Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Cosmic Fugue

Readers of my blog will know that I am fond of writing about spirituality and religion, even though I am not a very religious person myself, in the conventional sense. Why is that so?

Religious beliefs might on the surface appear to be irrational and dogmatic and at times even bordering on the superstitous. Most of the time, religion cannot be defended logically. Furthermore history has also shown that religious people do not always conduct themselves morally. Why then do we bother with religion? Hasn't religion done more harm than good to mankind?

I sometimes suspect that, the world will actually be a much better place if we do not place so much importance on religion. I've discussed this topic before elsewhere: in general people are inclined to be well-behaved because everyone needs the company of other people to survive. If we behave in a destructive manner, we simply eliminate ourselves from society.

Over time, society evolves a set of rules, which determine the well-being and conduct of its members. It allows everyone to be "selfish" within certain limits. It ensures that the stability of the social system is protected, while at the same time allowing the freedom for people to pursue their own selfish ambitions.

However no one can be overtly selfish because in a way, part of what they pursue is only meaningful if there's the approval and respect of the society in which they live in. Many people would not bother to dress up expensively or drive a fancy car if they are not able to show off their wealth to other people. You need other people to trade with, you need other people to work together and collaborate with in order to generate wealth.

So people need society. And society can only exist if it finds ways to maintain its stability without hampering each individual's pursuit of happiness. Behaviour that threatens the stabililty of society is considered "evil" and behaviour that puts society's needs above the individual are considered "good". A society hums along just fine when there's a critical mass of so-called good people. Evil people ultimately eliminate themselves over time. If an entire society becomes evil, then it simply self-destructs.

Now, why then do we still need religion? Isn't good conduct an inevitable feature of any stable society?

Let's explore another aspect of religion: the supernatural. We have to admit that there are phenomena in this world which logic or science doesn't yet provide satisfactory answers. Doesn't that necessitate the introduction of a spiritual or divine side to the world around us? How do we explain why we are born on this earth, and what happens to us after death? What is the purpose of our existence? Isn't religion an attempt to answer these questions?

While I agree that these things do bother us, we also have to ask ourselves: why do they matter at all?

Why do we need a purpose and reason to everything that we see around us? We exist and we die. Can't we just accept that? Why do we need to invent fairytales and fool ourselves into believing that they are true, without demanding concrete evidence? Why not let science discover the secrets of nature slowly, like how it has been failthfully doing throughout the ages? And for the meantime, isn't it better to apply Occam's Razor?

Let me ask you a question: Do you enjoy music?

Of course you do. All of us do. But why do we need music? Isn't music something irrational? In what way does music help the human species to survive? Music doesn't fill our stomachs. Why then are we even willing to pay money to listen to music?

Not a single culture exists without its own music. Isn't this strange? Why do we have this desire to dance and sway to music? Is our response to music something that's hardwired in our genes? Of what survival value does the act of dancing and singing offer to the human species? Similarly with other artistic pursuits such as painting, sculpture and poetry. Are they all not completely "useless" activities?

Religion is like music and other forms of artistic expressions. It is a natural response of human beings to the world around us. Anyone who knows the meaning of beauty or has fallen in love before, already has the seeds of spirituality and religion within him. Artistic beauty and romantic love--these are but tiny glimpses of that greater impulse within all of us, which is spiritual in nature. They are all irrational and "useless" human expressions. But they are universal.

The spiritual impulse within each one of us is like individual voices--all inter-related and interwoven together in a cosmic fugue. Your spirit evolves, one voice among many voices, partaking in that grander scheme, urging you on to find meaning and purpose to your brief existence.

Does the melody know for what purpose it exists? No. It rises and it falls. It has a clear begining and an end. It's purpose of existence is to carry the song that it is supposed to carry.

We all have that religious impulse. The song we carry within each one of us is different. Some hear it more loudly than us. Is there a supernatural being called God, who composed this Cosmic Fugue? It's beyond our ability to know. Do we need to care? When the music is already playing, the composer is no longer important. What matters is the music and the beauty that it expresses.

We only know that each one of us has a melody, a voice within. We hear other voices around us. We simply evolve our individual melodies, in harmony with the others. Like musicians in a jam session, we must not only play, but also listen and improvise at the same time. Then only do we create music.

There are as many types of music as they are religions in this world. Do we say that they are all irrational, useless expressions of the human race? Is one type of music better or truer than another? Certainly not. You are but one voice in a polyphonic fugue.

Why can't we acknowledge the fact that we all like music? Your taste in music is different from mine. But deep down inside we know why we like music. Music in whatever form is always beautiful. Let's not try to read too much "meaning" into music. It is much more important to listen.

And if you listen intently enough, you'll understand why music is beautiful. No words are needed beyond that.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Mental Clutch

The thought processes in the mind create reactions in body, like waves on the surface of the ocean. These waves always appear in familiar formations. A certain type of waves, we call Happiness. Another set of waves, we call it Anger, and so forth. All emotions are like that--familiar patterns of bodily reactions that are triggered by mental processes.

If we are aware of our mental processes, we can, with practice, control the reactions of the body towards them. For example, a thought that usually triggers an anger reaction can be detected within the split second that it arises in the mind, and instinctively defused. You acknowledge the arisal of the thought, but you disengage its usual reaction in your body--like how the car engine is disengaged from the transmission system, through the mechanism of the clutch.

The practice of meditation helps you to develop this mental clutch. Remember how difficult it was when you first started to learn how to drive? But with practice you soon learned how to control the clutch pedal in such a subtle fashion that you were able to use it to make the car balance on a slope. Can one achieve such fine control over one's mind? Well, if you can do it with your foot, you can certainly do it with your head .

We think it is difficult because we are too lazy to try. Laziness is the greatest obstacle towards a mastery of the mind. Most of us are bestowed with reasonably capable minds, but unfortunately it is often occupied by the trivialities of everyday life. Thinking is a lot of hard work; especially when you asked to think about what you are thinking about--the mind thinking about the mind. What could be more boring than that!

But if we do not have the ability to listen to our own minds, then I'm afraid we'll always be drown in the incessant mental chatter that arises spontaneously in our heads. If we do not check this source of noise, we are nothing but noise. And already there's enough noise in this world.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

My Favourite Podcasts

It's been a long time since I last blogged. No, I don't intend to stop blogging, or even take a break. I want to continue, despite my hectic schedule. It has been difficult lately for me to find time to sleep, let alone blog. There's a momentary surge of work, and I'm taking it all in my stride. All shall come to pass, but blogging will always have to take lower priority than sleep, I suppose.

Anyway, I've had a good eight hours of sleep last night, and I have cleared my morning round of work. Time to blog! No boring philosophical entries this time; it's time for a bit of gobrol-gobrol. Let's talk about podcasts.

I have an iPod player which I listen to whenever I'm driving. Besides using it to enjoy my audiobooks, I also love listening to podcasts. I'm a regular listener to the following podcast programs:

1. Speaking of Faith
This weekly podcast is among the best out there. It covers topics on religion and spirituality. Host Krista Tippett interviews guests from different persuasions every week and these are quality interviews done in an emphathetic manner, with a clear intention to seek understanding of people's different beliefs. The podcasts are complemented by a wonderful website, which features Krista Tippet's blog plus additional materials not used in the podcasts and reference notes. I learned so much from listening to this wonderful podcast program.

2. Real Time with Bill Maher
No one has a more acerbic wit than Bill Maher when it comes to making fun of George Bush. Unlike other talk show hosts, Bill Maher discusses serious current issues, which he tackles with simple common-sense intelligence, slicing through all the spin and bullshit and yet still keeping the show enormously funny. The language used is adults-only which makes it even more interesting because it's like the kind of conversations that we guys have whenever we gather together in pubs. Like Lettterman's Top Ten List, his New Rules segment is the eagerly awaited highlight of every show. If you like Bill Maher, read his equally humorous take on terrorism and September 11 in his book: When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden. I'd love to buy this guy a few rounds beer.

3. Mark Kermode's Film Reviews
This is a BBC podcast, featuring reknowned British film critic, Dr Mark Kermode. This guy actually has a Ph.D in Horror Fiction and is a world leading authority on horror films. But fortunately he is no dry academic who enjoys showing off his technical knowledge by talking about montage or mis en scene; he simply loves good narrative cinema--movies that tell a good story as it should, with flair, originality and good acting. His humorous rants are the highlights of the show. Recently movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest ("lumpen direction, lousy writing and pouting performances") and Little Man ("this film is evil") have been on the receiving end of his scathing attacks.

