Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Japan's endurance culture

Last month a Japanese friend who has emigrated to Brazil came to visit our family. Her parents emigrated to Brazil decades ago in pursue of a more care-free life style, and now their daughter in her thirties, still single, spent time every year visits her home town for a few days each time, and then takes time to do other travels en route. This year she chose Hong Kong as one of her travel stops. Temperamentally she is more like any big-heart Brazilian, but she certainly knows a lot about Japanese culture and has learned how to deal with it without being out-casted, for one simple reason, as she said, she has to deal with her relatives whose home she stayed every time when she was in Japan.

She talked about losing the War is a blessing in disguise for Japanese, otherwise Japanese nowadays will be very arrogant and myopic - looking down upon other Asians. Some of her German friends expressed the same sentiment, she told me.

We talked more about Japan's endurance culture. It is like, winning is not the key issue in any endeavor; the ability to endure grave pain (or suffering) is the real test to become noble and respectable in Japanese culture.  There are many examples. Today there are karate masters who proud to have rough skin/bones and deformed fists through the toughest training regimes. And proud to be able to punch forcefully and be able to endure similar powerful punches that will cause a lot of pain. Yet, in their daily lives they are kind gentlemen and would not (and did not) engage in street fights even when provoked.  Professional Sumo training/tournaments is one of the toughest sports. But when Yokozuno  Asashoryu was found breaking the nose of a bartender in a minor scuffle after a few drinks, he was made retired.

My Japanese friends told me that it is also the same within a family! Back home, she has to be seen to endure some sufferings! No wonder Japanese salarized men would not dare going home immediately after work. The wife would probably say, "Why didn't you make yourself suffer from overtime work!" And I am not joking....

Retired yokozuna Asashoryu

Monday, August 31, 2015

Zen in Japanese culture

Japanese culture as evidenced in its various "ways" (道) is Zen like. For example, there are Way of Tea (茶道), Way of Arrow (kyudo 弓道) and Way of calligraphy (書道). It seems that every traditional practice can be expressed as "Way of" by the Japanese. Is it just a common way of saying thing in the Japanese language without any special meaning? Or is it imbued with signification special to the Japanese culture? And what is the purpose or performance objective of such significations?

To understand Japanese, one must look at what they like to do. Japanese like to take bath in a very special way. I remember decades ago, in one of my early trips to Tokyo, my wife and I stayed in a small hotel in Asakusa, a popular tourist district with the famous Kinryuzan Temple. On the top floor of the hotel, there is a huge public bath in which male guests can do the bath ritual and soak in a huge hot water communal pool overlooking Tokyo. In addition to public bath houses, Natural hot springs (温泉, onsen) are numerous and highly popular across Japan. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns, which come with them. The internal sensation that a Japanese seeks is a balanced chi-filled body created by hot bath, not without a short period of "suffering" before one can ease into the enjoyable meditative state. The mind is totally consumed by the hot water and the person will enter a mode of total focus that rational thoughts are supposed to be blocked out.

Most Japanese love such sensation, except perhaps some of the younger generation who feel more akin to embracing the western environment of a Starbucks in Shibuya, to see and to be seen like any Western kid. Even then, in the heart of such busy district like Shibuya, there are small cafes scattering in the side streets where, mostly on the first floor, I found a few salaried men and women sitting stoically in front of a café, very Zen like.

Japanese love Zen, and they like to create the feeling of Zen in traditional practices like tea, archery and calligraphy as mentioned above. What is meaningful in Zen for the Japanese personality? What are they seeking in Zen, as expressed in the different Ways?

First of all, it is not passive enjoyment. The Japanese Way of Tea is not like simply enjoying a nice cup of tea. If that be the case, no ceremony will need to be learned. Secondly, it is not like a quantifiable achievement. In the higher Dans, Kyudo practitioners are not being judged principally by their target scores (which being no more than 20% of the final score). Thirdly it is not just simply beauty. In Japanese calligraphy, a piece of work is not judged principally by its artistic beauty (that will make Japanese calligraphy works of graphic or abstract art).

Steps in practising/doing Japanese Ways are meticulously set out as rules. A practitioner of a Way has to learn the steps to the letter, usually in a particular order and which always requires some kind of physical pain (oftentimes involves muscular endurance pain) on the part of a practitioner. Suffering, rather than to be avoided, is an honorable act for a Japanese. What suffering finally delivers is a perfection of the steps. Perfection in a such as way that the particular movements of a Way has to be second-nature to the practitioner. Perfection also has to include the mind. The mind has to be totally focused in attending to the task. The kind of focus requires is meditative in nature. In other words, it should be in essence as in the zone as in seated meditation. This is moving meditation par excellence.

