Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Anger Blows Out the Lamp of the Mind

Ingersoll once said, "Anger blows out the lamp of the mind." How true it is.

Our anger results from a perceived threat to our ego. When we have angry thoughts, we are usually unable to think clearly and thus react mindfully or in a non-harmful manner. More often than not, we will say or do something that worsens the situation. Even if we are not the provocateur but the provoked party, we should be mindful and not let our anger escalate into a situation that gets out of hand which may end badly for everyone involved.

From the media, we had come across cases committed in the heat of anger and passion, such as the father who chopped off his child's fingers in a fit of anger as his child had scratched the side of his new car and the incensed man who murdered his ex-lover after being dumped. All these crimes had occurred due to the perpetrators' inability to manage and reduce their anger.

The words we speak out of anger are often injurious and creates more negative thoughts in the other person. We think we may have won the scuffle with our harsh speech but we will do well to remember what Buddha said: "The fool thinks one has won a battle when one bullies with harsh speech, but knowing how to be forbearing alone makes one victorious."

Anger is one of the three roots of evil that causes us to suffer endlessly; the other two being craving and delusion. How do we train ourselves to control, diminish and eradicate our anger?

But cultivating a mind of loving kindness and friendliness towards all. We start by first sending love to ourselves, followed by our loved ones, then to casual acquaintances. The next part will be more trying as we'll need to send love to those we dislike or hate, and finally to the whole world.

Naturally, it's easier said than done. We will encounter roadblocks right from the start and from time to time in our practice. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. We can start by sending loving-kindness with an open heart for half an hour every day before bedtime. Creating a mind full of love is the only antidote to eliminating our anger and avoid harm to ourselves and others.

We can take heart that there can be redemption for all. Angulimala, the serial killer, who murdered almost a thousand people due to wrath and a misguided notion, was taught by the Buddha to cultivate love and compassion for all. After suffering much ridicule and hardship due to his past reputation, he renounced his ways, attained arahantship and even became a protector of pregnant women!

Of course, he had previously accumulated a huge store of meritorious karma to encounter the Buddha himself and receive his teachings. Therefore let us practise loving kindness every day to accumulate good karma for the eventual eradication of anger and suffering.

"Whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal one-sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving kindness. The liberation of mind by loving-kindness surpasses the light of the morning star and shines forth, bright and brilliant."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yes, I Want More!

I bought a new walnut bookcase recently to replace the smaller beige one that was bursting at the seams literally - the last shelf had collapsed due to the weight of the books! Coincidentally my mum also procured a better coffee table to replace the aging and creaky glass-top that we currently have.

For the past few weeks, I had been clearing out what I construed as unnecessary and cumbersome household items from our small flat. Needless to say, my mum and I had several run-ins as we disagreed on what should be disposed. I was aiming for a spartan look but she preferred stock-piling.

As I rummaged through our belongings, I couldn't help but marvel at the dreadful load of things we have! How much stuff do we really need to maintain our life? A roof over our heads, clothes, shoes, beds, pillows, bedsheets, tables, chairs,  television, radio, computer, tablet, lamps, books, stationery, files, air-conditioners and fans. And let's not forget our kitchen appliances and utensils such as rice-cooker, slow-cooker, refrigerator, oven, steamer, pots, pans, bowls, cups, spoons, knives, forks, chopsticks etc.

As you can tell, this list is by no means exhaustive. I'm sure there are many more fancy items you can think of that are used in everyday life. And we spend at least a third of our life (8 hours a day) slogging to provide all these material needs for ourselves and our family. What strikes me most deeply is that we need to procure so much to sustain this life, this body of ours.

Even after we had satisfied our need with the basic model, we will next aim for an even better model that comes with more switches and functions than we know how to use. How about a rice cooker that can be programmed differently for white rice, brown rice, black rice, sweet rice, sushi rice, porridge, congee, gruel and tells the time to boot!

Our craving for the sustainability of life is endless and this is suffering. Our craving is what keeps us recycling in samsara, life after life as we believe that we will be happy with all these material wealth to keep us going. We keep on accumulating material wealth, people and experiences just to keep this body of ours going in a somewhat satisfied state.

Our delusion keeps us clinging on to this mind-created ego that perpetuates our false sense of a solid self that is manifested in our corporeal body. To break away from this ceaseless cycle of rebirth, the only way is to eradicate our craving. It is our craving that constantly feeds on the fallacy of a concrete being. 

For that, Buddha had taught us a method that can quench our thirst for perpetual existence and that is looking deeply and realising impermanence in the world and our existence. When we truly see that nothing in this fluctuating world is permanent, including our own bodies, only then can we be free from the suffering of rebirth.