It's been tough on me for the past two years, not having the time to watch movies. But Mark Kermode's reviews keep me in touch with the movie scene. There are so many good movies that I haven't seen. Maybe one fine day, I'll just decide to unplug my computer, switch off my cellphone, and lock myself at home for one whole week to watch all the movies I've missed, in one crazy marathon session.

Besides these three podcasts, I also listen to Naxos Classical Music Spotlight, Newsweek on Air and BBC's Documentary Archive.

And the wonderful thing about all these programs is that--they are all free. So don't complain about audiobooks being expensive. There's enough free audio materials out there that will keep you enthralled for the remaining waking hours of your life. If you have time, check out French Maid TV too.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Real Freedom

Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey):
Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus.

Carolyn Burnham (played by Annette Bening):
Your father seems to think this type of behavior is something to be proud of.

Lester Burnham:
And your mother seems to prefer I go through life like a fucking prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.

Carolyn Burnham:
How dare you speak to me that way in front of her. And I marvel that you can be so contemptuous of me, on the same day that you LOSE your job.

Lester Burnham:
Lose it? I didn't lose it. It's not like, "Whoops! Where'd my job go?" I QUIT. Someone pass me the asparagus.

--family dinner scene from American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes
We have fears because we have attachments. We are attached to our bodies; so we fear growing old, we fear its annihilation--death.

If you are someone who take enormous pride in your physical beauty, chances are, your attachment is even stronger. And the stronger your attachment, the bigger your fears are, and the more potential pain that you have to suffer.

When you have no attachment to your job anymore and you decide to resign, you'll feel a great sense of freedom and liberation. To hell with your bosses! You are free. You don't give a damn anymore. Imagine yourself in that position. Capture that feeling. Why can't this be your permanent state of mind? Why can't the mind be always free like that?

Because we can't let go of our attachments. We want the income that comes with a steady job. We want the prestige perhaps of working for a large company. We enjoy the position that we hold--where people look up to and respect. We have a standing in society and a sense of identity.

We all need to work to feed ourselves and our families. That's fair enough. But why are we investing so much of our energy and time, at the cost of our mental and physical in so many intangibles--pride, position, prestige, identity? Why are these things important? Are they worth the price that you are paying now?

If you are willing to pay the price, then don't complain. Just take the pain. Truly successful people don't lament about the hardship that they have to go through. They know the price of success.

Now, isn't freedom also an intangible that comes with a price?

If you have to pay for freedom, that means you are not yet free. It could mean you are running away from responsibility. It could also mean that you are attached to some other object of desire that has a bigger allure. You could be divorcing your wife so that you can marry a pretty young girl. That will feel like freedom for a while, until you realize that this new relationship is also a prison in some way.

Freedom is not a goal that one should strive for like how one would go after wealth or position. Freedom is something that's inherent in us--our original state, free from any attachments, neither to the past nor to the future. Freedom is just being and taking every moment as it is. Nothing stirs your calmness. Everything that comes to your attention is tackled and handled without fuss. And you move on to the next. Like a good badminton player.

A drop of water falls on a leave, and immediately glides off its surface.

Such is real freedom.

Friday, August 18, 2006

KL and the Contempt of Familiarity

KL and The Contempt of Familiarity

When I was living in Jakarta, I used to blog a lot about Sukarno, historical annecdotes about Jakarta, Indonesian culture, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Chairil Anwar and other observations on Indonesian life, which I find interesting. It was a lot of fun observing Indonesians as an outsider, occassionally blending in with locals, and as and when I chose to, playing the ignorant foreigner. You get to learn a lot that way.

When I came back to KL almost 3 years ago, I wanted to do the same here--to observe Malaysians like an outsider. But it proves to be a more difficult challenge because I'm a Malaysian myself and I know Malaysians too well. It's the same reason why we sometimes treat friends better than how we treat our own family members. We often behave in a less forgiving manner towards people closest to us. Familiarity, inevitably breeds contempt.

I get a bit disappointed with fellow Malaysians sometimes because I tend to judge them by a higher standard. I can tolerate litter, pollution and haphazard parking in Jakarta but such things cheese me off in KL. The dirt and squalor of a Jakartan slum is 'exotic'; the squatter settlements in KL, an 'eyesore'.

Life in Jakarta was like the courtship phase in a romantic relationship. Life in KL is like a marriage. Husbands and wives quarrel because there are expectations from each side which are not met. How do we maintain the romance of courtship in a marriage? How do we prevent familiarity from breeding contempt?

If we seek to understand first instead of insisting on meeting our expectations all the time, then the situation might improve. During courtship, we see everything in a positive light. We are more forgiving. We have hope and optimism. We laugh together at each other's mistakes. We have patience. Why can't couples do the same after marriage?

Well, I don't know. I'm thankfully, single (and still loving every minute of it). I'd rather deal with my relationship with KL first. I must learn to see squalor as 'exotic', be more forgiving towards the rude and reckless drivers that I see on Malaysian roads everyday and try not to have too high an expectation on my fellow citizens. Only then perhaps, I'd be ready to tackle the challenge of marriage--that is, if I'm even interested to do so.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Moment's Ornament

A Moment's Ornament

She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment's ornament

-- William Wordsworth
In my home office, I'm surrounded by so many tantalizing books--books which yearn to be sipped and savoured like good wine. But I'm chained to my computer, with a huge backlog of tasks to tackle: e-mails to be replied to, computer programs to be written, presentation slides to be built, forms to be filled and proposals to be submitted.

But as usual, I'll tackle one thing at a time. I will certainly attempt to prioritize but the size of the queue makes no difference to the way I handle my immediate task.

Every now and then, in between more mundane chores, I'd take a peek into these delightful worlds that lie hidden within the pages of the tomes surrounding me: The Self-Made Tapestry, The Art of the Infinite, The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, The Malayan Emergency Revisited, Historical Sites of Jakarta and so many more.

There's so much wonder and beauty to be discovered. Enough to last a few lifetimes.

And then there's also the world outside the world of the mind: people--the "interactive books". That's another vast universe to discover. How often do we find the time to catch up with old friends? Are we not preoccupied mostly with our small worlds of work, family and more work?

The pleasures in life are infinite but time is finite. So we'll have to prioritize. Our most common mistake is that we give too high a priority to work. Work is not the most important thing in life. It is not a matter of life and death. A lot of the importance which we associate with work is merely self-importance. We force ourselves to achieve to satisfy the cravings of the ego.

Work is a pleasure when it becomes a form of worship. We work because it fulfils an inner need and provides the necessary spiritual ballast. It anchors us into our world. Work becomes a joy when there's growth, creativity and expansion. If you do something with focus, dilligence and care, the quality is always reflected in the output. And that is all that one needs to be concerned about.

It doesn't really matter what it is that we do for a living. As long as we are always mindful of the task at hand, the reward is immediate. What comes after that--wealth, promotion or recognition--is a bonus. To me such rewards are a given. We don't need to worry about them. The universe will find its way to reward us, in the most appropriate way. Delegate that task to God!

If one is mindful of what one is doing every moment of one's waking life, there's nothing more that one could do. Any kind of worry, speculation or fault-finding only takes up unnecessary CPU time, and thus diminishes the quality of one's work.

There's so much to do! But still there's only ONE thing one could do at any moment in time. Doing that very thing well, makes the moment. That very task itself, becomes the moment's ornament.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Life's Continuum

Life's Continuum

It is so important to maintain an oasis of calm within when one is leading a hectic life. If one does not know how to take things one at a time, there will be tremendous stress. For the modern man or woman, stress is the main cause of a lot of illnesses.

A poised mind does not dwell too much on the future or the past. A processor executes one instruction at a time. It does not hurry. There is no point in hurrying because one instruction is all it can do at any point in time.

You cannot do more than what you are doing now. There will always be tasks waiting in your "run queue". What you can do however, is to make your utilization of time more efficient. You strive to eliminate wastage and you find more intelligent ways of doing things. That helps a lot.

