Saturday, June 30, 2007

The True Master

At last, we reach the final chapter of the Dhammapada. I have mixed emotions about this experience. Some of the stuff was good, some of it not so good. Overall, it was helpful to me to spend time contemplating each chapter. It was also a good structure for me to use as my morning calisthenics for writing, before turning to my larger writing projects. I hope at least one chapter resonated with you.

Like any good book, fiction or non-fiction, I have trouble reading the last chapter. There are books on my shelves (truthfully, they are in boxes in a storage unit), which have sat for years waiting for me to read the last few pages. Today is no different. I am tempted to leave any elocution on The True Master for some other day. However, I said I would do all 26 chapters and I don’t like to go back on my word – even if it’s only a promise to myself. So what should I say about The True Master.

Instead of taking a single quote from this chapter, I thought it would be interesting to take all the statements in the chapter with the word “is” and put them together. This is what it looks like:

“The man who is awake shines in the radiance of the spirit.”

“A master is never proud.”

“He is not afraid.”

“He is infinitely free.”

“He is never angry.”

“He is determined.”

“He is free.”

“He is serene.”

“He is calm.”

“He is pure and free.”

“ […] he is one.”

“Free” seems to be a recurring theme. We all want to be free. We want to live in the kingdom of heaven. Even the atheist who believes that after life, there is only decomposition, wants to be free. Freedom is beyond God. Freedom is beyond any one particular belief or sect. Freedom is something that is real and eternal and pure bliss. I don’t know a soul who does not want to be free.

Perhaps this rather unorthodox rehashing of the Dhammapada will help drive me towards freedom. Perhaps there was a sentence or phrase I wrote that will stick with you for a while and help you on your path. It’s hard to say what effect this will have on anyone, but I hope somehow it serves a purpose.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Seeker

“There are five at the door
To turn away, and five more
And there are five to welcome in.

And when five have been left
Stranded on the shore,
The seeker is called oghatinnoti —
‘He who has crossed over.’”
- Dhammapada

Yesterday, I talked about numbers and their simultaneously important and irrelevant nature in the context of scriptures. In that post, I said, ‘It doesn’t matter how many of anything.’. Once again, here is proof that the more I learn, the less I know; the more I speak, the more often I am wrong. When I turned to the next chapter titled The Seeker, I came across the above quote. Thankfully, Thomas Byrom provided a footnote and itemized the fives.

“The first five are selfishness, doubt, false spirituality, passion, hatred. The second five are longing for birth both with a body, and without one, vanity, mental restlessness, ignorance. The third five are faith, vigilance, energy, meditation, wisdom. The five left behind are greed, hatred, delusion, pride, false teaching.”

I should talk more about these, but first, let’s finish today’s story.

As I settle in to the routine of domestic life in Vientiane, many challenges come my way. First, my vocabulary is incredibly limited and my pronunciation is abysmal – not many people can understand me, even if I speak “perfect” Lao. If not for a few friends and a general idea of where things might be, I would surely starve naked with a flat tire.

Yesterday, I told my friend I needed a frying pan. She agreed to take me shopping for one. I showed her my shopping list written in both English and Laos and sometimes illustrated. The list included things beyond the frying pan, such as candles (tian), insecticide (yaa kaa meeng mai), spatula (iek bpaak been), can opener (neow khai bia), WD-40 or some other lubricant (nam law luun – yeah, that one caused a ruckus at the market), and so on. I was glad my friend was going to help me find these things, after all, she’s a local and knows where to find the best deals – or so I would think.

To find a frying pan, she took me to a clothing store. I joked about using a pair of shoes to cook eggs. We did had fun in the clothing store, laughing at the bad styles and pointing out which ones where pleasing. I gave up the frying pan search, walked around the stores and then took her to work. After dropping her off, I raced to the market, through the thick monsoon rain hopeful I might still be able to acquire the elusive frying pan of Laos.

Here in Laos, I am a child. I am a neophyte monk who can only sit mute in the temple. I am an infant who barely understands the words gaa-gaa-goo-goo. I am the first time buyer paying higher than sticker price on a brand new automobile. However, today, I am proud to say that I am – if nothing else – a man with a frying pan.

