Saturday, November 06, 2004

One Man's Heaven

One Man's Heaven

It looks like the English Premier League soccer dominates most people's weekends these days. Since ESPN and Starsport started televising these matches live, it has been such a boon to all the entertainment outlets in this region. The timing is perfect--primetime on weekends.

My weekend mood goes up or down depending on how Liverpool performs. Sometimes I can't bear to watch my favourite team play because when you have an emotional stake on a match, you simply cannot enjoy it objectively. If I'm busy working on a project, I'll just resort to taking peeks at live text commentaries over Internet.

"Fortunately" I can't understand why people like to bet on the outcome of matches. Maybe for some people, it increases the excitement of watching these live events. People often challenge me to take bets, but I always decline because I simply cannot fathom its pleasure. Seeing Liverpool win makes me happy but winning a bet does not intensify its pleasure--at least for me--because it is "expected". Of course Liverpool is going to win!

However a bet for Liverpool to win will only make my pain worse if they do end up losing. Betting on the number goals scored is to me quite a meaningless activity. Football is a very unpredictable game--which is also the reason why it attracts many punters.

In general, any kind of gambling bores me utterly. Why waste so much time over seemingly random events? So you'll never find me placing bets. Another "vice" struck off from my list (and I must say, the list is quite a long one).

By reducing my list of so-called "vices", one could argue that maybe I'm also missing out on a lot of "pleasures" in life. Life is short. One needs to enjoy it as much as possible.

True, but as you grow older, you begin to appreciate things you didn't find pleasurable before. A family man finds pleasure spending his weekends with his kids, when perhaps ten years ago,as a swinging bachelor, it would have been unthinkable for him to stay at home on a Saturday night. The family man does not feel that he is missing out on life because he has grown to appreciate the more subtle pleasures that life has to offer.

We will all outgrow certain pleasures in life, but life will always reveal fresh pleasures for us to savour. The kid thinks heaven is a toy or candy store but the virile young man thinks it must to be full of virgins. When you are on your deathbed, how do think heaven will be like?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Land of the Blind

The Land of the Blind

We often hear people say that in the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king. It is used to emphasize the fact that, often enough you don't need to be the best to succeed, you just need to be better than the people around you. In a more negative sense, it can also mean that those who happen to have a slight advantage can easily exploit or dominate those who don't.

Now let us explore this Land of the Blind a little bit more. It is a very interesting country. Let's imagine that you are this one-eyed king or queen. Now, if the rest of the world is blind, would you bother to dress yourself up nicely everyday? Would you as the king bother to put on your official regalia when there's no one else in the world who would be able to appreciate its pompt and pageantry? Would physical beauty have any meaning all?

A lot of people, women especially, spend a lot time worrying about their physical appearance. Women spend hours preening in front of the mirror, deciding what to wear for a function or outing.

But men hardly pay any attention to what women wear--usally it's what's underneath that they are interested in. Still women fuss a lot about all these things, because it is often not the approval of men that they seek, it's the judgement of other women--their peers--that the are concerned about. Women are the harshest critics of other women's dressing.

It is amazing how much of our happiness is dependent on the approval of others. Many of us are afraid to speak in front of a large audience not because we lack any speaking ability but mainly because we can't bear the thought of having hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears judging us.

Humiliation and pride are all conditions of the mind that owes their existence solely to the assumption that the rest of the world are always there to judge us. But who are the people that make up the rest of the world? It's just people like you and me--people who are afraid to be judged by other people too. We are all in the same boat.

We all seek each other's approval. Perhaps in a magnanimous world, everyone will praise everyone else. But that doesn't work either because we all have egos. The ego wants praise for itself only. If everyone gets praised, then the praise becomes meaningless. The ego cannot be satiated by feeding it what others also possess. Its natural tendency is to want to be unique, to be above other people, or to at least belong to an exclusive group. That defines the ego.

Everyone should spend some time in the Land of the Blind; it can be a very therapeutic vacation. We'll all come back, seeing things a lot more clearly.

The Overflowing Cup

The Overflowing Cup

The following is a very popular Zen koan:

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree. The Master said: "Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves."

The Buddhist Zen masters resort to koans--a kind of riddle or parable--to jolt their students from their normal mode of thinking.

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?", is another one of those famous "nonsensical" koans. The whole point of koans is make the student realise the futility of searching for Enlightenment using the logical mind.