I'm thankful that despite leading a busy life, I still get to read a lot more than what an average person does. This is because I make use of those bits and pieces of time which most people would normally waste--such as time spent waiting in a queue or time spent driving or getting stuck in a traffic jam. These tiny bits of time are important; they do add up significantly.

When you have a book to read or an audiobook to listen to, time disappears. With your mind completely relaxed and happily nourished, you don't hurry unnecessarily. When you hurry, you make mistakes. And mistakes can be very costly, especially when you are driving at 100 over km/hour along the highway.

Life is a continuum of experiences--not point events separated by intervals of unimportance. Your workday is not defined by a series of events, it is instead a continuous flow of mental and sensory experiences, which you, in your ignorance, conveniently lump into "chunks"--"my project meeting", "that important customer presentation", "my appointment with dentist" etc.

When you think of life in terms of events, you tend to treat the intervals between them as unimportant. That's why you hear the expression: "killing time". Those tiny bits of time between important events are to be "killed". But why kill time? Remember: your lifetime is finite. To kill time is to kill yourself.

Why not experience time as an ever-present flow?. Like a fountain that is replenished by a steady stream of fresh water particles, but yet maintains a steady shape. You don't try to chase time. You allow it to flow into your life, allowing it to bring forth the fullness and essence that is in every moment.

Life is a continuum. You don't selectively lump a series of events together and label them "happy" or "sad". These so-called "defining moments" are not your life. Your life is not something you've achieved in the past or something that is yet to come in the future. Life is now. The ever-present Now. It is all that matters, it is all there is and ever will be.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Beauty of Anger

The Beauty of Anger

It has been a good month of World Cup action, even though it coincided with one of the busiest periods for me this year. Still I managed to catch most of the important matches, especially those that involved my favourite team, Germany. I'm pleased that they managed to secure at least third placing, even though, with some luck, they could have gone all the way to the final.

Most people like the Brazillian brand of soccer because it is exciting to watch. Brazillian players are skillful, spontaneous and creative. German soccer is comparatively dull, mechanical and "boring" but there's great tactical discipline and teamwork.

I enjoy watching both styles; To me they represent the two types of beauty which Robert M. Pirsig talked about in his cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Romantic Beauty and Classical Beauty. If you choose one over the other, you are simply missing a lot of beauty in life.

I'm not going to comment about the Zidane-Materazzi incident in the final, but it got me thinking about the level of patience and tolerance that we possess in each of us. At what point do we have a right to say, enough is enough? How much provocation is considered too much for an individual to bear?

Our patience is something that is tested all the time: think of traffic jams, supermarket queues, telemarketeers, government departments and nagging spouses. Each one of us has a different threshold of tolerance. When the threshold is breached, we are no longer our recognizable self. And that's an ugly sight behold.

I try not to get angry easily because to me, anger is "easy". We feel strong, powerful and right when we are angry. It is an easy way to feel right. It doesn't require great skill to feel incensed but it requires great wisdom and insight to see beyond anger and understand the underlying resentment and pain that triggered it in first place.

It is much more productive to just acknowledge the anger rising within us, and then channel the energy towards something that would help alleviate its cause.

Anger is simply wasted energy--like heat loss in electrical transmission. The amount of heat generated is indicative of the amount of current that's coursing through the wires but the heat itself is energy that is forever lost. When anger arises, see it as an opportunity to tap this sudden inrush of energy.

Anger is simply the signal of an energy windfall; so use it wisely, use it creatively.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Systems of Spiritual Energy

Systems of Spiritual Energy

In the gospel of Matthew, there's a famous chapter where Jesus speaks about marriage, divorce and celibacy. Let me quote some lines here:

"...that at the beginning, the Creator made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate". (Matthew 19:4-6)

When a disciple commented that,"it is better not to marry". Jesus replied:

"Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way, others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it." (Matthew 19:11-12).

A married couple is, as Jesus said, "one flesh". Two lives are intertwined so tightly that it is impossible for one to suffer or enjoy anything without having an effect on the other. Marriage, if practiced properly, is a good way to work out your karma and hasten your spiritual evolution.

By having a partner to share your life, you will always have a "mirror" to reflect your shortcomings; you can see yourself better because all your actions trigger immedate reactions from your partner. I've also given another analogy before: a married couple is like a binary star--two stars caught up in each other's gravitational field, and hence have to evolve as a single system.

If marriage is so important, why then did Jesus say "others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven"? Is that also a legitimate path to enlightenment?

In general, Jewish rabbis and priests do not practice celibacy. Only certain Jewish sects such as the Essenes do so. There are of course, many academic debates as to whether Jesus himself was also an Essene. And despite the intriguing speculations made popular by the Da Vinci Code, there are no conclusive evidence indicating that Mary Magdalene is Jesus' wife either.

What's more interesting though is the fact that Jesus himself seem to acknowledge the fact that there are those who renounce marriage in their quest for spiritual enlightenment ("the kingdom of heaven"). And it is not a path suitable for everyone ("only those to whom it has been given").

The path of the celibate--the Sanyasin--is one that requires great spiritual discipline. The renunciate chooses the path of celibacy not because there's anything "sinful" about sex or relationship with the opposite sex. Instead he chooses to walk the spiritual path alone because he is like a scientist who wants a controlled "lab environment" to conduct his experiments. Instead of a binary star system, which is more complex to analyze and tackle, he chooses to isolate his own soul so that the variables are more manageable.

Now, this approach has its dangers too if one is not careful. The renunciate, in his isolation, might end up hardening his ego, because he does not have someone close to him to curb his ego-centric tendencies. He deludes himself into thinking that he is "superior" to other more ordinary souls, who prefer a more worldly path. He can easily collapse into the equivalent of a Black Hole, if he is not vigilant.

On the other hand, those who choose the path of marriage has to be strong enough to take the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with human relationships. The pain and pleasure that comes with the life of a householder must be handled with equanimity. It is so easy to loose one's balance. Selfishness in a marriage hurts the partner and the immediate family members most. In bad cases, instability results and the entire binary star system collapses.

In the mystical language of the yogis, the renunciate learns to control the two spiritual energy currents in his body--the ida and the pingala--into the spine's central energy current, the shushumna. When these vibratory currents are merged into the shushumna, then spiritual awareness slowly unfolds, as the energy rises up the spine.

A family is but a similar energy system on a larger scale. The husband has to bear the energy of the pingala channel and the wife, the ida. When the energies are well balanced, with each person understanding his and her role, within the structure of the family, then the harmony of shushumna is achieved. This is the spiritual quest which all families must be conscious of.

A dysfunctional family is the result of a warped energy system. Maybe there's selfishness on the part of the wife, or maybe the husband is unfaithful. Or perhaps there's an overall excessive preoccupation with material pursuits. Such a family loses its spine--that unifying energy of shushumna. There will be quarrels and unhappiness. If the family members are not aware of their spiritual roles, they will have to suffer a great deal of pain in the process.

How important it is for each one of us to be aware of spiritual energy behind every thought and action and its effects on the larger systems around us. We must be conscious of the forces that operate within our bodies and minds first and then, and see their affects on the world around us--our families, communities and nations. If we have no consciousness of the micro thoughts and actions that spring from our minds, then we must suffer its painful effects in the macro-world.

Start with that energy system within you first. Feel its vibratory power. Learn to control it. And then channel them wisely into the right direction.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Present Perfect

Present Perfect

Time to blog. Time to enter into an oasis of calm. To let go of the past and the future, to remain poised in the present. To enter The Now, which is all there is, and all there ever will be.

When one is mindful of the present, events distill themselves into their pure essence. Things shine with great clarity. You see all the underlying forces that are at work and you understand why things are the way they are.

The present is always perfect. If you take a snapshot of the sea, the image you that capture shows a state of energy, frozen in time. Every individual molecule of water in the sea reacts to the tug and pull of the forces surrounding it. At the particular instant when the picture is taken, every particle is where it should be, given the configuration of forces present during that time. The shapes of the waves are perfect. It cannot be any other way.

Similarly with this moment. The thought that appears in your mind is a direct consequence of what you have been thinking in the past and what you desire for the future. Your state of mind is 'perfect'--it cannot be any other way. You deserve it.

