Saturday, May 05, 2007


Sounds like one of those Madison Avenue words, doesn’t it?I had to look this one up. Upekkhā parami in Pali, equanimity in English, means: steadiness of mind under stress. We also could use the word serenity for the 10th Buddhist Perfection. I think I prefer to use the word equanimity because, for one, it is just so much fun to say! Also, I think the word ‘serenity’ launches us into visions of meditating Buddhas and prophets and philosophers. ‘Serenity’ also makes me think of Seinfeld. More often, the words serenity and serene are used to describe places and not so often used to describe ourselves.

Equanimity, the steadiness of mind under stress, is not exclusive to tranquil lakes and foraging deer in quiet meadows. Equanimity is everywhere. The potential to experience clarity of mind is within our reach in every moment. On the other side of an argument, on the other side of a crowded city street, on the other side of a Sunday Times crossword puzzle in your bathrobe, there is equanimity.

When I studied in a performing arts conservatory, we used to say “faster outside, calmer inside.” One teacher, one of the most respected artists in her field, was a master at this. Her lessons exposed us to the practice of equanimity. We studied letting go of the expectations of the future and letting go of the success or failure in the past so that we could be entirely ‘in the moment’. Her method of using games and dances to learn state of mind was both very effective and very confounding. While not the worst in the class, I was definitely one of the rhythmically challenged.

Continuing to practice the lessons I received in university, I’ve made a little progress over time. Part of my progression came with age. Part of it, from experience. Part of it came from life kicking me so hard in the stomach, I gave up on the idea of predicting it. However, most of my progress came with realizing that in any situation it is entirely my choice to be calm or frenzied. A person may confront me in one way or another, how I react is still up to me.

Of course, we are taught to react in pre-defined ways. If a person aggressively accuses me of something and peppers the attack with profanity and insults, I am taught to yell back, insult them back. If a person slinks up to me in a sexy way and bats their eyes, I’m taught to smile and blush (or something like that). If an officer runs at me and tackles me to the ground, I’m taught to… hmmm… I don’t think I want to go there. My point is, even though we are taught to behave in certain ways, we should be careful that we are not giving in to someone else’s agenda and loosing the opportunity to remain lucid.

Try it. Next time you are wrestled to the ground by a secret service agent or being caught cheating by your girlfriend, try being only in that moment. Forget about the past. Forget about the future. Simply be right in that moment and only that moment at that time. React in a relevant but absolutely calm fashion. Take note of how long the struggle lasts.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Loving-kindness.  That’s a loaded one, don’t you think?  Ask someone about their thoughts on war or hatred or racism or violence, and they will most likely wax poetic with their opinion.  Ask someone about their thoughts on loving-kindness, and watch the discomfort set in.  Mettā parami, the 9th Buddhist Perfection, is a commonly confused concept. 

Many people hear the term loving-kindness, get stuck on the love, never hear the kindness part and they arrive quickly at sex.  Sex the first thing to dismiss on the path to loving-kindness.  I’m not saying forget about sex.  Sex is great, I’ve tried it.  I’m saying focus on the loving-kindness part first, and the sex will be infinitely better as will family life, work, commuting, sleeping, eating, cooking, anything you may find yourself doing. 

The next misperception to tackle is exclusivity.  A little trick I’ve learned: You can love more than one thing.  In fact, it is possible to love everything.  Think of all the people, places and things in your world which you can love.  Think about things such as your mother and your father and your sister and your best friend and your dog and your cat and your Japanese peace lily and your favourite football team and that catchy tune they are overplaying on the radio.  It’s ok to love them all – and I mean really love them. 

Love everything?  Be kind to everything?  What about the enemy?  Most people will not accept loving their enemy.  Sometimes they think about it on Sunday and they feel humbled, but rarely do we practice that.  It seems like loving your enemy is the business of fools and saints and martyrs but not that of the common person.

But it is for the common person.  And it can work out very well.  It can change your day from the doldrums to euphoria.  It can change someone else’s day from suicidal to elation.  It can prevent an endless cycle of vengeance.  It can transform you from the common to the uncommon.  And like my Touching Souls entry, this can cause exponential growth. 

Today, I broke bread with the annoying French scholar I mentioned yesterday.  I thought he was very annoying.  My first impressions of him made me think him arrogant and combative.  He is from a different culture.  However, it would have been exhausting for me to share the table with him while thinking about how I dislike him.  It’s not how I wanted to spend my morning, so instead, I accepted him.  He is quite intelligent.  He is well-read.  He has what we call ‘right-mind’.  We had an excellent conversation.  We possibly helped out a confused young man sitting with us.  I had to love the Frenchman in order to have the morning I deserve – yes, I deserve one good morning every day, and if I have to love someone for what they are to get what I deserve, I am happy to do so.