I found my frying pan in the good market – the one I like behind Talat Sao (the Morning Market in Vientiane). Last night, I made a mushroom basil tomato sauce with rotini for dinner. It was possibly the worst sauce I’ve ever made. I relished every single bite of my first home cooked meal in nearly 3 months.

The frying pan, the supermarket, having some food to cook and eat, these are the basics. They are the daily practice. They are the diligence. They are faith that goodness will surround those who practice goodness. I don’t need to be able to say non-stick, microwavable, non-aluminum or durable. Nor I do not need to list the names of the five Buddhas. It would be nice if I could, I suppose, but my personal opinion is that I should focus first on the basics.

Despite years of training and reading and practice, I am still sorting out the details. It as if I am in a foreign country some times and I am reduced to charades in the market (you should see my impersonation of a can of insecticide!). I am learning. I am learning to see the bigger picture even though I can not name the five at the door. In time, maybe I will be able to name them or at least be able to tell you there are five and not four. Or maybe someday, I will be able to recite all paramis or tell you the characters of the Bhagavad-Gita in order of appearance. Yet for now, I will have to be content with daily meditation, a steadily improving mind, and a pleasant, patient attitude towards myself and others… at the supermarket... where they sell frying pans.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Didn’t I already talk about desire? Maybe I just thought about it! Well, I don’t feel like talking much about desire today, so I’ll focus on something else. If you really want to think about desire, the quote alone should be sufficient.

“Thirty-six streams are rushing toward you!
Desire and pleasure and lust…
Play in your imagination with them
And they will sweep you away.

Powerful streams!
They flow everywhere.”

- Dhammapada

As a professional in the computer science field, numbers are important to me. The specificity which numbers provide are tremendous. One misplaced zero can have a tremendous impact on meaning. I remember studying binary code back in my mainframe days and truly loving being able to sift through the sequence of zeros and ones to assemble what they represent. Later on, I maintained a healthy adoration for hex code – #FF0000 and #0000FF sound so much more elegant than plain old red and blue.

Given my appreciation for numbers, I have always struggled with the often very specific numbers cited in Buddhism. Why thirty-six streams? Why a thousand petals on the lotus? Why twenty layers? Why fifty petals per layer? Why thirty paramis… or is it ten (still working on that one!)?

Given my “free-spirit” nature, however, I don’t really care that much. Yes, I am inquisitive, but I often just translate numbers to one of the following: “a couple”, “some”, or “lots”. Sometimes I feel that delving too deeply into numbers like this is a blend of over-zealous dogma and missing the forest for the trees. Do you care, at this point, if the Sahasrara Chakra has one thousand or one thousand and one petals? If I could give you the choice of either lighting up the crown chakra or counting the petals, which would you choose? Hint: the petals of the lotus eventually fall off, the jewel in the lotus is eternal.

At this point, you may be wondering ‘what are you talking about? The pontification of numbers and their meaning seems to have nothing to do with desire (in numerology I think it’s 11), and this is exactly my point. Read today’s quote from the Dhammapada and notice the first word is a number. Too often, we will get caught up in this number and spend our time contemplating and arguing ‘thirty-six’ and never get to the real issue at hand: Powerful streams! They flow everywhere.

It doesn’t matter, really, how many streams. It doesn’t matter how many disciples. It doesn’t matter how many of anything. What does matter, is that we concentrate on getting ourselves down the road.

Think of it this way: Enlightenment is a big supermarket near your house. On a typical day, you can pull out of your driveway, head south on the main road and in 5 minutes, you have arrived at the supermarket. But on a non-typical day, there may be a traffic jam, or some construction blocking you easy path to shopping. This doesn’t mean that you can not go to the supermarket. It simply means you might have to take more than one road. You may have to drive 10 miles instead of six. You may have to put an extra litre of fuel in your tank. Consider which is more important, how many roads, miles, litres or arriving at the supermarket? In aisle 6, they are having a two-for-one special on spiritual achievement… or was it aisle 16?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Elephant

The title of today’s chapter from the Dhammapada is “The Elephant”. I would be remiss to skim over the connection between elephants and Laos. The kingdom of Laos used to be called Lan Xang, which translates to ‘The land of one million elephants and a white parasol’. It’s a fierce image of power in nobility, wealth and military might. I think today’s equivalent to a million elephants would be one hundred thousand battleships. (By the way, Lan means one million, Xang must be a very rich word).