If you are feeling fear, pressure and anxiety now, it is merely a direct consequence of your reaction to the forces around you. What are the forces exerting themselves on you? Examine your surrounding: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbourhood, your environment. Why do these things affect you the way they are? Examine your attachment to them. Why do they matter to you? Perhaps more importantly: why do they matter to you the way they do now?

When you are aware of all the forces that are at work, you will know what is the best course of action. A perfect understanding of the moment generates the perfection response--what the Buddha calls "Right Action". When you don't have a perfect understanding of moment, then all you could do is react.

How does one achieve "perfect understanding"? Let go of the past, accept the present and do not fear the future. You only give power to these forces through your unconscious attachment to them. When you let go of them, all these external forces collapse. You true self shines forth.

Be completely conscious and aware of this present moment. That is all that you need to do. You can only tackle one moment at a time, one thought at a time. So experience it in its complete fullness. Experience the present, in all its glory and perfection.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Universe of People

The Universe of People

It is interesting to see people as being different, diverse and full of surprises. I see the people around me as unfinished paintings. The picture within each painting is always emerging but yet never fully complete. Everytime someone does something or utters a word, it adds another dab of paint, another artistic stroke onto his personality canvas. I see a fuller picture. But I always assume that it is a work-in-progress. What a joy to see these works of art coming fuller and fuller to life everyday!

People are extremely dynamic systems. When a person makes a decision to do something, I am always intrigued by the process that led him to his action or decision . What is his worldview? What is the paradigm that he is adopting? What are his assumptions?

How a person comes to a certain conclusion is more interesting to me than the conclusion itself. Sometimes we call this the "thinking process", but thinking is only part of the total picture. Most of the time, all our actions are the consequence of a combination of thought, emotion and instincts.

When we decide, say, to marry someone. How do we come to that decision? What are the emotions that are involved? What is the "thinking" behind it? Do we always marry someone we love? How much of that decision is guided by fear ( of old age, of being lonely, of not conforming to society) and how much of the decision is determined by practical considerations? Or are we just reacting to our biological instincts?

A convenient way of looking at people is to see them as four-layer stacks: the physical layer, emotional layer, intellectual layer and spiritual layer. People have needs on all four layers; they seek fulfilment by bonding and making connection with other people. Very rarely do you see married couples bond on all four layers. The interplay of forces on all these layers will take them an entire lifetime to resolve.

Bear in mind that each layer is "thick". There are "lower" and "upper" strata within each layer. Biological instincts operate on the physical and the lower emotional layer. Hunger, sexual desire and the need for companionship are examples of instincts that operate at these layers. Education, culture and upbringing develops the higher emotional layer and the lower intellectual layer. The spiritual layer is not easy to discern as it is usually not fully developed yet in most individuals. Some people choose to ignore it completely. But it is only a matter of time before it materializes.

One must also be careful here: the lower spiritual layer is where most people get stuck in. Like I've mentioned before: spiritual awakening is like first love (lower emotional layer)--it can be very dazzling and overwhelming, because you are crossing one layer to another. But hey, you've merely touched the lower stratum, there's much more to discover further up within the spiritual layer!

Allow yourself to grow spiritually first, just like how you have allowed yourself to grow physically, emotionally and intellectually. Take your time. Let each stratum firm up before depositing the next. Over-enthusiasm often leads to fanaticism. And this has caused mankind a lot of grief.

Similarly don't assume that there are only four layers involved! This we've-figured-out-everything attitude has proven to be the greatest intellectual trap of all. To quote astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

So let's also approach the mystery of people with awe and humility. Every individual is a universe that begs exploration. And the things that one discovers within is often stranger than we can imagine.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Act of Acceptance

The Act of Acceptance

Plant a seed. Fertilize the soil. Water it. Ensure that it gets good sunshine. Nurse it daily. That is all one could do. Nature does the rest.

The garderner cannot determine how many branches, leaves or flowers the seedling that he is nursing will sprout. But through his care and constancy of purpose, the plant realizes its full potential, whatever it might be.

The garderner does not micro-manage. He does not "hurry" his plants. Instead he lets them find their own rhythm of growth. He merely protects, nurtures and nourishes. He works hand in hand with nature.

Most tasks in life should be tackled that way. Constancy of purpose. Diligence. An awareness of one's direction and surroundings. Of doing one thing at a time and putting one's full concentration in it. That's all that one could do. Providence does the rest.

Yes, a garderner might envision a wonderful garden in his mind; one lush with shady trees and blooming flowers, bursting with colours under the sun. But he cannot construct a garden like how one would build a house or a bridge. A gardener has to work with nature. He is not an engineer, but an artist, whose medium is nature.

He uses both logic and intuition, honed by years of intimacy with nature. He respects its moods and idiosyncracies; he works in complete harmony with it, with his heart and his mind.

It is good to have ambitions in life, to pursue worldly success and to go after all the opportunities that life has to offer. But one cannot engineer every tiny detail of one's quest. Go ahead and dream of that magnificent garden of material riches, but also allow room for nature's creativity to do its work.

Having goals and ambitions does not mean one has to be aggressive, greedy and manipulative. The vision has to be there to guide one's energy, to give one focus. Within the direction that one has set forth, one can then work around obstacles creatively, with an economy of means, harnessing the natural forces that are present.

During the course of one's life, one will certainly meet people whose actions you disapprove of. One will find oneself in situations where confrontation is inevitable. Sometimes battles will have to be fought. A gardener has to eliminate pests that attack his plants. But there's nothing personal in it. It's just nature's way of ensuring quality.

In the Indian epic of Mahabharata, the warrior Arjuna is plunged into despair when he finds himself having to fight his own friends and relatives in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

It is during this climactic scene that Lord Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna in his divine form and gives him a discourse on the nature of the soul, the law of karma and the paths that lead a soul to salvation. This much beloved discourse is known to us as the Bhagavad Gita (The Celestial Song)

Like what Arjuna faces, there will be moments in life where we have no choice but to let karma work itself out. We must realise that we are in the very position that we find ourselves in because of the cumulative result of the many choices and decisions that we have made up to that point in our life.

Sometimes Nature delivers a perfect storm. In such a situation, we have no choice but to face it head on. Accept it bravely. Take the pain. And in the act of acceptance, we dissolve the karma. Only then do we find peace. In that moment of peace, the soul finds its deliverance.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Life of Creative Possibilities

A Life of Creative Possibilities

I think I've not been to the movies for more than a year now. For some reason I find it difficult to fit movie-going into my schedule and lifestyle here in KL, unlike when I was in Singapore or Jakarta, where it used to be a weekly (or even twice-weekly) affair. It is a pleasure that I sorely miss.

I am keen to watch The Da Vinci Code and M:I:III. When it comes to movies, I seldom find one that's really bad. You see, you only find something 'bad' when you approach it with a preconception. Which is why, I think The Da Vinci Code will be a movie where a lot of people will dislike, as many would have already read the book and would have certain expectations on how the movie should be.

It is very difficult to look at things with what they call a Beginner's Mind. The mind of a beginner is open to possibilities; it is full of innocence and innocence is the source of creativity.

Impressionist artists try to recapture the innocence of the mind by looking at ordinary things afresh, taking natural delight in the raw vibrance of colour and light. We had that ability when we were toddlers. But as we grow older, we learn to filter out "unimportant" information. We don't see the world with wonder and fascination anymore. How sad.

I try not to judge the people I meet too much, even though our minds have a natural tendency to stereotype and caricaturize. The mind does not like subtle shades of grey because it hampers decision-making. We want snap judgement so that we can act fast. We want to immediately label someone as good or bad. Our world is easier to manage that way.

What's wrong with people or things which are neither this nor that? Leave judgement out of it and learn to live with uncertainty. Uncertainty is good because it opens up greater possibilities. Contrary to what one might believe, uncertainty does not make one indecisive.

Instead, uncertainty enables us to maintain a certain nimbleness of mind: We are always aware of the limitations of the decisions we make, and we are able to recover quicker, should we find ourselves going in the wrong direction.

How do we make a decision if we are full of uncertainty? How do we know what's the 'right' decision?

The root of our problem lies in our obsession with getting the 'right' decision. Sometimes in life there are no such thing as right decisions: only decisions and consequences. Decide and deal with the consequences--be they good or bad. Often, they are a mixture of both.