Loving-kindness comes from acceptance.  We loose track of loving-kindness when we are not willing to accept.  When we draw lines, create distinctions, note differences we put up barriers.  These barriers separate us from our very own world.  They separate us from ourselves.  Eventually we go to war, and the chasm becomes deeper and wider.  If we are lucky, someone with a little loving-kindness comes along, shakes hands, accepts the differences, acknowledges the similarities and we swing back in the other direction.  If we are not lucky, it’s time to step up and take matters into our own hands.  Start with a little loving-kindness towards yourself, and then share it with someone else.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Determination, the 8th Buddhist Perfection, has a strong resonance with me these days. Lately, my determination has been tested to its limits. With patience, I can remain dedicated to my purpose; with proper conduct I can get much further. My task, which has taken the majority of this week, is to find a translation, a synopsis or even an oral rendition of a Jataka. Specifically, I am looking for the Balansahkhya Jataka. It is a story of a Prince Pookharabat aka Pasangkanga and his magic fan. Apparently, this was the incarnation just prior to Buddha’s enlightenment. This story is painted on the interior of Wat Sisaket, a temple in Vientiane, Laos. It is one of the oldest paintings in the country. I thought finding this information would be a breeze.

Monks, scholars, Ministries of Information and Culture look blank faced at me when I ask them to tell me this story. If they are helpful, they will say something remotely related such as ‘the temple was never destroyed’. If they are not helpful, they will just shake their head and say no – sometimes they giggle. I know this is mostly my failure to arrive prepared with a common language, but I am resolute in my goal.

Today, I met with a man at the site of the mural who was introduced to me as a scholar who has written a book on the subject. It was a bit early for my morning routine, but excited at the prospect of at last acquiring some information, I rushed off to the Wat for the rendezvous. The exchange was dismal. There was a book, but no more. The lady no have.

Adhittāna parami compels me to persist in finding out the story. “Did you write a book about Wat Sisaket?” I ask him calmly.

‘Yes, but no more.’ Printing more books seems ludicrous for some reason.

‘Can you tell me the story in the mural?’ I ask. Naturally I have to flip the question six ways before any glimmer of understanding. I think it’s a reasonable question. I’m over estimating the situation. He wants to ask me where I’m from, what guesthouse I’m staying, how long I’m staying in Laos – all standard fare. I’m not angry or upset with him, but I’m disappointed. The blank face doesn’t help matters.

I asked my associate/translator why we met this man. She doesn’t know. She arranged the meeting, but has no idea why we met him. Yesterday she knew the agenda. Today, she is more concerned with the lewd remarks the security guard made.

I asked a French scholar, thinking he might have some insight. He wanted only to be a smart ass and play with words, insisting if it is the last incarnation of Buddha, then it is the incarnation right now. His thirst for clever debate is not welcome and I thank him curtly and walk away.

I think most people would, at this point, accept the writing, or painting, on the wall and just drop the subject entirely. However, I have yoked my mind, heart and soul to something for which I have a great passion. I am determined to find out this story to share with others. That is the point perhaps, to find endless determination by harnessing our passion and not giving up.

As side note:

In all fairness to the many people who have tried to help me to no avail, the story/Jataka was forgotten until very recently. Although a very popular tale two hundred years ago, it was lost during the many invasions of Laos and the destruction of the city. It was not until the year 2000 that Dr. Catherine Raymond discovered pieces of the long-lost manuscript in nearby temples. I am hopeful Dr. Raymond will be able to assist me on my quest.

The restoration of the mural is at a standstill. In recent years, there has been some funding towards restoring this important UNESCO candidate (status pending), but at this point, this historic piece of work is deteriorating at a rapid pace.

National Treasure to be Restored

Project to Preserve Murals at Vat Sisaket Ends

As a further side note, this Jataka, Achieving Nothing, I read after writing this entry. It made me smile and relax a little bit.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Oh, honestly!”, she rolls her eyes.

Are you for real?”, he stares incredulous at the vendor.

Really?”, behind his newspaper, he lends half an ear to her early morning chatter.

No way!!!!”, her shrill teenage voice pierces the mall din.

You liar!”, she’s had enough of his shenanigans.

From our dialogs, it seems honesty is a rare commodity. So many of our common expressions imply dishonesty. Most of the times, we don’t even mean to imply someone is dishonest. When I try to think of a popular phrase that represents honesty I can thing of the expression “for sure” (yes, a rather dated expression) but that’s about it.

