Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Live to Eat – Life Before Zen (2)

Singaporeans always grumble that we lack entertainment in this small little island of ours. With not many places to go, a lot of us indulge in eating to pass time. As in most Asian countries, we can eat anytime and anywhere. Any moment you walk into a food court in any shopping mall and you’ll find people eating there regardless whether it is meal time or not. I should say anytime is a good time for eating.

Whenever friends arrange to meet, it has to be over a meal or a drink. I always find it such a hassle deciding where to eat or drink. “Where to eat huh?” is always the question posed. Can be quite a headache sometimes when several parties have different tastes and preferences and just can’t come to a consensus.

My family dine out at restaurants all the time during my younger days as my dad loved to eat good food. From a young age me and brothers had the luxury of sampling all kinds of cuisine - Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian, Russian, Italian, French - you name it and we would have tried it. I used to love the black pepper steak at Troika, a classy Russian restaurant located at the DBS building along Shenton Way. No other grills could do it as well as Troika. That restaurant is of course long gone but I’m sure the beef at Shashlik (located at Far East Shopping Centre) is just as good because it’s owned by some of the former staff from Troika. I also remember fondly the tender smoked duck (樟茶鴨) served at Minjiang restaurant and the teppanyaki salmon from the Shima restaurant in Goodwood Park Hotel.

Back in those days, seafood was practically a staple food for us. My dad used to eat chilli crabs at least once a week and so we all got to eat our share as well. I always tell friends that I’ve already eaten my quota of crabs and sharks’ fins for this and next life, that’s why I can’t have any more of those seafood. But I can still help you crack open a stubborn crab’s claw if you need help…hehe! Don’t worry, I won’t put the succulent crab meat into my mouth because I’ve already grown accustomed to appreciating toufu and greens while my friends from overseas savour our famous chilli and pepper crabs.

In the past, breakfast with my family on a Sunday morning very often was a big bowl of pork liver mee sua (豬肝麵線) plus bak kut teh (肉骨茶). I also enjoyed kway chap (粿汁) very much with lots of pig intestine, pig skin and the other innards which I can’t identify. Yup, I ate a lot of pork stuff back then. But ever since my experiment with a vegetarian diet, my eating habits changed. Today, if I were to walk past a pig’s organs soup (豬雜湯) or minced pork noodles (肉脞麵) stall, I will need to hold my breathe or else I may puke. I find the strong pork smell repulsive. Yes, I’ve become sensitive to pork smell but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat pork anymore. I still do but the meat should be well marinated and should not be too porky. Crystal Jade’s 小籠包 still tastes ok to me when I dip it into ginger and black vinegar.

Nowadays, because of my half-day vegetarian diet, I spend less time thinking about what to eat. I eat mainly to fill up my stomach and can eat fried vermicelli (米粉) with taukua (豆乾) everyday without much complaints. I also often have tomato cucumber sandwich for my meals. Even just having wholemeal bread dipped into olive oil is fine with me. I think maybe I’ve become a bit lazy when it comes to meals. But I do conscientiously try to have a healthier and more balanced meal like asking for brown rice at the vegetarian stalls and have a mix of vegetables and beancurd instead of ordering those rubbery mock meat.

Do I still have craving for food? Yes I do. Last night, I saw my brother eating fried chicken at around midnight. The chicken smelled so good. I told myself I must have fried chicken tonight and I really did. But not even half way through my meal, I knew that I made the wrong choice. I didn’t really enjoy the texture of the chicken meat and needed lots of chilli sauce to camouflage the taste. Luckily my brother didn’t have his dinner yet so I gave half of the chicken to him.

Ask my old buddies and they will tell you that I used to live to eat. But now, I think I eat to live. If you ask me out for a meal, I will still eat whatever’s available, even pork or chicken as I still stick to my principle of not making things difficult for people who eat with me. It doesn’t have to be a vegetarian meal but should there be a pot of vegetables mixed with meat, chances are I will pick up the vegetables rather than the meat.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

“Human Beings and Situations Require Deeper Thought”

I’ve not been visiting MK’s blog for a long time as that SF craze had died down aeons ago. As I was organising my browser bookmarks yesterday, I clicked on that blog again and was surprised that she actually posted about the Virginia Tech incident. I forgot that she was a former Hokie.