It is in this mixture, that the creative possibilities of life emerge.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Making Character Steps

Making Character Steps

Now that the league season has ended, It's going to be a quiet Saturday evening with no soccer to look forward to. Even though I only watch the English Premiership matches on TV ocassionally, I do look forward to the excitement of these weekend matches and try to follow them in real-time over the Net, while working on my computer.

I'm quite happy with Liverpool's season which finished beautifully with another piece of silverware--the FA Cup. Last year's Champions League miracle in Instanbul, was matched by an equally heart-stopping final where the Reds scored a dramatic last minute equalizer to level the score at 3-3, and then proceeding to defeat West Ham in penalty kicks.

What a sweet end to a wonderful season where Liverpool managed to improve on its league position,--moving to within nine points of champions Chelsea--and finishing third behind Manchester United, from a disappointing fifth in the previous season. Now, let's look forward to World Cup 2006 Germany, kicking off in 19 days!

Six months have almost come and gone now. With the month-long madness of the World Cup coming up, this will feel like a very short year indeed. The quest for balance in my life is increasingly becoming a trying one. Blogging has been relegated to a very low prioritiy these days. But I will remain steadfast to my task, as I consider these quiet moments of blogging an important part of my spiritual life.

Why is spirituality important in one's life?

In his books, Dr Stephen Covey talks about the "personality ethic" and the "character ethic", which form the two main categories of success theories in the self-improvement literature of the past 200 years. Advocates of the personality ethic claim that there are certain external skills and techniques that one can learn to become successful. However this often produce individuals who are manipulative, selfishly aggressive and lacking in compassion.

I believe in the character ethic. By strengthening one's character, and allowing oneself to be guided by morally sound principles, one can still prosper in this seemingly materialistic world. This is where spirituality comes in. Greed and selfishness could bring one temporary success and riches, but these are not firm foundations to build your life on.

When one is spiritually-guided, one is always self-examining one's behaviour: Am I guided by greed? Am I feeding on anger or fear? One proceeds patiently, step by step, ever-cautious of the selfish promptings of the ego. Still one does fall occassionally, but one who has a firm spiritual foundation always possesses the inner strength to pull oneself up again.

A person of character does not waste time worrying too much about the future. He does what is immediately demanded of him, with sincerity, dilligence and conviction. He believes that as long as he does it right, he will grow from strength to strength. One foundation stone is built on top of another and suddenly, the shape of a cathedral emerges before his eyes.

A marathon runner or a mountain climber learns to focus his mind on the next step ahead. All his energy and focus is marshalled towards one single task: lifting one foot and putting it in front of the other, again and again. If he keeps on thinking of the enormity of the task ahead, he'll lose heart and falter.

Remember: The next step is always something doable. Do that first and do that right. That's all you need to do now!

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Quest for Enlightenment

The Quest for Enlightment

Since tomorrow is Vesak Day, let me choose Buddhism as the topic for today's blog entry. Vesak Day, as most Buddhists would know, commemorates three important events: the birthday, the enlightment and the passing away of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, the Indian prince who threw away a live of pleasure and luxury to search for the Ultimate Truth in the 5th century BCE.

Strangely, I never learned much about Buddhism until I started developing a deep interest in science as a teenager. It was books like The Tao of Physics, Mysticism and the New Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters which gave me my first real introduction to Eastern religions. Those books set me on a lifelong adventure in science, philosophy and spirituality, which I'm still pursuing to this very day.

The Buddha's teaching is simple; its essence is captured in the what is known as the Four Noble Truths:

1. The truth of suffering
2. The cause of suffering
3. The cessation of suffering
4. The path which leads to the cessation of suffering--the Eight-Fold Path.

What is the one thing about life that we all dislike? Suffering. Sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, not earning enough money is suffering, not being recognized for your achievements is suffering, being rejected by your loved one is suffering, facing Monday in the office is suffering, having a slow Internet connection is suffering...and finally, death itself is suffering.

Why do we have to suffer? What is the underlying cause of this suffering?

The Buddha, like a good doctor, diagnosed the problem: suffering is caused by craving and attachment. We suffer everytime we crave for something. What are the things that most of us crave for? Material things, sensual pleasures, intellectual pleasures and ultimately, life itself. We want to live and enjoy forever. We want to own beautiful and expensive things; we want to be praised, to be recognized, to be pampered, to be loved. We crave for the pleasure of weekends, so we suffer greatly whenever Monday approaches. (Thankfully, I'm spared this suffering because there's no difference between weekend and weekdays for me :-) ).

Now, one might ask: what's wrong with that? To live is to want, to desire, to crave, to love. What's the purpose of living, if we don't go after what we want most in life?

There's nothing wrong with that attitude. All of us certainly has the right to experience all the pleasures that life has to offer in all its intensity. Only catch is that: if you don't realize the inherent truth about suffering, when you fall, you'll fall very hard.

Every pleasurable experience is ultimately impermanent. Everything in the universe comes and goes in a wave-like motion. Pleasure comes, pleasure goes. Your life is an endless chase after pleasures. And everytime the pleasure ends, it feels painful. There's a feeling of emptiness.

That other thing is that, everytime you attain a pleasure, you will find that it is for some reason, less satisfactory than the previous experience. There's already familiarity, and the mind gets bored. So you keep on chasing pleasures of greater and greater intensity, and never seem to be able to achieve complete satisfaction in the process.

At some point, you will throw your arms up in despair and realize that all pleasures in life are ultimately unsatisfactory. It is a suffering to continue desiring all these transient pleasures. The more you think about it, the more you suffer. You have developed an attachment, a craving, or worse still, an addiction towards it.

When you come to this, you have already realized the first two Noble Truths--the hard way. If you are still in one piece, you can then attempt to cure yourself of this malady. You move on to the Third Noble Truth: to end suffering, tackle its root cause--craving.

How do we do that? Dr. Buddha gives his prescription: Noble Truth Number Four, the Eight-Fold Path--Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

What the Eightfold Path provides is a set of guidelines on how one could reprogram one's physical and mental behaviour, culminating in the practice of meditation, where the mind is finally awakened into higher states of awareness.

The Buddha, when he was asked to summarized all his teachings into one word, was supposed to have said: "Awareness". When you are aware, you no longer associate yourself with your body, your ego, or the thinking processes that goes on in your mind. You are an awakened being of pure awareness. You are. Period.

When you have reached this state of awareness, you have no more clinging towards the world because you can see how shallow the so-called pleasurable experiences that constitute life are. You transcend all the dualities of pain and pleasure to enter a state of perpetual bliss, freed from the ceasely cycle of birth and death. The unconditioned state, the end of suffering: Nirvana.

One might ask: Isn't that like death? What's the difference between dying and achieving Nirvana? Doesn't the whole thing smell of nihilism?

Such questions are difficult to answer, because we are discussing something that is beyond the realm of ordinary experience. All extremes may sometimes appear similar but they are not. Very low frequencies of light appear as darkness to us, but so too do high frequencies beyond the ultraviolet range.

In the end, it is pointless to argue or dwell too much on such philosophical points. The essence of Buddhism is practice. Meditation lies at the heart of it. And through practice, one progresses. There's nothing more to be said beyond that.

This is emphasized very succintly in Buddha's final words as he breathed his last at the age of eighty:
"Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work dilligent towards your salvation!"

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Soul of Nusantara

The Soul of Nusantara

The great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer passed away last Sunday at the age of 81. Being a great fan of his works, it came as quite a shock to me. Two of his works, The Mute's Solliloquy and Tales from Djakarta were my faithful companions during my two years stay in Jakarta.

I had the opportunity to meet the man himself when I attended a book launch in Taman Ismail Marzuki in 2003. Listening to his talk, I was immediately taken by the genuine love that he has for his homeland, his wry sense of humour and the deep reverence that he still harbours for his mother. Accused of being a communist sympathizer when the Suharto's New Order regime came into power, he suffered 14 years of incarceration, 10 of them in the harsh penal island of Buru.

Was he really a communist? "Saya bukan Komunis atau Kapitalis. Saya Pram-is", said Pak Pram, referring to his personal sense of conscience which had been the driving principle guiding all his life. His bitterness against the old Suharto regime was still strong. He was a great admirer of the first president, Sukarno, for uniting the Malay archipelago--the fabled spice islands much fought and sought after by the maritime nations of the West--into a single nation.

