Friday, February 11, 2005

The Temple of the Soul

The Temple of the Soul

I've been blogging everyday since coming back to KL. Work and Chinese New Year obligations have kept me home-bound for the past week. The weather has also been terribly hot lately--the kind that make people fall sick easily. It is important to be able to detect the early signs of sickness by listening to the body. That simple practice has helped me to be relatively free from illness over the past many years of my nomadic life.

Yogis and spiritual teachers often liken the body to a temple, where the soul resides. Like a temple, its sanctity must never be violated. A clean and healthy body is essential for the soul to flower to its full potential. It is our earthly obligation and our karmic duty to maintain purity of the body. The body is the soul's spiritual vehicle, which is why all spiritual practices advocate certain ritual cleansing, relaxation exercises and dietary restrictions.

Before we can learn to control our minds and elevate the soul to spiritual heights, we must learn to do proper housekeeping of the body. If we cannot even take good care of our physical body, how can we even hope to move on to the greater and more delicate task of mastering the mind and the spirit?

The practice of Hatha Yoga is very good because it helps the body to maintain balance and harmony. Agitation of the mind is often reflected on the body and vice-versa. People who find it difficult to calm the mind can start by relaxing their their physical body first. Once the muscles start obeying your mental commands, then your mind will follow suit. The body is a convenient door to the mind, and ultimately the soul.

The only thing bad about being too body-conscious is an unnatural attachment to it. The body is merely a temporary vehicle; and like any other biological form, it will eventually wither away and die. If we are too enamoured with the beauty of the physical body, especially our own, we are merely setting ourselves up for a massive fall later on.

We will all grow old, weak and wrinkled. Accept it as a condition of life and see it as a graceful process of biological transformation. The body will still decay no matter how much we try to prolong its youth and beauty; but the soul will always rise to greater heights, if we bother to cultivate it.

Some of the more advanced Buddhist meditations require the practitioner to meditate on the foulness of the human body. This is to counteract and neutralize our natural tendency to be attached to the beauty and pleasures of the flesh. This practice is not recommended for the amateur meditator as it can bring adverse effects to the untrained mind. It is sufficient for the layman to realize that the mind has "gravity", and it will always be attracted and attached to sensual pleasures and physical beauty; but one must not be too identified with it, or one will find the eventual separation from it very painful and traumatic.

Enjoy the beauty of the physical form; let your senses play with it and savour its transient pleasures for what they are. But work diligently to set your soul free from its stubborn bondage. For it is this bondage that cause us so much sorrow.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Sundanese Soul

The Sundanese Soul

A Singaporean colleague who was with me in Bandung the other day commented that Sundanese instrumental music is very "Zen". I understood what he meant.

The music, sometimes known as kecapi suling, is typically performed by a small ensemble with instruments such as the kecapi (a kind of zither), suling (bamboo flute) and the gamelan degung (Sundanese bronze gong, which differs somewhat from the Javanese gamelan) and together they make a very soothing combination of sounds. It is very traditional of course, perhaps even a bit repetitive and monotonous to the unaccustomed ear, but nevertheless it never fails to induce a very relaxed state of mind in the listener.

To me kecapi suling is the perfect background music for a nice Sundanese meal of nasi timbel with tahu, tempe and gurame. Many hotels in Bandung also have live Sundanese ensembles playing at the lobby, which helps to add an ethnic feel to the atmosphere besides soothing the weary traveller with the magic of their languorous music.

The slow undulation of a suling melody over the subtle twang of kecapi strings, urged on by the rhythmic pounding of the gamelan degung is an aural blend that seeps gently into one's soul, bringing a deep sense of inner peace; it is a pleasurable calm that arises naturally, not unlike being caressed by the cool breeze that rolls down from the hills of Parahyangan.

Sundanese instrumental music is often used in Indonesian spas and health clubs to lull you into a blissful stupor while mojang priangan masseues slowly spread ylang-ylang over your body and tease the strain out of your tired muscles.

Everytime my thoughts go to Indonesia, and especially Bandung, the center of Western Javanese culture, soft strains of Sundanese music would automatically fill my head. To me, the music represents the soul of the Sundanese people, full of grace and provincial simplicity--qualities increasingly lost in today's world.