MK was saddened by the way people were generating stories about the gunman, saying things like “They knew it was him.” “They’d be surprised if it wasn’t him.” I too was disheartened when I read that the guy’s former classmate actually commented “Looking back, he fit the exact stereotype of what one would typically think of as a ‘school shooter’ – a loner, obsessed with violence, and serious personal problems."

What did the classmate mean by “a typical school shooter”? What kind of world are we living in if we really accept the labelling and existence of such a type of human being amongst us and not bother to do anything about it until something tragic has happened?

MK hasn’t changed much. She’s still the sensible and positively influential celebrity that I stumbled upon and admired a year ago. She said a prayer for her fellow Hokies and proposed that we should all spare a moment to say a blessing for those whom got killed or hurt in the incident. I felt really warm when I read these great words of hers on the blog:

“Human beings and situations require deeper thought than just the ordinary glance over. Everything in hindsight always seems 20/20, I know. I just hope we can learn something positive from this situation and I’m hopeful we will. Mostly, I wish the people of America would open their eyes to a ban on all guns.“

Kudos to Michelle. I can see why I still admire this celebrity.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

魚的嘴巴會痛 – Life Before Zen (1)

Many years ago, I had a passion for fishing. I remember fondly those days when I went to the Southern Islands, Changi and the Raffles Lighthouse on boat trips with my fishing buddies from Mindef. So much fun I had then with those national servicemen (NSmen) from my department. I was on such friendly terms with those guys that I even got ticked off by my boss for not drawing a line between an officer and NSmen. I remember being quite pissed off by his comment. Who was he to tell me how I should treat my friends. I guess that was probably one of the contributing factors for me resigning from that job.

On some Sundays when I didn’t have any company for fishing, I would go to Bedok Jetty by myself early in the morning before my family woke up. I had to sneak out of the house quietly with my fishing equipment because my dad disapproved of me fishing. I couldn’t comprehend then why he didn’t approve of fishing when he himself had been a fishing enthusiast when I was still a kid. He would travel all the way to Malaysia to fish and often return with huge ice box full of fish and squids.

Anyway, I loved fishing because it was one hobby that could take my mind off everything and I mean everything. The moment I took out my fishing tackles and cast the line into the sea, I forgot all my worries, fears, anger and frustrations in life. My focus would be entirely on the line, waiting patiently for the fish to take the bite. Whether I was using a rod or a hand-line, the moment I felt the fish bite the bait and tugged at the line, the adrenaline rush I got was amazing…beyond words. Until today I can still remember the feeling of the vibration of the line in my hand.

One day, I think about 10 years ago, a friend asked me, 『你去釣魚?魚的嘴巴會痛喔!』(“You go fishing? The fish’s mouth will hurt!”) At that point in time, I didn’t think much about what that friend said but strangely enough, I actually gave up fishing. I can’t remember exactly when it happened but it was probably six to eight years ago. The thought of the hook being lodged in the fish’s mouth or eye was just too unbearable. I visualised a hook being stuck in my mouth or eye and imagined the pain when the hook was being removed and that was it. No more fishing for me.

Some of you must be wondering, why mention about fishing? You see, after all these years, I still have my fishing equipment in my room and I face this dilemma, should I give them away to current fishing enthusiasts or should I throw them away? I spent quite a bit of money buying those stuff so throwing them away would be very wasteful. But if I gave them away, I would indirectly be responsible for more fish being hurt by the hooks.

What do you suggest?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Experiencing a Zen Retreat

Part of my new year resolution was to join in at least one or two retreats this year. I did just that a few days ago. Was in Pengerang, Malaysia on a zen retreat from Thursday late afternoon till Saturday morning. It was supposed to last until Sunday but I had to rush back for my voluntary work duties on Saturday. Yup, that’s something I can’t put down all these years.

This wasn’t the first retreat for me but it definitely left a lasting impression because I got double the dosage as compared to my first attempt. In those three days, I went through almost two complete cycles of zen sitting, chanting, bowing, eating, dharma talks, basically zen living in almost total silence. I even had to attend interviews (小參) with the zen teacher.

Me and my friends got to the zen centre at around 5pm. The other participants were already there and were being briefed on the zen eating formalities. I joined in and was quite amused by the fuss over such a simple thing as eating.