He admired the womenfolk in his life--his mother and grandmother--who had been a great source of inspiration to him with their quiet courage and independence, in a Javanese society that was traditionally paternalistic. He had a disdain for for what he labelled "Javanisme"--the Javanese's habit of unquestioned submission to authority.

A lot of his writings were influenced by his experiences as a child in his hometown of Blora in East Java and a young man trying to eke out a living in big city of Jakarta during and after the years of Japanese occupation. All these were recounted with great insight and tenderness in his memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy, which remains one of the most emotionally touching memoirs I've ever read.

His collection of short stories, Tales from Djakarta were mostly set during that time, when Pak Pram himself was living with his first wife in their house in Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober. During one of my more adventurous weekends in Jakarta, I managed to trace this old house of his and was surprised to find that one of his daughters, Ibu Indriaty was still staying there. I had the pleasure of spending an hour of so chatting with her, inquiring about the well-being of Pak Pram, who had moved out of the house since his divorce with his first wife in the 50s.

I wrote an article called 'Toer Guide', for a local magazine, based on Tales from Djakarta, tracing the places mentioned in the book and the changes that have occured since then. Researching for the article was a lot of fun--it gave me an opportunity to learn in greater detail about the history of Jakarta; it was a joy to find out the exact location of places like Fromberg Park and Deca Park (mentioned in the short story, 'News from Kebayoran') which the current generation of Jakartans have never even heard of before.

Pak Pram's writing had an honest simplicity about it. To me, he represented the soul of Indonesia, that archipelago of 17,000 islands whose wonderful people, culture and history are an endless source of fascination to me. He chronicled an important transitional period in our history: life under colonial powers, the Japanese occupation and the tumultuous events before and after the abortive communist coup of September 30 1965 (The Year of Living Dangerously).

Those dangerous years are gone, but a new set of equally dangerous forces are shaping our times: terrorism, religious extremism and economic colonization under the guise of globalization. Pak Pram, in all his talks and interviews, often emphasized the need to understand history--our history:
"Orang muda sebanyak mungkin harus belajar sejarah, sebab sejarah itu tempat kita berangkat. Tanpa mengetahui itu, kita tidak tahu ke mana tujuan kita."

(The young should learn as much of our history as possible, because history is our point of embarkation. Without even knowing that, we'll never know where we are heading.)
Pak Pram has passed on. Hopefully the works he had left behind will continue to remind us of our past; they are the enduring folk chronicles of our hopes, strengths and weaknesses, our common destiny as peoples of Nusantara--those beautiful islands between the trade winds, that perfumed spice bazaar of East which had launched a thousand merchant and warships from the West, the land where our ancestors had chosen to trade, live, love and die.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Something More Important than Life and Death

Something More Important than Life and Death

The last FIFA World Cup 2002 was a great street fiesta for us in Asia. Jointly hosted then by Japan and Korea, all the matches were played and broadcasted live during prime-time hours in most Asian countries. Pubs, restaurants and any public place that could accomodate a television set became soccer-viewing arenas. Many of them charged an entrance fee because seats we limited. Owners were laughing their way to the bank. Everyone had a great time cheering for their favourite team.

I was working in Jakarta then, and I remember viewing the Brazil vs Germany final with my friends at the JW Marriot Hotel in Mega Kuningan. I also recall watching one of the matches at a nasi padang restaurant in Puncak. Almost everyone in Indonesia was football crazy. What a good time it was then. 2002 remains one of the best years of my life.

And guess what: it's World Cup year again! But this time, I'll be watching most of the matches from home in KL. Held in Germany this time round, match-time won't be as convenient anymore. Some matches will be played at 3 am. Everyone will be going to office bleary-eyed. Let's all brace for one crazy month of no work! Thank God for the World Cup once every four years to inject life back into our humdrum middleclass existence!

For one month, soccer fans all over the world will be united as brothers and during this sacred month, nothing takes precedence over soccer. We'll all be embracing the late Bill Shankly's philosophy:Football is not a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that.

Soccer is the only sport that I love passionately. I used to play badminton too in school but I don't follow the game that much.There's certainly a great deal of wisdom one can distill from both sports. ( read Equanimity and the Badminton Player and The Wisdom of Football).

I find it very interesting analyzing the "intelligence" that a soccer player needs to possess. A good soccer player has to make decisions during a game at the blink of an eye--to shoot, to cross, to make a run, to commit to a tackle--all that requires good instincts and timing. This skill is partly honed through practice and also partly from the player's natural talent.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink gives a good account on how the human mind handles split-second "thinking". Sometimes we call it instinct but can such instincts be learned?

For example in soccer, certain players have a knack for scoring goals while others don't. The interesting thing is that technical ability alone does not make you a good goal-scorer: you need to have the ability to size up a situation, to anticipate, to arrive at the right place at the right time, to judge the bounce of the ball, to aim and decide where best to shoot to beat the goalkeeper--all that has to happen in an instant during a game. It is a huge amount of information to process but a good striker knows how to "thin-slice". That makes him a prolific goal-scorer.

But let's not make football too intellectual; it's just a simple, even ridiculous game--22 grown men chasing after a ball for 90 minutes with millions of spectators worldwide yelling their heads off cheering for them. But that's it's beauty--the simplicity of it all. And once every four years, we all forget who we are, we leave our jobs behind, ignore our wives and kids to become happy simpletons again, uniting together, to worship this simple but beautiful game of football.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The True Spirit of Religion

The True Spirit of Religion

An overnight business trip to Penang and other tedious work-related matters prevented me from blogging for the past week. But here I am again, churning out more spiritual gobbledegook for all the lost souls out there!

Some religious organizations are already doing preemptive work over the impending release of the Da Vinci Code movie in our local theatres. Personally, I think they should just sit back, relax and enjoy the movie. No one's faith will be undermined by a simple work of fiction. I read the book in a single overnight marathon session, and I thought it was a wonderful piece of entertainment. Even in print it had the exciting pace of a Hollywood thriller.

I love movies about religion. My personal favourite is Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, which I have available on VHS. I was very fond of watching it over and over again but ever since my VCR broke down a few years ago, I've been denied this pleasure. Need to search for the DVD version of the movie and also The Gospel of John, which I haven't seen yet.

Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ has a bit too much gore for my liking but when I first saw it, I thought it was a good piece of work--great cinematography and soundtrack. A repeat viewing however will be too gut-wrenching for me to sit through.

I'd love to watch more movies on Islam but unfortunately the religion forbids the visual depiction of the Prophet in any form. But I've see one mainstream movie--The Message (also known as Mohammad, Messenger of God) --which was brave enough to tackle the subject. Of course, in the movie, the Prophet himself is never shown on the screen: all the characters conversing with the Prophet Mohammad talks to the camera and we, the audience, gets to see events from his point-of-view.

The Message, directed by Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-American, traces the birth and rise of Islam and is a very respectful portrayal of the religion and the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Ironically, Moustapha Akkad and his daughter were killed in the 2005 terrorist bombing in Amman.

Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ was certainly a lot more controversial than the Da Vinci Code. Willem Dafoe--one of my favourite actors--played a rather unconventional Jesus Christ in the movie: a tormented soul struggling to come to terms with his fate of becoming the sacrificial Lamb of God, one who will have to die on the cross to atone for Man's sin.

There's a sequence in the movie which angered Christians worldwide: a hallucinatory scene where Jesus, whom we see dying slowly on the cross, has visions of himself and Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey), making love and spending a blissful life together as husband and wife. To many Christians, it was blasphemy of the highest order. But I thought it only made Jesus' ultimate sacrifice even more poignant--he resisted every mortal temptation, and chose to remain steadfast to his divine mission.

We can get very emotional over religion. But I think we must never forget: religion is about the spirit--not rules, rituals, priests, places or the paraphernalia of worship. I suppose I've said enough about this subject in many of my previous postings. So let me end this entry with words from two very wise men: Krishnamurthi and Vivekananda:
Do you know what religion is? It is not in the chant, it is not in the performance of the pooja, or any other ritual ,it is not in the worship of tin gods or stone images, it is not in the temples and churches, it is not in the reading of the Bible or the Gita, it is not in the repeating of sacred names or in the following of some other superstition invented by man.None of this is religion.