Sacca parami
truthfulness – is the 7th Buddhist Perfection. Truthful is a subjective evaluation. Yesterday, on Beach Walks With Rox, she talked about cheating. She likes to cheat when she plays solitaire. Is Rox being dishonest? Not at all. She seems to be completely honest with herself with what she is doing, even though she is not playing by the rules, there is no deceit involved – no one gets hurt. That's the rub with truthfulness: no deceit, no hurting.

If we are truthful with ourselves and with others EVEN IF WE CHANGE THE RULES, we avoid a number of byproduct problems that might occur down the line. If we deceive, if we are not upfront and forthright, the repercussions can be quite serious.

In the Vientiane Times last week (or maybe the week before), there was an article about some Hmong refugees who were returned to Laos from Thailand. Although the subject of the article is one of a terrible situation, the anchor of the article I found slightly humorous in its delivery. The article begins with a Mr. Chou taking a second wife before consulting with his first wife. As a result, his first wife angrily (and rightly so) took their children and ran off to Thailand (bad idea). Naturally, they were arrested and detained in a refugee camp.

The article continues to talk about the deplorable conditions of the Hmong refugee camps and the suffering of it’s inhabitants. Then, in the last paragraph, a sort of moral to the story is delivered. The article states something to the effect of ‘had Mr. Chou first consulted his wife before taking a second, all of this could have been avoided.

Aside from the fact that anyone foolish enough to have more than … uh… anywhere between zero and one wife, I think the story provides a good example of how dishonesty can put you and others into a very tough spot. Try the opposite, try honesty, and you may discover you and your wives are all very happy cheating at solitaire together.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


My last entry was a bit of difficult for me to write – Did you notice the paradox? As I explained my issue with my student’s lax attitude, I exposed my own failings in patience. Patience is the 6th of the Buddhist Perfections. I try to exercise patience and generally am quite good at it. The cultural differences in Laos between the over-ambitious American and the tranquil Laotian, at times, leave me a bit frustrated. I loose my patience. The sweet salve of Khanti parami evades me. Yet I am encouraged to try again.

It takes practice to learn patience. It is easy to loose patience. It takes a tremendous amount of energy when patience is lost. Have you ever had an argument over something unimportant? At some point in that argument, did you loose patience? Do you remember how tired you were after that argument?

When patience is lost, the unbridled mind runs amuck. Our clarity is gone, our judgment dubious. Biological mechanisms kick in, adrenaline rushes throughout, the pulse quickens. Unharnessed, the state of lost patience invites anger and hatred and the most pointless of all agendas: revenge.

I want this person to learn a lesson,” I thought one snowy day in New York. The sidewalk was lined with mounds of snow, slush beneath our feet. At the crosswalks, - zebra stripes – the path narrows and we have to line up single file to get around the snow bank. An impatient man has lost control and in his frenzy, he kicks hard at the snow. It is only snow; it means no malice towards this man. What the #$*! Do We Know might indicate the snow has feelings. If it does or if it doesn’t, the man is out of line and I think to myself, “I want this person to learn a lesson.

A few moments later, we have crossed the street. As the man tries to hurry around the other commuters, he slips and falls, BOOM! right on his back. I think of a neighbor years ago in Boston who had slipped on the ice and broke his ribs. He lies there on the sidewalk for hours before they brought him to the hospital. He was in an extraordinary amount of pain. Back in New York that day when that man slipped and I heard him thud onto the slushy sidewalk, I no longer wanted him to learn a lesson. Instead, we both learned lessons.

It must have taken a lot of energy to be upset with the snow – to loose patience. It took a lot of energy to be upset with the man – to loose patience. Both the man and I felt terrible when he slipped and fell. Maybe my thoughts in someway manifested his fall. Maybe I would have not spent the remainder of that day feeling bad for the man, wondering if the was stilly lying there in the slush, hoping he was ok. Maybe I would have had a better day if I had been patient with the man who lost his patience.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Effort, Energy & Diligence

My student is coming along fine. We’re trading English lessons for Lao lessons. We had words the other day about her lackadaisical attitude. “Having words” in the Lao culture entails a slightly raised voice and a stern glare – there is no flailing of arms, no shouting. As much as I try to restrain the cut-throat methods I learned building skyscrapers for Local 59 and again in the brokerage houses of Wall Street, it is a learning experience with which I struggle.

Although my method was a bit more harsh than my student is accustomed, I reminded her of our agreement; I will teach her as long as she is diligent with her studies. She had failed to do any lessons in her workbook and was taking a nonchalant position towards our podcast projects. She was enjoying the business lunches, but not consuming the work with the same gusto. Her effort was dismally lacking.