We each were issued a set of bowls, a pair of chopsticks plus two cloths, a small one for wiping and a big one for wrapping up the bowls and we had to eat with that same set of bowls for every meal. We sit in groups of six in a table and food was passed around in a systematic manner. Any food that we took had to be consumed, nothing wasted. After we finished our food, we used some hot water and a slice of cucumber to ‘wash’ the bowls. We then had to eat the cucumber and drink up the water as well, wipe the bowls dry with the small cloth then bundle everything up with the big cloth. The bowls were not washed throughout the retreat…hehehe!

I know some of you must be frowning but it wasn’t really that bad. I think the training was to make us less picky about eating and treasure every drop, every speck that can be eaten. Also, it advocates together action. Everyone had to eat together and wait for everyone to finish before we can clean the bowls. But slow eaters may feel the pressure because everyone could have finished their food and be waiting for just that one person to finish up before we could commence ‘washing’.

Sleeping and Waking
We had to get up at 4am everyday. That of course meant we slept early too. Normally we’ll be in bed before 10pm. Someone will ring a bell at exactly 4am in the morning to wake us up so no alarm clocks needed. I was actually quite glad to hear the bell every morning because I had a tough time falling asleep on the hard surface and spent most of the night tossing and turning. Upon hearing the bell, everyone had to get up, quickly wash up and by 4.20am, be seated on our zen cushion at the meditation hall for the first sitting.

I love the first sitting of the day. The sky is still dark, the air is thin and cool, gives a calm feeling I rarely experience back home… so serene. It’s so quiet that it makes me feel I’ve got the ears of a dog because I can pick up every single sound from the nature…the crickets, the lizards and something else that goes “qwuck, qwuck, qwuck, qwuck” while we were meditating.

At every sitting, the chugpi master will hit the chugpi (something that looks like a bamboo but split open on one end) three times, “piak, piak, piak” to signal the commencement of the session and will do the same at the end of the 40min session. I noticed that during the first sitting, whenever he hit the chugpi, something in the natural habitat will imitate the sound and go “qwuck, qwuck, qwuck, qwuck” I had to control my laughter each time I heard the sound otherwise I may be whacked on the head by the chugpi master…muahaha! Hmm…what could that sound be? Could it be the sound of toads? O_o

The chugpi master also had the duty to go round and hit meditators on their back with a long stick that looks a bit like a ruler whenever anyone felt sleepy or needed a ‘massage’ on the back. I noticed that he enforced two types of hitting. One goes like ‘piak, piak’ but another goes ‘PIAK! PIAK!’…really loud. Hmmm…must be different treatment for male and female meditators I guess. Oh yes…the unknown species in the natural habitat went “qwuck, qwuck, qwuck” as well whenever someone got hit. Gee…was I watching my thoughts or observing the sounds. >_<

We had to sit two sessions in the early morning, three more sessions after breakfast, another three more after lunch and one last time before the dharma talk in the evening. Nine times in total if I remember correctly.

After the first sitting, we had to do 108 prostrations. I kind of enjoyed this activity as well because it is amazing to see everyone doing the prostrations in such an orderly and uniformed manner. I must say the zen teacher was quite nice by keeping to a slow tempo and not cause undue distress to the older participants. I managed to complete the 108 bows without much panting.

I’ve experienced this activity before but was still quite worried that my leg muscles may ache in the second day and affect my participation in this activity. But surprisingly, I had no problem doing it as well on the second day, thanks to the yoga instructor who taught us some very effective stretching exercises. ^_^

I’m never really a sutra person and didn’t really enjoy chanting, especially when I don’t understand what was being chanted. But at the retreat, there wasn’t a choice so I had to keep a just do it mind.

We had morning and evening chanting and actually chanted some sutras in Korean. I remember during my first retreat, I couldn’t follow the Korean chanting and gave up trying so I left the sutra book on the cushion and just held my palms together. But this time round, friends around me told me which page of the book to flip to so I managed to follow through.

Korean chanting is kind of super slow. I’ve heard them in some movies but when I had to do it myself, it certainly was quite a challenge because we had to drag each syllable or word for soooooooo long. And we didn’t sound as nice as in the movies…hehe!