- J.Krishnamurthi

No scriptures can make us religious.We may study all the books that are in the world, yet we may not understand a word of religion or God.

- Swami Vivekananda

Friday, April 14, 2006

Half the Complexity, Twice the Happiness

Half the Complexity, Twice the Happiness

This blog is my Walden Pond in cyberspace--a place for me to retreat and examine my thoughts in silence. The older I get, the more I appreciate solitude, and nothing appears more appealing to me than a simple, self-sufficient life.

And that is what I strive to accomplish everyday--to unravel complexity, to do more with less. The human mind delights in simplicity: when we see a complicated mathematical problem being solved in a few simple steps, we marvel at its beauty; we admire works of art which succeed in expressing a lot with an economy of means. As de Bono, so rightly suggested, just like how quality is treated as a holy grail, every enterprise should also strive for simplicity as a goal in itself.

One can learn to simplify one's life by focussing on things that are truly essential. We often fret about things that are beyond our control--like how other people behave, what other people think about us. It's much simpler not to be bothered.

By definition, celebrities are people who choose to lead complex lives: their fame depends on people's acknowledgement of their beauty, talent or personality. They work hard for their fame and certainly deserve to enjoy the fortune that comes with it, but there is always the extra factor of 'public opinion' that they have to consider in everything they do.

So Mawi cannot go on a fishing trip with Diana Rafar without upsetting his fans. That's the price of fame. Of course, the public has no right to intrude into the lives of the rich and famous. But then again, it is this very irrational obssession of the public that made them rich and famous in first place.

By choosing progress, we invariably admit greater complexity. We want to consume more power--so we build hydro-electric dams and in the process, destroy the equilibrium of our ecosystem. We want speed and convenience, so we buy more cars, burn more fossil fuel and pollute the air even further.

That's OK, we say, for we can always achieve sustainable development through proper planning and better technology--build more efficient cars, find cleaner sources of energy. And as we gain more and more control over nature, we can take over the complex role of managing its sustainability ourselves. Human ingenuity knows no limits--we can always invent technology to solve the problems caused by technology. Basically adding more complexity to counter complexity.

In theory, it might be possible one day for us to possess the technology to control and manage every tiny aspect of our environment. But Mother Nature's management plan covers eons, we humans only think of realising benefits within our own lifetimes. Greed and selfish interests will always get in the way.

To manage nature, we first have to manage the imperfections that are inherent in our ourselves--our inner nature must be subdued first. Where do all that greed and selfishness come from? The imperfections that we see out there is but a direct reflection of the imperfections inside.

What if we reduce our wants by half? Live with half the conveniences, half the comforts at half the speed? Will our happiness be reduced by half too? I seriously doubt so.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A State of Being

A State of Being

The Bride (Uma Thurman):
You can relax for now. I'm not going to murder you in front of your daughter.

Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox):
That's being more rational than Bill led me to believe you were capable of.

The Bride:
It's mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack; not rationality.

--Kill Bill Vol 1, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Mercy, compassion and forgiveness--these are all Buddha-like qualities. How much of these qualities do we have within us? When we show compassion to someone, don't we appear weak? Why do we even need to possess such qualities?

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would want us to believe that the only people qualified to lead the masses are those who do not possess such "weaknesses". Only a "Superman" (Übermensch) who can stomach cruelty is a worthy leader--not the mantra-chanting wimps who shed tears for the the sick and the lame.

We all have the innate ability to behave cruelly, when our physical survival or our possessions are threatened. We don't have to cultivate it. It's already there. Self-preservation is a strong instinct in all of us. They are rooted in the ego's fear of self-annihilation.

The spiritually-inclined tries to transcend such fears. They believe that the body and other material possessions are but temporary. All efforts to preserve them are futile and would only result in suffering. Ultimate happiness can only be found beyond the physical world which the ego identifies with. One must show compassion and forgiveness his fellow human beings, so that the soul can be free from the pain which greed, pride and selfishness ultimately bring.

Which world do you choose to live in? A dog-eat-dog world of cruelty and selfishness? Or one that is full of love and compassion?

A world of love and compassion, of course.

But whose idea of love and compassion?

Therein lies our problem.

When the word "idea" appears, it means the whole thing has already been intellectualized. There's an ideology, a framework, a best practice--a religion.

Is it possible for us to love without turning it into an idea?

Yes--only when the ego is dissolved, and there is no longer any pride or attachment related to ideas. When love is no longer an idea, but a pure state of being.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Symphony of Insects

Symphony of Insects

Sprinkling rain and the rumble of thunder in the distance.

A bit of rain in the late afternoon is always good--it douses the heat of the day and cleanses the air; too much of it, unfortunately, causes havoc, especially here in the Klang Valley: flash floods, traffic jams and falling tree branches.

It's that time of the day when lines from Debu-debu Kuala Lumpur, flash across my mind:

Di celah-celah itu gadis dan teruna berpegangan tangan. Mengadap sungai yang airnya mengalir lesu. Berbisik di senja itu. Bercinta dan berdusta...

What made us all come from all corners the country to pursue our dreams in this cesspool of humanity?

I think of all the people out there; I think of the executives working in that catacomb of steel and glass; I think of all the magnificent structures that have sprouted up in this metropolis in the last 20 years; the hypermarkets and malls that mushroomed in every densely populated suburb; the glitzy bistros and clubs that line the sidewalks of the city; and I wonder: Is this the life that we want?

We love the excitement of living in the city don't we? We are willing to tolerate the bad air, the incessant noise and the perpetually gridlocked traffic so that we can party at the coolest nightspots in town, enjoy the widest range of shops and restaurants and most important of all--get a chance to claw our way up that corporate ladder of success.

I've been waking up at 4am every morning this week. That's the only time in my middleclass neighbourhood when you can't hear the sound of humanity--no TV, cars, no wailing babies, no alarms going off. And I noticed--when I listened intently--there's alway the quiet sound of insects in the background--that monotonous drone, almost orchestral, growing louder the longer I listened. And they brought me back immediately to the sound of rubber estates--the distant echoes of my childhood.

For a moment I pitied those displaced insects. They belong to that rustic paradise of my past, not this false urban utopia of concrete and cars. Their incessant songs seemed like unconsolable laments for a lost Zion.

Now, every morning I look forward to this symphony of insects, immersing myself in its serenity until the first light of dawn begins to break, and humanity awakens; and another episode of cinta dan dusta begins...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Midweek Sermon

A Midweek Sermon

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God...
- Exodus 20:5

For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
- Deuteronomy 4:24

Jealousy is a strong emotion; one that's certainly not pleasant. We feel jealous whenever we find ourselves not in possession of something or someone whom we feel belongs to us. If your girlfriend (or some girl you admire) goes out with another guy, you will naturally feel jealous. If your colleague gets the promotion instead of you, you'll feel jealous. This feeling arises because you think you have some special right to the object you desire. The feeling is compounded by the belief that the person who took it away from you is somehow undeserving of the prize.

First there's a desire towards something. Then an attachment. The longer this attachment is allowed to build, the stronger the feelings become. Your heart has sprouted invisible tentacles, reaching out to your object of desire, taking control, taking possession, taking ownership. These emotional tentacles wrap around the object of desire like gnarled roots around temple ruins. Imagine how difficult and painful it is remove them.

Jealousy arises from a sense of possession. All relationships have some element of possession in them. This is inevitable because no matter how noble we claim our love is, whenever we love someone, there is always some selfishness involved. We are all imperfect creatures.

You want your partner to behave the way you want them to so that you yourself will feel secure, comforted and happy. You want to mould another person's behaviour so that he or she satisfies your expectations. And you even have the audacity to claim that you are doing it because you have your partner's interest at heart!

But that's what we would normally call a "relationship". Acknowledge the fact that selfishness will arise; each party will show a certain degree of possessiveness towards the other. Good couples understand their partners' sore points. They make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for such adjustments to be perfected. Sometimes you'll just have to accept that it's just a perpetual boxing match, with neither party ever winning or losing.

The God of the Old Testament is a "jealous" God. But He is also a forgiving God. Again and again the Israelites resorted to idolatory and incurred the mighty wrath of God. But still God forgave them and answered their call whenever they pleaded for help.

