and gradually stocked up on the furniture and kitchenware. The greatest goof that I made was mistaking a freezer for a fridge, everything in there was frozen the next day, including the milk cartons. We did buy another fridge, but kept the freezer, which came in useful in time, and earned the dubious distinction of owning the largest freezer in the entire village.

Those are great memories, which become even more precious as we age. That reminds me of the last episode of Hero on NBC, when a guy, under interrogation, only gave in after the interrogator threatened to erase his fond memories of his late daughter (well, these heroes can do that as they are endowed with special powers, not unlike the mutants in the X-Men series).

But back to reality, while memories, especially good ones, are great, it's up to us to create those good memories by living at the moment, doing good deeds, helping others, one deed at a time.