Again, I'm writing like a hopeless romantic, longing for a pastoral paradise that does not exist anymore. But through Sundanese music, I can recapture at least a bit of that elusive dream: of misty mountains and fertile farmlands, of verdant vales filled with sun-glittered streams--those dying strains of the Sundanese soul!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Fireworks and Incense

Fireworks and Incense

It's strange how people still bother to give me angpows during Chinese New Year. I realized yesterday that I still have not opened last year's angpows! Even when I was a kid, I never really did look forward to receiving angpows; everytime I received one, I'd chuck it into my drawer and would instantly forget about it. Perhaps I should make it a point to donate my angpows to charity next time.

I suppose there's more pleasure in giving than receiving. But being single, I'm not qualified to give out angpows yet--that privilege belongs only to those who possess the "good fortune" of being married.

So every year I continue pocketing these red packets from relatives and couples who will without fail take the opportunity to advise me to do something about my prolonged state of bachelorhood. I don't really bother, because I treat their remarks like how I treat those angpows--receive and forget.

One day when I have the time and inclination, I'll take the trouble to open up all the red packets that I've accumulated in my drawer and who knows, I might find enough there for me to retire. Perhaps then I'd start doing something about my bachelorhood :-)

But there must be something that I like about Chinese New Year. Let me think... as a kid, I used to like the fireworks. These days I find them kind of disturbing--they remind me of gunfire and bombs. It pains me to hear of children getting hurt playing fireworks every festive season. But I can understand the excitement that kids find in them. Sometimes the smell of fireworks do bring back nostalgic memories of my own childhood...

Once upon a time, I used to think that life should be lived like fireworks: one strives to pursue one's ideals to the very extreme and one must not shy to go out in a blaze of splendour. That is a very romantic notion of life, inspired by Byron, Rousseau and perhaps even James Dean.

These days I'm a much more mellowed person. I don't even see myself as a candle, glowing steadily in the dark; instead I'll be very happy if I can be likened to a stick of incense, burning and spreading its fragrance ever so quietly, into the night air.

And with every word that I write on this blog, perhaps a bit of that fragrance gets spread into cyberspace too.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Spiritual By-Products

Spiritual By-Products

Chinese New Year celebrations are always noisy and boisterous. The Chinese like things to be loud, grand and full of gaiety. Not a hint of gloom or doom is to be admitted during the festivities.

The Chinese would wish each other good fortune, good luck, great prosperity and wealth--never peace of mind or wisdom. To the Chinese, those things would come after one has made one's fortune. Money will buy you a secure future (= peace of mind) and allow you to afford a very good education (= wisdom). The Chinese are such successful emissaries of materialism because they are hardworking, practical and thrifty. These are all very good qualities that one should emulate. It is a very simple and effective formula for worldly success.

Being Chinese, I naturally would have these qualities in my "kernel". However I personally find the promise of material success insufficient motivation for me to wake up every morning with a great sense of purpose and enthusiasm. To me, anyone who is ambitious and willing to work hard will definitely gain some measure of material success. In a way, it is not too difficult.

Material success do provide us some comfort in life and one should never shy away from the challenge. However to me the greater challenge in life is to achieve worldly success without compromising one's peace of mind and to be able to achieve that as a by-product of one's quest for knowledge and wisdom.

Through education, we learn to turn information into knowledge; and by applying knowledge usefully in the world, we inevitably gain material wealth. It is a given. We fail only when when we are lazy, sloppy and allow ourselves to be sidetracked by a thousand and one distractions.

Wisdom arises when knowledge is distilled for its essence and absorbed into our system. When we have internalized knowledge as such, we no longer have to consciously think whenever we act--we can "feel" what is right everytime. That is wisdom and it is wisdom that brings us closer to of God.

Everything that I pursue in life: my love for the arts, my passion for science, my commitment to work, my interest in people and places are all driven by a quest that is fundamentally spiritual in nature. It is this spiritual quest that makes me spring with enthusiasm up from bed every morning. It is the spirit that yearns, it is the spirit that drives, it is the spirit that ultimately triumphs. The rest are just by-products.

The Answers Within

The Answers Within

I know Chinese New Year is sometime this week but I didn't realize that tomorrow is already New Year's eve. These public holidays always catch me by surprise, as I don't bother to keep track of them.

I'm back to the rather depressing heat and humidity of KL but I look forward to the light traffic in the city during the holidays. It's unlikely that I will go anywhere as I'll have to be online most of the time, working remotely on a proposal with some partners.