It is Zen. It is Japanese interpretation of Zen. It is attention to physical that delivers mental results. It is Tao. It is The Way!

Japanese tea ceremony

Monday, August 24, 2015

The poverty of modern amoral spirituality

Today morality is everybody's own business. In a way it is the correct approach. We have different systems of morality. A respect to different religions with their special nuances of morality is essential to a peaceful world. An essential idea to curb any attempt to over-aggressive evangelical thrusts. An essential idea to curb Governments from persecuting people with different systems of belief and morality. An essential idea that the modern world should be secular with due respects to religion and spirituality.

On the approach to spirituality, a different fallacy dawns on the modern man - spirituality can devout from any belief system. Such approach attracts some people who are disappointed by today's organized religions, for example Christianity, for people living in the West. New age spirituality seems to be synonymous with a negation of Christianity while embracing a form of Eastern religion notably Tao or Zen like. But the question is: Are Tao and Zen devoid of morality?

In the surface of it, Tao and Zen surely do look like a devoid of morality. Isn't it Tao said Good and Bad co-exist together in a person, equal in quality as well in in quantity? Isn't Zen enlightenment comes from a break-through away from worldly karma - which essentially means our inner world will not then be dictated by any pre-conditions however they were created (which has further been caused by previous karma)?

The fallacy of modern amoral spirituality is that it has assumed that practitioners of Tao and Zen begin with amorality and  ended up with amorality - and with a stronger belief in amorality at the end, the "meaning" of Enlightenments" per excellence!

To be true, without the quibbles of philosophers (analytical in nature), everybody knows what is good and what is bad, or what is moral and what is immoral. A dilemma comes for the pious man when he begins to realize that it is not easy for him to stay a good person for a continual period of time before his "other side" revolt. "The more we do good, the stronger of our urge to do bad as compensation", as Freudian/Jungian psychologists would have predicted. It also concurs with Tao and Zen teachings that good/bad exist within each of us in more or less half/half. In the Platform Sutra, our Zen master raised an impossible question for his young student to answer: "If I strike you with a stick, will you feel pain or no pain?" and he completed this Zen riddle by saying "If you do not feel pain, you are just a piece of stone and can't be Enlightened; and if you feel pain like any human being, then you will bear a grudge."

In Zen it is through a rebirth through meditation being facilitated, while out of meditation, by mental challenges fired from one's master (including the use of Koan). In Tao it is through rebirth of a new embryo through deep meditation facilitated by treating any negative thoughts (during meditation) arising from our inner self as fantasy. The ultimate objective is forming of a higher level new self into which our ego can step into (or identify with) after we have done good deed to avoid our "mental revolts". With the help of meditation, such negative energy arising from such revolts will be neutralized. And with such neutralization, we can perform our next good deed without the negative part holding us back or creating an internal voice questioning our pious endeavors. Without such understanding, New age spirituality only runs in a futile circle as best, and resulting in ego-elation or psyche dependency (towards one's master) at worst. Beware spiritual seekers!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The importance of training our diaphragm - as in Dantian

In the literature of internal arts, we read about concepts like Dantian, controlled breathing, muscles-as-one, punch absorption, navel gazing, peng-jing etc. The above seem to be different concepts, yet they are all related to one important organ of our body, our diaphragm, the strongest muscle in our torso, if not in our whole body. There are different techniques to work with the above concepts. Yet, the conditioning of our diaphragm helps all to become operational. 

Take an example, Dantian. In tai chi the working concepts of Dantian are Dantian roll (丹田内轉)and Chi-sunk-to-Dantian (氣沉丹田). These two concepts maintain that the power source is at our Dantian. What is Dantian? Dantian is the imaginary point a few inches behind (or below) our belly button. It is a point among our large intestine. A point of void. How can a void point be the source of power. Yet, generations of practitioners felt that it is where their power came from! The key word is felt. Dantian roll and Chi-sunk-to-Dantian are understandable power source concept if we adhere to the assertion that they are internally-sensed empirical concepts, rather than physical concepts.