No zen retreat would be complete without an interview with the teacher. This was my first proper interview and the teacher taught me the fundamentals of zen.
“A thousand dharma returns to one. Where does the one return to?” “Piak!”
“What is a dog?” “Piak!”
“Is that all?” “Wow! Wow!”
etc, etc.
I got stuck on the butterfly…hahaha! Need to give him the answer when I next meet him. @_@

After my second interview, I was finally allowed to 下山 or ‘descend from the mountain’ by the zen teacher…yippy!

My Afterthoughts
Those three days were peaceful, quiet and gave me a much needed break from my usual lifestyle. The retreat was definitely challenging and unforgettable. I had to do things which I don’t normally do, dislike to do, never did before. We even experienced water rationing on the first two days due to a shortage of water caused by a burst water pipe.

Living with people, most of whom I don’t know was also a learning experience. When I see them smile, I smile back. No speech needed, just an international body language…smile. When I see someone needing help, just need to go forward and lend a hand. Everyone just helped out in practically everything. Together action.

However, I couldn’t overcome one thought…PAIN! due to the many unprecedented rounds of sitting. It made my ankle and knee joints suffer and that one thought kept appearing in my mind…PAIN PAIN PAIN.

One voice kept telling me “Endure, endure…you can do it.” Another voice told me “It’s too painful, don’t be mad…give up now!” I really wanted to test my endurance to the limit but when I was beginning to sprout cold sweat, the second voice told me I could become a paraplegic if I kept pushing myself to sit in that semi-lotus position without moving. So I listened to that voice and quietly stretched my legs out in front of me every now and then to relieve the pain.

I believe I’ve not been sitting in the correct posture even though I’ve been meditating for so many years. Or, I need more stretching exercises before my sitting. Will need to investigate that.

But Eckhart Tolle has also taught me that “Nothing is more normal than an unwillingness to suffer. If we let go of that unwillingness and instead allow the pain to be there, we may notice a subtle inner separation from the pain. When we suffer consciously, physical pain can quickly burn up the ego in us, since ego consists largely of resistance.”

Ego again. Will need to try it out at the next retreat…but not so soon as yet. Do need a little time to recuperate from this one. But it definitely won’t be my last!

I managed to take some pictures of the flowers during the break times. Here they are:


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

An Alternative Method to Solving Real Problems

I came across this interesting book in the library ‘We’re So in Love, Why Aren’t We Happy?’. I mentioned about it to some friends so I will try to share here some teachings I picked up from the book.

The author Susan Page proposes using a spiritual approach to resolve differences and improve relationships. I found it useful and her down-to-earth method applicable in all interpersonal relationships. It helped the stubborn me out of my well and enabled me to view things from several perspectives I’ve never considered. Below are some of the pointers I’ve noted down.

Communication Does Not Necessarily Solve Problems
The notion that effective communication is the way to a successful relationship has been regularly drummed into our heads like a mantra. But I’m sure all of us have had the experience of becoming exasperated when the harder we try to communicate, the worse the situation gets. Why? Isn’t communication the keyword to a happy relationship? Apparently not. What then is? Compassion, acceptance, tolerance, appreciation – in short, love. We can communicate better only when we know how to love. When we don’t know how to love, we may be communicating our anger, frustrations, our defensiveness.

The author advocates the fostering of a spiritual partnership that involves finding out what it means to love and how to put that love into action. She said, “Everything you need for peace and happiness is within you and that is where your relationship work has to start.”

Love is the distinctive way of being in the world. The opposite of love is not hate but fear. Fear makes us contract and shut ourselves from the outside so that no one can see our fragile, weak, inferior, bad self. But when we have learnt to love ourselves, the love we have will give us the energy to open up and share with others.

Mask Builders
The author says human beings are like a tribe of mask builders. We put on a mask to shield us from the unfriendly elements in our environment. Our mask or defence is our public self, the personality we portray in front of the world. Sometimes we become so used to our mask, our defence, it becomes a mindless habit in us and this defence distorts the way we view the world.

When we stay behind our mask, we look like all the other people who don masks. Only when we shed this mask will we be able to express our true self that is uniquely us.

We don’t just live. We need to be conscious and experience life, reflect upon it and be actively involved in it. Being conscious is like climbing a mountain with an ever elusive peak. At each level, we think that we have conquered and seen everything but something nudges us to climb higher and when we do, we realise how limited our previous view was. We can never know what lies above us but we definitely know everything that is below us. The higher we climb, the more we learn.