God kept his covenant with Abraham--to protect his descendants and to deliver the Promised Land to them. Marriage is also such a covenant. Pain, jealousy and rage will arise throughout the course of a relationship. But take comfort in the fact that even God gets jealous and angry. But he is also all-merciful: "For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them." (Deuteronomy 4:31).

We can't help being jealous and angry sometimes. But let's not forget to ask ouselves why these feelings arise in first place. In such moments of quiet self-examination, the roots of our resentment will reveal themselves. Grab hold of them: They are there so that you may yank them out. What remains behind is love.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Art of Letting Go

The Art of Letting Go

How do you forgive someone who has hurt or wronged you? The anger and pain that you feel inside is so intense. How do you make it go away?

I know it is difficult. But you can start by learning how to let go. The currents of Time sweeps everything in its path. Allow it to do its job. Often, it is us who choose not to let go of the pain because we want to use it as a justification to act or behave in a certain way.

It could also be because we crave for pity and sympathy from other people. Pity eases our pain momentarily. So we get addicted to it after a while. Everytime we need a balm for our pain, or feel the need to be recognized for our suffering, we try to elicit pity from others. We do it so instinctively that we don't even notice it.

We must learn the art of letting go. Open your heart, loosen your grip. It should be the simplest thing to do, yet in practice it probably feels exactly the opposite. We must always trust the laws of nature to do its job. Everything fades away through the passage of time. All you need to do is to allow it to happen. Do not reinforce the pain by rehashing the experience over and over again. Remember, everytime we rehash an unpleasant memory, we are merely wallowing in self-pity.

"Take it on the chin and move on", said V.S. Naipaul to Paul Theroux, when their 30 year friendship finally came to an end (recounted beautifully in Theroux's book, Sir Vidia's Shadow).

Sometimes that's what we need to do: take the blow fully on the chin once and forever be done with it.

What about revenge? Isn't it a sign of weakness if we do not fight back?

That's not your job. Leave such dirty work to the one most qualified to do it: God. Just let go. That requires real strength.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Painter of Black Dots

A Painter of Black Dots

"People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it's simply necessary to love"
- Claude Monet

The French Impressionists, especially Monet, were interested in painting what the eye saw; and they saw the world in pure primary colours, in dabs of unmixed paint, laid side by side, to convey form, light and shadow. It was at that time, the late 19th century, a revolutionary way of painting.

If an impressionist painter were to look at an image on one of our modern computer screens, they will be more interested in each individual pixel of colour and not the meaning or forms conveyed by their cummulative effect: say an image of Paris Hilton.

A newborn baby looks at the world that way too: when he sees the world around him for the first time, he doesn't see faces, tables or chairs--it's just a blur of colours, of shifting light and darkness, of pure visual impressions, untainted by thought or judgement. Only later does he learn to distinguish the voice and face of his mother, the warmth, comfort and solidity of his surroundings. Then he learns to distinguish the things which he likes from those which he dislikes. And the world of pain and pleasure begins for him...

We need to learn how to look at the world like an impressionist painter and rediscover the wisdom which we possessed when we were newborns. To see things as they are, in their raw pristine form, without judgement, without thinking--at least for a brief moment, before the whole shebang takes over.

The problem with us is that we think and judge too much. Every sight and sound is immediately tainted by an idea and opinion the moment it hits our senses. These ideas and opinions immediately trigger a series of other ideas and opinions. And we don't see or hear what is in front of us anymore. We are always engrossed in the small world of our thoughts.

That's how our life gets into a rut sometimes. Everything you see around you triggers some kind of thought or emotion. They are invariably the same ones. So your life is always repetitive. Your entire world is but the few hundred cubic centimetres inside your skull.

I used to love painting during my schooldays. It is a very good hobby because it helps you to escape from that small world of your head. You learn to look at the world as it is: to look at an object or a scenery and observe its colour, it's light and shadow and then to translate them into dabs of paint on a blank canvas. It's a great meditative experience. When you paint, hours would pass by without you realising.

You are now reading these words on your computer screen and thoughts are appearing in your mind. Stop and stare at the screen for a while. Try for a moment to see the world like an impressionist painter. No thoughts should arise: all you see are black dots on a white background.

And that's all I've been doing all this while: a painter of tiny black dots, so that others might see them as black dots too.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Slow Awakening

The Slow Awakening

Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don't need.
- Bill Maher

I think Bill Maher is one of the most entertaining personalities in the talk show business. He is so unashamedly politically incorrect. With his trademark brand of common-sense logic laced with acid wit, he never misses an opportunity to point out how the emperor (usually the American government) has no clothes. His books New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer and When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden are most enjoyable reads.

I even agree with his views on religion, even though I would not go to his extreme of labelling religious people as suffering from "neurological disorder"!

Spiritual awakening to me is an inevitable phase in the evolution of human consciousness. One can be spiritual without being religious. Religion implies adherence to a formal structure, or in Bill Maher's words, a "bureaucracy"--which is often an archaic system of rules and rituals that one is forced to follow blindly.

My personal take is that we shouldn't be too hung up on religion. It's like marriage: If you find the right one, go ahead, get hitched. If you can't find that elusive life partner, no big deal, there are lots of other interesting things to do in life.

Religion is but an expression of man's desire to understand his place in the larger scheme of things. In that aspect, it is similar to the study of science and philosophy. Only the method employed by these different disciplines differs. A true scientist is by definition a spiritual person.

If you choose to call yourself an atheist or an agnostic, that's also fine. You won't go to hell for it. You might be guilty of having too much intellectual pride, but that's no big sin. You'll find your own path to spiritual awakening, sooner or later--like how a river finds its way to the sea.

If you choose to become a religious person, then that means something inside you has been awakened. But take it easy. Don't stumble out of bed immediately, you could trip over things if you are not careful. It's certainly better to remain asleep than to be sleepwalking. At least you won't be slamming planes into tall buildings.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mastering the Dualities

Mastering the Dualities

There's always a price to pay for anything that you do in life. Everyone knows that. Unfortunately not everyone is good at identifying the hidden costs involved. And not everyone knows how to count their blessings too. So we go through life complaining about the difficulties that we have to go through and at the same time overlooking some of the simple joys that come our way.

Most of the time, people are unhappy when their experiences in life do not turn always turn out as expected. If you have high expectations, then you have to be prepared to suffer the pain of not achieving what you expected. Well, if you cannot stomach the pain, don't expect so much in first place.

Pain and pleasure always comes bundled together. The relationship between the two is like that between kinetic and potential energy. When pleasure is experienced, then pain is hidden as potential energy--it is simply not manifested yet. The intensity of pleasure that you experience is directly proportional to the potential pain that will manifest itself when the pleasure ends.

Having said that, we must also not be afraid to suffer pain because it takes pain for us to understand the folly of our desires. Pain is a great teacher. The dualities--pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, love and hate--arise because we deliberate introduce the perturbation in first place through our desires. We desire positive over negative, yang over yin. Once the oscillation is set into motion, the pendulum swings between the two extremes. You cannot experience one without the other.

To live is to experience the dualities. It is through this experience that you gain the ability to see things with equanimity. Soon you learn not be too carried away by the roller-coaster ride of sense experience; you simply see things as they are--the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, without judgement. You take them as they come along and act accordingly.

Every action that you take with have positive and negative reactions, but you must be consciously aware of the system of forces involved. Every situation in life is a combination of many subtle forces, each pulling or pushing in a different direction. With experience, you are able to sum up the situation instinctively at an instant and know how to act accordingly.

Everyone of us is a bundle of many contradictory forces. A person must always act in full awareness of all the forces that are at work within him. To act in ignorance of these forces is to court unnecessary pain. And when pain is encountered, we'll have to analyze the situation at hand and resolve it to its component forces. Only then can the right course of action be taken.

A man of wisdom is one who has internalized the calculus of pain and pleasure. Like I've said before, you don't need to understand fluid mechanics to be a good swimmer; you learn the behaviour of water instinctively through practice and experience.

Similarly, one must learn to swim safely through the continuum of experience called life by having an instinctive awareness of all the forces at work.

How do we develop this instinctive awareness?

Practice, practice and more practice. Go out there and embrace life. The world is like a gymnasium for the soul, and membership is free.