A question more relevant to students of internal arts: How can such power source be trained? If we want to train our biceps, we grab a dumb-bell and repeatedly lift it up through contracting the muscles in our biceps. It is simple. Training Dantian is more problematic: it is not even a physical part of our body! The answer is we don't train our Dantian, we train our diaphragm. After we have trained our diaphragm, the key to activating power in our trained diaphragm is a point in the center of our belly, a point a few inches behind (or below) our belly button. The point that we call Dantian.

"How to train our diaphragm" is a question that I shall tackle for some future posts. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Inspired by Tao Te Ching - chapter 48



My translation of this famous chapter of Tao Te Ching, chapter 48

To learn we add daily
To practise Tao we abandon daily
Abandon and abandon
Until we have nothing to abandon
With nothing to abandon we are free

(No incident means good governance
Solving problems means bad governance)

Paul's comment: Never misunderstand that the sage had said that we should all forget about everything and seated cross-legged to meditate upon a waterfall all day long. Knowledge has always been organized to help us, or more precisely our rational mind or ego, to solve practical day to day problems. It is always spiritual knowledge that humans are lacking, in all ages and all times. But spiritual knowledge is empirical experience that cannot be learned from college, or master degree in Buddhist Studies, for that matter. Enlightenment comes form shedding knowledge gained from our rational mind. It comes from putting our ego in its rightful place (not a dissolution of which permanently, which means insanity). It means a dissolution of karma. It means Tao.

And in the most practical sense it means using either our rational mind or our compassionate heart at the right time, in the right place.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Inspired by Tao Te Ching - chapter 47



My rendition of Chapter 47 of Tao Te Ching:

Know the world without stepping outside the door,
Understand the wisdom of eternal Tao without looking outside the window.
Those who travel to know more,
turned out to understand less.
Therefore a sage understands without traveling around to study,
Comprehends without learning,
Achieves through non-action.

Paul's comment: Knowledge is different from wisdom.  In real life, both are important. When we are led by a strong ego, we explore the world of knowledge, and seek advice from the outside world, both from teachers and from our own experience. We achieved worldly success. Our ego, however, has no limit. Our ego does not understand other egos are seeking the same things that he desires, not to mention other sentient beings and the environment. Sooner or later, in our open society it is often sooner rather than later, our ego will be frustrated by the fact that knowledge has failed him. Wisdom comes from the feminine side of our personality. Wisdom guides us when to move forward, when to be satisfied with what we have, when to respect others or the environment, and above all when to retreat.

With wisdom, ego and knowledge still have their roles to play. Even if we can afford to, most of us would not like to be in an altered state of consciousness all the time, even if that state is happy or even meant bliss. We have our real/physical life to live, our real/physical people whom we interact with. And in order to survive in the real world, we need knowledge to solve day to day practical problems, not the least the need to make a living with a real job.

Wisdom is not everything, but it sets an important balance. As the sage explained, wisdom can only be seek from within. Inner peace has to be found from within.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Anything goes versus the right thing goes

Jung had warned against the vulgarization of Eastern enlightenment concept when being transplanted to the West. His warning has become more salient nowadays when the East has increasingly been assimilated into the West so far as culture is concerned. So much so there is not much difference in mentality nowadays between a University student in Hong Kong and his counterpart in America.

One such vulgarization is the saying that Taoism in practice (or practical Taoism) is defined by some as "anything goes".

If not "anything goes", how shall we, now all belonging to the West, appreciate the Taoist notion of fusing Yin and Yang as in accepting the good and the evil in ourselves (or in society) as a totality? How can we express the conception that both good and evil should be embraced? The following is one such formulation, expressed in a way that I believe, is more consistent with Taoist way of thinking as expressed in Tao Te Ching:

"We experience the self as a union of opposites in a number of ways. If the manifest self is alive in the soul, we are able to meet every situation with the appropriate response. We are kind when kindness is appropriate, and severe when severity is required. We are not afraid of our own dark side, nor are we dominated by it, but express it in a suitable manner. We see the creative spirit in the material world, and enjoy material pleasures. In short, we are unafraid to express all sides of our personality and repress none. Our willingness to be all that we are, and to embrace all of our parts, allows us to experience ourselves as whole beings. We might think of the union of opposites proceeding in this manner as sequential; first one part of the personality expresses itself, then another".

And the author, Jeffery Raff, is not a Taoist but a Jungian who considered Jung belonging to the spiritual tradition. His book is called "Jung and the Alchemical Imagination". The concept of Tao is certainly being expressed much more truthfully here then "anything goes", although Raff was not talking about Tao in the above.
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