The 5th of the 10 Buddhist Perfections is effort, aka diligence, aka energy, aka vigor. Without pulling out the Buddhism card, I was able to impress upon my student the importance of effort. It did not take much convincing. Viriya parami is an innate quality in human beings. However, we also have a tendency to do just the opposite… to be lazy.

In Christianity, one of the ten 10 mortal sins is sloth (specifically it is spiritual slot but I’m taking a slight liberty). My knowledge of Islam, Shinto, Baha’i and the many other world religions is not deep enough to say for sure, but I’m guessing they too have something to say about effort and sloth. Effort on one side, sloth on the other, this is a coin we all toss everyday. We struggle with it sometimes, but mostly, I see an underestimation of how important this choice is.

If we show exertion, energy, nisus – all part of the effort clan – we are saying to the world and to ourselves, “I am worth it. I have value. I am a life worth living.” This is the shine that gets jobs and promotions and happy marriages and a little slack on a bad day.

If we show apathy, neglect, lack of ambition – the kissin’ cousins of sloth – we are saying “Do not care for me, my thoughts or my actions for, certainly, if I do not care for myself, I am of no benefit to you.” These are the faces that get downsized first; they beg for money and offer nothing in return; they sit all day on the couch wondering why they are sad, out of shape and unemployed.

Every single one of us has the tools to turn this coin heads up. It is one of the easiest choices to make. Is could possibly be one of the easiest parami to practice. Practice of effort can have astounding results. My student is now doing fantastic and I am thrilled with her progress. All it took was a little bit of effort.


There is a question I have asked over 100 people. It is actually five questions. I used to ask this question when I was doing dog-and-pony shows for a Business Intelligence software vendor. The questions are:

· What is your definition of data?

· What is your definition of information?

· What is your definition of knowledge?

· What is your definition of intelligence?

· What is your definition of wisdom?

I’ve heard a variety of answers to the questions above. The worst response was ‘Awww, they’re all the same. They are not the same, trust me. There is a wide chasm between information and wisdom. Too frequently, people parade their data down the street expecting others to accept it as intelligence, or even worse, wisdom.

The fourth of the Buddhist Perfections is much attuned to this series of definitions – it is “insight”. Insight is not as hard as it sounds. There are a few tactics which can help. First we must acknowledge that our ears outnumber our mouth, so we should adjust the amount we listen and the amount we speak proportionately. The second is detachment – I’ll talk about detachment some other day, but for now, simply put, it is the practice of removing our own emotional agenda from a situation. The third tactic is accepting that you are doing the best you can, even if you are wrong.

Accepting imperfection in ourselves, detaching ourselves from desire and listening acutely opens us to insight. With experience, our insight becomes clearer. As in all things, there is no substitute for daily preparation. Prepare yourself and open yourself to wisdom and you, too, can practice Panna parami, insight.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


The third of the 10 Buddhist Perfections is “renunciation” (Nekkhamma parami). Renunciation is not always so easy for people. More so, it is often misunderstood. When we see a monk one of the first thoughts is often the idea that they have renounced all possessions. Their robes, their begging bowl, their beads are tools of devotion and symbols of their faith. Their possessions have been relinquished so that they may be free of desire.

That is only the superficial aspect of renunciation. It is the kindling that starts the fire of pure renunciation – the renunciation of thought in mediation, the giving up of desire in all its forms.

I have possessions. To some people, I have quite a few. To others, not so many. I have a laptop and I have a storage unit full of things and I have some clothes that I probably don’t need. I have a bank account and credit cards and I have a shopping list of things I would like to own someday. Have I abandoned the pursuit of enlightenment in exchange for materialism? It would be pretty easy for a purist to argue that I have done just this. However, life is a little black and a little white and many shades of gray.

My laptop is a tool which I use to write, to share thoughts with others, to send emails of encouragement. My storage unit holds mostly books; I use them to enrich my experiences. My bank account, although it does more shrinking than growing, allows me to be self-sufficient so that I am not a burden on society. I am not a captive of my own possessions, instead the physical possessions I choose to have liberate me in some way. And I know, because I have done it before, I could give up nearly everything other than shoes, shirt and pants and be just as tied and untied as I am today.

The biggest possession – the most significant shackle around my ankles – is my thoughts. They, at times, control me instead of the other way around. Years ago, I was a very angry young man – for no other reason than I did not know better. I held on to these thoughts and emotions as if they were the foundation of everything that I am. I gave up much of that, and I am happier for it. But my thoughts still comprise the heaviest of my possessions. In time, I hope, I can renounce all of them and only perceive with absolute clarity. (I have a long way to go!)

Renounce your thoughts and you will be free to perceive this world without any mental modification. This was the definition my teacher gave for Enlightenment. I have not been to nirvana, but if I do go, I think I will bring along a laptop.