Let us learn how to look deeply within our impermanent selves and quit samsaric suffering and attain nibbana.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Four Types of Marriages

I received a message from a Dhamma friend, C, today informing me that another mutual friend of ours, M, had gotten married. C expressed his surprise as he thought that M was more likely to become a monk than a married man! However he agrees with me that we will never know when destiny or our marrying karma will creep up on us (不知缘分几时找上门) hahaha...

Marriage in Buddhism is not considered a sacred or a holy union. It is simply a formal social union of a man and woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.

More than 2,500 years ago, Buddha had provided much advice on how a marriage should be conducted for the benefit of both husband and wife and their extended family. It is not surprising that his advice is still eminently relevant today for we still face largely the same type of issues in modern marriages!

Husbandly Duties

Just how should a husband behave towards his wife properly? By treating the wife with tenderness, courtesy, fairness, loyalty, honesty, moral support, fidelity, companionship and respect. He should also hand over authority on household matters to her and provide her with the adornments (read diamonds and gold) as befit her social status.

Wifely Duties

In reciprocity, the wife should shower love, attentiveness and sweetness on the husband. Providing childcare and meals, being hospitable to kin, protecting family possessions, administer household expenditures thriftily and being faithful are also part of the equation.

In addition, Buddha advised the wife to study and understand her husband's nature, character, temperament and activities, serve her parents-in-law as lovingly as she does her own parents and discharge all duties with skill and industriousness.

Four Types of Marriages

Buddha had humorously described the four kinds of marriages that exist:
a) A wretch lives together with a wretch
b) A wretch lives together with a goddess
c) A god lives together with a wretch
d) A god lives together with a goddess

A wretch is the husband or wife who destroys life, takes what is not given, engages in sexual misconduct, speaks falsely and indulges in wines, liquor and intoxicants which result in negligence. He or she is immoral, of bad character and dwells at home in miserliness. A wretch abuses and reviles ascetics and brahmins.

A god or goddess abstains from the destruction of life, from sexual misconduct, falsehood and intoxicants. He or she is moral, of good character, generous and supports and praises holy people.

Can you think of any examples for the four types of marriages around you? Hopefully you can find more instances of the fourth type of marriage than the other three!

Lastly, congratulations to M who has found someone to share his life and his Dhamma interest with. May they live like a god and goddess in their blissful marriage.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Building & Protecting Wealth

Pain, Pain, Pain

My youngest sister, Y, had accompanied mum to the hospital today for a specialist to check on her swollen foot. She reported that mum was flat-footed and had to undergo physiotherapy every two weeks. In addition, she must do exercises every day, correct her standing posture and wear a pair of custom-made shoes to ease her condition. 

The doctor pronounced that my mum's condition is not curable and all we can do is to delay the wear and tear until eventual incapacitation. Apparently, this is a very common affliction among the elderly. The silver lining is that her condition is still in the early stages of degeneration and with the prescriptive measures in place, she can still have a moderate quality of life albeit with less mobility than before.

The Buddha had advised that health is the highest gain, the greatest wealth one can have. His followers were exhorted to strive for good health and to sustain good health.

How do we define good health? Good health is when one is in full possession of her psychological and physiological faculties without impairment.

However it is impossible to be in good health all the time. Due to a variety of factors such as karma, environment, diet, genetic dispositions, climate, stress etc, all of us will fall sick at some time or other. Even Buddha was not free from back pain and stomachaches.

How do we face our illness? Normally, when we are sick, we feel pain, discomfort and a heightened sense of suffering. This usually lead to irritability, irrationality and frustration as we are unable to operate to the best of our ability.

During times like this, it is especially important to focus on one's breathing and be aware of the renegade feelings and notions churning within us. Awareness is the only tool in our mental arsenal that enables us to arrest the unwholesome speech and actions that result from our runaway mind.

Just like how we save funds in case of emergencies, we have to accumulate our fortitude and mindfulness through daily practice in meditation so that we are prepared for health crises. Learning how to stay in the present moment helps to prevent us from being completely submerged in our negative thoughts and emotions that are more prevalent during times of illness.

How do we achieve mind over body? Practise awareness of the breath for an hour every day. If you're not sure how, find a meditation centre near you and obtain instructions from a skilled teacher. Most of all, be present, be aware.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Serenity in Stone

Some years ago, I visited the Peranakan Museum with some like-minded friends who were interested in the Qingzhou Buddhist Art Exhibition that travelled from China.

The exhibition showcased a small part of a collection that was unearthed in China in 1996. Several hundred Buddhist sculptures featuring images of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were excavated, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

The visiting group was immensely entertained by the irrepressible guide Kyle who possessed a wonderful sense of humour and an in-depth understanding of Buddhist culture.