The intellectual mind, if we let it have free reign, can easily become a prison for the spiritual soul. But if we know its limitations and learn how to use it properly, it can become an instrument of salvation.

What are the signs indicating that the mind has become a hinderance to our mental and spiritual progress? The most obvious one is when the mind thinks that it already knows everything.

This is best illustrated by another popular (perhaps the most well-known) Zen parable:

Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served his guest tea. He poured into his visitor's cup until it was full, and kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself and exclaimed:

"It is full. No more will go in!"

Nan-in stopped pouring and told the professor gently:

"Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Monday, November 01, 2004

Love, like Sunlight

Love, like Sunlight

A friend of mind saw his ex-girlfriend with a group of her friends two weeks before his wedding ceremony; but he avoided her. He was afraid that meeting her would open all the floodgates of his emotions again.

I knew that he went through many trials and tribulations with his ex before they broke off. They obviously loved each other very much but somehow people deeply in love often end up hurting each other. Love is a force that once unleashed, is very difficult to contain. And if we are not mature enough to handle it, enormous destruction can result.

Love is an attractive force between two individuals--it has a tendency to bind, at least at the physical level. For a brief moment when the bond is forged, there is a sense of bliss and completeness. But it is only after this initial state of euphoria that the true test of love begins.

Once physical possession has been settled, there comes the stage of emotional negotiation. Sometimes we think that we love someone when in fact we are simply using that someone as a vehicle for filling a selfish need. Lovers cling to each other selfishly because each fills a specific void in the other. Each has something to give, and each wants something back in return.

This negotiation process is unfortunately not something that is acknowledged directly. Couples take years to negotiate--through daily quarrels, fights and very subtle emotional manipulation. Many are perpetually in a state of negotiation: they keep repeating the same arguments over and over again throughout their entire relationship.

Some people say that's normal. All marriages are like that. Lovers quarrel and make up. In the end, this emotional rollercoaster ride is worth it. Or is it really?

Expectations between lovers are always high. We want our partners to behave in certain ways and when they don't we get angry. But is that acceptable? We never quarrel in such a childish manner with our friends, do we?

With friends, we always maintain a respectful distance. We accept that friends might think differently from us. We will never think about trying to change our friend's behaviour to suit us--for the simple reason that we don't own our friends.

Parents have to learn this lesson of love too, often the hard way, when their children grow up and no longer listen to what they say anymore.

Perhaps that's a good basis to build a relationship.We don't own the people we love. Your loved one is just a channel for you to express your love--because love is a creative force that yearns for expression. Love is like sunlight. The sun does not seek anything in return when it shines. But it does get to enjoy all the beautiful flowers that bloom and grow through its nurturing light.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Prison of Words

The Prison of Words

Jesus taught using parables, which are basically simple stories to illustrate a moral concept. We understand something better if relate it to things that we know. Good teachers often give real-life examples to describe abstract concepts that he or she is trying to teach.

We often need to explain difficult technical concepts in layman's language to make ourselves understood. To do so, we need to use simple language that is familiar to the layman. But sometimes when things are put in simple language, certain nuances are lost. Worse still, it could even be misinterpreted.

A lot of religious texts sound very incomprehensible to people because these writings attempt to describe something that is beyond the realm of ordinary experience. A statement such as: "Suchness is neither that which is existence, nor that which is non-existence, nor that which is at once existence and non-existence, nor that which is not at once existence and non-existence.", will likely confuse more than enlighten people. Which is also why there's so much controversy over religion: it's often hijacked by people who think they have the absolute interpretation.

Science faces the same problem too when it comes to describing the nature of the universe. An electron exhibits both wave and particle properties. But it is quite impossible for us to imagine how something can be a wave and a particle at the same time because we can only think based on our own sensory experience.

As we explore the secrets of nature deeper, we find that our language is grossly inadequate to describe what we discover. Scientists have to resort to using the language of mathematics, which again is only comprehensible to a small group of people.

There's no way we can think of space in multi-dimensions without using mathematics. Even when we are able to describe it mathematically, no scientist can mentally visualize what space in four dimensions look like. Astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington said, "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine".

Words are only approximations, signposts to reality. But some of us get entangled with words, and think they are the real thing. We disagree over words, we argue over words--all the time, using the imperfect instrument of words. If only we can transcend this prison of words, we'll catch a glimpse of that Ultimate Reality, and be awed into absolute silence.