It many texts such as Bhagavadgita, Ramayana, the Dhammapada, various Jatakas, there are references to elephants. When I first started studying, I only partially understood the importance of the elephant in these ancient cultures. It was not until I started seeing elephants on a more regular basis that I fully comprehended what a magnificent animal this is. Beyond the imposing size of this beast, there is a look in their eyes of supreme intelligence. However, not all is well in the elephant kingdom.

In the northeast provinces of Thailand last year, I saw many elephants, but one elephant in particular disturbed me. The elephant was “working” for/with two guys – one riding, the other selling bananas to the tourists to give to the elephant. On the tail of the elephant were tied CD’s to serve as reflectors. I remember clearly the look in this elephant’s eyes – I don’t think I will ever forget that look. It was a look of humility, indignity, and a threat of one day reaching a saturation point and exploding. I looked away, partly to not instigate anything, but mostly to turn away from a scene of utter humiliation – the noblest of all creatures, selling bananas.

Be the witness of your thoughts.
The elephant hauls himself from the mud.
In the same way drag yourself out of your sloth.”

- Dhammapada

Sadly, many elephants today are not free to pull themselves from the mud. They are trapped and imprisoned to do parlour tricks, or they are killed and mutilated for their tusks. However, in their captivity or in their perverted ‘natural’ environment, they manage to maintain some of their inherent dignity. To personify the elephant’s plight, I think it must be a quiet form of meditation for the modern day elephant to live such lives – quietly persistent at maintaining the nobility of their nature despite their conditions.

Many of us – people, that is – may feel that our lives are not much different than a banana-selling elephant. We know that inside us is goodness and truth, but our circumstances seem to be obstacles to fully realizing our blessedness. We have reflectors tied to our tails so a vehicle one third our size does not ram into us. We are constantly under the threat of a smack with a bamboo switch to turn this way or that. We are ridden and told where to go and wait for others to tell us when to eat. We are up to our loins in mud.

Just like the elephant, we are deep in the mud, but just like the elephant, we have the potential to haul ourselves out. It is not enough to merely acknowledge our own beautiful greatness, we must do. As Eleanore Roosevelt said, ‘You must do the thing which you think you can not do. We must do this, lest, like the elephant, we may one day lash out against our captors and our humiliation or perish without ever realizing our true nature.

A note about elephants: In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Oct-20-2006, there was an excellent article titled An Elephant Crackup?. The article speaks of the trauma caused by modern-day activities on elephants and their environment. It is a very informative article and well worth reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Dark

To some degree, everyone is afraid of the dark. Sometimes, it’s not a very strong feeling. Sometimes, it’s just a gnawing thought in the back of our minds that maybe we don’t know everything that’s going on around us. When we do not have all the facts, we can feel unsure of ourselves. That’s why people are afraid of the dark.

“One man denies truth,
Another denies his own actions.
Both go into the dark
And in the next world suffer
For they offend truth.”

The dark, which we fear, is not only a matter of not being able to see. There is also a mental darkness; a state of not knowing, or understanding. The void in our understanding is not always because the facts are not available. At times, we overlook the facts or conceal them and create our own darkness. For so many reasons people do this, but I think mostly it is out of laziness.

It takes work to shine a light on ourselves, on our thoughts, our actions. Not only does it take effort to shine the light, but once we can see what is around us or who we are, we now have to reckon with that reality. One would think it would be easier, just to keep everything in the dark. Such is not the case.

When we hide in ignorance of what we think and say and do, we create a lot of work for ourselves. Many people know this about lying; once you lie, you have to keep track of that lie and make sure you don’t contradict it. Usually, lies end up being exposed because sooner or later, the liar becomes even lazier and forgets to maintain the fallacy. Darkness gets a little darker and the liar stubs his toe on the bedpost. Ouch. Suffering.

Inside our mind, we can hide our thoughts fairly easily. Outside our mind, in our actions, it is much more difficult to hide. But we try anyway. I’ve met people who completely deny their actions. They act in one way towards a person, but then are surprised when that person responds in an appropriate manner. The dis-illumination of ones own actions in their own head, is a rewriting of history to a version which is not truthful. It’s a difficult thing when someone denies their own actions. It’s frightening. The Dark.