What amazed me was the soothing aura of calm that emanated from each and every stone masterpiece that was displayed. The piece that evoked the greatest serenity for me was the life-sized Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva piece featured here on the extreme left. The majestic strength and compassion exuded by the sculpture was almost palpable.

These sculptures evoked memories of other stone sculptures I had encountered in India, Sri Lanka and South Korea.

This veritable masterpiece blew me away the moment I laid eyes on it in Sarnath Museum, India.

Sporting the Dharmacakra mudra symbolizing the turning of the Dharma wheel, it utterly radiated the quiet power of wisdom and compassion. I could not come up with enough superlatives to describe its extraordinary presence.

While the picture may not do justice to the actual carving, it is a stunning tour de force if one sees it in person.

Sri Lanka, a country rich in Theravada Buddhism, has its own hoard of five colossal Buddha statues.

Shown here is the Avukana Buddha statue that measures 11.36m. It was carved out of living rock around the second half of the 8th century AD. The height of the body is 9 times that of the face.

This statue is conjectured to represent Dipankara Buddha, who came before Gautama Buddha who appeared in this world epoch.

The Seokguram Buddha in Gyeongju, South Korea, wore a serene expression of meditation. This is an exceptionally fine and commanding embodiment of Buddha's calm and concentration.

If time and space had allowed, my travel partner and I would have been ecstatic to sit ourselves and meditate in front of this awe-inspiring artifice for the entire day. Unfortunately, all we had was half an hour as we had to make room for incoming tourists and also to catch the next bus back to town.

Being able to experience the magnificence of the Buddha's qualities carved into stone is indescribable. If the master sculptors had represented only 10% of Gautama Buddha's persona, they had already given the world an inkling of a perfect person. These incredible monuments behoove me to emulate the qualities personified by Buddha.

The purpose of Buddhist art is to inspire us on the path of the Dhamma by reminding us it is possible to attain such levels of perfection as shown by the Buddha. Personally, it strengthens my faith and belief in the Triple Gem.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

99.99% Insurance For Life's Unpredictability

A friend had once told me her aim is to cover all aspects of a relationship to ensure that nothing will go wrong. She eventually settled on 99.99% as I objected that it is not possible for anyone to control and guarantee all outcomes in a relationship. Even 99.99% is an extraordinary super-human achievement in our universe of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss.

But… there is still the 0.01% that is unknown and unexpected. Is it possible to cover even this tiny percentage of unpredictability in life?

It can be observed that all phenomena in life are subject to conditioning by various causes, especially human beings. Buddha once said that nothing is as quicksilver as a person's mind. As we are always in a state of flux, how can there be any guarantee in life? Oh wait, I forgot that birth, sickness, old age and death are inevitable but I digress.

Instead of trying to cover external factors that are beyond our locus of control, will it be more fruitful to pad and strengthen our mind to adjust wisely and agilely to what life throws us? If our security and happiness is dependent on other people or things or circumstances, how much will we have to accomplish to create and maintain the kind of conditions that give us our temporal happiness? The trials and tribulations we undergo are mind-boggling at best. In everyday life, we can see for ourselves the amount of work we have to accomplish to keep ourselves happy, or at the very least, not unhappy. 

In the end, the best and strongest security that we can have under all circumstances is our mind.

As taught by many philosophers and thinkers, the best way to deal with life is to go with the flow and life in the present moment (活在当下). 

I do not take it to mean that one should not have plans and not prepare for life’s vicissitudes. One should still do to the best to one’s ability without being too obsessive or compulsive about getting everything perfect. A wise teacher once taught me that as life is ever-changing, it will be wiser to reduce one’s clinging to all worldly possessions, loved ones and feelings than to attempt to keep them in the state one likes. When negative changes occur, one may not suffer unduly due to one’s attachment. Similarly, one would not swing the pendulum towards ecstasy if positive changes take place. Vacillating between the two extremes is not conducive to one’s mental well-being. Again, it is about treading the Middle Way, living a balanced life and not falling into disparate extremes.

Far from advocating a laissez faire attitude towards life, we should strive for the best that we can without harming others. We should also prepare our mind and body to be ready to accept and adapt wisely to unexpected changes. Controlling our mind is far more fruitful and efficacious than trying to control the external world. We will make missteps and mistakes as we bumble and hobble through life's labyrinth. We will also learn and change for the better as we progress towards nirvana, even if it is only a nanometer at a time. For now, we do the best that we can at any given moment. 

In conclusion, I do not agree in trying to achieve perfection in external phenomena and factors that are insecure and unstable at best. Perfecting our mind is the only way we can be free from the chaotic, conditioned and fluctuating nature of life.

As exhorted by the Buddha prior to passing away into parinibbana: "All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"