Observer Self
We need to activate our observer self and become conscious. Only then will we make choices about what we are doing. Very often, we’re so immersed in ourselves, we’re like operating on autopilot mode with no awareness of our surroundings, no sense of the consequences of our actions.

We always behave in consistency with what we believe. Our beliefs greatly colour the way we see the world. Very true. I always believe in what I see but I often fail to realise that I may not have seen the entire picture.

Evil is not some independent source (like Satan) that battles the forces of good. It is simply ignorance, a lack of consciousness. “Evil people” are just identified with their protective habits and maintain a frantic effort to stay far from their inner pain. Their evil behaviour is their public self, their neurosis, adopted to fend off pain and cope with their environment. The spiritual response to evil is therefore not hate but compassion. Hate and anger moves toward separation, not connection. We cannot help to heal someone else’s limited vision if we are trapped in our own feelings of anger or hate.

Being Right
Life is not about being right. Being right is like winning the booby prize of life because all you get is to be right. By insisting on being right, it prevents us from expanding our vision, makes us helpless and worse of all, it distances us. So what if we’re right? We must thus learn to bend with the wind and let go.

Equality and Fairness
Life is also not about equality and fairness. When we use fairness and equality as a measure, we don’t have a relationship, we have a contest. What then is life? It’s about goodwill, about making that effort to make a difference. By offering a kind or generous gesture toward another person, it puts us in control of a situation and eliminates conflict.

To all the friends in a relationship, hear this “When you fall in love with a person, you fall in love with the whole package. You can’t choose the parts you like and send back those parts you don’t like and exchange.” Learn to accept your partner as the way he or she is. I would say it’s the same with friends.

Acceptance doesn’t require us to like it, approve of it or respect it. It just means we stop fighting it and allow the universe to be the way it is. By accepting, the dislike can cease to be a problem over time. By fighting and insisting on a change, we may never get our desired result. A more productive alternative is to accept the unpleasant quality and find creative ways to live with it. Genuine acceptance helps us to outgrow our problems.

It’s easy to love people when they are happy and doing well but they need love more when they aren’t doing well, when they feel low and can’t believe in themselves. People need acceptance and love most when they are facing setbacks in their lives.

Self-acceptance is the ultimate aphrodisiac. When we know and love our authentic self and feel comfortable with all our best and worst qualities, we become more approachable and easy to love.

Self acceptance is not about getting us in a perfect state so that it is easier to accept our self. It means telling our self “This is my existence, this is my life.” If we have to be somebody in order to love our self, we will never find self-love. But does accepting our self mean we can't have goals and dreams? No. It just means we don’t have to achieve those goals and dreams in order to be a good person.

The result of a spiritual life is happiness. The more you recognise your oneness with the essential nature of all things, the more you access your authentic self. The more you love, the more you expand your consciousness, the more you bend with the wind, the more you will experience happiness. Whatever the universe has in store for you, you will accept gratefully, even if it is not what you had in mind.

Good teachings huh? Here’s a good quote from the book:
“Slight shifts in imagination has more impact on living than major efforts at change.” –– Thomas Moore

I’m also reminded this quote I heard at a training for volunteers several years back:
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Don’t be fooled by disillusions in life. We may seem to look and think differently but we all share the same human experience.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Two Dogs

There are two dogs in me; one that is friendly, compassionate and righteous (or tries to be righteous) and another that is aggressive, impatient and snarls. The former is like a Saint Bernard and the latter a Rottweiler.

St Bernards are known to be gentle, family dogs that are fond of children and used in rescue operations to search for people in distress. Rottweilers on the other hand are known for their aggression and fierce looks and used to ward off enemies and guard herds.

Both are huge and high maintenance dogs. Of the two, which is the more loyal and better breed? It all depends on the owner. The St Bernard is prone to anxiety and if left neglected for long periods of time can also become destructive. Because of its size and weight, it is susceptible to bone deterioration if it does not get enough proper food and exercise. The Rottweiler as we all know, can turn into a ferocious animal if left in the care of an owner incapable of understanding and training it. Only by devoting time and effort can its guarding and protective instincts be controlled and prevented from turning into violence.

A good dog is not necessarily good and a bad dog is not necessarily bad. Take good care of both.

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