Chinese New Year is a happy time for kids; when I was younger, I used to look forward to it. It was a time for reunion with old friends back in my hometown. But having shifted to KL for so many years now, I don't even bother to go back to my hometown anymore.

Come to think of it, all my male friends back in my hometown are already married. They are all preoccupied with raising kids, paying the mortgage and growing fat. Physically all of us might have changed a lot, but whenever we meet, we realize how little we have actually changed inside. We still talk and joke like young schoolkids.

We all choose our individual paths in life. Most would choose the path of the householder--raising a family and building a beautiful home. I would think that is a good way to work out one's karma if one does it out of a sincere desire to love and share. But many chose the path out of fear: of peer pressure, old-age and loneliness.

Peer pressure comes from giving too much weight to what others think about you. No one knows you better than yourself, and what's right for you. So your own opinion should carry more weight than others. Listen more to yourself and just imagine you are living in the Land of the Blind. You determine your own happiness and sorrow, not others.

Physically, we all see our youth fading with each passing year. Women worry that they will not be attractive to men anymore. Men worry about losing their hair and virility. But life is more than the physical layer. Physical decay is an inevitability; I don't want to bring up the Second Law of Thermodynamics again but to try to cling on to something that's beyond our control is a certain cause of sorrow. Botox injections and cosmetic surgery will delay things for a while but at some point we have the accept the inevitable--like how we all have to accept death. Acceptance is something so simple yet so hard to do. Acceptance is a spiritual skill that one has to master sooner or later--it is the key to inner happiness and contentment.

Loneliness is something I've written a lot about. We are lonely because our biological instincts drive us to seek partners of the opposite sex and also because emotionally and intellectually we yearn to connect to others, to feel a sense of belonging to the wider community. There's a void inside if we don't fulfill those needs. But we must also realize that the void exists in four layers. Meeting the right partner will help fill the bottom three layers to a certain extent. But the ultimate emptiness--the spiritual void--will need to be filled, not by someone else but by yourself, from within.

We live our lives seeking approval, friendship and love from the external world--a world which changes, decays, transforms and is ultimately impermanent. Sometimes, we need to look inside, for the answer to all our unhappiness often lies within.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Good Saturday in Jakarta

A Good Saturday in Jakarta

It is strange how I only get to watch movies when I'm out of Malaysia: Today I managed to catch Martin Scorsese's The Aviator at the Block M Plaza cineplex. It wasn't planned though; I had lunch at the Surabaya Cafe in Plaza Blok M and then decided to have a peek at what's showing at the cineplex on the top floor: The Aviator was about to start in 5 minutes and I thought why not?

Scorsese as usual did not disappoint. What magnificent movies this guy makes: Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, just to mention a few. All of them are priceless cinematic treasures, a kaleidoscopic canon of works to be studied by students of the cinema for many generations to come. They are also interesting peeks into the many facets of the American psyche through different historical periods and geography.

The Aviator continues this grand Scorsese tradition--its subject is the enigmatic American industrialist, Howard Hughes, played with great sensitivity by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie captivated me from beginning to end. There were unmistakable shades of Citizen Kane in there with Howard Hughes portrayed as an eccentric man driven by an obsessive passion for aviation and a burning desire to achieve his dreams at all cost. Having deprived myself of a good movie for such a long time, I rediscovered what a joy and a great source of inspiration there are. I think I'll have to think of a way to ensure that I watch a least a movie every two weeks perhaps.

Of course, Jakartans consume pirate DVDs by the dozens every week. So they are usually in touch with all the latest movies (not to mention every episode of Sex and the City and Friends ever made). What a great change of lifestyle these pirated DVDs have brought us--watching them has become the de facto choice of pastime for most people on weekends, to the point that some actually run out of movies to watch. Our appetite for mental junk food is insatiable indeed. I wonder what we used to do before the home video was invented. Were we so entertainment-deprived then or have we simply acquired the bad habit of over-indulging in our craving for ever more intense stimulus?

Well, weekends are no time to philosophize about such things. Let us all enjoy them with our own personal choice of entertainment. I am grateful for another quiet Saturday in Jakarta--an appointment with Mbak Nani at Pasar Mayestik in the morning, a slow soto sulung lunch at Surabaya Cafe, a wonderful movie at the Plaza Blok M cineplex and a great Liverpool win (with Morientes and Baros scoring) at night on ESPN. I couldn't have asked for a better Saturday.